Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Journal of a Soul 56

Body and Soul

A walk in Marley Park, Dublin, April 2014
"Body" and "Soul" are categories with which we are all too familiar.  Certainly, within the Roman Catholic dispensation. Building on Greek philosophy (most especially the work of Plato and Aristotle), the early Christians and the somewhat later Church Fathers promulgated a strong philosophy and theology, or if you like a philosophical theology*, that differentiated very strongly between the two categories. The soul, which is by nature good, inhabits the body, which according to St Paul, whom some scholars see as being as much the founder of the church as Jesus himself, is "the Temple of the Holy Spirit."  Building on the theology of St Paul, St. Augustine would adjudge the body as being simply the root of all evil.  And so over centuries there emerged a philosophy and theology that demonized the body and sanctified the soul.  

This rather radical disjunction of body and soul was accepted right down through the ages and is still central to both orthodox and unorthodox Christian belief, indeed to mainline theist belief.  The body dies and the soul lives on in another spiritual world, another realm. Now, needless to say, I am not arguing strongly on one side or another here.  I am merely stating the facts as they are, facts which hopefully I will build my reflections on somewhat later in this post, and perhaps in further posts.  My preferred method of reflection in things spiritual is always phenomenological, never reductionist or positivist, as anyone who has been a reader of my posts will know.  It's just that I like to get the basic facts straight first before proceeding. 

When René Descartes came along in the early seventeenth century, his "cogito ergo sum," a philosophical position worked out painstakingly through the crucible of intellectual doubt, argued that the mind (the mental) was radically different to the material (the body) and that they somehow interacted through the strange workings of the Pineal gland.**  Now, needless to say, this is a philosophical position compatible with most theologies that claim that immortal souls occupy an independent "realm" of existence distinct from that of the physical world.

That is a very brief outline of the historical background.  Whatever we human beings are in our full humanity we are certainly both mental (spiritual) and material (body).  Modern thinking would argue for a holistic approach where both mental and bodily aspects of who we are are inextricably linked.  While they can be differentiated to enable reflection on the mystery that is the human being in his/her totality, they simply cannot be radically separated as in either mainline Christian theology or in radical Cartesian dualism.

More Questions than Answers: Mind, Soul and Self

I like to describe myself as a spiritual person with a deep interest in Christ and the Buddha, who believes that there is a spiritual aspect to the life of the planet and to all sentient life, and most especially to human life. Indeed, phenomenologically I experience life as miraculous in the sense in which the transcendentalist/realist poet Walt Whitman put it in his eponymous long poem:
To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same;
Every spear of grass–the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women, and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.

Marley Park, April, 2014
In other words, what I am arguing for here is the sheer mystery or wonder or magic with which the experience of living presents the conscious mind.  To offer simplistic, and especially reductive, answers to the meaning of life is to my mind the height or depth of arrogance and hubris. While no easy answers exist to the following questions in a clear rational sense, nonetheless these questions are valid for every thinking and feeling human being.  Let me pose the questions here - questions that are existential in tenor, questions which invite the listener to listen, reflect, ponder, wonder, expand his/her thought, stretch or flex their cognitive powers or simply invite the questioner to listen in silence and meditate on the experience.

