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Plants, Animals, Humans, and Souls


Last time we talked about the concept of the soul in general, as it’s usually understood in our culture.  Having established that basic foundation, I want to use it to analyze the question of who–or what–actually has a soul.  This is why, by the way, I’m categorizing this post in my polygenism series.  The ideas I intend to develop will figure more prominently in the larger context of polygenism and (possibly) the Fall of Mankind.

So as we said, the soul as generally understood could be defined as follows:

  1. It is the seat of personality and individuality
  2. It is associated with the body, but different from it
  3. It is immaterial, or to put it differently, non-physical
  4. It is separable from and can survive without the physical body

Definition:  To be clear, 3 means not made of matter or energy.  The soul is properly defined as “spirit”, which is not part of the material universe in any way.  We discussed this a bit last time.  We’ll look at the term “spirit” shortly.

Corollaries:  From 2, it is clear that though the soul is not itself material, it can affect physical objects.  It does this every time we move, in fact.  If psychokinesis is a real phenomenon (which I may discuss in detail later, but won’t here), then the soul may be able to affect matter beyond the body with which it is associated.  From 4, it follows that it is at least possible for the soul to survive physical death.  While not a direct corollary, the immortality of the soul–that it is indestructible and can never cease to exist–is typically assumed in the Western tradition since the time of Plato.

What I want to look at now is how, and if, the term “soul” can be applied to life forms besides ourselves–principally animals, but plants, too.

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(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.

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I Ain’t Got No Body: Embodiment (or not)

Here we talked about the creation of the material world and embodied intelligences (us) by God.  Over here we looked at how truly free creatures must be created at a certain “distance” from God’s perfection, with the (probably inevitable) corollary that at least some, if not most, of them will fall away to one degree or another.  Let us now start connecting these two threads and see where this leads us.

First, it is worth pointing out a slight nuance in the concept of the Fall.  To the orthodox, the Fall of mankind came after embodiment.  That is, humans were originally created as embodied souls.  Since humans were, in this narrative, primordially innocent, there was thus nothing “wrong” with embodiment.  Had the Fall not occurred, humans would have lived embodied lives in innocent perfection.  Embodiment is a feature, not a bug, so to speak.  The Fall distorted the relationship of body and soul; but that relationship in and of itself is fundamentally good.  It is also important to point out that in this  model, we don’t have a body; that is, we are not actually a spirit that just inhabits a corporeal form.  Rather, we are a body; or better, we are a holistic combination of body and soul making up one single hypostasis (person).

C. S. Lewis puts it in somewhat mystical language in Chapter 14 of The Great Divorce:

I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking up on it.  And on the table were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that.  And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet of some one of the great presences that stood by.  And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimickry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master.  And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in the world.  And the silver table is Time.  And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.

Thus the body and the soul are in a sense different manifestations of the same thing, merely seeming different (puppet vs. giant) because of our perception of time.

In the Gnostic mythos, the body, along with the rest of the material cosmos, is created by the evil and/or ignorant Demiurge, who makes it as a sort of imperfect, Bizarro-world copy of the dimly perceived Pleroma (the perfect spiritual world of the Aeons, the angelic intelligences created by God).  Thus, embodiment is a bad thing, as the material world itself is a bad thing, at best a pale reflection of the true Good, at worst a cesspit of suffering and limitation.  Some versions of the Gnostic mythos posit embodiment as a theft of the Light–the spiritual essence that comes from the Pleroma–by the Demiurge and his Archons; in some versions, Sophia (the Aeon whose sin led to the existence of the Demiurge in the first place) deliberately “seeds” the human body with the Light, as a long-term “time bomb” that will defeat the Demiurge and ultimately bring about the end of the material cosmos.  In this reading, embodiment is a good thing for the goal it will ultimately achieve; but it is still bad for us at the present.  Our goal is to escape embodiment and return to the Pleroma.

Thus, the Gnostic perspective holds embodiment to happen after the Fall, or perhaps to be a sort of Fall itself; and the antagonism of the spirit and the body is not an accident, but it is baked into the cake, so to speak.  We are not a body-soul amalgam, as in orthodoxy, but a soul–our true self–which is unfortunately connected to a body (or possibly many bodies–some forms of Gnosticism posit reincarnation) as a result of the entrapment of the Light in matter.

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It’s All in the Mind

It’s hard to find a soul here, in this crowd of skin and bones.–Susanna Hoffs, “Made of Stone”

We’ve seen why the troubles besetting Connor MacLeod and the murky possibility of predestination do not apply to God.  Now we return to the issue of how humans make choices (if in fact the can do so), and if they can hold to these choices forever.  One possible perspective needs to be dealt with before I go on to a fuller consideration of the issue. That perspective deals with the nature of our mind.

First, I am most definitely a New Mysterian–that is to say, I think the so-called “hard problem of consciousness” cannot be solved by humans or human science.  Beyond that, I take it as axiomatic that humans indeed have souls, and that these souls are immaterial and survive death.  I’m not interested in defending these assertions at this point.  As a believer, I take for granted the traditional Christian teaching on the existence of the soul.  If I didn’t believe in the existence of souls, then none of the increasingly large number of posts here would have the slightest significance and I could be spending my time in some more fruitful pursuit.  Thus, the presupposition that we have souls that are immaterial underlies all the follows from here.

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Shaft Live

Some soul for the weekend from the late, great Isaac Hayes.

