Three Philosophical Schools

Written by Tim den Bok
(View PDF version with illustrations)


Philosophy is divided into several schools of thought. A philosophical school can be defined, roughly, as a way of classifying philosophers together. There are a number of methods for doing this. One involves grouping together philosophers who are followers, in one way or another, of one of the great philosophers. For example, there is the Kantian School, named after the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). As well, there is the Hegelian School. It gets its name from the great German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831).  Another method groups together philosophers who hold to the same position on a fundamental philosophical question. As such, there is the School of Realism, as well as the School of Idealism.1   

In what follows, I will look at three philosophical schools of human nature: the Platonic/Cartesian School, the School of Materialism, and the Aristotelian/Thomistic School.2 Why concern ourselves with them? Because the answer that one gives to the question, “Is the pre-born a human person?” (hereafter referred to simply as “person”), depends on one’s philosophical view of human nature. In this paper I will argue that the Aristoterlian/Thomistic School has the correct theory of human nature.


The Platonic/Cartesian School

The first view of human nature that I will look at is that of the Platonic/Cartesian School (hereafter referred to simply as the “Platonic School”). It gets its name from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (429–347 B.C.), and the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596–1650).  Another famous proponent of this position is John Locke (1632–1704). According to this position, a person is a soul, or, as in the case of Descartes, a mind, in a body. As such, though called a “dualism”(from the Latin word duomeaning “two”), it views persons as, essentially, souls or minds. (For the sake of brevity, hereafter, I will refer to the spiritual counterpart of the body simply as the “soul.”)

According to Plato and Descartes, the soul and body are two totally different and separate substances. Descartes says, “… thinking activities have no affinity with corporeal [bodily] activities….”3 An old English couplet expresses this point well:

What is mind? No matter

What is matter? No mind.

An important difference between the philosophical anthropology, or the philosophical study of human beings, of Plato and Descartes, is that Descartes reduced the soul to the mind. According to Descartes, a human being consists of two substances, body and mind. He defined the mind as “a substance the essence of which is to think,” and the body as “a substance the essence of which is to be extended.”4He believed that just as the body cannot exist without being extended, the mind cannot exist without thinking. Descartes is famous for saying, “I think, therefore, I am,” with the implication that if we are not thinking (e.g., when we are in a deep, dreamless sleep), we do not exist. Descartes says, “I am, I exist, that is certain. But how often? Just when I think; for it might possibly be the case if I ceased entirely to think, that I should likewise cease altogether to exist.”5 Locke expressed a similar view, saying, “Self is that conscious thinking thing—whatever substance made up of (whether spiritual or material, simple or compounded, it matters not)—which is sensible or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.”6 To be a person, then, according to Descartes and Locke, one must, presently, be acting in a rational way.

The position of many contemporary scholars, on the question of what constitutes a person, has elements that, at least appear, to derive from Descartes and Locke. To quote Bert Gordijn, “Most present authors regard consciousness as the sine quo non of personhood.”7 Human beings, according to these scholars, “… are essentially non-bodily persons who inhabit and use non-personal bodies.”8 What are the implications of this view with regard to the question of the pre-born’s status? Because the pre-born, obviously, has not yet reached the stage of development where it can function in a rational way, it is, according to this position, a human non-person. The name for this view is “functionalism.”9

Proponents of this position acknowledge that the pre-born is a member of the biological species Homo sapiens. However, they do not think that this fact is important. Consider, for example, the position of the philosopher Mary Ann Warren. To be a person, says Warren, one must exhibit the following five criteria:

1) consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;

2) reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);

3) self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control);

4) the capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics;

