Tuesday, May 7, 2013
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”