Battling for the souls in a soulless age

What does it mean to “battle for the soul of America”? The metaphor has its foundation in the root sense of “soul” as that by which a living thing is alive and involves a philosophy of nature that is often rejected by many who speak of souls in the political arena.

(Image: Marek Piwnicki/

Speaking in Alaska on September 11, 2023, President Biden noted that the terrorists responsible for killing so many people 22 years ago “could not touch what no force, no enemy, no day ever could, and that is the soul of America.” In keeping with a central theme of his political campaign to be re-elected in which he identifies himself as a warrior in a “battle for the soul of America,” he asked rhetorically: “What is the soul of America?”

His answer:  “It is the breath, the life, the essence of who we are.  A soul is what makes us ‘us.’. . .. The soul of America is the fortitude we found in the fear of that terrible September day, the purpose we found in our pain, the light we found in our darkest hour.”

We find a similar metaphorical use of “soul” in Jon Meacham’s 2018 book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Here we also have a word, angels, used metaphorically. It only makes sense, if at all, to speak of the “soul of America” if we recognize the root meaning of “soul.” For many, the very notion of a soul is only an archaic reference.

In the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where art Thou?, set in Mississippi in 1937 during the Great Depression, there is a scene in which three convicts, who have just escaped from prison, pick up a hitch-hiking young guitarist who tells them that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar. One of the convicts, who had converted to Christianity in prison, remarks incredulously: “For that you traded your everlasting soul!” The young guitarist responds: “Well, I wasn’t using it.”

Perhaps there is a sense in which contemporary human beings have sold their souls, so to speak, precisely because we do not see any need for them. In a world so persistently described by materialist and mechanistic principles, founded so it seems on the natural sciences, do we have any need for a soul? As the philosopher Paul Churchland, reaffirming the views of many, claims in Matter and Consciousness: “We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.” Or as he writes elsewhere, “The doctrine of an immaterial soul looks, quite frankly, like just another myth, false not just at the edges, but to the core. This is unfortunate, since that hypothesis is still embedded, to some depth or other, in the social and moral consciousness of billions of people across widely diverse cultures.”

A good survey of various ways in which “soul” continues to be used is set forth in “What Happened to the Soul” by Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. McGilchrist is an expert on the relationship between neuroscience and the humanities and he argues against the view that science has made the notion of the soul irrelevant.

To understand the power of metaphors, especially poetic ones, that employ the notion of soul, we need to recognize the foundational meaning of soul, that for which, like the guitarist in the film, many may think we no longer have any use.

The traditional notion of a soul is directly associated with the distinction between living and non-living beings. Biology presupposes a fundamental difference between the living and the non-living. The difference cannot be accounted for if we think that there is nothing more to the world than material realities organized in different ways. This is the poverty of materialist reductionism. There is something more to living things than their material parts. The “more” is not a material more; nor is it the mere arrangement of parts. Here we meet the soul–the unifying principle that makes the living thing be the whole that it is. This unifying principle is more than the sum of the constituent material parts; it is a principle necessary for each living thing to be actually what it is.

To account for the actuality of a living thing (plant, animal, or human being), philosophers of nature, at least in the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, speak of an intrinsic source or principle that constitutes the living body precisely as a living body. This principle intrinsic to living things that makes them to be alive is the soul. Hence, plants have souls, animals have souls, human beings have souls; these souls differ as plants, animals, and human beings differ, but they share the same function as the source of the characteristic features of a living thing and the source of its various operations.

Any living thing has only one soul, one principle by which it is the living thing that it is. The souls of animals incorporate the powers found in the souls of plants, and human souls incorporate the powers found in the souls of plants and animals.

Notice that this analysis is first of all philosophical. In fact, in what follows I will focus only on what philosophical reflection can tell us about the soul, leaving aside specifically theological notions about the human soul, including questions of its separability from the human body and its immortality. Such theological reflection, however, incorporates what philosophy describes. Thus, it is important to get the philosophy right.

The understanding of the soul that I am suggesting is different from that proposed by Plato or Descartes, according to whom the soul is a kind of separate substance united to the body. A dualistic conception that treats soul and body as two separate things fails to account for the essential unity of a living thing. Rather, the soul is the actuality of the whole; not separate from the whole, but an expression of the fact that the whole is a reality not merely reducible to its material constituents. To speak of “actuality” is to recognize that any natural thing (alive or not) requires some principle or source that causes it to be what it is. This kind of cause, known as a formal cause, is different from that of an agent. To use a felicitous distinction from philosopher Edward Feser, the soul as “formal cause” is “that by which” a living thing is the unified living thing that it is. The soul is not a “what;” it is “that by which.” A “that by which” is a real principle that is a necessary source of the actuality of a thing.