5) the presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.10

Warren says that since the pre-born does not exhibit these criteria, it is not a person: “Now if (1) – (5) are indeed the primary criteria of personhood, then it is clear that genetic humanity is neither necessary nor sufficient for establishing that an entity is a person.”11 Similarly, the Canadian bioethicist Mark Mercer, in an article written for the Ottawa Citizen, says, “To kill a reader of this newspaper would be to kill a creature richly aware of its environment and full of beliefs and desires, including the desire to continue living. To kill him or her would be to kill a self-conscious creature. Thus, to kill a reader of this paper would be to destroy a self-aware locus of experience, one, moreover, that prefers not to die…. A human fetus, on the other hand, though human, has only a rudimentary awareness of its environment and lacks self-consciousness entirely. It has no interest in living, for it can have no interests at all. Because a fetus is not a person, killing a fetus is not killing a person.”12

Given the fact that young born children also do not function in a personal way, modern proponents of this view sometimes advocate, not only abortion, but infanticide. Consider, for example, the following statement by the bioethicist Peter Singer: “Species membership in Homo sapiens is not morally relevant. If we compare a dog or a pig to a severely defective infant, we often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities.”13 Other contemporary scholars, whose views of human nature, are either Platonic or share some common features with this School, include Michael Tooley, Mark Mercer, and Joseph Fletcher.14


The School of Materialism

The view at the opposite extreme from the Platonic School is the School of Materialism. There are several forms of materialism (e.g., property dualism, classical materialism, philosophical behaviourism, etc.). However, they all have in common the belief that a person is simply a body. Two famous proponents of this school are the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus (460–360 B.C.), and the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679).

Materialism is the most common view among academics today. To quote one scholar, “There is a sense in which materialism is the religion of our time, at least among most of the professional experts in the fields of philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, and other disciplines that study the mind.”15 Among contemporary scholars who hold to this view are Bernard Haring, Hans-Martin Sass, and Howard Jones.

The theory of gradualism, which is a popular theory today among pro-choice advocates, seems to presuppose materialism. Gradualism is, roughly, the theory that a person comes to exist, not suddenly, but gradually. As such, it views personhood as something that one acquires by degrees. Why believe that it is materialistic? Because, as a theory of human development, it confuses artifacts (i.e., manmade objects), which are purely physical, with organisms. An artifact, like a guitar, can come into existence gradually. Persons, on the other hand, like all living things, come into existence all at once and, then, simply grow and develop until they reach maturity.


The Aristotelian/Thomistic School

The middle view between the two extremes of Platonic dualism and materialism is the Aristotelian/Thomistic School (hereafter referred to simply as the “Aristotelian School”). It is named after the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) and his medieval pupil, the Italian philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). According to this school of thought, a person is a unity of body and soul.

The Aristotelian view of human nature is commonsensical. Why do I say this? Because most people, throughout history, have believed that, contrary to what materialism says, we are morethan our bodies, that as well as having bodies we also have souls. To quote the philosopher Tom Morris (born 1952), “This common view of human beings that has reigned supreme throughout the centuries and across many cultures, apart from small bands of naysayers in various places and times, is the philosophical view of dualism.”16  Furthermore, it is also a common sense belief that, unlike what the Platonic School maintains, we are, not two things, but one.

It is important to understand that, although there are many similarities between the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas, there are some important differences as well. As the eminent Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson (1884–1978) says, “Aristotelianism and Thomism are two distinct philosophies.”17One important difference between their anthropologies is that, whereas essence(form) is the cornerstone of Aristotle’s doctrine, for Aquinas it is existence. To see why Aquinas emphasized existence over essence, consider a unicorn. This creature has an essence. (If it did not, we would not be able to conceive of it.) But although it has an essence, it lacks existence. The difference between us and it, then, is that, whereas we are essences that exist, it is an essence that does not exist. We are actual beings; it is only a possiblebeing. It is not hard to see why the notion of existence was so important to Aquinas.  For without it we would, literally, be nothing. According to Aquinas, then, every finite thing (substance) is composed of essence and existence. This insight of Aquinas’was a stroke of genius. It is one of the reasons why the eminent historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston (1907–1994), says of Aquinas, “…thus while following in the footsteps of Aristotle he was able to go beyond Aristotle.”18 

So, as the reader can see, there are some important differences between the anthropology of Aristotle and Aquinas. Nonetheless, they are sufficiently united in their views for their position to be labeled the Aristotelian/Thomistic School.19

Because the Aristotelian School says that we are both a body and soul, it is a type of dualism. But, unlike Platonic dualism, it does not view the body and soul as two separate things. Rather, according to it, we are just one thing or substance (i.e., a human being), with two dimensions (i.e., body and soul).

