Knowing What a Human Being is Makes a Big Difference!

After my last column, someone named Peter wrote the following critique and e-mailed it to me: "Nice lecture on human beings as body-soul creatures. But I still wonder what difference it all makes."

I will try my best to explain why it really does make a big difference, Peter.

Let's summarize last week: According to the Catholic Tradition, and our principal theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, a human being is a creature made up of an immaterial soul (with the capacity for rational thought and voluntary choice) closely united to a material body.

This makes us unique in the universe as far as we know, and in any case creatures with potential for creativity, wisdom, and love that far surpass any other material beings. Moreover, our soul is naturally immortal, and through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we know that if we live in union with Him, we shall one day be raised to new and glorious bodily life with Him as well: "Our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power which enables Him even to subject all things to himself" (Phil 3:20-21).

Not a bad thing to know what a human being is: SINCE EVERY ONE OF US IS ONE! Clearly, we are creatures of created natural dignity, and (if we will) a glorious, supernatural destiny. That makes us each very special in God's eyes, so special we are worth dying for, in fact, for that is what He did for us on the Cross.

Moreover, the Catholic view of the dignity and destiny of the human person avoids 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 mortal tomb. At best, the body was seen as something that the immortal soul can use for a time and then (happily) discard at death. Plato said the human soul is present in its body like a sailor is present in his ship: He uses the ship for a time, and then happily gets rid of it when he reaches his destination!

In general, the body with its passions and lusts was seen by Plato and Plotinus as a distraction from life's highest goal, which they believed to be the philosophical contemplation of the "One" and the "Good." For some eastern religious traditions, the human body, like all passing and transient things, is seen as unreal, an illusion. We can see an echo of this in the "Christian Science" religious group, that views all bodily sickness as unreal, an illusion. The advanced practitioner of Christian Science allegedly has no need of medicines, or even sacramental anointing and healing. He just needs to use his advanced faith to see through the illusion, and it will no longer plague him!

Other more "modern" and "enlightened" people follow the philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Descartes and Kant, who believed that human beings have both immortal souls and material bodies, but could not give a clear account of the relationship between the two: body and soul seemed to have no clear connection or interrelationship. In their philosophy, 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 this viewpoint, Peter, that the human soul is the only thing about us that really exists, or that really matters, then that can have a profound effect on how you live your life. For example, you might end up as a kind of drop-out mystic, who tries to forget his bodily self as much as possible in order to promote purely spiritual contemplation; or maybe you will end up like an old-fashion Puritan who sees the human body as nothing more than a constant source of temptation (and thus, you would completely shun such bodily things as drinking, dancing, and many of 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 being engage in manual work; or you might end up as the kind of missionary who believes that only "saving souls" is important, and neglects to give much effort or attention to feeding the hungry or healing the sick, or to speaking out against injustice. Or you might end up as the kind of person who believes that the salvation of his soul and his spiritual relationship with God has nothing much to do with what he does with his body, and certainly not with whether or not he uses contraception, or has a sexual relationship with someone of the same gender.

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

Many people today, however, are far more likely to take a completely different path: the path of those who believe that human beings have no immaterial "soul" at all. Such people believe that what we traditionally call the powers of the human "soul," such as rational intellect and free will, are really just physical reactions, electrical events in our brain. Thus, we are nothing more than bodily machines, "naked apes" (as one famous 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 some psychic disorders can even be cured by medical treatment. Thus, a blow on the head can cause amnesia, or a person can take pills today to alleviate 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 spiritual "soul" is really just the result of electro-chemical reactions going on in our physical brain? For people who think this way, human beings are bodily creatures only, just animals equipped by evolution with a bit more advanced brain-computers!

Now, the first thing to say about this point of view is that it is simply untrue. In addition to the philosophical arguments and scientific evidence I gave to our readers last week to show that human beings have an immaterial soul, I will provide a bit more here.

First of all, abstract rational thought cannot be completely reducible to states of the brain. The Christian physicist Rodney Holder, for example, asks us to think of the many physical forms that "money" can take, from paper bills of all colors and sizes, to silver coins and Spanish dubloons, to statistics on a currency 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 concept: "money."

Second, ask yourself this: How much do your thoughts weigh? How long are they? How tall are they? And what is an act of selfless love made out of? Can you package it and sell it in a drugstore? So isn't it intuitively obvious that acts of abstract rational thought and love freely willed are not reducible to physical states that can be measured, quantified, and manipulated?

Third, if all our thoughts were just electro-chemical reactions 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 "materialistic" 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 flowing through my brain cells on any given day? Consider this: If my mental processes are determined wholly by the chance collision of atoms in my brain, then I have no reason to suppose that my mental beliefs are true...and therefore I have no reason for supposing my mind to be composed of nothing but the chance collision of atoms in my brain (on this point, see C.S. Lewis's classic work, Miracles).

Fourth, if I have no immaterial soul 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 "programmed" by my genes and by my environment to think whatever I think and do whatever I do. How, then, can I be held responsible for my actions, or be asked to behave responsibly, or be asked to strive to live up to a code of moral behavior? Moral codes tell us how we "ought" to behave, but that implies that we "can" behave in accordance with their principles if we so choose. But if we have no real free choice, then what becomes of the idea of "ought" and of 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 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 (Rodney Holder, Nothing But Atoms and Molecules? P. 110).

So, Peter, if you hold this view of what a human being is (that is, a bodily creature only, a "naked ape"), it can have a dramatic effect on how you live your life. For example you might end up as a sensualist or "hedonist," living primarily for bodily pleasure. Many gluttons, lechers, drunkards and drug addicts fall into this category. Or you might end up convincing yourself that human life is driven primarily if not exclusively 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 economics is all about "the survival of the fittest": so get rich any way you can, no matter who you have to exploit and cheat 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 that the best thing for the world would be for the "master race" to take charge and rule (or exterminate) all the inferior races.

Or, like many who have lost their belief in the created dignity and supernatural destiny of the incredible body-soul creatures that God made us to be, you might just one day sink into despair, believing that all human striving (including your own) is ultimately in vain, that death swallows all, and, as Shakespeare's Macbeth put it, human life is nothing more in the end than "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

In short, understanding who we are, who God made us to be, makes a tremendous difference, Peter.

The saints understood this very well. It is one of the things that helped them become saints.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).Got a question? E-mail him at [email protected].

You might also like...

Father Chris Alar, MIC, was recently on EWTN to share about his upcoming book. Check out this short video to learn more.
Her husband's diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's blindsided her family. Then, Denise came upon something profound that "melted" her heart.
We continue in this month of July reflect on this poem written by St. Faustina in which she encourages us to trust in Jesus more and more.