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My Soul Is Not Me: Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature and the Afterlife

Adam Wood

...Grampa, being dead, isn’t in heaven or anywhere else. He doesn’t exist. But his soul does.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Wheaton College
September 26, 2016

If you’ve watched more than one or two sporting events in your life, you’ve probably seen this kind of interview:

Reporter: “Your Grampa so-and-so [or some other relative] recently passed away. Tell us about the impact that’s had on your drive to succeed in these games.”
Athlete: “Well, I know that Grampa is still there watching me and is happy to see me succeed.”

Or something like that. Now, this would never happen, but suppose the reporter were inquisitive and insensitive enough to follow up the athlete’s remark with:

R: “Wait—what? You think Grampa’s still around? Where is he?”
A: “In heaven, of course!”
R: “But didn’t you see him buried?”
A: “Only his body! His soul is in heaven.”
R: “I thought you said he was in heaven.”
A: “Obviously. He’s a soul in heaven!”
R: “Without a body?”
A: “Right.”
R: “But he’s conscious, knows what’s going on with you here, and is happy about it?”
A: “That’s what I’m saying.”

I think that’s how the conversation would go, provided the athlete were very patient with the obnoxiously philosophical reporter. I also think most Christians I’ve met would endorse something like the view the athlete outlines. They’d say that when Christians die, they go to heaven, where they exist as disembodied but conscious souls, present before God, and awaiting the Day of Judgment and resurrection.

In recent years this view has come under attack from a variety of directions. Neuroscientists and philosophers of mind point out the close dependence of conscious experience on brain activity. Many argue that consciousness is nothing over and above brain activity, and that human persons in general are nothing over and above their physical bodies. Biblical scholars and theologians point out that Christianity’s focus, when it comes to the afterlife, is on the bodily resurrection, rather than the immortality of the soul. The latter doctrine, some have suggested, is really an encroachment from Greek philosophy that Christians are under no obligation to accept. Christians await new heavens and a new earth, but not necessarily that we “go to heaven”—entering a conscious but disembodied state—when we die. Philosophers of religion, finally, have proposed various ingenious strategies for explaining how God might raise deceased humans from the dead even if we are totally destroyed by death, and entirely cease to exist for a time. These attacks all come from perfectly orthodox, card-carrying Christians, too. Perhaps we’re seeing a comprehensive rethinking of Christian views about the afterlife, even if it has yet to influence the views of professional athletes.

Is this rethink a good thing or a bad thing? That’s a complicated question, and I won’t try to answer it directly. Instead, I’ll invite you to consider a third position—that of the thirteenth-century Dominican priest, theologian, and philosopher Thomas Aquinas—which accepts and rejects aspects both of the widespread contemporary view of the afterlife and the ongoing rethink. Though some of its components were controversial even in Aquinas’s day, and remain so now, I think it represents a surprisingly attractive way for Christians to think about life after death.

Heaven and Human Nature: Thomas Aquinas on the Afterlife

I’ll unpack the four main claims Aquinas’s view involves, then highlight a few of its attractive features. I should note, though, that interpreting Aquinas is not always a straightforward matter. I’ll flag controversial aspects of my interpretation with a footnote—those who are interested can read about them further below.

Claim #1: Human persons are not souls.

Human persons are not souls. Nor do we become souls at our deaths. As he puts it in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15, the “soul is not the whole human being, but only part of one: my soul is not me.”
1
 Instead, humans are bodies. More specifically, we are living bodies—we are organisms. And not just any kind of organism. We are animals, capable of interacting cognitively with our environment. Indeed, we cognize our environment at a peculiarly high level, compared with other animals, endowing us with the ability to talk and reason about our surroundings with one another. We are, in short, for Aquinas, rational animals.

Claim #2: Having a soul has nothing directly to do with having consciousness or free will.

While humans do have souls, having a soul has nothing directly to do with having consciousness or free will (as many contemporary philosophers believe). Instead, Aquinas thought of souls as whatever it is in living things that makes them alive. The job of an anima (Aquinas’s word for soul) is to animate non-living physical stuff into a living organism. Hence, for Aquinas, trees and squirrels have souls every bit as much as humans do. As far as what plays this sort of animating role, Aquinas had a proposal that biologists continue to find plausible today. What distinguishes an organism from a pile of dead physical bits is its organization. Living things are highly structured entities — structured at many different levels. At each level of organization new properties and abilities emerge. So on Aquinas’s view, a human soul is simply the overarching structure, configuration or organization that arranges our fundamental physical bits at various different levels such that we are able to carry out the characteristically human range of vital activities. It’s sort of like a blueprint for how to assemble a human, except that it’s a blueprint present within each of us.

“So it turns out that Aquinas’s general theory about souls enjoys some solid empirical support.”

