In 1643, Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate asked the philosopher René Descartes for some explanations about his theories on the distinction about the body and the mind – the same mind he had made the starting point for the confirmation of all knowledge in his Cogito ergo sum argument (“I think, therefore I am”). Elisabeth, who had come to La Hague, Netherlands, as a refugee with her family, had met Descartes during one of his visits. They discussed mathematics and philosophy, and kept corresponding by letters. In 1643, she was 25 and he 47.
What bothered Elisabeth was Descartes’s apparent distinction of mind and body as separate substances. As she pointed out to him, the interaction of mind and body in daily life is hard to deny, and the whole concept of dualism cannot stand without dealing with this reality.
After apologizing for her “stupidity in being unable to comprehend,” she confessed she had never “been able to conceive of an immaterial thing as anything but the negation of matter which cannot have any communication with it.”
“It would be easier for me to concede matter and extension to the soul,” she continued, “than the capacity of moving a body and of being moved, to an immaterial body.”
Apparently, the discussion didn’t find closure, as she didn’t consider Descartes’s answers satisfactory. In the end, he dismissed her question by telling her to adhere to whatever she found easiest to believe. If attributing matter and extension to the soul helped her to make sense of this issue, she could do so. But maybe she should ease up on philosophical quests, as “it would be very harmful to occupy one’s understanding often in meditating on [the principles of metaphysics].”
Elisabeth told Descartes that she didn’t have enough time for philosophical speculations. Her life had been in a state of constant commotion since the day when her parents, Frederick V and Elisabeth Stuart, were forced to abdicate their position as king and queen of Bohemia. Frederick had died in 1632, leaving the family in dire poverty. In one of her letters, Princess Elisabeth lamented the fact that the interests of her house and mandatory social obligations had been weighing on her mind. In spite of this, she perceived this issue of body and mind (or soul) to be of practical importance.
And she was right. While philosophical matters can produce endless discussions, some can, almost unconsciously, become part of our mindset and affect us in practical ways. In particular, our views on the nature of our bodies, minds, and souls inform not only our understanding of the afterlife, but our perception of our human condition in this life – and, consequently, our dealings with other human beings.
Generally speaking, humans tend to go to extremes, and this tendency is particularly strong when questions are not taken into serious consideration. One of these extremes is the notion that the human mind is simply a function of the brain with little or no influence on the soul. This position stems from a combination of scientific findings (which are by nature limited to an investigation of matter) and modern philosophical views that teach that matter is all that exists, with man as the measure of all things.
This perception generates many theological and philosophical problems. The most obvious problem for Christians is that it disrupts the historical biblical interpretation of the soul as an element of the human person that continues to exist, in an intermediate state, after the separation from the body at death.
Some Christians, in an effort to accommodate recent scientific claims, have proposed that the soul, generated or emerged from the brain, can still be sustained by God after death. Others have suggested that humans receive their supernatural bodies immediately after death (thus eliminating the need for a separation of body and soul), or else that there is no intermediate state, and the soul, being part of the body, rests in the grave until the final resurrection.
These views are contrary to Scriptures such as 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16, 1 Corinthians 15:23-24, 52, and Philippians 3:20-21. Jesus also spoke of the resurrection as a single, universal event, not of single resurrections. Besides, if we believe in an immediate resurrection, the new body will not be a resurrected body (as the Bible teaches) but a different body, or thing, altogether. Backing these new explanations will require a reinterpretation of Scriptures.
Those who try to bend Scriptural teachings on the soul in order to honor scientific discoveries would do well to notice the considerable number of scientists who have recognized that the human mind goes beyond the physical make-up of the brain and that its workings are not always scientifically explainable. In fact, some of them, such as Sir John Eccles (winner of the 1963 Nobel Prize in physiology), believe in the existence of both body and soul.
Most Christians are not tempted to adhere to a monistic anthropological view. They believe that God made man and woman as physical beings endowed with a soul. But they often fail to recognize the influence that other philosophical views have exercised on the Christian mindset.
The most obvious comes from the Greek philosopher Plato, who attributed the inferior, base human impulses to the body, and the superior, nobler ones to the soul. For Plato, death was a liberation of the soul from the prison of the body. The influence of his teachings on Christian thought – strongly denounced as early as the fourth century by Gregory of Nyssa and his sister Macrina – show up daily on the most popular level. A clear example of this are the Platonic views of death we hear at many Christian funerals today, where mourners are supposed to find comfort in the fact that the soul is finally free from the prison of its body.
Likewise, some Christians today adopt a form of Cartesian dualism as a reaction against monistic tendencies. Concerned that the mind might be considered as a simple function of the brain, they make the mind reside in the soul, which they perceive as separate and distinct from the body. To justify their view, they state that the soul keeps consciousness after the death of the body.
