The Essence of Man

What’s your defining characteristic? I don’t mean this in the way that they mean this on job interviews. I mean this in a serious way. What is it that, if changed, would render you no longer you? Here are some possible answers which I find unconvincing, or at least, incomplete:

  • DNA, since it “codes” much of who we are here on Earth. This answer sounds fine on the surface (and indeed, may be a helpful indicator of when life begins), but it’s pretty flawed, scientifically speaking. Mutagens are substances which cause DNA mutations. In other words, if your precise DNA code is what makes you “you,” then “you with cancer” is a separate person whose “birthday,” so to speak, is different from your own.
  • Your personality. The best argument for this position would be Phineas Gage, a railroad crew foreman who, after suffering traumatic brain damage (from a chunk of hot iron being shot through his skull by mistake), became what might be called “a new man.” As his physician put it:

    His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind somarked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”

    The current theory about what lead to Gage’s transformation is that the accident functioned as a makeshift lobotomy that damaged his frontal frontal cortex, removing his social inhibitions. In a way, this ‘new Gage’ was perhaps lurking in the personality of ‘old Gage.’ This cannot be the defining standard that creates the “essence” of a man. Where would such a standard end? Truama of all sorts, physical or otherwise, can fundamentally alter a person’s character. So can things like education, a new-found faith, and so forth. And what of temporary changes to personality? After all, a man who imbibes a bit too much on alcoholic beverages may find himself acting “not quite himself,” but this is merely a figure of speech. Should we really claim that before four drinks, you’re yourself, and after, you’re a “different person” who is born and dies with the cycle of your sobriety?

  • Your memory. This one is related, but not identical, with personality. As bizarre as Gage’s case was (the guy started to walk off being shot through the brain with a chunk of iron), he still had a memory of who he was before. But what if you woke up one morning like Jason Bourne from the Bourne Trilogy, with no recollection of who you were prior to that day? Of course, this standard is as problematic as all the rest. What of people with amnesia or Alzheimer’s, who chronically forget? Do we claim, “oh, you’re the twentieth in a line of people named Mary to inhabit your body”? Or, you’re not a person at all, because you can’t remember anything? Would two people with equally blank memories be considered the same person? Obviously, this standard won’t do, either.
  • Your body. Going in a different direction, one might speculate that the physical boundaries of a person, so to speak, define who they are. Some perverted form of this seems to arise in the abortion debate. The unborn child, with a discreet and identifiable physical shape and form, as well as a distinct brain, organs, and DNA, is considered by law to be the same “person” as the mother, since they inhabit the same body. But immediately, there are problems: conjoined twins share a body, but are two people; people are amputated, give and recieve blood, or have organ transplants, and remain “themselves.” So body, then, is clearly out.
  • Your brain / mind. But what if, instead of defining a person by their body, you identified them just by their brain or mind? For the physical organ, the brain, there are some theoretical problems. There’s a hypothetical procedure called either a “brain transplant” or a “whole body transplant” (since theorists couldn’t decide if the body was getting a new brain, or the brain a new body). There are also really serious questions, due to hypothetical “partial-brain transplants,” where a chunk of one person’s brain is fused with someone else’s. A science-fiction book, My Brother’s Keeper, by Charles Sheffield, apparently examines this issue by having two twins (a concert pianist and a spy) in a terrible accident undergo surgery. The patient who awakes has the personality of the pianist, but the memories of both, so of course, he undergoes some secret mission. Would the patient, post-procedure, be considered the pianist, the spy, or a new person completely?

All of the above options relate (some more obviously than others) to the physical person. All of them are the types of answers which might be given by materialists. And thus, all are suseptible to a sort of Sorites’ paradox in reverse. [Sorites’ paradox, for those of you who aren’t familiar, asks, “If one has something that is not a heap of sand, and one adds a single grain of sand to it, the result is still not a heap of sand . . . if n grains of sand are not sufficient to make a heap then n+1 grains aren’t either.” The seeming conclusion is that “no matter how many grains of sand may be gathered together, they are not sufficient to make a heap of sand.”] If one cell dies or is transplanted (from a person’s brain, or body, etc.), the person’s “essence” wouldn’t change, and adding one more cell couldn’t conceivably be the difference. So following the logic to its end result would seem to suggest that one could eliminate or replace an endless number of physical cells composing the organ, and it would remain the original organ, with the original person’s “essence.” After all, a large number of brain cells do die every year, and many more die after incidents like strokes.

Still, of all of these possibilites, the brain, and more specifically, the parts of the brain we call the “mind,” which help create self-awareness and self-identity, serves as the most accurate answer. But it’s only partially correct. From a theistic perspective, the answer is easy enough. The “soul” is what we consider the defining characteristic of a person. It’s invisible, distinct from the physical phenomenon, and yet interacts through them. It’s impossible to transplant (even theoretically), and completely indivisible, so it’s immune from that reverse Sorites’ paradox. It’s impossible to say the precise interconnection between the soul and the mind, because we don’t know much about the way that the brain works, and we’ll never know the depths of how the soul works. So to the extent that the mind seems to be the primary playground of the soul, and the hotspot for temptations to the soul, I think brain/mind is at least a half-right answer for what makes us “us.”

