Friday, March 25, 2011

Integritas Seminar V

Integritas met for its fifth seminar last night, this week considering the integration of body and soul. The discussion was led by Dr. Alfred Freddoso of the Philosophy Department and drew upon his essay "Good News, Your Soul Hasn't Died Quite Yet," an excerpt from Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy, and a summary of possible solutions to the mind/body problem. It sought to address the questions: What are the logical possibilities for understanding human nature (materialism, idealism, dualism, hylomorphism)? What sort of anthropology is compatible with the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection? What view of body and soul could reasonably constitute a Catholic anthropology? If humans are a unity of body and soul, what would the essential features of pursuing health, integrity, and happiness include?

Dr. Freddoso began by asking if just any chunk of marble is a piece of art. The students concluded that we recognize marble statues, but not uncut marble, as art. A thing's identity as a piece of art depends upon the form an artist has intentionally given to it. Its identity is found in its configuration: in this case, the configuration of marble as a statue. This is also true for living things.The configuration of plants, fungi, and bacteria gives them certain characteristics that allow us to identify them as living: growth, reproduction, the capacity to heal. Their configuration sets them apart from statues and other non-living things.

We went on to wonder what sets animals apart from plants. Animals can grow, reproduce, and heal, but they also have much more complex features, such as sensations, feelings, and instincts which seem to have both a physiological component and a cognitive component. Still, the source of all these features is apparently in their configuration- the physical configuration of their matter to make a body.

But when we get to humans, we seem to have features that cannot be accounted for by the corporeal. We can will something that runs contrary to all of our instincts; we have a unique ability to set goals and to plan; we have a concern for social conventions and self-control; and these things are not shared by the rest of the animal kingdom. It's obvious from our peculiarly human endeavors: aardvarks don't build universities, publish books, erect statues to glorious aardvarks of the past, or even make pornography. As Walker Percy describes our human experience: "The modern objective consciousness will go to any length to prove that it is not unique in the Cosmos, and by this very effort establishes its own uniqueness. name another entity in the Cosmos which tries to prove it is not unique." So in the human case, the special configuration that makes a body human must be more than corporeal, and philosophers give it the name of 'soul.' The Aristotelian tradition takes it that our higher functions are tied to our souls, but that they function dependent upon our bodies. There is no rift between soul and body; humans are understood to be a unity of body and soul. This theory is called hylomorphism. 

Most of contemporary philosophy dismisses this philosophical anthropology. We discussed dualism and materialism, the two most prominent theories that have had currency since Descartes. Materialism dismisses the notion of an immortal soul and claims that everything can be reduced to the physical: to biochemical reactions, the firing of synapses, to DNA. Dualism divorces body from soul, claims that there is no way for the material and immaterial to interact, and locates our personal identity in the soul which is somehow accidentally connected to the body. Both notions contradict how we instinctively understand ourselves: the experience of intense pain strongly discourages one from thinking that the body could possibly be incidental, and it seems incredible to think one's whole interior life is reducible to biochemical reactions.

Materialism and dualism are also fatal to culture and ethics. Once one begins to think of oneself as separate from one's body, one no longer has to take responsibility for one's body. It has devastating moral ramifications. One no longer sees oneself as deeply involved in one's actions or how one treats others. Much of Lost in the Cosmos is taken up by illustrating the chaos and degradation we leave in our wake when we take up materialist or dualist anthropologies.

The students gave Walker Percy an appropriately Lenten last word on our human predicament of self-understanding when he proposes: "A new law of the Cosmos, applicable only to the recently appeared triadic creature: If you're a big enough fool to climb a tree and like a cat refuse to come down, then someone who loves you has to made as big a fool of himself to rescue you."

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