Press "Enter" to skip to content

Descartes, Alzheimer’s and the soul

Descartes was wrong. He has to have been. “I think, therefore I am,” just doesn’t hold up when someone you love has Alzheimer’s.  Over the past several years, my dad’s brain function has fundamentally changed. Yet he still is, just as much as he was before. 

And not only does he continue to be, but he continues to be him

We are, even when our thinking is diminished. And we continue to be ourselves even when we can no longer think in the ways or capacities we did previously. 

We do not exist because we think. Our identity — my me-ness and your you-ness — comes from someplace else. 

Look, I understand that Descartes was not really saying that — but it sure was fun to simply assert that a seventeenth-century French philosopher was wrong. 

But we do tend to connect our thinking with our being.   

Think about how we refer to one another. We often connect personhood to brain activity, the functionality of our minds. She’s funny, smart, artistic, athletic — I would argue that athleticism is a brain/body connection. He’s good at math, doesn’t know how to cook, and likes to read. 

Even when we point to cultural distinctions and other factors — I’m a college-educated, eldest child, an Enneagram 5, from a blue collar family in New Jersey. All of that gives you insight into how I may think, what you can expect from me. 

When we describe another we’re often trying to get a handle on their brain activity. 

Sure, there are those who may identify more closely with their physicality. Reflecting on their existence they may point to their strength, flexibility, speed, attractiveness, or some other physical characteristic. But, I would argue most of us see those as factors that influence our thinking as well — she thinks the way she does because she’s attractive, or he’s introverted because he’s never been comfortable in his own skin. 

But even if that’s not the case, our bodies, like our minds, are unreliable. They’re frail and subject to decay through age, injury, illness, environment and so many other factors both within and outside of our control.


You see, for the most part, these acts of equating our being with our thinking worked for me until recently. Several years ago, my dad’s brain began to betray him. 

So here’s the disconnect I’ve been wrestling with. My dad doesn’t think the way he used to — his brain is working differently than it ever has before. But he still is. And he continues to be the unique person I call my dad. How can this be?

Soul redefined

Christians believe we are created in the image of God, which means there is something about us, within us, some part of who we are that is a reflection of the Creator. Something about us is eternal, not subject to the decay of our minds and bodies. Some part of who we are is beyond our physical and cognitive abilities. 

If you’re a church person, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, Joe. You’re talking about the soul.” But what are we talking about when we talk about the soul? We throw that word around, but what do we mean? 

A cultural example

One way we understand the soul is wonderfully illustrated in an episode of The Simpsons. Bart and Milhouse are cleaning the organ’s pipes as a punishment for something they did in Sunday school when they get into a theological discussion about the soul. 

Bart declares, “Soul? Come on, Milhouse. There’s no such thing as a soul. It’s just something they made up to scare kids.” 

Milhouse ends up challenging him saying, “If you’re so sure about that, why don’t you sell your soul to me?” 

So Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for all the money Milhouse has on him, five bucks. 

Bart, thinking he’s made some easy money, then begins to experience some weird things. An automatic door won’t open for him. His faithful dog doesn’t recognize him. And when his mom hugs him while tucking him in, she notices that something’s off — “It almost feels like you’re missing something,” she says, “something important.”

That night, Bart has a dream where all of his friends are rowing across a body of water, to what must be paradise on the other side. Each kid grabs one oar of their rowboat, and their soul grabs the other allowing them to row straight across. But Bart is alone without his soul, and with only one row, can only go in circles. It’s actually a pretty cool image you might not expect from a cartoon. 

And in some ways, it’s a decent representation of how many Christians view their soul. We talk about the soul as our ‘spiritual essence’ — some part of ourselves that is ‘other,’ non-physical, beyond our cognitive capabilities. 

A personal example

Here’s another, more personal, example. 

When I was in high school, our youth group did one of those comparative religion series of lessons — I’m not really a fan of those lessons. It always seems more than a bit disingenuous for a Christian to characterize — and often mischaracterize — the faith of others, which really has nothing to do with my point, but I couldn’t just let that go by without saying something. 

Anyway, one of the things I most remember from those lessons was that one of the perceived distinctions between Christianity and other religions, is that we believe that we maintain our individualness into eternity. I remember it being explained that we’ll be “recognizable” to one another in heaven. 

I cannot tell you how attractive that was to me at the time. As an awkward teenager who never quite felt comfortable in his own skin, the idea of not having my earthly body but still being recognizable to others was a revelation. How amazing I thought it would be for people to see me for who I am, beyond my physicality. 

At the time, I just thought that meant my mind/personality would be injected into a new resurrection body, whatever that meant. It was really something to look forward to. 

But the part I definitely thought would survive, my soul, was the thinking part of me. Descartes had influenced me and I didn’t even know it.

But is that the ‘soul’?

It is my other half that will help me row across the Jordan to the Promised Land of heaven? Is it my brain or my personality that makes me who I am? That will survive after death? 

I don’t think so anymore for a several reasons.

These don’t work

First, let’s talk about The Simpsons version of the soul — that other part of our ourselves understanding.

That grows out of a Platonist worldview — this understanding behind our understanding, which we inherited from the ancient Greeks and still influences how we understand and interact with the world today. 

The theory of forms, attributed to Plato, teaches that the physical world is a representation of an idealized world. I remember being taught that the chairs we sit in are a physical version of the idea, form, or essence of a thing called a chair. 

