What We Are: Mind, Body, and the Dangers of Dualism

This is the first article from our summer issue. The whole issue will be released gradually over the next several weeks. 

According to traditional Christian metaphysics, the human has a body and a soul. But these two things aren’t entirely separate substances, as if the soul was “located” in some part of the body and floats away out of the body like ectoplasma when an individual dies. Rather, the soul and the body form a substantial unity: a human being is both body and soul, and the two are entangled with each other. We are our body as much as our soul: our soul is, in fact, the form of our body, its animating principle.

According to the New Natural Lawyers, that group of Catholic intellectuals trying to construct a theory of natural law that avoids some of the metaphysical background of the traditional natural law thinkers, contemporary thought ignores our soul-body unity and divides the two against each other as competitive principles. Of course, much contemporary thought doesn’t believe in a soul as such; rather, it divides the body from the mind or the consciousness or whatever you call the “thinking/feeling/desiring” core of the individual. Under this philosophy, we are really our consciousness and our body is just a shell or container for our thinking/feeling/desiring self.

The New Natural Lawyers trace a lot of contemporary sexual, reproductive, and ethical preferences to the failure to understand that we really are our bodies. In some cases of euthanasia, for example, many intellectuals make a distinction between “personhood” and “human life.” A biological human has no rights as such; only a biological human with functioning cognitive faculties has rights. A person in a vegetative state or persistent coma—or a person whose cognitive faculties have decayed due to diseases like Alzheimer’s—can’t think. Therefore he or she has no rights, and therefore he or she can be euthanized. This position is only possible under the assumption that our bodies are not us, that we are only really ourselves in our conscious core. And the New Natural Lawyers provide lots of convincing reasons why this assumption is false.

The New Natural Lawyer’s attack on contemporary mind/body dualism is powerful, even if not everything the group has to say is as convincing. However, there are other thinkers who have applied this same basic analysis to other areas of life. Wendell Berry is one of the best thinkers working on this intellectual project. In his essay “The Body and the Earth,” Berry examines the cultural and economic consequences of the division contemporary society makes between the body and the soul. His words on the modern concept of an “identity crisis” are particularly compelling. Berry writes,

The so-called identity crisis, for instance, is a disease that seems to have become prevalent after the dis- connection of body and soul and the other piecemealings of the modern period. One’s “identity” is apparently the immaterial part of one’s being—also known as psyche, soul, spirit, self, mind, etc. The dividing of this principle the body and from any particular worldly locality would seem reason enough for a crisis. Treatment, it might be thought, would logically consist in the restoration of these connections: the lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference, or history, or accident has brought it.

The theme of this issue of Fare Forward is “dualisms,” and one belief that joins most of the pieces is that certain dualisms are both dangerous and false. Matthew Dugandzic traces how the embodied nature of human beings allows us to desire properly. Michael W. Hannon looks at what the doctrine of divine transcendence tells us about suffering. He notes that divine transcendence means that events don’t happen in the world either by the actions of God or by the actions of creatures. Rather, creatures and God cooperate in all actions: God causes human actions 100 percent, and humans cause human actions 100 percent. Neglect of this paradox leads us to offer false and misleading “comfort” to the suffering.

Berry shares this unease with many contemporary dualisms. Attacking them is, arguably, one of the central themes of his thought, and Fare Forward has always looked to Berry as an intellectual lodestar of faithful Christian engagement with modernity.

But this kind of criticism has its limits. Christian thought is much more complex than a simplistic anti-dualism would allow. Sometimes supposed opposites cannot be reconciled in an ultimate harmony. Also in this issue, Brandon McGinley dissects the political errors that arise when we conceive of politics as an enterprise worked out between only two poles of authority, the individual and the state. But the solution here is more divisions, not fewer. To borrow a term from international relations theory, McGinley advocates for a political landscape characterized by balanced multipolarity, as opposed to the individual-state bipolarity.

Moreover, certain hierarchies of spiritual and earthly values, of heaven and earth, of body and soul are necessary on the level of practice. In his article “Naturalizing Shalom: Confessions of a Kuyperian Secularist,” James K.A. Smith notes that American evangelicals have grown increasingly focused on enacting justice and spreading shalom (peace), but that this commitment can become dangerous when we don’t put God first. Smith writes,

In strange, often unintended ways, the pursuit of “justice,” shalom, and a “holistic” gospel can have its own secularizing effect. What begins as a Gospel-motivated concern for justice can turn into a naturalized fixation on justice in which God never appears. And when that happens, “justice” becomes something else altogether—an idol, a way to effectively naturalize the gospel, flattening it to a social amelioration project in which the particularity of Jesus as the revelation of God becomes strangely absent.

