Can we still speak of the soul?

There are two distinct questions at stake: (1) can we speak of the soul? and (2) must we speak of the soul? The latter implies the former; the former does not, however, imply the latter. Conversely, if we deny the former, then we must deny the latter; and denying the latter does not rule out the former. I have chosen to title this post in terms of possibility rather than necessity, simply because in our age, it is the very possibility of talk about the soul that is in dispute. The necessity of such talk is more complex. We speak of the soul often, but most have little idea what the word actually denotes and they use it out of habit. I suspect most people probably feel that the word is unnecessary and we could get along without it, but we still use it nonetheless. Why exactly do we use it? Is such use necessary? Is such speech even possible? Where to begin?

The Christian tradition—since I presuppose this starting-point—is resolutely in favor of the soul. The ancients, particularly Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria, understood the soul as the bearer of the imago dei. The tradition was mostly unanimous in defining the soul as the center of reason and immortality (Tertullian). Everything essential to the human person is to be found in the soul. The Reformation played with the tradition and augmented it, but did not depart from essentialism. Calvin calls the soul an “immortal essence,” the “seat of the divine image,” and the “seat of intelligence” trapped within the “prison” of the body. Protestants basically stuck to the classical bifurcation between the soul and body—in which the soul (as the seat of reason) rules over the body (as the seat of emotions and appetites).

I do not have time to traverse the modern terrain of the soul. Karl Barth famously defined the human person as the “soul of the body,” by which he maintained the elevation of the soul as the center of human identity, but all while insisting upon the closest unity of soul and body. Barth rejected any kind of bifurcation, and he explicitly rejects Calvin’s anthropology by denying that the soul is connected to divinity and the body to earthly material. Rather, both soul and body are earthly and temporal, and there is nothing divine located it the human person.

Since then, the attack against the soul has become standard fare. Dualism itself has been severely censured in this age of late modernity. We live in a time of fragmentation, in which both unity and dualism are hard to sustain. Our scientific frame of reference has analyzed the human person biologically to discover the material origins for all the impulses that ancient writers attributed to some “spark of divinity” within us. The soul is no longer necessary to explain morality or feelings of the divine presence. The human person has been demythologized, and reason is no longer seen as some divine gift—now that we know the abysmal depths to which it can lead us.

So where are we now? For all the intellectual arguments against the soul, we still live in a culture that finds use for the term. See, for example, the Harry Potter series. In the most recent book, we discover that Voldemort has divided up his soul and placed it in various hidden objects in order to keep him alive on earth beyond the death of his body. This is fascinating. The soul is a kind of rarefied matter capable of being (physically?) split up. It is entirely separate from the body, nor is it identifiable with any rational faculty; the soul is not the mind, as in much of the Christian tradition. The soul, in this story, is essentially a material conscious—the center of morality, rather than the seat of intelligence. Voldemort is capable of thinking and acting perfectly fine, while his soul is split up in different physical locales. Moreover, to split up the soul, one must commit murder. The connection between the soul and the moral faculty is presumed here. Perhaps Rowling has Kant on her mind.

In his recent article for Books & Culture, entitled, “A New Way to Be Human,” Kevin Corcoran sketches out what he calls a “Christian materialist alternative to the soul.” He rejects soul/body dualism, and he also rejects the false dichotomy “that if we're not immaterial and immortal souls, then we must be nothing more than human animals, physical organisms, or biological beasts.” He then proposes that there is “a materialism available that accounts for our being animals without being merely animals.” What is his proposal?
How can one be an animal without being identical with an animal? Think about it this way. I am willing to bet that most of you believe that a particular copper statue is constituted by a particular piece of copper. But I'm also willing to bet that you agree that the piece of copper could conceivably outlast the statue, that is, that the piece of copper could continue in existence even if the statue should not. Suppose, for example, that the piece of copper composing the statue is hammered flat. This would cause the statue to cease to exist but not the piece of copper. Moreover, the piece of copper could have existed for some time before the statue came into existence. The statue is a piece of copper even if it is not identical with the piece of copper. The statue can't be identical with the piece of copper because the piece of copper can exist without the statue existing.