The soul is not some outer shell or structure; it is the intrinsic determining principle that actualizes the potentiality of matter to be a living being and thus radically constitutes an entity as a single individual living thing. Intrinsic does not mean merely internal; it points to a foundational principle of something. The recognition that the unity of a living thing requires a principle or source of its unity is a philosophical recognition, but all of the sciences accept, at least implicitly, that each thing they study is the one thing that it is and, thus, must have a source of its unity.

Even if we can describe characteristic behavior of living things precisely as living and distinguish them from non-living things, we need to guard against the temptation to think that it is sufficient simply to list the essential properties of living things: to think, for example, that a living thing is to be understood as a cluster of these properties. It is true, that we should begin an examination of life in terms of these essential properties, but we need to go further, to see the unity of a living thing, a living thing that possesses certain essential properties or capacities.

To speak of souls is to acknowledge that living things are not machines. Feser offers a valuable example. A plant has an intrinsic principle of its own operations, whereas a machine’s operations are, in a sense, imposed from without. A plant carries out photosynthesis and a pocket watch displays the time of day, but these causal powers are not in the two objects in the same way. That a plant carries out photosynthesis is an observer-independent fact about the plant, whereas that a watch displays the time of day is not an observer-independent fact about the watch. The metal bits that make up the watch have no inherent tendency to display the time. This is a function we have imposed on them, from outside as it were. The plant, by contrast, does have an inherent tendency to carry out photosynthesis. This reflects the fact that to be a plant is to have a special unity and, thus, a source of that unity, a soul; whereas to be a pocket watch is to have a different kind of unity. Each of the metal bits that make up a watch possesses a fundamental unity, but the unity of the watch itself is simply the form imposed from without. The difference between a plant and a watch is emblematic of the fundamental difference between a natural thing and a machine.

The failure to distinguish living things from machines is the result of the loss of a sense of nature, that is, the loss of the recognition that there are existing things each of which has an intrinsic source of what it is and how it acts. Too often, we mistakenly conclude that the discoveries of modern science require us to abandon the distinction between living things and machines. The mechanization of nature, as it were, is really the result of a particular philosophy; it is not required by the empirical sciences.

One result of the loss of the soul is to treat all of nature, including human nature, as something to be manipulated–to be arranged and re-arranged simply according to what we might will or desire, and thus really to eliminate the notion of nature itself. All of this is a manifestation of what theologian Michael Hanby identifies as “technological absolutism.” We can see these ethical consequences in so many areas of our public life–even in, if not especially in, proposals about bioethics, sexual identity, and gender advocated by those who seek “to restore the soul of America.”

All ethical reflection depends upon our understanding who we are and what the world is like. Although the word “soul” may seem archaic, the reality to which it refers is an essential feature of our world. Souls continue to matter, since nature and living things continue to matter. To recognize that a living being is not a machine we need to battle for a robust philosophy of nature that affirms that each living being has its own intrinsic actualizing principle, in a word, its own soul.

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About Prof. William E. Carroll 4 Articles
Prof. William E. Carroll is Visiting Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Zhongnan University of Economics and Law (Wuhan, China).


  1. It is the difference between a painting that a human person makes and one that is made by the instrument now referred to as AI. A human person, because he has a soul can produce art, but one produced by AI could never be considered art. Both may produce paintings, but AI can never produce art because AI lacks a soul – it is a machine put together by a humam person with certain manufactured parts that can have no soul. Art can be simulated but paintings produced by AI can never be art which only those whose soul is intrinsic can produce. Rupnick’s paintings are art; it’s just that it’s bad art.

    • In a sense the combined souls of the creators of the AI imparted their souls into the creation of the AI invention, so perhaps you could say that any creation made by the AI contained elements of their combined souls. Nothing “created” by a machine could have been done without original “soul” contribution . You might say that the outcome is once removed from the original source. A scary thought indeed. What is this world coming to. Even so come Lord Jesus!

  2. Says guru Clinton: “A soul is what makes us ‘us.’” This from the philanderer who earlier and likewise challenged us: “it all depends on what the meaning of is, is.”

    A person not only “has” a soul, a person “is” an embodied soul…

    …More than a stage in physical evolution or even a level in conceptual organization, the spiritual identity of each human person is a leap in BEING itself—an “ontological leap” as Pope St. John Paul II called it. Often mistranslated, it seems, as only an “evolutionary” leap. Or, as something akin to, say, today’s so-called evolutionary “paradigm shifts” in the soul of the Church.

