Monday, November 14, 2011

Trying to understand Spiritual Identity

Many of us feel that that our identity is not constituted by our bodily or mental processes that change many times during each day, but is formed from something more fundamental and permanent. We might call this our 'soul' or our 'spirit'. Two recent blogs have been trying to understand this in more detail. They have made partial progress progress, but are still short of a full account.

The first comes from a blog by StephenB under the topic of  'Christian Darwinism and the Evolutionary Pathway to Spirit, and has (so far) generated 59 comments. Stephen describes;
Traditional Theistic Evolution [that] acknowledges two Divine creative strategies. (1) Through a purposeful evolutionary process, God “forms” man’s material body from the bottom up, and (2) By means of a creative act, God “breathes in” an immaterial soul from the top down, joining spirit with matter
He contrasts this with 'Contemporary Christian Darwinism', but here I am more concerned with what he takes to be the better view. He elaborates:
spiritual entities such as souls, minds and faculties, are non-physical entities and contain no parts, which means that they cannot disintegrate, die, or be changed into something else. ….  If then, spirit is to be joined with matter, its origins cannot come from matter or from a material process; it must come from another source, that is, it must come directly from God, who creates spirit and implants it in a pre-existing being from the top down.
What is interesting to me about this, is how he characterizes souls as 'non-physical entities'. That is the challenge for theistic science: to describe those entities in a  realistic and scientific manner as possible. We should not rely negative descriptions such as 'non-physical, but should seek a good positive description. And our new scientific description of the soul should describe *how* the soul *operates*. It is not fruitful to describe our soul as having 'no parts', and being 'unable to change into something else'. I know he means that they do not stop being souls, but it sounds like they would have trouble changing into a newer soul. Birth, growth, and re-birth of souls almost sound like they are forbidden. He also claims that souls 'come directly from God' and are 'implanted' in our newly conceived bodies. Surely, we might have thought, no body can live without some soul -- since souls are the source of our lives. So how can we ever live before that soul was implanted? To think of bodies existing without souls, even for a short time, opens many bizarre opportunities from zombies to soul-less humans. Not only bizarre, I should think, but impossible.

The other recent blog comes from a blog by  Gregory Ganssle for the Evangelical Philosophical Society under the topic Existential Dissonance and Core Identity, especially in relation to how young people form their own spiritual identities as the result of trying to sort out cognitive dissonances between conflicting scientific, philosophical and theological viewpoints. Gregory writes:
At the heart of each person is the very deepest region of our selves. I call this region, for lack of a better term, our core identity. A person’s core identity involves the deepest sense the person has of who she is or who she longs to be. What constitutes our core identity is rarely in the forefront of our minds. Often it takes patient self-reflection and work to identify the contours of one’s core identity. 
We see again here a struggle to formulate some clear idea of our soul as the basis for our identity. However, he does not seem to have a clear idea of what this 'deepest region' is actually made of. It is clearly related to 'longing', but it cannot be just what we long to be, but what we already are, now. He sees that is related to our 'values and beliefs':
we may determine that some belief or value that functioned within our core identity ought to be revised in light of other beliefs and values. We may recognize that we have a deeply ingrained habit that we want to change. This habit may be revealed in our relationships with others or our thoughts about our own lives. Beginning such change will be difficult, in part, because we are changing against the contour of our deeper values. We have to re-habituate ourselves to inhabit a new ordering of values and beliefs.
I do not think, however, that we are constituted by what we value or believe, but by something else. One of his commenters (Marty) has put a finger on something important here:
"What we love, the proper ordering of our loves, is a critical component of spiritual formation. Our heart always follows our treasure. Always."

I think that the best explanation of our 'core identity' is  that it is our most fundamental love. It is what we love that defines who we are. Everyone loves differently, so we are all different people. This idea of love as a substance may seem strange, but I see it as an essential and fundamental part of the theistic science that we are trying to construct. 

This views also consonant with a new view of the substance of physical objects as being constituted by all their powers and dispositions. See for example my paper 'Power and Substance' at


  1. It's interesting to try to imagine that propensities are the substance itself. A new idea and I do want to grasp it, but, sheesh ... it stays out of my reach sometimes.

    In your paper that you linked to you say,
    "It is admittedly a large metaphysical leap to identify propensity as substance, but I argue in sections 4-7 that the identification is grammatically correct, philosophically sound, historically defensible, and physically correct, even helping to clarify interpretations of quantum physics."

    And you go on to give the example of the fragility of a vase as being the propensity that constitutes it. The fragility of a glass vase is what the vase IS. Right? But then, I was thinking, what if the vase is part glass and part plastic. Then the 'vase' would not be constited of its fragility. If the top were glass and fragile and the handle were plastic and firm, we would still call the whole thing a 'vase'. So, how could the propensity be the substance in that case?

