From our religious, literary or poetic sources we get a picture of human reality that places the soul as an essential part of being human . This is also the view of our various religious cultures in the West: all persons have a soul.
This traditional belief holds that there is more to human existence than the functioning of a biological organism, that a person alive is more than a body alive. This something “more” is expressed in terms of a soul, or spirit, “alma,” “ánima,” “psyche” or life force. In line with this, many religious traditions assume that the ultimate nature of human existence is spiritual rather than corporeal, thus implying that our soul, not our body, comprises our essential being. This was also the teaching of the ancient Greeks, Socrates and Plato.
Early in people’s attempts to understand human reality, this view might have simply been a way of answering the question ‘What moves the body?’ Here the assumption was that a body could not move itself. (Thus people posited “the ghost in the machine,” as the 20th century British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, expressed it.)
After this, we can speculate that the human tendency to place high value on human existence reinforced the assumption of a soul, that “higher” aspect of human existence.
Being humans we assign very high value to human existence, which leads some to the belief that only the soul (or something like the soul) can express this high value. (This is analogous to a similar view of theism. People cannot understand how our existence can have any meaning unless we assume that there is a God who gives it meaning.)
The result is that many people in our traditional culture find it very difficult to imagine human existence without a soul, just as many of the same people find it most difficult to imagine our world devoid of a deity. Accordingly, then, many people reject the scientific view that humans are essentially physical, biological beings —naturally evolved animals. Traditionally we tend to presuppose that humans are essentially spiritual beings, created in the image of God. In some cases this is a religious, metaphysical assumption; in other cases, it is simply a way of expressing the high value we ascribe to human existence.
It is not surprising, then, that those who promote religions have a receptive audience when they claim that possession of an eternal soul and our status as God’s special creatures show that we are categorically distinct from the natural animal order. In this context, it is easy to see why many of the fundamentalist religions feel so threatened by atheism, evolutionary naturalism and philosophical materialism.
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As a rational skeptic I tend to dismiss all this ‘soul’ and ‘god’ talk as cultural myth and religious fantasy. But maybe we should not hastily dismiss all this as childish fantasy; for what we see here could be a deep-seated tendency of the human psyche, a primitive need for a meaningful ‘picture’ of reality, the positing of value and the need for reassurance.
The concepts of ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ are similar in some ways, but also markedly different. People usually use the term ‘soul’ in a religious, poetic fashion, and assume that the soul is immortal. Normally we do not think of our mind as immortal, unless mind is identified with the soul. Both terms are vague or ambiguous. We know in a general, loose sense what people mean by them, but would have difficulty giving good definitions of either.
It may be that “soul” and “god” are just ways that we tend to talk, reflecting ways we think about human existence and the world. Neither term is a scientific term. Meanings that people attach to them vary so much that any careful discourse in which they are used should be preceded by a stipulated, working definition of the terms.
Suppose that someone claims that as a matter of fact people do possess souls. What evidence could he give to support his claim? On the other hand, generally we accept the claim that people have minds, although there are no grounds for claiming that the mind can exist independently of the brain functions.
“Soul” lingo is the talk of those who cannot accept the idea that human beings are (merely) biological entities, the result of natural evolutionary processes. Like all life, human life is based on physical and chemical processes. However, many people cannot give up the idea that humans are more than biological, physical entities, and cling to the idea that humans have an essential spiritual or non-material aspect. (This is different from but analogous to the Cartesian dualism which assumes a ‘mental’ nature distinct from our corporeal nature.)
“Soul” can also be seen as a term belonging to a family of terms, e.g., spirit, mind, free-will-as-a-faculty, and such. These terms express a dualistic view of human existence. Accordingly, humans are seen as having dual natures, corporeal and spiritual. This is compatible with the religious idea that humans are connected to the higher, spiritual realm associated with God and eternal life.
Those looking on from the orientation of the natural sciences and critical philosophy will find (in soul talk) very little that is grounded in fact or anything that is terribly, rationally compelling. But maybe that is not the point of “soul” talk.