As I mentioned, I think biologists continue to hold a similar view today. They don’t talk about souls, of course. But they do talk a lot about the structures of living things and the vital capacities that emerge at different levels of organization. So it turns out that Aquinas’s general theory about souls enjoys some solid empirical support. At any rate, most of what he has to say about souls is based upon empirical observations, rather than introspective data concerning consciousness or free will. Certainly Aquinas thinks humans are both conscious and free because we have the particular sort of souls we do. But thinking and making decisions are just two of the many vital activities we are able to engage in thanks to the particular way our physical bits are structured. So having a soul has nothing directly to do with consciousness or freedom. Despite this…

Claim #3: Thinking isn’t just brain activity, and can take place apart from brain activity.

Thinking isn’t just brain activity, and can take place apart from brain activity. Rational activities—thinking, reasoning, making decisions, etc.—are, in this regard, unique for Aquinas. When it comes to most vital activities, Aquinas would say that once you had the whole story about all the different bodily parts and processes they involve, you would know everything there is to know about them. Some vital activities—digesting food, for instance—might turn out to be tremendously complex. But, in principle, the natural sciences working together could give you an exhaustive account of how they happen, spelling out both necessary and sufficient conditions for their taking place.

Not so with rational activity. Aquinas gave various reasons for saying this. The best one, though, can be explained as follows.2 Rational activity has to be determinately about something or other. If I’m doing geometry, for instance, I need to be able to think about triangles, and nothing else. If I’m doing logic, I need to be able to reason in modus ponens, and not some other invalid argument form. But nothing bodily or physical is determinately about anything else in this way. Certainly physical items can derivatively have the feature of “aboutness” or “directedness” that I’m getting at here—what philosophers call intentionality. But on their own, they’re always indeterminate between being about multiple different objects. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein helpfully illustrates this point in a passage from his Philosophical Investigations:

Point to a piece of paper.—And now point to its shape—now to its color — now to its number (that sounds queer).—How did you do it?—You will say that you ‘meant’ a different thing each time you pointed. And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the colour, the shape, etc. But I ask again: how is that done?3

Wittgenstein’s idea is that the physical act of pointing—extending one’s index finger, say—can indeed be about or directed at something else: a piece of paper, a shape, a color, etc. But on its own it is indeterminate which of these items the physical act is about or directed at. The same is necessarily true, Aquinas would say, for any physical act—including brain activity.

“On Aquinas’s view, having my particular physical starting-point is essential to making me who I am.”

Aquinas certainly thought of brain activity as a naturally necessary condition for thought to occur, in the sense that, according to the natural laws discovered by our best science, thought depends on brain activity (he recognized that head trauma or drunkenness typically impair one’s ability to think). Yet for reasons like the one I just gave, he didn’t think any natural scientific account could spell out sufficient conditions for thinking. And that left open the metaphysical possibility of thinking taking place apart from its naturally necessary conditions, such as brain activity. This is precisely what Aquinas thought happens in the case of souls separated from their bodies; God supplies the necessary “food for thought” that is usually supplied by our sensory apparatus, including our brains. It’s a good thing our souls are able to survive separated from our bodies too, since Aquinas also thought that…

Claim #4: Unless our souls survive between our deaths and the resurrection, even God couldn’t raise us from the dead.

Unless our souls survive between our deaths and the resurrection, even God couldn’t raise us from the dead.4 First thing’s first: Aquinas did think that God is omnipotent. But omnipotence doesn’t mean being able to perform logically contradictory deeds, such as making round squares or painting walls white all over and black all over at the same time. And Aquinas thought the idea of bodily entity like a human being ceasing to exist, and then coming back into existence at a future point in time involved some sort of logical contradiction along these lines. Here’s why.

Recall my comparing human souls to a blueprint explaining how to structure a bunch of physical stuff human-wise. In a sense, each of us has the same blueprint. We are each structured human-wise, and not tree-wise or squirrel-wise. But each of us is also a unique individual. What makes me the unique individual I am, on Aquinas’s view, is the particular physical stuff that gets structured human-wise in each of our cases when we are born. It’s starting out with the particular physical bits that I did that makes me me. Subsequently, of course, my bits come and go. I remain me because the same overarching structure—the same soul—remains in place the whole time, preserving my unique identity. But on Aquinas’s view, having my particular physical starting-point is essential to making me who I am. And it’s a pretty plausible view, if you think about it. Could you have had different parents than you did? Or could you have originated from a different sperm and egg? Most people to whom I’ve asked these questions say no. But if they’re right, then here’s the upshot. Suppose something comes into existence in the future. It looks just like I did before I died, claims to have my memories, and so forth. Could it be me? Well, no—not if it originated out of different physical stuff than I did at my birth, since having my particular physical starting-point is essential to my unique identity.

“In many ways, Aquinas’s view shares more similarities with the reconsidered view many contemporary philosophers, theologians, and scientists have proposed.”

