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Duel over Dualism

by Stewart Goetz, Ursinus College Collegeville, Pennsylvania
and Charles Taliaferro, St. Olaf College Northfield, Minnesota

quoted from First Things (May 2005).

Dualists hold that the human person consists of both a soul (or mind) and a body. For healthy, fully-functioning human beings, the person is a unified subject, but at times such as physical death, dualists hold that persons (souls or minds) can survive the destruction of their bodies.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God—it is not ‘produced’ by the parents—and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.” In his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, Pope John Paul II said, “It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such a dignity even in his body. Pius XII stressed this essential point: if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God.”

St. Thomas Aquinas is sometimes described as opposing dualism. Indeed, as a follower of Aristotle he at times is readily thought of as claiming that the soul is the mere form of the body. But for St. Thomas the soul is no mere form as in shape; it is a subsistent being, requiring a special creation by God and capable of existing independently of the human animal body. In Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas writes: “Now, it pertains to the human soul distinctively, in contrast to other forms, to be subsisting in its being....But since the human soul does not have matter as part of itself, it cannot be made from something as from matter. It therefore remains that the soul is made from nothing. And thus, it...is created immediately by God alone.”

Regrettably, the term “dualism” today has become encrusted with assumptions that denigrate the body, such as the view that the body is a mere tool or instrument or, worse, that the body is some kind of prison that has entrapped our souls. Of course, there can be times of severe damage when the mind-body relationship is fractured, as with prosopagnosia (when a person can lose the ability to recognize other humans by their faces despite having good eye sight) or when physical damage causes one to experience “phantom limbs.” But dualists today (who include many scientists and philosophers) recognize the radical interdependence of mind and body.

In “Dualistic Delusions” (February), Patrick Lee and Robert P. George rightly note that the denial of dualism, materialism, is not established by the fact that physical damage causes psychological damage. In fact, the practice of the medical sciences seems to assume the causal interaction between the physical and the mental. If one were to restrict the study of persons to the language of neurology, one would not be able to study the experience of persons.

Why then do Professors Lee and George reject dualism? They seem to believe that dualism is linked to a range of highly questionable moral positions, including sexual liberalism, same-sex marriage, and abortion on demand. We do not see any evident link here. Because dualists today (and most historically) have insisted upon the profound inter- connection between mind and body in this life, they are no more likely to promote sexual liberalism or same-sex marriage than a materialist or Aristotelian. With abortion, the connection between dualism and what is immoral may seem more likely, on the grounds that (absent a developed brain and nervous system) it is highly unlikely that at conception or within the first week the fetus has any consciousness or feeling.

But dualism is not committed to the idea that the soul (person or mind) only exists when it is conscious. The Roman Catholic philosopher René Descartes held that view in the seventeenth century, but it is not representative of all dualists either then or today. Dualists are certainly not committed to holding that if you ever undergo a completely non-conscious state during sleep that you cease to be and then come back into existence when you wake up. Incidentally, many of the religious and philosophical opponents to slavery in the modern era were committed dualists, arguing that Africans, Native Americans, and others were (like Europeans) united souls and bodies. Their opposition to slavery is borne out in Richard Popkin’s studies of eighteenth-century racism.

Profs. Lee and George claim that belief in dualism is a delusion that is at odds with Catholic faith. We believe it is central to Catholic faith and practice and that, across the board in terms of the Eastern Orthodox and Protestants, dualism is central and not just the teaching of a select few thinkers such as St. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and so on.

Three ways in which dualism may be seen as a central component of Catholic teaching concern birth, death, and the incarnation. We have already noted the role of dualism in thinking about birth and death, though we add briefly that if human persons are literally the very same things as their animal bodies (as Profs. Lee and George contend), then the annihilation of their bodies must count as an annihilation of them. The whole idea of praying to a saint whose body you are venerating would make no sense if the saint is the animal body and not also a soul that is capable of existing independently of the body. The incarnation also becomes problematic given Profs. Lee and George’s anthropology. If Jesus Christ is (literally) the very same thing as the animal body born to Mary, then he did not pre-exist that animal body. It is because most Christians believe in the soul that they believe that the incarnation was literally an incarnation, the taking on of flesh and blood by the one who existed before the moment of incarnation and who dwelt in the world as the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth.

We have argued elsewhere for a positive philosophical case for dualism. Here we are principally interested in engaging Profs. Lee and George’s provocative, important article, challenging them and our readers to reconsider the orthodoxy of dualism.

Stewart Goetz, Ursinus College Collegeville, Pennsylvania
Charles Taliaferro, St. Olaf College Northfield, Minnesota

Patrick Lee and Robert P. George reply:

We are grateful to our friends Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro for their challenge to our critique of body-self dualism. They believe that a form of dualism is philosophically defensible and, indeed, that it is taught by the Catholic Church and was embraced by St. Thomas Aquinas. We disagree.