  2. If the vase were made of plastic and glass, then, because the propensities of those parts are different, it would be made of two different substances.
    When we analyze the constituents in that way, it means that the vase as a whole is no longer just one substance, but two substances joined together.

  3. I decided to see if I am understanding your theory. So, without looking back at your actual words, I wrote out my version:

    What is real? We have been taught to look at physical objects and call them real, and call them the same object through time, even though the object changes in time. My fingernails are my fingernails no matter what little atomic units are sitting on the end of my fingers at a given time. Fingernails are real. But, maybe I think that because that is the way I have conversed and been influenced by daily life and daily concerns. Mankind has had to deal with them, so it maintains a word for them: you need to trim those fingernails. Is it an invisible pattern that exists spiritually which makes those atoms form the fingernail? Or is it just my physical dna which forces the atoms to that shape? What was there before my nail was there? How does time eventually take my fingernails away? If they are real, why do they not stay forever?

    I expect materialists would say it is my dna and the evolution of the human race over millennia which causes fingernails to be real. I am not by nature a materialist (hey!) because I roll my eyes there and come up with even more questions. So, let’s just reject that idea and label it “really stupid”.

    So, before Swedenborg-explains-it-all came into my life, I would probably have said that somehow God magically made fingernails real. He thought I needed them. It was an overall form He had in mind for certain mammals. The form was real. But the fingernails only appeared to me to be real, because I couldn’t see the spiritual world. Reality is an appearance that is a gift of God. A magic.

    But then Swedenborg started a project of directly explaining the details of God. It made sense. It deviated from my magical-thinking Catholic mind in that now I could really say the meaning of life in words, just as I had always wanted to do. I like to think that my mind and my words that I say to myself are the very most real thing in the world. It is the world I inhabit whenever left to myself.

    But now I read a book by a scientist who came up with a whole new way to perceive of what reality actually is. It is a material (a non-magical) explanation. I think it is this:

    Spiritual forms do exist and they take what Swedenborg would call married truths and loves and make them into the real world. The truths are the conditions that abound in reality - they change constantly. The changes are made firm by what has actually happened (in the past). The past is a foundation, a platform of truth. From that foundation, a tree of life or a tree of reality is formed. Although various truths could be formed into a variety of actual firmness, it all has to depend on what has already happened. Everything that could happen is contingent on the past formations, the past. Is prologue and all that. A truth has the capacity to be formed into many things.
    (to be continued)

  4. (part two)

    The love is what is real. The love of any ‘thing’ is it’s propensity. That is very close to its ‘intentions’. My fingernails are … perhaps the conditions of my past meeting up with my spiritual love’s propensity to scratch and claw and pick labels off of bottles. It is the inclination/intention/love/propensity of an object that makes that object a real thing. The past which is firmed up already, the truth which is malleable, and the changes in truths are all just background music to the reality of the love.

    If you think long and hard about your own self, you can figure out what your loves are. It is the major strongest love that is “you”. It is what you would do if left to your own desires. I believe this because it jibes with my very earliest memory - I know I was “me” then, 56 years ago, just in the same way I am “me” now. I have a very clear memory of my point of view. And I know it has not changed even though I seem very different today. I can believe that that “me” does not die. In which case, it was not born with me. It was created by God as a point of view/love/propensity. And it has stayed unmoving through all the changes of my life.

    A thing is a thing because it has a ‘mission’ perhaps? A ‘dharma’? A ‘disposition’?

  5. (part three)

    And also, God does not directly create what happens. He sets the parameters of conditions, He set up the spiritual forms, and most importantly, He created the dispositions/loves of each object. He resides in reality, but separate from it. He can change things at will. But He leaves each object or person to run wild with its desires/propensities. He only had to separate out propensities and conditional truths in man so that man would not destroy himself. Time is God's method of letting things develop and letting objects and persons work their prropensities into realities.

  6. On Part one:
    The last paragraph is a good summary, except for the last sentence: It is *loves* (not truths) which have the capacity to be formed into many things. Remember that loves are the substance, and truths are the form. Love, when received by us, can be redirected to our own purposes. Even to purposes that are not good, and would hence be unrecognizable to God.

    Part two:
    That is a good summary of how our deepest love makes us who we are: they define our 'self'. We come to know what that love is during our lives (or, at least, *should* come to know). That love is not itself a mission, but it is aimed toward a mission. It is first the desire to accomplish that mission, and later the delight in doing so.

    Part Three:
    God does not just 'set parameters': that sounds too formal and uninvolved. Rather, he feeds the fires (ie enlivens the loves), and then (as you say) lets things develop. He lets us do many things that we want even if he does not, but only within a range that still allows the world of persons to be managed satisfactorily. But even when 'letting things develop', he enables rationality and reflection and insight for us.