If you have never read St. Thomas, I strongly recommend you do. He is one of those writers (The only other one I can think of is Chesterton, himself a Thomist) who has written on just about everything, and whose thinking you can trust on just about every issue he writes about. One of my life goals is to translate the entire Summa Theologica from the Latin--all of it.
I have only just started on the project, but I am on may way.
I have received permission to run one of his recent posts in its entirety. It is advice to someone who commented on his blog about arguing with the Dawkinites--who are, in case you didn't know, humanoids who have evolved to such a high level on the tree of life that they no longer consider themselves bound by rationality.
Here is the post:
Paul Boire wrote on one of my old posts:
I’m engaged in a few debates with a few people on the Amazon site of Richard Dawkins. I was fortunate to have been able to enjoy some philosophical education at an undergrad level, and hope you might direct me to some available sites with good explanations of the idea of the human soul.
Thanks beaucoup. I end up at your site quite often in my cybertravels and always enjoy your efforts.
The response soon grew too large, so I’ll post it here:
Websites on the soul? That’s easy. There are none. Not even ones that mention it much in passing.
The present science of life, which analyzes living beings into their basic living component parts, and which largely takes living things as given, has no need for the soul. Nothing that Dawkins actually understands (modern zoology) could be assisted much by speaking of the soul. Such realities are superfluous to him. When one divides up the animal by dissection and/or microscopic and chemical analysis, the idea of the soul need never arise. Everything the soul explains is already taken for granted to such a division. As far as Dawkins is concerned- or any modern biologist- the soul need be nothing more than the organization of a living body. “Soul” in this sense is a vague idea that the biologist must replace with distinct ideas.
One finds soul by a different kind of analysis than the division of the body into parts. One comes to an idea of soul by asking “is the living body living because it is a body?” Does it live merely because it has extension, mass, chemical composition, etc? Not at all, for then anything with these properties would be alive- like a stone. We need something in addition to mere bodily existence to have life- and this “something more” is called the soul. But even this is not the fundamental awareness of soul. Our foundational awareness of soul is in our own experience of moving ourselves, of being a single entity, of using our various organs as tools, etc. We experience ourselves as moving ourselves. The source of this self motion is called “soul”. It is far more known to us than mere matter, body, physical or sensible reality, etc. Don’t we call all these things inanimate? This is nothing other than calling them “lifeless” or in our account “soulless”. But for now it will suffice to see the soul as whatever is required in addition to mere body.
For Dawkins and biology, this “something more” need only be a certain organization and composition. This is fine, and no one denies that this is necessary. even though plants and animals have this “something more” it is completely destroyed with the death of the plant or animal- whatever it is. The question that you ask, no doubt, is whether the human soul is “something more” than a body precisely by being a spirit, as opposed to the mere animals or plants, whose soul must pass away.
Yes, it is. But we need a way of discovering this, and it is a difficult proof. Spirits are by definition not given in experience directly, and so we can only argue to them by something that is directly experienced by us. For Aristotle and St. Thomas, this thing directly experienced is the universal that we know, and the general object of our mind, i.e. the nature of material or bodily things. These arguments require great meditation and contemplation- and they can be easily sniped at by vulgar minds. I don’t say this to dissuade you from learning the arguments, they are beautiful and any amount of understanding we can attain of them is good. I only say this because I want you to know that when you run into objections that shake you, you need to be aware that all these objections have already been refuted before.
Henri Grenier’s manual “thomistic philosophy, volume II” on natural philosophy might give you a good summary of the arguments, and the common objections, but it would be better to meditate on St. Thomas’s arguments in the Summa Contra Gentiles or the Compendium theology. There are links to both at the “Blogging Aquinas” site. This will give you a first look at the proofs. But I stress that these arguments require meditation and contemplation.
The key thing to see, which makes any study of the soul very difficult, is that the soul is a form. The distinction between form and matter requires a different kind of analysis than is found in modern sciences. The mode of analysis proper to modern sciences cannot find soul. It would be as silly as trying to find the soul by dissection, or by using a telescope. Again, just as the soul is not the term of an experimental or physical division or analysis, neither is the soul a hypothetical entity. Hypotheses are superfluous to the initial study of soul, or in general to the distinction between form and matter.
A rigorous, scientific understanding of the soul requires a careful reading of Aristotle’s Physics Book one and two and De Anima. Don’t rush, and don’t read it with a polemical atmosphere in your soul, but as a disciple listening to the master. The translation you use is not important, but Glen Coughlin’s translation of the physics is the most faithful and his appendices and introduction serve to help modern readers understand the distinctive nature and power of Aristotle’s way of proceeding scientifically. It helps to keep in mind while reading the initial texts: “why are natural things composites of matter and form?” Why is this absolutely necessary? Only after you see this can you see the reality of soul.
All these things take time, but it is time well spent. I doubt that they will be seen as anything other than nonsense by the Dawkins crowd. Trying to explain the truth of the soul to them would be like trying to explain polymer chemistry to native tribesmen, or etiquette to the average high-school loudmouth jerk. There is simply too much prerequisite knowledge to make up for. There is also a problem of disposition. In my experience, the best spoken theists understand best atheist arguments very well, and present them carefully and faithfully; but I have never met an atheist who understood the best theist arguments carefully and correctly. Never. If you have the calling to speak to the Dawkins crowd, you must answer the call, but remember that the full truth is always revealed only to relatively few who seek truth and wisdom faithfully and as disciples of the great masters. The Dawkinses have always been with us. Five years from now they will be replaced by some new fad that feeds on death. They are nothing more or less than the world which is already passing away. At times it seems clear that they don’t even want to refute other arguments, they just want to suck people into an argument that itself will drag everyone down to death. They want us to speak like them: at one time ironic, condescending, and spiteful, and at another time with a false modesty that feeds on ignorance, tepidity, sloth, and death.
But I’m being preachy now, and am probably only saying things you understand on a more visceral level than I do.