Mark Hamilton on Idealism and Fallenness
March 30, 2017 — 4:52

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Chapter 6 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “On the Corruption of the Body: A Theological Argument for Metaphysical Idealism” by S. Mark Hamilton. This is easily the best essay in the collection so far, and the most directly focused on the central issues the volume purports to address.

Hamilton provides a carefully documented account of the ways in which mind-body dualism is presupposed by theologies of our post-lapsarian state of corruption in Reformed dogmatics from Calvin to the early 20th century. Jonathan Edwards, he shows, is an outlier with respect to this tradition. Hamilton enumerates a number of theological claims about our state of corruption and explicitly connects them to particular presuppositions about the metaphysics of the human person. He then argues that Edwards’ idealism captures what is important in this theology while avoiding certain metaphysical problems to which the opposing dualist view falls prey.

Like his co-editor Farris, Hamilton lumps together a variety of different views under the heading ‘mind-body dualism’. However, where Farris had done this somewhat sloppily and in a way that I think vitiated some of his arguments, Hamilton has done it carefully, identifying a genuine point of agreement between a number of different views and staying focused on that particular point. What Hamilton calls ‘mind-body dualism’ is simply the view that the mind and body are numerically distinct and the human person is some kind of composite of mind and body (108-109). Thus substance dualism, hylomorphism, and various forms of non-reductive physicalism all count as mind-body dualisms, in Hamilton’s sense.

All of these views can say very similar things about the corruption of post-lapsarian human persons. Hamilton interprets Reformed theologians as holding that the person is naturally a mind-body composite, but can exist in the absence of a body, although union with a body is required for “an immaterial soul’s proper function in a material world” (110). Given such a view (regardless of the metaphysical details) one can go on to say that post-lapsarian corruption is the corruption of the whole person (body and mind), but the primary locus of corruption is in the mind (soul), and in particular in “a disordered desire for things that are not God” (111). If, however, the corruption is to be a corruption of the whole person, it is inadequate to hold that the body and mind each separately or independently suffer corruption. The mind-body dualist (in Hamilton’s broad sense) will, Hamilton suggests, want to account for this in terms of a teleo-functional relationship between mental corruption and physical corruption. In other words, the mental (spiritual) corruption of the fallen person is such that it has certain natural physical consequences. The nature of this mental state is to be (mis)directed toward bodily sins. (I note in passing that Hamilton does not discuss the view—suggested by Augustine and emphasized by Malebranche—that fallenness/corruption consists in a disordered relation between mind and body. I do not know whether this view has defenders in the tradition of Reformed dogmatics.)

Hamilton asserts that Edwards is not, in his sense, a mind-body dualist. Edwards holds, according to Hamilton, “that human persons are essentially minds whose bodies are merely ideas or a collection of ideas in the divine mind” (117). According to Hamilton’s definition, this is not a form of dualism, even though it involves a distinction between mind and body, since it identifies the human person with the mind to the exclusion of the body. However, it seems to me that Hamilton is not totally consistent in attributing such a monism to Edwards since Hamilton’s definition of ‘mind-body dualism’ is in fact so broad that it could be accommodated within Edwards’ idealism: if Edwards thought that the human was somehow composed of mind and body this would make Edwards a dualist in Hamilton’s sense, even though bodies are just collections of mind-dependent ideas. Hamilton sometimes seems to attribute this view to Edwards.

This, however, does not vitiate what I take to be Hamilton’s central point, which is that the doctrine of fallenness as the Reformed tradition (and Augustinianism more broadly) has understood it is located right at the nexus between mind and body. Following the well-known arguments of Jaegwon Kim, Hamilton argues that, even on his broad definition, any form of mind-body dualism will face an interaction problem similar to the one famously faced by substance dualism. This despite the fact that mind-body dualism, so construed, is consistent with physicalism. If this is right, then our ability to spell out, and make sense of, the doctrine of fallenness or corruption depends on our ability to solve the notoriously difficult interaction problem. Edwards’ idealism, on the other hand, does better. According to this view, the corrupt features of the body (and the perceived world more generally), such as “disease, decay, and death” (122), just are corrupt states of mind. This, Hamilton says, provides a superior account of the corrupt fallen state of the human person.

The only point I have to make in response to this is that the Edwardsian view has an advantage over its competitors only if it takes states of bodily corruption to be numerically identical to mental states (or composites thereof). If non-reductive physicalism is coherent, then one could equally develop non-reductive idealisms. (Indeed, my interpretation of Berkeley could perhaps be described this way.) However, if Kim is right that non-reductive physicalisms have an interaction problem, then presumably non-reductive idealisms will as well. Accordingly, Hamilton needs to attribute to Edwards a fairly simplistic version of idealism, and such a simplistic idealism may face difficulties elsewhere.

(Cross-posted at

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