Many, if not most, scholars today who agree with the Aristotelian School believe that a person begins to exist at fertilization. Taking as their starting point the fact that the one-celled embryo is a member of the biological species Homo sapiens, they argue that personhood or human nature (they make no distinction between these two terms) begins at fertilization. According to this view, human nature unfolds during human development in much the same way that a flower does as it opens from a bud. This view of human nature is called “The Substance View.” Among scholars today who defend this position are Dianne Irving, Francis Beckwith, and Stephen Schwarz.


Three Schools of Human Nature

1)     The Platonic/Cartesian School. A person is a soul in a body.

2)     The Aristotelian/Thomistic School. A person is a unity of body and soul.

3)     The School of Materialism. A person is simply a body.


A Defense of the Aristotelian School

I believe that the Aristotelian theory of human nature is correct. As the reader will see, my reasons for thinking this are implicit in my grounds for rejecting the Platonic and Materialistic Schools.


Problems with the Platonic School

Why do I reject the Platonic School? There are at least three reasons. First, if the soul and body are two totally different and separate things, then there is no way to explain how there is a bridge, or causal connection, between them. The relationship between these two things is, on the basis of Platonic dualism, as the Aristotelian philosopher Mortimer Adler (1902–2001) says, an “inexplicable mystery.”21 This is known as the mind/body problem. However, we know that interaction between the body and the soul does occur! For example, we know that worrying (something that happens in the mind), can cause ulcers (something that happens in the body). The reverse is also true. For as the philosopher Ed Miller says, if you hit someone over the head long enough (something that happens to the body), they will become depressed (something that happens to the mind).22 The problem with Platonic dualism is that by claiming that the body and the soul are two totally different and separate things—as different and separate as a car and its driver—it has created an unbridgeable chasm between them. Frederick Copleston, says that, “…on Descartes’principles it would appear to be very difficult to maintain that there is any intrinsic relationship between the [body and soul].”2

Platonic dualism commits what Adler calls the “angelistic fallacy.” He calls it this because it conceives of persons as incarnate angels. Our bodies, according to this view, are no more a part of who we are than were the bodies of the angels, spoken of in Scripture, who, temporarily, took on human form. These angels had, what are called, “assumed bodies.”This theory was mocked by the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) as “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.”24

At least one form of Platonic dualism views the relationship between the soul and body as like that between, for example, Coke and a Coke bottle. When an empty Coke bottle is filled with Coke, and then emptied again, it remains the same bottle. Similarly, on the basis of Platonic dualism, the human body does not change when the soul is somehow put into, or forms, within it.

Both Plato and Descartes were aware of the problems created by conceiving of the body and soul as two different and separate things. For example, Descartes, as a solution, proposed that the intermingling of mind and body takes place in the pineal gland. The pineal gland is a small gland, resembling a pine cone (hence its name), which is located near the centre of the brain. Of course, his solution, as he himself was later to admit, was no solution at all. For the pineal gland is still part of the body, is it not? Hence, his “solution”only pushed the question one step back. The question is now, no longer “How do the mind and body interact?” but “How do the mind and pineal gland interact?”Copleston says, “Localization of the point of interaction does not, indeed, solve the problems arising in connection with the relationship between an immaterial soul and material body.”25Not surprisingly, Descartes, himself, eventually rejected his “solution.”He came to regard the interaction between the body and soul as a complete mystery.