    Paradigm shift—a concept misappropriated from the natural sciences (Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” 1962). Instead, THIS from the philosopher-pope, St. John Paul II:

    “The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation [i.e.., the natural sciences and archeology], which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience, fall within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans” (“Message on Evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,” October 23, 1996, nn. 4, 6).

    Said Vatican II, also: “Christ the Lord…by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, [ALSO] fully reveals man to himself [!]…” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).

    How, then, to (synodally?) activate this irreducible fact of the fully human person, without leveling both “it” and, likewise, the “hierarchical communion” of the Eucharistic Church—the irreducible difference between what the Church DOES (councils, synods) and what the Church IS?

    • I know I am very tired at this minute but even if I wasn’t, I don’t think I would understand what this means ” metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom,”

  3. Although there is a difference between form and matter, the spiritual and the physical Prof Carroll is correct in highlighting the unity. His philosophical concept of soul stems from earliest of Gk thinkers, who isolated soul [psychí] as the principle of self motivation that we observe in organic entities. Aristotle was a close observer of living things from the beginning of the development of his thought.
    Carroll mentions Aristotle and Aquinas but doesn’t identify the difference. That is found in Aquinas’ Christianity. While Aristotle perceived a difference Aquinas identified the unity of soul and body Man created in God’s image. Although the difference between both may seem subtle, for the person created in God’s image, his physical acts must be ordered to God. For example in his entry on Amicitia [the most excellent manner of life], Nicomachean Ethics love is essentially defined between humans [Aristotle did identify God as such in the Eudemian Ethics, although he had to be cautious in idolatrous Greece. We recall the death penalty inflicted on Socrates], or male to male [not homosexual] friendship, whereas the human soul’s proclivity is toward knowledge of, and love of God.
    What that difference tells us regarding Carroll’s fine thesis regarding AI, is that the moral dimension of human activity will be lost. What comprises a moral act requires a creative [meaning free] assent to a good [unlike Germain Grisez’ contention of having developed the perfect compendium of casuistic moral rules]. Free will in Man distinguishes him as Godlike and exempt from all fabrication.

    • As a footnote to Grisez, it’s not to say that his moral acts compendium has no value. Indeed it does as a guide. Although, in agreement with Aquinas, ‘It’s the on the ground conditions of a human act that are first and primarily considered. Morality is not judged from universals [universals are formed by an aggregate of apprehensions of good and evil acts] down, rather from singulars [the acts themselves] up.

      • Fr. I have no schooling as such in Aquinas or Aristotle, just some general reading. If you were teaching it to me I would be saying you present it with a great deal of clarification, at least in the parts immediately above re the subtle differences etc. Oh and precision. I would be avid for more of that instructing.

        In the bravura of the student may I declare though that as a Christian in consideration of the marvel the Revelation, fact of the Incarnation and greatness of the Redemption, the differences are not only subtle but very strongly marked. I mean no understatement either as these belong to Jesus Christ.

        Our desire to thank Him itself is His praise!

        • Some time past I came to the same conclusion Elias, that knowledge of truths that transcend the material are superior in character and form, and thereby more evident to the human intellect. On the level of truths that are self evident, such as natural law assent or rejection is a question of the integrity of one’s willingness to assent.
          Similarly, revealed truth such as the incarnation, in that Jesus of Nazareth is God from God, light from light is superior not simply to knowledge of the material world, but surpasses the innate knowledge of the natural law. That is why the Church teaches that this revealed truth requires no reasoned argument for assent, since it is truth, accompanied by grace of the highest order of knowledge. And thanks Elias for your complimentary words. If my later in life research and studies of Aquinas are of benefit I’m gratified.

  4. In response to the presumption that Prof Carroll is pro abortion I submit the following rebuttal:
    “The recognition that some acts are inherently immoral regardless of the intention of the agent [e.g., abortion] is either a conclusion of speculative reason or a matter of revelation and is not called into question, much less invalidated, by the fact that a particular individual’s conscience might lead him to behave as though these acts are good.
    No matter how much one intends to do good, inherently wrong acts remain evil and thus are detrimental to the well-being of the agent, even if the agent is ignorant of that evil)” (William E Carroll in Conscience and Human Autonomy).

  5. Professor Carroll’s essay is a valuable contribution to enhancing public awareness of an important topic in natural philosophy with special ramifications in the metaphysics of the person. The American Bishops have rightly included the philosophy of nature in the curriculum of Catholic seminarians. The horizon of contemporary conversation is crowding out questions of being and nature in favor of technology. In this context, however, the still undervalued philosophy of nature will tend to be marginalized in favor of a philosophy of science.

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