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Persons: Human and Divine

June 9th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Persons: Human and Divine, edited by Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman (Oxford 2007).

Human beings are said to be persons, but just what is a person? What constitutes a person? Does it make any sense to ask of what a person is composed? Are human beings the only things that count as persons? Are there fundamentally different classes of persons? If so, what would they share for different classes to count as persons? Is God, assuming there is a divine being, a person? What do Christians mean that God is three persons with one nature but that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures?

Persons is an anthology of philosophical theology which grew out of a workshop sponsored by the Pew Christian Scholars Program in 2004. The essays—which are all original with this title—are individually engaging and, as such anthologies go, unusually coherent taken together. The essays themselves are neatly grouped together as Idealism, Dualism, Materialism, Embodiment and the Value of Persons, and Personhood and Christian Doctrine.

The essays in the first three groups (idealism, dualism, and materialism) provide a backdrop to a perennial philosophical problem and one that has been uniquely framed in Western intellectual life since Descartes. Two essays on idealism (the theory that at the end of the day, everything is mental in nature) lead off the discussion, perhaps because the editors knew that materialists (those who maintain that the ultimate constituents of this world are material) and dualists (those who hold that the world included two fundamental substances, mental and physical) would direct most of their criticism at each other and more or less allow the idealists to stand in some dark and forgotten corner.

Still, the two essays on idealism are well worth reading. Robert M. Adams leads off with a very cogent explanation of what idealism is, what its intuitive appeal might be and some of the varieties of idealism. Howard Robinson’s essay “The Self and Time” provides an intriguing picture of one’s self to time that seems to draw parallel’s to Aquinas’ notion of the soul’s extension to the body. Aquinas held that the soul in its entirety occupied each part of the body. Robinson takes a similar line toward the self and time (those interested in the difference between enduring and perduring objects or temporal parts might find this essay stimulating).

Dualism makes up a plurality of the essays in Persons. John Hawthorne leads off with detailing the challenges facing substance or Cartesian dualism. Interestingly no one in the anthology pays much attention to the idea of property dualism. Aside from a brief characterization by Peter van Inwagen that property dualism is a confusion, it receives no mention, let alone defense. Alvin Plantinga has an entry which is not so much of a defense of dualism (which he takes as prima facia good sense), but a critique of materialism. Unfortunately, a number of the critiques (for instance, Plantinga employs Leibniz’s Mill analogy) do not automatically support dualism and others serve mostly to illustrate the difficulty with any theory of interaction between mind and body. For instance, Plantinga notes that God is said to be immaterial and yet interacts with material objects, so dualism shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. However, how God might interact does not immediately seem to apply to human beings nor do such illustrations help show how a body and a mind interact. Finding a basis may come at the cost of radically redefining mind or body or both. Richard Swinburne takes on the issue of whether mental properties simply supervene on physical ones. As is typical, Swinburne begins with a boatload of fine distinctions that are not normally considered, which then brings together. The reader may wish to sketch these distinctions out and then see which to take issue with after seeing how they fit in. W. D. Hart and Takashi Yagisawa provide a very short essay on how to think of disembodied minds interacting, while Hong Yu Wong takes on the problem of mind/body interaction head on. Wong has a habit of proposing and disposing of just about every theory that has come down the pike.

Peter van Inwagen is not so much interested in defending materialism than his particular version of materialism. Along the way he would seem to take issue with most materialists. Van Inwagen would affirm that persons are material substances but deny buildings, lakes, roads, or any number of common objects are substances of any kind, material or otherwise. Other materialists in this anthology seem to reply with stares of utter incredulity. Hud Hudson address the question of whether a materialist can assert that human beings are essentially persons and not animals

Philip Quinn and Lynne Rudder Baker each turn to the question of the value of the embodied person. Quinn looks primarily at the integrity of what it is to be a person, while Baker is more interested in the person’s place in the natural order. Incidentally, Baker is one of those materialists who cannot help but throw one of those aforementioned stares in van Inwangen’s direction.

The last four essays deal with Christian doctrine. Trenton Merriks’ essay attempts to show how the various notions of mind/body relationships might bear upon the doctrine of the Incarnation. Merriks displays both a depth to the history of the doctrine and takes in a fair bit of the philosophical territory as well. This is an essay should disabuse both those who think the relationship between Christ human and divine natures is obvious that who would dismiss it out of hand. Peter Forrest tackles the question of personal survival after death. One should have a taste for both the more speculative works of physics and modal logic when diving into this essay. Michael C. Rea takes on the question of human responsibility and the doctrine of Original Sin. As with Merriks’ essay, Rea moves easily between theology and philosophy. Finally, Brian Leftow, who as written a number of defenses of the so-called Latin view of the Trinity (where each of the Persons is just God as opposed the the Social view where each Person is seen as an individual who is God) explores what it means to be a person given a Latin perspective.

Persons is not an easy read. It expects some background in both theology and contemporary analytic philosophy. However, the prose is lively, even conversational at times. There is something in Persons for everyone from the advanced undergraduate to the professional philosophers and theologians to interested amateur.