What Is This Thinking Thing That I Am? Four Questions

images-2In searching for a foundation from which to secure knowledge, the Enlightenment thinker Rene Descartes stumbled onto what he took to be a belief that is undeniable: “I think, therefore I am.” That I exist as the thinking thing I am is as foundational (and obvious) a truth as any. Still, one wonders, what is this thinking thing that I am? In teaching on the nature of man, I’ve found it helpful to keep the following four questions, as Descartes might put it, “clear and distinct.”

First, there is the Ontological Question: Is man a body or a body and soul? The ontological question is interested in what kind of “stuff” I am made of. The dualist thinks man is composed of a (physical) body and a (immaterial) soul whereas the physicalist thinks man is composed of a (physical) body only. My answer to the Ontological Question: Man is a composite of body and soul (dualism).

Second, there is the Identity Question: What am I identical to? Viable options include “my soul,” “my body,” “my body-soul composite,” or “myself, which is constituted by my body, but not identical to it.” My answer to the identity question: (following J. P. Moreland): I am identical to my soul. I am a soul that has a body as a constituent part.

Third, there is the Relation Question (this question is relevant only if there is a dualism of some kind involved (constitutionee-constitutioner, body-soul, physical properties-mental properties, etc.) In its most common form, the question is: how does the body relate to the soul? Further sub-questions include: How do they interact? Is one dependent on the other, and if so, in what way? My answer to the relation question: There is a two-way causal interaction between the body and soul; my mind causally interacts with my body, and my body causally affects my mind.

Fourth, there is the Location Question: Where is my soul, if I have one, located? J. P. Moreland (a dualist) answers the location question as follows: “I” occupy my body as God occupies space, namely, by being fully present at each point throughout my body. In other words, “I” occupy my body, but I am not spatially extended throughout my body. Rather, I am a spatially unextended substance (an immaterial soul) that is present in my totality wherever I am located. Others, such as Descartes, think the soul is not literally in any of the space occupied by its body. Rather, the soul is completely non-spatial. Strictly speaking, it is nowhere.

These questions are important, and important to keep distinct. This is because one’s views on the nature of man have implications in all areas of thought and life including ethics (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, sexuality), religion (e.g., the afterlife, human flourishing), and science (e.g., the possibility of artificial intelligence, transhumanism, etc.).

For more on the nature of man see my post: The Kissing Argument Against Belief in the Soul.


One Response to What Is This Thinking Thing That I Am? Four Questions

  1. Pingback: Human beings: Self-creators, self-shapers, or determined? | Paul Gould

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