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Michael Augros, The Immortal in You: How Human Nature is More Than Science Can Say, 2017

Is there any meaningful place for ordinary experience in the way we think about the world around us, and the way we think about human nature? Is this even a relevant question in an age where empirical science is projected as the ultimate measure of all knowing? The Immortal in You could be read as a philosophical case for ‘both-and’ – both modern empirical science and natural philosophy, both our outer and our inner experiences of ourselves as one whole, undivided and indivisible unity. The Immortal in You takes us on an attentive and judicious journey through our ordinary experience, one that unveils the extraordinary essence of our nature and acknowledges what we know from modern science.

Augros starts us, or “you” (the main character under scrutiny) on the journey by a prologue warning against the error of scientism. We can surely say that you are made of atoms, that your brain obeys the laws of physics and chemistry or that you are an animal, but ‘we will in no way be forced to deny that you are also something more – for example, that you are a being capable of moral choices, good and bad’ (p.14). By adding that ‘you are nothing but atoms, or that your actions are the products of nothing more than the laws of physics and chemistry, or that you are merely an animal’ (14) we go beyond agreeing with science to espousing scientism. The final chapters of the book (chaps. 13-15) take this warning of the prologue and expose scientism’s half-truths in order to show why this nothing-buttery is profoundly mistaken. They also provide a justification of why modern science cannot negate nor overrule our inner experience. ‘The whole science of nature’, Augros argues, ‘is neither the empirical part alone, nor philosophy alone, but an organic unity of the two’ (283). Modern science can correct our misconceptions of the external view of our experience (e.g. the sun moves, and the earth is unmoved), but it cannot undermine our internal view of our experience (e.g. the sun always ‘rises’ and ‘sets’ for us). If a result of empirical science is taken to mean something that overturns our ordinary experience, we can, as Augros says, ‘ignore it with impunity’ (254), for it would undermine even empirical science itself. These considerations embed the main thrust of the book in an endeavour that honours natural science as a unity between modern science and natural philosophy.
The main thrust of the book (chaps. 1-12) explores human nature via an exercise in natural philosophy, probing carefully our ordinary experience. Chapters 1-8 point out the differences that distinguish human beings from any other kind of living and non-living being. Starting from the concrete reality of our inner experience (ch.1) and our capacity to grasp universals (ch.2) which is a power of our intellect, Augros contends that this ‘universal sense’, distinct from and dependent on our imagination (ch.3), separates us from all other animals (ch.4). This allows Augros to argue crucially that our intellect is not in the brain, but it nevertheless depends on our brain insofar as it needs our imagination (which does happen in the brain) (ch.5). The power of our intellect is an immaterial reality that does not depend on any bodily organ ‘as a power depends on an organ to host it’ (113), like our imagination and sight depend on our brain and our eyes. The intellectual act depends extrinsically and not intrinsically on the body as per Jacques Maritian’s The Range of Reason. If this is so, Augros asks, what is it that causes us to be alive, given that we are constituted of both a material body and an incorporeal mind or intellect? (ch.6). To tackle the question Augros notes that life does not emanate from any particular body part since ‘any part of your body is able to be alive and to lose its life just as your whole body is’ (134). Although what animates us has to be nevertheless something ‘of’ our bodies, it is neither a body part nor the organisation of our bodily organs (not even the organisation of the matter of our bodies). It cannot be either a ‘ghost in the machine’, a kind of ‘Tony Stark in his Iron Man suit’ (133), for this would imply that I exist without my body, and that I ‘use’ my body as Tony Stark uses his suit. Such a view preserves the immateriality of the intellect, but it undermines the corporeal reality of our senses, which belongs to our bodies and not to a purely spiritual ‘I’. But if it is not a body organ, or an arrangement of matter, or a purely spiritual substance, what is this animating principle that makes us alive? A kind of form argues Augros, that which ‘exists in something with many different potentials and makes it to be one specific thing rather than any of the other things it has the potential to be’ (128). Even though there are many kinds of forms, that which makes me be me is a special kind of form, a substantial form (ch.7), that which ‘makes your parts and materials to be a single substance, you’ (154). Our form is called substantial because it is that which conforms the whole of ‘me’ with all my body parts and organs, me as a new existing substance. ‘Me’ in this sense is the substance brought about by the composition of body and form. Now, this substantial form is an undivided unity since it is independent of spatial dimensions (for it is immaterial); in other words, it lacks any parts and it is not a property of any existing substance (ch.8). This substantial form, our animating principle, the bearer of our intellect, a whole with no parts (which is simultaneously constituting every part of our bodies), is what Augros calls the soul.
Chapters nine to twelve develop the logical consequences of the soul, thus understood, discovering its immortality (ch.9) and then inquiring where the soul might have come from (chaps. 10-12). Augros highlights the inherent unguided purposefulness of nature (which includes our conscious purposefulness) (ch.10) in such a way that it attunes itself to the existence of the rational soul (ch.11). This allows Augros to conclude that something like the human soul cannot have its origins in anything material, nor anything that is composite in any way, but could only have come about by an immaterial unity, an original intellect whose more appropriate title would be God (ch.12). After chapters 13-15 (considered above), the Epilogue reflects on the possibility of a ‘re-substantiation’ of ourselves: our immortal souls joining an immortal body so that we may live again.
Augros’ anecdotes and examples from everyday life make the book a shrewd exploration of ordinary experience. I found it entertaining to read, a caring and coherent evaluation of human nature as far as we can know it with our reason. Each chapter is briefly summarised at the end of the book and it indicates the sections of Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s works that underlie the analysis. A quibble about language might be timely: the sense of ‘of’ and ‘in’, and the language of ownership: ‘my’ or ‘to have’. Saying that the soul is ‘of’ the body or that it is ‘in’ every part of the body does not mean that it is inside the body nor that it is a part of the body like its material parts. Likewise, saying ‘my’ soul or that I ‘have’ a soul refers less to something ‘owned’ and more to something without which we would not be at all. Not that Augros ignores this, but if we are not acquainted with Aristotelian or Thomistic metaphysics, the words are prone to misunderstanding. Nevertheless, if you are not convinced by most of the dominant views (Cartesian dualisms, non-reductive physicalisms, emergentisms, panpsychisms, materialisms, etc.), this book might invite you to consider a form of hylomorphism as an alternative worth exploring, if only for its capacity to recapture and unveil the uniqueness and extraordinary essence of human nature in an age of scientistic reasoning.
You might be directed to Edward Feser’s Aquinas or David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism if the metaphysics of the book whets your palate. Oderberg’s ‘Hylemorphic Dualism’ in E.F. Paul, F.D. Miller, and J. Paul (eds) Personal Identity and Maritian’s essay on the immortality of the soul in The Range of Reason might also give further insight.
Esgrid Sikahall
New College
University of Edinburgh
Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 29:2 (June 2019), pp. 28-31.