Second, it is an indisputable fact that thoughts are dependent on the brain. For example, it is well known that brain damage, such as that caused by a concussion or dementia, can affect one’s ability to think. As well, electroconvulsive therapy, in which electrical shocks are administered to the brain, has been known to result in such side effects as memory loss and confusion. When this treatment—once nicknamed “Edison’s medicine”—is abused, it can result in serious mental impairment (as we see happen to McMurphy, as played by Jack Nickolson, in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest).

Third, it is a matter of common sense that we are, at least in part, physical bodies. Our bodies are an integral part of who we are. How else do we experience the world except with our five senses? We see, smell, taste, hear, and feel. These are allactions performed by the body. Yet theyare also actions performed by us. We see, smell, taste, hear, and feel. A correct description of seeing something is, “I see it,” not “My body sees it.” This shows that our bodies are not a mere instrument that we use, but an intrinsic part of who we are.

The Platonic School, as we have seen, has serious theoretical problems. This explains why it was, long ago, relegated to the ash heap of history. However, strangely, as we have seen, it appears to be making a comeback, in one form or another, among some pro-choice advocates, with disastrous consequences.


Three Problems with the Platonic School

1) If the soul and body are two things that are totally different and separate, then there is no way to explain the cause-and-effect relationship between them.

2) It is a scientifically proven fact that thoughts are dependent on the brain.

3) It is a matter of common sense that we are, at least in part, bodies.



Problems with the School of Materialism

I will now examine three reasons why I reject the materialist position. First, if we are simply physical bodies, then it would be impossible for us to maintain identity through time. Perhaps an illustration will help to make this point clear. When a smoking pipe’s bowl and stem are removed and replaced with new ones, it becomes a new pipe. Why? Because a pipe is simply the sum of its physical parts. As such, when its parts are replaced, a new pipe comes to be. Likewise, if we are simply physical bodies, then when our parts are replaced, a brand new person comes into existence. The problem, however, is that our parts are replaced all of the time!  Scientists say that every second that goes by 50 million of our cells die and are replaced by new ones, and that over a period of seven years, this happens to virtually all 50 to 75 trillion of our cells. One way we discard dead skin cells is by washing our hands. Materialism leads to the conclusion that we do not maintain identity over time. This means, among other things, that our baby pictures are not our baby pictures. But this is absurd! Some people even have memories of being a baby. How could they if it was not them?

Furthermore, if we do not maintain identity over time, then a person whohasbeen charged with a seven-year-old murder could, at his trial, plead innocence on the grounds of mistaken identity (since virtually all of his cells had changed since the murder occurred). But this, too, is nonsense! As well as having bodies, then, we must also have souls. For, to quote the philosophers Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland, “Personal identity is constituted by sameness of soul….”26, not sameness of body.

Second, we possess two powers that can only be explained by positing a soul. The first of these is the power of conceptual thought. A concept is a universal (i.e., something that is common to many), as opposed to a particular (i.e., an individual thing). In grammar, universals are signified by common nouns (e.g., cat, mother, and computer), while particulars are indicated by proper nouns (e.g., Felix, Sara, and Apple). As universals, concepts are immaterial. A flower has physical properties, such as weight, height, and length. However, the same is, obviously, not true of the concept ‘flower’. Nevertheless, this concept does have reality. Otherwise, how could we apprehend the thousands of types of flowers with all of their differences in appearanceas all instances of the universal ‘flower’? Our ability to think about such things is evidence that there is a part of us that transcends the physical world (e.g., the soul). Why? Because it is a principle of, both, philosophy and science that ‘function follows form.’ In other words, you can tell what a thing is by observing what it does.27 For example, dogs bark, cats meow, and cows moo. Since what we dois immaterial, it follows logically that what we aremust also be, at least in part, immaterial. This is especially evident in our ability to think about ideas such as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. For even the particular instances of these universals are immaterial. They are, as Adler says, “…the unperceived, the imperceptible, and the unimaginable.”28 

           The second power that we have that cannot be explained except by positing a soul, is the power of free choice. It is also called libertarian free will. Mortimer Adler, who wrote an authoritative two-volume study on freedom called The Idea of Freedom, says, “Freedom of choice consists in always being able to choose otherwise, no matter what one has chosen in any particular case.”29Libertarians, in other words, believe that our choices are up to us. However, according to materialists, our choices are causally determined. This is a theory known as determinism. Determinism is the belief that our choices are merely the result of a physicalcause-and-effect series of events that go back to the beginning of the world at the Big Bang. According to determinists, we no more have the choice to act in a certain way, than a heavy object, that is dropped, has the choice of whether or not to fall.

