The Soul: What is it and Do we Have it?

Since I’ve already written over 5,000 words for my NaNoWriMo novel this evening, I don’t think I can physically type a whole blog post for tonight, so I’m going to be cheeky and give y’all a Philosophy essay I wrote the other week, based on the quote “Evaluate claims that we have a soul.”

It’s gonna be a long one, guys. Enjoy.

“Evaluate claims that we have a soul.”

The issue the title is asking us to explore is whether claims and supposed evidence supporting the existence of the soul are plausible and valid. This is an important issue for both philosophers and religious people since the question of whether human beings have a soul has long been one of the most debated issues between philosophers and the concept of ensoulment in humans is key to Christian (Xn) doctrine. Important aspects of the issue to be considered are: what the soul can be defined as, near death experiences, Richard Dawkins’ arguments against the existence of the soul, and Malcolm Jeeves and John Polkinghorne’s arguments for the existence of the soul. Alternative explanations for the substance or idea we call the “soul” from scientific scholars will also be discussed. I will be arguing predominately from the viewpoints of the scholar Richard Dawkins, who argues against the existence of the soul from a mainly rationalist stance.

For many people who hold a dualist point of view, the soul is separate to our bodies. It’s is a different, eternal substance that leaves our physical, temporary bodies when we die. One of the first dualist philosophers was Plato, who advocated that the body and soul are complete opposites and that after death, the soul is undisturbed by the distraction of constant bodily demands, meaning that it can reach its highest state. However, the soul must continue in living because life is the essence of what a soul is. The soul animates the person by giving it life, so if a soul is a life-giving essence, it must always have a life. So, for Plato, our soul is something which brings our bodies to life and defines who were are, allowing us to receive knowledge and wisdom and then leaving our bodies altogether when we die.

For someone with a monist view however, such as Polkinghorne and early Xns, the body and soul aren’t independent of one another – they are, in the words of Polkinghorne, a “package deal”, where body and soul are dependent on each other for their identity and existence. An ancient philosopher who held a monist point of view was Aristotle, who claimed that since the soul is immaterial, it is therefore inseparable to the body. Another, altogether different view that is held by some people, such as Gilbert Ryle, is that humans don’t have a soul. Instead, we are a soul. Ryle calls it “category mistake” to say that humans own or have a soul, because we are in fact a soul, and to talk of having some separable essence to ourselves is a mistake. Other scholars, such as Dawkins, deny the existence of a soul completely – they deny the existence of an extra “substance” to ourselves which remains in existence even after our bodies cease to. Many people who advocate this view are atheists and a lot scientific theories argue from this point of view and propose alternative explanations to our feelings of having a separate self within us.

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Ryle referred our “souls” to being like ghosts in a machine. Is it me or does that sound a bit creepy?

One of the many arguments for the existence of the soul relies on using near death experiences (NDEs) as evidence, since if the body is not alive but something is still having an experience then that means there’s possibly something non-physical about ourselves. A near death experience usually refers to an experience had by someone who, at the time, was clinically dead, or thought to be dead. After interviewing many patients who’d had NDEs, Doctor Raymond Moody and his student Bruce Greyson devised a list of features of a NDE which were similar for a lot of people, including: encountering a presence, seeing beautiful colours and the experience of being in a tunnel with a light at the end. This list provides a strength for using NDEs as evidence for the existence of a soul, since many people from all over the world have similar aspects to their NDEs and people have NDEs regardless of whether they’re religious or not.

While some people may think that NDEs are evidence for a soul, others may reject this idea and have alternate explanations for NDEs, such as Susan Blackmore’s ‘Dying Brain Theory’, which scientifically explains features of a NDE such as the tunnel of light and the feeling of warmth and being surrounded by love. According to Blackmore, the tunnel of light is due to the random firing of cells in the visual cortex and that the feeling of happiness is due to the brain releasing floods of endorphins to cope with the traumatic situation of dying. There is however one case challenges Blackmore’s theory, and that’s Pam Reynolds’ NDE; Reynolds was, at the time of her NDE, clinically dead and was being closely monitored in an operating theatre. But, although she was clinically dead she was still able to hear snippets of conversations and see the drill with which the surgeon was opening her skull, and after the operation she was able to recognise the surgeon (although she hadn’t seen him before) and could remember everything. This case challenges Blackmore’s theory because Reynolds was definitely clinically dead at the time and since nothing is supposed to be experienced by someone who’s clinically dead, then Blackmore’s theory doesn’t explain Reynolds’ experience. Also, the researcher Kenneth Ring carried out studies which found that when blind people had NDEs they could ‘see’ during an out of body experience, a find which strongly challenges scientific explanations.

