A mistake followers of Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas would not make is to gather round a man about to die, a man who is lying on a sophisticated scale, calibrated to measure weight to the fraction of a fraction of an ounce, and make note of the precise weight while the man still breathes, and then jot it down again after the man has gone off to his reward.
The reason for this elaborate experiment, which has been tried, is to measure the weight of the human soul. Before and after, you see.
If either Mr A were resurrected today and witnessed this experiment, or another of many similar designed to catch the moment the soul “escapes” its mortal frame, their reaction would be, in modern parlance, face palms. “Can’t read plain Latin” is what Aquinas would mumble. What Aristotle would say cannot be here recorded, since this is a family blog, but it would not be flattering.
New Atheists appear to have learned their theology, in particular their Christianity, from Hollywood movies. Cinema often shows souls to be wispy material forms; therefore, the New Atheists suspects that is what theologians believe souls are. But since New Atheists are nothing if not scientific, they seek out additional evidence to verify this hypothesis. This evidence usually consists of asking some sad person who just sent a check to a televangelist, “Do you believe souls are material things, like we saw in these movies?” The sad person will say yes, and the New Atheist will rest content, his hypothesis confirmed.
The story is made complete when the New Atheist writes a book in which he sneers and rails at theists’ foolish conception of the soul. Neurology says no soul! The soul is not scientific! He will give a speech to an audience well satisfied with their brilliance and ability to understand the speech, in which he says, “The soul is ectoplasm festishism!” A question will come from the audience, “But sir, what you say is not what theologians believe. The Catholic Church, for example, claims the soul is not material.” The New Atheist will scoff and say, “I will not answer you, you poor pastafarian, because your bible preaches genocide!” Applause, derisive laughter, indexes of self esteem soar. Sigh.
The inability of the New Atheist to focus on what the theologian actually claims about the soul is astonishing. A Dawkins or Dennett will at least try and answer arguments about the existence of God, but he dismisses all arguments about the soul out of hand. “The soul cannot exist, therefore it does not exist” is his only argument, and, boy, does he cherish it.
The soul is not material. It does not have weight. It does not have color. It doesn’t smell or make noise. It cannot be felt. It cannot be seen, but it is not invisible. It cannot be seen because it isn’t a physical substance. Now, if you were a New Atheist and you heard all this, and your only retort was, “Ectoplasm!” we would be right to question your sanity or your intelligence.
Plants have souls. Yes, that’s right: but do calm yourself. I am not going to quote Obi Wan Kenobi. A plant is composed of physical matter, carbon or oxygen and so on, and a form or essence, the shape of a plant and ability to take up water and convert sunlight to fuel. I hope you agree that the material that makes the plant can take other shapes, and not just exist as a plant. Dogs also have souls, i.e. essences or forms characteristic of dogs. This does
not mean that when your favorite fern or dog dies, its soul goes to heaven. It doesn’t go anywhere but out of existence, since like the forms of rocks and tables, the forms of plants and non-human animals are mere abstractions considered by themselves, and have no reality apart from the particular material things they are forms of.
Though there’s lots of interesting things to say about forms, essences, and the like, and Feser devotes much space to these topics, how banal is this definition of a soul? Not much mysterious here; certainly, nothing that is filmable or would cause impassioned opposition.
Humans have souls, too; a “rational soul” which includes “the power to grasp abstract concepts—namely, the forms or essences of things—and to reason on the basis on them, and freely to choose between different possible courses of action on the basis of what the intellect knows.”
Uh oh. There it is. You noticed, didn’t you? Free will. Oh dear, having a rational soul implies free will, or is it having free will implies having a rational soul? But aren’t we made of meat, mere computing machines, just connections of neurons firing at times fully determined by chemical formula? No.