Libertarians believe that free will consists of a mode of causality that is non-physical. This has been the position of virtually all of the great philosophers who have believed that we have this power. To quote the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the power of free choice involves “independence of the mechanism of nature.”30 This is conceded even by materialist philosophers. The materialist philosopher Thomas Nagel, for example, admits, “There is no room for [free] agency in a world of neural impulses, chemical reactions, and bone and muscle movements.”31If we are just physical bodies, then, there is nothing in our constitution that is able to make a free choice.

Libertarianism is a common sense belief. We simply have a direct awareness that at least some of our choices are up to us, that though such things as environment and genes may influenceour choices, they do not causethem. In contrast, determinism, far from being commonsensical, is a belief that one must be taught. Because it is a matter of common sense, then, libertarianism should be accepted unless there are good reasons to reject it.

Were we to reject libertarianism in favour of determinism, we would also have to revise other common sense notions. For example, we would have to do away with our ideas of human rights, responsibility, and punishment. For none of these notions make sense if our actions are purely the result of physical causes. Theyall presuppose free will. Consider, for example, the notion of responsibility. It is a fundamental principle of ethics that oughtimplies can. A paraplegic, for example, is not morally responsible for failing to rescue a drowning toddler. Why? Because he or she was incapable of doing so. Likewise, if everything is causally determined, then we cannot be held morally responsible for our actions. In short, if determinism is true, our whole legal system and system of punishment will have to go.

In addition, it is simply self-defeating to argue, as determinists do, that their belief is true. A position is self-defeating when, by its own logic, it destroys itself. An example of a self-defeating statement is, “I don’t exist.”This statement undermines itself because one must exist in order to make it. But why is the claim,“Determinism is true,”self-defeating? Because determinism undermines any possibility of being established as a true belief. For if everything is determined, then so, too, is determinism. As such, the belief in determinism is nothing more than a conditioned reflex. Itis a purely determined thing. To quote the philosopher H.P. Owens (1926–1996), “Determinism is self-stultifying. If my mental processes are totally determined, I am totally determined either to accept or to reject determinism. But if the sole reason for my believing or not believing X is that I am causally determined to believe it, I have no ground for holding that my judgment is true or false.”32 


Third, the brain and mind have different properties, and, hence, cannot be identical. The theory that they are identical is known as the “identity hypothesis.” The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–­1716) argued that for two things to be identical, they must have the same properties. This is known as Leibniz’s law of identity. Perhaps the following illustration will help to make this point clear. In response to the claim of Aslan, the lion, in the children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, that he can be known in this world by a different name, eleven-year-old, Hila, wrote to the author of the series, C. S. Lewis, to ask what this name is. Lewis responded in the following way:


“As to Aslan’s other name, well, I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1.) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2,) Said he was the son of the great Emperor. (3.) Gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at the killed by wicked people. (4.) Came to life again. (5.) Is sometimes spoken of as a lamb … Don’t you really know His name in this world. Think it over and let me know your answer!”33

Lewis, in other words, was saying to Hila that because Aslan and Jesus have the same properties, they are, in fact, one and the same being. But though Aslan and Jesus pass Leibniz’s test, the brain and mind do not. To see this, consider the following illustration. In 1905 Albert Einstein, the German-born theoretical physicist, proposed the concept that energy and mass are equivalent. He described this concept in his famous equation: E=mc2. Einstein’s brain had the physical properties of being pinkish-beige and weighing about 1.5 kilograms. But can it be said of Einstein’s mind, which conceived of this idea, that it has these physical properties? Obviously not! This shows that, contrary to what materialism says, the brain and mind are two different things.


