Immortality of Soul, Creation Ex Nihilo: Qs and As on the Power of Reason Alone

Q: Is it really possible to explain, using reason alone, the immortal nature of the human soul, versus the animal soul? I understand that the ability to reason is particular to humans, but I don’t see how this proves our immortality. I believe it because the Church teaches it, but I can’t get it across to people who reject the Church.

I realize that the proof lies in the fact that there is no organ whose sole function is to reason, although we use the brain when we think, but I don’t see how we can know there is no such organ, with such certainty. If this can be understood using reason alone, it seems to me that there must be some relatively simple way of illustrating it.

A: I have to say that there really is not a way of illustrating a “simple argument” from reason to prove the immortality of the soul. A certain amount of philosophical reflection is necessary. Here are some principles that I remember from a course Brother Francis gave in psychology, which word literally means “the study of life,” The soul is defined as “the principle of life in a material being.”

To begin, we must know that to reason requires an act of the mind that transcends sense knowledge. Sense knowledge is material knowledge. It is what we, or animals, know from sight, hearing, taste, smell, or touch. Reasoning is an immaterial act, whereby the intellect abstracts from sense knowledge to grasp universal concepts, make judgments by linking concepts, and draw further conclusions from our judgments.

It is because animals only have sense knowledge (which includes memory, and, of course, instinct) that they can never improve upon what they do by instinct. Bees have been building the same kind of hives since they were created. Animals eat what their nature allows them to eat but they cannot plant seeds and build a farm. They know this thing and that thing but not the whatness or essence of a thing. They can do amazing things by instinct, but they always have been doing the same amazing things. Bees build hives, birds build nests, spiders spin webs, each type of spider spins its own type of web; it’s astounding to see. Beavers build dams; it’s even more amazing, but they’ve always been doing so — they store food for the winter in their own little cabin in the marsh, but that’s what their instinct dictates. They must store food and survive the winter.

Parrots have vocal cords. They can echo sounds and, like other animals, respond to stimuli. But parrots cannot put ideas together and compose a song of their own. Why not? Because they have no ideas, no language, just sense images, and sounds, in their material memory. Ideas are immaterial. We call them universals. We draw them from our sense experience, but they are in themselves beyond sense knowledge; they are immaterial concepts. An animal cannot know what a house is, a farm, a war, or more abstract ideas such as truth, justice, mercy, or love, etc. etc. God gave us the parrot and the ape to show us that no matter how human-like some of their behavior appears to be, they cannot think by way of abstract reasoning. If they could, gorillas would be planting banana trees, and parrots would be dictating symphonies. When irrational animate beings die, the soul that animated them ceases to act as a living form, it returns to the potency in mineral matter to become the “stuff” of some other living thing through assimilation.

So, if the intellect transcends the material in its act of reason, it must be immaterial. In this mortal life it needs the material organ of the brain to reason, just as it needs the eye to see. But the brain is strictly material, incomprehensibly intricate, as it operates with the nerve system, etc., but still confined to the material. Only a spiritual soul can comprehend the immaterial. That is why men have a language by which they produce an arbitrary sound to signify an idea, or invent an alphabet to signify the sound in letters, all in order to communicate to another mind an idea that is universal and beyond sense knowledge. The very fact that we can talk about “sense knowledge” proves that we have immaterial knowledge, a universal concept of “sense knowledge,” that is higher than sense knowledge.

Therefore, what operates in the immaterial realm — mind and will — must be immortal. There is no substantial change in an immaterial faculty, only accidental change. A body matures then it grows old and, at a point, it becomes incapable of taking in air and pumping blood, and so it dies. The body, being material, must die; that’s substantial change. Remember, I am speaking of natural knowledge. By Faith we know that God can re-create the body and make it immortal even though it will still be material. That which transcends the material cannot be subject to matter; it needs matter in this mortal life, but it is material things that are subject to the spiritual. You cannot put a bullet through the soul and kill it. Why not? Because it is immaterial life. Only the matter in a living and rational material being can decompose and die and thus change into something else. There is nothing to change an immaterial soul into something else, because immaterial substance is, by the very fact of its immateriality, incorruptible (in the physical sense).

Q: Some other questions occurred to me since you answered my previous questions about creation. First, isn’t instinct immaterial?

A: No.

Q: Aren’t all the powers of the soul immaterial? i.e. growth, reproduction, etc. If these are also immaterial, then how is it that they’re not immortal?

A: No, the three powers all material living beings have in common, assimilation of food, growth, and reproduction are not immaterial. These powers, like instinct, may appear to be, but they are all material processes. We tend to think of matter as non-living mineral, but matter can also be living, as it is in plants and animals, and man. Life is defined as self-movement. A material being that moves itself is living. The power of self-movement that God places in vegetative and sentient creatures is material. We call the form of plants and animals a soul because it is living, not because it is immaterial in any way. The soul of an animal is a material principle of life. There is nothing immaterial about self-movement per se. In man, of course, the soul has two spiritual faculties, intellect and will, which transcend matter. My will can make a decision not to scratch an itch, but when I automatically scratch an itch, without any conscious decision to do so, it is a material act, a human act, but not, as Saint Thomas would say by way of making a distinction, an act of man as man.

