Chapter 3: Human Existence in Body and Mind

After Death: Life in God
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 3: Human Existence in Body and Mind

Towards the end of the last chapter, I spoke of the mistake, so frequent in the past, of looking at human existence in terms of a substantial self to which experiences happened or by which experiences are had. Certainly it has commonly been thought that each of us is an ‘I’ whose existence is in no significant sense dependent upon such experiences. I insisted that there is a genuine personal identity; but it has been assumed that this identity is made possible by the fact that there is just this kind of substantial self. It is that view which (as it is thought) makes possible and seems to lend probability to the notion that the self, so understood, can continue to exist even when there is no body and when there are no further experiences of a sort appropriate to bodily life.

For myself, it is clear that such a picture of selfhood cannot stand up to criticism. That I feel myself to be an ‘I’ and that I act in terms which entail a continuity of that ‘I’ with what has gone before and what will follow after, is an unquestionable fact. What is more, there can be no denying the human sense of accountability for what has been done by this ‘I’. But that need not require us to think that there is a body-mind dichotomy, with the mind as a substantial entity that can be separated from the body, and when thus separated continue to ‘be’ without any real difficulty. William James showed, years ago, that a quite different account can very well be given; and James was only one of the many psychologists who have denied that there is valid evidence for the reality of a substantial self which is independent not only of the body but also of happenings to the body.

There is a further consideration. If we adopt the analysis of human existence which is urged by Whitehead and other process thinkers -- an analysis which leads to generalizations that are found to fit in with much else in our observation of the world -- then it is absurd to talk in such substantial terms. For in such an analysis, what is disclosed is that we are in truth a certain direction or routing of events which, because of a persisting memory of what has occurred along it, and because there has emerged (at some point in the evolutionary development so far as our own species is concerned) an awareness which includes both consciousness and self-consciousness, may meaningfully be given a specific identity. That I am I and that you are you rests upon the evident truth that the series of occurrences which have been mine, and those which have been yours, are not identical. My past -- that is, the series of experiences which take place along my routing -- is not the same as yours. The enormous variety of such happenings, given a particular focus in this or in that routing, means that what has appeared as my identity will have characteristics which differ from yours.

Nor is it only a matter of the routing in the past. There is also the fact of decisions made in the tiny instant of choice. On the basis of past experience, one routing (now come to awareness) selects one set of possibilities, while another routing selects another set. The lures or attractions, the invitations or potentialities, of one are not the same as those of the other. The aims which are in view, as each conscious routing makes its selection, are also different one from the other. Such aims are to a considerable degree dependent upon the accomplished past; they are also suggested possibilities as to ways in which fulfillment or satisfaction may be obtained in a further advance. There are marked differences in these aims, although all of them are ways in which there can be the achievement of some significant degree of realization of genuine possibilities which opportunity offers.

Of course what we call ‘common sense’ does not immediately see the concrete situation for what it is. We are so accustomed to thinking in other ways, thanks to centuries of philosophical and religious teaching, that we are very ready to talk about substantial selfhood. More than that, we all feel deeply our own identity; and it appears to us that the only way in which that feeling can be given validity is by our assuming just such a substantial self. But what is discovered to us in the analysis of experience may quite adequately be interpreted in another way; and it is that other way that I have proposed.

When I try to understand my experience of being human, I find that perhaps the most prominent feature is my memory. There is the conscious memory, standing as it were very much in the forefront of human awareness. There is a kind of memory which is deep in those hidden areas to which the depth psychologists refer when they talk of the ‘sub-conscious’. There is also a memory which is grounded in my bodily existence -- a visceral memory, as we might call it. This memory is of a past which has brought me to where now I stand; in doing that, it has been causally effective. What holds all this together is the way in which the things remembered are so related that there is a single direction taken by each of them, one characteristic of myself and another characteristic of you. There is a reproduction, in that continuing succession, of specific patterning; there is a dominant occasion, to use Whiteheadian language, which transmits its own particular quality from moment to moment. Through the various sequential events it ‘presides’ over the routing which is mine or which is yours.