Three Objections to the School of Materialism

1) If we are simply bodies, then we would not be able to maintain identity through time as we do.

2) Our possession of the powers of conceptual thought and free choice can only be explained by positing a soul.

3) To argue, as materialists do, that their position is true, is self-defeating.



Answering objections to the Aristotelian School

It should be clear from the above criticisms of Platonic dualism and materialism that we are neither a soul in a body, nor a mere body, but a unity of both soul and body. But, you may wonder, do not the first two objections that I raised against Platonic dualism also count against Aristotelian dualism? No they do not. With regard to the first objection, the fact that thoughts are dependent on the brain only shows that the brain is a necessary, not sufficient, condition for thinking. Let me explain what I mean by these terms. By a “necessary”condition, I mean something that is needed.  For example, a necessary condition for human life is air. By a “sufficient”condition, I mean allthat is needed. For example, a sufficient condition for being the Prime Minister of Canada is being a citizen of Canada. Aristotelians don’t dispute that the brain is needed for thinking. They only dispute that it is all that is needed. For they contend that, for reasoning to occur, the soul is also necessary.

The fact that there is a correlation between the brain and the mind—that for every brain event, there is a corresponding mental event, and vice versa—is not enough to show that the mind is nothing more than the brain. For example, just because there is a correlation between the sun rising and the crowing of a rooster does not mean that they are the same. Likewise, just because there is a correlation between the mind and the brain, does not mean that they are identical. To make their case, materialists must demonstrate that the mind can be reducedto the brain. As Aquinas says, in order to deny that the brain is a sufficient condition for thought, one does not have to deny that it is also a necessary condition.

It is important to understand that when some neuroscientists identify the mind with the brain, they are making a philosophical claim, not a scientificone. For their claim presupposes the truth of materialism. And materialism, as we have seen, is a philosophy. As such, neuroscientists who identify the mind with the brain are illegitimately extending their expertise in the field of science to that of philosophy. The fact is, there is simply no way, scientifically, to establish materialism. (That is not to say, however, that materialists cannot, in principle, use the facts of science to support their position.) For example, it does no good to argue, as we have seen, that for every mental event there is a corresponding brain event. Neuroscience, despite what some materialists would have us believe, is not materialistic. If it is, then why was the great, Nobel prize winning   neuroscientist Sir John Eccles, who co-wrote The Mind and its Brain,a dualist, and not a materialist?

But what of the claim that, because the body and soul are two different and separate substances, there can be no causal connection between them? This argument, also, does not count against the Aristotelian view. For according to it, as we have seen, we are only one substance with two dimensions, body and soul. Furthermore, both Aristotle and Aquinas believed that the soul is the form of the body. They believed, in other words, that just as the shape of a clay pot is what makes it a pot, as opposed to a lump of clay, the soul is the form of the body, or what makes the body human. On this view, then, there is a close and intimate relationship between these two dimensions. The mind/body problem, then, is not an insuperable problem for the Aristotelian School.

Admittedly, even if the soul and body are just dimensionsof a person, it may still be difficult to understand how they can have a causal influence on each other. However, itis important to understand that we do not need to know howthe soul and brain affect each other to knowthat they do. Otherwise, we would not know, as we do, that a magnetic force can pull a nail.      


Ignorance of the Aristotelian School

Most scholars today seem unaware of the Aristotelian view of human nature. As Adler says, “The Aristotelian view is totally ignored in the contemporary discussion.”34

As a result, these scholars assume that to oppose materialism is to espouse Platonic dualism. A case in point is the following statement by the philosopher A.C. Graying: “The real solution to the mind-body mystery [created by Cartesian dualism], however, as our best scientific investigations now tell us, is that mind and matter are not two different things at all because there is only physical stuff in the world, which solves the interaction problem.”35 But to assume that the only alternative to materialism is “the dogma of the ghost in the machine,”is to commit the either/or fallacy. This fallacy occurs when only two options are presented, when, in fact, there are more. For, as we have seen, between these two extreme positions is the Aristotelian School, according to which humans are a unity of body and soul.


