Ontological leaps and human souls

A recent post by Eric MacDonald touches on the Catholic doctrine that human beings have very special souls, souls that represent an ontological leap vis-a-vis all other life on earth. (Of course, this belief is shared by many others, but it is the Catholic version we discuss here.)

One sees the naive attractiveness of this view. As we look around us, there certainly seems (as there seemed to Aristotle) to be an ontological gap between humans and other animals. For creationists, this gap is just a fact giving rise to no paradoxes. But Catholicism tries to pass itself off as a religion for thinking people, and so claims to have come to terms with evolution.

The obvious problem with this doctrine concerning souls is that it implies a binary choice – human soul or animal soul – and as a consequence, considering all hominids over time, there must exist a subset – call them the Progenitors – who were human but whose parents were not. (In fact Catholics are required specifically to believe that the Progenitors numbered exactly two – Adam and Eve.)

But can any sane person believe in the Progenitors? Consider language, one of the hallmarks of rationality. Did the Progenitors invent language for themselves? This is just not how it works. Language is acquired by human beings in infancy from their elders, not invented from scratch.

The ontological gap is (in some sense) a genuine feature of the world as we find it, but to assert that it necessitates an ontological leap that occurred at some definite time in the past is to assert something for which there is no evidence and that on the face of it is highly implausible.

So the Catholic claim to accept evolution is a misrepresentation. In fact they reject evolution at the point that has always been the most contentious: common descent as between humans and the rest of the animal world.

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3 Responses to Ontological leaps and human souls

  1. Dear dysangelist,

    When you state in the penultimate paragraph that “The ontological gap is (in some sense) a genuine feature of the world as we find it, but to assert that it necessitates an ontological leap that occurred at some definite time in the past is to assert something for which there is no evidence and that on the face of it is highly implausible,” it seems to me you have in mind ’emergent properties.’ Do you have you right?

    More on emergent properties here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/properties-emergent/

    Andrew

    • dysangelist says:

      My central point was that the specialness of human beings arrived gradually, certainly not in a single generation. The same point is important in considering biological species: we may observe two closely related species today and be able to assign any individual unambiguously to one or the other. But considering all their ancestors back to the point of divergence, there is no point in time that marks a binary separation between the single ancestral species and the two daughter species: this separation is a fuzzy one.

      I like the idea of emergent properties, and it represents a saner way to deal with the surprisingness of human minds and consciousness than invoking magic entities like souls. We find quite generally that phenomena at one scale are not well served by descriptions at a radically different scale, from quarks to protons to atoms to crystals to simple organic molecules to proteins … and so on.

      • I find this reply cogent. Thank you. After I wrote you, I was also thinking of the (good) problem of vagueness. Emergent properties plus Sorites Paradox could go a long way to providing a naturalistic explanation of the emergence of human consciousness and such.

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