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I don’t think I’d be particularly comforted by seeing a dark tunnel…

Another way to look at NDEs is from another scientific theory – Stuart Hameroff’s Quantum Consciousness theory, which essentially states that our consciousness exists at such a minute, quantum level, that during death and NDEs our consciousness somehow ‘leaks’ out of our brains to our surroundings and due to quantum entanglement, our aspects of our consciousness exist simultaneously in two different states and cannot cease to exist. Overall, the idea of using NDEs as supporting the existence of the soul can be mostly undermined by Blackmore’s Dying Brain Theory and Hameroff’s theory, since it appears as though most features of an NDE can be scientifically explained and that the Quantum Consciousness theory is perhaps a more plausible alternative to belief in a soul, although Ring’s findings remain difficult to explain or overcome.

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and atheist, also argues against the soul from a scientific and rationalist point of view, going against religious ideas that God gave humans souls to set them apart from animals and that if we lead good lives, our souls will go to heaven. Firstly, Dawkins sees nothing particularly special about humans as a species, and likes us to “survival machines”, meaning that our only purpose is to survive to pass on our DNA and genes. We’re merely built for survival and there is nothing physical or soul-like about us. Dawkins also states that there’s no “mystic jelly” within us and that we’re comprised merely of “bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information” which highlights his point that we’re merely machines, whose programming is within our DNA, and that we have no other special substance in us. With regards the emergence of consciousness, Dawkins explains that consciousness and self-awareness are both evolutionary beneficial traits and that, although self-awareness may have evolved within Homo sapiens, consciousness is perhaps also a by-product of a large brain. Due to this self-awareness, humans have been able to think about their actions and the consequences of their decisions, which involves being able to see ahead and predict the future. This feature of consciousness meant that humans were able to contemplate death and foresee the ending of their life – a prospect which wouldn’t have been too desirable. And so, as Dawkins says, religion and the belief in an immaterial, eternal soul developed in order to make death seem like a less horrible fate. Dawkins calls the idea of belief in the soul a meme and goes further to say that it’s part of a meme complex (a memeplex). A meme is a particular idea which starts out small but then gains weight as it grows in popularity, eventually resulting in that idea being passed down through generations to many more people, even though that idea wasn’t based on fact or evidence. And so, the idea of humans having a soul may have started out small, but then it gained popularity and the idea spread, resulting in the many people who believe the idea today. When Dawkins said the idea of having a soul is part of a memeplex, he meant that the soul meme is connected to many other memes – all of which are interconnected – within a memeplex. For example, within the Roman Catholic Church, the idea of having a soul is connected with the idea of heaven and with the idea that on Judgement Day, the righteous will be resurrected in new bodies. All these ideas are related to each other and are attractive prospects (all ensuring some kind of continued existence after death) and all these ideas together form the memeplex.

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Human evolution

Another aspect to Dawkins’ arguments is that the kind of soul people classically think of – this “mystic jelly” kind of soul, which Dawkins calls Soul 1 – is damaging to humanity. Soul 1 is the religious sort of soul – a soul which makes humans special and which separates us from other animals. This view of ourselves as higher than other creatures is damaging because it leads us to think that we’re separate from and perhaps even above nature. Also, Dawkins believes that humans can never reach their full potential as long as they believe in Soul 1 and he suggests that once humans reject the idea of Soul 1, it’ll be beneficial for humanity; we’ll cease to have this false higher image of ourselves and we’ll be able to come away from the restraints and prejudices of doctrine, altogether enabling humans to flourish and reach their full intellectual capacity.

Dawkins’ argument against the existence of the soul seems very plausible and strong, since his argument is based on scientific understanding of humans and it can be backed up by evidence, such as evolution and neuroscientist’s ability to map brain functions. Also, there’s no evidence for this “mystic jelly” that some people refer to as the soul and science supports the view that we’re purely physical beings, since things such as mentally degenerative diseases can affect our consciousness and how we behave to a large extent. Another strength of Dawkins’ argument is that the idea that belief in the soul is memetic is a highly plausible idea, since it’s easy to see how an idea such as the soul could catch on and gain popularity. However, Dawkins’ approach isn’t perfect and there are various weaknesses to his argument. Firstly, the terminology Dawkins uses – especially his use of the term “mystic jelly” – seems very dismissive and it makes it seem as though he’s merely trying to belittle the idea, rather than tackling it. Most Xns who believe in the soul would say that they don’t have such a simplistic dualist approach and that when Dawkins uses the term “mystic jelly” to illustrate the Xn view of the soul, he’s wrong. Another criticism which can be levelled at Dawkins along these lines is that because he’s a strong atheist and notoriously negative towards religion, he is perhaps biased and, when he refers to the fact that belief in the soul is damaging to humanity, he perhaps fails to see the positive aspects of religion in society, and only sees the negatives. Furthermore, it’s unproven that a non-religious society would necessarily be more compassionate and allow humans to flourish more.