Q: Also, since you say the intellect needs the brain to operate in this life, how can the conclusion be reasonable that the intellect can go on living without the brain, even in the next life? Since sense knowledge comes from the physical body, and the intellect uses sense knowledge, how can the intellect go on without the ability to acquire sense knowledge? What I mean is, how do souls go on seeing in the next life, without eyes, etc.?

A: Yes, in this life, the intellect, one of the two spiritual powers of the soul, uses the brain as a material organ, which it uses in the reasoning process, by way of getting sensory data from it. Likewise, the soul, acting as the principle of life within us (that is, prescinding from the spiritual powers of abstraction and reason), uses the eye to see, the ear to hear, etc., in this life. In the next life, the separated soul will operate intellectually by way of intuiting forms. It will know things in a totally spiritual way, through pure forms, not through material bodies, spoken words, or sounds. When we speak of “form” in philosophy we are not speaking of the shape of a thing but of the essence of a thing. The form of a material thing, according to Aristotle’s doctrine of hylomorphism (hyle = matter; morphe = form), is what makes this matter to be the body of this thing, even if it is just a stone. Form is that which makes a thing to be what it is, rock, rose, dog, or man.

Perhaps if we speak of angelic knowledge the meaning of this term “form” will be clearer. The celestial spirits are pure forms, pure spiritual substances, they are not a composite of matter and form. Angels do not see colors by way of receiving light waves on material eyes; they know colors by way of knowing the essences of material substances that have such or such a color (quality) accidentally. Of course we cannot imagine this because our imagination is tied to material images. Nor do angels reason. They know the whole form of things by direct intuition. For example, they see immediately that the three angles in a triangle make 180 degrees. The principles and laws of the created universe were impressed upon the intellect of angels when they were created.

Another way to “look” at this is by knowing how an angel acts on material things. If the choir of angels called “powers” move the universe, which is a common opinion of the Church fathers, they do not do so by physical force, for they are not physical beings, but by volitional force. Muscles, big enough to move a planet, would be a hindrance, not a help to an angel. The angel knows the star that it moves, sees it intellectually, and moves it by wisdom and will power. Now back to the soul.

The soul of man is the form of the body, but because it is spiritual it cannot die. So, it will operate in the next life without the brain, in a new way of existence. It will not need the senses to receive knowledge, but will receive the reality of things  by direct intuition, without the accidents of color, etc. (I am speaking here of what Saint Augustine called “evening knowledge,” the blesseds’ knowledge of created things, in distinction to “morning knowledge, which is the beatific vision of God.)  My intellect in this life needs color to know a flower, but once I know what a rose is, I know the concept, the form. I do not need my eyes for that. It has entered into my intellect by way of its form, not this rose or that rose, but rose. This does not mean that angels, or separated souls, do not know individual material things. They certainly do know singular material things, but they know them without depending on the accidents that initiate sense perception. In fact, angels have a far more perfect knowledge of material things that men do. They intuit the nature or species of things immediately, much as Adam did before the fall. Here is a mysterious thing about the Genesis account of the Garden of Paradise. When God brought each of the different species of animals to Adam so that he could give them a name, it was not just any arbitrary word that the first man tagged to the species. It was a word that the intellect of Adam produced which best signified the nature of the animal.

So, too, in the next life, will the separated souls know. In the glorified state after the resurrection, the blessed will know reality to a far greater degree, even greater than Adam and Eve knew the essences of things before the fall. The caterpillar lives in its larva stage for about two weeks, then it goes to sleep forming itself into a Chrysalis pupa for ten days, then it is reborn as a butterfly, in which new state it lives for up to about six weeks. Like a0n analogous imitation of the resurrection of the blessed, the butterfly enters into a new life with greater capacities for action.

Q: Now, from what you have written before about God being the source of all being, I can understand how reasonable it is that our souls must have been created out of nothing. I can see how there would have been different ideas about the question of when the soul is created, before the dogma was defined. Thank you for that explanation and for the historical information.

It seems to me that reason alone can demonstrate the immortality of the human soul using the argument that justice, which reason shows to be imperfect in this world, must be perfectly distributed in the end. That would mean that there must be perfect justice in a life to come. Since God is perfect, it would make reasonable sense that He would not give us a hunger for justice without the means to have it fulfilled. Is this reasonable?

A: Absolutely.

Q: Does this not prove the immortal nature of the human soul?

A: Yes, assuming that the other person believes in one eternal God who created us. If so, one can use the perfected justice argument along with among many similar ones. You might also argue, for example, that all men, by nature, desire to live forever. Animals have self-preservation instinct, but no desire to live forever, because they have no will, just a sense appetite. Therefore, just as man has a natural desire for food to live (animals, too, by way of sense knowledge, appetite) and God provides it, so, too, it must  be so for immortality.  For even greater reason, all men desire to live forever; therefore, they would not have this desire in their nature, if it were unachievable. It is the soul in man, his spiritual will, that desires immortality, because the intellect knows (speaking by natural knowledge) that the body is mortal. Do you see reason here, transcending material knowledge? The mind knows that the body is mortal; nevertheless, the will desires immortality. Those who choose not to believe in life after death, do violence to their nature in so believing. They must deny in their mind what their will by nature desires.

