What Is The Soul of a Man?

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man...Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.

- Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins

When I first heard that Tom "It's Not Unusual" Jones (yes, the same Tom Jones who appears in Mars Attacks) would be releasing an album with covers of songs by some of my favorite artists - Tom Waits, The Low Anthem, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen - I was perplexed, but excited. 

Jones' album Spirit in the Room has just been released in the UK; US audiences will have to wait until June 5th to purchase it. Still, he's been out there doing the promotional work, including releasing a video of the Leonard Cohen cover and appearing on Later with Jools Holland to sing one cut off the record, "Soul of a Man."

The chorus of that bluesy 1930 Blind Willie Johnson song centers around an interesting philosophical question. Johnson and Jones invite us to ask: What is the soul of a man? And how does it relate to our bodies?

I think people generally fall into one of the following three "teams" (whether they know it or not) on this question. (We've included some alliteration to make it more memorable - maybe.)

1) Materialistic Monists (MMs) - A person is essentially their body: the soul is material, materially caused, or simply doesn't exist.
2) Descartesian Dualists (DDs) - A person is essentially their soul: the soul is a separable, non-material reality that inhabits the body.
3) Aristotlean Animalists (AAs) - A person is essentially their body and their soul: the soul is the non-material "essence" of the body, inseparable from the body.

I've written on this subject before, but didn't give a fair amount of time to MMs - so first, we'll look at the MMs, and in greater detail.

MMs have been, without a doubt, gaining ground in recent years, especially with the advent and advancement of neuroscience and neuroimaging (see the animation to the right, an MRI of a patient's head) and the rising stardom of "the new atheists."

There are different sub-groups belonging to the MM team - identity theory, functionalism - but in general, they hold in common a doubt that there is anything fundamentally "spiritual" or "non-material" about man - or at the very least, not "soulful."

Of course, this is nothing new. Thomas Jefferson once wrote in a letter to John Adams: "To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul."

Science, the argument goes, materializes what was once attributed to mysterious spirits, and explains with physical laws and processes what was almost always thought to be providential. The soul is just one more cloudy notion to dispel under the light of science - and according to Richard Dawkins, is already succeeding. "Science," Dawkins says, "has either killed the soul or is in the process of doing so."

Cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker agrees:

Pinker and the brain

"Cognitive neuroscience...has pretty much killed [the soul]. It should now be clear to any scientifically literate person that we don't have any need for a ghost in the machine, as Gilbert Ryle memorably put it. Many kinds of evidence show that the mind is an entity in the physical world, part of a causal chain of physical events. [Emphasis mine.] If you send an electric current through the brain, you cause the person to have a vivid experience. If a part of the brain dies because of a blood clot or a burst artery or a bullet wound, a part of the person is gone - the person may lose an ability to see, think, or feel in a certain way, and the entire personality may change...The person - the soul, if you want - gradually disappears as the brain decays from this physical process."

While "the mind is an entity in the physical world" may be a new, radical take on things, humanity has been more or less aware of this correlation between brain states and mental states since the ancient world. Writer Dinesh D'Souza notes that "the Greek philosopher Lucretius in the first century BC pointed out that the mind weakens as the body ages, and that disease and injury can disrupt mental functioning. The physician Hippocrates recognized that brain deterioration destroys sanity. Galen discovered that lesions and cuts in the brains of animals can produce both blindness in some cases and paralysis in others."

It seems scientists and philosophers have taken note of this correlation for millennia. Yet, most have gone on believing in the presence of an immaterial souls. Why?

Because correlation does not imply causation.

This is another complex philosophical issue. But, to put it succinctly: just because one thing follows another over and over, doesn't mean necessarily that one is causing the other.

American philosopher William James, in an essay titled "Human Immortality" (1898) argued that the tight correlation between brain and soul could signify "transmission" rather than causation. D'Souza explains: "Just as a prism or a lens allows light to pass, just as the keys of an organ channel wind and air in various ways, so the brain is an apparatus for channeling feelings and thoughts...when the human brain dies...our consciousness endures, perhaps all by itself, perhaps in other instantiations. There is nothing in science, James argued, that undermines this alternative possibility."

James produces a very plausible alternative - one that remains in tact because, as D'Souza puts it, "science is limited to the study of material things that are objective and publicly observable." The subjective domain - feelings, thoughts, free will, consciousness, and all that we refer to when we say "soul" - remains forever a rich tapestry of apparently immaterial life, inaccessible to the tools of science's work on the brain.

Now, what about the other two camps?