One final piece of the puzzle. In Mark 7:14-23, Jesus identifies the “heart” as being the source of all sin – that it is not the physical things we come in contact with, but how we decide to react to them that determines sin. This was, for example, why the early Christians declared the raped virgins of Rome to still be virgins. What He means by “heart” is easier understood than defined: it’s what any of us mean when we say someone “has a lot of heart,” or “sang with all their heart,” and it pretty definitively doesn’t refer (at least primarily) to the physical organ.

So heart, soul, and mind… where have we seen that trinity before? Oh right. Jesus already suggested this answer in Matthew 22:37.

So the soul, working through the heart and mind, defines the essence of an individual. But what about the essence of the Holy Trinity? What is the defining characteristic of God? I’m going to try and tackle that one tomorrow.


  1. Nice thoughts Joe. I have had this discussion with my boyfriend a lot…pared down to our essence what are we? Without the physical, memories, life that we have surrounding us?

    What I’ve come to think, at least for the moment, is I believe pretty similar to what you’re saying here, just in a different way: God has given my soul life, without that life, my soul still exists, but it is manifested in the world in which He has created. Thus without my life and all the trappings that come with it, I am still myself, my soul, the one God created.

    I think ultimately this gives me an extreme amount of comfort and trust in God. Oftentimes we mere humans believe we can shape our destinies and lives the way we see fit, but so much is out of our control. So much is in His hands. Realizing that and trusting that if I give God my faith, my life, my destiny, and commit to following that path, all will be well. And not in the literal sense, maybe not the way I had planned, but in the realm of walking with God through life.

    Just rambling 🙂 I read your post on my wall, that is crazy that the only time we saw each other was randomly on the street. Seems silly doesn’t it?

  2. Interesting post Joe. I was wondering if you believed that circumstance could change a persons soul or the essence of the individual. Surely someone raised where sin was apart of their daily life, for example how they were raised by their mother and father if they had one, would be more likely to live a life of sin. Just like if you were raised with parents that were Muslim or Hindu you’d be more likely to follow those sects of religion. I would think upbringing plays a major role in shaping who we are if not the entire essence of our being. Through a reward and punishment system we learn what’s acceptable in our society and what is not. Can you really say that if you were brought up to look out for number one, take advantage of people when you could, be closed minded, steal, kill, lie, cheat, that you would have just the same chance as someone else brought up in ideal circumstances to find the righteous path and be saved? If not how is that fair that some people have the path to heaven laid out right in front of them and others are pointed in the other direction with almost no chance of finding their way

  3. I think the Catechism is pretty clear on this:
    The Church and non-Christians

    839 “Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways.”325

    The relationship of the Church with the Jewish People. When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People,326 “the first to hear the Word of God.”327 The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ”,328 “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”329

    840 And when one considers the future, God’s People of the Old Covenant and the new People of God tend towards similar goals: expectation of the coming (or the return) of the Messiah. But one awaits the return of the Messiah who died and rose from the dead and is recognized as Lord and Son of God; the other awaits the coming of a Messiah, whose features remain hidden till the end of time; and the latter waiting is accompanied by the drama of not knowing or of misunderstanding Christ Jesus.

    841 The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”330

    842 The Church’s bond with non-Christian religions is in the first place the common origin and end of the human race:

    All nations form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth, and also because all share a common destiny, namely God. His providence, evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all against the day when the elect are gathered together in the holy city. . .331

    843 The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”332


  4. 846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?335 Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

    Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.336

    847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

    Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.337

    848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”338

    and we follow up with the section on missisons, indeed, WE (the Catholic Church) are responsible for spreading the truth and spreading it correctly. One might say that all misunderstandings and mistruths come as a result of the imperfect nature of the members the Church….at least that is how I have thought about it before, Joe correct me if I am wrong

  5. Nick,

    Two things to add to what Cary said.

    First, Scripture makes it clear that God has given some people more to work with, but that He then expects more of them. You might read Luke 12:47-48 and Matthew 25:14-30, and the post on the latter here.

    Second, everyone has been given the basics: conscience, natural law, and the created world. So no one can credibly claim to have had no way of knowing about God’s existence, or the existence of right and wrong. More on that here, and St. Paul talks about it in Romans 1:18-2:16.

    God bless,


  6. Nick,

    On a personal note, I was brought up to think that masturbation, pornography, premarital sex, etc were are not only commonplace and acceptable but RIGHT and NECESSARY. Even with all this, I internally knew the inappropriateness of these mistaken ideas and eventually figured out that my essence (soul) was leading me to the truth that these things WERE wrong. Think about the discussion of why hide your masturbation from others…if it was completely proper (and you really thought that) you would, could, and should go around doing it everywhere and anywhere without shame…


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