Is the physical higher than the spiritual? (yet again)

Bruce Charlton again argues that bodies are “better” than spirits (posted on Junior Ganymede with a link to the full article on his personal blog). (See previous installments on this topic here and here.)

• Contrasting Mormonism with traditional Christianity

He begins as usual by contrasting the Mormon position on the physical versus the spiritual, with what he takes to be the traditional Christian view. He thinks traditional Christians believe that it’s “better” to be a spirit than a body, indeed that bodies are bad while spirits are good. Accordingly Christians secretly wish, even if we won’t admit it, that we could be pure spirits floating freely, and not weighed down by physical bodies.

But the fact that one thing is higher than another, doesn’t imply logically that the lower thing is bad. We hold beings of pure spirit to be higher (more excellent) than composite beings of spirit and matter. Nevertheless we hold composite beings of spirit and matter to be marvels of God’s creation.

Similarly, composite beings of spirit and matter are higher than beings of matter only; but it doesn’t follow that beings of matter only are bad. We hold plants and animals to be marvels of creation and sources of beauty and wonder as well.

In fact we hold all of God’s creation to be very, very good, from the highest and most powerful creature of pure spirit, to the very ground we walk on, and the atoms of which it’s composed. We don’t wish rocks could become plants; nor plants animals; nor animals human beings. And for the same reason we don’t wish human beings to be angels (unembodied creatures of pure intellect). All creatures have their respective, and perfectly respectable, places in the hierarchy of creation.

• God envy?

Possibly, Bruce himself wishes to be the highest form of creature in existence, and will never be satisfied with anything less — and therefore assumes that traditional Christians take the same view. If pure spirits are considered higher, then ipso facto, traditional Christians must wish to be pure spirits. But taken to its logical conclusion, this would require all Christians to wish that they were God himself, the unique and all-powerful Lord of creation. Yet surely the wish to be God has no part in traditional orthodox Christianity. Nor does the wish to be an angel.

I can say with absolute sincerity that my religion has never led me to wish I were anything but fully human. Certainly I’d like to be freed from my body in its fallen state and burdened with concupiscence — but not so that I can be free-floating and disembodied. What fulfillment would that hold? For me, fulfillment is a body in its prime, healthy and strong, with all its needs met, not always trying to tempt me to sin but obeying my will.

• Are spirits physical?

Bruce asks, “Why bother mucking-around ‘confined’ in bodies [after the resurrection] when we might we free-ranging spirits…?”

Speaking of spirits as “free-ranging,” Bruce apparently conceives of them as material beings, albeit of a more “diffuse” type. He also speaks of their needing to be “insulated” from one another lest they become commingled; all of which betrays a material understanding of spirit. This echoes Joseph Smith’s understanding of the nature of spirit, when he wrote that “All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; we cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (D&C 131:7-8.)

I suspect therefore that what Bruce is actually comparing is the Mormon notion of spirit with the Mormon notion of bodies. I might in fact agree with Bruce, that solid, earthly bodies are superior to spirits made of much weaker stuff. A spirit of this type I suppose might be weaker both mentally and physically than an embodied personage.

But this has no relation to the traditional Christian understanding of spirit as an immaterial intellect. To such a being, words like “diffuse” and “free-ranging” are flatly inapplicable. Since a spirit has no parts, there is nothing in him to diffuse. Since he is not located in space, there is no “where” in which he may range, nor would he feel confined to one place such that he might feel the wandering urge.

• Are thoughts physical?

Bruce contends that “the spirit mind is permeable” (“permeable” being another term implying materiality). Therefore, “when a spirit thinks, the thoughts may not be his or her own thoughts”. Bodies, then, are “methods or mechanisms by which minds are ‘insulated’ from other minds, and concentrated” (note again the implication of materiality in these terms).

Bruce seems to be conceiving of thoughts as material things which, if not contained within a body and thereby “insulated” from other spirits, will wander about and get mixed up, like radio signals, with the thoughts of other spirits, and no one will know whose is whose. Perhaps he is again projecting his own, human experience of thought onto immaterial beings.

Embodied humans can’t help but think in terms of phantasms — mental representations of physical things, whether pictures or sounds, or spoken or spelled-out words. We constantly imagine the things that we think about and put them into some sort of physical form in our minds.

Any phantasm that enters our mind we assume to have come from within, since we don’t know how else it could get there. Therefore Bruce, when he imagines spirits roaming free without boundaries, can’t help but imagine stray phantasms strewn about here and there, intermingling with the phantasms emitted by other unbounded spirits. In which case, how would a spirit know whether a phantasm entering his mind was his own or that of another?

But what if spirits (as held by traditional Christians) don’t think in phantasms? In that case no stray phantasms would exist that might be strewn about and broadcast, as a spirit wandered about among his fellows.

Another way to think of it, is that Bruce seems to conceive of a spirit’s thought as an item of common currency, in the way that material things are common currency among you and I. We can both look at the same sunset or eat the same food, or hear the same words, and often have the same reaction to it, or understand the same thing by it. It’s something external to both of us, which we both can access through our senses.

But are the thoughts of spirits common currency in this sense, such that either of two spirits who happen to be in close proximity (assuming the applicability of that term) can share the same thought, in the way that two embodied humans can share the experience of hearing the same spoken word? Or can a spirit very well distinguish his own thoughts from  those of other spirits? Are the thoughts of each spirit, in fact, private to himself?

