The first problems with understanding the soul- “soul” as a biological question

Soul is whatever constitutes the difference between something living and something inanimate. To put it in concrete terms, it’s what will constitute the difference between you and your corpse. There is at least a difference to be explained here, even if we have to explain it away.

But why call that which constitutes the difference “soul”? Isn’t this to prejudice the discussion from the beginning? “Soul” conjures up images of ghosts and fog-persons which have no place in any sane biological discussion. Furthermore, one would expect that any biologist- believer or not- could give no reason why his science should speak about the “soul”. It simply does  no explanatory work.

The problem of  soul bringing to mind ghosts, however, is not a problem in the word “soul” but a problem in asking about what the source of life is at all. The sort of question one is asking evokes idea of mysterious powers and vaguely “spiritual” ideas. The first images we conjure up when we ask such questions are going to be primitive and facile, and will perhaps bring out a part of our nature that we would like to think we all got beyond. Lets all just get over it.

Neither is it very important that the word “soul” does no work for biologists. One does not need to treat of the question of what constitutes the difference between living things and dead ones in order to do biology. Biologists can, for example, all agree that a certain group of things will be called “living” and start from there, or they can agree to study what living things have in common inanimate things, or they can consider things not insofar as they are unified by anything, but merely so far as they are a collection of traits. Better yet, they can treat the “life source”  or “soul” so far as it is known at the end of a science- and end which biology clearly has not reached. Considered in this way, “soul” is seen as the limit or closure of biology. So taken, “soul” is something biology approaches at an infinite distance. None of these ways are contrary to another approach which considers living things in another way. Even considering “soul” as the limit of an infinite approach is still compatible with solving basic questions about what soul is a the beginning of a science, for there is no contradiction in claiming to know the same thing at the beginning and the end of a science- only in claiming to know both in the same way.

Biology under the influence of the Scholasticism tended to focus on the initial questions of soul, and it neglected the rest of the science that came afterwards. Contemporary biology seems to ignore the basic questions, which has allowed it to make great advances in the later parts of the science. Where’s the problem? The only lesson seems to be that in practical terms we can’t master both approaches to biology. Vita brevis, ars longa. In truth, we can’t even master small parts of a whole science in our whole lifetime.


  1. George Breed said,

    January 5, 2009 at 6:26 am

    Mr. Chastek, I am just now becoming acquainted with your website. Thank you for posting your thoughts. I look forward to reading further.

    Soul is “what will constitute the difference between you and your corpse.” As good a definition as I have heard. Reminds me of the work done weighing bodies (during the William James / F.W.H. Myers spiritualist era) at the time of death for any minuscule change. Also of one of my favorite zen questions: “Who is it dragging this corpse around?”

    Science does its best to approach life from outside in — trying to be objective while operating from a subjective base. “Playing ball on running water.” I salute the attempt, having played the game myself.

    The approach I now favor is from inside out. Life seems much more entertaining and danceable.


  2. January 5, 2009 at 6:59 am

    The only success that pre-modern ages had in understanding life was “from the inside out” as well. Almost all of Aristotle’s biological treatises have fallen by the way, as have much of the treatise on the passions in the second part of the Summa, but the basic insights a the bottom of their science, which understood life in terms so basic and obvious as to be useless for modern biology, still stand strong. The first of these insights is “my soul is whatever allows me to move my finger like this/ chew/ walk/ think just because I choose to”. Soul, whatever it is, is an active something, a cause of motion, and an immanent activity that can give rise to transitive activities.It has a reference to the body, to be sure, but it first shows itself as whatever is moving the body actively. Plato took this to mean that it must differ from the body as a rower from his boat. There is a good deal of truth in this, but it can’t explain all we know about soul.

  3. George Breed said,

    January 5, 2009 at 7:05 am

    Often times I feel as if my body is within my soul rather than the other way around.

    • January 5, 2009 at 7:33 am

      St. Thomas says the same thing!

      Although corporeal things are said to be in another as in that which contains them, nevertheless, spiritual things contain those things in which they are; as the soul contains the body.

      Summa Theologiae, I, q. 8, art. 1 ad 2

      He says the same thing about “virtual contact” whenever he speaks of the unity of body and soul. See especially paragraph [9] in bk. II chap. 56 of the Summa Contra Gentiles

  4. George Breed said,

    January 5, 2009 at 7:38 am

    I see that I would do well to get acquainted with Thomas. Thank you!

  5. George Breed said,

    January 5, 2009 at 8:07 am

    “Now, potentiality regards the whole and not the extremities of the whole; so that it is the whole that is touched. And from this the third difference emerges, because in contact of quantity, which takes place in respect of extremities, that which touches must be extrinsic to that which is touched; and it cannot penetrate the thing touched, but is obstructed by it.
    But, since contact of power, which appertains to intellectual substances, extends to the innermost things, it makes the touching substance to be within the thing touched, and to penetrate it without hindrance.” — paragraph [9] in bk. II chap. 56, Summa Contra Gentiles

    The contact of quantity sounds like the touch of science, while the contact of power might be called gnosis. These distinctions Thomas makes are beautiful, simple and real!

  6. Peter said,

    January 6, 2009 at 8:38 am

    For a typeset copy of DeKonick’s The Lifeless World of Biology, go here:

  7. January 6, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    George breed said that “Often times I feel as if my body is within my soul rather than the other way around.”

    Reminds me of this quote from Plotinus:

    “But the soul is not in the universe, on the contrary the universe is in the Soul; bodily substance is not a place to the Soul; Soul is contained in the Intellectual-Principle and is the container of body.”

    (And James, thank you for the book recommendation, I will look it up!)

  8. Bob said,

    January 6, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Careful. You guys are still talking about the soul as though it were a distinct thing that comes to the body, gives it life, and then moves it around. That’s a Platonic way of thinking, and maybe it’s defensible. But unless you want, like Plato, to be a dualist about all life (or at least all animals), then you might want to think again. Though Aristotle presents some obscure arguments for the ‘separability’ of the rational soul from the human body, it’s safe to say that on his basic view of the soul (which Aquinas follows), the soul is not some distinct thing that comes to the body and moves it around. You’re not a body plus a soul; rather, for your body to be a living human body is for it to be ensouled, just as for your dog’s body to be a living dog body is for it to be ensouled. The soul is the form of the body in a way analogous to the way that the structure of a particular set of bricks and mortar is the form of a house; i.e., it is the structure of some particular collection of matter that makes it function in the way that it does.

    For Plato, Descartes, and most naive forms of dualism, the problem is with understanding how the soul relates to the body. For Aristotle and Aquinas, the problem is with how it can even be conceivable for a soul to exist without a body. That’s because the basic concept of the soul is just the concept of the form that a particular collection of matter takes, making it a living organism rather than a mere aggregate of material or an artifact. This view of the soul is eminently sensible, and it is quite similar to views that are defended today by philosophers, even philosophers who wouldn’t touch Christianity or Aquinas with a ten foot pole. But it’s emphatically *not* the kind of view that allows you to conceive of the soul as something that comes to a body and moves it around. On the contrary, for Aristotle and Aquinas, the soul is *not* an efficient cause of bodily movements.

    Maybe you don’t want to defend this sort of view and would prefer a Platonic/Cartesian alternative. But if so, don’t call it Thomistic or Aristotelian.

  9. George Breed said,

    January 7, 2009 at 12:49 am

    Thank you for the caution, Bob.

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