Do you ever think seriously about the soul? Consider the holy souls who have worked their time through purgation and are now waiting, very happily, for the Day of Judgment. In fact, from their point of view, not waiting at all. They are outside the realm of time. They experience no time between death and resurrection, just as there was no time for those who lived before Christ but benefitted, as the Creed assures us, from his redemption. While we have to use “time” words in order to express these mysteries in human language, that is no reason for interpreting them literally.
Ensoulment is an interesting concept. We encounter it at two major points: one is the ensoulment of the first human being and the other is the ensoulment of every human being at, or after, conception. How do we think this works? Perhaps God identified a member of the species homo erectus who, as the result of a mutation, was brighter than usual, and decided that this was worth a soul – and injected it. Similarly, he recognises the zygote (the first cell after conception) and does the same. I am not trivialising: this is how I know many Catholics think and, when I am not wary, I think myself.
The old (and splendidly scholarly) Catholic Encyclopaedia gives us: “The soul may be defined as the ultimate internal principle by which we think, feel, and will, and by which our bodies are animated.” And it goes on to speak of the faculties and the powers of the soul. Written 100 years ago, the Encyclopaedia was clear that these powers worked in some sense through and with the biological processes.
And nothing has changed, although our knowledge of the brain and, through types of scan, its functions has grown mightily. So much so that many neuroscientists, of a secular turn of mind, mistakenly believe that all of what we call the powers of the soul are determined psychologically.
We do not have to cross this Rubicon to grasp something of the integration between body and soul. Take, as an obvious example, our use of free will. We know that our decisions are so strongly influenced by our genetic inheritance, by our nurturing experiences and by the nature of our subjective perception, that it is hard to determine, in any particular instance, that our decision is free. Aquinas taught that virtue is a habit which makes us good and our work likewise. And we recognise habit as an outcome of strengthened neural connections; just try to imagine exercising any of the soul’s functions without the help of both instinctive and conscious memory.
Since the human soul works through biology, but in some mysterious way transcends it, it can make no sense to us to think of a human soul without its body. But of course we don’t have to, if we go from our mortal body immediately to our resurrected body. The alternative idea of souls, minus time and space, blipping immaterially around eternity seems odd to me. (Please don’t ask me about angels; they can furnish their own explanation if they wish.) I have parents, a brother and a sister, and a miscarried child in heaven. I can pray to or for all of them – confident that they know I am praying and that not a word is wasted. Exactly how is not yet my business to know.
One Catholic asked me why it is that God cooperates with immorality by giving a soul to a foetus conceived in a petri dish. This is a reasonable question if one accepts the injection theory of ensoulment. But if the soul, both naturally and supernaturally, is bound in with the body, then the creation of the body with its human faculties (through evolution, as I think, or otherwise) is the occasion of the soul. God cannot make a fully human body without a soul, for without a soul it would not be a fully human body.
Are new issues raised by the fact that the foetus is initially not capable of exercising the powers of the soul, other than the power of animation? I think not, because the human foetus is by intrinsic nature ordered to developing the required biological form for their exercise. Even the axis of the nervous system is affected by the entry point of the sperm at conception. I am not speaking of a soul that develops, but I am speaking of a developing body and brain, and that means that the ability of the soul to exercise its powers must similarly develop. For example, it will be a matter of years, not months, before a human being can exercise reason, notwithstanding our recognition that rationality is a cardinal characteristic of human beings.
In this matter I go back to Heraclitus, who famously said: “You cannot step in the same stream twice.” His doctrine of continuous change applies a fortiori to the human organism. We change and develop throughout our lives, stopping only when the bell tolls. A human life is a continuously changing identity. Even reading this column you have been subject to thousands of mutations: my hair has grown a little thinner, and all of us are nearer to our graves.
But feel free. I speak with no authority beyond the force of argument – although I do not think that my speculations on the soul take me outside the perimeter of orthodoxy. But if you disagree, or wish to take my speculations further, and tell us about it.