The Council of Vienne (1311-1312) solemnly defined the proposition that the human soul, is “per se and essentially the form of the body.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church unambiguously reaffirms this teaching: “spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” What is per se and essentially a form is necessarily distinct from the whole. Thus, the Church teaches that the body is an essential part of the person, not a distinct being with which the person or the self interacts.

St. Thomas Aquinas held—as we do—that the human soul subsists (has its existence of itself and not through the existence of the whole human being) and could not have emerged from matter and material forces but must be directly created by God. But he also vigorously defended the propositions that the human soul is incomplete in its nature and that the human person is not the soul but is rather the composite of body and soul. Commenting on St. Paul’s assertion that if there is no resurrection then our faith is in vain, St. Thomas wrote that this is because I am not saved unless my body is saved. Why? St. Thomas squarely faced the question and could not have been clearer in answering it: Because “my soul is not I.”

Regarding abortion, our claim was not that body-self dualism entails acceptance of abortion, but that it facilitates it and is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) premise in many pro-abortion arguments. By contrast, we argue that since a human person is a physical organism, then he or she comes to be when that organism comes to be—namely, at conception.

This point, however, was not (pace Goetz and Taliaferro), our reason for rejecting body-self dualism. We proposed an argument against that position from the fact that sensation is a bodily act, and that it must be the same agent, the same “I,” that senses and is self-conscious or engages in conceptual thought.

Profs. Goetz and Taliaferro claim that their type of dualism does not lead to viewing the body as a mere extrinsic tool and so does not imply sexual liberalism. Here and in other writings they stress that soul and body belong together in a harmonious relationship, and Taliaferro has described his position as an “integrative dualism.”

We believe such steps are in the right direction, but we also think that to set out an intelligible account of the harmony between body and soul one must, in the end, recognize them as co-principles of a single substance, the rational animal. If the body is distinct from the self, then it is difficult to conceive how the soul and the body could be harmoniously related in a way that is truly perfective of the soul. By contrast, if one concedes that the human soul naturally needs the body (shown by how we understand and will), then one also should grant that the soul is internally oriented to naturally cooperating with bodily organs, and that the soul is in its nature incomplete—that is, naturally only a part of the whole human being.

We are happy that Profs. Goetz and Taliaferro agree with us on issues in sexual ethics, but to give an intelligible account of sound sexual ethics, one must start with the truth that in the marital act husband and wife are truly united as one flesh. Yet, if the body is an entity separate from the self, it is difficult to see how sexual union could be so significant that it should take place only as part of the comprehensive union of persons in a marriage.

With respect to intercessory prayer to the saints, we must begin by clearing away a misunderstanding. We do not identify the person (St. Peter or anyone else) with only the animal body, any more than with the soul alone. Our position is precisely the position of the Church and of St. Thomas Aquinas: The person is the composite of soul and body. Is this position incompatible with belief in intercessory prayers to saints? St. Thomas sees no incompatibility, nor do we. Despite his emphatic rejection of body-self dualism, he plainly teaches that the souls of the saints, though incomplete pending the resurrection of the body, can hear our prayers and add their prayers to ours. The teaching of the Church is that the souls of the saints possess the powers of intellect and will, and it can be inferred that they are supplied with knowledge of particulars by having infused knowledge from God. Beyond that, the matter is shrouded in mystery for us humans. Envisaging the circumstances of the afterlife goes beyond what our natural cognitive abilities are proportioned to, namely, material things—we are able to understand something about purely spiritual things (whether through reason or through revelation) only through negation and analogy.

Concerning the Incarnation, Profs. Goetz and Taliaferro say, “If Jesus Christ is (literally) the very same thing as the animal body born to Mary, then he did not pre-exist that animal body.” But it seems to us that our friends have fallen into confusion on this point. The faith of the Church is that Jesus Christ is one divine person who exists for eternity, with a divine nature and a human nature (Council of Chalcedon). So Jesus Christ did pre-exist being conceived in Mary’s womb, for the divine person (and the divine nature, which is to say, the divine nature as communicated from the Father to the Son) pre-exists the Incarnation. It also is true, however, that with the Incarnation, the human nature of Christ—body and soul—comes to be as personally united (thus a hypostatic union) to the eternal Word. So, Jesus Christ is the living human animal body born to Mary, because he is both God and man. He was not man before the Incarnation, but he existed eternally as a divine person with the divine nature.

Their further assertion, “It is because most Christians believe in the soul that they believe that the Incarnation was literally an incarnation,” is, we think, highly misleading. It is de fide (of faith) that the Word became flesh, that he assumed a human body, not just an appearance of one (contrary to Docetism). But the Incarnation is not just the assumption of the body (which is the Appollinarian heresy). Rather, the Incarnation is the assumption of a whole human nature, both body and soul. Thus, the Church’s teaching on the Incarnation presupposes that Christ’s human nature includes both a soul and a body, which is true of our human nature as well.

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