  • Is the Mind the same as the Soul?
  • Is the Mind the same as the Self?
  • Is the Self the Soul?
  • What is the Mind?
  • What is the Self?
  • What is the Soul?
  • Where does Personality fit into all of this?
  • Is the Self the same as our Identity?
  • Who or what defines Who we are?
  • Is Identity a psychological phenomenon solely?
  • Is Identity a sociological phenomenon solely?
  • Is Identity a psychosocial phenomenon more correctly, then?
  • Has Identity got a Spiritual dimension?
  • Has Identity got a Religious dimension?
  • What is the difference between Religion and Spirituality?
  • Have the Natural Sciences anything to say about our Identity or about any of the above questions?
  • What is the difference between the Natural Sciences and the Human Sciences?
  • Where does the Truth lie? In the Natural Sciences or in the Human Sciences?
  • Or more correctly, does it not lie in dialogue between both areas of exploration?
  • Is Truth singular, i.e., "The One Truth" (Ultimate and Objective)?
  • Is the Truth plural, i.e., "The many truths of knowledge" (Relative and often Subjective)?
  • Can/does the Soul live on after Death?
  • Can/does the Mind live on after Death?
  • Can/does the Self live on after Death?
  • Why are these questions so important for humankind?
  • There are billions of people who believe that these questions are important.  Why?
  • Does an animal have a Mind?
  • If the Mind = the Soul, then could not an animal be said to have a Soul?
  • Why couldn't an animal live on after death so?
  • Do animals have a Personality or a Self or an Identity?
  • Is a self-conscious Self a Soul?
  • Is a non-self-conscious Self, i.e., an animal a Soul?
Obviously, if we wish to explore the above questions systematically we will have to do some pains-taking work of research into the origins of each term, their historical usages from culture to culture and then go on to offer a descriptive definition of each.  Once that's done we should then have to discuss and debate each question in a systematic way. Obviously, one could never tackle all such questions in one post, one chapter or even one book.  However, what I am about in this post is to give the reader a flavour of the breadth, depth and height of the questions posed by any worthwhile philosophical anthropology.

Analytical or positivist philosophers like A.J. Ayer would say that these questions are practically all invalid as they ask questions about things that are mere hypotheses and absolutely strange ones at that.  They are in no way verifiable or falsifiable and hence completely meaningless and therefore redundant questions. Those questions, he argues, simply make no sense at all as they refer to the mere idle speculation of of less rigorous philosophers.  Bertrand Russell says somewhere that to ask such metaphysical questions as I have done above is as ludicrous as asking is there a tea-pot orbiting the sun or any sun out there in space?***

Flowers, Marley Park, April, 2014
Of course, we are perfectly well within our rights to counter Russell, and indeed Ayer who was one of his early students and followers, by stating that in an existential and in a phenomenological sense human beings find that they actually do ask these questions. Indeed, I would argue that there is something within us driving us to ask these questions. In a sense, I believe that our two analytical philosophers are in fact being somewhat disingenuous because they are treating human beings as mere cognitive entities, or as entities that can only ask certain linguistically logical questions, that somehow human beings are not allowed to engage in a meta-linguistics or in a meta-meta-linguistics and further even in a metaphysics. Why not?  In this regard, I have always been inspired by that great metaphysical question asked by Heidegger, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" ****

The Scottish empiricist David Hume was an early atheist who not alone denied the existence of the soul but also of the very notion of a self, an entity that he defined as a mere "bundle of perceptions."  This is alright in theory or in logically worked out clinical thought, but humanity is more than logic or rationality.  Humanity also entails feelings, affectivity, moral and ethical impulses, and indeed much that is non-rational, even irrational.  One might counter Hume and his followers phenomenologically with a statement such as the following: "No client attends a psychotherapist, analyst or counsellor and says 'I am suffering from a bundle of perceptions crisis.'  S/he implicitly, if not  at times explicitly, believes that someone called the Self actually exists."  In other words both client and counsellor know that the self as a phenomenon exists because of their experience.  In all of this, I sometimes take heart that the great Victorian theologian and philosopher John Henry Cardinal Newman***** wrote somewhere that the human being "knows more than he is aware of," and that while he never used the term "the unconscious," he certainly would have been most aware of intuition, feelings and so on, much of which was not accessible to clinical reasoning, though it could always be reflected upon and thought about "after the fact."  Newman saw spirituality and the world of religious experience as being very much part of our overall human experience, though once again only amenable to reason "a posteriori." 

Indeed, if we were to take the Analytical and Positivist philosophers literally we would simply have no literature at all, and indeed I believe there would be no place in such a literal world for Arts of any kind.

Marlay House, once owned by David La Touche, M.P. and first governor of Bank of Ireland
The human being is way more complex than some scholars might allow.  That's why we need a philosophy like that of Socrates, a philosophy that always asks the hard and searching questions, that always asks "why" of everything and keeps asking even at seemingly inappropriate times.

