- Descartes on the Human Soul: Philosophy and the Demands of Christian Doctrine
As Defender of the Faith, René Descartes wrote his Meditations to fulfill the request of the Fifth Lateran Council in 1513 "to support with rational demonstrations the Church's teaching on the immortality of the soul" (28). This allowed him to dedicate the Meditations to the Faculty of Theology at the Sorbonne in hopes of obtaining their approbation. The Faculty remained silent, but Descartes could interpret this as consent, although he removed from later editions the notice of approbation. What the Council asked for were demonstrations of the immortality of the soul and of the substantial union of the soul with the body.
Mersenne thought the Meditiations were going to provide these demonstrations, so he included in the title of the first edition the promise to demonstrate the immortality of the soul, but in later editions Descartes changed this to a promise to demonstrate the distinction between the human soul and the body, or that the soul is an independent substance that is not destroyed by the death of the body, and so can be immortal. Independent substancehood does not prove that the soul is immortal, however, for Descartes agreed that God can destroy the soul at any time. This conclusion greatly bothered Mersenne and Arnauld. As for the absolute separation of the soul from the body, Descartes was criticized for supporting the Platonic doctrine of their absolute separation, making it impossible to demonstrate that the union between soul and body is substantial and not accidental. And "the central Christian doctrines of the Creation, Incarnation, Redemption, and Resurrection required a union of body and soul much more intimate than that of agent and instrument" (310). But all that Descartes's proof supports is the Platonic model of a sailor piloting a ship. Never mind that Descartes adamantly denies that the soul sits in the body thus—for the soul in union with the body feels the body as the sailor does not feel the ship—his friends and foes alike saw that the absolute difference of soul and body made their substantial union inexplicable. It also goes against the Aristotelian view of the Council of Vienne in 1311-1312 that "defined the rational soul as the forma corporis" (310). It is exactly this view that Descartes opposed by eliminating substantial forms from his philosophy.
Arnauld warned Descartes about these problems, while Gassendi, Hobbes, and others attacked him. In response, Descartes expanded his views without altering them, and complained about being misunderstood. The Jesuit Father Bourdin's attacks hurt him most, for as he told Mersenne, this made him think that all the Jesuits (they stick together) were against him. This, Fowler argues, is why Descartes dedicated the Meditations to the Faculty of the Sorbonne, and not to the Jesuits.
Fowler carefully presents the entire sweep of Descartes's ideas and arguments concerning the immortality of the soul and its union with the body. Descartes in fact did not manage to demonstrate either one. He did agree that of the three sorts of truths—those known by revelation alone, those known both by revelation and demonstration, and those known only by demonstration—these points about the soul belong in the middle category. But he never mentions immortality in the Meditations, and when Princess Elisabeth faces him with his inability to explain how the soul and body [End Page 120] can interact, he just says that we experience it. Gassendi asked him the same question, but Descartes ignored him. With other critics, he shifted the question into the first category of truths—it is a matter of revelation. This was not satisfactory either to his critics or to Descartes, for it had led Pompanazzi to materialism, and it led Descartes's first disciple Regius to say bluntly that metaphysics, and in particular Descartes's metaphysics, is irrelevant to the third category of truths, those of mechanics, physics, and medicine.