Lesson 6: Critique of Contemporary Understanding of the Human Person

1) We have seen that modern thought began with Descartes' subject-object dualism. He split the human person into the material substance of the body and the spiritual substance of the mind. For the Idealism of Continental European philosophy dominated by Kant this has led to the notion that the material world is a mental construction or at least that all we know of that world is the models that we impose on it. For Kant these were firmly rooted in universal mental categories. Today they are often seen as shifting pseudo-foundations created in the interest of special groups. Thus the human person becomes primarily a self-conscious "subject" opposed to the "objects" of the world that of themselves are without relation to human interests and purposes, mere stuff for human technological manipulation. For Empiricism this has led to the materialistic "mind-body problem" and the assertion that the human mind is identical with the operations of the brain and will someday be replaced by "artificial intelligence." Analytic philosophy struggles to overcome these controversies but without much success.

2) In an Aristotelian epistemology what we are most certain of is the reality of the changing bodies evident to our senses as their nature is analyzed in terms of abstract, intellectual concepts by natural science. As this scientific study of nature unfolds it makes evident that what specifies animal and human behavior is the human ability to form abstract concepts and thus to distinguish the essential features of the changing world from its irrelevant and chance features. This is evident in abstract human language as distinguished from the concrete signaling of animals and in the very possibility of natural science and technology that depend on abstract thinking, as is evident in mathematics. Because we can think abstractly we also have freedom in the choice of possible means to ends as is evident in the variety of human cultures and inventions and our political and moral debates. Only when we find an animal that can do physics and invent a computer will we have to abandon are claim to be the only "rational animals" and hence the only persons in the visible world.

3) Yet in Aristotelian epistemology it is also evident that such specifically human intellectual behavior still depends on our senses that, though living, are bodily and material. Hence, contrary to Platonism and Cartesianism as well as Materialism, there is an essential interdependence and unity in the human person between body and soul as the spiritual form of the body. The brain, therefore, is only an instrument of our intelligence not its organ. The brain is only the organ of internal sensation that processes data from the external sense organs. Intellectual insight and reasoning, on the other hand, are spiritual functions that require this processed sense data but are not, as such, merely brain operations. As we use a computer to help us to think, so we must use our brains, yet as a computer does not actually think, neither do our brains.

4) Our free will, since it depends directly on our intelligence, is also a spiritual faculty; but just as we cannot think without sense organs and brain, so we cannot will without affective drives such as hunger, sex, aggression, etc., that are bodily functions involving nerves and hormones. Our "emotions" or "feelings" are bodily sensations that follow on changes in the body that result from the stimulating of these affective drives when certain images arise in our external and internal senses. I feel hunger in my body when I smell or imagine good food.

5) Modern psychology has taught us a great deal about the complexities of human behavior and human relationships, but idealism and empiricism in natural science have often led either to a dualistic or a materialistic conception of the human person that is inadequate to our experience of being human. Such psychology tends to split into an emphasis on the study of the nervous system and the use of drugs in treatment of nervous disorders on the one hand or an emphasis on psychoanalysis, existential therapy, or cognitive therapy on the other. The Biblical account of the human person is richer in its understanding of the human person in community than is much modern psychology. Hence the theologian needs to find ways to relate these two pictures of what it is to be human.


Read Benedict M. Ashley, O. P. and Kevin D. O'Rourke, O.P., Health Care Ethic: A Theological Approach (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 4th edition, 1996), Chapter 1, "On Being Human," pp. 3-21.


1) What distinguishes human persons from animals?

2) What distinguishes human intelligence from the human senses, interior and exterior?

3) What is the relation between the soul and the body in the human person?

4) Is the human intelligence identical with the operations of the brain?

5) What is the distinction between cognition and affectivity in the human person?


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