In our winter issue, Fare Forward published an article by Jordan Monge (“The Kingdom Cometh, So Where Are We Going?”) that advocated for a renewed understanding of the role the “new earth” will play in the afterlife. The implication of the fact that the earth will be taken up into the final act of redemption at the end of time, Jordan noted, is that we should care for the earth because it is and will be our home. As Smith puts it, a theology that sees God as interested in redeeming this world, instead of saving souls out of the world, is necessarily “this-worldly,” insofar as it encourages “participating in God’s renewal and redemption of this world.”

This is persuasive as far as it goes, but Smith provides a warning for those who delve deeply into this kind of theology. By becoming “this-worldly,” we can forget about heaven; we can easily become secularists who don’t give due deference to the spirit. Smith writes, “The holistic affirmation of the goodness of creation and the importance of ‘this-worldly’ justice is not a substitute for heaven, as if the holistic gospel was a sanctified way to learn to be a naturalist… Shalom is not biblical language for progressivist social amelioration. Shalom is a Christ-haunted call to long for kingdom come.”

And this has practical implications for the very project of stewardship and shalom-spreading. C.S. Lewis said it well: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

Many modern dualisms are false, but dualisms as a whole are a complex subject and require a careful and nuanced treatment. We hope this issue can play a small part in kickstarting that conversation.

[Image of soul and body from here]

About Peter Blair
  • mkhunt

    dualism is just an old heresy. polarization of self, groups etc is a divide and conquer tactic. especially distressing is the secular gain separation from morality and ethics..anything for a buck in which churches, schools etc. sign gas drilling leases which agree to allow contamination for the sake of short term financial gain. the rehabilitation of the term collaborate is chilling…it meant something vile following WWII now it is invoked as a cozy relationship…we have allowed companies to supply suspect regimes with deadly chemicals, we have allowed corporations to wantonly poison for profit here in USA and yet we are sad that cancer rates contine to climb…prayer and faith require something from us…what is happening in this world is our responsibility.

  • Pofarmer

    First, you should prove there is a soul, before you go basing a whole theology on it.

    • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

      Does the matter of your body have a definitive shape? The “shape” of a square is its soul. The “shape” of your body is its soul.

      • Pofarmer


        • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

          I think that’s the classic Aristotelian-Thomistic definition of soul.

          • Pofarmer

            Aristotle got a lot wrong.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Sure. But so did Darwin, Newton, and Galileo. Being wrong on some stuff doesn’t preclude being right on other stuff.

          • Pofarmer

            True enough, but we can correct or falsify what Newton got wrong, and still use the rest of it. The Catholic Church, in particular, is still using Aristotlean metaphysics even though it is clearly wrong. Just because a certain person said something that made sense 1000 years ago, doesn’t mean it makes the least bit of sense today.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            What was wrong about my (or, as far as I understand it, Aristotle’s) definition of soul?

          • Pofarmer

            Other than the fact that it’s completely non descriptive and totally meaningless?

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            How do you account for the fact that you could completely replace every single atom in your body, one by one, and at the end of the process it would still be you?

          • Pofarmer

            Well, every day billions of cells in your body are replaced, thats just biology. Atoms are just chemistry. But, if those changes alter the neuron pathways in the brain that affect your decision making, or alter memories, then indeed, you are not yourself any more. That’s nuerology. What we are and who we are resides in the brain.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            So, why don’t we let murderers out of prison once all their cells are replaced?

          • Pofarmer

            Really? Does cell replacement affect the patterns of memories and experiences in our brains?

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            No. That’s my point. The thing that provides continuity is that pattern, and that pattern is what Aristotelians mean by “soul”.

          • Pofarmer

            That pattern is biology. Our brains maintain some memories, but we lose some as we age. Why, in the case of brain injuries, do people lose some memories buf not others? Why do some aspects of personality change, but not others? Why, in the case of diseases like alzheimers will people remember things 40 years ago but nof lunch, or their 10 year old grandchild? Everything we now know, suggests that what and who we are rests wholly in the brain. Philosphers 1000 years ago didn’t have access to even the begining of the knowledge of the human body we have today. Morgan Freeman just did a couple episodes of “Through the Wormhole” on evil, and consciousness. You should check them out. It’s little more up to date info.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            But nothing you are saying in any way contradicts what I have said. I said the soul was the pattern of the matter in our bodies. You seem to be saying that there’s no such thing as a soul but there is such a thing as the pattern. I don’t get your distinction.

