Why Think Humans Have an Immaterial Soul? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Another chapter from Joseph Owens’ book An Elementary Christian Metaphysics urged me to write.  This chapter has Owens explaining why he believes humans have an immaterial soul.

He first points out that “actions and reactions in the material universe take place under the conditions of singularity.”  He explains that an “individual ball hits an individual wall.”  The reason for this is that “matter in the real world limits a material form to being under designated quantitative dimensions of length, breadth, and thickness. . . . One throw with the shovel removes only one shovelful of earth.”  Things of matter are individual and singular.

Owens argues, however, that the human intellect attains things as universal, not just as individual or singular.

It knows a [thing’s] nature not as something restricted to the singular thing before its gaze, but as applicable to all individuals of the species.  It knows it in a way that breaks through the individuating conditions of matter.  It knows it in a way that is not possible for a merely material knower.  The universal way in which the human intellect knows things, therefore, marks it as a cognitive principle that is to a certain extent functioning independently of matter.

The human intellect is able to escape the individuality of matter because it knows things as universals.  For example, we can know what human means without seeing every single instance of a human.  We are able to universalize what a human is in our minds.

Secondly, Owens notes that the human intellect is able to know things in a way that transcends time.  Time and matter go together, so anything that eludes time is also independent of matter.

The individual sensible thing is continually changing from moment to moment.  As perceived by the senses, it is attained under these changing conditions.  A leaf is seen as swaying in the wind, as green in summer, as multicolored in autumn, as decaying and falling in the frosty weather.  Under the universal aspect of leaf, however, it is known by the intellect in a way that transcends time.  It is known under an aspect that can be applied to any leaf at any time, an aspect that does not undergo any changes with the passage of time. . . . In attaining its object as immune to the changes of time, the intellect is operating in a way that cannot have its source [in] matter.

Third, Owens argues that science and reasoning could not exist unless the human intellect could go beyond time and space.

The scientific reasoning of one man becomes the common property of all who pursue the science from one generation to the other.  The enormous body of knowledge is not lost with the death of the individuals who so far have been bringing it into being.  It is not limited to the conditions of individuation and change, conditions inevitably imposed by matter.  Scientific progress, accordingly, requires that the intellects through which it takes place function in a way that is independent of the strictly material principle in the knowing subjects.

In part 2 of this post, we will continue to look at the case that Owens builds for arguing that there must an immaterial part of man.