PhilosophyTheological Anthropology

Can You See a Soul?

In imitation of C. S. Lewis, I recently picked up George MacDonald’s, Phantastes.1 A few pages in, I encountered the following sentence.

Whether all flowers have fairies, I cannot determine, any more than I can be sure whether all men and women have souls.

–Anodos (narrator of Phantastes)2

At first I thought Anodos was just being snarky. But the ontology of souls he assumes here is too odd to be mere snark.

Background on Fairies and Souls

According to Anodos, a flower expresses the personality of its fairy inhabitant.3 From seeing a fairy’s flower home, you can tell what the fairy must be like. But some flowers may house no fairies. You can tell what sort of fairy would have to live within them, but not whether any fairy actually does.

The same goes for people and souls, according to Anodos. Perhaps you can tell from observing a person’s life what sort of soul he would have to have. But you may not be able to conclude he actually has a soul.

As I said above, this assumes an odd ontology of souls.

But which ontology?

Background on Dualism

The answer is, “a variant of dualism.” In general, dualism asserts that there are two kinds of things in the world: physical things and spiritual things (or “material” things and “mental” things). Souls, angels, God, and ghosts are spiritual things, while bodies, rocks, planets, and planes are physical.

Dualistic theories, furthermore, normally identify people with something on the spiritual side of the equation. This was Plato’s view, for example, long before it was Descartes’s.4 According to Plato, you are your soul, and your soul is trapped in your body for the duration of your physical life.5

This is also the view usually espoused by contemporary American Christians. Consider the following quotation, which you will find attributed to C. S. Lewis on a Facebook wall near you:

You don’t have a soul.
You are a soul.
You have a body.

Lewis evidently never said this.6 But it sounds like the kind of thing you might expect him to say. Lewis, after all, was a Platonist.7

Anodos’s Dualism

But Anodos is not the Platonic sort of dualist. After all, he says a person might or might not have a soul inside.8 Let’s take a moment to think about what this means, if it is right.

First, it means that a person is not her soul. After all, a person might not have a soul at all, and yet Anodos still calls her or him a person.9

Second, it means that a person is a body. After all, Anodos says a person is like a flower—a physical organism you can see and touch.

Third, it means that when you die, you don’t go to either heaven or hell. You are your body, and your body is buried in the ground.10

Fourth, it means that you could really “lose your soul” (Matthew 16:26), like Jesus said.

And fifth, it means that Joss Whedon was right. One of the things that makes vampires different from normal humans in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the fact that they’ve lost their souls. Angel, after all, is an abnormal and tortured vampire precisely he was cursed to have his soul returned.11 And working to have his soul returned is what makes Spike eventually worthy of Buffy’s love.12

So, there are two variants of dualism. The Platonic/Stingic13 variant says a human person is a soul that is attached to a body during life. The Anodosic/Whedonic variant says that a human person is a body that may or may not have a soul attached during life.

But there are other options.

Other Options

First, there are the monist alternatives.14 Madonna, for example, argues for materialism. There is only one kind of thing, she sings, and that kind of thing is physical. We are physical beings living in a physical universe.15

Berkeley (not Gnarls),16 in contrast, argues for idealism. There is only one kind of thing on this view, and that kind of thing is spiritual. We are spiritual beings living in a completely spiritual universe.17

Second, there are trialist alternatives. One often hears, for example, that each of us is three things: a spirit, a soul, and a body; or a mind, a soul, and a body; or a mind, a soul, and a heart (1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 4:12; Mark 12:30/Luke 10:27).

It seems to me, however, that trialism is just a more detailed dualism. It seems to hold, after all, that things come in two flavors: spiritual and physical. It’s just that trialism thinks there are at least two kinds of spiritual things (spirits and souls, or minds and souls).

The Hylomorphic Alternative

Finally, there is hylomorphism.18 This is the theory espoused by Aristotle and Aquinas.19 If you haven’t heard of it, however, you’re far from alone. Christianity has leaned Platonic since its early days, and the Aristotelian view had no impact in the West until the 12th and 13th centuries. The Reformation, furthermore, was part of a wider backlash against Aristotelianism.20

So, what is hylomorphism about the soul? It holds that a human person is a single whole composed of two parts. One part is material—it is the stuff out of which we are made. The other part is spiritual—it is the form into which that stuff is put. Each is a part of a thing, and thus is not a thing itself. Only when the two are united does a thing come into existence.

Who Has the Oddest Ontology?

We got into this discussion by noting how odd Anodos’s view of the human person is. According to Anodos, you could see a person but not know if she had a soul. A Platonist, in contrast, would believe you can know, and trialists, materialists, idealists, and hylomorphists would agree. The materialists would say that no one has a soul, while the others would say everyone does. But only Anodosic dualism thinks the question is undecidable in particular cases.

But Anodosic dualism isn’t alone in being odd. It actually agrees with Platonism, trialism, and materialism that you can’t see souls. On this question, it’s idealism and hylomorphism that are odd. They both believe you see souls everywhere.

According to idealism, only spiritual things exist. So, everything you see is the same type of thing as a soul. And hylomorphists say that when you look at something, you see both its matter and its form. There may be aspects of a person’s soul you never see, since they will be formed and structured in ways you never encounter. But if you see a person walking, talking, and generally keeping it together, you’re seeing their soul.

Who Is Right?

Being odd, of course, is not the same as being wrong. And on huge questions like, “Do we have souls?” and “What is a human person?,” you might even expect the right answer to sound odd. So, it would be nice to have some scriptural authority to help us settle things.

Unfortunately, if you’re involved in Biblical studies for long, you’ll eventually hear something like the following story:

In the Old Testament, you find texts that espouse something like materialism (see Isaiah 38:18). This is because the ancient Jews did not have a theory of souls. However, when they later developed a theory of resurrection, they needed a theory of souls to explain what happened to a person between death and resurrection. (See, e.g., Acts 23:6–9.) New Testament authors like Paul then slid from the resurrection-based theory of souls into full-blown Platonism.21

We want a theory of souls that, if true, would mean Scripture is also true. But what if Scripture adopts everything from soul-denying materialism to soul-reifying Platonism?

I think hylomorphism does the best job of playing things down the middle, and thus is our safest choice. It agrees with materialism: when you look at a person, you (a) see something material, and (b) only see one thing. It agrees with resurrection theory that you need to get the body back if you’re going to get the person back. And it agrees with Platonism that (a) there is a legitimate distinction between the spiritual and material, and (b) without the spiritual, you don’t have a person.

As attractive as I find the hylomorphic view, however, I still tend to follow Plato. There’s a reason so many Christians adopted him so early, and kept coming back to him.

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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

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