            I’m not at all claiming that the soul is some sort of gaseous ectoplasmic thing that “interfaces” with the matter of the body, if that’s what you’re implying. I don’t think that. In fact, I think that’s the bogus and improper kind of dualism that’s caused so much environmental and personal destruction in the last several hundred years.

          • Pofarmer

            “I said the soul was the pattern of the matter in our bodies.”

            Which means what? You seem to be saying “We are the sum total of our parts plus more that we can’t see or define”.

            “You seem to be saying that there’s no such thing as a soul but there is such a thing as the pattern. I don’t get your distinction.”

            Our brain stores memories, and controls behavior. You seem to be saying that our memories are stored in our atoms, or some such. See, the “pattern” resides wholly in our brain. Scientists can image the brain, see what sections do what when we are stimulated, see what sections react when we make a decision, see what sections control which mood if they are stimulated. The idea that there is a “pattern in the matter of our bodies” doesn’t make sense, and doesn’t fit with what we know about the brain and how the body works. If that’s the way it is, cutting off a finger should cause loss of memory, or change of behavior.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            What I mean by a pattern is this: Let’s say a sufficiently advanced technology gives you the ability to rebuild an animal, atom-by-atom, from the ground up. In order to do it, you’d need to have two things: (1) matter in the correct numbers of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen atoms, etc, and (2) you would have to have a plan for how to arrange them. If you didn’t have the raw material, you couldn’t rebuild the animal (obviously), but if you didn’t have the plan, you wouldn’t know how to put together that raw material to form the particular animal you were aiming at.

            The plan is not a “thing” in material terms, and you don’t “add” it to the atoms, physically, but it still determines what makes this particular set of atoms a human, an ape, or a large dog (assuming, for the sake of argument, that all those living things had the same number of atoms in the same ratios).

            Aristotle was just observing that the matter was necessary and the plan was necessary. Leave one out and you couldn’t have your particular animal. He called the matter (all the atoms everywhere they were located: brain, teeth, stomach, finger, all of it) the “body”, and that pattern of the arrangement of all that matter the “soul”. Anyone wishing to construct a transporter beam like in Star Trek would have to make very similar observations.

            When you say “the pattern resides wholly in our brains”, I don’t, with a couple of caveats, have a problem with that. Neither Aristotle nor St Thomas would disagree (mostly) with what you’re saying. Your soul doesn’t do anything without the matter that makes your body up. Every single one of my memories is reliant on the neurological patterns in my brain. If they break down, the memory is gone.

            [edited to include 2nd comment so threading doesn't get screwed up]
            Holy mackerel, I just realized something. When I say “body”, I’m not talking about “every part of me except my brain.” I’m talking about “the matter that makes me up.” So when I say “the pattern in my body”, I include the pattern as it resides in the brain.

          • Guest

            Holy mackerel, I just realized something. When I say “body”, I’m not talking about “every part of me except my brain.” I’m talking about “the matter that makes me up.” So when I say “the pattern in my body”, I include the pattern as it resides in the brain.

          • Pofarmer

            So then, a soul is a pattern, and the pattern is our physical presence? Then, what is the importance of a soul?

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Well, first of all, you’re absolutely right that our experiences are intrinsic to who we are. Just having the same genetic material doesn’t make us the same, and two identical twins, even if there was absolutely no difference between them at the fertilized egg stage, are two unique individuals with two different arrangements of matter in their bodies, partly because their different development and experiences.

            But remember, when I’m talking about the arrangement of matter or pattern of matter, I’m not just talking about genetic codes. I’m talking about going all the way down to individual atoms as they’re arranged in our bodies right now, after all our experiences and development and growth. That’s why I assumed Star Trek-level technology in my example.

            Now, the soul is important because throughout your life that’s what’s permanent about you. All your matter is eventually replaced, but though your soul (that arrangement of matter) will experience a certain amount of change over the years as you grow and have experiences and make choices, it will never become completely different or completely disappear. It will always be – at its core – the same, until disease or old age does significant enough damage to the brain to destroy the pattern.

            That’s why you don’t let a convicted murderer out of prison after howsoever many years: because it’s still the same man, even though all of his matter has been replaced. Essentially, that soul (that arrangement of matter) that was there in the murderer when the victim was killed is still there even after 30 years. It may have changed a lot. It may be remorseful. It may have experienced a conversion. But at its core, it’s still the same arrangement of matter, still the same soul, still the same man.