Some then attributed that to individuals as well. There is in the universe an idea, form or essence of Joe.  And what I am right now is a physical, earthly version of that ideal form or essence or soul. That form of Joe is separate from they current physical me, and my goal in life is to live into my Joe-ness — to grow closer and closer to this idealized form of me that is the perfect Joe, what is understood as the true, real Joe. 

Do you hear the overlap between that and our common understanding of the soul? The one who upon death will grab the other oar and guide us to heaven. 

This whole understanding for me is problematic. For one, it can create a great deal of anxiety about living up to an idealized version of ourselves. Man, can that can be unhealthy — anyone who has wrestled with expectations of parents, spouse, or self can attest to that, I’m sure. 

Also, I find this understanding troubling because it makes our soul separate from ourselves and relatively unknown even to us. If we’re fortunate, we get glimpses of it, and some feel more connected to it than others — but it is separate from us, a strange outside influence we need to learn about and try to live into and up to. 

This Platonism influenced version of our soul, is trapped inside of our bodies wanting to be discovered, that then escapes our bodies upon our death and gets to live on, into eternity in its fullness. 

I may be overstating it here, but I want to call attention to this dualism that leads us to an identity crisis of sorts. In the Platonist Theory of Forms the form of the chair is more real than the one that is keeping my torso off of the floor as I record this. 

Then by extension, the real me is my soul — this separate part of me that is relatively unknown to me. So I can spend my life trying to be the “real” me. It can hinder me from ever getting to fully know the me that is walking around right now, flaws and all. It can keep me always reaching, striving, yearning for something else and never really being present in the here and now. 

And one more troublesome result from this type of thinking is what I consider very dangerous statements like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” 

Man, I am really just going after the French philosopher’s today aren’t I? 

With apologies to the people I know who love that quote, I find it problematic (sorry!). 

This… discounting of our human experience is why, I think, James wrote, “Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity” (James 2:15-17). 

If we’re spiritual beings having a human experience — if our form, our soul is our truest self — then it begins to make sense for us to care more for the soul than the body. 

You may think I’m really reaching here, but it appears to me that some of us who are followers of Jesus operate in this way. We have these conversations about whether we need to do evangelism or mission — as if one without the other is an option. 

Or we play a bait-and-switch sales game on people. We strategize on how we can meet what we in the church once called “perceived” needs — it nearly disgusts me to know that I used that term — so that we can meet what we saw as their “real” need, the saving of the soul — the truer self. 

But the truth is, we all have needs — real needs — and when the church follows Jesus in meeting people’s needs — feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the sick and imprisoned — when we care for others in Jesus’ name, we need to care for them physically, emotionally and spiritually. Because those parts are not separate, not disconnected from one another. We are human beings — created body, mind and spirit in the image of God. We should not discount that — or any part of our humanity.

Not working

All of that is to say, that thinking about the soul as either in the Platonist worldview as some mysterious part of me that is separate from the physical me, no longer works. Neither does this idea that my soul is some disembodied me who will be recognizable through how I think, or speak, or some personality trait.

Instead, I need some other way of understanding the soul — our essence, our core, the intangible thing that makes you, you and me, me. 

It’s expressed in our bodies, but not dependent upon them. We most often see it revealed in the workings of our brains — from our thought patterns to our senses of humor, but it is not contained, confined or reliant upon its proper functioning. 

I think it’s something greater. 

So let’s go back to that comparative religions lesson of my high school youth group. 

Into eternity, I survive. I will be recognizable to others — my wife, my children, my parents — on the other side. My body won’t survive. Neither will my thinking (sorry Descartes). My memories and mind cannot be relied upon. Neither can my personality. So what is it that will go on? 

I’m concluding that the part of ourselves that exists beyond our existence — that eternal, divine spark we get glimpses of from time to time, is our love. Those who love me, know my essence, my core, the deepest part of me, and can spot it anywhere. 

I think that’s the whole thing — love. Our truest self, is the love we give and the love we receive. That, just may be our soul. 

Which means, in some sense, that we are caretakers or stewards of one another’s souls. There’s a portion of my dad’s essence that I carry within me, even when (or maybe because) he can’t hold it for himself right now. And in what I think is a really lovely way, my dad holds part of my essence with him — his love for me is part of who I am.

In other words, maybe the part of my dad that exists beyond the functioning of his mind and personality is my love for him. Maybe that’s what makes him still him — or at least part of it.

Think of those closest to you. Who is holding a portion of the deepest parts of you, and who through your love are you entrusted with.

As I’ve been reflecting on this odd little thought over the past year and a half or so, it has been revealing itself as more and more helpful in my grief over my dad’s condition and my understanding of our connection to each other. 

A quick example: Sometimes, when someone dies, we say we’ve lost a part of ourselves. As I’ve been around grief over the years, I think in some sense that’s true. Grief changes us. 

Our ‘soul’ is somehow altered with the loss of a loved one. Their love for us, our love for them, that part of our essence is no longer with us in the same way. And that is a fundamental shift in our being. 

And it has given me a new understanding of my personhood not being dependent on outside factors like my body or mind. And I’m trying to learn that I’m not supposed to live up to some idealized and yet to be discovered form of me. And it helps me to see that who I am is a function of community. There are others who are holding on to me, who I am at my very essence. I am who I am because of the love of others, both that which I receive and that which I give. I like this idea of being the caretaker of the soul/essence of another. I know I would recognize that soul — and hope that others would recognize mine.

If I may be brazen enough to correct a 17th century French philosopher, I think I would ask him to reconsider his line. Not “I think, therefore I am.” But “I love and am loved, therefore I am.” 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.