You’ve probably come across this quote before:
You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.
I am glad to discover that the source of this quote is not, as is commonly claimed, C. S. Lewis, but rather his literary hero, George MacDonald. I am glad to know that Lewis would not make such a mistake, but surprised that MacDonald would. This post at First Things has more. In response to the reduction of materialism, and given the unconscious, dominant Cartesianism of our society, the quote strikes many Christian ears as right and as a fitting statement of the Christian position, over against materialism. In fact, though, the quote is wrong, and does not accurately convey the classical Christian teaching. A more accurate statement would be: You do not have a soul or have a body, you are a soul and a body. A soul is, by definition, the form of the body. You cannot have one without the other. To separate them is incoherent.
To the materialist claim that the soul is some sort of ghostly woo, unsupported by any empirical evidence, then, the proper response is: the evidence is right before your eyes. The evidence for the soul is just as present as the evidence for the body, which no one denies. The argument that the soul exists is not an argument that there is something over and above the body, or some ethereal thing in addition to the body, for which evidence must be produced. The evidence for the existence of the soul arises from rightly considering the evidence of the body.
Which leads us to our second point, also discussed further in a post at First Things. As a Christmas gift, I received a copy of Charles Krauthammer’s recent book of collected columns, Things That Matter, and though I do not agree with all he writes, he is a superb columnist with a great talent for addressing topics thoughtfully and distilling his thoughts concisely with great clarity and force. Nevertheless, in his essay on stem cells contained in that book, he makes a fundamental mistake right out of the gate, declaring that the question of the personhood of the unborn child, or what he calls “ensoulment”, is a “metaphysical” question, a “question of faith”, and such questions are beyond secular consensus. He repeats these claims in a recent National Review column that is discussed at the First Things link.
There are two problems with this. The first is this: it is impossible to stake a neutral claim on this question; or, at least, the supposedly “neutral” postion in this case clearly favors one judgment over the other. We simply cannot avoid taking some metaphysical position on this question. If we say that since we are not sure whether the unborn is a person, we will not restrict the taking of the unborn’s life, we simply to choose to treat it as if it is not a person. It is not a neutral position; it is, practically, a metaphysical decision against personhood.
But the error in fact lies deeper than this. Dr. Krauthammer’s concerns about “ensoulment” are irrelevant. Let us set aside all theological concerns; let us simply stick to the biology. To identify a human being we need do no more than identify a living human body, and the unborn child is just a living human body. On this question it is the Catholic pro-life position that is one of hard-nosed materialism. The soul is the form of the body; find the living body, there is the soul. Reason needs no more than this. It is the other side, with its hand-wringing over defining the beginning of some vague notion of ghost-in-the-machine “personhood”, that invokes the mystical, unscientific woo.
Some follow-up on Stephen Hawking’s black hole comments: New Scientist presents a basic overview of the questions involved; and, from what I can tell, this view seems to be the most sensible.
Suppose you asked, about a mass shooting, “How could this happen?” In response, someone offers you a straightforward, scientific, factual forensic report on the various angles and types of weapons used. Although it does, strictly speaking, answer your question, it isn’t quite the answer you were looking for. Philosophy and theology offer answers to the problem of evil, but as skeptics like to note, they’re never quite satisfactory. That is, while they do offer logical and reasonable answers, they don’t really get to the point. Evil and suffering is not a logic problem. Though a logical answer is necessary and a helpful part of understanding the problem, just as a physical answer is a part of understanding something like a mass shooting, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. But the heart of the matter is not a question of science, or logic, or reason. Thus I recommend this excellent essay from Martin Cothran, “How Literature Solves the Problem of Evil”:
The problem of evil is, to steal a phrase from The Hobbit, a “riddle in the dark.” And philosophers do not do well in the dark. They fly by day. When darkness comes, pure intelligence is of little avail. Darkness requires wisdom, and wisdom is of the poets. I don’t think Hegel meant it this way, but it is perhaps why the Owl of Minerva, the symbol of wisdom, flies only at dusk.
When people look for a solution to the problem of evil in its rational or logical form, they are looking for a resolution to a technical problem. But this question—the rational question of evil—is not the real problem of evil. At least it is not the question with which people who experience suffering actually struggle. In fact, the vast majority of those who actually struggle with evil couldn’t even tell you what the logical question was. And even if they were aware of the problem—and even if they knew the answer to it—they would not be satisfied.
How would the answer to a logical question assuage their grief? Their grief is not a logical problem. The logical dilemma of evil would not be satisfying to anyone but a logician—and it would only satisfy him as a logician; it would not satisfy him as a human being.
Images: Washington Post; Paolo Veronsese, “Christ in the Garden of Gethsamane”, 1584.