By virtue of a complicated arrangement of cells in the brain, there is at the human level emergent a mental state marked by what I have styled awareness. At the animal level this may be only a vague awareness of that which is distinct from the experiencing subject, without the additional vivid quality known in human life. That additional quality is the awareness of the self as aware; it is ‘self-consciousness’. But notice that this kind of awareness is always of the self as experience. It is impossible for me to know any selfhood apart from experience; I cannot abstract, so to say, from my experience and come to an awareness of some non-experiential existence. The awareness of one’s selfhood and the fact of one’s experience go together. This depends upon there being a brain, an arrangement of cells in a particular part of the body which by reason of its peculiar coordination makes the given routing able to ‘know’ in a distinctively human manner -- quite different from, although certainly continuous with, the sort of ‘knowing’ that is possible for the higher grades of animal life.

Granted all this, we may now meaningfully proceed to what might be called a phenomenology of human existence in its body-mind complex. But before that, it is worth saying that the kind of mind-body situation which we have been considering provides a strong case against the notion of some continuation after death of the conscious self that had existed before death. The usual line is that precisely because mind and body -- or, if you will, ‘soul’ in its conventional sense and material body; or res cogitans and res extensa in Descartes’ philosophical treatment -- are not only entirely distinct one from the other but are also separable one from the other, there can be no denying the possibility, even the strong probability, that when the latter has died the former goes on. The old argument about the violin, as a material thing, and the tune, as a ‘spiritual’ one, is a pretty fair indication of the position adopted. The instrument may perish but the tune survives and, as it is often argued by those who would attempt to bring ‘immortality of the soul’ and some residual meaning of ‘resurrection’ together into a single conception, that tune might very well be played on another instrument if one does not accept the idea that tunes can exist, so to say, without any expression through some instrumentality. What is not usually recognized is that even if some such persistence of the mind or soul does take place, there is no reason for thinking that this will be an enduring fact. Perhaps C. D. Broad’s speculation, in one or two of his writings, may be more probable; like the tune, the ‘soul’ lingers on for a while; but after a time its existence also comes to an end. Of course the basic difficulty here is that talk of the sort I have just been sketching fails to see that only in God (who is himself enduring or everlasting) can any genuinely significant existence, of whatever sort, be guaranteed.

To return, however, to the phenomenology of human existence, we may begin simply by reasserting what so far in this chapter has been stated again and again -- namely, that human existence is a body-mind or mind-body complex; and that the two go together in a most intimate and interdependent fashion. A good deal of so-called ‘religious’ discussion has been conducted on altogether too highly spiritual a plane, as if human beings were really nothing but angels who for the time being happened to be resident in a physical abode. Such a view would be more appropriate for proponents of ancient gnostic theories, come alive again in our day, than for those who profess a biblical basis for their religion. None the less, much that has been taught and preached in the Christian churches has resembled this heretical theorizing. Yet we all know that the body and the mind (or soul) are both so much ourselves that we can say with the poet that it is hard to tell ‘whether soul helps body more than body soul’. Our present knowledge of the psychosomatic nature of much human illness, to give but one example, is clear proof that such is indeed the case.

But if an adequate phenomenology of human existence begins with due acceptance of our mind-body condition, it must go on to speak of the dynamic quality which we all know very well in our experience. We are not finished articles; we are moving, developing, changing, growing -- this may be for good or for bad, since there seems no reason to assure an inevitable progression in a favorable direction; but whether for good or bad, there is no denying the dynamism of our existence. This, of course, is in accordance with our earlier comments about direction or routing; and any accurate portrayal of human existence is to be found, not in some static cross-section at this or that moment, but rather in the movement which that existence is taking from the past, through the present, towards the future. We are ‘on the go’; there is no stopping-place at which it would be possible to say, ‘this given moment exhausts what we are’. Only at our death would any such statement have meaning; and when it did, the meaning would be that of a corpse, something indeed finished because ‘done for’.

At each point along the routing, we build upon the inherited or acquired past achievements which have their causal influence upon us. In every present moment we are ‘aiming’ -- at the human level with a genuine degree of conscious awareness -- at a future. The present is ‘specious’, as academics would put it; it is the instant which joins a remembered past and an anticipated future, but in and of itself it cannot be said to provide any fixed stance. The process is the actuality’, as Whitehead once put it; to be at all is to become; thus our existence is in our becoming.

