Friday, February 20, 2009

We Are Bodies

Thermae Boxer

"I exist and live as a body in a world of bodies. We bodies contact each other and by this contact we create the world-space. To be a body, however, is to exist only in process: forming and decaying, appearing and disappearing, recurring and undergoing modification, development and growth. Although at times we seem as inert as sleeping dogs or rocks, we are never simply there, but are always becoming or perishing... Nowhere and at no time do I find myself to be anything but my body."

- Benedict M. Ashley, "Theologies of the Body: Christian and Humanist"

I stumbled upon Ashley's impressive work and was surprised by his visceral images and both practical and reverent take on scientific facts. The grittiness of his conceptualization of human beings struck me deeply. For about a week after picking up "Theologies of the Body," this 770 pager was my constant companion. I read the first page to anyone who would listen. I found an ontology that appealed to me; an ontology that begins, almost exclusively, scientifically and empirically.

While our particular concerns here are humanist, and not theological, Ashley's quote synthesizes well for our purposes of inquiry. We (humans) are bodies. We are lodged, quite firmly, in the material world. Even an out-of-body experience requires input from material surroundings. The feeling of high euphoria associated with an escape from the material world depends on material substance, whether induced by synthetic drugs, natural hormonal changes, etc. Man is a sophisticated homeostatic system. Biochemically, man's cells operate on, and are acted upon, their environment. These basic units are models for homeostasis, which is the tendency toward stable equilibrium. On the personal level, man remains constant, in continuous motion as he flexibly stabilizes both himself and his external world.

We posit that while man is partially a socially constructed being, at the same time as he is a physical being. We suggest that man's physicality is intrinsic to his person. While there may be various other components to his being, we can at least agree that man experiences the world first as physical.

We perceive and we react. As sensual beings, we cannot divorce ourselves from our material, no matter how convenient we find Cartesian Dualism. Descartes responded to the philosophy created by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, that was unforgivably, in his eyes, dependent on the senses and chained to the physical world. He attempted to create an understanding of man as greater than his mere physical experience. His famous, "I think, therefore I am" neatly describes the Cartesian understanding of the essence of man's being as something distinct from the physical world. We see the effects of Cartesian thought in the passive acceptance of man's divorce of his human person from his actions. We consider this a skewed perception of the human person. Regardless of how man feels about his current person or actions, he cannot divorce himself from his physical body.

Take, for example, the dualism of Virginia students on a Friday night. We'll call our case study Christine. Christine gets drunk, streaks the Lawn, and gets caught by the police. She (in all likelihood) doesn't want to take personal responsibility for what she said and did on Saturday at two am on the Lawn. However, regardless of whether Christine mentally detached herself from reason, emotion, or her physical person, Albermarle County will still charge Christine for the felony she committed while under the influence. While Descartes would identify Christine's most complete reality in Christine's mind, Christine's feelings on the subject really have nothing to do with her current predicament. Her body (quite literally) was intimately involved, and therefore, so was Christine. The law doesn't ask whether Christine felt completely like Christine in the preceding moments before handing her a ticket. The law expects a unity between body and thought. Welcome to reality, Christine. Here, we can take the law's custom as an indication of what we can arrive at without complex legal statutes: we are our bodies! For a less ironic example, take your morning ritual as proof of the absolute connection of the person to the body: look in the mirror while brushing your teeth, and you will see you, your person, that one with the bed-head. The matter that you perceive in the mirror is the same as the being that does the perceiving. There's no getting out of it.

We use the five senses to gather information about our surroundings. We do not just take information in passively. For example, in the act of smelling, we physically consume tiny particles of our environment. In addition, we also use the material world to manifest ourselves. We are bodies that express persons. Our unique capacity of communication unites the mental with the physical; language is the materially expressed symbol for thought. Just as we depend on other persons as a social being, we also depend on our physicality to form and communicate ourselves as physical beings.


  1. Even with humans possessing an innate nature, there is undeniably an impact that the environment has on the human mind and being. Our roots and experiences are a part of who we are and shape our interactions. Very nicely done. The biological and psychological explanations were very well articulated and reflect well on your science research.

  2. This sounds excellent to me except on the few occasions where our bodies are made out to be our only grounding in reality. For example, "Nowhere and at no time do I find myself to be anything but my body." or "We are bodies that express persons." If we have souls, then we have a spiritual reality. Thus, we would not be just bodies and if the soul is immortal, which is a belief commonly associated with it, we could theoretically find ourselves outside our bodies. Now as to whether or not we have souls...Aristotle seemed to think so but I'll leave that up to you guys to sort out.

  3. I humbly opine that your pursuit of realism has led you over the line into materialism. We are not bodies exclusively, nor are we bodies that express persons. We are persons, and we express ourselves to other humans using our bodies. We, in ourselves, are composed in fact by a duality of body and soul.

  4. Mark-

    Perhaps the title of this post is a bit strong. I don't mean to ever reduce man's experience to the material. This post solely emphasizes something that we overlook too often.

    I would only disagree with one particular- that the body is not merely a means of communication, but intrinsic to our personhood. Or is that too bold?