"The Death of Socrates"
While Descartes is obviously the captain of DDs (we'll see why in a minute), the notion of dualism stretches back to Plato's Phaedo (360 B.C.). Here is a key quote from that dialogue:

"While the soul is mingled with this mass of evil, our desire will not be satisfied, and our desire is of the truth. For the body is a source of endless trouble to us...All experience shows that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body...either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death. For then, and not till then, the soul will be in herself alone and without the body."

There are three key propositions being laid out here:

P1: The body is material, and the soul is immaterial. 
P2: The body is wired for evil, and the soul is wired for good.
P3: The body dies once and for all, but the liberated soul becomes immortal and whole.

A brief glance at the various religious views on the soul shows that P1 was not very controversial. Some, such as Taoists, thought that people had multiple souls. For ancient Jews, "soul" was the "breath" or "wind" breathed into man by God. Although they varied on exactly how, most religions and societies of the world agreed - based on the experience of feelings, thoughts, free will, and consciousness - that the immaterial portion of man should be distinguished from the body.

But P2 and P3 represented the germination of a radical dualism in Western thought, one which reached its pinnacle centuries later in the thought of French skeptic and mathematician Descartes.

Descartes extended Platonic dualism into a division of the world between the res extensa (extended thing) and res cogitans (thinking thing). For him, the only thing one could prove existed beyond the shadow of a doubt was the thinking subject. Thus, the thinking subject was marooned and cut off from the entire physical world - even the physical body.

In the words of philosopher Robert George: "Both Plato and Descartes thus identify the true self, or person, with an immaterial entity that is substantially different from the body proximate to that entity, and indeed, is capable of a separate existence." Or, as Descartes put it: "I am only a thing that thinks" (which sounds a lot like Blind Willie Johnson's line, "a man ain't nothing but his mind").

Many Christian sects in the West - e.g., Puritanism and Gnosticism - have been closely aligned with DDs. They spurned the material world and the body, and spoke of the immortality of the soul as the greatest hope. To be free from the confines of the material world is "good," to be embodied, "bad."

The troubles for DDs, like the troubles for MMs, are manifold. The first, and greatest, is the snare of skepticism. On Descartes' dualistic model, it seem inescapable that we are doomed to doubt everything, even the existence of our own bodies.

Another profound problem is: how does the immaterial soul "operate" the material body? Descartes guessed that the locus of this connection was the pineal gland. We laugh at that now - but we've basically done no better by making the brain a gigantic pineal gland. We know that changes in the brain correlate with changes in the soul - but how on earth does the soul act on the body? When I decide to raise my arm, and I do it, where is the link between my immaterial thought and my material action? MMs might be at least consistent in arguing that all of it, the deciding and the raising, was not free and chemical-based - but DDs are left with a gaping conundrum of the "ghost in the machine."

"Look, there's George Clooney making
his body ride a motorcycle!"
Also, our common experience flatly contradicts a dualistic conception of the world. If you saw the star of The Descendants riding a bike in L.A., you wouldn't say: "Look, there's George Clooney making his body ride a motorcycle!" You would rationally think and say: "Look, there's George Clooney riding a motorcycle!" We know, intuitively, that the human self is both soul and body, and that the two exist in interdependent union.

This bring us to the last "team": Aristotlean Animalists (AAs).

Aristotle argued in De Anima that the soul is:

"(a) the source or origin of movement, it is
(b) the end, it is
(C) the essence of the whole living body."

Now, for Aristotle, there are different kinds of souls (plant souls, animal souls, human souls) with varying degrees of biological and cognitive activity. To put it simply, though, the soul is the animating "essence" or "form" (today we might say "life force") of the living body. It is very real, but it also is not a "ghost in a machine" - it is the actuating force and "definition" of what a human body is and does.

Aquinas called Aristotle simply
"The Philosopher," i.e. "The Man."
So, unlike his predecessor Plato, Aristotle concluded that "the soul is inseparable from its body." (He does concede that one power of the soul - the thinking mind - may be "immortal and eternal." Yet, by definition, this cannot be "the soul" of a human being, because it is not animating a human body.)

Aristotle's anti-dualistic, earthy notion of soul was picked up by scholastic philosophers, most notably Thomas Aquinas. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas agrees that "it belongs to the notion of a soul to be the form of a body." As such, its powers are inseparable from the body:

"Certain operations, whereof the soul's powers are the principles, do not belong to the soul properly speaking but to the soul as united to the body, because they are not performed except through the medium of the body - such as to see, to hear, and so forth."

