(Body) and Soul

“Body” is a concept with which few of us have a problem.  We all have bodies after all.  No one doubts this, except perhaps for solipsists and those who’d argue that we are actually brains in vats (or for Wachowski fans, that we’re connected to the Matrix, which is essentially the same thing)*.  For the purposes here, at least, we’ll consider such viewpoints in light of the commonsense perspective–that is, that they’re cracked!  Thus, what I want to look at is the idea of the soul.  I’m doing so in order to develop the groundwork for some ideas I want to explore in my series on polygenism, specifically, and more generally in regard to my series on the Fall.  Since this post itself is a sort of stand-alone, though, I’ll put it in “Religious Miscellany“.

I should preface this discussion by stipulating that I do believe that the soul, as an entity distinct from the body actually does exist.  Obviously, not everyone believes this.  Many of the philosophically materialist persuasion would argue that what is commonly called a “soul” is merely the complex interaction of electrochemical processes in the human brain.  The more radical would argue that the mind itself is no different from the brain, except perhaps in an analytical sense.  Some, such as Daniel Dennett (if I understand him correctly) would even go so far as to deny the existence of sense of self and personal experience.  In this post, I’m not interested in arguing against a materialist view of the comos. For those interested in such a defense, I’d refer you to C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles.  For now, suffice it to say that I’m taking the existence of a discrete, immaterial soul that is distinct from the body for granted.

We use the word “soul” all the time, and we all have a vague agreement on what it means.  In general, “soul” means the center of identity that makes a person who he or she is, and which is distinct from the body.  That is, our memories, thoughts, emotions–that which we consider to be our “self”, our “identity”, including but not limited to the mind, is the soul.  The soul is in some sense “in” the body (though the spatial term “in” is really a metaphor) and interacts with and is affected by the body–for example, if the body becomes tired enough, we become unconscious, and things such as drugs can affect our minds.  Despite this, the soul is distinct from the body, and is usually held to be separable from it, and to survive the body’s death.

Further, as is popularly conceived, though not always clearly articulated, the soul is not only the locus of the true self, it is the self.  We speak of having a soul, like we have a car or a television.  However, as the term is usually understood, it’s more accurate to say that we are souls.  This follows the ideas of Plato, notably in his dialogue Phaedo.  In effect, the true person is the soul, which merely “wears” the body as one would wear clothing.  Thus, while we may identify with our body, there is still a sense in which we do not consider it equivalent to ourselves.  We speak of “my” hand or kidney or hair, as if these things are not actually part of us, any more than “my” book or computer is.  We say of a departed one that “he” went to Heaven (or perhaps Hell), or that “he” was reincarnated.  Since his body remains, it is evident that the “he” to which we refer is the soul.

The final thing to note about the popular view of the soul is that it is immaterial.  It is composed of “spirit” (a problematic term itself, but we’ll get to it), being in no way composed of matter.  A couple of less-obvious things follow from this.  One, as we recall (or should recall!) from basic science, matter is “that which has mass and takes up space”.  “Mass” is that which experiences inertia, or more loosely, that which exhibits weight when affected by gravity.  Thus, the soul does not take up space–it has no dimensions–nor does it have mass.  To put it another way, it has no size and no weight.  That’s why the old experiments that claimed to prove the soul by purporting a minuscule change in the weight of a body at the moment of death were so silly.  Aside from the manifold other problems with such studies (for just one example, how, exactly, does one pinpoint the exact “moment of death”?), the obvious howler is that the soul has no weight at all, being immaterial, and thus its departure at death would have no effect on the weight of the corpse.

More subtly, the soul is not energy, either.  We know, from Einstein’s E=mc2 that matter can be converted into energy, and vice versa.  They are, in short, different forms of the same thing, just as water, ice, and steam are all forms of H2O.  Since the soul is not composed of matter, it is equally not composed of any form of energy.  This needs to be stated, since we tend to think of the soul as a kind of energy.  We use the metaphor of light (which is energy) or an aura or field (the latter term of which implies energy) in thinking of the soul.  Alternately, we think of it as the energy or life-force that animates the body.  These might be useful as metaphors; but we need to banish any literal reading of these notions in dealing with the soul.  When we say the soul is immaterial, we imply that not only is it not reducible to matter, but it is not reducible to energy.

This is why the idea of using electronic devices of various kinds to detect ghosts (which, after all, if they exist, are disembodied souls) is as silly as weighing dying bodies.  The electroninc ghost detector is a common trope–you see it in the various Ghostbusters movies and in the popular TV series Supernatural, among other places, and some purportedly real-life ghost hunters use such devices as well.  Still, common trope or not, it’s just wrong, at least to the extent that it posits the soul to be some form of energy.  Now it is possible that a soul might indirectly affect an energy detector, just as it can effect material objects (such as, obviously, our bodies when we’re alive).  It’s important to keep in mind, though, that no matter what effects it may have on energy, the soul itself is not composed of energy.

At this point I want to note that not all cultures have a unitary view of the soul.  Some–most notably the Ancient Egyptians–posited multiple souls which functioned in some ways independently of each other.  Plato himself advanced a notion that the soul has three distinct parts.  For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to follow the common Western notion of the soul as a single entity.  This goes back to Aristotle’s view of the soul as simple–that is, non-composite.  In short, the different “parts” of the soul (or the different souls, if you take an Egyptian view) are not really distinct and separate, as the hand is distinct from the foot, or the tires of a car are from the chassis.  Rather, these “parts” are just different functions of a unitary soul that manifest differently, but which are not metaphysically separable.  In general, I’m a Platonist, not an Aristotelian; but in this matter, I do tend to go with Aristotle.

I realize that last paragraph needs some unpacking, but I intend to do that in the next post about the soul.  Meanwhile, I’ll end this post by saying that in further discussion of the soul–particularly as it relates to ancient hominids, other animals, and (possibly) aliens–I will, by and large, be defining it in the usual way it’s understood in the contemporary West, as I’ve described above.  I will be nuancing and tinkering with that definition, but it’s the basic definition I will use.

Having laid the groundwork, I next turn to the issue of critters.  Stay tuned–more to come!

*In some respects, the Buddhist philosophy known as “mind-only” (cittamātra or vijñaptimātra), typically associated with the Yogācāra school of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, could be said to deny the existence of the body as we usually understand it.  However, the philosophical system involved is extremely complex and subtle, and it could be argued that while it does not hold the body to be “real” in an absolute sense, it does not deny the body’s reality insofar as we experience it in ordinary life.  Thus, I’m not going to lump the mind-only philosophy together with solipsism and brain-in-a-vat-ism as self-evidently nutty.

Part of the series “Religious Miscellany

Posted on 28/06/2018, in Christianity, metaphysics, music, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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