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Hasn't the notion of the soul become obsolete?

Author: Santiago Collado
Published in: 50 Questions on Faith, 15

Hasn't the notion of the soul become obsolete? Why does Christianity claim that there is something more than subject and physiological processes in the human being, despite the impressive discoveries of medicine? Why insist on acting as if there really is something left of the person, apart from memory, after death?

In order to answer this question, it is essential to clarify what is understood by the soul in the classical tradition and to what extent Christianity modified this notion.

Nowadays it is common to understand the soul in an ambiguous way. It is common, for example, to give it the meaning that this notion received in Cartesian rationalism or in one of its later variants. And this way of understanding the soul has been the cause of many of the recent confusions and ambiguities.

In classical antiquity, observation of the natural world led thinkers to distinguish two modes of being whose difference was for them very clear. On the one hand, living beings, whose peculiarity is that they exhibit a subject of movements and properties not found in other physical beings. Living beings, for example, are conceived and come into being at a moment that is easily identifiable; living beings are not made or manufactured, as can happen with artefacts; living beings grow in a way that is specific to them. A building is constructed, an artefact is made. These objects become what they are when their manufacture is finished, which takes time. A living being is a living being from the first moment it is conceived, and it is its own life that makes it grow and develop from the moment it is conceived. Unlike that which is not alive, when that growth ends, death ensues.

Growing up implies, in most cases, an increase in size. But it is a peculiar increase in size, because it is a differentiated increase according to a unity and identity that is not lost as long as there is life. The growth of a dog or a tree can be clearly distinguished from that of a river or a mountain, for example. As they grow, they increase in size, but not agreement with a differentiated organisation. The growth of a living being often implies an increase in size, but it is not the essential part of this movement.

The living being possesses a dynamic organisation of its parts that allows it to interact with its environment in a spontaneous way, in many different ways. For example, the living being feeds on other beings that it encounters and which are transformed into part of its body.

Being born, growing, reproducing, feeding and dying are considered by the Aristotelian tradition to be exclusive movements of living beings. These movements, in turn, are carried out in different ways and at different levels.

What is it that makes a living being able to perform these subject movements or operations? The classics considered that it is because living things have a peculiar subject of unity that makes possible the harmony that their parts need in order to be able to perform those movements or, in other words, to exercise those operations or functions. They also considered that a cause or principle of this unity was required. This principle or cause they called the soul.

An animal dies when it loses its vital unity. Its body then becomes corrupted, disintegrated. At the very moment of death it has all the material elements that formed its body when it was still alive, but now it can no longer do anything it did: it has lost that unity that is associated with its soul.

Already in classical Greece the human being was regarded as a very special living being. His soul, i.e., the special subject unity that defines him, enables him to perform operations that no other living being can perform. Understanding and will were the Schools already then associated with these peculiar human capacities. Aristotle regarded human intelligence as a spark of divine intelligence. These properties that made humans different from other living beings were seen as the expression of a principle that transcended the purely material. This principle was called spirit.

Philosophical reflection has found reasons to affirm that the human spirit or human soul is not only the cause of the peculiar vital unity of the body. The material or physical is always subject to the rule of the temporal, but in man the soul escapes the purely temporal and therefore the purely material. To be spiritual then means to transcend time. Man is a spiritual being.

Christianity reinforced this idea and gave it a much richer and more precise content. Man is called to immortality, to communion with God, who is eternal. By his way of being, man is the only living being with a material body who can address God and treat him as "another me", say "you" to him.

To sum up, the soul is characteristic of all living beings. It refers reference letter to the peculiar organic unity which it enjoys and which enables it to exercise its vital operations. In the case of man, the soul is spiritual and, consequently, is not only the principle of his organic unity. The organic is subject to time, but some of the vital human operations transcend time: those of the intellect and the will. There is, therefore, reason to think that the human vital principle, his soul, does not disappear with his death, which is the corruption of his body, the loss of his organic unity. From a purely rational point of view it is impossible to imagine that status, since we have not experienced it, but reason is capable of thinking about it.

The Christian faith, on the other hand, affirms the immortality of the human soul as a consequence of its spirituality, that is to say, of its peculiar likeness to God, which makes man transcend the purely material. This does not deny that man, in the exercise of his vital functions, requires the body.

This faith is firmly anchored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it is consistent with what many philosophers thought even before the birth of Jesus Christ. These reasons are still valid today regardless of whether or not one can have faith.