Troubles with Three-ism: Body, Mind, and Soul

By Owen FlanaganNovember 28, 2015

Soul Machine by George Makari

WHEN I WAS a wee Catholic lad growing up in the New York City suburbs of the late 1950s and early 1960s, I learned that good people go to heaven after they die. This was consoling. But it made me wonder precisely which part of me would go to heaven: my body, my mind, or my soul. Thanks to dead hamsters and such, I understood that bodies die, decay, and disperse. There was talk in school and at church of the resurrection of the body on Judgment Day, but that event, I reckoned, might not happen for several million years, and surely I’d be well ensconced in heaven by then. My mother tentatively explained that the part of me that loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chocolate ice cream sodas would most likely not go to heaven, or, if it did, would not need or want peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chocolate ice cream sodas anymore — possibly, I speculated, because, in the heavenly state, I’d be able mentally to conjure those great pleasures without there being actual physical manifestations of me or them. I surmised that those perfectly good human desires would either be gone (because my body would be gone), or somehow be eternally satisfied.

So, which was it, my mind or my soul that would go to heaven? Or both? And how did they differ? I didn’t want to go to heaven without my personality and memories. I wanted to be in heaven with my brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, if not bodily then at least mentally. But personality and memories were, in my little boy ontology, associated with mind, and there was talk that the part of me that would go to heaven was something more ethereal than my mind. It was my eternal soul. But my soul, unlike my mind, seemed a bit too vague and general to be “me.” I wanted to be in heaven with me as me myself. Such were the vicissitudes of boyhood. I was troubled by three-ism. I was not, and am not, alone.


In Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind, George Makari, professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, explains the source of my tripartite childhood confusion. Soul Machine is a finely written story about the political, medical, theological, philosophical, scientific, and technological cauldron in which ideas about bodies, minds, and souls swirled from roughly 1660 to 1815. It describes the historical context out of which my own confused tripartite metaphysics of persons would later emerge. Early on, Makari explains how a picture of humans as “part soul and part machine, but fully neither” unfolded in this period. How was this debate resolved? Late in the book, after his history, he answers that question in this way: “by 1800, over a century of efforts to integrate mind into matter had resulted in a resounding maybe.” This sounds about right.

We are used to hearing that we moderns are inveterate dualists, possibly natural-born dualists, as child psychologists like Paul Bloom claim. Or perhaps we’re culturally created dualists.

Philosophers love to tell the story of how this period opens with Descartes’s defense of dualism, what Antonio Damasio calls “Descartes’ Error,” “the abyssal separation between body and mind,” according to which the mind is a nonphysical substance that receives information about the external world through its body and then tells the body what to do in that world until death do them part. There followed various polite intellectual debates — among wise souls (oops, that word again!) like Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, Pierre Gassendi, and Thomas Hobbes — about the pros and cons of dualism, and then we reached the present peaceful consensus where, at least among philosophers and mind scientists, mind is conceived as brain (or body).

But Makari makes clear that the debate was much more fraught, multifaceted, and less polite than we imagine right from the get-go. Descartes himself subtitled his “Meditations” with the following phrase: “In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated.” The question about the nature of mind was not simply a question about whether the concept of mind could be tamed and brought into the stable of the new mechanical sciences. It was also, indeed mostly, a matter of what the price of doing so would be. At stake were personal survival; the theology of the soul; the authority of the churches and the political regimes aligned with, sometimes married to, these churches; and even the nature and authority of ethics; not to mention the meaning of life.

The old dichotomies of body and soul now became a three-way contest between body, soul, and mind, with the last term existing somewhere between scientific discourse with its prerequisites of materialism, mechanization, and quantification, and the metaphysical credos of an immaterial human essence.

Some of the most exciting parts of the book take up the medicalization of mental illnesses, formerly understood as manifestations of spirit possession. Medicalization happened in the great insane asylums of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Hospital in London, “Bedlam,” where patients could be observed like animals in a zoo, and in Bicêtre Hospital in Paris, where Superintendent Philippe Pinel is reputed to have introduced the first humane psychiatric treatments of the mentally ill.

The book includes remarkably vivid portraits of Franz Mesmer, a German physician, who in 1773 claimed to have cured a woman suffering from convulsions. He had her swallow iron fillings, which he then swept with magnets, producing great pain and then, voilà, relief, and so a cure of sorts. Mesmer fancied himself the Newton of the mind — that is, until Benjamin Franklin, a fan of electrical, not magnetic, medicine, helped put his theories and his enthusiasms back into the pseudoscience bin.

Makari’s tale covers the period from roughly Descartes to the Romantics, the period just before Darwin and the arrival of “brass instrument psychology,” and well before the rise of modern neuroscience. We might think that this aftermath settles our questions concerning the nature and relations of body, mind, and soul; and we might also think that my mother would no longer be confused about how to answer my earnest questions about the nature and fate of my body, my mind, and my soul. But of course it doesn’t. George Santayana observed that anyone who does not learn the lessons of history is destined to repeat its mistakes. But, in this case, the question of our nature — whether persons are only complicated animals, or part animals and part not, or essentially spiritual beings — is still not settled 150 years after Makari’s tale ends, and it isn’t settled for many of the same reasons it wasn’t settled then. Too much, actually everything, is at stake in how we answer these questions. At the level of our common culture, it isn’t as if, in the past, we achieved a settled consensus about our natures, fate, and what might give meaning to the lives of finite “animals” such as ourselves, if indeed that is what we are.

In both the “Prologue” and “Epilogue,” Makari poses the question of what we would think if we were offered the chance to load our selves into new bodies, whether animal, human, or robot. Do you think “you,” the real you, would remain? Why? Why not? And, if not the real you, then what parts of you? Your essence, your most important parts? Confident answers elude us.

In caveat lector, I must inform the reader that enthusiasts of the scientific image at universities are likely to hold the view that ordinary people still speak, and indeed will continue to speak, in all the cute, adorable, confused, and old-fashioned ways about minds and souls, just as they always have. But surely matters are settled: there are no souls, and the mind is the brain.

But this is not right either. The scientists and philosophers, allegedly “in the know,” are very far from having figured out how to respectfully talk about the matters that Mrs. Flanagan tried to talk to her wee boy about over five decades ago. And, really, it is still true that nothing less than the meaning of life depends on how we think of minds, souls, persons, and selves. Makari’s book is a fine reminder of a contested space and a contested debate that we continue to inhabit after all these many years.


Owen Flanagan is the author of The Geography of Morals, which Oxford will publish next year.

LARB Contributor

Owen Flanagan is James B. Duke University Professor at Duke University. This year he is a Rockefeller Fellow at the National Humanities Center. His book, The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility, will be published by Oxford next year.


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