In the popular 1994 science book, Descartes Error, neuroscience Antonio Damasio brought forward the importance of feeling when it comes to human thinking and reasoning. While the philosopher Rene Descartes’ dualism separated the res cogitans (the thinking thing) of the mind from the res extensa (the extended thing) of the body, Damasio describes Descartes’ error:
This is Descartes’ error: the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizable, undimensioned, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgment, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body. Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism.1
Alternatively put, Descartes reduced the body to one single feature: that it was extended in space. His primary definition of the body did not include the way we experience the pain of a thorn in the finger or a pleasure of a relaxing rest on a recliner, but he simply thought about the body in terms of the persistent features of the body across all time, the good natural philosopher that he was (AKA an early scientist). Descartes definition of the body defined the body in an abstractly synchronic way, defining the body by what is very obviously true for the body across all time, which is that it is extended in space. As a result, Descartes account overlooks what is true as specific points of time in specific experiences of the body (temporal synchronicity) and describing the various changes that occur across time (diachronicity). In other words, Descartes defined of the body as the res extensa overlook change in the body across time. The dynamic, changing nature of the body is mostly reduced to it being like a machine. Most of the dynamic, changing things that Descartes observes in the activity of the mind.
In terms of cognition, it may be appropriate to suggest that Descartes was construing the relationship of the mind and body according to a non-visual figure-ground relationship, where the the body as the res extensa serves as the largely unchanging background, whereas the mind as the res cogitans was the figure of Descartes’ attention that underwent changes in consciousness. All the real and significant changes are happening in the mind, not in the body.
The net effect of Descartes’ influence in the Enlightenment and his pervasive influence following the Enlightenment is this basic principle: the spread of the idea that the important stuff that is happening is in one’s interior experience. Put differently, Descartes’ influence highlighted the subjectivity of interior experience over the objective exterior experience, even as that went against his primary goal. The main difference has been in regards to what type of interior experience is given precedence by people: the interior experience of rational reflection or the interior experience of emotions and feelings. Put more colloquially, is the head or the heart more important?
What both perspectives miss is that neither are the most important. The body is the most important in human life. Our thoughts and our feelings flow out from our body, both allowing us to non-consciously and consciously adjust the state that our bodies are in to engage in the environment and allowing us to reflect and consider how we can plan accordingly in the future. What is unique about thinking, however, is that we can start thinking about thinking, that is engage in acts of meta-cognition, that allow us to consciously dissociate the cognitive contents of conscious reflection from the embodied experiences those cognitive contents originally arose from, giving us the cognitive illusion that thinking, particularly in its “purest” and “loftiest” forms is disconnected from the body. Meanwhile, feelings and emotions are hard to disconnect from the body, which is why social movements that push against intellectualism usually are engaged in various sorts of physical activities and behaviors that are against the norm. Nevertheless, both ‘reason’ and ‘feeling’ are subjective experiences rooted in the contexts of specific embodied experiences, at least at one time, but the subjectivity has been masked from ‘reason’ in a way that it is isn’t for ‘feeling,’ leading to the oft division of reason and feeling as being falsely divided into objectivity and subjectivity.
As a consequence, the most “objective” and verifiably real part of ourselves has gone overlooked in the good life: the body. Far from some husk that simply contains our minds, the body is what gives vitality to our minds. Our body is what gives inspiration to our hearts. Our bodies serve as the anchor that guides and restrains what it is we think and what it is we feel. As I am sitting here, writing this blog post from the comfort of my chair, the comfortable position I am in puts me into a place of conscious reflection. If, however, I was suddenly taken up and brought to the edge of a cliff, my recognition of where my body is position would prevent me from thinking in such a calm, deliberate manner: I would be quite focused and somewhat anxious to protect myself due to the fear of heights.
We have overlooked the role that the body plays in our interior experience, particularly in conscious reflection and deliberation, because we are rarely thrust into situations where a change of body state would force us to change our thinking patterns. As I sit in the comfort of a house that protects me from wild animals, is in a relatively peaceful part of the world with feel threats from human intruders, and does not experience regular disasters that threaten to change the environment, I might could be blissfully unaware of how the body actually contributes to the way I think if I didn’t have other painful states that prevent such reflection. Yet, imagine an aspiring philosopher sitting in the middle of the jungle with dangerous animals all around: such a philosopher might become more quickly aware how their environment and the vulnerable state of their body contributes to their ability to think. In other words, I don’t think Descartes came up with his dualism while having a lion prowling around.
Similarly, our experiences of emotional love and affection are usually expressed bodily, both through culturally regulated conventions about physical proximity to others and various forms of touch. The present reality of social distancing we are in makes the role of the body in love even more salient, as we realize that love is experience through sitting with a friend, hugging a loved one, and seeing someone face-to-face are not just simply expressions of love, but they actually the feeling of giving and receiving affection and care real. While words and thoughts can suggest or confirm our affections for one another, it is through the position, touch, and perception of our bodies in relationship to other people’s bodies that we feel loved. This is because, at its root, the degrees of proximity and personal access we receive from another is one of the most basic, primal instincts for expressing love and affection that we have.
Unfortunately, due to the realities of a highly sexualized society and the traumas of living in such a society, many of us can become protectively inclined to construe bodily proximity and some forms of touch use for non-sexual affection as being sexual rather than affectionate, causing reticence to get close for fear of misinterpretation, potential for exploitation, etc. As a result, we are inclined to use more symbolic and indirect expression of affection in the places where these concerns are relevant. This leaves our expression and experiences of affection as increasingly disembodied, leading us to think of love in symbolic, distant, less visceral experiences rather than embodied.