The Question of Immortality

According to Platonic dualism, as wehave seen, humans are, essentially, a soul in a body. Furthermore, this view regards the brain as neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for thinking. On such a view, itis not difficult to see how the soul is immortal. By immortal, we mean that the soul can continue to exist when, at death, it is separated from the body.

But if, as the Aristotelian School claims, humansare a unity of body and soul, the idea of the immortality of the soul is not as obvious. This is especially the case since, as we have seen, according to this School, the soul is the form of the body. A further difficulty for proponents of this view is the Aristotelian belief that the brain is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for thought.

Why does the Aristotelian School say that the soul is immortal? Because it functionsin a way that is spiritual. As Adler says, “The argument for the immortality of the human soul then proceeds on the premise that that which can actapart from matter can also existapart from matter.”36But why believe that the soul can “act apart from nature”? Because, as we saw earlier, we are able to conceive of universals such as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that are, by definition, immaterial. Since you can tell what a thing is by what it does, and what the soul “does”is spiritual, this means that the soul must be spiritual. And since the soul is spiritual, there is no reason to think that it is corrupted by the death of the body. The death of the body, in other words, does not entail the death of the soul.

But how, if we need the brain in order to think, can we function when, according to Scripture (see 2 Corinthians 5:8), we enter into a temporary disembodied state before receiving a new resurrected body? The eminent French philosopher and historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson (1884–1978) makes a distinction that is helpful here. He says that the soul is “intrinsically independent of the body, in the sense that [thought] can be exercised in the state of separation from the body; but at the same time [thought] is extrinsically dependent on the body, in the sense that while the soul is united with the body it is dependent for its natural knowledge on sense-experience.”37In other words, the soul needs the brain to function when it is embodied but not when it is disembodied.

It is true that, while embodied, the soul is dependent upon the bodily senses and imagination. However, according to Aquinas, when the soul is disembodied, it will have a different ability to acquire knowledge and communicate. In the “Treatise on Man,”in his book Summa Theologica, Aquinas argues that how a thing functions depends on howit exists. There is nothing mysterious about this claim. We need only think of the transformation in how a tadpole operates after changing into a frog. It is reasonable to suppose, says Aquinas, that the dramatic change that occurs when the body and soul are separated will, likewise, result in a change in how it functions. Now we function in a way that is appropriate to embodied souls. But when we are in a disembodied state, says Aquinas, we will function like angels, who are also spiritual substances without bodies. We will, in other words, he says, be able to acquire knowledge by intuition and communicate by a kind of mental telepathy (i.e., from mind to mind). Furthermore, in this treatise Aquinas argues that, because the disembodied soul is a spiritual substance, it can know itself and other spiritual objects.

Of course, it is not natural for the soul to exist in a disembodied state. For the soul, as the Aristotelian School teaches, is the form of the body, or what makes the body human. As such, the soul, when separated from the body, is not a complete person. On the contrary, it is merely a fragment of a person. Little wonder, then, that this view has been called a “minimal person”or “shadow man” doctrine.38



           Is the pre-born a child? The answer that one gives to this question, as we have seen, depends, largely, on the school of human nature—Platonic, Materialism, or Aristotelian—to which one subscribes. In this paper, I have argued that those who deny that the pre-born is a person, do so, at least in part, because they hold to a view of human nature that is fundamentally mistaken. But, as I will argue in a later paper, when these mistaken positions are replaced with the correct (i.e., Aristotelian) view of nature, and the insights of this school are, then, brought to bear upon the facts of human embryology, the true nature of the pre-born is not hard to see.





