You cannot be a Person without a Body: Gilbert Ryle's Concept of Mind

by Robert Brow   (

Very few books manage to change one's mind about anything important. But Gilbert Ryle changed my mind about myself. I have never doubted that I am a person who experiences, loves, thinks, acts, communicates with others. But till the age of 44 I pictured myself as a ghost inside the machinery of my body, a soul imprisoned in flesh.

Ryle argued that it was Descartes who sold us the myth that "every human being has both a body and a mind." "They are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body his mind may continue to exist and function." The idea was that "Human bodies are in space and are subject to mechanical laws" but "minds are not in space, nor are their operations subject to mechanical laws." "What the mind wills, the legs, arms and tongue execute."

He called this "the dogma of the Ghost and the Machine." But he goes on to argue that "the double-life theory" is a category mistake, like visiting the Oxford colleges, departments, and offices and then asking "But where is the University?" (RYLE, Gilbert, The concept of Mind, Hutchinson, 1949, Penguin-Peregrine, 1963-2000 Chap 1).

By the end of that book I was convinced that I am a single mind-body person. The next week my philosophy professor announced that resurrection is a logical impossibility. Since you cannot be a person without a body, the destruction of your body in an atomic explosion leaves nothing to resurrect. So I asked for permission to write a term paper proving that resurrection is not a logical impossibility. He said I hadn't a hope, but I could try.

So I wrote a story, which I now call "My Android Helen." A research scientist in artificial intelligence worked with an android (a robot as close to a human as we can make it). He called her Helen, and he loved to play chess and computer games with her. She could translate from Latin and French, and she loved Bach fugues. But he was devastated when the engineers told him that her hardware had worn out beyond repair.

But not to worry, they had just made a very advanced android (it even had a skin, and could play tennis). They would take a reading of the old Helen's memory and habit traces, and put them into the new Helen. The scientist insisted on a funeral, but to his astonishment when the new Helen was turned on she came up, gave him a kiss, and insisted on driving his car to the pub.

She of course turned the radio dial to a Bach Fugue.

Then all I needed was a brief note to explain that resurrection was not a logical impossibility. It was certainly a practical impossibility unless we had a heavenly engineer to resurrect us.

By then C.S.Lewis had convinced me that none of the bodily joys of this life will be any less in heaven. But obviously we would need a resurrection body to enjoy them. You cannot talk, walk, make music, enjoy the culture of all nations (Revelation 22:23-26) in the city of God without a body. That body will obviously not be material (made of the matter that chemists analyze), or physical (located in the dimensions that physicists study). But without a body we would cease to be persons.

But if that is true, then each of the three Persons of the Trinity must have had a body long before they decided to make us in their image. How else could they converse, love, create, dance (as the Cappadocian Fathers taught)?

So this Christmas we explain that the eternal Son of God emptied himself of a heavenly body (Philippians 2:6-8) to converse, love, create, and dance with us.

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