On the Soul: Aquinas Contra Modern English Christians
Francis Selman FAITH Magazine March - April 2008
In his editorial ‘Pro-Life Strategy and Arguments for the Soul’ ( Faith, March – April 2007), the editor of this magazine noted that documents of the Church usually rest her rejection of abortion on the argument that it ‘undermines the inalienable dignity of every human being’ without saying where we get this dignity from. He thinks that these documents do not pay sufficient attention to ‘the denial of the spiritual soul in each person’ as a cause of the climate of thought which permits abortion, and adds that
‘many pro-life advocates unwittingly allow this flawed anthropology (of our contemporaries) to prosper because they do not offer any proof or argument for the existence of the spiritual soul, which is the only rational ground for uniquely human personhood’.
This article is a response to the editor’s call for a reconsideration of the soul. In it I want to do three things: firstly, to overview Roman Catholic positions on the spiritual soul, secondly to mention some of the reasons for the present virtual silence about the soul and, thirdly, to provide the beginning of a positive argument for the human soul.
The Catholic Position
As the editor, I think correctly, believes that the soul is the key to explaining why we are persons, I first ask: What is a person? The late Elizabeth Anscombe pointed out that a person is not a kind of thing but an individual of a particular kind, namely of rational or intelligent nature. ‘For a person is a substantial individual of a particular species’. ‘A human being is a person because the kind to which he belongs is characterised by rational nature’. Fr Dylan James supports this when he asks, in the same issue of Faith, why beings with rational nature deserve respect. His answer is: because of the image of God in human beings. Theeditor too points to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that we are in the image of God especially because of the soul and that the body shares in this image. It is at least likely that we are in the image of God, which no other creature is said to be, because that which makes us human comes directly from God in the creation of each individual soul, singly as each human person is conceived. It is this which explains the uniqueness of every person, that our individual human nature is not simply transmitted by the parents but God has an especial role in the generation of every human being. This will also explain the transcendence of human beings. But as a person is an individual ofrational nature, what makes us rational?
As reason sets human beings apart from all other animals, it seems that our rational nature cannot be explained by evolution alone, for we do not find stages of lesser reflective selfconsciousness before the human species but evolution requires only gradual changes at a time. Evolution may account for our physiology but, as Aristotle discerned, the mind, because it is immaterial, is not passed on by generation but ‘comes in from outside’, as he put it. Of course, it follows that if the soul ‘comes in from outside’, because it is created and infused by God, it is something substantial and certainly a reality, because it must be something that comes to the body which has been conceived.
To say that the soul is something substantial seems to imply that a human being consists of two substances: a body and a soul. It is understandable that writers want to avoid dualism, as I do myself, but I do not think that it is necessary to discard the soul as well in order to do this. I would first point out that the body is not a living substance at all without its soul. The Church clearly still wishes to retain talk of the spiritual soul as was evident at the Second Vatican Council and has been confirmed more recently by the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘The human person, though made of body and soul, is a unity’. The best explanation of the unity of the body and soul has been Aristotle’s, adopted by St Thomas Aquinas, that the soul is the form of the body. Aquinas, however, developed Aristotle’s idea by saying that it is a special kind of form – a subsistent form. Such would be necessary for the soul to exist on its own when separated from the body at death. The human soul is a special kind of form because human beings have a special position in the universe. St Thomas argues that they alone are on the border ( in confinio) between the material and immaterial, as their knowledge begins with sense-perception but they can also think of things in a general way. If the mind were material, it would only know things individually as the senses do but would not know them as belonging to kinds of thing. As the mind is immaterial, it follows that it cannot be the power of the body, or therefore passed on by physical generation alone, but must be the power of something else – the soul, which is created by God. As Peter Geach has pointed out, the rational does not arise from the irrational (matter).