At the same time, we are societal creatures in a societal universe. If we are becoming, we are also belonging. In the most evident sense, we belong with our fellows in the total human enterprise. Neighbors and friends, family and associates, the human race of which we are part; all these, as any profound understanding of our humanity makes clear enough, are contributory to our own becoming and we on our side make a similar contribution to them. If John Donne was correct in his famous saying that ‘no man is an island entire unto itself’, then we can only have genuine existence when we are aware of what is thus an inescapable truth about us. This does not require our being vividly conscious, at every moment, of our situation of belonging. What it does demand is that we shall live as what we are, that is, as those who participate in the total human situation and thus live not only with, but from and by and for, others.

This dependence upon other humans does not, however, exhaust the reality of such belonging. We are also dependent on the fact of our being part of, as we have biologically emerged from, the natural order and all that this implies. The too frequent total concentration upon the human, to the exclusion of due recognition and acceptance of the non-human environment, is one of the sad consequences of our altogether overly ‘man-centered way of seeing things. Not only for food and shelter, for clothing and all else that provides us with what used to be styled ‘the comforts and conveniences of life’, but also for the sheer fact of our existence at all, we cannot escape from this natural order which surrounds us and of which, indeed, we are from one point of view simply a complicated instance. Thus we need constantly to follow Ezra Pound’s admonition to ‘put down our vanity’, a vanity which foolishly pretends that we and we only are the important entities in the cosmos. St. Francis of Assisi, with his grateful delight in ‘brother sun’ and ‘sister moon’ and all other creatures, animate and inanimate, spoke for the truly human attitude. He understood, doubtless in a naive fashion, that when we are most keenly aware of our own humanity we are aware also of our brotherly-sisterly relationship with everything else. Furthermore, it is very hard to draw a precise and definite line of demarcation between our own bodily existence and that of the world around us. The energies which constitute us are, so to say, passing in and out of our most intimate environment and are effecting and affecting changes in all that surrounds us.

A continued analysis of our existence discloses also that while we are indeed ‘minds’, in that we have some degree of rationality and are able to engage in thought, in order to understand much about the world and about our own existence and to project plans and work towards goals which will bring us towards actualization of potentiality, we are also to a very large extent creatures of feeling. By this I do not refer merely to the physical sensitivity given through touch, sight, hearing, smell, taste, etc. I refer also to the human experience of aesthetic appreciation, along with our capacity for evaluating, enjoying, suffering, and in other ways becoming sensitively aware of what is both within us and around us. Much Western philosophy has been inadequate at this point. One of the helpful aspects of increasing knowledge of Eastern and other non-European cultures -- in India, China, Japan, and the like, as well as African and more primitive modes of experience -- has been the forcing upon us, in our all too rational and moral Western world, of exactly this different perspective. The Greek inheritance, through philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, has often been blamed for our excessive rational-moral focus. That is not entirely just, however, since some of the Greeks were far from being thus almost exclusively concentrated on the rational and the moral. In that superb study of Greek thought among the ordinary people of the land, Erwin Rohde’s book Psyche (Kegan Paul 1920), there is clear indication of this stress on what I might call, following William James, ‘feeling-tones’ or the more widely and deeply aesthetic mode of awareness.

The point is that human beings are ‘poets’, although usually they do not grasp this truth about themselves. They are poets in their total existence because they feel more deeply, and experience more truly than is often recognized, aspects of the world which are not easily put into logical formulae and which do not fit into the moral codification that superficially appears to be their main interest. When Tennyson writes in In Memoriam of the way in which somebody can say, ‘I have felt’, he is not describing a distortion of human understanding nor is he commending sheer irrationality. Rather, he is stating the imaginative quality which is a natural accompaniment of all human experience. Even when we have done all in our power to destroy such imagination and turn everything into dull prose, men and women still can and do manifest that they are able to dream, to delight in beauty, to appreciate and enjoy.

