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What's the Difference? Plenty, of Course.

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 24, 2013)
In September 2012, Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, began receiving letters from his niece who had just started college in New England. He wrote back to her on a regular basis throughout the year, helping keep her mind and heart open to belief in God in the midst of a secular university in which those truths were being questioned and challenged every day. With her permission, Dr. Stackpole shares his letters with our readers with the hope that other young people will be helped by them to see the truth more clearly in a confused and clouded world. Here is his fourth letter:

Hi Krystal,

Great to hear that your midterm exams went so well — and of course, I am delighted that your study of French and world literature is really igniting your interest. I hope to see you at Christmas. Maybe you can help me practice my French, too. Sadly, I have forgotten most of it over the past few years.

I was not surprised at all by what you wrote to me in response to my last letter — that you have never really considered the mystery of the human "spirit" before. Of course you haven't, because no one ever taught you about it! How many high school programs these days really bother to introduce young people to the Great Thinkers of Western Civilization: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, and Shakespeare, for example? Our education system is cutting students off from the wisdom of the past, as if these folks had nothing of lasting importance to teach us. They may not have much to teach us about the natural sciences, but they have plenty to teach us about what it means to be fully human!

Sorry. That's just me "grinding an axe" of mine again.

I promised you that when I found a bit of time I would write more about these matters. As you know, I am now convalescing at home after minor surgery, so that gives me plenty of time to kill: time enough, certainly, to carry on our dialogue.

I am heartened that you take such a keen interest in these questions, Krystal, and that you are such a sincere and honest seeker of the truth. I guess you are discovering along the way that you do not have to be a professional philosopher or a brainy intellectual to be able to ask and find some answers to many of life's biggest questions — such as, Can I know anything for sure? Is the universe nothing but atoms and molecules? Is the scientific method the only way to find "objective" truth? What is a human being? Do human beings have souls as well as bodies? You don't need a philosophy degree to tackle these questions — just a clear head and an honest heart.

Going back to my last letter for a moment, according to the philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, a human being is an embodied spirit: a bodily creature with an immaterial soul that has the capacity for rational thought and free choice, and a longing for infinite good.

This makes us unique in the universe, as far as we know, and, in any case, creatures with an extraordinary potential for creativity, wisdom, and love. Moreover, given that the human spirit is immaterial, that is, not composed of parts, it cannot decompose; it is naturally immortal. In all these ways, according to Aquinas, the human spirit is a living reflection of the Infinite, Divine Spirit.

Anyway, it's not a bad thing to consult philosophy about what a human being essentially is — since every one of us is one! In short, reason can show that we are creatures with tremendous personal dignity and an eternal destiny.

It seems to me that this classical, philosophical view of the human person — which is also shared by Christianity and Judaism — helps us avoid the pitfalls of two pernicious errors about human life that have plagued mankind from the beginning of human history.

First, there is the view that the "real person" or "essence" of a human being is something completely spiritual. Thus, for some of the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Plotinus, the human soul was seen as "imprisoned" in the human body, as if temporarily trapped in a tomb. At best, the body was seen as something that the immortal soul can use for a time and then discard at death, kind of like a snake shedding a skin. Plato said that the human soul is present in its body like a sailor is present in his ship: He uses the ship for a time to get where he needs to go and then happily jumps out when he reaches his final destination.

In general, the body — with its passions and lusts — was considered by the Greeks a distraction from life's highest goal: the philosophical contemplation of truth. For some eastern religious traditions, the individual human body, like all passing and transient things, is even seen as unreal, an illusion (didn't you tell me, Krystal, that one of your professors more or less believes this?). We see an echo of this belief in the "Christian Science" movement — the view that all bodily sickness is illusory. The advanced practitioner of Christian Science allegedly has no need of medicines. He or she just needs to use his advanced faith to see through the illusion of illness, and it will no longer plague him!

The philosophers of the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment, such as Leibniz and Kant, believed that human beings have both immortal souls and material bodies, but they could not give a clear and convincing account of the connection between the two. Body and soul seem to have no clear interrelationship, since on their view the presence of the body makes very little difference to the soul, and the soul makes very little difference to the body.

Anyway, if you buy into one of these viewpoints, Krystal, that the human soul is the only thing about us that really exists or that really matters, then it can have a profound effect on how you live your life. For example, you might end up as a drop-out mystic who tries to forget his bodily self as much as possible in order to promote purely spiritual states of contemplation. Or maybe you will end up as an old fashioned Puritan who sees the human body as nothing more than a constant source of temptation (and, therefore, you might completely shun such bodily things as drinking alcohol, dancing, and the creative arts). Or you might end up as an intellectual snob who believes that only the higher, intellectual life is worth living, and that only lower forms of human beings engage in manual work. Or you might end up as the kind of missionary who believes that only "saving souls" is important, and neglects making an effort to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and speak out against social injustice. Or you might end up as the kind of person who believes that only your "spiritual" relationship with the divine is important, and so it does not matter what you do with the rest of your life as long as you keep up your religious practices — a greedy, money-grubbing, materialistic lifestyle is nothing to worry about.

In short, there are many false pathways down which the hyper-spiritual person may wander.

