Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Dueling with Dualism  

In a recent talk, Fr. Frank Pavone, who is the director of Priests for Life, talked about the murder earlier this year of Ms. Terri Schiavo. He used the strange grave marker which was placed where her remains lie, to explain the philosophical underpinnings of how her death was justified. He made the point that what is intellectually driving this is simply the re-emergence of an old heresy.

If you recall, her grave marker has three dates on it. Normally, of course, a gravestone contains two dates which indicate the person's birth date and date of death. In the case, of Ms. Schiavo's grave marker, there are three dates. The first date is her birth date, the second date is the date of her collapse, February 25, 1990. The words which accompany that date indicate that this was the date that Terri "departed this earth". The last date is March 31, 2005, which the grave marker indicates as the date on which Terri was "at peace".

Fr. Pavone pointed out that the type of thinking that would justify the death of Ms. Schiavo and also have such a grave marker placed over her remains is simply dualistic. Dualism has ancient roots, but it nonetheless a heresy. In the third century, Marcion held that there were essentially two gods. One for each testament in Scripture. The old testament god was evil, and the new testament god was good. Manichaesm, which held sway for some time in the life of St. Augustine of Hippo before his conversion, was based on the philosophy of dualism.

For dualists, the consequences of the theological idea that there is a good god and evil god is that human person is two separate entities of body and spirit. The spirit, which is good because it is created by the good god, is trapped in the body, which is evil because it is created by the evil god. The goal of human existence is to free the good spirit from the evil body. Throughout history, many have shared this dualistic thinking about spirit and body, although often without any of the theological underpinnings. As Fr. Pavone noted, the advocates for Ms. Schiavo's murder, who are most likely unconsciously supporting this heretical thinking, contend that when Ms. Schiavo's body stopped functioning "normally", she had departed from this earth. In other words, her spirit had been freed from the evil body which had trapped it.

In this particular case, however, there is much evidence that Ms. Schiavo's body never stopped functioning normally. Fr. Pavone was an eyewitness to Ms. Schiavo's abilities which included tracking him with her eyes when he moved around in her room. In addition, he saw her respond to outside stimuli such as attempting to answer a question from her mother and laughing at her father's jokes. Fr. Pavone also recounted how Ms. Schiavo would close her eyes during the time he was praying and then open her eyes at the completion of his prayer.

Aside from these very obvious bodily responses which demonstrate Ms. Schiavo's ability to respond to world around her, the dualistic thinking simply does not fit with reality. We are composites made up of both body and spirit. We recognize in our daily experience that the body and spirit work together not in opposition to one another.

The results of this dualistic thinking are very troubling. By separating body from spirit, a person can justify abuse by asserting that he is not dealing with a person's spirit, but only the person's body. In Ms. Schiavo's case, the grave marker indicates that Michael Schiavo believed that Ms. Schiavo's spirit "departed this earth" when she collapsed over 15 years before she actually died. Consequently, her body could be abused because it was just the shell that was left behind.

For dualists, Ms. Schiavo must be a vegetable. She simply cannot be a whole person because that would mean that there was more than a body that was lying on her bed. Evidence points to the fact that she was not just a body, but a whole person who could even interact with her surroundings. However, this was not the thinking that prevailed, and ultimately, she, not just her body, was abused to death by denying her the basic necessities of life--food and water.

Posted by David at 8:15 AM  |  Comments (2)  | 


The claims Pavone and others continue to make about Schiavo responding to stimuli are sheerest idiocy. They were roundly criticized by the trial judge, who noted that even the highly edited tapes they presented as evidence showed only a few supposed "responses" in the face of over 100 questions, commands, and other stimuli in the space of just a few minutes - while the remining hours of tape that the Schindler family chose not to show to the public or the court did not show even that much.

Be that as it may, this supposed "evidence" has nothing to do with dualism, nor, strictly speaking, does Schiavo's grave marker. Dualism is simply the claim that the mind is a distinct entity separate from the body. (Whether this is "heresy" is a matter only for those who care about such things, and at any rate it has nothing to do with Manicheanism.) Death of the person occurs with the death of the mind, or its separation from the body, in the dualist perspective. Dualism is the opposite of "monism", which holds that the mind is merely a function of, or a name we give to functions of, the body - specifically the brain; from this perspective, death occurs when the brain ceases to function in a way that corresponds to what we call "mind".

