Why Think Humans Have an Immaterial Soul? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Joseph Owens’ book, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, argues for the existence of an immaterial human soul.  In part 1 of this post, we looked at three of his arguments for an immaterial soul: 1) the human intellect’s ability to know things as universals, 2) the human intellect’s ability to know in a way that transcends time, and 3) the human intellect’s ability to reason and pursue science.

In part 2, we will look at more reasons to think that there is an immaterial human soul.

First, Owens argues that man’s ability to reflect on himself entails an immaterial soul.  Material things cannot perceive themselves.  “An act of seeing or of any other external sense is always different from the thing it perceives.  It cannot perceive itself.”  Think of a movie projector at a theater.  The projector is able to project all sorts of images on the screen, but it would it be impossible for the projector to project itself on the screen.

But the human intellect is able to perceive itself.  Owens elaborates:

Men experience this self-knowledge through reflection.  The reflection is complete.  It is not a case of one sense perceiving the operations of another sense, as an internal sense attains the workings of the external senses.  It is a case of the intellect making itself and its own activities the object of its full reflective gaze. . . .  It is a complete bending back to view its own self.

Material things cannot accomplish this complete bending back, so the intellect must not be material.

Second, Owens explains that the human power of free will negates the possibility of a completely material intellect.  Why?  The acts of material substances are determined by their physical form.  If the human intellect were completely material, then all the actions of the intellect would be determined by physical processes.

Man, however, is aware that he has, at least sometimes, the power to choose without those choices being determined.  Owens explains, “This power cannot come to him from anything [material], for what is [material] is already determined to a definite way of acting. Free choice is an activity that functions beyond the limiting conditions of matter, and cannot proceed from a principle that is [material].”

To summarize, given the human intellect’s abilities of 1) knowing things as universals, 2) knowing things in a way that transcends time, 3) reasoning and doing science, 4) self-reflection, and 5) free choice, the intellect must consist of an immaterial component.  It cannot be completely material as material objects cannot do any of these things.

 

  • George

    Great post Bill

    Another rather simplistic way I thought of was if we took your brain out and put it on the table, would you say that is you, even if it was still working (it’s a thought experiment)…no. If we took your heart out and put it on the table and it was still working is that you? Even if I pointed to both of them fully functioning on the table, that is still not you, there is something more to “you” a particular essence beyond physicality and chemical processes. Would you say this is acceptable “proof”? I would appreciate any critical feedback if you think there is something wrong with this argument or if you think it works, either way your abovementioned post does a great job !

  • Andrew Ryan

    If you took my brain out and kept it working external to my body, I would indeed say that that was ‘me’.

  • Another rather simplistic way I thought of was if we took your brain out and put it on the table, would you say that is you, even if it was still working (it’s a thought experiment)…no.

    Just curious….on what basis would you say that?

    Imagine the same situation, but just consider hypothetically that “I” do experience the sensation of my brain sitting on the table; I’m conscious, I’m aware of some sensation, even if I don’t have eyes to convey literal visual cues, or ears to convey auditory ones. If, in this hypothetical scenario, I still experience an awareness on some level of my own existence, would you say that the brain is “me?” As in, if it were possible to take that brain and transplant it into a body capable of processing visual, auditory and contact cues, would that new body and brain then be “me?”

    After you ponder that question (and possibly answer it), please consider that there is a lot of evidence to say that the human brain does experience this sort of awareness within the brain itself, even completely devoid of sensory organs — the sensory organs, such as the eye or eardrum, only convey signals, not perceive them; the brain itself is where the signals are processed and utilized in a way that we perceive. All that the lack of sensory organs means is that there is a lack of input; but the input is not what makes “me” me, is it? I’d say that it is “me” that receives the input; therefore, “me” must be something that is separate from the input my organs receive and send to my brain for processing.

    It’s similar to an early embryo’s “consciousness;” at the time the brain begins to form early in a fetus’ development, the “awareness” that the fetus has of itself is strikingly similar to the “awareness” that a brain would have of itself, devoid of sensory organs — it would still perceive external stimuli, but would be unable to process most of it due to the lack of adapting organs (such as eyes or ears). But it could, for example, be aware of internal stimuli, such as the movement and interaction of neurons and neurotransmitters. It is “aware” of at least itself. And note that for “it” to be aware of “itself,” there must be an “it” which is capable of perceiving such awareness.

