Mirror of Justice

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"I am not this body."

The other day, the New York Times featured a really interesting piece -- one that is also strikingly written -- by Brian Jay Stanley, called "I am Not This Body."  An early paragraph goes like this:

I do not identify with my body. Ihave a body but I am a mind. My body and I have an intimate but awkward relationship, like foreign roommates who share a bedroom but not a language. As the thinker of the pair, I contemplate my body with curiosity, as a scientist might observe a primitive species. My mind is a solitary wanderer in this universe of bodies.

I'm not an expert, and these are really heavy questions, but I think the Catholic proposal is that we think about this differently.  It seems to me that it is essential -- "literally" essential -- that we human persons are embodied.  (We are, as Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, "dependent" and "rational" animals -- at least part of this "dependence" stems precisely from the fact that we are embodied.)

To be embodied is not to be just a body, of course -- but it is probably just as important to reject any kind of "ghost in the machine" dualism, which imagines the "real" person as a soul or spirit who simply lives in or employs as an object a body.  I would not be me without (sigh) this body (though I wouldn't mind a more fit version of it). 

At the end of the piece, the author seems to have moved from the insistence, that "I have a body, but I am a mind," to what struck me as a resigned reductionism, to the naturalistic (I think) error of claiming that particles and force are all there really is: 

I recall the sense of eeriness I felt several years ago when learning computer science, the eeriness of discovering the lifeless corridors of binary digits and microprocessors beneath the monitor’s meaningful display. The facade of humanized banners, buttons and icons on our screens masks an unstaffed control center of electrical switches, clicking on and off, their changing patterns of charges translating miraculously but mindlessly into the streaming wonders of words and colors we perceive.

So, too, pry behind the rich graphics flashing across the screen of being—the self-organizing of galaxies, the coordination of ecosystems, and the complexity of biological life—and you arrive at the imbecilic machinery of it all, electrons flowing through the circuit boards of the stars, motors whirring on the hard drives of our bodies. Beneath the intelligible there is only the unintelligent, a blank stare behind beautiful eyes, muteness behind the music.

I'm confident that there's more behind the music but . . . this is worth a read.

UPDATE:  I was informed by a friend and MOJ reader that the theme for this year's Fall Conference, sponsored by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, is "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made:  The Body and Human Identity."  The Call for Papers, and more on the conference, is here.  And, the site features this really nice quote, by Gil Meilaender (who has written a lot on these matters):

 [W]e know a person only in his or her embodied presence. In and through that body the person is a living whole. For certain purposes, we may try to “reduce” the embodied person simply to a collection of parts, thinking of the person (from below) simply as the sum total of these parts. But we do not know, interact with, or love others understood in that way; on the contrary, we know them (from above) as a unity that is more than just the sum of their parts.- Gilbert Meilaender, “The Gifts of the Body”

http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2013/05/i-am-not-this-body.html

Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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"I have a body but I am a mind."

Such Cartesian dreams require repeated applications of More's Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer at Brodmann’s Area 32.

Posted by: dfb | May 7, 2013 5:51:13 PM

It has seemed to me for some time now that "everyday Catholicism" is very much out of synch with the notion that our ultimate fate is allegedly, after death, to be physical beings at the time of the resurrection of the body. It is very common to think of ourselves as dying, going (one hopes) to purgatory, there to suffer for a while before arriving in heaven. In heaven, we are, somehow, without bodies, typically imagined to reunite with loved ones. But how will we recognize them and communicate with them? We think of Mother Teresa or John Paul II being in heaven, hearing our prayers, and perhaps somehow arranging for miraculous cures. But as I (no doubt mis)understand it, the concept of a human soul without a body doesn't really make sense. I am vaguely aware that N. T. Wright puts heavy emphasis on continued existence beginning with the resurrection of the body, and has little use for speculation about what happens between death and then. He has written an essay titled "Heaven Is Not Our Home" on the topic (see http://tinyurl.com/493yhe ).

Posted by: David | May 7, 2013 5:54:32 PM

It has seemed to me for some time now that "everyday Catholicism" is very much out of synch with the notion that our ultimate fate is allegedly, after death, to be physical beings at the time of the resurrection of the body. It is very common to think of ourselves as dying, going (one hopes) to purgatory, there to suffer for a while before arriving in heaven. In heaven, we are, somehow, without bodies, typically imagined to reunite with loved ones. But how will we recognize them and communicate with them? We think of Mother Teresa or John Paul II being in heaven, hearing our prayers, and perhaps somehow arranging for miraculous cures. But as I (no doubt mis)understand it, the concept of a human soul without a body doesn't really make sense. I am vaguely aware that N. T. Wright puts heavy emphasis on continued existence beginning with the resurrection of the body, and has little use for speculation about what happens between death and then. He has written an essay titled "Heaven Is Not Our Home."

Posted by: David | May 7, 2013 5:56:28 PM

As to David's comment, there is a common belief that once we die, we get to interact with love ones like some sort of fictional movie. In at least one account in the gospels, Jesus speaks out against this simplistic sentiment. A wife would not interact with a husband (in that case, she had multiple ones, since they kept on dying on her) but would be pure spirit. Not that consistency with what is written in the Bible is the best way to express how people believe.

