Reflections on our “Soul” talk

By | February 18, 2011

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.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on our “Soul” talk

  1. Firooz R. Oskooi

    We also must define science. Does science or biology deny God or soul? If we think critically we see that sciences limit themselves to specific subjects and only concentrate on what is available in that subject objectively . The rest belongs to philosophy. There are ample reasons in philosophy that rational soul exists. Since accident cannot be the source of order, then the order in and around us in universe must have an intelligent source. That Source and its creation is everlasting and unlimited and definitely beyond our assesment, science, and limited mind. Science is incapable of telling a painter what to paint, devise moral codes, or try to rationalize love, self sacrifice, faithfulness, courage, rightiousness or find a meaning to life. That is why we need spiritual norms and laws which can only be done by Divine Manifestations for each period of our growth.

  2. john mize

    John Hick presents a strong case (which I find rationally compelling) for the reality of the spiritual realm. In his book The Fifth Dimension he states, "As well as being intelligent animals we are also 'spiritual' beings. This is a vague term which is often defined in equally vague terms. I am using it here to refer to a fifth dimension of our nature which enables us to respond to a fifth dimension of the universe. In this aspect of our being we are . . . either continuous with, or akin to and in tune with, the ultimate reality that underlies, interpenetrates and transcends the physical universe." (p. 2)

  3. philosophylnge

    Reply to the first comment: the natural sciences are not in the business of denying the reality of a god or of soul. But the procedures, methods, and "spirit" of the natural sciences omit such questionable entities, along with omitting the existence of spirits, ghosts, goblins, and any of the countless mythical creatures that the human imagination and cultures create. Surely, any understanding of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection — the overarching theory for all the biological sciences — discloses that soul and a spiritual creator are extraneous elements in the evolutionary sciences. They simply are not part of the scientific account of the evolution of humans.

    Re. the second comment: John, I have not looked at the work by Hick which you mention. I'm sure it is interesting in its own right; but as you well know, there are many philosophies and 'theories' of human reality which either assume or attempt to make a rational case for the spiritual aspect (spiritual essence?) of human beings. I find this interesting, not because any make a compelling case for soul, but because they disclose how ingenious the human mind and human imagination can be. It is a wonderful world of many, many human creations: gods, mythical beings, mythical worlds, transcendent explanations, etc. etc.


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