For both Aristotle and Aquinas, the soul is so tied up with the presence of a body that a person can't be whole by denying the soul and wanting to "escape" it (i.e., MMs) or the denying body and wanting to "escape" that (i.e., DDs). Thus, a perennial focus in Thomism has been on the unity of body and soul - a philosophical emphasis that has fused with and informed Catholic teachings and traditions (e.g., the sacraments, the resurrection of the dead, the theology of the body, etc.).

This argument - that of AAs - seems to me to be the most coherent and defensible out of the three.

Still, speaking a question about the soul and answering it in philosophical terms one thing - hearing the question sung from the pit of a soul is another. It impels me to answer - in all honesty - "a mystery."

Major kudos to any die-hard Tom Jones who made it to this point - and if you are a disgruntled believer in the arguments of MMs or DDs (or a disgruntled Tom Jones fan, for that matter), feel free to disagree and sound off in the comments section below! 


  1. Seeing as man was created as both and the end goal is both (in the resurrection of the body) I will have to side with the AAs.

    1. Thanks for commenting - I was hoping for some angry dissent, but I'll gladly take agreement too!

  2. I'll admit to my ignorance on De Anima, but in the Metaphysics Aristotle comments that the essence of a thing is substance to itself. In this way, wouldn't the hylemorphic dualists be acknowledging the claim of Cartesian dualists, but with a much more plausible way of describing the causal interaction between the mind and body (insofar as the mind/soul/animus just is the form of an animal, and the mind being the form of a rational animal)?

    A more coherent question being: Are hylemorphic dualists not really rejecting the Cartesian claim of a mental substance-to-its-own, but rather embracing a more commonsense relation between mind and body?

    1. That response was WAY longer than I was intending. My apologies!

      TL;DR - Yes, the AAs posit a "kind" of dualism. But that's a gross understatement.

      AAs tie the soul, by its very nature, to what the body is and does. For DDs, the soul's nature cries for separation from, not union with, the body - and these are two very different ideas.

      The major difficulty posed by AAs - how does 'part' of the soul live on - is much less intense than those posed by MMs and DDs, and more answerable.

  3. Thanks for your question Stephen! I admit my ignorance on both De Anima and Metaphysics too - I've studied relevant portions but am by no means an expert.

    My answer, though, would be yes. When I posted this article on Reddit, someone commented angrily: "either you're a materialist, or you're not" - his point being that AAs and DDs were united by positing something "more" to the human person than just observable material. Of course, he was right - the AAs posit a "kind" of dualism. (This is especially true when considering that Aristotle admits that the agent intellect is a substance distinct from the body, and "immortal.") But you can't leave it at that - that is a gross understatement. It's like saying "either you're a philosopher or you're not," and noting that Nietzsche and Aquinas were both philosophers. It's not saying enough.

    The clarification that you made is necessary: that the AAs posit a "much more plausible way" of understanding the immaterial soul, a "more commonsense relation" that rescues the soul from the trap of the "ghost in the machine."

    It does this by tying the soul, by its very nature, to what the body is and does. The soul, at root, is no more separable from the body than the material of wax is from its shape. Souls are the essence (which as you note is the "substance," as distinguished from the accidents) of bodies - not "operators" of them. For DDs, the soul isn't related to the body in this way - it's wholly other, distinct, and separable. Its nature cries for separation from, not union with, the body - and these are two very different ideas.

    Again, a difficulty for AAs then is this: well, how can Aristotle then blithely say that one power of the soul - the "agent intellect" - presumably separates from the body at death and goes on? If soul is a property of the body, how can part of the soul exist without it?

    This is, without a doubt, a difficulty - those who believe that "death is not the end," yet refuse to accept that the soul is wholly separate from the body, "have some essplainin to do." For example, Aristotle says, when speaking of the intellect,(De Anima ii, 2): "This alone is ever separated, as the everlasting from the corruptible: for it is hereby clear that the remaining parts are not separable as some maintain." And Aquinas says that, at death, "the whole soul is not separated from the body, but only the intellective powers of the soul, and consequently not the sensitive or vegetative powers..." Swinburne explains: "The soul, Aquinas taught, was indeed a form, but a special kind of form, one which could temporarily exist without the body to which it was naturally fitted."

    What do they mean by "whole" and "parts," "powers" and "temporary separation"? How does this happen? What does it look like?

    I think this difficulty is much less intense than those posed by MMs and DDs, and more answerable. Even if a person can't engage in the rigorous philosophical work to get to a full answer, we can all imagine unified wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. It is a minor problem, not a major problem. Therefore the position of AAs strikes me as the most logical position - but, to again answer your question, it is in some ways a "relative" of DDs.