Materialist Attempts to Deal with the Soul

Materialist Attempts to Deal with the Soul December 22, 2014

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?

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  • capaxdei

    What are they teaching in psychologist school these days?

    • Dan Berger

      Certainly not pre-Cartesian philosophy.

  • MarylandBill

    In fairness to the original author, many Christians seem to be mixed up on this idea as well.

  • JM1001

    The pity here is that Catholic theology also does not endorse the idea of the ghost in the machine.

    Forgive me if this question betrays a deep pit of ignorance on my part, but I’m asking in all honesty.

    If what you say above is true, then what does the Church mean when it says that a soul is specially created and then “infused” in a human body at some point early their development? That sounds a great deal like a “ghost in a machine” to me, or at least some variation of it.

    • Mariana Baca

      Ghost in the machine implies that a person is “just” a soul, and the body is simply a machine they control. Infants are not “infused” with a soul early in development — there is no preexisting soul to be added to the infant machiine. Souls are the “anima”, or animating principle — that which distinguishes something that is alive from something that is dead (different living things have different types of souls). It is the form of the living human being — it is there from the first moment the human being is alive, otherwise they would not be alive, and are created at that moment.

      We are bodies and souls, not souls with bodies. What happens to our bodies affects our souls (until death, when they are separated) and vice versa.

      • Mariana Baca

        If you want a more in depth explanation, since I’m sure I’m mangling it, maybe Mike Flynn is helpful after all: http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2014/07/in-psearch-of-psyche-some-groundwork.html (multipart series, still incomplete)

        • JM1001

          I’ve been following Mike’s posts as well. Thanks.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          That reminds me. I should get back to that series.

      • JM1001

        Thanks for the reply.

        The timing of Mark’s post is interesting because I just finished reading Ed Feser’s post “Knowing an Ape from Adam” last night, which was pretty fascinating. In it, he says:

        Indeed, given its nature the human soul has to be specially created and infused into the body by God — not only in the case of the first human being but with every human being. Hence the Magisterium and Thomist philosophers have held that special divine action was necessary at the beginning of the human race in order for the human soul, and thus a true human being, to have come into existence even given the supposition that the matter into which the soul was infused had arisen via evolutionary processes from non-human ancestors.

        I’m just not quite sure I understand what it means to say that a soul is merely “the form of the living human being,” but also that it must be “specially created and infused into the body.”

        • Mariana Baca

          The soul is specially created — I think I was understanding the term “infusing” in a different way. There are properties of the human soul that are not simply “emergent properties” of matter. I recommend reading the link provided for more info.

        • capaxdei

          All living material beings have souls as their form. Only humans have immortal souls, and these souls are created by God and infused into the body to make a human person.

          • JM1001

            So, I’ve spent the last day thinking about your comment, turning it over in my head…

            A “ghost in a machine” would imply a Cartesian dualism: two conjoined substances with no necessary connection between them, which gives rise to various “problems” — including what modern philosophers call “the interaction problem.”

            But what the Church is arguing is that a human being’s “soul” (and, indeed, the soul of all living things) is merely their substantial form — that is, the animating principle which gives rise to all the properties of a living thing. However, in the case of human beings, our substantial forms are qualitatively different in that we possess intellect and volition, which by their very nature cannot be destroyed and are therefore immortal.

            So, my question is this: Would it be accurate to say that it is our intellect and volition that are the things specially created by God and “infused” in us at some point? Or is it something else?

            If it’s the former, why do they need to be specially created at all? If other qualitatively different levels of substantial forms can arise via natural processes, then why not our intellect and volition?

            Again, forgive me if these questions betray my deep ignorance. I’ve been trying to understand this for the longest time, but I can’t get my head around it.

            • capaxdei

              ‘Would it be accurate to say that it is our intellect and volition that are the things specially created by God and “infused” in us at some point?’

              You should ask someone who knows, but I’ll guess the answer is no, the thing specially created by God is the human soul, a principle of human life that has intellect and volition as faculties. It’s not intellect & volition that turn a creature into a human person, it’s the human soul that has intellect & volition, if that makes any sense.

              As for why human generation at the natural level can’t create a human soul, I don’t know. I suspect it’s impossible from first principles — if the parents are only human because God produced human souls for them, then the same with the children — but for all I know it’s just the way things happen to be.

  • Alma Peregrina

    According to the book “Galileo goes to jail and other myths about Science and Religion” that idea of the ghost in the machine is not even Cartesianism.