[Continued from Part Aleph. You can find the podcast thriller 7th Son, read by author J. C. Hutchins, at www.jchutchins.net and Podiobooks.com — and I can assure you that it moves a heckuva lot faster than what you’ll read below. But don’t stop now …]
The first question is obvious: What is a soul, anyway? We can all agree that there is a difference between a living human being and a newly dead corpse, and that this difference is related somehow to intellect, will, and dreaming — but exactly what is it? What do we mean when we use the word soul in connection with Father Thomas and his fellow clones of 7th Son?
Let’s start with what we don’t mean.
“Good morning, Mr. Data. Coffee?”
First, we don’t mean the physical body alone, or anything generated solely by the physical body. While at first glance that seems a no-brainer, one popular view maintains that consciousness and the mind are analogous to the glow of the filament in a light bulb. When you cut off the electricity, the glow disappears. Similarly, when the body ceases to live, consciousness and the mind die away with it. We may call this naturalistic position a “mechanist” view. It’s popular today, but it isn’t a new idea. At the time of Christ it was the position held by the Saduccees, who believed in neither angels nor resurrection.
If this position is true, and everything that makes a person unique ceases to exist at death, then humans are closer to SFF’s sentient machines than we might have thought. If a human body could be reanimated, then (unless that body has changed significantly) the person should simply reappear, like the light shining again from a repowered bulb — and like C-3PO, whose switched-on/switched-off experiences provide comedic moments in both Star Wars trilogies. Similarly, Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s early episodes feature human (or undifferentiated humanoid) characters who die and are brought back to life without discernible change (except in legal status such as marriage). In this respect they seem little different from the android Data, who wishes to be human. Turning him off and on doesn’t appear to change his nature, and, courtesy of specialized circuitry, he dreams and experiences emotions. If the mechanist view is true, then he is more human than he knows.
The mechanist view also appears to underlie one case of a human-machine middle ground, namely the movie Robocop. When policeman Alex Murphy is gunned down, he not only is left for dead but has in fact died. Whereupon his brain is extracted, housed in a mechanical body, and powered back up. The personality expressed by the resulting entity, Robocop, appears to be Murphy’s: Over time Robocop increasingly talks like Murphy, echoes Murphy’s mannerisms, dreams of being Murphy — and in the closing moments of the movie he declares that he is Murphy.1 The viewer has no reason to say that he is wrong. For a while, Murphy was not; now, once again, he is.
“My heart will go on …”
As 7th Son makes clear, however, Father Thomas is no mechanist. Indeed, if he were, his situation would be easier to bear. His nightmares are those of a man without a home beyond the earth: both heaven and hell are the proper destinations of souled beings exclusively. His case, by contrast, is like that of the hapless man in the 1950 Charles Randolph Grean song “The Thing,” who finds that everyone rejects him because of the unspecified but repulsive “thing” he has found, and no one but no one will take it off his hands. Even when he dies, St. Peter tells him, “Get out of here with that (BOOM ba-BOOM) and take it down below!”
For Thomas, the problem is not what he has with him, but what he doesn’t have. He is convinced — and in his dreams a bullying Christ gloats — that as a manufactured “fleshling” he has no soul. Neither heaven nor “down below” will have him; nor could he even find a place in the limbus patrum or “Limbo of the Fathers,” the realm of happiness assigned by Catholic tradition (although not the most recent catechism) to pre-Christian righteous men and women, for since Christ’s descent into hell and ascension the limbus patrum no longer exists. Where, then, will he go when he dies? — and for all he knows, if the opposition has its way, that day is coming soon. Compared to the afterlife of loneliness that Thomas fears,2 a mechanist cessation would be a relief. But he is convinced that he will continue — and aye, there’s the rub.
In this respect, most of the rest of the world would agree with him. The mechanist view, popular though it may be among those who would deny the supernatural, is not history’s majority view. Throughout humanity’s lore one finds belief in a conscious existence after death. The multitude of non-Western religions assume it, as do most (if not all) belief systems encountered by missionaries and explorers among cultures that have not had previous contact with the larger world.
For us, to conceive of no longer existing at all is usually intolerable; instinctively we flinch from the idea. “Immortal soul” often seems redundant. Even Hamlet did not mean “to be or not to be” absolutely; rather, he meant to be or not to be here, on earth. Otherwise he wouldn’t have struggled with the choice between the pains of life and the nightmares of “that sleep of death.” His solution would have been simple: step 1, insert bodkin; step 2, bring down the curtain.
“This body’s not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through”
Second, by soul we don’t mean a conscious being that has its identity apart from the physical body — a position we could call the “envelope” view. Pre-Christian Greek philosophers dealt with this idea in a variety of ways, many of which are discussed in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Many saw the soul as an extension of a “world-spirit” that pervaded the cosmos (rather like the Star Wars Force in reverse — life doesn’t generate it, but vice versa); the Pythagoreans, in fact, spoke of the mathematical structure of the human soul as reflecting that of the universe, both of them perfect. For those familiar with the Platonic Ideas, it will come as no surprise that Plato likewise considered the human soul to be a reflection of the cosmic soul (although he did not hold that immortality automatically went along with either one).
