The Major and I were having breakfast together the other day when he related a discussion he had with his son on the question, “What is life?” Now, like me, the Major was trained by the Jesuits at the University of San Francisco. He was part of the St. Ignatius Institute within USF and, thus, had access to an even deeper level of philosophical discussion. (Not participating in the St. Ignatius Institute is one of my larger regrets. But hey, it was college… I had other “things” demanding my attention.)
His son asked him when he thought life began. This was not a forerunner to a “political abortion justification” argument; it was a legitimate philosophical inquiry. The Major stated he felt “life” began (or ended) with the attachment of the soul to its physical seat: the brain.
His argument centered on the idea that each portion of the human body is potentially replaceable, except the brain. That singular organ is what animates our life. Thus, a functioning brain creates a point of attachment for the ethereal soul.
I posited that at some point we may have the ability to literally download our brains into a computer, or, perhaps, even place that new electronic “consciousness” into some form of organic hybrid robot. This new sentient creature, animated by the consciousness of another and based on the Major’s theory, would have all of the characteristics of a human but, by definition, would not have a soul.
He agreed this might be problematic.
I did take him across the philosophical bridge and remind him that God is omnipotent and, by definition, could impart a soul to anything: a robot, a tree, or even a pet. If God were incapable of doing this because of the “rules” humans have created for Him, he would cease to be omnipotent… and would, by definition, cease to be God.
“So, perhaps Pinocchio did not turn to flesh… perhaps he remained wood and was simply imparted with a soul.”
“Yes. I never thought of that. Maybe the Blue Fairy was in fact a Seraphim.”
Then he said something incredibly interesting: “The real definition of a human with a soul is that the individual is capable of self-sacrifice, and by choosing to engage in self-sacrifice, acts with virtue.”
Maybe this is what truly defines us as human: our capacity for virtue, not the virtue associated with societal dictates, but the individual acts of kindness, even acts that only potentially provide kindness, that we do for others. (I’ll get into the “potential acts” in a second). The value a human provides is not in the treasures we give away but, rather, as the receiver. Our value as a human, is the ability we have to receive kindness from others and, thus, allow them to act virtuously.
I want to relate a story to you. My parents have been friends with a couple for years. The couple has since passed away, but a number of years ago my mother told me a story about the husband that had a significant impact on me. It dovetails nicely with what the Major and I were talking about.
This couple, well… this husband, was involved in the jewelry business. (As a side bar, when I asked Sandy to marry me, I bought the diamond for her engagement ring from the husband.) For the purpose of this discussion we will call them Frank and Julie.
About the same time I was born in the late 1960s, Julie and Frank had a daughter of their own. This baby was born with significant anencephaly. The brain was largely undeveloped and the skull was grossly misshapen. The lifespan of a anencephalic baby is usually less than 60 days. It is possible, though, if the right parts of the brain are present the baby can survive for much longer, years in fact. The life of these babies is one that lacks consciousness, and they are, by definition, completely dependent on others for their existence, but the possibility of sustained life exists.
When the baby was born, the doctors literally rushed it from the room. Julie never had a chance to see it, bond with it, or develop any lasting attachment to it. My mother never learned if this was Julie’s wishes, or if this decision was foisted on her from others. Having met Julie before she and her husband passed away, I suspect that it was probably her decision. Julie never struck me as a particularly warm person. Frank, however, was.
The two of them would go on to have two other healthy children and, by all accounts, a reasonably happy, productive life. Julie did suffer from severe bouts of depression, but it is my understanding this is something that plagued her since adolescence, predating her first pregnancy.
Well, the baby survived. She continued to grow. There was no outward sign that any sentience or consciousness existed within her, but “life” did continue to manifest.
Julie refused to acknowledge the existence of the child. The baby was placed in a medical home and “cared” for, the expectation being that survivability would not last long.
Well, it did.
For sixteen years.
During that time, Frank would secretly visit his daughter every week, every Tuesday at lunch to be exact. He would read to her. He had no idea if this biological mass lying in the bed next to him had any ability to discern his presence, but he would go there every Tuesday nonetheless. If only a small chance existed that this child had any ability to perceive her universe in any sort of capacity, he wanted to provide some level of love and comfort to her.
It is medically doubtful this child knew anything, but Frank was there nonetheless.
Frank was sacrificing his emotions and his time for something that existed beyond himself. Frank was given the opportunity by the universe to act with virtue.
This girl was, in fact, uniquely human. She may not have had the capacity to participate in our society, or even process her own existence, but she provided a pathway to Frank to act with virtue and, thus, allowed him to become more human.
In the Jewish culture, when someone acts in a self-sacrificing manner, it’s called a mitzvah. When someone performs a mitzvah, it has a radiant effect that affects all of humanity.
A mitzvah makes us human, and makes those around us human. A mitzvah is a two-party deal though…
It requires someone to receive the benefit of the self-sacrificing act.
Perhaps the Major is incorrect. The soul does not reside in the brain. Perhaps the soul is more transcendent. Perhaps the soul exists around everything, regardless of intellectual capacity or even consciousness. Perhaps the very definition of humanity… soulful humanity, is the ability to allow others to act with virtue.
That child allowed Frank to be a human, and even gave me the opportunity to share this story with you. Her value to us, and the universe as a whole, has tangible meaning.
I believe she absolutely had a soul.