This position comes with its own set of problems, starting with Elisabeth’s objections. If, in fact, mind and body are totally distinct substances, how do they interact? How do we explain the fact that many mental changes are registered in the brain?
Elisabeth was not the only one to bring up this type of doubts. In fact, Descartes’s impact on the history of philosophy is largely due to the flurry of discussions he generated. This was, in a way, an indication that he failed to provide a definite answer on the interaction of body and mind, opening the door to a variety of misinterpretations and misconceptions.
Some misconceptions have crucial repercussions. Some Christians, for example, have taken the concept of the mind as a simple faculty of the soul to prove that there is no such thing as mental illness, at least in the strict sense of the word, and that disturbances of the mind that can’t be clearly defined by examinations of the brain should not be cured with medications. There are countless accounts of the disastrous consequences of this teaching.
More problems arise when this view of the mind as a function of the soul intermingles with our cultural Platonism, carrying the implication that the mind is superior to the body. One example is the popular notion of mind-over-matter (also a legacy from ancient philosophy, specifically from Stoicism).
To Descartes, who was trying to promote this view as a remedy for Elisabeth’s frequent illnesses, she opposed her own experience of matter-over-mind (bodily illnesses affecting thoughts and emotions), pointing out that our minds don’t have as much control over our bodies and lives as we wish them to have.
Seeing the mind as superior to the body and reducing humans to thinking beings also generates crucial questions regarding those whose mind is not functioning as we have come to expect. Is a person with dementia fully human? Can the gospel bypass the mind in reaching the soul? Racism and eugenics have stemmed from incorrect answers given to similar questions.
Striving for a Biblical Dualism
Traditionally, Christians have taught that God created human beings with a body and a soul functioning together as a harmonious unit. While the soul is allowed to live on without the body after death, this separation is unnatural and due to sin, and will cease with the final resurrection.
They have also generally taught that both body and souls are creations of God, both fashioned in beauty and perfection in His image, both corrupted by sin, and both deserving Hell apart from Christ. By these claims, Christians deny the primacy or superiority (whether moral or intellectual) of the soul over the body.
The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck explains this well when he describes the body as “a marvelous piece of art from the hand of God Almighty, and just as constitutive for the essence of humanity as the soul.”
The union of the soul with the body, he says, “is so intimate that one nature, one person, one self is the subject of both and of all their activities. … Now this body, which is so intimately bound up with the soul, also belongs to the image of God.”
Jesus taught us this unity not only by his words and sample, but also by the sacraments he instituted – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – which require both body and soul to participate. It’s the whole person – body and soul – that needs to be redeemed.
The Complexity of God’s Creation
Explaining the exact interaction of mind, soul, and body is difficult and can become confusing. Miklós Bethlen, the High Chancellor of Transylvania who spent much time musing on these topics while sitting in prison, called it a “labyrinth.”
But avoiding the subject is not the answer. Failing to consider these issues in a sound biblical light will only leave us prey to our cultural assumptions. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, the default framework of humanity seems to be that the person is merely “a brain on a stick.”
We also need to be careful about trying to simplify a subject that is complex by nature. Many mistakes in Christian thought have stemmed from attempts to reduce and categorize God’s complexity in order to fit it neatly into our own mental compartments.
In reality, the interaction between body, mind, and soul is not the crux of the matter. Being human includes many other factors. There is a social aspect, which scientists have found to be crucial not only psychologically but also on a neurological level.
And there is an eschatological aspect, that no mental or physical disability can ever change: we were created for a purpose, and both our individual lives and the history of mankind is progressing persistently and inescapably toward that end.
The complexity of the human person is something that Elisabeth pointed out to Descartes, drawing his attention to the emotions he had largely dismissed in his discussions. In spite of what the Stoics taught, emotions are not always controlled by the mind, and the fact that they disturb one’s serenity is not always a negative.
Our goal as human beings on pilgrimage is to love God and neighbor, not to achieve a peaceful and rational mind. In fact, loving God and neighbor might bring much turmoil to our minds. In many ways, Jesus didn’t come to soothe our minds with simple answers but to shake us up with the revelation of a magnificent complexity we can only begin to grasp.
Elisabeth had some influence on Descartes, who gave greater consideration to the emotions (or passions) in his later writings. As for her, in spite of her failing health (possibly a form of colon cancer), she became the abbess of a Lutheran convent while retaining her Reformed convictions. There, she gave asylum to many who had suffered in the disastrous Thirty-Year War, dealing with human beings in all their complexity.
Simonetta Carr is the author of numerous books, including Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them: Schizophrenia through a Mother’s Eyes, and the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers (Reformation Heritage Books).
 Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, René Descartes, The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes (The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe), 68.
 Ibid., 93