How Can a Spirit Affect a Body?

Question:  If a spirit is non-physical, but the human body is physical, how does a spirit stay in our bodies? Also, experience seems to tell us that our memories are stored in our physical brains. How could a spirit store physical memories? This distinction would seem to disprove the whole idea of anything non-physical existing at all.

Good question, but the question does not disprove the existence of spirits or souls. First, this is merely a question posed about something we do not fully understand. When Christians claim God as a cause of things we do not understand, Atheists and physical naturalists are quick to point out that this is a logical fallacy, a type of God-of-the-gaps (deus ex machina): when we do not have sufficient explanation, claiming ‘God did it’ is a fallacy. Well, the sword cuts both ways. Merely because we do not have a full understanding of how a spiritual soul interacts with a physical body does not prove that it does not. Claiming so is the atheist equivalent, a type of atheist of the gaps theory.

Second, if nothing spiritual exists, we are faced with physical naturalism, which presents a host of other problems that are greater than any misunderstanding about spirits (see here, and  here, and here).

Third, denial of the human soul would make the operation of understanding purely mechanistic, a product of nothing more than a complex machine. Such a view destroys the whole concept of understanding in the first place. For example, I could program a computer that, upon my arrival home after work, would say to me, “Good evening dear, I’m glad you’re home. I’ve missed you and I love you.” But the computer does not really have longing for anyone, nor is it glad about anything, nor does it love. The machine is merely doing what it is programmed to do, and it might as well be saying “Gob nortesk bire,” for the computer does not truly understand in the same way that humans do. For more on this, see the problem of the Chinese Room.)

Thomas Aquinas had a similar objection 750 years ago. He claimed that the understanding must be inherently different than that of any bodily organ, for the organs of the body are insufficient to develop abstraction, which is necessary for understanding. The problem can be expressed in several facets that have long been discussed in philosophical circles, such as the problem of the one and the many. Why, when we hear a tune, do we perceive a tune, and not merely a series of tones? We have the ability to recognize not just individual tones, but music, and even assign emotions to the music, recognizing music that is happy, sad, bold, or timid.

If no spirit or soul existed, we would be left with a purely mechanistic world. We would have much difficulty explaining abstract objects, our ability to perceive universals, or assign meaning whatsoever, including love.

About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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3 Responses to How Can a Spirit Affect a Body?

  1. Tarren says:

    In response to your first point, I’m not sure if naturalists would claim a ‘God-in-the-gaps’ fallacy. If the theist claims ‘we cannot understand how the non-physical spirit interacts with the physical body, but that should not be an objection to the spirit’s existence’, how can the INABILITY to understand the interaction between the non-physical and the physical be evidence for it’s existence? Unless the theist thinks the interaction is a default position that does not require justification, this objection cannot be so easily dismissed. Either way, I think the fallacy the atheist would claim is ignorance, not GOTG. We have no evidence of a non-physical condition preceding a physical consequence, and the “law” of cause and effect does not reveal anything regarding any such state of affairs. A claim like this has several levels of justification before the theist could satisfy with reasonable explanation.

    The second and third issues you take up to resolve the atheist’s objection to a non-corporeal, corporeal entity is the established rejection of naturalism as a system of thought. I guess any overall world view has its difficulties and inconsistencies depending on how each person defines their terms, but that doesn’t imply that naturalism has been sufficiently defeated. In fact, more philosophers and scientists think naturalism is infinitely more justified than super-naturalism, just based on the former’s practicality and functionality. And materialistic naturalism is not the only world view available to an atheist. There are a few others that would allow for the existence of numbers, classifications, properties and even propositions, but you only address the pure naturalist responses to the existence of spiritual entities. To confine the atheist to only one world view when several are available is somewhat of a straw-man. And to rely heavily (2 out of your 3 points) on suspicious and questionable positions as adequate responses to the theist’s objection means you might think about developing your argument a little more. Keep in mind, its not the number of responses that strengthen your argument, but the strength of each response.

    Lastly, you wrote:

    “We would have much difficulty explaining abstract objects, our ability to perceive universals, or assign meaning whatsoever, including love.”

    I don’t think it would be a difficult as you would make it out to be. Perhaps if everyone used the same or similar definitions to key terms you used, then yes, it would be difficult, if not impossible. But not all share your terms.

    Just some food for thought….

    • humblesmith says:

      Re: your first comment about the quote of mine. My first point in this post was responding to the question as written at the top of the post. The way the question is phrased, it comes across as more of an objection than a question, as if it proved something. The question seems as if the author thinks it it evidence against the existence of souls. Therefore my first point was not in support of the existence of souls, but merely pointing out that the question proves nothing. If the questioner holds that it does, he is guilty of atheist of the gaps. I did not claim that my first point was to prove the existence of souls.

      Next, the failure of pure materialism would seem to indicate that something else must exist — only in this sense would the existence of souls be anything similar to a default position. But you are correct in that if we exclude key evidences — human consciousness, reasoning, etc. — why, then we have no evidence and must claim ignorance. But that sword cuts both ways, in that it does not support the atheist position either.

      As to the other issues with naturalism and materialism, I have dealt with this to some degree. Search for the terms in the search box.



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