Philosophy of Religion

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Aristotle: the body and soul

According to Aristotle a living creature is ‘substance’.
    Body = matter
    Soul = form
The soul (psyche) is the structure of the body - its function and organization. This was the word Greeks gave to the animator, the living force in a living being. For Aristotle the psyche controlled reproduction, movement and perception.

In contrast Aristotle regarded reason (nous) as the highest form of rationality. He believed that the ‘unmoved mover’ of the universe was a cosmic nous.

Aristotle thought that the soul is the Form of the body. The soul is simply the sum total of the operations of a human being.

Aristotle believed that there exists a hierarchy of living things – plants only have a vegetative soul, animals are above plants because they have appetites, humans are above animals because it has the power of reason.

Aristotle tries to explain his understanding of the distinction between the body and the soul using the analogy of an axe. If an axe were a living thing then its body would be made of wood and metal. However, its soul would be the thing which made it an axe i.e. its capacity to chop. If it lost its ability to chop it would cease to be an axe – it would simply be wood and metal.

Another illustration he uses is the eye. If the eye were an animal, sight would have to be its soul. When the eye no longer sees then it is an eye in name only.

Likewise, a dead animal is only an animal in name only – it has the same body but it has lost its soul.

What is important for Aristotle is the end purpose of something – an axe chops, an eye sees, an animal is animated…etc. This is what is meant by ‘teleology’ from the Greek teleoV meaning end.

For Aristotle, the body and soul are not two separate elements but are one thing. The body and the soul are not, as Plato would have it, two distinct entities, but are different parts or aspects of the same thing.

Aristotle does not allow for the possibility of the immortality of the soul. The soul is simply the Form of the body, and is not capable of existing without the body. The soul is that which makes a person a person rather than just a lump of meat! Without the body the soul cannot exist. The soul dies along with the body.

Aristotle appears to make one exception – reason (nous). However, he is not clear about how this reason survives death or whether or not it is personal.

Criticisms of Aristotle

Aristotle dismisses Plato’s Realms saying there is no clear evidence for them. Instead he appeals to our senses, claiming that it through them that we experience reality. However, we are still left with the problem that there is no clear evidence that our senses are reliable. A religious person might argue that we know the world through faith and revelation.

There is no clear evidence that everything does have a final cause. Some philosophers deny that there is any purpose to the universe. Such philosophers claim that the universe has no intrinsic purpose other than existing.

The concept of the an Unmoved Mover - or Prime Mover depends upon the argument that everything must have a cause. The argument then contradicts itself by claiming that God does exactly what it claims is impossible.

Aristotle does not adequately explain how God as a thinking force could be responsible for causing movement. On the one hand he stresses that real knowledge beings with the senses but the concept of something being moved just through thought is not what most of us experience.

Aristotle's Influence on Christian Thought

Aristotle’s philosophy found new found interest in the writings of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Just like Plato, theologians tend to pick and choose the bits that they like. Christian theologians have adopted:
  • God is eternal, beyond space and time, immutable
  • The universe has a purpose
  • God is the Final Cause – the Unmoved Mover – the Christian cosmological argument for the existence of God
  • Aristotle’s teleology supports Aquinas’ Natural Law

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