The power of intellect “cannot possibly require a material or bodily organ for its operation.” Why not? Consider triangles: “this or that triangle is a material thing, but the form or essence triangularity is not; snow is material, but the proposition that snow is white cannot be; and so forth. But the immaterial nature of these things entails that the intellect which grasps them must itself be immaterial as well.” And here follows one of my favorite passages, which I quote in full:
Consider first that when we grasp the nature, essence, or form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form, nature, or essence that exists both in the thing and in the intellect. The form of triangularity that exists in our minds when we think about triangles is the same form that exists in actual triangles themselves; the form of “dogness” that exists in our minds when we think about dogs is the same form that exists in actual dogs; and so forth. If this weren’t the case, then we just wouldn’t really be thinking about triangles, dogs, and the like, since to think about these things requires grasping what they are, and what they are is determined by their essence or form. But now suppose that the intellect is a material thing—some part of the brain, or whatever. Then for the form to exist in the intellect is for the form to exist in a certain material thing. But for a form to exist in a material thing is just for that material thing to be the kind of thing the form is a form of; for example, for the form of “dogness” to exist in a certain parcel of matter is just for that parcel of matter to be a dog. And in that case, if your intellect was just the same thing as some part of your brain, it follows that that part of your brain would become a dog whenever you thought about dogs. “But that’s absurd!” you say. Of course it is; that’s the point. Assuming that the intellect is material leads to such absurdity; hence the intellect is not material.
Ain’t that a pretty piece of reasoning? Incidentally, it is not only Feser who makes this argument; it is common in many non-theists philosophers like John Searle. Now, “the soul of a man isn’t a complete substance, that is, a man. It isn’t the soul that thinks when a man uses his intellect; it is the man himself who thinks, just as it is the man himself, and not the soul, who grows taller, [etc.] For this reason, it is not at all surprising that human thought should be closely correlated with certain brain events even if it is not identical to any of them…When the [non-material] intellect determines that a certain course of action is the best one to take and the will follows it, the body proceeds to move in a way that constitutes the action.”
Since the human soul isn’t made of stuff, it is eternal. If you draw a triangle on a piece of paper and burn up that paper, the form of triangle does not dissolve in flames. When a man dies, “the soul itself, partially operating and thus existing as it does apart from the body even when informing it, does not thereby die…That doesn’t mean that a human being continues to exist after death, for a human being is a composite of form and matter, and it is only a part of him—the form or soul—that carries on.”
The soul of a human must therefore be present at conception. Yet when the body returns to dust, the form of the body, i.e. the soul, carries on. (Awaiting resurrection of the body, say Christians.) Given that the soul “functions and thus exists independently of matter, it cannot possibly have been generated by purely material processes. And so a complete explanation of it in evolutionary theory is completely irrelevant.” Sorry, Richard.
Since [the soul] is the form of a rational animal, the matter a rational soul informs must be complex enough to sustain those material operations that it relies on in an indirect way, such as sensation. In principle, evolutionary theory could explain how living things got to such a level of complexity that it was possible for animal to exist which was capable of having a rational soul. But the actual existence of the rational soul itself would have to come from outside the evolutionary process.
No surprise what this outside Agency is, either.
The subtitle of Feser’s book is “A Refutation of the New Atheism.” Refute is a strong word, a “success word” as David Stove called it. It means to show definitively an argument is false, with no hope (as we have) of resurrection. The most prominent New Atheist argument is that theists are simpletons, believing only because they believe, folks with no familiarity with logic or science.
Whatever one’s ultimate appraisal of these arguments, the New Atheists’s pretense that a religious view of the world can only ever be the result of wishful thinking rather than objective rational argumentation is thereby exposed as a falsehood, the product, if not of willful deception, at least of inexcusable ignorance of the views of the most significant religious thinkers…[E]ven if, per impossible, their atheism turned out to be correct, they would not have arrived at it by rational means, shamelessly caricaturing as they do the best arguments for the other side, when they are not ignoring them altogether.
Now your task, dear reader, is if you are unhappy with the conclusion of Feser’s main argument is to find some small flaw in my explication of it, or to focus on some aside I made (like the last quotation), and act as if the mistake or detour is the main argument. I bet nobody will notice you failed to attend to the main point.
Next time: natural law.
Update There is some confused talk about “vegetative states” and the soul. Feser anticipated these counter-claims:
[The soul] “leaves” only when the organism dies; and that means death, not severe brain damage, and not a person’s lapsing into a “persistence vegetative state.” Though a person might not be capable of exercising his rationality, it is there nonetheless in potentiality, since the soul—the form, nature, or essence of the living organism—is still there, and rationality is part of this form, nature, or essence. As Plato and Aristotle agree, for something to fail to instantiate a form or essence perfectly does not mean that it fails to instantiate it at all.
Reminder We are all ladies and gentlemen here.