I eventually worked through Joshua Farris’s The Creation of Self, as mentioned recently, and have to say I felt it improved towards the end.
My main hassle with the Cartesian position on the soul he first set out was his insistence that “I” am, comprehensively, my soul, my body not being me and therefore appearing to be an optional extra. At worst that can lead to the idea of “liberating the soul from the body” as the ideal state, contrary to the hopes expressed in Scripture of a new, embodied, creation.
But as he goes on, Farris speaks of the soul being created by God integrally with the formation of our bodies, the latter being entirely necessary to our being able to function as people – and notably, of course, to interact with other people and the world. All that we are (as I tried to say in my previous article) comes through our experience in the body. So his insistence that “I” am just my soul seems to be a difference from my more holistic position without a real distinction.
If, as he states, personhood develops through embodiment, if the soul is diminished in its powers and experience at death, and if it is only fully restored by re-embodiment at the general resurrection promised in Christ, then as far as I’m concerned I’m happy to say I am a soul, in the Old Testament sense of a living, breathing being. In Christ I can survive the loss of my body, just as I could survive quadruple amputation, but only in the hope of my body’s restoration.
So to me, saying a disembodied soul is the person is like saying someone can be a violist without a violin – and I use that example advisedly, because a serious violinist is so bonded to a particular Stradivarius that it becomes an extension of his self, and he or she can speak seriously of the instrument’s “soul.” No disembodied soul can be a violinist.
Anyway, the more surprising and interesting point towards the end of his book is where he finally makes a break from his working assumption that bodies, at least, might arise purely from processes of nature – evolution, procreation and all that, without diminishing the need for souls to be created directly by God. As he speaks more of metaphysics, he actually expresses support for something like Bishop Berkeley’s “theistic idealism,” which for those unfamiliar I dealt with a bit in this post back in 2019.
Though in his day Berkeley’s contention that “material reality” is nothing other than the communication of God’s creative mind to his creatures (who also exist ultimately in him) certainly seemed esoteric, though it does accord with Biblical ideas that creation is what God has spoken (Genesis 1) and that “in him we live, and move, and have our being.”
But it is the advance of science that has cast serious questions of the fundamental nature of the physical realm, by highlighting the disjunction between the quantum and microscopic world from the mundane reality we actually experience daily. Meanwhile the role of mind has become ever more central through a better understanding of information, not to mention the impasse materialism has reached in explaining the subjective self.
So I like Berkeley, and I like Farris’s citation of him, to show how God is every bit as involved in the creation of the body as he must necessarily be in the creation of the soul. This is a form of “occasionalism,” and yet is not at all arbitrary as materialists (and most of us are closet materialists) would claim. It is not that the world seems to operate on material cause and effect, whilst actually God is doing everything “by hand” – it is that the reality that God has created, with all its networks of causes causes, is a manifestion of his infinite mind.
Serous physicists have been toying with the idea that we “live in a simulation.” But this matrix would not be hiding a reality where bodies maintained by nutrient infusions in pods are fed an illusory world in which many of the props are “non-playing characters.” Rather, it is the created universe, in all its manifold glory, in which immaterial souls have their entire, real, being. What reality, after all, could be more substantial than the mind of God himself?
This explains both the orderly reality from which we can negotiate the world, and the increasingly obvious discontinuities in the physical world, which I discussed here, which are no problem to a “top down” understanding of the world, but stumblingblocks to the materialist “bottom up” view we have been conditioned into for so long.
But if we’re Christians, we believe reality comes down from God, don’t we? The alternative is to believe that the Big Bang eventually leads to the creation of God, which I hope you find to be as objectionably nonsensical as I do.