My “Conversations” with recent philosophers, theologians, and mystics over the past year have helped me reconsider some terms we commonly use in the investigation of what makes us human. The longer history of higher thought has continuously required us to make distinctions in what we had earlier grasped as “one thing.” The words individuum and atom once named basic and unbreakable units of reality. Now we have created numerous and sometimes competing disciplines for exploring the many parts of the individual and the atom.
Of course, these many parts can become disconnected in our minds, giving rise to further specializations that eventually leave us with so many scattered pieces that we might abandon all hope of ever recapturing a sense of the whole. This “sense of the whole” is what Abraham Heschel meant by wonder. Somehow, after or on the other side of all this mental business of dividing and defining reality into its many pieces, we need to pause and re-member – put them back together so we can appreciate the unity of being.
In that spirit, I want to pause and reflect on that fascinating bit of reality called a human being. And I want to engage this reflection in light of the philosophical commitments of perspectivism, constructivism, evolution theory and metaphysical nonrealism. These were commitments of my Conversation partners, and they are major features of our emerging postmodern worldview – which is still being worked out, by the way.
A human being is a trinity of body, ego and soul. Each of these terms names a particular standpoint in reality, a certain mental location, as it were, where we can take a perspective on things. They are not pieces of a human being – as if one could be removed, lived without, or left behind with a human being still intact. Rather they are aspects or dimensions, distinct ways by which our existence as human beings is expressed and extended into reality.
I’ll begin with the body, for that is where we all begin. Also called our “animal nature,” body is the organismic basis of life. It is a complex organization of vital impulses that I call “urgencies” – urges which have evolved around the need to convert energy from the environment (sunlight, water, nutrients) into biological fuel. As a biological organism, the body has evolved ways of adjusting itself and adapting to its surroundings so as to maximize the efficiency of this energy conversion.
As a dynamic energy converter, the body is an organic intelligence that carefully balances its own internal state with the changing conditions of its environment. This orchestration of maintenance (state) and adjustment (reaction) keeps a human being in providential niches where life can be sustained and supported in growth.
If all that sounds coldly impersonal, that’s because it is. We now know that body precedes the personality and serves as the biological basis to the formation of ego. Ego, then, is a second standpoint in reality, extending out of the body and engaging the world at a higher level. This doesn’t make it better or more essential to what makes us human – although it seems right to acknowledge ego as an evolutionary stage beyond the vital urgencies of the body.
Ego refers to the socially constructed identity of a human being. In order to become “one of us” at the tribal level, each human being must gain sufficient liberation from the urgencies and compulsions of biological life. The tribe helps this to happen, by giving the child an alternative set of directives, which Nietzsche called “morality.” Morality is necessary to the formation of identity, providing a counter-force to the animal instincts and redirecting (but also repressing) these impulses into socially acceptable behavior.
The body’s internal state serves as the subjective reference of the ego’s stand-point in reality. If the body is anxious, the ego says, “I am afraid.” If the body is incited to aggression, the ego says, “I am angry.” If the body is satisfied and content, the ego says, “I am happy.” The “I am” in each case exposes a tendency of the ego to identify with the body’s internal state.
Otherwise, the ego might say something like, “I feel afraid” – which demonstrates an ability to distinguish between a subjective feeling and its underlying biology. This ability to separate affect and behavior provides an important gap that the ego enjoys as freedom – the freedom to choose a course of action (or restraint) above the compulsions of the body’s animal nature. Not everyone is successful arriving at this point, as evidenced in the proliferation of neurotic disorders where the individual gets stuck in overwhelming affect states and compulsive behaviors.
But if – and this is a very big if – an individual is able to gain sufficient liberation from reactive impulses and adequate moral guidance from the tribe, another standpoint in reality is made available. This is what we call the soul.
My challenge here is to understand soul without relying on metaphysical realism. It is becoming less meaningful and relevant these days to regard the soul as some kind of ghost in the body, which can carry on perfectly well (or even better) without the burdens of mortality. Metaphysical realism treats the soul as a thing, separate from and independent of the body. This thing is believed by many to not only survive the body, but to live forever. As we should expect, the tribe has exploited this belief for the purpose of enforcing the moral conformity of the ego.
Just as ego uses the body’s internal state as the basis of identity, soul is a still-higher standpoint in reality where feeling and thought differentiate out of this subjective affect. The ability mentioned earlier, of distinguishing between “I” and “this feeling I have,” is a sure sign of the individual’s transcendence of ego. But again, transcending only means “going beyond,” not leaving behind.
Once lifted above the need to either protect or promote identity (ego), affect can differentiate into even subtler experiences, which have produced great works of art and other cultural achievements of our species. Feeling and thought are the Yin and Yang of the soul, with each creative expression adding spread and height to the growing tree of wisdom. They complement each other, deepening and expanding in creative partnership.
Only ego sees them as opposites, where one must win and the other lose.
Soul joins the dance, where the push and the pull, the rise and fall, the silence and the sound come together, only to spin out again. In that moment – yes, in every moment, but now in full mystical awareness – the soul is in the presence of mystery. This is the place of inspiration (feeling) and enlightenment (thought), where all the “parts” are suddenly seen – in a sustained flash of intuition – as rooted in a common ground, as diverse fruits of a single tree.