Omitting the Soul
When authors leave out the soul in order to avoid what they see as an arbitrary dualism, they often run into difficulties as great as those they seek to overcome. The editor mentions the late Fr. Herbert McCabe O.P., who left all reference to the soul out of his catechism, The Teaching of the Catholic Church. Fr. McCabe had already said in an earlier talk on ‘The Immortality of the Soul’ that ‘the subsistence of the soul has no more content’ for Aquinas than that ‘a man has an operation by his soul which is not an operation of the body’. He assured his listeners that Aquinas did not think the soul is immortal because it is immaterial. But he could not tell them why Aquinas thought the soul is immortal, as Aquinas undoubtedly did, and his paper ran out with a discussion of understanding, not the soul.
Fr. McCabe may have been influenced by Anthony Kenny who calls the mind ‘a capacity for capacities’ (the capacity to learn language, do mathematics etc.). But as he leaves out the soul, he is unable to explain what the mind is a capacity of, because at the same time he admits that ‘in the present life there are intellectual and volitional activities which do not involve any bodily activity, such as silent thought’. As the mind is not a power of the soul in Kenny, he finishes up in the very dualism he sets out to avoid, for the mind is as isolated in Kenny as it is in Descartes.
In likewise dispelling the dualism of Descartes, Fr. Fergus Kerr O.P. speaks of ‘the ancient religious myth of the soul’. It is not clear whether he thinks the soul is just a myth, but one would hardly think that Aristotle was writing about a mythical concept of the soul in his De Anima, since he argues for the soul quite scientifically: what distinguishes all living from all non-living things in the world we see must be some primary principle of life which he says is the soul. In the same way, we can then go on to say that what distinguishes human beings, who have self-reflection, understanding and general concepts, from all other animals must be a different kind ofsoul: an immaterial soul which is not tied to the senses and bodily organs for the exercise of all its powers, like the souls of other animals. This immaterial soul, then, does not arise from the body, as it has a higher power, but comes from above, from God. This also explains our transcendence.
McCabe and other Dominicans present the soul-body dynamic in a way which resonates with a remark of Wittgenstein’s: ‘The human body is the best picture of the soul’. This may signify: If you want to know what we mean by the soul, just look at the human body. If, however, you take it in conjunction with another argument which Wittgenstein uses from Socrates earlier in the Investigations, this saying supports a quite different view of the soul. Socrates argued that just as, if someone is thinking he must think something and if he thinks something, it must be something real, so someone who paints must paint something and someone who paints something must paint somethingreal. So, if the body is a picture of the soul, it is a picture of something real and the soul is not just a way of talking about beings with typically human behaviour but is itself something real. This is true even if, in Wittgensteinian terms, one might say that the soul, in its own nature, is not something picturable. Unless the soul is something real for Aquinas, it is hard to see why he called it substantial and devoted a whole question in the Summa to how the soul is united to the body (ST 1a q.76).
Peter van Inwagen, who has become a Christian, is also motivated by the overriding desire to avoid dualism but only considers two alternative views of human beings: physicalism and dualism. Although he initially rejects physicalism because he thinks that a human person is not just an organism and mental changes are not simply physical changes, he concludes ‘physicalism is the most reasonable theory about the nature of human beings’. He makes no attempt to discuss the soul: he could have avoided his inconsistency if he had considered the view that the soul is the form of the body.
Let us move on now to two Anglican authors. Keith Ward thinks that the most important thing about the human soul is ‘its capacity for transcendence’. Nonetheless he thinks that the rational soul began to be when the brain reached a certain “degree in complexity” (through evolution). He states that the soul “is distinguished not by being quite different in kind from its material environment, but by reflecting and acting in that environment in a more conscious, goal-oriented way”. He is surely inconsistent in holding that human beings possess a quite distinct capacity from animals but the human soul has, in effect, evolved, for evolution can only account for gradual andphysical changes. How could we transcend physical nature, as Ward rightly thinks we do, if we have merely been generated by it? Ward then runs into difficulty, because he believes in an afterlife, but as the soul is ‘truly material’ for him, he is left without a subject of our conscious states in the next life. This difficulty could be overcome by recognising that the human soul is not generated from the body (of the parents) but is immaterial and so can also be immortal. The logic of Ward’s position was spelled out by Aquinas: if the soul is not directly created then it depends on matter, and if it depends on matter, it cannot be immortal. For Aquinas the immortality ofthe soul goes with its immediate creation. We have already mentioned the Thomistic argument that the immediate creation by God of the human soul follows from the fact that it does not arise from matter, which is shown by the fact that the mind which can think of things generally is not a power of matter.
