A materialist grapples with the fact that persons are more than the matter that comprises their bodies. She recognizes that a person is more than a collection of memories and veers close to discussion of the soul, but then peels off before the plane hits the deck of supernaturalism:
One day not too long ago, a friend came to me with a problem. His wife of many years had begun to change. Once mousy, she was now poised and assertive. Her career had been important to her, now her interests had turned inward, domestic. And while the changes were not so dramatic that they fundamentally altered the woman he had fallen in love with, he was apprehensive about the possibility.
The danger of befriending psychologists is they will use you as their test subjects: I inquired what kind of change would render her unrecognisable. My friend responded without hesitation: ‘If she stopped being kind. I would leave her immediately.’ He considered the question a few moments more. ‘And I don’t mean, if she’s in a bad mood or going through a rough time. I’m saying if she turned into a permanent bitch with no explanation. Her soul would be diﬀerent.’This encounter is instructive for a few reasons (not least of which is the intriguing term ‘permanent bitch’) but let’s start with my friend’s invocation of the soul. He is not religious and, I suspect, does not endorse the existence of a ghost in the machine. But souls are a useful construct, one we can make sense of in fiction and fantasy, and as a shorthand for describing everyday experience. The soul is an indestructible wisp of ether, present from birth and surviving our bodies after death. And each soul is one of a kind and unreplicable: it bestows upon us our unique identity. Souls are, in short, a placeholder notion for the self.
The pity here is that Catholic theology also does not endorse the idea of the ghost in the machine. That’s Cartesianism, not Catholic theology. Where’s Mike Flynn when you need him?