Here is my proposal. I propose we think of the relationship between a particular human person and his or her biological body in the same way. We are animals in the sense that we are wholly constituted by our bodies; every material part of me is a part of the biological body that constitutes me and I have no immaterial parts—just like the statue and the copper. We human beings are wholly physical creatures constituted by our bodies without being identical with them. To borrow words U2's Bono used for more poetic ends, "We are one, but we're not the same."

The materialist view of human persons I am proposing is compatible with every important Christian belief related to human nature, including beliefs about the afterlife and the claim that human beings have been created in the image of God. Indeed the Christian doctrines of creation and incarnation are actually more hospitable to a materialist view of human nature than they are to the more extreme versions of dualism.
I do not wish to analyze the details of his argument; I leave that to you. I simply want to suggest that perhaps the word “soul” needs to be redefined. Or perhaps it has already been redefined through its contemporary use.

Bruce McCormack says that the word “soul” simply means that we are more than the sum of our biological parts. This could be taken in a number of different ways, but in the end, it is most compatible with Corcoran’s suggestion. McCormack identifies the center of our identity in the soul, but that merely indicates the extension of our unique identity beyond the particular embodied form in which we presently exist. There is nothing immaterial or divine within us; but we are not defined solely by this particular material body. In other words, to use the Latin phrase associated with the extra Calvinisticum, our identity extends etiam extra carnem—also beyond the flesh.

There is more that needs to be said concerning nominalism and essentialism, as well as the various kinds of Christian materialism. I should also point out that Richard Beck of Experimental Theology argues in one of his posts on universalism that with the demise of Cartesian soul/body dualism, there will be an attendant demise of the notion of free will. As he states:
The doctrine of the soul is only important in that it allows a mechanism for free will. For what other reason would we care if the soul existed or not? If I have no soul why should I care? Immortality isn't really an issue, because the vision in the bible is of a bodily resurrection. No, the fear of not having a soul isn't about immortality, it's about free will and moral accountability.
With the demise of free will, the best soteriological explanation—the one that will still make sense after the death of the soul—will be universalism. I leave you to ponder the merits of Beck’s suggestion.

Questions to ponder:
  • What is the function of the word, “soul”? What does it actually accomplish?
  • Is there a need for talk about the soul?
  • Can we speak of the soul today in light of current neuroscience, psychology, and the Darwinian revolution?
  • Is Corcoran’s proposal attractive? Is Christian materialism the way of the future?
  • If McCormack is right, that the soul simply indicates that we are more than the sum of our parts, what then is the relation between the “we” and the “parts”?
  • Is free will doomed to extinction? Are we on the verge of seeing the demise of talk about free choices along with the demise of the soul?
  • Is immortality itself a notion that still makes sense? What about the resurrection of the body?
  • Even if we do not know what is “true,” can we make an argument for which position is best for the church today?


m@ said…
wow. i have really been thinking about these kinds of questions lately and have wanted to see how other christian thinkers are approaching them.

i am interested in ideas that step away from the body/soul dualism that has pervaded our thought for so long, but i have struggled to reconcile them with notions of immortality.
Matt Wiebe said…
I've been pondering the notion for some time now that maybe a good way to describe us would be to call us amphibians. That's the term of disgust that Screwtape uses in C.S. Lewis' classic.

Would there be a way to propose this in such a way that does not require dualism I wonder?

Good stuff to ponder. Lots of theology/philosophy/science intersections here.
Lee said…
I think some Christian thinkers have been too sanguine about the idea that since Christians believe in the resurrection of the body and not the immortality of the soul, materialism poses no problem for Christian belief.

One of the relevant problems is the continuity of the person between death and the resurrection. Assuming there is no strict material continuity (i.e. the material particles that make up my body will be dispersed long before Judgment Day), and no soul, then in what sense is the resurrected person actually me?