In saying that Terri Schiavo "departed this earth" when she suffered her brain injury, Michael Schiavo appears to be saying that her soul departed her body at that time (which would be a dualist claim), but he may be saying simply that her brain stopped functioning fully at that time, such that her mind was "gone" (which would be a monist claim). From either perspective, it appears not to be strictly true, since Michael Schiavo himself at first appeared to believe there was some hope of her recovery, at least for a while, after that date. It really seems that he is not making either a dualist or a monist claim about her mind, strictly speaking, but simply an emotional statement about the time at which she was "lost to the world", which would certainly be understandable even if not precisely scientifically rigorous.

But none of this, again, has anything to do with religion or heresy. The Catholic church is officially dualist - it believes the soul is distinct from, and survives after the death of, the body. Non-dualists (monists) are (with minor exceptions) almost invariably atheist. There may be dualist "heresies", such as the Manicheanism Pavone refers to, but dualism itself - as a general category of thought - is not heretical, it is the official positon of the Catholic church and all other Christian churches. Nothing about saying Terri Schiavo's soul "departed this earth" is either Manichean as Pavone explains it or heretical in any way. I would presume that all Catholics do believe her soul departed the earth - just on the day her body finally died, and not on the day she was injured, as Michael Schiavo may think. In this, they are merely disagreeing over the factual question of when her soul departed, not the religious question that it did so. Both Schiavo and Pavone are dualists - Pavone is simply confused about what his own dualism consists in.

By Blogger Kevin T. Keith, at November 09, 2005 1:00 PM  

Dualism, like many philosophical ideas, has multiple understandings. As you point out, there is a dualism which is simply the opposite of monism. Strictly speaking this is not the type of dualism which I am addressing. Instead, the dualism to which Fr. Pavone referred to is that which understands that there are two eternally, coexisting, and competing forces of good and evil which are responsible for the universe. In the human person, this reality is found in the good spirit and the evil body because spiritual substance is from the good entity and material substance is from the evil entity. Thus, the good spirit is trying to free itself from the evil body. This is naturally a heretical position because there is only one eternal being and that is God who is all good. He did not create things that are good and things that are evil.

Consequently, the Catholic Church in no way holds a dualist position. First and foremost, the Church does not believe that the spirit is good and that the material is evil. In addition, the Church is very clear that the soul and the body go together. The soul which is a spiritual entity is immortal, but the body is mortal. Death is the temporary separation of the body and the soul. However, there will be a resurrection for all souls, whether in heaven or hell, in which the body is reunited with the soul because the permanent separation of soul and body is contrary to human nature. The body which is resurrected will be the person's body because even during the separation of soul and body, the person still possesses both his own body and his own soul. The resurrection will only return to each person the body which rightly belongs to that person.

The soul animates the body. When the soul departs, there is death. If you have ever seen a corpse, you have experienced a body without a soul. If Ms. Schiavo's soul departed this earth on the day of her collapse, she should have been like a corpse. Obviously she was not. Was she the same as she was before her collapse? No, but neither is someone who suffers a stroke or loses a limb. The point is that a dualist position allows people to think that someone really is no longer there, consequently, what is there, can be treated in any manner because you really are not doing anything to a real person.

In terms of the evidence of Ms. Schiavo's response to stimuli, there are far more eyewitness testimonies than Fr. Pavone's with regard to Ms. Schiavo's responses. Some of these testimonies are from nurses who cared for Ms. Schiavo. I cannot speak to the additional parts of the tape because I have never seen them. However, I have either read the other testimonies or heard interviews of those testify that Ms. Schiavo was able to respond to stimuli. Interestingly, the trial judge you refer to, despite handling this case for a number of years, never even saw Ms. Schiavo in person.

Even if Ms. Schiavo did not respond to any stimuli whatsoever, there are few things that are very clear about her case. She did not cease to be a human being after she collapsed. She was not in a coma. She was not on life support. She was not terminally ill. She died because she was not given food and water. Regardless of any law, food and water are not medical treatments. To argue that she received the food artificially is specious. Unless one completely supports one's nutritional needs without any outside help, in some fashion every one receives food artificially.

All of this is to say that regardless of whether you want to maintain that Ms. Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state or not, it simply is inhumane to dehydrate someone to death. She would not have died without someone doing something to her, namely, denying her food and water. Normally speaking, we refer to an intentional human action to kill someone as murder. Regardless of all of the legal, legislative, and executive government positions that were taken with regard to Ms. Schiavo's case, the government should protect all life, especially the most lives of its most vulnerable citizens. Consequently, no governmental entity should ever be able to sanction a person's death by dehydration.

By Anonymous David W., at November 11, 2005 4:01 AM  

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