The Downside of Dualism: Body and Soul

I have been arguing for a more positive view of dualism over the course of the last several posts, while heading towards the larger end of describing my mode of Biblical interpretation, and discussing what I accept, what I reject, and why. My thesis is that Christianity has been traditionally more strongly dualistic than is acknowledged to be the case in modern times, and that a return to a more dualistic attitude would redress a current excess in the other direction, return Christian thought to its roots, and have salutary effects in many areas.  Having said that, I have to come out and say that dualism (appropriately enough!) is a two-edged sword.

The type of dualism I’m talking about there is not the dualism of Daoism, in which the opposition is not between good and evil or spiritual and material, but between opposite principles (dry/moist, hot/cold, male/female, etc.).  It is the dualism that has been prevalent in the West (by which I include North Africa and the Iranian Plateau, since ideas from these areas circulated in the Mediterranean world), that is, a dualism of spirit world/material world and good/evil, the spirit being seen as good or predominantly good, and the material as evil, less good, or at least inferior.

One obvious shortcoming of this form of dualism popped up on the discussion thread at Vox Nova, which I’ve referred to before.  One of my interlocutors, A. Sinner, had the following things to say, my emphasis:

Ah, how tragic it is to see so many people today exalting the life of the body over the life of the soul. Christ Himself says “And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell.”

A society does not need to criminalize everything (indeed, I WOULD in fact argue for the decriminalization of prostitution, etc). But, at the same time, in given circumstances, it CAN criminalize. And certainly it sends a weird message if killing people’s bodies is a crime, but killing their souls (which is what heretics do; their crime is Objectively much worse than any murder) is not.

Given a certain perspective, this is a fair point. Read the rest of this entry

Polygenism, Human Origins, and the Soul: Index

This is actually part of an extended addendum to the “Legends of the Fall” series.  However, it’s taken on a life of its own and is now almost a third as long as the original series (and counting).  Thus, just as I gave the series on dualism its own index, I thought that this deserves as much.  It stands on its own, I think, but I’ve left it on the larger “Legends of the Fall” index, too.

Update 6 March 2018:  I have changed the name of this series from “Polygenism Revisited” to “Polygenism, Human Origins, and the Soul”.  This is for a few reasons.  One, I have come to the conclusion that some form of “hard” polygenesis–i.e., the evolution of Homo sapiens at different places, at different times, and from different local populations of precursor species, is very likely true.  Even if one still wanted to debate this–and the evidence is still not totally clear–I think it’s a useful heuristic, since, as I’ve said many times in the course of this series, I think it’s best to take the position most difficult to reconcile with one’s theology, as a way of avoiding the problem of the “God of the gaps”.

Two, I think the issues involved here cast a wider net than polygenesis per se; and I want to be free to look at the broader issues of human origins as they related to notions of the Fall of Mankind and the intimately connected issue of the Atonement.  Finally, recent research has increasingly painted a picture of animals as far more intelligent than previously believed, and of higher mammals as amazingly close to us in surprising ways.  I think this has implications for any theology of human souls and the supposed uniqueness of the human race.  Rather than starting a separate series for posts on that topic, I intend to place them here as I write them.  There is, after all, some logical connection.

Thus, in summary, stay tuned!  More to come in this space!

Polygenism Revisited:  Terminology

Polygenism Revisited:  The Theology of Cavemen

Polygenesis:  Breaking News

More News on Polygenesis

Adam, Eve, and Monogenism:  More Perspectives (and more of the same)

Another Article on Polygenesis

Plants, Animals, Humans, and Souls

Music from The Secret Life of Plants

Some of my favorites from Stevie Wonder’s soundtrack album, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.  An overlooked gem.

Gödel and the Soul

For reasons that I’ll explain in a future post, I have realized that I left a major loose end hanging in my “Legends of the Fall” series.  I was planning out a post in my mind, and it occurred to me that at least one of the issues I need to deal with in order to write that post is long enough to deserve a post of its own.

C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, I think, said that he came to believe in God before he came to a belief in the afterlife.  The latter came a few months later.  He does emphasize that this experience was his, and not necessarily universal.  For most of my life that I’ve been old enough to think about it, I’ve believed in both.  However, as I’ve become older and thought about it, I’d  have to say that while I still believe both, the belief in an afterlife–or more narrowly, the belief in a human soul–is more fundamental to me.  That is to say, losing belief in God would not affect my belief in an immaterial human soul.

The reason for this is direct experience, but it will need a little unpacking.  First, recall that the soul is truly immaterial.  That means it is not matter, nor even energy.  Star Trek style beings of “pure energy” are not equivalent to souls.  Energy, after all, following Einstein’s equation E=mc2, is interchangeable with matter.  The soul can’t be matter, so it can’t be energy, either.  For us, it is associated with our bodies, but of a different nature from them.

This puts us in a bit of a bind.  Everything we perceive through our senses–touch, sight, smell, hearing, proprioception, etc.–is intertwined with our bodies and the material cosmos.  Though there has never yet been a materialist account of the mind (and in my opinion never will be), it is still clear that the soul depends on the physical body and material brain for most of its functioning most of the time.  Were that not so, we’d never sleep, get drunk, feel dizzy, etc.  Furthermore, there are clear connections that can be observed between electrical activity in the brain and what a person is thinking or experiencing.  Thus, one might be challenged to present evidence that requires us to assume an immaterial soul.  The materialist, in short, might contend that even though we don’t yet have a full, materialist account of the mind–and even if we never have one–that’s not sufficient to make us assume a soul.  After all, what about our minds could not be explained, at least in principle, by natural forces, matter, and energy?

2 + 2 = 4, that’s what. Read the rest of this entry