Lecture on Soul 1: Soul as opposed to machine.

“Today we begin a unit on the soul. I had originally planned to start with a series of readings from Plato and Gregory Thaumaturgus, but in reading them I was struck that we have some serious historical and doctrinal impediments to understanding what they were talking about when they spoke of the soul. We simply don’t believe the soul exists, and even when we do, we’re not sure what to do with it.

“Let’s start by pointing out that the soul is a source of life. Now all of you come to this class having spent an entire year engaged in the study of life in our mandatory Sophomore biology course. So what did you learn about the soul? Nothing at all, of course. It never came up, not even to be denied. Sometimes a certain sort of Christian, while explaining this-or-that in Biology,  will wave his hand in the direction of a human soul, perhaps by saying that (for example) that evolution is an account of the development o the human body, but not an account of the human soul. This claim itself is pretty odd (is the claim that natural selection makes only zombies? Inanimate things?) But we need not think too hard about it since nothing more is said about the claim, and the “soul” that is introduced by such a remark serves no biological value. It is as if your algebra teacher interrupted class to say that “God made the integers, and man made everything else”. True or not, we will just keep on doing the equations as though it never happened.

“We don’t believe there is a soul. How did this happen?

“To oversimplify, we might draw a division in the west around the time of the Reformation. Before then, there was a pronounced mythical presence of things in the world. A river might be sacred or enchanted, forests could be magical, people had harmless talismans and even performed animal sacrifices. Mythical beings were widely believed, and even the very intelligent took them as a possibility. St. Thomas, for example,  relays report of St. Augustine that women are impregnated by Satryrs, and he discusses how we should understand such an impregnation (ST. 1 q. 51 a. 3). Though we will not claim that an idea like the soul is equivalent to these,  the idea of a soul does have an immediate, intuitive appeal in such a world that it does not have to us. A world that saw it as common to have spirits in things was well-disposed to see a spirit in man. We don’t condemn these practices as silly or backward, but they certainly do seem to be against the rationalist, scientific spirit. At any rate, after the reformation, there was a concerted effort by both Catholics and Protestants to drive out practices and beliefs like this as superstitious.

‘The scientific account of life is much more hygienic and simple. Consider, as a striking image of this new conception, the image of Galvani’s frogs.  Cut off a frog leg. It’s dead and inert. Then run an electric current through it. It jumps. If we run with this idea, what do we get? An organ is just an inert machine that performs a set action as soon as connected to a power source. Life differs from a machine not essentially, by “having a soul” or something like this, but only materially: a living thing is a machine that happens to be made out of flesh. Or perhaps it’s that a machine is just a living thing made out of metal. What’s the difference? The two only differ in the way that a red letter “M” differs from a black letter “M”. Different matter, that’s it. This idea of life treats a living system as a processor that runs off of free energy, processes stimuli, and produces operations and outputs. We here have an idea of nature where everything is moved by another, ad infinitum, and if there is some first mover at all, it is outside the natural order. What is is left over for an idea like “soul” to explain?

“Can’t we press this idea further? Why is it that we do not even see it as pious to do away with the idea of the soul? If we are committed to rational, analytic accounts of life – even in our spirituality, as many of us are – and such an account has no place for talking about souls, then why don’t we reject it as a superstition along with amulets to ward off shipwreck or the evil eye?

“Although the rational account is hygienic and simple, and though we might be at a loss to figure out what a soul is supposed to do within it, it is obviously a controversial claim. It’s just not the same thing to do away with a river god or a tree dryad and to deny that man has a soul. But we can at least now be clear about the opposition: those who assert the existence of soul say that there is something in nature that moves itself; those who deny that there is any such thing as soul say that everything in nature is moved by another, in the sense that nothing is responsible for its own action.

“And so by a ‘soul’ we mean here something that is (1) in nature (2) active an not merely passive (3) intrinsic to things, and (4) spontaneous and self-motiviated, which finds its fullest expression in being free and responsible. In addition to this, (5) we mean (for reasons we cannot go into now) that whatever is rational or intellectual belongs to a soul as opposed to a machine. We also believe (again for reasons we won’t defend here) that (6) reproduction can never be an activity a machine can perform.

”The first note of ‘soul’ we will see in the reading of Thaumaturgus is the idea of the soul being responsible, i.e. moving itself and not merely being moved. Because of this, the soul can be considered as the subject of virtues, which is crucial to his argument.



  1. February 28, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Read it, thanks. Look forward to the next.

  2. MarcAnthony said,

    March 4, 2013 at 9:06 am

    I love when you write lectures or dialogues. Brilliant stuff and easily digestible. Very interesting.

  3. MARTIN said,

    April 10, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    Please, somewhere go into 6.

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