The Good Question

A little piece written for _Christianity Today_ in August 2002.


The good question is: It is often said that the soul is the seat of the emotions, the intellect, and the will, but science has identified the brain as involved in all these functions. Please explain the difference and/or the relationship of the brain and the soul in all these functions.

This way of talking about the soul is rooted in the mistake of taking the soul to be the person, or at least to be what it is that is “personal” in us. That will always lead us into confusions. But the soul is such a fundamental dimension of the person that in scripture, poetry, oratorical language and in common life, it is often spoken of where the person is meant. Just work through the “soul” and “souls” passages in your bible from your concordance. You will see that sometimes—perhaps most of the time—the whole person is meant, and sometimes a deep dimension of the life of the person is meant.

The brain, by contrast, has only become of interest in the last few centuries, as the details of human anatomy have become increasingly known. Aristotle thought that the brain was a cooling system, while the real action of life took place in the heart, or lower still. The bible often speaks of the kidneys or belly as central to life. Today, of course, people in the scientific community tend to take the brain or DNA as central to life, and often as identical with life. This is because that community generally assumes, in practice if not theory, that only what is physical can be the subject of human knowledge, and the personal side of life then can be treated scientifically only if it is physical. It is rather misleading, at least, to say that “science has. . . such and such,” because there really is no such thing as a science which does this or that or says this or that. There are scientists, and they have to be individually responsible for what they say, which is rather more difficult than referring to what “science says.”

Clearly, however, there is in human beings a profoundly important connection between the states and events of the brain and the states and events of personal existence. Of course that is not true of all personal beings. God, according to our best information, does not even have a brain, and seems not to suffer the lack. (Everything is, as we know, a “no brainer” to him.) Also angels. Perhaps it is an advantage. But the exact nature of the connection between brain and person in human beings is the important question. (I encourage you to study William James’ lecture on “Immortality” for some ways of thinking about the connection that may not have occurred to you.)

Two things: 1). The person is not identical with their brain (or their DNA or their body as a whole). Why? Because there are thousands upon thousands of truths about the person that are not truths about their body. And there are many kinds of truths about persons that are not the kinds of truths that apply to the body or any part thereof. Inspect the brain etc. in any way you will, you will not find them or even know that they exist from what you do find there. Leibniz pointed this out long ago, and no satisfactory way around it has ever been found. 2). The particular body a human being has is essential to their identity and to their life. Through it we have a world to live in and become the person we become--forever. It is not just a container. That is why, in Christian thought, there is to be a resurrection.

Now in thinking about these matters we must always remember that the person is the unit of analysis: you, me. Thought, feeling, action (involving the body, as well as relations to others) are dimensions of the person. Also for the soul: it is that in us which combines all the dimensions of the person to form one life. It is like a computer system which runs an entire commercial operation. You really don’t want to hear about it. You just want it to work. When it is broken, however, you have to attend to it—and it fact only God can repair it. “He restoreth my soul.” Law and disciplines are also involved, but Grace—God doing in my life what I cannot do for myself—is the first and last word here. And law and disciplines are inseparable from Grace as they do their part.

So it is the person who is “the seat of the emotions, the intellect, and the will,” and also the “seat” of the soul, if we mean by “seat” that in which the soul is “located.” The soul is, arguably, the deepest dimension of the person or—as we often say today—of the “self.” But it is not the person. It is one non-physical dimension of the person (God too has a soul); and the human person is a non-physical entity—and in that sense a spiritual being—that has an essential involvement with a particular physical (later, ‘spiritual’) body.

The brain, then--which in itself is a piece of meat that is of more than usual interest--is one part of the embodied dimension of the human person; and it too is integrated by the soul into one life along with all of the dimensions of the person—at least when all is well.

These matters are especially important to be clear about today in Christian circles, where the soul is often treated as the recipient of salvation, and the other dimensions of human life are left out—especially the bodily and the social, but also thought and feeling. Redemption in Christ is a retrieving of the entire person from alienation from God and opposition to God. The soul is not some separable part of us that eventually gets to go to heaven while everything else about is left out.

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