The sole soul

the Apologies for sparsity of posts just now, but it’s both the B&B season for visiting grandchildren, and the labour-intensive mowing period for our hillside wild-flower meadow. Nevertheless I’ve had reason, whilst raking a hill-full of grass, to ponder the matter of the human soul.

This is because I’ve been wading through Joshua Farris’s The Creation of Self, which makes an argument for a Neo-cartesian concept of souls, each directly created by God.

Overall I’m not entirely convinced – and it’s the kind of issue that’s scarcely going to be settled either by science or philosophy. For a start the Cartesian idea of “the ghost in the machine” de-emphasises the importance of the body to personhood. One has the sense (returning to old Platonic Evangelical idea) that the body is merely an encumbrance for the soul, so that pretty much any old body produced by evolution or natural generation would do the same job, and no body would be better still.

I don’t say this will lead to the transgenderist dogma of people being born in “the wrong body,” for the God who would create each soul individually would not err in implanting it into a human body. But there is clearly a “fit” between the conscious self and the body we inhabit for our earthly lifetime (and, remember, the same body which according to biblical doctrine will be resurrected in newness of life for eternity). In fact, speaking for myself, I find it hard to separate this body from me, regardless of the knowledge that bits, and eventually all, of it fall off.

Thomas Nagel (whom Farris cites) in his famous paper on the experience of being a bat shows that the idea of an individual human being transformed into a flying, echo-locating, night-dwelling pipistrelle is less plausible than an F35 pilot being able to cope with finding himself in a concert-hall holding a Stradivarius. Or a bat attempting either, come to that.

To Farris, “I” am my mind, because my body is a mere physical object comprised of parts, whereas my mind is an indivisible unity (with which I agree, by the way). In point of fact, though, one of the wonders of biology is the mysterious unity of the living body. Even Aristotle was able to point to the functional unity of the body as contrasted with human artifacts made out of components. My personal identity is stamped on every cell.

Another problem I have with a directly-created soul implanted in a “naturally” generated body is that it messes with the Christian concept that “We all sinned in Adam.” Surely God would not create, ex nihilo, sinful souls, for it would make the whole of man’s sin-problem a physical, rather than a spiritual, question. Why is my perfect soul lost for what my corrupted body does? No, if “we” were “in Adam” then in some sense our souls, as well as our bodies, derive from his fallen nature.

So for me, some form of hyelomorphic concept of the soul makes more sense than Descartes’s ghostly driver-of-a-machine. If, under this, the soul (which may well be directly created by God, but I don’t see how one would know) is also the origin of the “form” of the body, which despite natural generation, is also created deliberately by God as Psalm 139 describes, then the body-soul is a unity. I don’t doubt that in some way our spirit (anyone care to define “spirit” in relation to “soul”?) can be with the Lord in heaven pending the final resurrection, but I suggest that my soul is designed for my body, and vice versa. My body, that is – not just a body.

Everything I have ever experienced came through my body: the English language in which I think, the experiences which formed my personality, and the choices that also moulded me by changing my bit of the world. Humanity is social by creation edict, and souls, as far as I have experienced, seldom socialise directly, but through bodies.

But this brings me to the thing that, so far, has struck me most from Farris’s book. This is something so blindingly obvious that I have never thought about it in depth, though it is the core of my existence. And that is the central fact about human consciousness – that it is irreducibly me. Since I am not a solipcist, by that I mean that your soul is also irreducibly me (for you) – we learn that about each other as we form our theory of mind in infancy. Each of us is uniquely and absolutely a subject, accessible only to ourselves.

For some reason I’ve never really distinguished that fundamental uniqueness from the “objective” uniqueness of each individual resulting from being a unique biological organism with unique life-experiences. This last is wonderfully true, and is the cause both of all human love, and all human conflict. But I indicated above how all the things I have experienced in the body have formed my personality, no doubt including a large component of my own individual and unique “soul input.” yet through all the changing scenes of life, from inchoate infancy to encroaching senility, those experiences have always been mine, and mine alone.

One of the truths that Farris uses in his arguments against non-soul theories is the extraordinary continuity of this me-ness despite the discontinuities of experience, including sleep, anaesthesia or coma. Even if I suffer traumatic amnesia in an accident, it is still me who wakes up without a memory. Don’t you think that’s extraordinary, and rather wonderful?

A few other thought experiments. Imagine it were possible to replace all my memories and education, transport me to a sophisticated sociology unit in Seattle and persuade me that I was actually Peter Smith, a third generation Swedish immigrant married to a Hutu woman I met in Uganda. It would still be me experiencing that fake life – in fact “I” would be the only reality in it.

Or imagine (which may entail imagining it’s possible to duplicate souls!) that some Star Trek transporter machine malfunctioned and generated two of me. Identical in every way – except that I would still only be one of them, even if we shared memories and got into one of those “which is the real one” plotlines.

The same is true for the many-worlds version of quantum theory. However many of “me” may be splitting off into new universes each second, the intractable fact remains that I am only this me.

Of course the truth is that one has to generate such thought experiments from the world of sci-fi, since it’s hard to consider that, short of annihilation, any of us will ever be other than unique in our experience of the world, of each other, and of God. That is both a huge personal privilege, and the basis of a universe of relationships. As Os Guinness starts the first chapter of his book Doubt:

Sometimes I almost feel on fire with the immensity of this: each of us is a person, alive, growing and relating. From the moment we wake to the moment we fall asleep we think, we feel, we choose, we speak, we act, not as isolated individuals but as persons among people.

Astonishing what we take for granted, isn’t it?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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1 Response to The sole soul

  1. Ben says:

    On the unity of the soul, I found the film “Inside Out” interesting with respect to the Trinity. Three in one for God, 4 or 5 in one for humans 🙂

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