Archived Articles

What Makes Me "Me"?

Part Three

This is the third and final article in this series titled, What makes me, “me”? In comparing the philosophical works of Aquinas and Scotus, it was noted that Thomas Aquinas argued that in all finite being the essence of a thing is distinct from its existence. John Duns Scotus, disagreed with Aquinas. Scotus taught that you cannot think about essence, that is, what it means to be a particular thing, unless you think of that thing as existing. Aquinas taught that the soul is the substantial form of man. Scotus taught that the human body without the soul has its own form, the forma corporeitatis. Is there a distinction without a difference?

Let’s examine the definition and concept of soul talked about by both of these philosophers and what science and the medical community can and cannot teach us. I have pulled definitions of soul from a variety of sources.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul

The soul, in many religious, philosophical, psychological, and mythological traditions, is the incorporeal and, in many conceptions, immortal essence of a person…

dictionary.reference.com/browse/soul  

soul —n: 1. the spirit or immaterial part of man, the seat of human personality, intellect, will, and emotions, regarded as an entity that survives the body after death...

www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/soul  

SOUL 1: the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life; 2a: the spiritual principle embodied in human beings...

www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/555149/soul  

In religion and philosophy, the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being, that which confers individuality and humanity…

www.newadvent.org/cathen/14153a.htm  

The question of the reality of the soul and its distinction from the body is among the most important problems of philosophy, for with it is bound up the doctrine of a future life.

These definitions describe the soul as “incorporeal”, “immaterial”, “spirit”, or “essence”. The body is material, that is, physical. There is a clear distinction between that which is material and that which is immaterial. So what can we learn about each and how can it be learned?

Science is referred to as a system of acquiring knowledge. This system uses observation, study and experimentation to describe and explain natural phenomena. Information is obtained and tested through scientific method and is concerned with the physical world.

The many fields of science are commonly classified in two major categories: Natural sciences (the study of the natural world) and Social sciences (the systematic study of human behavior and society). The Natural sciences would include such fields as biology, chemistry, physics and earth science. Examples of the Social sciences would include political science, psychology, criminology, sociology and economics.

So science can study, describe and explain the physical body through the natural sciences and can explain human behavior through the social sciences, but as yet, it has no means or scientific method to observe, study, experiment on or explain that which is “incorporeal”, “immaterial”, “spirit”, or “essence”. The soul is beyond the scope of present day science. It is hard to say whether that will always be the case.

The medical community is noticing and noting something in its encounters with death and near-death experiences. More and more doctors, surgeons and emergency room physicians are writing books on this subject. One of the above definitions describes the soul as the “animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life. Perhaps we are witnessing the beginning of methodical observation of the soul or at least the effects of its presence or absence.

Could it be that both Aquinas and Scotus were correct? Thomas Aquinas argued that in all finite being the essence of a thing is distinct from its existence. Could it be that the essence, the soul, is distinct from the existence of the body and is in fact an immortal essence, an entity that survives the body after death as defined above?

Aquinas taught that the soul is the substantial form of man. Above, the soul is defined as the seat of human personality, intellect, will, and emotions. Scotus taught that the human body without the soul has its own form, the forma corporeitatis. It would seem that this is what the medical community and others surrounding the dying are seeing at the time of death. Is the difference between the moment before death and the moment after death the absence of the soul, the “animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life”?

We began this short series by asking what is it that makes me, “me”? Both philosophers and the above definitions would point to the soul as the answer to that question. As defined above, the soul is the “animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life”. The soul is “that which confers individuality and humanity”. The soul is the “seat of human personality, intellect, will, and emotions”. What an excellent description of what makes me, “me”!

Given these definitions of soul and its intense, intimate and integral connection to our existence and essence, there are two additional aspects of the definitions to be examined at a later date: “spiritual principle” and the philosophy that “with it is bound up the doctrine of a future life”. For more, watch for articles on near-death experiences and other related topics.

For the earlier articles in this series, see Part One and Part Two.