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’.[1]  Fr Dylan James supports this when he asks, in the same issue of Faith, why beings with  rational nature deserve respect.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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’.[5] 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.[6] 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).[7]

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’.[8]  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’.[9] 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’.[10]  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’.[11] 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.[12] 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’.[13] 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’.[14] 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.[15] 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’.[16] 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’[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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’’.[22] 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.

[1] Human Life, Action and Ethics. Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe(edd. M. Geach and L. Gormally). Charlottesville, Imprint Academic 2005, pp.267f.
[2] Faith. March – April 2007, p.9.
[3] CCC363-364
[4] De Generatione Animalium II c.3, 736 b 28.
[5] Gaudium et spes, 14. Cf. CCC 365
[6] Aquinas, Quaestiones de Anima, 1.
[7] Truth and Hope(Indiana, Notre Dame 2001), c.2.
[8] Aquinas. A collection of Critical Essays(ed. A. Kenny). London, Macmillan 1969, p.302
[9] The Metaphysics of Mind(Oxford 1989), p.31.
[10] Theology after Wittgenstein(Oxford, Blackwell 1986), pp. 43,93.
[11] Philosophical InvestigationsII iv, p.178.
[12] Ibid.I 518.
[13] Metaphysics(Colorado, Westerview 2000), p.201.
[14] In Defence of the Soul(Oxford, One World 1992), p.142.
[15] Summa theologiae1a 118,2.
[16] Science and Creation(London, SPCK 1988), p.72.
[17] Human Immortality(London, DLT 1990), p.160
[18] The Human Person(London Duckworth 1993), pp. 9, 541.
[19] For a short, ordered account of Aquinas on the soul, see F. Selman, Aspects of Aquinas(Dublin Veritas 2005), c. 6.
[20] Thomistic Papersvol. I (ed. V.B. Brezik). Houston, Texas 1984, p.90.
[21] Principles of PsychologyI p.343.
[22] Neuner – Dupuis, The Christian Faith614 (=DS 301).

Faith Magazine

March - April 2008