Editor’s note: I recently posted a couple of theories on the origins of the soul, in light of evolution, and invited readers to offer their thoughts. Several did, and one, William Stropnicky, granted me permission to share the response he emailed me, which I wanted to do because I found it interesting. I hope you do as well. Bold emphases are mine, italics are his.
Dear Tyler Francke,
Based on Aristotle’s definition of the soul (which reconciles with science, not only evolution but neuroscience, in ways the homunculus can’t; after all, it’s identity, not mind or emotion), I would argue that it’s a moot point to ask when our fossilized ancestors “obtained” a soul, as though the soul were something other than our identity (ourselves) that had to be implanted.
Soul is identity (not mind, as popular belief has it) and, at least in some sense, soul/identity is a direct creation of God. Actually, accepting that the soul is a direct creation (as the Holy Church teaches) requires us to abandon the popular belief of associating the soul with the cognitive mind. Unlike the Holy Church’s clear teachings on the soul, the cognitive mind is derived from chemistry, rather than a direct creation of God without reference to matter.
Consequently, the soul can not be associated with any degree of intelligence.
The homunculus being a false concept, another definition of the soul is needed. Luckily, Aristotle gave us one: identity, or “that in virtue of which a living thing is alive in the first place.” He also elaborated on different types and degrees of souls.
While this does carry the logical consequence of all life having souls rather than exclusively humans, that does not change the mission of the Holy Church. After all, moral awareness is still cognitive, and without it one can not sin. (This would mean that nonhuman souls, still receiving God’s love but incapable of sin, can not go to hell.) So, as long as only humans can go to hell, which is the case, the mission of the Holy Church and purpose of Christ’s Paschal sacrifice should be obvious: reuniting with God those souls whose bodies gave them enough cognitive ability to reject God wholeheartedly in the way that going to hell would require.
By the way, the very ability to go to hell and consequent need for salvation is what makes human life so ultimately precious. As for the “image of God,” that is a positive side of a negative coin. It is a bad thing to abandon God so as to count yourself a lesser god in your own right, but the ability to do so makes us images of God. We are not God, but we are imperfect pictures of him who can pretend to be just like him in our arrogance.
As for asking when our fossilized ancestors “obtained” a soul, that is a moot point. The soul is not something other than our identity that had to be added (“Like adding gin to tonic,” as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and at least one Roman Catholic Cardinal both said in criticizing the homunculus concept), so the very question, “When did our ancestors ‘obtain’ a soul?” is simply misleading. One obtains one’s identity when one begins to exist, and, according to not just church teachings but also the science of genetics, that would be conception.
So, consider this narrative:
1. Humans are derived most recently from other primates but ultimately from the last universal common ancestor, like any other species in this regard.
2. At some unknown point, or perhaps not a single point but yet another slow transition, prehistoric humans not only evolved enough intelligence for moral awareness, but, even more importantly, acted against their moral awareness once they had it.
3. Closing paradise to us by our aware and willfully unfair/unethical actions, we separated ourselves both from God himself and from the rest of his creation.
4. God loved all his creatures too much to allow even one species to separate itself so completely.
5. God reunited us with himself and the rest of his creation, reopening paradise to us.
I think you already know how God went about No. 5, but I’ll say it anyway: He did so by the passion, death, and resurrection of his very own incarnation, Jesus Christ.
As for humans who died after we evolved moral awareness but before the resurrection, there are a few competing ideas. In the “Inferno” of the “Divine Comedy,” Dante places them in a lesser circle of hell, not to be tortured in the fullness of perdition. The Vatican has a more optimistic take, with which I actually agree: That they were initially sent not to heaven or hell but to a third state of being called the limbo of the fathers. When Jesus rose from the grave, they were freed from limbo and finally sent to heaven.
I know that post was long, but I hope you enjoyed reading it. If you really want biblical support for this whole rant, you can always check Romans 8:19-22 and John 3:16, but I tend to focus on how this reconciles the theology of the soul with not only evolution but also neuroscience. (Neuroscience is a thorn in many other attempts to reconcile the soul with evolution.)
This, which would be a third, even more orthodox view had you included it in your post, does not reference the soul to matter, as is inevitably implied by associating it with mind or even emotion as per popular belief. Instead, note that it maintains the soul (identity, not mind or emotion) as a direct creation of God without reference to matter, as the Holy Church teaches.
William Stropnicky has a bachelor’s degree in biology and is applying to graduate schools to study environmental biology. He is also a member of the national biological honors society Beta Beta Beta.