Q: I have an unrelated question too: do souls have free will after death?

A: Yes.

Q: I know they do not change, so it seems there is no free will, but I think that we do have free will even after death, but somehow our souls are ‘locked in place’, as it were, in the state they were in at the time of our death. Maybe it has to do with the fact that at death the saved will all see God as He is, and since He doesn’t change, our reaction to Him would not change either.

A: The souls of the saved are more free after death than before. Why? Because the essence of freedom, liberty of the will, is to desire the good and to embrace the good when possessed. The will cannot by nature desire evil, because God only created good. Evil comes in when a free person chooses a false good, something that in itself, as a created thing, is good, but because seeking it inordinately, or in opposition to God’s law (whether the natural law or God’s positive law) deters us from our final end, the soul then loses the good it was created to seek. Evil, as Saint Thomas says, is an absence of that which ought to have been done freely in conformity with God’s will. In the next life the blessed possess the Good, and the ultimate desire, the Infinitely Good God, ceases to be longed for because He is possessed. Freely, then, the soul rests with the Infinite Good and freely it loves the Good. And, too, freely it desires the Good (the possession of God in the beatific vision) for those who are still seeking it, or ought to be seeking it, while they act in their mortal life. Freedom is achieved in affirming the truth, conforming the mind to reality; slavery in the rejection of truth. We are only truly free when we choose to know the truth and possess the good. The fact that we could have chosen evil does not make us free, but the act of choosing the good does make us free. Jesus confirmed in word what He put in the heart of every man when He said: “The truth shall make you free.”

Q Is there a way of arguing, using reason alone, that our souls were created, and not existent from eternity?

A: I believe that Saints Thomas and Bonaventure differed on the question of whether or not creation from nothing could be discovered by reason alone without divine revelation. I suspect it was Saint Bonaventure who held that human reason ought to have discovered creation from nothing, but through sin and dullness of the intellect man began attributing eternal existence even to the material universe. On the other hand, Saint Thomas held that man could not reason to the concept of creation from nothing, but that the doctrine had to be revealed. Plato, as you know from your history of philosophy course, believed in the pre-existence of souls, but when joined to the body their memory of that pre-existence was erased. Some early fathers of the Church believed that the soul was generated with the body, so, like the body it was traduced with the “seed” of Adam. This was called “traducianism.” In this view only Adam’s soul was created directly by God out of nothing.

So, to answer your question, I would say that reason alone cannot prove the creation of the soul (or anything else for that matter) directly by God out of nothing (ex nihilo). Reason can offer good arguments for such, but it cannot prove it. For instance, Saint Thomas argues that that which participates in being (analogously, not univocally, when we speak of our being and God’s) must have received it from the Being who has His existence eternally, of Himself. Being cannot come from non-being. Saint Thomas did not believe, however, that man could arrive at the truth of creation from nothing by reason alone. Once creation had been revealed by the word of God, then one could argue from reason that creation from nothing is most reasonable, basing one’s premise on God’s omnipotence.

One could also argue, therefore, that the soul had to have been created, as indeed everything that is not God had to be, or else it would be a finite part of the Being of God (pantheism), which error would negate the essence of God, which is His self-existence, oneness and simplicity. So, it was revealed to Moses when God gave him His name: “I am who am.” By reason man ought to know that the uncreated God cannot “create” another God. The contradiction is self-evident. God must be one, His Being must be One; reason can arrive at this truth unaided by revelation. Unaided reason also ought to be able to see that there can be no emanations of lesser divinities from a supreme God, as the pagan Greeks and Romans believed in their polytheistic mythologies. God, who is pure Spirit, is One, Infinite, and indivisible; He is Simple, having no parts, and incommunicable. There were all kinds of monisms in early philosophy that made God and creation one being. This is still the essential tenet of Buddhism, for the Buddhist multiplicity and person (the self) is an illusion that must be shed in order to be dissolved into the cosmic monad. This is contrary to reason. The very idea of God necessitates that He be One. He cannot share His being, which is indivisible and incommunicable, without losing His Oneness by division into multiplicity of being. Arguing in this way one can reason that all souls must have been created from nothing, by the Omnipotent fiat of God.

By Faith, however, we know that the human soul is created at conception. The fact that it is the substantial form of the body was defined as a dogma of faith by the Council of Vienne in 1311. Since the soul of man is rational, it was a theological conclusion, supported by the definition of Vienne, that the soul is therefore spiritual and thus requires a special creative act by God (in whose image and likeness we are made) to bring it into existence as the form of the body at conception.  Thee composite of body and soul make man, who is a rational animal, a complete substance with a rational nature. With the definition of the Immaculate Conception, it is now de fide as to the moment when the rational soul is created — at conception.