Fortunately, thought Aquinas, God doesn’t have to bring us back from the dead entirely out of nothing, because our souls have been there all the while, preserving each of our unique identities in the interim between death and resurrection. To bring us back to life, all God has to do is rejoin these blueprints to some physical stuff, and the resulting humans will be us.

The Advantages of Aquinas’s Approach

It might sound somewhat paradoxical for Aquinas to maintain that our souls, after death, carry on with our lives even while we’re not there to live them. But that’s precisely his view, and if it is indeed philosophically feasible, it provides him some interesting advantages over the two positions I sketched above.

Consider first the view that Grampa “lives on” after his death as a disembodied soul in heaven. There are notorious philosophical difficulties involved with the claim that human persons are actually non-physical souls. For example, how are such non-physical souls supposed to interact with physical bodies? Even supposing such difficulties could be resolved, though (and readers interested in learning how to do so should read Alexander Pruss’s blog post on the subject! Available here, there remains this question: why is the Christian tradition so insistent on the importance of a bodily resurrection? If human persons aren’t really bodies at all, but rather non-physical souls capable of existing perfectly well in heaven without bodies, then why would getting our bodies back be such a big deal? Having a body, after all, is often pretty inconvenient. Why would disembodied human persons, enjoying beatitude in God’s presence, need to return to embodied life? Aquinas has an obvious answer to this question. Disembodied souls aren’t human persons. They’re merely former parts of human persons who used to be alive, and who by God’s power will return to life on the last day.

“Fortunately, thought Aquinas, God doesn’t have to bring us back from the dead entirely out of nothing, because our souls have been there all the while, preserving each of our unique identities in the interim between death and resurrection.”

In many ways, Aquinas’s view shares more similarities with the reconsidered view many contemporary philosophers, theologians, and scientists have proposed. I’ve noted the way his theory of soul is rooted in biological observations. And Aquinas attaches far more significance to the bodily resurrection than the immortality of the soul. Still, the fact that Aquinas’s account of the afterlife includes souls persisting after our deaths may provide him some advantages over the views certain contemporary scholars have proposed. Perhaps the most significant of these can be illustrated by returning to our imaginary dialogue above. Pretend the reporter holds a view like the group of contemporary scholars I’ve discussed, and to boot is even less sensitive than I’ve already portrayed him. He decides to set the athlete straight:

Reporter: Look kid, you’re deluding yourself. Your Grampa isn’t in heaven, or anywhere else. He’s dead. He doesn’t exist. Maybe he’ll exist again in the future if God raises him from the dead. But he certainly isn’t aware of your success in these games (on which, however, congratulations!).
Athlete: (Stunned silence, verging into tears…)

Ok. I’m not suggesting that anyone would be so insensitive as to say this sort of thing to any grieving relative, professional athlete or no. But my point is that someone who endorses Aquinas’s view of the afterlife doesn’t have to. True, Aquinas would agree that Grampa, being dead, isn’t in heaven or anywhere else. He doesn’t exist. But his soul does. And it may well be aware of the Olympian’s efforts, may well be able to offer intercessory prayer for the grandson, and so on. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide how great an advantage it is for Aquinas to be able to offer this sort of consolation.

References

1. Aquinas, Thomas. Selected Philosophical Writings. Selected and translated by Timothy McDermott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 192. Some scholars think that, despite statements like this one from Aquinas’s Corinthians commentary, Thomas really did believe that once human souls are separated from their bodies at death, they become human persons. They think this largely because Aquinas attributes various person-like characteristics and activities to separated souls; they’re conscious, and capable of enjoying perfect happiness in God’s presence. But I think all this shows is that in Aquinas’s view, certain former parts of humans—separated souls—are capable of conscious activities. What chiefly convinces me this is right is Aquinas’s vehement denial that Christ was a human during the Triduum, even though Christ’s soul remained united to his divine nature during this period.

2. I’m giving a highly impressionistic rendering of Aquinas’s argument for the immateriality of the intellect in the first part of the Summa theologiae, question 75, article 5 (among other places). The advantage of the rendering I’m giving is that I think it’s actually a pretty good argument. The disadvantage is that it would take a lot of exegetical work to show that Aquinas himself had anything like this argument in mind. Many scholars, reading Aquinas’s own version of the argument in a more straightforward way, have reached the conclusion that it’s desperately flawed. They might be right, though I hope they’re wrong!

3. Wittgenstien, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 3rd ed. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968), 16e.

4. Strictly speaking, as far as I’m aware, Aquinas never explicitly claims that God couldn’t bring us back from total destruction (soul, body, and all). But I think there’s plenty of evidence that this was indeed his opinion on the matter. And if asked why he held this opinion, I think Aquinas would very likely offer something like the account I give here.

Photo: “Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas,” Francisco de Zurbaran, 1631 (modified)

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