We find the same difficulties with the next life when we turn to the Rev. Prof. John Polkinghorne, who holds that the Christian hope is death and resurrection, not an intrinsic immortality. In Polkinghorne’s view, ‘We are a complex information-carrying pattern which persists through all the changes of material constituents and which by its very persistence expresses the true continuity of my person, that pattern is the meaning of the soul’. Although he thinks that his view is like Aquinas’ of the soul as the form of the body, Aquinas did not think that this pattern is dissolved with the death of the body as Polkinghorne does. To call the soul ‘a complex information-carryingpattern’ seems to be closer to the harmony theory of the soul described by Plato in the Phaedo. As Polkinghorne requires the continuity of something through all the changes of our material constituents in this life, so he should require the continuity of something between this life and the next if the same person is to survive.
It seems to me that the immortality of the soul requires the resurrection of the body and, conversely, the resurrection of the body also requires the immortality of the soul. If only the soul survives, then I do not survive, for a human person is someone who is a unity of body and soul, as we noted in the quotation from Gaudium et spes14 above. But, as the same thing only has one beginning of existence, the same person is not raised up, rather a new one is, unless something of me carries my existence in between death and the general resurrection which, as Martha said, happens on the Last Day (Jn 11:24). The soul can carry my existence, because it is anyway the soul which gives existence to my body as a living thing. Thereis no identity of person raised up unless there is continuity of existence of something: as the body dies, this must be of the soul.
There are two ways of overcoming the difficulty which those who do not believe the soul is immortal have in explaining the gap between death and the resurrection of the dead in the traditional Christian belief. One is to say that there is no gap but we are raised up immediately. This seems to leave no room for Purgatory, which is generally believed to have some duration. The other is to say that we, or our memories, are kept by God. This second way out is taken by Fr. Simon Tugwell O.P. who, like Polkinghorne, thinks that the Christian hope, as expressed in the New Testament, is of resurrection rather than immortality. In Fr. Tugwell’s view, the resurrection of the body does not require the immortality of the soul: all thatmatters is that the dead are in some way alive to God, he says, appealing to Luke 20: 38: God ‘is not God of the dead but of the living, for all are living to him’. Even for God, something or someone is only living if it is a subject of activity in some way, but memories cannot act by themselves. Tugwell says that we have no need to appeal to some ‘Deep Fact’, by which he presumably means a subsistent soul. His view of the soul as ‘the contents of someone’s mental life’ seems close to that of the philosopher David Hume.
Similar difficulties with immortality recur in the theory of the Catholic philosopher David Braine that human beings are psycho-physical beings. Braine rightly says that we need to consider the whole human being. On the one hand he combats dualism by presenting a view of human beings ‘shorn of its dependence of speaking of the soul’, because he thinks that the soul brings in dualism. On the other hand, he maintains against materialists that we are also spirit. What makes us spirit is that we have language. Language shows that we have a transcendent existence, because the understanding of words is not a state of a material system. But Braine has not gone back far enough,because our words express concepts of the mind. The reason why we have language, when other animals do not (certainly not with grammar), is that we have reason and thought. Braine does not, however, explain these.
Without the soul, Braine has difficulty in explaining how we continue to exist in some way after death; but unless we do survive we cannot properly be said to have a ‘transcendent’ existence. Our existence is transcendent precisely because we are not completely limited to the body and so can exist beyond it. At best Braine shows thathuman beings have an existence that transcends the body because they have language, but he does not show how or why only human beings and not other higher animals possess transcendence when they are all alike psycho-physical beings, because animals are not to be explained mechanistically either. Without the soul surviving, Braine has to say that we are ‘deprived persons’, but a deprived personis still something and it is hard to know what when the body no longer exists unless it is the soul.