    ….sorry if that was confusing. I’ll be glad to clarify if something didn’t make as much sense as I’d like for it to have made 😮

  • P.S.

    It’s similar to an early embryo’s “consciousness;” at the time the brain begins to form early in a fetus’ development, the “awareness” that the fetus has of itself is strikingly similar to the “awareness” that a brain would have of itself, devoid of sensory organs — it would still perceive external stimuli

    That’s a typo, actually; it would still receive external stimuli, not perceive it (because it would have no sensory organs which allow it to transform the stimuli into an electrical signal of which the brain is capable of directly processing, thus “perceiving” it).

    The point was that with no organs, “I” would still be affected by stimuli even if I could not perceive them. So it would seem that there must be *something* that comprises “myself” which is separate from external stimuli, which is capable of directly perceiving those stimuli after my sensory organs have adapted them into a form that “I” am capable of perceiving — that would be the “me” that we are talking about when we say, “my eyes are working.” Whose eyes? “My” eyes — the eyes that exist separately from “myself,” which function for “myself’s” benefit.

    ….yeesh. That was even more confounding. Sorry!

  • Bill Pratt

    Andrew,
    To take this question further, what if science could figure out how to split the brain into ten pieces and locate them at some distance from one another, but still maintain the electrical connections between all ten pieces – the brain is still fully functioning. Where would you say “me” is?

  • Andrew Ryan

    In those ten places. Collectively. Unlikely scenario, but that’s what my answer would be.

  • Bill Pratt

    How can you be in ten places at one time? Does that not mean that there are ten of you?

  • To take this question further, what if science could figure out how to split the brain into ten pieces and locate them at some distance from one another, but still maintain the electrical connections between all ten pieces – the brain is still fully functioning. Where would you say “me” is?

    I know you asked Mr. Andrew, but I wanted to take a stab at answering this.

    It really depends on where, exactly, “me” is in the brain. Is “me” the entire brain (such that, if even a single piece were removed, I would no longer be “myselF”), or is there a specific region of the brain that corresponds to my “identity” (such that, if any other piece but this one were removed, I would still maintain “myself”)?

    Actually, recent neurobiology seems to imply a third alternative: that the sensation of the “self” is the result of a sort of “layer phenomenon” — multiple, overlapping processes within the brain that are “aware” (at some basic, instinctual, foundational level) of each other. When the pieces of the self are observing each other, they perceive the other parts of the self as “objects” separate from the self (this explains the phenomenon of “introspection,” or self-observation and self-editing). When they are observing something outside the united “self,” they perceive the united self as a whole, and the sense of “object/subject” duality within the united self disappears.

    This explains how taking away or changing a fragment of a person’s brain can drastically alter their personality (because their personality is the product of how the different systems within their brain interact and overlap, not any one of those systems by itself). That person’s “self” still exists, and they still perceive it, but it is altered noticeably if, for example, the person has a stroke and part of his/her brain dies. That part of the “self” no longer plays into the complex systems which result in that person’s “personality,” and so that person’s “self” as others see it (as entities that are separate from it) has changed.

  • How can you be in ten places at one time? Does that not mean that there are ten of you?

    It could be as simple as a matter of scale, really. Technically, right now “I” am in over a million places at once — each of those places are all the size of an atom! If “I” am an entity which exists on a large enough scale, then even if I existed in many places at once, then “my identity” may well exist in “one place” that is comprised of several separate places.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “How can you be in ten places at one time? Does that not mean that there are ten of you?”

    Why would it mean that? No reason I can see. You came up with the unlikely scenario of a functioning brain split into ten parts, not me. Allowing for your hypothetical, you would collectively be in those ten places, and there is still only one of you.

    I live near Greenwich, the centre of the world as far as time zones are concerned. It is possible to stand on the Premium Meridian line and be on both sides of the International Date Line at the same time. Doesn’t mean I have suddenly become two people!

  • David Medici

    I am, right now, in several different places. My hand and foot are separated by a space of about three feet. My hand is in some sense “me” (if you stabbed my hand I would say you stabbed “me”) as is my foot, but simultaneously I am aware that the thing I call “me” is both more than and separate from my hand and foot such that if either were dismembered from the rest of “me” the quality of me-ness would not be diminished with the loss of hand- or foot-function.