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We began a couple of weeks ago to look at Kevin Corcoran’s book Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul where he develops a constitution view of human persons.  Professor  Corcoran
is a philosopher teaching at Calvin College specializing in philosophy
of mind, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion  – a philosopher who
tries to connect philosophy with bible, theology, faith, and science.

If “nothing-but” materialism is inadequate, but dualism also seems troubling, where can we turn? Today I will try to put forth the essential points of Corcoran’s discussion of the Constitution View for discussion. Next Tuesday we will move to some of the implications. 

According to the Constitution View “human persons are constituted by our bodies without being identical with the bodies that constitute us.” (p. 65) Corcoran uses the example of a statue to make his point – a statute may be constituted by a piece of copper, but is not identical with the piece of copper. After all, the copper statue can be melted down – and the copper remains, but the statue is gone.

Human persons are constituted by their bodies such that if the body ceases to exist the human person will cease to exist. But the human person is not identical with the body because the body can exist after the person ceases to exist, and (perhaps) the body existed before the person began to exist.

This gets to a key question – and one with ramifications for many kinds of ethical questions today, including the stem cell research question.

So what makes a human being a person?

Or to ask a slightly different question, why is Kevin Corcoran (above) a person, while my cat (below) is not?


Corcoran suggests that a human person is a being with a capacity for intentional states. But this is not enough – my cat certainly has the capacity for intentional states. When he runs into the living room next to the brush, rolls over on his back and looks at me, he definitely has beliefs, desires, and hopes – and he is quite intentional – even insistent.

So added to the capacity for intentional states, the constitutive view considers that a human person is a being with the capacity for a first person perspective. But this needs some elaboration – what is a first person perspective?

A first person perspective is the capacity to think of oneself as oneself without the need of a description or third-person pronoun. … When I wonder, for example, whether I will live long enough to see my children graduate from college, I am thinking of myself from a first-person perspective. (p. 68)

Corcoran claims that nonhuman animals seem to lack a first-person perspective, and this disqualifies them from personhood. I’d like to see this developed a bit more – because It seems to me that it is a different kind of capacity for abstract thought and relationship that disqualifies nonhuman animals (like my cat) from personhood.

Is this view of personhood attached to first-person perspective enough?

Christian tradition and Scripture itself, on the other hand, provide suggestive material for thinking that personhood and relationality are essentially linked. For example the Christian tradition claims that God exists in three persons in intimate Trinitarian relationship. And the creation account of human beings in Genesis 2 is equally suggestive. … What is not good, of course, is that “man” should be alone on the earth. … It is no exaggeration to say, therefore, that human persons are always – from the beginning of the Christian narrative to its very end – persons-in-relation, It is plausible to believe that this feature of the biblical narrative is eminently relevant to the issue of personhood. (p. 74)

While the constitutive view (CV) of human persons does not require relationality to define personhood, it is entirely consistent with a relational character of personhood.

Now for a couple of theological questions – how does this view of human persons relate to the Christian concepts of incarnation and imago dei?

On the topic of incarnation – well this is a mystery. But it is as much a mystery for a dualist view of human persons as for a constitutive view of human persons. How the person of Jesus was fully human and fully divine is not solved by an immaterial Spirit (God) occupying a material body – this would not be incarnation. Rather in a dualist view we need an immaterial and material “fully human” Jesus along with a full immaterial divine nature.  In a CV of persons – the incarnation is a both immaterial and material as human and divine.

Imago dei is another objection – how can a material object be created in the image of an immaterial God?  Corcoran suggests that we image God by caring for creation, in loving relation to other beings, in acts of mercy, hospitality, love and kindness. And here is an interesting idea:

Finally, we also image God in our suffering.God is love. To love is to open ourselves up to suffering.When we lay down our lives for our friends, and yes, our enemies too, we image God who laid down his life for us in Jesus. (p. 81)

Nothing in this picture of the imago dei is inconsistent with a material view of human persons. We image God not through our material or immaterial nature but through our personhood – the definition of which goes beyond the CV view, but is consistent with it.

There are questions that remain – and we will come to these in the next two posts  next week (on The Stem Cell Challenge – the ethical questions raised, and The Resurrection of the Body and the Life to Come – how a material view of persons fit with the idea of resurrection).

For now …

Does a constitutive view of human persons make sense? Why or why not?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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