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New Year resolutions and tripartite human nature

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Written by Charles Foster

‘I do not understand my own actions’, grumbled St. Paul. ‘For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do….’1

That’s a fair summary of the evidence about the fate of New Year’s resolutions. The University of Hertfordshire psychologist, Richard Wiseman, found that only 10% of New Year’s resolutions succeed. Most of them are abandoned by 23 January.

When we fail in our resolutions, we rebuke ourselves in very Pauline language.2, 3, 4 The higher parts of ourselves, we say, are in a battle against the lower parts. We even give Pauline names to the parties in the battle: he distinguished clearly between ‘…spirit and soul and body…’5 So do we. ‘The spirit was willing’, we complain, after a losing battle with the body over the last of the mince pies, ‘but the flesh was weak’. These self-rebukes have distinct normative moral colour: we are not merely regretting the consequences of our failure.

This tripartite division of human nature was Christian orthodoxy until Augustine. He abandoned it, substituting a bipartite model (body and soul) because he wanted to insist on human fallenness, and the presence of a spirit (which presumably had a divine origin6) made it harder to emphasize human depravity. The Roman Catholic church has long been in thrall to Augustine: so, in this respect at least, were the Refomers (notably Calvin, and with the honourable exception of Luther).

A doctrine such as bipartism, so discordant both with intuition (see the mince pies) and holy writ, can only survive if it’s turned into an essential article of faith. And so it has been: bipartism has been proclaimed from the highest pulpits in Western Christendom, and is part of the Roman Catholic catechism.7

 There is a similar dogmatism in neuroscience: but a dogmatism of silence; an emphatic refusal to address the obviously important questions. There is a large and growing literature on the neuroscience of moral deliberation.8 It is meticulous, rigorous, and rather dull. It typically indicates which areas light up on a fMRI scan, and which don’t, when subjects are considering moral quandraries. To this essentially descriptive work I find myself saying, respectfully: ‘So what?’ It says nothing about the mince pies; nothing about the curious fact that ‘I’ refer to myself as being in conflict with ‘myself’.

It’s not surprising: the Stalinist reductionism of neuroscience knows that it can’t begin to get to grips with the mince pies, and that its inadequacy will be embarrassingly demonstrated if it tries. Out of self-preservation it refuses to ask the big, obvious, central questions. St. Paul has a lot more explanatory power than the fMRI data.


  1. Romans 7: 15, 18-19: New RSV
  2.  Marlatt, G.A. and Kaplan, B.E., 1972. Self-initiated attempts to change behavior: A study of New Year’s resolutions. Psychological Reports, 30(1), pp.123-131.
  3. Norcross, J.C., Ratzin, A.C. and Payne, D., 1989. Ringing in the new year: the change processes and reported outcomes of resolutions. Addictive behaviors, 14(2), p.205.
  4. Polivy, J. and Herman, C.P., 2002. If at first you don’t succeed: False hopes of self-change. American Psychologist, 57(9), p.677.
  5. ‘…may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless….’ 1 Thessalonians 3:23
  6. As indeed, scripturally, it did. Genesis 2:7 says that ‘…the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.’ New RSV
  7. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: ‘The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature…. Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people “wholly”, with “spirit and soul and body” kept sound and blameless at the Lord’s coming.236 The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul’: paragraphs 365 and 367
  8. See, amongst very many examples, Borg, J. S., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Calhoun, V. D., & Kiehl, K. A. (2011). Neural basis of moral verdict and moral deliberation. Social Neuroscience, 6(4), 398–413; and Parkinson, C., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Koralus, P.E., Mendelovici, A., McGeer, V. and Wheatley, T., 2011. Is morality unified? Evidence that distinct neural systems underlie moral judgments of harm, dishonesty, and disgust. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23(10), pp.3162-3180; Tillman, J.J., 2016. An Integrative Model of Moral Deliberation. Springer.
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1 Comment on this post

  1. mhairi fergusson

    The thesis that neuroses are caused by unconscious conflicts buried deep in the unconscious mind in the form of repressed libidinal energy would appear to offer us, at last, an insight in the causal mechanism underlying these abnormal psychological conditions as they are expressed in human behavior, and further show us how they are related to the psychology of the ‘normal’ person.

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