St. Thomas Aquinas argues that each individual angel is a species unto himself. In which case, maybe the thoughts of one angel are not immediately translatable into the thoughts of another, even assuming that each angel’s thoughts were not private to himself.

• Phantasms an advantage?

Bruce’s point in all this, is that embodied beings are better because they have “greater agency” than disembodied beings, partly because their thoughts don’t get confused with those of others.

But I might argue that a spirit has greater agency, since he is not limited to acquiring his knowledge through his senses, nor by a discursive reasoning process. A spirit sees all sides of a problem or issue at once, and grasps its implications immediately, without having to work through it step-by-step.

It’s possible that a resurrected human being could do the same. Since Jesus after his resurrection could walk through walls and appear and disappear, maybe the limitations we experience due to our materiality don’t exist in the resurrected state. Nevertheless, even if we do shed some of our earthly, bodily limitations in heaven, why believe that we will surpass beings of pure spirit in our ability to think quickly and clearly? In what way could a body, especially an earthly body — itself lacking intelligence and always demanding a part of our attention — be a help rather than a hindrance to quick, clear thinking?

• ‘Better given certain premises’ versus ‘better per se’

Bruce also makes the following argument for “why bodies are better”:

“To answer this seems to require a sense of divine limitation which is anathema to most Christians – even though the Bible is full of it… full, that is, of an apparently accepted implicit assumption that God can only achieve certain purposes by certain linear and sequential actions – that God is limited in how he can achieve things, and that God achieving things requires time as well as the consent of Men.”

This argument seems unintentionally ironic: Once one accepts that God is limited, it becomes easier to understand why bodies are better. Doesn’t this assume that a body is a limitation?

Another way of stating the argument is that assuming all things, including God himself, are not separate from, but must act within a material universe, then it’s better to be a material being. But isn’t this just a truism?

Working under the assumption that you have to make things happen in a step-by-step manner — i.e. in a material manner — then a material body is an advantage. But that’s just saying that in a material environment, concrete bodies are better than wispy bodies or no bodies. If you assume that all things having to do with salvation must be carried out within such an environment, then a material body is better, or even necessary.

Indeed. That would explain why God gave us bodies on this earth, and why Jesus became incarnate. It was his will that his plan of salvation should be enacted within his own material creation.

But it doesn’t follow from this premise that bodies are higher and better than spirits per se. Nor does it follow that it’s better for God himself to be an embodied personage — unless you assume at the start that he needs a body to work out his salvation within a material environment, like us.

In short, Bruce fails to distinguish between “better for us given God’s purposes and the environment in which he has placed us,” and “better per se.” As St. Thomas writes,

“All natural things were produced by the Divine art, and so may be called God’s works of art. Now every artist intends to give to his work the best disposition; not absolutely the best, but the best as regards the proposed end; and even if this entails some defect, the artist cares not: thus, for instance, when man makes himself a saw for the purpose of cutting, he makes it of iron, which is suitable for the object in view; and he does not prefer to make it of glass, though this be a more beautiful material, because this very beauty would be an obstacle to the end he has in view. Therefore God gave to each natural being the best disposition; not absolutely so, but in the view of its proper end.”

ST I, Q. 91, A. 3.

There have been groups of Christians — condemned by the Church as heretics — who made Bruce’s mistake in reverse: They assumed that because our bodies were stricken with concupiscence owing to the Fall, that bodies, and all matter, were bad per se. Happiness, they thought, consisted in liberation from the physical. But this is the same error as Bruce’s: They said that because bodies are bad within this particular environment, they’re bad always and everywhere; whereas Bruce says that because bodies are advantageous, indeed essential, within this particular environment, they’re advantageous always and everywhere.

But the traditional Christian view of spirits being higher than bodies assumes not the contingent perspective of creation, but the absolute perspective of eternity.

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3 thoughts on “Is the physical higher than the spiritual? (yet again)

  1. You are a brave and industrious soul to attempt to understand and refute this. One of the most annoying and discouraging aspects of modern argument is the prevalence of people who will tell you what they think – and tell you what you think. Saves time, and all, but not very productive.

    It is tedious as all heck to read, for example, Luther, Calvin, Marxists, education theorist – I honestly don’t recommend it unless you feel called to dispute them, as I do – but at least when I argue, I can base it on what the foundational proponents actually say. Quote them, even.

    Thus, I stay out of most Mormon discussions, simply because I lack the internal fortitude to read the entire Book of Mormon. My judgement of what I have read, the the first book or two and certain sections Mormons have pointed me to, is: King James fan fiction. And: I’ve got better things to do with my time. But as far as their theology goes, what I know of it is mostly hearsay, so I tend to stay out of it.

    In the same way, Mr. Charlton should read the Catechism and bits of St. Thomas before generalizing on what is believed by his opponents. And quote them, even. Until then, I am not very interested in what he has to say about what I am supposed by him to believe, nor his refutations of his own straw men.

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    • I think you too easily dismiss both Mormonism and Dr. Charlton, and make it somewhat personal. I think the blog does a good job of critiquing the ideas without resorting backhanded insults.

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