Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Aquinas and Descartes on substance dualism

Roughly, Aquinas thinks of a substance as something that:

  1. is existentially independent of other things, and

  2. is complete in its nature.

There is a fair amount of work needed to spell out the details of 1 and 2, and that goes beyond my exegetical capacities. But my interest is in structural points. Things that satisfy (1), Aquinas calls “subsistent beings”. Thus, all substances are subsistent beings, but the converse is not true, because Aquinas thinks the rational soul is a subsistent being and not a substance.

Descartes, on the other hand, understands substance solely in terms of (1).

Now, historically, it seems to be Descartes and not Thomas who set the agenda for discussions of the view called “substance dualism”. Thus, it seems more accurate to think of substance dualists as holding to a duality of substance in Descartes’ sense of substance than in Aquinas’.

But if we translate this to Thomistic vocabulary, then it seems we get:

  1. A “substance dualist” in the modern sense of the term is someone who thinks there are two subsistent beings in the human being.

And now it looks like Aquinas himself is a substance dualist in this sense. For Aquinas thinks that there are two subsistent beings in Socrates: one of them is Socrates (who is a substance in the Thomistic sense of the word) and the other is Socrates’ soul (which is a merely subsistent being). To make it sound even more like substance dualism, note that Thomas thinks that Socrates is an animal and animals are bodies (as I have learned from Christopher Tomaszewski, there are two senses of body: one is for the material substance as a whole and the other is for the matter; it is body in the sense of the material substance that Socrates is, not body in the sense of matter). Thus, one of these subsistent beings or substances-in-the-Cartesian-sense is a body and the other is a soul, just as on standard Cartesian substance dualism.

But of course there are glaring difference between Aquinas’ dualism and typical modern substance dualisms. First, and most glaringly, one of the two subsistent beings or Cartesian substances on Aquinas’s view is a part of the other: the soul is a part of the human substance. On all the modern substance dualisms I know of, neither substance is a part of the other. Second, of the two subsistent beings or Cartesian substances, it is the body (i.e., the material substance) that Aquinas identifies Socrates with. Aquinas is explicit that we are not souls. Third, for Aquinas the body depends for its existence on the soul—when the soul departs from the body, the body (as body, though perhaps not as matter) perishes (while on the other hand, the soul depends on the matter for its identity).

Now, let’s move to Descartes. Descartes’ substance dualism is widely criticized by Thomists. But when Thomists criticize Descartes for holding to a duality of substances, there is a danger that they are understanding substance in the Thomistic sense. For, as we saw, if we understand substance in the Cartesian sense, then Aquinas himself believes in a duality of substances (but with important structural differences). Does Descartes think there is a duality of substances in the Thomistic sense? That is not clear to me, and may depend on fine details of exactly how the completeness in nature (condition (2) above) is understood. It seems at least in principle open to Descartes to think that the soul is incomplete in its nature without the body or that the body is incomplete in its nature without the soul (the pineal gland absent the soul sure sounds incomplete) or that each is incomplete without the other.

So, here is where we are at this point: When discussing Aquinas, Descartes and substance dualism we need to be very careful whether we understand substance in the Thomistic or the Cartesian sense. If we take the Cartesian sense, both thinkers are substance dualists. If we take the Thomistic sense, Aquinas clearly is not, but it is also not clear that Descartes is. There are really important and obvious structural differences between Thomas and Descartes here, but they should not be seen as differences in the number of substances.

And here is a final exegetical remark about Aquinas. Aquinas’ account of the human soul seems carefully engineered to make the soul be the sort of thing—namely, a subsistent being—that can non-miraculously survive in the absence of the substance—the human being—that it is normally a part of. This makes it exegetically probable that Aquinas believed that the soul does in fact survive in the absence of the human being after death. And thus we have some indirect evidence that, in contemporary terminology, Aquinas is a corruptionist: that he thinks we do not survive death though our souls do (but we come back into existence at the resurrection). For if he weren’t a corruptionist, his ontology of the soul would be needlessly complex, since the soul would not need to survive without a human being if the human being survived death.

And indeed, I think Aquinas’s ontology is needlessly complex. It is simpler to have the soul not be a subsistent being. This makes the soul incapable of surviving death in the absence of the human being. And that makes for a better view of the afterlife—the human being survives the loss of the matter, and the soul survives but only as part of the human being.


Anon said...

"all subsistent beings are substances" in the first paragraph is a typo, right?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yup, fixed. Thanks!