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An essay donated by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

"A Sense of Self"

Concepts of "Soul" and "Self" as discussed
in "Handbook of Christian Apologetics"
by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli.

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I had barely started on the book's Chapter 2, titled "Faith and Reason," when the authors mentioned different ways people can prove something;

  1. By reason alone,  
  2. By a combination of reason with revelation, or
  3. By revelation alone.

They give as an example of "reason alone" a mathematical principle, such as the Pythagorean theorem. They say by reason alone  they can prove, by the use of good philosophical arguments, that the soul does not die as the body dies, (see chapter 10).

I thought “oh really”! So I turned to chapter 10.

The first thing I noticed is their use of terminology. In this chapter instead of using the word "soul" they used the word "self." Most people, I suspect, don’t see any difference. They are often used to refer to the same thing. BUT, to some, there is a difference. "Soul" is often considered to be a religious term while "self" is secular. If you are making an argument to convince secular people of your TRUTH it is helpful to stick to secular terms. Otherwise, you risk turning them off before you get started.


There is no agreement among religious scholars and others as to whether body and soul/self are one inseparable entity or two distinct and separateable entities.

I think there are three possible ways to look at this.

  • One example here is a pitcher of milk. Is the body like the pitcher, just a container for the soul. That is, the container and what is contained (the milk) are -- and forever will be -- two separate entities? When the body dies, the soul is released and lives on. This is the position that Kreeft and Tacelli try to prove with their argument.

  • Alternately, without the container, does the milk lose its separate identity?  If the milk is spilled upon the ground (dirt) what happens to it? The dirt absorbs the milk and it is no longer distinguishable from the dirt. The milk loses its identity. If the milk is spilled onto a hard floor, it will spread out, losing its cohesion, eventually evaporate leaving a  sticky residue of calcium and sugars (carbohydrates) that will eventually get eaten by the ants. Without the pitcher (the container) the contents (milk) gets absorbed into its new surroundings and the milk loses its identity!

  • Finally, are body and soul more like a loaf of bread where container and what is contained are all one inseparable entity? When the body dies the soul, the sense of self dies with it. That is, you can’t have one without the other.

Consider that to make a loaf of bread, flour, salt, sugar, yeast and water are mixed together to the point where you can no longer distinguish one ingredient from another. The bread is allowed to rise, which causes a chemical reaction that changes the nature (chemical properties) of the initial ingredients, and then baked which causes further changes and the resulting product has a firm outer crust, and a yummy interior but it is still all one substance. Once the crust and the center are eaten there is nothing left, except for a contented tummy and a good memory in the person/s that consumed the bread.

"Self" is a term/word that everyone thinks they understand. And so, they feel that no definition is needed. When a person talks about their self, you know they are referring to something they see as being physical, substantial. Something that is easily distinguishable from you and your self. They are referring to what I like to call their "ME," -- as in me, myself, and I -- are different from you and you and everyone else.

So what is this “thing” we call self? That is something Kreeft and Tacelli don’t address and it is key to understanding if their arguments have any merit. Is “self” something like:

  • the milk in the pitcher, or
  • like the milk once it is spilled upon the ground, or
  • is it like the loaf of bread?

I think the best way to describe/define this “thing” is that it is a sense of a thing, not a thing its self! Now how is that for a confusing statement! Read it again and again if necessary to make sure you grasp what I am saying.

A “self” is not a thing: an entity separate unto its self. A “self” is a feeling, an EMOTION, a sense of identity that is separate from other people’s selves. It is an emotion, similar to feelings/emotions like love, hate, fear, joy, ecstasy, hope, despair.

All of these emotions incorporate external information from our senses -- smell, sight, sound, taste and touch -- with bodily reactions/feelings/sensations, the sexual flush, adrenalin rush, the release of those feel good chemicals into the body (endorphins). Then all this information is transported to our brain where it is sorted and interpreted to produce a distinct individual identity of:

  • our "ME;"
  • our "Self;"
  • who I am as an individual separate from all other individuals on this planet.

This sense of self is not located just in our brain. It incorporates our entire body, from the top of our head to the tips of our fingers and toes and everything in between. In the authors' arguments, and the arguments they quote from their opponents, it seems to me that all of them don’t fully understand what is really meant by the word “self”.

Some people when they lose one of their senses -- or they lose a part of their physical body -- lose (temporarily) their sense of self and report they have to create a new sense of self without that lost part. One good example here are women who undergo chemotherapy for treatment of cancer and lose all their hair. Some women report they have a very difficult time. I was more fortunate during my chemotherapy, compared to many, because my sense of self was never solely dependent upon my physical appearance.

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At birth, the newborn has no sense of self. All of their “senses” aren’t yet fully functional. They can’t distinguish between where their fingers or mouth stop and the blanket or their mother's hand or nipple begins.

As they begin to grow they gradually develop a “sense” of self: that they and that their mother are a separate entities. They know where their finger ends and encounters something not connected to them. Eventually they develop a firm “sense” of their ME, who they are as an individual person, separate from and different from all other people and other animals and all other things.

Unfortunately some folks seem to get arrested at this stage of development and become extreme narcissists! Most, however, keep growing and gradually develop connections with others and develop a sense of WE. We realize that alone we aren’t much, but when we set aside our differences and join up with others to work for the common good WE can accomplish great things. I wrote an three part essay about the Power of We a while back.

Many never progress past this level, which is fine in my opinion. It is a healthy place to be. Unless, WE is turned into "US versus THEM," and oppose all of those that aren’t like US. This is a form of narcissism.

I have progressed to the point where intellectually/spiritually I realize that there really is no Us or Them, no ME or WE, that the initial state of oneness with no boundaries -- no separation of the infant -- is the reality. BUT I am not fully there yet! I am not ready to check out of this world. There is too much for ME to see and do!

BUT -- this is the clincher -- that initial state of oneness has no sense of individuality, or separateness. You might say that at birth and after death ALL are one --all animals, all plants, all streams, mountains, hills, people, etc. -- are one giant blob of raw unconscious energy ready to be recycled into something new and have the chance to develop and become a new self!

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Book reference:

book cover "Handbook of Christian Apologetics," by Peter Kreeft anf‎ Ronald K. Tacelli." IVP Academic; Reprint edition, (1994). Available in Kindle edition for $7.88, Paperback for $11.99 plus postage, or hardcover for $32.60 plus postage. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store Book is rated by customers at 4.3 out of 5 stars.

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Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
Originally posted on: 2017-DEC-06
Latest update: 2018-MAR-04

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