A Positive Account
As the editor says that ‘we need to return to the essential outlines of the Thomistic tradition’, in the light of modern science, I shall limit myself here to a brief outline of the stages of St. Thomas’s theory of the soul. First, he says that the soul is the form of the body. Secondly, he says that the human soul is a special kind of form: a subsistent form. Victor Brezik has illumined this point for us by remarking that forms either depend on matter and are not subsistent or they are independent of matter and are subsistent. Forms that depend on matter do not have an operation of their own but the human soul is subsistent because it has an activity of itsown. I have shown above that the human soul does not depend on matter because the mind is immaterial, as it can think of things generally. The mind is therefore a power of the soul, not of the body. The third stage is that, as the human soul has an independent activity, it can exist independently of the body. It is therefore immortal.
I would like to add that the human soul transcends the body because it is raised above the body, as shown by the fact that we can reflect on our actions. We can also reflect on our bodies, as though from above. Even William James, who thought that our thoughts are explained by brain processes, said that no material thing can grasp itself, as the mind does when it thinks of itself. As no material thing can reflect on itself, the ability to reflect on ourselves, which sets us apart from all other animals, must be a power of something immaterial – the immaterial soul, of which the mind is a power. The soul also has other powers, of sensation etc., which are powers of somethingjoint, as Aquinas says. This flows from the unity of body and soul in a human being.
I have tried to be as brief as possible. I would concur with some words of this magazine’s editor: ‘We urgently need a reasoned and reasonable defence of the inalienable value of the human person based on sound, contemporary arguments for the spiritual soul’. Benedict XVI commented in his inaugural sermon as Pope in 2005, we are not just casual products of evolution. We can only show this if we can show that we have a quite different kind of consciousness (understanding and selfreflection), which cannot be explained materially and, therefore, requires the immaterial soul, created by God, to explain this power. There is further work to be done in this area.
Another reason why it is important to demonstrate that we have souls is that the Council of Chalcedon explicitly said that ‘the same (Jesus Christ) is perfect in his humanity, truly God and truly man, the same of a rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father in his deity and consubstantial with us in his humanity, ‘like us in all things but sin’’. If Christ has a human soul par excellence, as the Catholic faith requires us to believe, so do we. Apart from Christ, who is an eternally existing divine person who took human nature, a human being is a human person and what makes someone such a human being is the human soul.
 Human Life, Action and Ethics. Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe(edd. M. Geach and L. Gormally). Charlottesville, Imprint Academic 2005, pp.267f.
 Faith. March – April 2007, p.9.
 De Generatione Animalium II c.3, 736 b 28.
 Gaudium et spes, 14. Cf. CCC 365
 Aquinas, Quaestiones de Anima, 1.
 Truth and Hope(Indiana, Notre Dame 2001), c.2.
 Aquinas. A collection of Critical Essays(ed. A. Kenny). London, Macmillan 1969, p.302
 The Metaphysics of Mind(Oxford 1989), p.31.
 Theology after Wittgenstein(Oxford, Blackwell 1986), pp. 43,93.
 Philosophical InvestigationsII iv, p.178.
 Ibid.I 518.
 Metaphysics(Colorado, Westerview 2000), p.201.
 In Defence of the Soul(Oxford, One World 1992), p.142.
 Summa theologiae1a 118,2.
 Science and Creation(London, SPCK 1988), p.72.
 Human Immortality(London, DLT 1990), p.160
 The Human Person(London Duckworth 1993), pp. 9, 541.
 For a short, ordered account of Aquinas on the soul, see F. Selman, Aspects of Aquinas(Dublin Veritas 2005), c. 6.
 Thomistic Papersvol. I (ed. V.B. Brezik). Houston, Texas 1984, p.90.
 Principles of PsychologyI p.343.
 Neuner – Dupuis, The Christian Faith614 (=DS 301).