Two Xn scholars, Jeeves and Polkinghorne, have re-evaluated what the soul is and how it’s related to our bodies. Jeeves, a neuroscientist and Xn, doesn’t believe that humans are made of two separate substances, but instead that humans are “unified beings” and he defines our souls as our ability to relate to God, other humans, and to all of creation. He also goes on to say, like Ryle, that humans don’t have a soul, but we are a soul. Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist and Xn, also somewhat agrees with Jeeves, as he says that humans are “package deals” – that our souls and bodies are closely related – but he then goes on to say that our souls are what defines us and gives us our individuality, since our souls are comprised of the pattern in which our matter is organised. When we die, even though our bodies will decay, God will remember the patterns of each soul and resurrect our souls in new bodies on Judgement Day. However, Polkinghorne and Dawkins seem to agree on one particular point; they both agree that the human mind has emerged as a product of evolution as the brain. But, while Dawkins proposes that this evolution was a purely natural process, Polkinghorne argues that it was God who gave the potentiality for the mind to develop, so that humans could have a relationship with God. Polkinghorne goes further to say that although we are made up of various atoms and particles, we are more than just mere matter and that when all our constituent atoms come to together to form us something seems to happen.

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Are well all just star dust, made up of atoms that are billions of years old?
That just makes me feel old already…

The weakness of Jeeves and Polkinghorne’s arguments are centred on the way they define the soul. For example, a weakness which arises from Jeeves’ argument is the question of whether people who can’t interact with God or who can’t properly interact with other people can still have souls. Atheists obviously don’t believe in God, so do they have souls? People with learning difficulties or certain mental illnesses can’t interact properly with other people, so does that mean they don’t have souls? A weakness related to Polkinghorne’s argument is that because he defines the soul as the pattern in which our matter is organised, that means that if someone is duplicated, or cloned, then their clone is potentially the same person. This then raises questions over our soul’s individuality and whether it’s possible to replicate someone exactly, which in turn raises further questions about personal identity.

Overall, I don’t believe that there is a separable substance of ourselves which is eternal and which can be described as any kind of a soul, since the evidence in support of humans having has largely been refuted and more scientific theories are mostly able to explain certain phenomena, such as NDEs, and theories such as Hameroff and Dawkins’ are more plausible and are based on scientific evidence and fact. I think that, despite the weaknesses of Dawkins’ argument, the theory and ideas he puts forward are the best explanation for the emergence of the idea of the soul and human consciousness and although I agree with Jeeves from the point of view that we are unified beings, I don’t agree that our “soul” can be defined as our ability to relate to God, other humans or creation. It’s difficult to come to any definite conclusion about the nature and existence of the soul since I think the main problem lies in defining what “soul” means. Until scholars and philosophers come to agreement over what the definition of a “soul” is, I think it’ll remain impossible to reach any kind of resolution.

4 thoughts on “The Soul: What is it and Do we Have it?

  1. If I want to know if a car exists, I must first have a good, working description of a car so that I know if I’ve found one. If I want to know if a soul exists I must have a good working definition of a soul.

    I don’t, therefore the concept is literally nonsense.

    Barring some figurative senses of the term, of course.

  2. I stumbled across this entry and, in case of interest, thought you might find this interesting in its discussion of the ‘soul’, amongst other concepts:

    ” Let us look at the grammar of ethical terms, and such terms as “God”, “soul”, “mind”, “concrete”, “abstract”. One of the chief troubles is that we take a substantive to correspond to a thing. Ordinary grammar does not forbid our using a substantive as though it stood for a physical body. The words “soul” and “mind” have been used as though they stood for a thing, a gaseous thing. “What is the soul?” is a misleading question, as are questions about the words concrete and abstract”, which suggests an analogy with solid and gaseous instead of with a chair and with permission to sit on a chair. Another muddle consists in using the phase “another kind” after the analogy of “a different kind of chair”, e.g., that transfinite numbers are another kind of number than rationals, or unconscious thoughts a different kind of thought from conscious ones. The difference in the case of the latter pair is not analogous to that between a chair we see and a chair we don’t see. The word “thought” is used differently when prefaced by these adjectives. What happens with the words “God” and “soul” is what happens with the word “number”. Even though we give up explaining these words ostensively, by pointing, we don’t give up explaining them in substantival terms. The reason people say that a number is a scratch on a blackboard is the desire to point to something. No sort of process of pointing is connected with explaining “number”, any more than it is with explaining “permission to sit in a seat in a theatre”.
    Luther said that theology is the grammar of the word “God”. I interpret this to mean that an investigation of the word would be a grammatical one. For example, people might dispute about how many arms God had, and someone might enter the dispute by denying that one could talk about arms of God. This would throw light on the use of the word.* What is ridiculous or blasphemous also shows the grammar of the word.’”

    Ryle, who you mentioned above, would be the closest of those mentioned to the ideas expressed here. This is an excerpt from the lecture notes of a Cambridge University student in the 1930s.

    • That’s very interesting, thank you. We’re actually studying religious language in Philosophy right now and it’s my favourite topic because it’s just so fascinating. I think Luther’s point that you mentioned is very interesting – that theology is the grammar of the word “God”. Personally I see a lot of overlap with Wittgenstein, but that may be complicating things :)

      • Wittgenstein was the Professor conducting the lecture, in fact.

        My blog actually, and very sadly, is pretty much solely concerned with a Wittgensteinian perspective on these topics. The student was Alice Ambrose, by the way.

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