“Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels.”

One of my favorite novels is A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. It tells of the recycling of civilization centuries after a nuclear war, from the vantage point of a Roman Catholic monastery in Utah.

My favorite dialogue is when Abbot Zerchi and a doctor argue about using one of the abbey’s courtyards for examining people exposed to radiation, and possibly recommending euthanasia for “hopeless” cases. Zerchi has just called laws permitting euthanasia “criminal.” The doctor responds:

“If I thought I had such a thing as a soul… I might agree with you.”

Abbot Zerchi smiled thinly. “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.”

The visitor laughed politely. “A semantic confusion.”

“True. But which of us is confused? Are you sure?”

You don’t have a soul… you are a soul. It’s a construction which differs somewhat from common usage, in which we refer to souls as something we own rather than something we are.

More simply: if you lose a thumb, you’re still you. If you puncture a lung, you’re still you. If you lose your left foot, you’re still you (unless you’re my brother, who never passes or shoots with his right foot). In many religions, traditions and personal belief systems, when your body dies, the real, true “you” is elsewhere and separate.

Even if you don’t believe in the existence of souls, you probably recognize that there is some essential being that a person is rather than has; and the existence of that being is in no way diminished by merely amputating a limb. But would it be diminished by a serious brain injury, or debilitating stroke? How would that affect you as a soul, or an essence, or whatever?

I think, and some might agree, that just as you are a soul that has a body, you are a soul that has a mind. (Temporarily?) But the distinction between soul and mind is much trickier.

The mind affects the soul in ways the body doesn’t; it is through our minds that we can learn about good and evil, or virtue and sin—apart from any intrinsic knowledge that we may naturally have. The mind’s health affects our ability to make moral decisions and thus incur guilt or maintain innocence. That’s why in our legal tradition, you can be acquitted of a crime due to insanity. This is roughly analogous to “this soul committed no sin because his mind was lacking.”

But where’s the cutoff, if there is one? I’m not asking that from a legal perspective, but from a moral perspective. At what level of mental dysfunction can someone no longer be held morally accountable for their action?

In Christian thought, this issue may ultimately be moot due to concepts such as original sin, salvation through faith alone, your finest deeds being as rags before God, and so on. I can’t speak for other faiths or philosophies.

What interests me is the status of the soul when the mind fades completely—when the brain deteriorates physically or simply can’t function as it’s supposed to.

For instance: I have an eighty-five-year-old grand-aunt who is suffering from dementia. Since moving up here, I’ve visited her every couple of weeks. Her short term memory is in terrible shape and getting worse. When I talk with her alone, no distractions, no other people in the room, she will ask the same three questions in a loop that will start over in as little as two minutes. When I ask questions, her answers usually lead into one of a few long-memorized litanies.

When more of the family is around, her condition is less noticeable because she no longer has to keep track of longer conversation with a single person. The more people, the more combinations of talkers and listeners, the easier it is for her to hide the problem by having several short conversations with different people.

Physically, she’s in just about as good shape as you can be at 85. If she loses her eyesight, or a leg, she’ll still be Aunt Mary. But, pardon the expression, as she loses her mind, what happens? If she loses all of her mental capacity—or if she simply loses her capacity for moral judgment, will Mary still “be” in her 85-year-old living shell?

Can the soul, without the mind, still be morally active? Can it still incur guilt? Can it depart prior to physical death? Is it inert, essentially frozen until physical death? How much of the “mind,” our cognition, is actually the soul, if any? If I were to make a Grodzin-like model of the relationship between the mind and the soul, would it resemble a layer-cake or a marble-cake?

A much shorter version of these questions: Was Terri Schiavo still in there? How would we know?

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 20th, 2005 at 6:06 PM.

3 Responses to ““Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels.””

  1. apushisfun Says:
    November 21st, 2005 at 6:07 PM

Mr. V, what spurred you to write about this very touchy subject?

Now my personal opinion about the terry schiavo case is that she wasn’t there anymore. She had been in that vegetated state for, I think it was, 10 years. There is no possible way that she was going to come out of that state. (off subject: Mr. V, my dad just told me to tell you I love you and get off the internet, but I’m going to finish what I have to say and then get off.) They [the parents] said that she would respond to their voice and that she said that she didn’t want to die. They could of thought she said that because they wanted her to live so much. But, in my personal opinion, I think that her body was just responding to an outside stimulus like the parent’s voices and that her “attempt” at saying she wanted to “live” was just another responce that her body enacted.

  1. Vincent Viscariello Says:
    November 21st, 2005 at 8:49 PM

I wrote about this “very touchy subject” because I would like to kidnap souls, and conscript the leftover bodies with minds into an army of zombies.

  1. bologna of mal intent Says:
    November 22nd, 2005 at 10:45 PM

ooooh cool, can i lead the army or atleast be one of luetentes or however you spell it and what if were mindless zombies?
but to deal with shivo i think their would be no possible way to know if she was still “there” autopsy showed that her brain had shrunk to the point where they can definitively say she was blind so likley any reactions she had were nothing but reflexes and i gota agree with the nerd above that her parents probably were only seeing and hearing what they wanted to hear

P.S: long live the secret brotherhood of VDV