Posted by: Joe | May 7, 2013 6:19:50 PM

According to Thomistic/Aristotelian philosophy, the soul is the form of the body. Matter and form, while conceptually distinct can't really be understood apart from each other. You can't have form without matter and you can't have matter without form. Aristotle distinguishes between various types of soul, or different characteristics of souls (e.g. vegetative, appetitive, rational, etch). Anything which is living has a soul (psyche). Soul, according to this understanding, is not something that God has poured into the body like gin into tonic water. Rather, if something is living, it has psyche. This is really oversimplifying things but is the basic gist of it.

So, yes, the separation of the soul and the body at death (according to Thomas Aquinas) is very much not the normal state of things and only possible by way of divine intervention. The resurrection of the body put things aright, as it were.

Again, this is a very basic and oversimplified statement of the Aristotelian position, but, yes, classical Catholic philosophy (i.e. Thomism) does not accept that humans are "ghosts in a machine."

Posted by: CLS | May 7, 2013 6:40:00 PM

Humans are matter-soul compounds. We are humans, not (say) the souls of humans. So, we are matter-soul compounds. The thesis that we are minds is false. The thesis that we are souls is false, too, but closer to correct.

But are we necessarily or contingently humans? There's disagreement on this. Anscombe, for example, says that we are necessarily humans at the end of "The First Person." This view entails that we cannot be souls, and so that the souls of the saints in heaven are not the saints themselves. So, on this view, Thomas More is not in heaven right now. His soul is in heaven, and he will be in heaven after the Second Coming, but he is not now in heaven, for he does not now exist.

I'm inclined to think that Thomas More is in heaven, and so that we are only contingently humans. First, we say that we pray to the saints, not just that we pray to the souls of saints. This implies that the saints, not merely their souls, are in heaven. Second, it seems that *I* can go to purgatory to be purified; it's not just that *my soul* can go to purgatory to be purified. After all, didn't I do the sinning that brought about the purgatory time in the first place? But if I can go to purgatory, then either I can go to purgatory as a human (which the Church denies) or I can be a soul.

Apparently Aquinas scholars disagree with one another vehemently over whether or not Aquinas thought the deceased person himself is in heaven, hell, or purgatory. I'm incompetent to comment on this.

Posted by: mike | May 8, 2013 1:14:58 AM

"Everyday Catholicism" is an amorphous term and almost anything can be attributed to it. But basic Catholicism is clear that our condition is incomplete, even if in heaven, before the final judgment and the resurrection of the body. "Everyday Catholicism" affirms the second judgment and the resurrection of the body as much as it affirms the particular judgment and our soul's condition in the meantime, even if most Catholics are not theologians so as to be able explain how these work together.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | May 8, 2013 8:55:57 AM

http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p123a11.htm

Posted by: Nancy | May 8, 2013 10:30:08 AM

DFB -- nice!

Posted by: Rick Garnett | May 8, 2013 11:41:12 AM

Matt Bowman,

Nancy provides us with a helpful link to the Catechism, which says:

**********
997 What is "rising"? In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus' Resurrection.
**********

Here we have a description in the Catechism itself, of the soul leaving the body, meeting God, and then being reunited with the (glorified) body. It seems to me that this implies very strongly that a human being is indeed a "ghost in a machine."

Father Komonchak, in a discussion over on dotCommonweal, quoted Aquinas to the effect that Abraham's soul is not Abraham. But in "everyday Catholicism," it would certainly be said that Mother Teresa is in heaven, not that Mother Teresa's soul is in heaven awaiting the resurrection of the dead whereupon the human being Mother Teresa will again exist.

I remember the first funeral I ever went to, when the father of a high school friend died. My friend's little brother, a boy of about 5, walked up to the casket and quite cheerfully said, "That's not my daddy. My daddy is in heaven now!" Of course, one wouldn't want to argue with a 5-year-old under the circumstances. In fact, perhaps such an understanding is sufficient for the "everyday Catholicism" even of adults. But to the extent that I understand the arguments about soul and body, it is not strictly speaking true to say "daddy" or Mother Teresa or any other human beings (aside from Jesus and Mary) are in heaven. It *is* apparently accurate to say their *souls* are in heaven, but Mother Teresa's soul is not Mother Teresa. And there is still the question of how, if "the soul is the form of the body," a soul can exist separately from the body and do the things that a "ghost" of a human being can do—communicate, intercede, pray, and so on.

I understand you believe that I am attacking the Church, and you are stepping up to defend it, but you are not addressing the point of the thread.

One answer is that God can do anything, but as everyone knows, God cannot make a square circle. The question in my mind is whether separating and reuniting a soul and body is miraculous, like creating a universe from nothing, or whether a disembodied soul is a contradiction in terms.

Posted by: David | May 8, 2013 12:07:04 PM

"It seems to me that this implies very strongly that a human being is indeed a "ghost in a machine.""

That says a lot about you and your interpretive outlook, and almost nothing about Catholicism and this text, which explicitly says the opposite. "Our bodies" in this text does not mean a ghost's machine, any more than "our souls" means a machine's ghost. Five paragraphs before this (what we call "context"), the Catechism insists on the reality of "the whole man, soul and body."

Posted by: Matt Bowman | May 8, 2013 4:19:59 PM