This brings us to a consideration of the freedom which our analysis also reveals as integral to human existence. Of course that freedom is not unlimited. We belong in a certain place and we live at a certain time; we are ‘conditioned’ by many factors which are unavoidable if we are indeed creatures of a time-and-space world. Furthermore, our inheritance from the past, with its causal efficacy upon us, establishes limits and restricts us in our choices. Yet the fact of our freedom, with its own causative quality, is not to be denied, A totally deterministic theory contradicts our clearly known sense of freedom. One might say that such a theory is in itself a case of self-contradiction, for nothing could be more absurdly self-contradictory than for a person to expend much effort in an attempt to convince others that they are not really open to conviction because they are determined, by that which is not themselves, to think, to believe, and to act as they do!

We are aware, then, of some genuine although not unlimited freedom of decision, so that we can be said to be (in at least some senses) causes of our selfhood (causa sui, as the Latin saying goes). And such decisions have their consequences. They make things happen; they bring about results which otherwise would not have occurred. If this be true, as most obviously it is, there is also a human accountability for what takes place. Here, too, analysis of the experience which we all know provides confirmation. However much we may try to blame somebody or something else our human associates, our human situation, our past experience, and the like -- the human response when most perceptive is to say that ‘I am accountable’. Other considerations may enter in, to be sure; but in the last resort most of us would affirm such a genuine responsibility and it is a mark of our existence, when at its most human, to accept this whether we do it willingly or unwillingly.

There is also another point to remember. Human existence is experienced by us in sexual terms. By this I mean that deep in our awareness is a recognition both of the drive for relationships with others and of the capacity to express this drive in specific actions. The human race is male and female, since obviously its members are equipped with the physical characteristics of gender, some of the female sort, others of the male. At the same time, there is a sense in which the usual portrayal of sexual ‘roles’ is a matter of social inheritance and social pressures. Gentleness is not exclusively feminine, nor self-assertion exclusively masculine. There is a sexual ‘scale’, as the Kinsey Reports have shown. Each of us belongs somewhere on that scale, but those who are predominantly male may also possess female qualities, while those who are predominantly female may have male characteristics. Anatomically we are men or women; but that is not the whole story. One of the tragedies of our culture has been a too complete separation of maleness and femaleness.

Finally, and with its physiological grounding in that sexuality which is integral to human existence, there is the drive towards, and the capacity for, loving. Underneath all that is on the surface of their lives humans wish to live in love; and without such love their existence is truncated and damaged. It is the poets and artists, the seers and the saints, who have best stated this. Such men and women have understood that ‘the strongest power in the world is that of love itself, which does not work by force to achieve its highest purpose or win its greatest victories’. These are words spoken by one of the world’s greatest living biochemists, Dr. Joseph Needham, in the course of a sermon preached before the University of Oxford in May 1977, and reproduced in the magazine Theology for July 1978. Dr. Needham went on to say that ‘love is vulnerable, inevitably doomed to suffering’; it is aware of rejection, unkindness, cruelty, evanescence, and coldness in the response often made to it. Yet, he insists, such love is ‘the truth about human relationships’ and it is ‘the life which all men and women must lead if the patterns of the Tao [here Needham is using the Chinese notion of the ‘way of the universe’] are to be fulfilled on earth’.

In this chapter I have attempted to present an understanding of our human existence which is true to the facts, so far as we know them, which makes sense of and gives sense to our experience, and which indicates what is meant when we speak, as we do, of the worth and value in our lives. The one thing that I have not so far stressed, and I end this chapter by stressing it, is that any profound analysis of our humanity demonstrates all too plainly that we are defective creatures. Honesty compels us to recognize that we seek our own will and way, we try to stop the creative advance when it seems to go against our fond desires, we are content to remain in backwaters and deviate into side-channels, we love either imperfectly or in the wrong ways, we wish to over-ride and control others of our kind, we spoil the environment and refuse our proper human stewardship of the natural order. In other words, we are constantly in danger of being too cheerfully optimistic about ourselves and we need to be reminded again and again that such optimism is foolishly unrealistic. But that does not mean that we must become utterly pessimistic about human existence. Certainly for Christian faith such a pessimism would be disloyal to the conviction that behind, through, and in all our existence there is a relationship with a Love which is enduring, undefeated and indefeasible, faithful in its caring and able to preserve in its own unsurpassable life all that has been worthily achieved in the created order -- including all that has been worthily achieved by us humans.