            Another thing that’s important about your soul is that it is changeable to some extent, and there can be better or worse arrangements of the same matter in my body. In a sense, the matter in my body can exist in multiple different isomers, and my choices determine which isomer (i.e. which version of my soul) my body will settle into. For instance, suppose a small child bumps into me in the supermarket and makes me drop the eggs. I have two choices: I could flip out and scream at him, or I could reply graciously. Now if I scream at him, certain pathways in my brain will be reinforced and hence the patterns of neurons, etc, will go a particular way, and this will make it easier for my brain functioning to follow those same pathways in the future. I will be on my way to being a jerk. If, on the other hand, I reply graciously, those exact same atoms, neurons, etc, will take on a different pattern and reinforce different pathways. I will be on my way to being a just man. (Obviously, it takes more than one experience to lay down strong pathways that are that determinative, but the effect is real, though cumulative.)

            But either “isomer” of the exact same matter is possible and – barring substantial work to reinforce other, different, arrangements of matter in my brain – relatively permanent. I could be forever the guy who flipped out at a child or forever the guy who made some harassed mother’s day a little bit better.

          • Pofarmer

            I’m just gonna back away slowly, no sudden movements.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            You asked…. ;-) Also, this is Aristotelian metaphysics, and it’s totally valid. Just because we know more about the details of matter doesn’t invalidate Aristotle at all. In fact, every bit of scientific knowledge that we gather about the extent to which brain function undergirds our thinking just validates Aristotle and invalidates Descartes, et al. No more stupid speculation about the hippocampus or ectoplasm or whatever.

          • Pofarmer

            The only way that Aristotelian metaphysics is valid is that most of the claims that remain can’t be empirically measured or quantified.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            But just because you can’t measure out 7 grams of soul doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I just described what Aristotelians meant by “soul”, pointed out that it’s not what you thought they meant, and gave a couple of examples of how and why it’s a useful concept, and you complain that it isn’t measurable.

            There are a ton of things that aren’t measurable but are nonetheless real things. How would you measure love, hate, prejudice, or justice? You can quantify the effects of those things (once you’re sure that this effect really does stem from this act of will), but you can’t measure or quantify them in themselves. But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as love, hate, prejudice, or justice.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Furthermore, let me point out that it was through accepting the stupid, modern, Cartesian idea of soul that led scientists to waste their time trying to find some foolish interface in the hippocampus (or wherever). If they had listened to Aristotle and St Thomas, they would have looked for the functioning of the human mind in the structure and patterning of the brain itself, not some woowoo fairy dust.

            Ironically, the up-to-date and modern understanding of brain functioning is a recovery of Aristotelian metaphysics about how the body and brain work, not at all a refutation.

            In other words, the Aristotelian metaphysical account of soul would have been enormously useful to 18th and 19th century scientists and led to vastly improved empirical results.

          • Pofarmer

            But, I can directly experience Love, hate, prejudice, and justice, when those things are applied to me, or when I apply them to another. We can also map where in our brains love, hate, and prejudice originate, or at least where feelings of them go. The idea that “the soul is the sum total of our being, never changing, presupposed the existence of a soul, that a soul is not simply a concept of our own creation.

          • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

            Point out where I say that the soul is “the sum total of our being”. No one is saying that. Furthermore, I never said the soul doesn’t change. I said “at its core” it doesn’t change. I specifically said it does change when you have experiences and make decisions.

            You don’t experience (in an empirically measurable way) love, hate, prejudice, or justice. You experience a kiss, a punch, a form letter, a jail sentence. Those are empirically measurable and all can be an expression of either love or hate, prejudice or justice. Our description of them as “love” or “hate” is a metaphysical interpretation, absolutely not an empirical measurement.

          • Pofarmer

            And, here is the thing, though. We CAN rebuild atom by atom. It’s called cloning, and we have cloned many species, even brought at least one extinct species back. And? Each cloned individual is unique and different, not necesarily pysically, but mentally. They are the priducts of their individual experiences.

  • Kevin Osborne

    “God causes human actions 100 percent, and humans cause human actions 100 percent. ”
    It works for me!

  • http://mufillyou.blogspot.kr/ Brent Oh

    Event though the movie is false, you can enjoy it.

    If you think the movie is false, you may feel unhappy while watching the movie.
    If you think the movie is true, you can feel happy while watching the movie.

    The false movie is more funny than the true movie.

    So, everything depends on your fun, not the reality.