I'm also not convinced that evolutionary theory or neuroscience or what have you have refuted dualism. As far as I can tell, it's still the case that no one really has the faintest idea how physical events in the brain translate into conscious experience.

An interesting book on this from a Christian perspective is John W. Cooper's Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting. He examines the biblical, scientific, and philosophical data and concludes that some form of "holistic dualism" is most suitable for Christian belief.
Shane said…
I am sometimes accused by David and WTM of simply defaulting to Thomas Aquinas on any significant theological debate. This is not actually true, of course, but on this particular issue, I have to say that I find Thomas's account much more satisfactory than any being offered today.

I'll only sketch it briefly here (because it is after one in the morning).

For thomas recall that there is a great chain of being. The highest beings (God and the angels) are entirely immaterial. The lower beings like rocks, dirt, water are almost entirely material.

Thomas calls most of the ordinary objects of our experience 'composite things' because they are constituted of two principles: 'form' and 'matter'. 'Form' is what constitutes matter into a certain sort of thing. Use the example of the statue. There are bits of copper out there, but the sculptor arranges them in a certain way and makes there to be something there that is more than the disjointed bits of atoms. This collection of copper is a sculpture, but its being a sculpture does not reside in the copper as such. The 'form' of the statue is 'immaterial' for thomas, but by this he does not mean 'non-physical' or somehow supernatural.

the human person is a bit more complex case because human beings are a mixture of the material and the immaterial. (thomas, following aristotle, has a demonstration that the intellect must be an immaterial faculty in the mind in order to grasp the immaterial essences of things in the world in ST 1a.74 or so).

Thomas's basic claim is that the soul is the form of the body. which means, following our statue example above, that the soul is what makes a human being a human being. But this does not imply that it is a totally otherworldly, ghost-in-the-machine. Rather, one might say that the soul is the functional principle of organization of the body.

but, most importantly, the soul is not merely the principle of organization of the body. If you melt a statue, it's form is destroyed. However, even if you kill a body the soul endures on (though in a greatly impoverished state).

[I'm presenting these all as assertions rather than displaying the arguments, but there are arguments available for them.]

Thomas's position is neither dualist in the sense that descartes' position is. Nor is it 'materialist' in the sense that modern philosophy of mind tends to be (i.e. "reductive materialism"). Moreover, I think thomas's account of cognition offers a really interesting way past a longstanding dilemma in contemporary philosophy of mind precisely because of this very subtle way he has position himself between these two camps.

For more information, I highly recommend John Haldane's essay in the recent "Mind, Metaphysics and Value" which he edited.

Also, for a discussion of exactly what thomas means by 'spiritual' and 'immaterial', etc. see the first chapter of Robert Pasnau's "Theories of Cognition in the Later Middle Ages".

Thomas's position is not incontestable of course. but if we really want to dig into this issue, I suggest he is quite an interesting resource to look to because the label 'dualism' simply does not actually fit his position.

D.W. Congdon said…
Thanks for the comments.

M@: Indeed, the issue of immortality is central to the discussion. In his Psychopannychia, Calvin argues that the promise of immortality beyond the grave means that the soul must be separate from the body. Calvin rejects the Anabaptist notion that our soul "sleeps" with the body until the resurrection of the dead. The only problem is that the NT presents resurrection, not immortality. The fact of the matter is that the Bible is ambiguous and unclear. I suggest taking a look at Oscar Cullman's classic, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? (1958).

Matt: What is the "this" you refer to? The account of Christian materialism? Or just the soul in general?

Lee: I think the role of science has been to show that even while we cannot figure out how some of these things work in our body, the conclusion is rather unanimous that everything that happens to us is connected to something material and bodily. If you look at the ancient writers, they associated with the soul what we today associate with the brain. We still speak of the "heart" as the center of feeling and emotion; but we know this is wrong. The brain, again, is the center for all that. The "heart" is just a metaphorical figure of speech. I believe that we are seeing the same thing happen with talk about the soul.

