Examining the Unexamined: The Soul

Related to the question of the afterlife I talked about a few weeks ago are the questions about the soul. Specifically, does it exist, and if so, what is it?

Does the soul exist? I don’t know. I’ve occasionally had experiences that seem to indicate that it does, but then, I’ve also had experiences that demonstrate that consciousness is certainly at least partially chemical in nature, and possibly entirely so. It’s here that the soul bumps up against our definitions of mind, of consciousness and even of free will. We know that consciousness exists (even solipsism and simulationism posit the existence of at least one consciousness). We know that mind exists, but not entirely what it is – and for that same reason, we cannot say for sure that free will exists.

Now we’re into thornier ground, because different folks disagree about whether or not free will is a necessity for the existence of souls, or whether the soul can exist in the absence of free will. If you believe in predestination, for example, you most likely believe in souls, but not free will (although if you’re like most people, you still react emotionally – in terms of credit and blame for one’s deeds – as if you and other people did have free will).

I personally cannot separate soul and consciousness – hell, I can’t separate mind and body as neatly as Descartes did (I think there’s a flaw in his premises that makes the rest of his reasoning suspect). But consciousness, from the available evidence, appears to be an emergent property of the human body. It does require the right environment, particularly in terms of nutrition and culture, to emerge at all – but all humans possess it in potentio.

The soul is much harder to judge. I find the Christian notion of the soul to be an unlikely proposition – if anything, I tend to agree with Monty Python:

Matter is energy. In the universe there are several kinds of energy, including those which act upon a person’s soul. However, this soul does not exist ab initio as orthodox Catholicism teaches, but must be brought into existence by a process of guided self-examination. Unfortunately, this is very rarely acheived due to mankind’s incredible proclivity for being distracted from spiritual matters by pointless trivia.

It occurs to me upon closer thought that the soul is here used a term to denote a form of consciousness expansion – as such, I’d prefer to think of it in terms of the Leary eightfold model of consciousness (which allows for ‘higher’ states of consciousness but requires no supernatural explanations), in which case ‘the soul’ is simply the term used for the higher circuits of the Leary model. Not that I regard that model as anything more than a theory, either.

To conclude then, I cannot state what the soul is with any certainty, but I do have certain firm beliefs about what it is not, which are primarily based on decades old and largely untestable psychological theories. Hh.

Examining the Un-Examined: The Afterlife

In many ways, this is the big question of belief. Not the existence of God or gods, but the existence of the afterlife strikes me as harder to prove or disprove. After all, Zeus Panhellenios could manifest tomorrow and that would prove something – but the undiscovered country is going to remain undiscovered until after death.

So it comes down to gut instinct, really. There’s no real way, so far as I can tell, to prove or disprove the existence of any afterlife from this side of the grave. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of it can’t inform moral judgements.

My opposition to the death penalty, for example, is partially based on not being able to tell whether this life is all we have or not. If it is, then there could be few things as immoral as killing as a punishment – particularly given the possibility of wrongful convictions. (If there is an afterlife, I would still potentially have moral issues with it, because my standards of justice differ dramatically from those of the medieval and pre-medieval minds that devised all these afterlives.)

The conditions for entry to various afterlives that I am aware of are all, without exception, restrictive and discriminatory – not that that’s all bad. Many of them seem to act as a filtering system for people I would prefer not to spend eternity with (Valhalla springs to mind, as does wherever suicide bombers think they’re going to go and those particular Heavens favoured by some born-again Christian sects in which getting to watch other people being tortured in Hell is part of the attraction). But the arbitrary nature of the restrictions, coupled with the punitive conditions most afterlife systems impose on those who don’t qualify, really, really disturb me – and in many cases, act as an encouragement to behaviour I consider immoral in this world.

Moreover, if the afterlife that existed were to be the of the kind depicted in many modern religions, it would actually make a mockery of the beliefs in question. Because the whole presummption of so many faithful that religion is required for morality is a flawed idea in any case, resting as it does on the idea that it is somehow more moral to behave in a decent fashion in the hope of receiveing a future bribe than just because it’s the right thing to do. For that very reason, I find myself hoping that there isn’t such an afterlife.

Examining the Un-Examined: Tarot

As an agnostic, I’m comfortable – mostly – with the idea that there are things I can’t explain. It saves me a lot of time and effort. I can see where, to some people, that sounds like the classic lazy agnostic stereotype, but in my case, it’s more accurate to describe it as a way to let my brain off the hamster wheel it would otherwise be on. For that matter, it’s not like I decide that any of these things are permanently unexplainable – I try to check back in on the latest advances every so often, especially in physics and cosmology – merely that I cannot explain them at this time. I fully expect that in some future, more advanced and complicated state of ignorance than the one I currently possess, I will be able to explain some of these things to a greater extent than I can in my current state of ignorance.

One of the things I can’t explain is the Tarot. I have theories about it, but I don’t literally believe that it can predict the future. At least, I don’t think I do. It may be more accurate to say that I don’t believe it in my mind – my heart may be entirely another matter, although at this time, I can’t say for sure.

