Saturday, April 22, 2006

Stuck between Plato and Aristotle

In his insightful book In Defence of the Soul (Oneworld Publications, 1998) Keith Ward of Oxford University states, "What Aquinas was doing was to try to tread a middle way between Plato, who saw the body just as an unnecessary appendage to the soul, and Aristotle, who denied any immaterial, substantive soul at all. Aquinas wanted the human soul both to be capable of independent existence and to be essentially the form of a particular body" (p. 37).

Where Thomas Aquinas agreed with Aristotle was in understanding the soul to be the life-principle or distinctive characteristic of all living things -- the "form (i.e., morphe) of the body" as Aristotle proposed. Hence, even plants and animals have souls, the latter having "sensitive souls" which give their bodies knowledge and sense perception (Ward, p. 36). These souls come into being through natural processes, arising from and informing their physical bodies. But once the body dies, so does the soul.

What Thomas did was to introduce a new idea to Aristotle's basic understanding of the soul, namely that human beings possess a different kind of soul which is created directly by God for each individual person. Like the animals, the human soul is constitutive of the body and performs the same "sensitive" and nutritive functions. But it is different in that it is rational, and thus must come directly from God. "Man," wrote Thomas, "is non-material in respect of his intellectual power because the power of understanding is not the power of an organ" (Summa Theologiae, Q.6 Art. 1; quoted by Ward, p. 36). In other words, rational thought cannot be performed by or arise from something corporeal, which means that the human soul is unique in being substantive and able to exist on its own -- hence immortal. However, an existence without the body would be unnatural since the soul was created for the body (contra Plato), or so Thomas argued.

As I reflect on these things I am struck, first, by how Aristotle's philosophy anticipated the advances made in contemporary thinking on this matter, particularly in what is being presented here in this blog as the "soul as emergent property" theory advanced by Ward and other notable theologians. But the second thing that strikes me is how captivated the Church has been by the thought of Plato. Apparently even Thomas Aquinas, who was almost singlehandedly responsible for weaving Aristotle's thinking permanently into the warp and woof of western theology, could not fully escape Plato's influence.

Until next time.

P.S. - I realize this entry may have raised many more questions about the emergent property theory than it answers. All in due time.


Steve Blakemore said...

One thing wrong with the notion of the soul as an "emergent property" is that the "emergent" theory identifies the soul too closely with the person whose identity is made possible by the life force that God creates in union with the matter. Aristotle anticipates contemporary ideas that are currently in play about DNA "information" as that which makes a physical entity to be the thing that it is. However, what Aristotle lacked was a notion that could approximate the Christian idea of the person made in the image of God. So, Aquinas took Aristotle and made his view of the soul as the life force serve Christian purposes. The soul is prior logically to the bodily entity that is formed by it. However, without the bodily entity the soul has no existence. Yet, Aquinas advances over Aristotle in that he could conceive of how the Person made alive by the soul was (if you will allow) an emergent entity (not a property). The soul becomes a particular person through union with the body and through the experiences and choices of that living person. So, Aquinas is less indebted to Plato and more faithful to an Biblical account of the soul.

lexorandi2 said...

Thanks for your helpful comment Steve. Please elaborate, if you will, on what you mean by "emergent entity" as opposed to "emergent property." What in your view does the soul as "entity" emerge from?


lexorandi2 said...

BTW - On first reading of your comment I like the terminology of the soul as "entity" better than that of "property." The difference is an improvement and of particular importance if we are to contend for the continuing consciousness of the soul apart from the body at death. My reading of Polkinghorne (see recent posting) is that there is some ambivalence on this particular issue in his mind. Again, thanks.


Steve Blakemore said...

In answer to you question about the word entity over property......

An entity is a thing or if you will allow the Aristotelian in me to speak a being (something that has reality that is substantive.) A person, is not simply a soul, but is the one that the soul (life force) becomes under the providence of God in actually living. Hence, in order to accentuate the permanence of a person's existence, I call person an "emergent entity."

Now, person is also a metaphysical or ontological category that is rooted in the essence of God who is three Persons in unity. So, person is a very, very fundamental ontological concept. HOwever, in human beings, personal identity and one's existence as a person are not the same (as they would be in the simplicity of God), since one's personal identity can change in the sense that my relationships and my experiences define me (at least in large measure. so, the idea that human personal identity made possible by the give of the rational life force that bears God's image as personal (Trinity) strikes me as a promising way to discuss it.

It also avoids the unhappy implication of the term property, since a property has to be a property of something other than itself. We do not want to say that the person is a property of an otherwise material being.

BTW: My thoughts on this topic have been shaped in large measure by my doctoral research comparing Spinoza and Aquinas on the doctrine of mind-body identity theory.

all the best, and thanks for your sight.

lexorandi2 said...


In all seriousness, if you've written an article or brief summary, or you would like to write something of "blog-length" on this topic I'd be happy to post it on the main page. I'm interested to hear more about your research. Drop me a line if you're interested. Thanks for posting.