I read some of Cooper's book for a paper I just wrote on Calvin's anthropology. I found it helpful and interesting, but problematic mostly because he approaches it without any serious theological investigation. He comments on some passages of Scripture, but it lacked depth in my opinion. Moreover, his proposal for a "holistic dualism" is more or less a contradiction in terms, in my opinion. Do you want to take a stab at explicating this notion more fully?
D.W. Congdon said…
Shane: Thanks for the comment about Thomas. I was not familiar with Thomas' understanding of the human person. I am left wondering what makes the soul capable of existence beyond the body if it is truly the form of the matter. I suppose I will have to read Thomas' argument. Also, does resurrection play any significant role? Based on my readings for the Calvin paper, most writers seemed to put Calvin quite closely to Thomas. Most of them seemed to indicate that Calvin followed the Scholastic tradition for the most part. The doctrine of the resurrection is late addition to the Institutes and does not affect his anthropology in any significant way. I'm wondering if that might be the case for Thomas as well.
The Miner said…
When it comes to these matters I think it is an important first step to simply be humble and admit that there is no final answer available to us right now. As you pointed out a platonist soul/body dualism is well established in the tradition, but the NT seems to lean toward a simple materialist death and resurrection (though scripture is unclear and contradictory at points on this issue). So we are left making personal judgement calls between prioritizing certain readings of scripture or certain facets of the tradition. There simply won't be a single answer that is very satisfying to everyone.

The reason, I believe, is all the questions that underlie the theological questions you are asking here. The personal, existential questions most people at some point ask themselves: What will happen to me when I die? What is the meaning of my existence? Am I in control of my own destiny or is something else running the show? Who am I? Am I my body? My thoughts? My emotions?

I think theology often tries to answer the big question without really addressing the pastoral questions, which are really the root of the issue.
Shane said…
david, i've just sent you a really nice article by Norm Kretzmann on thomas's philosophy of mind. the argument for the immortality of the soul follows from how thomas's theory of cognition works. I'm not smart enough to explain it briefly and succinctly here so I won't even try.

I would like to offer one salient comment. Resurrection and immortality are not exclusive alternatives. The immortality of the soul means that the soul is capable of surviving the death of the body. the meaning of resurrection for Thomas (if i understand him correctly) is that this same sole that endures the death of the body is given a new imperishable body in the resurrection. the intermediate stage where the soul is disembodied is very strange because the soul is unable to act upon most of its powers like sight, taste, touch, etc. because these powers require bodily organs. The only powers of the soul which remain operative without the body are the purely rational ones. In my imagination the souls awaiting resurrection are in the antechamber of heaven are all doing pure mathematics or perhaps contemplating the divine essence.
Lee said…
Hi D.W. - You're right of course that biology and neuroscience have shown the close connection between what goes on in our minds and events in the brain. But I don't know that they've brought us any closer to bridging the gap between consciousness - the "what it's like," subjective aspect of experience - and physical events. To show that they're closely connected is not to show that they're identical. And the problem is it's not even clear what it would mean to show they're identical, or how one would possibly map, in a 1-to-1 fashion, conscious experience to brain events.

Also, fwiw, if neuroscience is taken to show that "free will" is impossible I think you end up with a kind of performative contradiction of the sort identified by C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantiga, S.R.L. Clark and others: namely that if all our thoughts are determined by a chain of physical events, then what reason do we have to trust that those thoughts are true? Or, if materialism is true, we can have no good reason to believe it's true, because our thoughts are determined by non-rational material causes.

Regarding "holisitic dualism," it's been several years since I've read Cooper's book, so I'm not going to vouch for everything in there. But I would say that "holisitic dualism" means, at a minimum, that a. human beings are not exhausted by their material components and b. a "human being," properly speaking, is the entire soul-body composite, not essentially a soul trapped in a body. St. Thomas' view would be a kind of holistic dualism on this understanding, but it could possibly, as Cooper suggests, be cashed out in a variety of ways.