1) I am indebted to the philosopher Stephen Schwarz for providing me with this information about schools of philosophy.

2) I am aware that there are various versions of each of these schools, each of which differ in certain details. However, they share enough important aspects to warrant them being grouped under the same label. In my depiction of these schools in this paper, I paint with a wide brush that, necessarily, omits many details.

3) William P. Alston and Richard B. Brandt, ed., The Problems of Philosophy: Introductory Readings (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1967)397.

4) Ed. L. Miller, Questions that MatterAn Invitation to Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987) 123.

5) William P. Alston and Richard B. Brandt, ed., The Problems of Philosophy: Introductory Readings (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1967) 388.

6) Anthony Flew, ed., Body, Mind, and Death (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1964)160–161.

7) “The Troublesome Concept of the Person.”                                                               http://www. Web.

8) “Delusions of Dualism.” 30/09/04. Web.

9) For more on this theory, see: Stephen Schwarz, The Moral Question of Abortion (Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1990) 86-98; Stephen Schwarz and Kiki Latimer, Understanding Abortion: From Mixed Feelings to Rational Thought (Lanham: MD: Lexington Books, 2012) 21-33; Francis Beckwith, Politically Correct Death—Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993) 105-110.

10) John E. Thomas, Medical Ethics and Human Life (Sanibel, FL: Samuel Stephens & Company, 1983) 101.

11) Ibid, 102.

12) Ottawa Citizen, May 3, 2010.

13) Francis Beckwith, Politically Correct Death (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993) 174.

14. I am not, necessarily, claiming here that allof these scholars can be identified with the Platonic School. For I agree with the pro-life scholar Patrick Lee who, speaking of the philosophical anthropology of Michael Tooley, says, “Although what Tooley actually says seems to imply a [Cartesian] dualist position, it is difficult to believe he wants to embrace that position.” See Kim, Abortion & Unborn Human Life, 38. On the other hand, the dualism of Joseph Fletcher, as the ethicist Germain Grisez observes, “is clearly extreme.” See Grisez, Abortion: the Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments, 280.

15) Stephen Schwarz, The Philosophy of the Person, 3rded. (Greenville, RI: Mater Ecclesiae College, 2011), 21.

16) Tom Morris, Philosophy for Dummies(Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide, Inc., 1999) 176.

17) Etienne Gilson, The Elements of Christian Philosophy (Toronto, ON: Mentor-Omega Books, 1963) 308.

18) Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, Vol. 2, Medieval Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1962) 146.

19) For a good example of a defense of this position, see J.P. Moreland & Scott B. Rae, Body & SoulHuman Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

20) I am indebted to Dr. Stephen Schwarz for this analogy.

21) Mortimer Adler, How to Speak, How to Listen(New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983) 211.

22) Ed. L. Miller, Questions that MatterAn Invitation to Philosophy (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987) 117.

23) Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, Vol. 4, Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Leibniz (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1963) 129.

24) Ed. L. Miller, Questions that Matter―An Invitation to Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987) 122.

25) Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, Vol. 4, Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Leibniz (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1963) 131.

26) Gary R. Habermas and J.P. Moreland, ImmortalityThe Other Side of Death(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992) 36.

27) I am indebted to the philosopher Dianne Irving for this insight.

28) Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985) 52.

29) Ibid, 147.

30) Mortimer J. Adler, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes(New York, NY: The World Publishing Company, 1971) 270.

31) Paul Copan, How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong?”(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005) 106.

32) J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 241.

33) “The Success of C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia.” Web.

34) Mortimer J. Adler, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes(New York, NY: The World Publishing Company, 1971) 223.

35) A.C. Grayling, Descartes (Kingsway, LDN: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2005) 1.

36) Mortimer J. Adler, The Great Ideas (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992) 350.

37) Ettiene Gilson, The Elements of Christian Philosophy (Toronto, ON: Mentor-Omega Books, 1963) 167.

38) See Norman Geisler, Introduction to PhilosophyA Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1980) 213.