I have spoken before that what is important for our study of the nature of humanity is a philosophical anthropology that looks at that nature from as wide a perspective as possible, that seeks the truth from every possible area of knowledge and does not arrogantly arrogate all truth to its own narrow province like the logical positivists and analytical philosophers do.  Phenomenologically and sociologically, Religion even has something to say about human nature. Perennial philosophy as well as all the other approaches in philosophy, and all the various theologies have much to contribute, too.  The Natural Sciences must always be tempered and balanced by the Human Sciences so as to do justice to "the phenomenon of man," in all  his/her complexity, that is the complete and essential nature of the human person.

In this sense, dear reader, what our anthropology must explore is the "more" that is in humanity rather than the "less."  The easy way out of deep thinking and reflection is often the lazy way of seeking to reduce humankind to the least it can be.  


*Now the very early Christians would have had very little learned theology.  After all, theology emerged as a reflection on their lived faith experience over the ensuing centuries after Jesus' death and resurrection.  The great Greek and Roman Fathers of the Church and the early Church Councils like Nicea and Chalcedon all co-operated to promulgate various learned theologies (note the plural here, in later centuries a rather solidified central core of orthodoxy emerged, and some even subscribed to one theology or way of looking at things spiritual and religious) built upon the foundations of Greek philosophy mainly.  I have mentioned "philosophical theology" in my text above as it is an area where the two overlap rather foundationally, and obviously I am using this twentieth century term rather anachronistically here.

** "Substance dualism is a type of dualism most famously defended by René Descartes, which states that there are two fundamental kinds of substance: mental and material. According to his philosophy, which is specifically called Cartesian dualism, the mental does not have extension in space, and the material cannot think.  Substance dualism is important historically for having given rise to much thought regarding the famous mind–body problem. Substance dualism is a philosophical position compatible with most theologies which claim that immortal souls occupy an independent "realm" of existence distinct from that of the physical world." See article on Dualism in the WIKI here.

 ***The WIKI describes Bertrand Russell's argumentation on this matter thus: "Russell's teapot, sometimes called the celestial teapot, is an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) to illustrate that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making scientifically unfalsifiable claims rather than shifting the burden of proof to others, specifically in the case of religion. Russell wrote that if he claims that a teapot orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, it is nonsensical for him to expect others to believe him on the grounds that they cannot prove him wrong. Russell's teapot is still referred to in discussions concerning the existence of God" See here.

**** I have discussed Heidegger's famous question in many posts in various blogs I have written over the years.  Here is a review I wrote of a book with this very title by Leslek Kołakowski: here.

*****The great Victorian scholar, theologian and philosopher John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1090) was perhaps one of the greatest prose stylist of his era.  Much of his prose writings appeared on various curricula in English literature around the world for decades because of its sheer precision and essential beauty.  He was an original thinker, steeped in ancient history, the classical languages of Greek and Latin, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, Church history and contemporary issues in science and philosophy and much else besides.  Indeed, he had one of the subtlest of minds of his time, well able to dialogue with, as well as argue with the Darwinians of his day.  He was also a founder of a University, named the Catholic University of Ireland, which preceded UCD and wrote a classic on the philosophy of education called The Idea of a University.  His most erudite book and the subtlest of his philosophical/theological works is undoubtedly his Grammar of Assent which shows a most amazing insight into not alone why it is reasonable for humans to believe in God, but also shows a profound understanding as to how a human believes at all.  In short, after Rev Professor Jan Walgrave, O.P., I have argued in a paper I wrote some twenty years ago that Newman's approach to belief was one of "phenomenological investigation."  In other words, Newman was very much ahead of his time in describing the complexity of the phenomenon of humanity.  However, Newman's majestic Oxford University Sermons, written in his late thirties to early forties before his conversion to Catholicism, remains my favourite book from the great Victorian scholar for its beauty and simplicity of language and most essentially for its sheer authenticity.

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