Note that we have not seen here any definition of the soul in terms of the body. Rather, a phrase found in classical Greek philosophy describes a common attitude: “Soma sema” — “The body is a tomb.” Often we have the sense that all is not right with the world, and for Plato this was especially true of human makeup. The immaterial is trapped within the material, and thus cannot be properly itself. (We can see how later Christian Gnostics combined this notion of imprisonment with their view that matter was evil and thus untouchable by God.) Note also how compatible this “envelope” view is with systems that involve reincarnation: if the soul can be viewed independently of its physical envelope, then, likely as not, it existed prior to being put into the envelope and would exist when taken out.
Modern SFF is quite comfortable with the idea of the human personality as something independent of the body. From time to time the genre even considers the possibility of having the essence of one person occupying the body of another (see, for example, Ian Wallace’s novel Croyd, which the author listed as one of his “Adventures of Minds-in-Bodies”; the original Star Trek episodes “Return to Tomorrow” and “Turnabout Intruder”; and Kenneth Bulmer’s novel The Doomsday Men).
A little o’ this and a little o’ that
The position Thomas himself holds is neither a mechanist nor an envelope view. For as Mr. Rennie points out, the Judeo-Christian idea of how we’re put together differs fundamentally from its predecessors. And Father Thomas is very much a product of his doctrinal education.
For a third option, then, we go to Genesis 2:7. There we see that a human being is a combination of material and immaterial substances: into a body formed from earth-derived materials God breathes “the breath of life.” The result, in King James language,3 is not a man who has a soul, but who is himself “a living soul.” He cannot be divided into independent parts, but is always a single being — which, incidentally, requires a final resurrection of the dead.4
The Hebrew Bible speaks uniformly of human beings as having material and immaterial components, which we may term flesh and spirit. Together they make up the “living soul.” Much of the Greek New Testament, with its Jewish background, continues this usage. The letters of Paul, the “apostle to the Gentiles,” uses “soul” (psyche) in a somewhat different sense, but even he appears to speak of it in a technical sense: the “flesh” is the physical body, with its needs and appetites and weaknesses, the “spirit” is the immaterial component as it connects with God (just because the New Testament refers to the spirit of the unbeliever as “dead” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist; rather, it’s cut off from God and unable to remedy that situation), and the “soul” is the immaterial component as it interacts with the body and the physical world.
“What kind of fool am I?”
Let’s stop at this point and ask, then, what this means for Father Thomas. He is arguably a human being: he has a human body (Project 7th Son should know; they built it), and he has demonstrated all the visible traits of a human personality over his decade-and-a-half of actual life. (What’s more, he’s honestly concerned about his standing before God, which itself is significant — would a truly “soulless” person care?5) If he has no “soul,” or rather no human spirit, it would require that his immaterial component be qualitatively different from that of other human beings.6 If it were, and it could be proven to be so, then we have two options:
- The spirits of the seven Beta clones — Thomas and his clone-brothers — came from a different or “alien” source, and have properties yet to be determined.
- The Beta clones are the first recorded “Robocops” in history.
The “Robocop” option is one I am convinced Thomas would reject (I certainly would), for it requires the introduction of an entirely new kind of being, one that has never been seen since life began (“But human clones have never been seen either!” Are you sure? We’ll address that shortly). This option would thus violate Ockham’s Razor — a principle that’s usually translated along the lines of “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” — or, paraphrased, “Don’t haul in more outside elements than you have to to solve the problem” — and therefore we should consider other possibilities first. The “alien” option, even if it were true and didn’t have the same difficulty as the other, would mean only that Thomas has a different kind of “soul,” not that he lacks one altogether. And it doesn’t necessarily exclude him from acceptance with God; that would be determined by the “belief” test, which we will consider later.
Either way, Father Thomas’s fears have not yet found solid ground.
[To be continued in Part Gimel, in which we consider whence and how the human being obtains a spirit in the first place.]
- Indeed, the movie can be viewed as a story of the human spirit reaffirming itself even in a mechanical prison — an analogue for American humanity in its industrial society. The tin man hasn’t gained a heart; rather, he never really lost it. He simply needs to discover it again. [↩]
- Indeed, I would suggest that such an existence — cut off not only from God but from everything else — is the very essence of hell. [↩]
- Which is not only appropriate but mandatory, since the question of the soul originated among believers whose theological language was shaped by the King James Version and its predecessors rather than more modern translations. [↩]
- The obvious question is, what happens to the person between death and resurrection? For the individual person does have an interim existence; the Bible refers to it from time to time. The answer is: insufficient data. Some have proposed an intermediate body, and at this point I’m inclined to agree with them. I wouldn’t insist on it, however; I’ll only say that without the body the person is incomplete, and whatever interim condition it is found in is necessarily temporary. Extended, perhaps, but temporary. [↩]
- Occasionally pastors get inquiries from anxious people who fear that they have committed an unpardonable sin, such as the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” referred to in Mark 3:28-30. One frequent response is that the very existence of such a fear indicates that this kind of sin has not occurred. If God has truly turned away from a person, one would expect that person’s consciousness of, and concern for, spiritual matters to dry up. [↩]
- One could argue that animals have no “souls” and yet they show evidence of thought, personality, and dreaming. I would suggest that the jury is still out on the first half of that sentence. In fact, I would prefer to work in the other direction, inferring from their evidence of thought, etc., that they do have “souls” (although not in the image of God) and, for all I know, immortal ones. [↩]