The point I am drawing is that, for various reasons, we gradually overlook and forget the importance of the body to thinking and feeling. The body is the central anchor point of our life, but for various reasons, we begin to overlook how the body is instrumental. As a consequence of increasingly overlooking the vital role of the body in the good things of life, we began to focus more so on the ways that the body is used badly and horrible. This has happened, unfortunately, within the Christian tradition all too often, for various, overlapping reasons.
It is important to state at this point that in ascribing the importance of the body to thinking and feeling, this is not, simultaneously, a valorization of the body in all its activities. There are countless evils we can do with our body to harm and destroy others or even ourselves. Rather, the point is recovering a broader picture of the body, in its glory and its shame, in its potential for righteousness and its potential for evil.
The apostle Paul refers to the potential of the body being used for sin and evil when he talks about the “flesh” (σάρξ). Yet, Paul doesn’t generally speak about the “body” (σῶμα) in negative terms, except when he explicitly adds a negative adjective, such as in “sinful body” (Rom. 6.6) or “body of death” (Rom. 7.24). Bringing the two together, it suggests that Paul thinks the ‘flesh’ is the ‘body’ when controlled by its most potentially destructive desires and is in need of redemption in Christ and through the Spirit. There is no real denigration of the body, even for the body of unbelievers, but only that there is a real potential for the human body to be controlled by its most destructive desires.
This ambivalence about the possibilities of the body seen in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 6.12-20, Paul recognizes both the way the body can be sinned again with a temple prostitute and as the location of God’s Temple by Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 11.27-34, Paul calls for people to discern the body, likely as a way of referring to the way the Christian fellowships as the Body of Christ were sharing or shunning each other’s presence as they took in the Lord’s Supper. While the act of taking the Lord’s Supper rightly in the physical presence of others was implied to have a positive, sacramental purposes, if it was done apart from each other’s presence, it was a negative action that had caused some bodily problems for some of the believers.
However, the brilliance of Paul’s connecting the body to our moral status is not in expressing some misguided vision of “purity” that was focused on not getting some contagion. Most, but not all, ethics centered around the body are purity based, as purity is connected to the emotion of disgust, rooted in preserving oneself by distancing oneself from those things that are deemed personally defiling. This is where conservative and evangelical Christianity often got Paul’s understanding of the body and flesh wrong, along with what we understood about its desires (which is subtly different from what Paul talks about when he talks about desires). The purity ethic was about keeping our bodies pristine, especially in a sexual manner, however it exhibits itself in other preoccupations, such as the frequent religions concern about diet, exercise, etc. Purity ethics, both in its more visible and less visible forms, places a remarkable emphasis on what happens to the body as a marker on one’s ethical status.
Rather, I would put forward that Paul’s understanding of the body was much more active than passive. It wasn’t so much what happens to the body that matters, but it is how one uses one’s body that matters. Human agency over the body was of a key concern, as we see in somatic language in Romans 6.12-14. The freedom from sin had by the baptismal union in Jesus Christ is actualized and brought to fruition through the way one uses one’s members, a metonymic reference to the body that highlights the body parts as the bodily instruments of intentional action.
Ultimately, I think Paul’s understanding of the body is probably rooted in Jesus’ teaching about purity in Matthew 15.10-20. Jesus teaches that what is important isn’t what a person put into themselves (which can generalized to what happens to the body) but rather what comes out of them (which is generalize to how one uses the body). The preoccupation with purity in terms of the practices of dietary consumption effectively blinded them to more important moral concerns with what comes out from the person.
This overall is suggestive of the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was not the story of some hapless victim who had no control, but rather, it was a man who gave Himself willingly and acted faithfully, despite the way His body was misused, abused, and destroyed by others. It was the story of the Son of God being faithful, even to the point of torture, humiliation, shame, and even death. By worshiping this crucified Jesus who was raised from the dead, the early Christians were brought into a new community that would be formed and normed to the way that Jesus faced bodily death with faithfulness and was vindicated by God. As such, this narrative of Jesus Christ working alongside the Christ-forming and charismatic empowerment of the Holy Spirit brought people face to face with the most visceral and ravaging aspects of embodied experience that would make most anyone lose their minds and act according to the flesh. The early worshippers of Jesus were brought into a community that consistently brought them reminders of mortality, but yet also, being reminded that they can overcome the pangs of sin and death, and that God will be faithful to them in Jesus Christ. This regular remembrance of the Lord’s death and Spirit-led putting to death of the deeds of the flesh were part of the way that the early Church was called to embodied the life of Christ into their own lives, not to suffer for suffering sake, but to overcome the control of the flesh through facing it and overcoming it in Christ and through the Spirit. It is through the combination of the vicarious experiences of Jesus’ death and the Spirit’s leading us to our own types of symbolic deaths, which are ultimately connected to the fear of death, that the body does not live as flesh controlled by its desires but that it is changed towards being used for good, in preparation for the ultimate redemption of the body in the general resurrection.
In other words, Christian redemption is realized through the body and how we use it and Christian worship and life is centered upon how the Triune God directs and strengthens to use our bodies. Often, Christian redemption has been treated as an intellectual or emotive manner, where faith as doctrinal acceptance or faith as acceptance is treated as an exchange for salvation. However, it seems to be the case to me that faith is more so a trust in God to live according to the way Christ lived, that redemption is had in being conformed to Christ’s pattern of life, death, and resurrection, where faith entails our trusting willingness to be lead by the Holy Spirit to use our bodies for the good purposes God has created them for by putting to death the deeds of the flesh.
In other words, Christian redemption does not simply emerge from the head or the heart, as this reflects the pervasive influence of Cartesian dualism onto the way we understood what is most significant about ourselves as humans is our interior experience. Rather Christian redemption is realized in our bodies being rightly directed for God’s purposes, where our hearts are formed and our mind are given comprehension.