I seem insufferably unable to write something on Descartes and the soul. I don't know what's wrong with me.
Here is an attempt.
Our current understanding of the soul probably has as much to do with René Descartes, the “father” of modern philosophy, as with the Bible or historic Christianity. Prior to Descartes, the soul was principally the seat of life, the life force. However, after Descartes the soul principally becomes the center of our thinking. The soul becomes the part of us where my “I” most truly resides. It becomes like a little escape pod with the real me in it, the part of me that detaches from my body at death and survives with my personality and memories intact.
We mentioned back in chapter 7 that people in the sixteen hundreds increasingly viewed the world as a machine that ran on its own according to natural laws. Before this time, people often saw the spiritual world as a material world like the physical world—only made up of much thinner material like ether or fire. So Descartes practically invented the distinction between the natural and the supernatural when he wrote the following:
"I am talking about 'nature' in a narrower sense than when it means the total of everything God has given me. In that meaning, nature includes things that only have to do with the mind (and I am not including those things when I use the word 'nature'). Descartes, Meditations 4 (2nd ed.)
Nature for him did not include the things of the mind or the soul, only the “narrower” sense of the machine of the world, governed by laws God had built into the world. The supernatural thus referred not to these sorts of material things but to immaterial things like God, angels, and the soul.
The core elements of Descartes’ understanding of the soul probably look very familiar, even though they are largely foreign to the Bible. For him the soul is the part of me that is truly me, the part that thinks, has my personality, holds my memories, and that survives death. Other aspects of Descartes’ view will seem a little more bizarre. For example, he thought the soul largely engaged the body at a little gland in the brain called the pineal gland. It was not truly attached there and Descartes struggled to figure out how it could so influence the body when it was not really connected.
However, as our understanding of the brain has advanced, we have found a physical basis for every element in Descartes’ soul. Anyone who has known someone with Alzheimer’s disease has witnessed how closely connected memory is with the physical ganglia of our brains. Tangle those neurons and the memory goes away. Most psychology courses at some time also mention Phineas Gage (1823-60) as an example of how closely related the front part of our brain is related to our personalities. Gage was apparently a hardworking and responsible individual prior to an accident in which a rod blew through the front of his brain. Afterwards, he was rude and used profanity, showing little self-control.
In other words, brain research can identify various parts of the brain involved in everything from emotions, to choices, to memories, to thinking, indeed to religious experiences. Of course the fact that these parts of the brain are involved in such things does not necessarily mean that we do not have a soul. It is simply to say that it is not clear that we need to resort to a soul to explain these things. Further, we know that messing with the brain also messes with our thinking, feeling, choosing and so forth. What role a soul might play in these functions is unclear. In the final section of this chapter we will discuss what a Christian perspective on a human being might look like with and without recourse to us having a soul.