Most people today, however, are far more likely to take the opposite path, the path of believing that human beings have no immaterial "soul" at all. Such people believe that what we traditionally call the "powers "of the soul, such as rational intellect and free choice, are really just physical reactions, chemical and electrical events in our brains. In other words, we are nothing more than "naked apes" (as a popular book from the 1970s put it). After all, isn't that what modern science tells us? We know, for example, that physical disturbances can produce mental disorders, and that some mental disorders can even be cured by medical treatment. Thus, a blow on the head can cause amnesia, or a person can take pills to alleviate depression and schizophrenia. Neurology shows us that something happens in our brains every time we think a thought or feel an emotion or make a choice. So doesn't that prove that everything we used to think of as going on in our "souls" is really just the result of electro-chemical reactions going on in our heads? For people who think this way, Krystal, human beings are "nothing but" animals equipped by evolution with more advanced cranial computers.

Nothing Buttery, however, simply doesn't work. Just to drive the point home, I'll expand upon the philosophical arguments and scientific evidence for the human spirit that I offered last time.

First of all, abstract rational thought cannot be completely reducible to physical states of the brain. While any computer can process numerical equations, abstract thought involves using and comprehending universal concepts such as "truth," "goodness," "beauty" — even "nature" and "human being." There simply cannot be a one-to-one correspondence between abstract concepts and brain states. For example, physicist Rodney Holder asks us to consider the many physical forms that "money" can take, from paper bills of all colors and sizes, to silver coins, Spanish dubloons and digits on a stock trader's chart. And yet this variety of visual stimuli on the eyes, producing very different physiological effects on the brain, is somehow all interpreted as the same abstract, universal concept: "money."

Second, ask yourself this question, Krystal: How much do abstract thoughts and universal concepts weigh? How long are they? How tall are they? In the same vein, what is a free choice made out of? Can you package it and sell it in a drugstore? And is conscious self-awareness a solid, liquid, or a gas — or maybe a certain high voltage electrical current? In other words, isn't it intuitively obvious that acts of abstract rational thought, free choice, and self-conscious awareness are not reducible to physical states that can be measured and quantified?

Third, if all our thoughts are just the result of electro-chemical reactions going on in our brains, and nothing more, what reason would we have to trust them? Many philosophers have argued that there is an inherent self-contradiction in this strictly "materialist" view of the human mind. Why should I trust my own thoughts at all if they are merely the product of the random assortment of chemicals and electrical currents flowing through my brain cells on any given day? If what I believe today is solely the product of how I was brought up, the health of my nervous system, and what I had for breakfast this morning, why should anyone, including me, take any of my beliefs seriously? But notice carefully where this takes us, Krystal: for if my mental processes are solely determined by the chance collision of atoms in my brain, and I have no reason to trust them, then I also have no reason for supposing that my mind is composed of nothing but the chance collision of atoms in my brain. In short, if human rational thought is "nothing but" the random interaction of atoms and molecules, then I have no reason to trust in human rational thought, which means I have no reason to trust any arguments on offer that the human mind is "nothing but" atoms and molecules. In this case, Nothing Buttery saws off the branch it is sitting on!

Fourth, if I do not have an immaterial soul or spirit that can make free choices — that is, if my will, my choosing-power, is wholly determined by physical causes — then I am really nothing but a robot, completely "pre-programmed" by my genes and my environment to think whatever I think and do whatever I do. How then can I be held to be responsible for my actions? How can I be asked and expected to live up to some code of moral behavior? Moral codes tell us how we "ought" to behave, but that implies that we "can" behave in accordance with moral principles if we so choose. But if we have no real free choice, then what becomes of the idea of "ought," and personal moral "responsibility"? Rodney Holder sums up the matter like this:

If we are nothing but atoms and molecules organized in a particular way through chance processes of evolution, then love, beauty, good and evil, free will, reason itself — indeed, all that makes us human and raises us above the rest of the created order — lose their meaning. Why should I love my neighbor, or go out of my way to help him? Rather, why should I not get everything I can for myself, trampling upon whoever gets in my way? ... The best we can do would be to come to some kind of agreement in our mutual interest ... to live in peace, but if it suits us we shall be free to break any such agreement. Our behavior could degenerate to what we see in the animal world — after all, we are just animals anyway.

So, Krystal, if you hold the Reductionist view of what a human being is, it can have a dramatic effect on how you live your life. For example, you might end up as a sensualist or hedonist — that is, as someone who lives primarily for bodily comfort and pleasure. Many gluttons, lechers, and drunkards fall into this category, as well as the multitudes trapped in the "consumer" culture in which we live (have you noticed that the center of most cities today is no longer the cathedral, or even the town hall, but the shopping mall?). Or you might end up convincing yourself that human life is driven primarily by economic forces. "All history is the history of class struggle," the Marxists claimed, and therefore they devoted themselves to the revolutionary struggle of the working class, and to the dictatorship of the workers' party, the Communist party. Or you might hold that human beings are, indeed, primarily economic animals, but that economics is really about "survival of the fittest": so the realistic thing to do is to get rich any way you can, no matter who you have to cheat or exploit to do so. Or you might hold with the Fascists that the fundamental fact about the human animal is his genetic inheritance, and that some races are evidently genetically superior to other races, and therefore the best thing for the world would be for the master race to take charge and rule over (or exterminate) all inferior races.

Finally, like many who have lost their belief in the created dignity and eternal destiny of the incredible body-soul creatures that we are, you might just one day sink into despair, believing that death swallows all. As Shakespeare's Macbeth put it, on this reckoning human life is nothing more than "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Understanding the mystery of who we are, Krystal, really does make a difference. The value and dignity of human life depends on it!

Uncle Robert
Past Letters in the Series
• Letter #1: Can We Really Know Anything for Sure?
• Letter #2: The Problem with 'Nothing Buttery'
• Letter #3: That's the Spirit

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge, Mass. He is also the author of our Divine Mercy Q&A series.

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