Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

JD Crossan, Keith Ward, body and soul

- Jake

What I found most compelling about the movie Avatar was the idea of Jake moving "himself" from his paralyzed body to a lab-grown avatar body - given my eye disease, I envied him his chance for a replacement body. But if Jake had been a Catholic, would he have done this?

It's all about dualism. If I understand correctly, Plato saw a person as being of different parts, mind/soul, and body, with the mind/soul immortal, and with an existence independent of the body. The neo-Platonists (like Augustine) followed his ideas. Aristotle, though, saw a person as having those parts unified, without an independent existence from each other. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, saw a complete person as having these parts necessarily unified - for him, a soul without a body was not a person, and each soul was the unique soul of a unique body. Is there a Jake who is more than his body even if he can't necessarily exist without it, and who has the right to change his body? Once he does change it, is he still Jake? I'd say yeas and yes.

Though I don't really understand this stuff well, I thought I'd post a couple of bits from JD Crossan who appears to hold the Catholic view, and Keith Ward who seems to feel differently (I like Ward's take).

First, JD Crossan ......

"My criticism of Gnosticism would be this: one of the most fundamental decisions we have to make, going back to dear old Plato, is whether the human being is a dialectic, in the same sense as before, of body and spirit, or if somehow that spirit or soul is only temporarily, possibly even unfortunately, joined to what is either a flea bag hotel or a magnificent palace called the body. But in either case the soul is only temporarily embodied until it goes home to its true spiritual abode. I think that this is the most radical question in Western philosophy. Whichever way you come down on this question, everything else will follow. If you think that human beings are actually incarcerated, entombed spirits, that we're simply renting bodies out, then everything else will follow. But if you think along with the Bible that somehow or other the body/soul amalgam is a dialectic, that you can distinguish but not separate them, then everything else will follow differently. So Gnosticism seems to be a perfectly good, linear descendent of Platonism (I'm not certain though what Plato himself would have said), but at the heart of it is the presumption that the material world is at best irrelevant and at worst evil. Those seem to be the fundamental options. You have to pick your position from there."
- An Interview with John Dominic Crossan, Journal of Philosophy and Scripture

And here's a part of a lecture by Keith Ward on JPII's Veritatis Splendor .....


[...] To speak of a ‘soul’ is to speak of the capacities of a type of physical body, capacities of a type of animal capable of abstract thought and responsible action. Souls cannot properly exist without bodies - a view Aquinas espoused.

The complication here is that the soul is often spoken of as though it is a non-physical agent of thought, action, sensation and perception. Some form of embodiment may be essential to it, in order to provide information, and the possibility of communication and action. But perhaps the same soul could be embodied in different forms. Anyone who believes in rebirth must believe this. Catholics, who do not share that belief, do nevertheless seem to be committed to the existence of souls, both in Purgatory and in Heaven, that have consciousness and experience, but do not have physical bodies. Moreover, whatever the resurrection body is, it is certainly not temporally or physically continuous with this physical body, and it may be significantly different in some respects (it will not be corruptible, and will not have exactly the same physical properties as the physical body when it died).

Aquinas said that unembodied souls exist ‘improperly and unnaturally’, by the grace of God, and will not fully be persons again until the resurrection. But it is obvious that a resurrected body will not be constituted of the same physical stuff as present bodies (it is said to be spiritual, not physical). The present physical universe will come to an end, and there will be ‘a new heaven and earth’. What that means is that the physical stuff of this specific universe is not essential to the nature and continuous existence of persons, even though something analogous to this body must exist.

What is at stake in this discussion is whether human consciousness is an emergent property of a physical object - and so ceases to function or exist without that object. Or whether human consciousness, though it does originate within a physical body, and does require some form of embodiment, is nevertheless dissociable from its original body, and is capable of existence in other forms. Is the soul adjectival to the body, or is this body just one form in which this soul may exist? Aquinas tries to straddle both sides of this divide by speaking of the soul as a ‘substantive form’, something whose function it is to give a body specific capacities, but which is capable of existing, though not of functioning in its full and proper way, without that body .....

John Paul is especially concerned to say that the body should not be regarded as simply ‘raw material’, something ‘extrinsic to the person’, that can be shaped or dealt with in any way one wishes. The unity of soul and body means that we must respect our bodily structure, since that is part of what we essentially are - ‘body and soul are inseparable’, and the body intrinsically has moral meaning. We might contrast this view with some Hindu views that the body is just a garment that we put on or off. For John Paul, the body is constitutive of what we are, and we would not be the same being without it, without the specific body we have. This is what is intended by the traditional Catholic view that each soul is fitted for a specific body. We might say that each soul is the unique soul of a unique body .....

The first question that must be posed by the relentlessly critical philosopher is whether this view of the person is knowable by natural reason. It seems not. For philosophical accounts of human personhood range from the reductive physicalism of Alonso Church (who denies that consciousness is important or even existent) to the pure idealism of Timothy Sprigge (who thinks that bodies are illusory appearances of pure mental realities). These are philosophers trying to give a reasoned account of human persons, and they disagree as much as they possibly could. My conclusion is not that the Catholic view is wrong. But it cannot be established with any certainty by reason. It can be reasonably maintained, and of course it can be accepted as true. But it cannot be defended as an account that all reasonable people can see to be true. To that extent, it cannot be the basis of a morality that all can accept with a reasonable degree of certainty. Catholic morality will depend upon a Catholic view of persons. That view of persons may be true, and it should certainly be defended by Catholics. But it will generate a distinctively Catholic view of moral precepts that is unlikely to be shared by all rational agents .....



Blogger PrickliestPear said...

I don't think Crossan is entirely fair to Plato (though I admit I once understood Plato the same way myself, as this is a pretty standard view). I'm writing a post (maybe a series of posts) on the subject right now, actually.

Fair to Plato or not, the dualism of which Crossan speaks has infected a lot more than gnosticism. It's one of the root problems in "orthodox" Christianity that really needs to be corrected, but won't, at least not any time soon.

6:33 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi PrickliestPear,

I look forward to seeing your posts. Yeah, I don't think Plato was as hateful of life here as Crossan makes him sound, but maybe he meant the neo-Platonists more than Plato?

I wonder if there's a way to undo the bad stuff of dualism while retaining some freedom from biology as destiny.

1:09 PM  

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