When I visited my grandmother at the undertakers, an hour or so before her funeral, I was struck by how different death is from sleep. A sleeping individual shimmers with fractional movements. The dead seem to rest in paused animation, so still they look smaller than in life. It’s almost impossible not to feel as if something very like the soul is no longer present. Yet my grandmother had also died with Alzheimer’s. Even in life, something of who she was had begun to abandon her. And I wondered, as her memories vanished, had she become a little less herself, a little less human?
These end-of-life stages prick our imaginations. They confront us with some unsettling ideas. We don’t like to face the possibility that irreversible biological processes in our bodies can snuff out the stunning light of our individual experience. We prefer to deny our bodies altogether, and push away the dark tendrils of a living world we fear. The trouble for us is that this story – that we aren’t really our bodies but some special, separate ‘thing’ – has made a muddle of reality. Problems flow from the notion that we’re split between a superior human half and the inferior, mortal body of an animal. In short, we’ve come to believe that our bodies and their feelings are a lesser kind of existence. But what if we’re wrong? What if all parts of us, including our minds, are deeply biological, and our physical experiences are far more meaningful and richer than we’ve been willing to accept?
As far as we know, early hunter-gatherer animist societies saw spirit everywhere. All life possessed a special, non-physical essence. In European classical thought, many also believed that every living thing had a soul. But souls were graded. Humans were thought to have a superior soul within a hierarchy. By the time of theologians such as the Italian Dominican friar and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, this soulful view of life had retreated, leaving humans the only creature still in possession of an immortal one. As beings with a unique soul, we were more than mere animals. Our lives were set on a path to salvation. Life was now a great chain of being, with only the angels and God above us.
But, as the Middle Ages came to a close in the 16th century, a fresh, apparently rational form of exceptionalism began to spread. The origins for this shift lie in the thinking of René Descartes, who gave the world a new version of dualism. Descartes argued that thought is so different from the physical, machine-like substance of the body that we should see humans as having two parts: the thoughtful mind and the thoughtless, physical body. This was religion refocused through a rational lens. The division between humans and the rest of nature was no longer the soul – or, at least, not only the soul – but rather our intellectual capabilities: our reason, our moral sensibilities, our gifts for abstraction. He assumed, of course, that other animals don’t think. [Continue reading…]