A few days ago, my teenage son Ethan asked me what a soul is. This spawned a deep philosophical and religious discussion, reminding me why I like teenagers. The conversation also revealed that he’s a heretic, but we’re working on that.
Definition of a Soul
First, let’s answer my son’s question. The human soul can be defined as the divine image in man, expressed as more than neurons and synapses, but as a profoundly theological, immortal, and rational self. In struggling to understand this, Ethan pointed to our dog and asked if that’s why animals react on instinct and appear to be controlled by their neuro processes rather than by conscious choices like humans can make.
Bingo! My son gets a gold star. In De libero arbitrio libri tres Augustine notes that animals can see, touch, smell, and utilize all their senses; they additionally possess an internal sense which we call “instinct.” While they can perceive and know things through perception and can act on instinct and through training, they lack understanding. Understanding exists in humans only, even though we have brain structures similar to other mammals. We can perceive the physical world as animals are able to, but our actions are not based on instinct and training alone. We take in information through our senses and reason through this information to make choices on what actions to take.
Augustine also noted that by using reason, we perceive that we have reason. If we did not have reason, we would not be able to contemplate whether we had it or not. It is through this use of reason that we can learn of things outside of ourselves that we cannot directly perceive.
So far, my smart kid is getting it. Then he asked if our body is just an empty shell that houses our soul. This is an important question, and one that trips up many people. There are those that say that our body is like a car. The person (soul) is inside the car (body), but the car is not the person. To that I want to say in my worst Irish accent, “That’s a bad analogy, Patrick.” (For those who aren’t familiar with Lutheran Satire’s Patrick videos, please finish reading my post, then go here and enjoy yourself.)
To be an alive human is to be an ensouled body or an embodied soul. Not only does man have a soul or conscience, but also that his soul is in unity with his body. It is not a mere stream of consciousness, but the consciousness of a person. The two are so tightly entwined that there is no way to separate them apart from death. The separation of the two is death. The full substance of who we are as human beings is body and soul together with each being the subsistence of the whole person. We are not made of two substances. Whatever happens to the body happens to the soul. Every experience we have shapes who we are. Babies that don’t get touched fail to thrive because the needs of the body are the needs of the soul and vice versa.
I don’t think Ethan quite understood that because then he asked which part sins. After a discussion in which I reiterated what I said about body and soul as one being, he indicated the dog and rightly pointed out that animals don’t sin that they just act according to instinct and training because they don’t have a rational soul. From there, he concluded that without the soul, it is impossible to sin.
It’s at this point that I called him a heretic and a reverse-Gnostic. (Before anyone gets upset, remember I’m talking to a 16yo who grew up in PCA and OPC churches. Besides, he calls me a heretic for my Anglican leanings.) I told him without a soul, the human body ceases to live, so yes, it’s impossible for a dead man to sin. As expected with talking to any 16yo male, the conversation about separating the soul from an active body degenerated into talk of zombies.