Saturday, April 11, 2015

Soul and Body: a symbiotic relationship

          One thing that especially struck me in the reading for Thursday's class was the idea which Albert has (though which presumably was current among more than just him) of the relationship between the soul and the body. Many things which Albert says either agree with modern thought or disagree in a way which could be emended without further ramifications. For example, we would all agree with the majority of his description of the elephant (large, strong, handy with its trunk, two varieties, etc.), while the part about the elephant's being scared of mice could be changed with no effect on the rest of the book (though perhaps shouldn't be changed, since it actually seems to be true!).

          The relationship between the soul and the body, however, fits into neither of these categories. Much of it is quite different from modern thinking, but only a subset of this is actually disprovable by modern scienceas, for example, the story of the couple whose thoughts during sexual intercourse affected the appearance of the fetus they conceived (p. 1443). This is especially important because of the essential character which this relationship has in Albert's book.

          In modern scientific thought, it is not unusual to think of the mind (or soul) as something essentially part of the body, or rather an emergent property of the body. As such, we are perhaps accustomed to think of the mind as something with a very close connection to the body, but not really on a par with it. Albert's idea, on the other hand, is based on the belief that the body and soul were created togetherif not precisely as equals, at least in a sort of partnership. This seems to mean that the soul (or mind), for Albert, is in one sense closer to, yet in another sense further from, the body than we think of it today.

          On one side of this near-paradox, the soul is closer to the body when it has direct and immediate effects on the body. The aforementioned story of a couple's thoughts having a drastic influence on their child is one example of this; another is the idea of a human's becoming like a beast when "discarding...the honor of his humanity" (p. 1445). Such a saying, though still current today, actually makes more sense in Albert's presentation: instead of simply doing things which a beast might do, the person who becomes like a beast approaches the nature of the beast in his soul, and thus in his essence and body as well.

          The close relationship of the soul to the body is also pointed to when Albert discusses the origin of sperm. He follows Hippocrates's idea that sperm comes from the brain. I don't know what exactly was the state of neurology at the time of Albert's writing, but given that as old an authority as Galen considered the brain to be the seat of the rational soul, I surmise that Albert considered this to fit quite well with his own ideas of the relationship between the soul and body. Since sperm was, as we discussed in class, considered to be more or less the basic essence from which a human would grow, the idea of sperm descending from the brain to the rest of the body would tend to provide quite a good example of how soul and body work together to form a complete person.

          On the other side, the soul is simultaneously further from the body when it is recognized as a distinct entity from the body, one which has its own existence apart from the body despite the fact that mundane experience tends to encounter them together. This is of course what we would expect from Christian doctrine, but it is also what allows the soul to have the effect, above noted, that it is said to have on the body. Its influence was not thought of only in terms of nervous impulses, as it generally is today; thus it was easier to consider many ways in which the soul could affect the body. In this way one might say that the closeness of Albert's idea of the relationship between soul and body was predicated on his idea of their distinction.

          How might this be applied to Albert's main idea, the understanding of animals? I'm sure there are several ways, but the one that occurs first to me is what it means for those exemplary animal behaviors. When Albert thinks of an animal and a peculiar behavior which it performs, he does not think of it empirically but rather purposefullyand with good reason, since in his view, the soul is as important as the body in many or all physical behaviors. It is not so odd to take edification from an animal when its characteristic behaviors have roots in a soul which, while different from one's own, is by no means utterly so.

Luke Bretscher

1 comment:

  1. I think we need a more precise definition of the soul here to make sense of what Albert means by the soul's being able to affect the body. There is the soul as the Aristotelean "form" which is properly speaking the final cause of the body, the "end" for which it is made, to give expression to the form. The analogue sometimes suggested in this context would be the genetic code which is expressed through our proteins, although obviously this is not the same thing as a soul because the code itself is not alive ("memetic" though its propagation might be!). For Albert, our behaviors and faculties are in some sense "encoded" in the soul, but conversely, the soul can be affected by our behaviors and faculties--epigenetics, perhaps? I am not suggesting that our genetic code explains the soul (very much not!), but rather trying to find an analogue for how Albert is thinking the soul and body interact. RLFB

    P.S. I wonder in the Elephant vs. Mouse test that they didn't try a different animal under the dung.