I do regard Tarot decks as a specific art form, one related most closely to painting, but also partaking greatly of a body of legend, ritual and precedent to inform the paintings. And it makes sense to me to ascribe personality to particular Tarot decks, in the same way that one can ascribe personality to works of literature or music – it’s the personality of the creator and of the creation. That much makes sense to me, and I will testify on a stack of Neal Stephenson novels that the four decks I own each have a distinct personality in this sense.

Beyond that? The tarot is a collection of archetypes (or rather, of constellations of archetypes, because each card has a symbolism that goes far beyond any single archetype), and as such, I do find it a useful basis as a prompt for thinking through problems. It provokes thoughts that I might not otherwise reach, forcing me to examine a situation through its lens rather than mine.

Wow, that sounds pat and rationalist, doesn’t it? Almost defensively so, in fact. I can honestly say that when I sit down to interpret a tarot reading, I don’t think of it that way past the initial decision to do the reading. But perhaps that’s not so bad. Perhaps, like a song or a fuck, it’s simply an experience you must surrender rational thought for the duration of, and emerge later with the experience and the wisdom, neither of which can be easily put into words. (Or maybe that’s just another rationalisation, but that way lies the hamster wheel I mentioned above.)

On the basis of all that, I see no conflict between my agnosticism and my tarot use. And were the efficacy of the tarot to be proven, there would even less conflict, for then it would simply be science.

And that’s an examination for another day and another post.

How Do I Know if Richard Dawkins is Real?

Do I seriously believe that Richard Dawkins exists? Well, most of the time, sure. It’s just that, every so often, he seems like a bad parody of an atheist rather than an actual one. Which got me wondering, what if there is no real Richard Dawkins? How would I know? And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that, as an agnostic, I really couldn’t tell.

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Agnosticism vs Solipsism

This might seem like a weird one – a religious position vs a philosophical one – but bear with me. To me, agnosticism is a philosophy, and one that contributes to my code of ethics (although that’s not something I intend to go into today). Because Solipsism poses a particular problem to agnostics, for one very simple reason. But first, to define my terms.

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They’re on a mission from God

The world of the Blues Brothers presents an interesting challenge to the agnostic, at least as a thought experiment.

As a great fan of the movie, I have long stated that I would cheerfully attend any church that was as much fun to go to as the Triple Rock Baptist Church. And let’s face it, you probably would too – a free James Brown performance once a week (or perhaps more often) is nothing to sneeze at. Continue reading

Asking the next question

Before I sat down to write this piece, I chanced to re-read Steven Grant and Scott Bieser’s brilliant graphic novel Odysseus The Rebel.

I mention this because it’s one of the few works I’ve read that really makes a big deal out of the aggressive apatheism of its title character. For Ulysses is indeed an apatheist – and given that the gods do have a verifiable existence within his story, something of a maltheist also, but it’s the former that concerns me here.
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The Best Lack All Conviction…

William Butler Yeats lived in Ireland most of his life. Born in 1865 and dying in 1939, he was raised a Protestant in a land that was increasingly militant in its Catholicism for most of his life. He had a fascination with the occult, and with the legends of Eire. He was a skilled astrologer, and also interested in the more mystical side of Christianity.

It’s hard, therefore, to say what he believed in. The arc of his spiritual evolution is too complex, and resists easy summation.
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Science and Atheism

One of my greatest problems with atheists – in fact, probably my single greatest problem with atheists – is that for a bunch of people who make a lot of noise about being scientific, but tend to fall rather short of that not terribly elusive state. Let me show what I mean.
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Battling Fundamentalisms

I have on occasion likened the extreme assurance that certain high profile atheists seem to feel about the rightness of their beliefs to the fundamentalism of many of those on the more theist side of the equation. And I make no apology for the fact that I probably spend more time arguing against atheists than theists here – in fact, I regard that as a major part of this series of posts.

But there’s a limit to that. The differences between atheist fundamentalism and theist fundamentalism are somewhat more significant than the differences between, for example facist totalitarianism and communist totalitarianism. For instance, of these four ideologies, atheist fundamentalism has by far the best human rights record.
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St Thomas the Apostle – proto-agnostic?

The man best known to history as “Doubting Thomas” might seem an unlikely choice for the title of agnostic. And yet, there’s little in his story to suggest that he wasn’t. But to explain that, it’s necessary to clear up a common misconception about agnosticism.

The classic idea of the agnostic is of a person who is indecisive and cannot commit to any one belief. Some interpretations (not those made by actual agnostics) are based on the idea that agnostics are forbidden to believe.

That’s an oversimplification. Agnostics are not forbidden to believe – we simply choose not to believe without proof. Now, if your entire belief system is based on belief without proof, I can see where this is a fine distinction that may seem unimportant to you. But the story of St Thomas is an excellent illustration of how important it can be.

Thomas is mentioned only one time each in the Gospels of Luke (3:18), Mark (6:15) and Matthew (10:3) – and in each of them, it is in a listing of the calling of the twelve apostles. Only in the Gospel of John does he get much time on stage.

His first mention is in John 11:16, when he persuades the other apostles to go with Jesus to resurrect Lazarus. Interestingly, it’s Jesus who in this story wants the apostles to witness the miracle so that they will have proof.

Next, in John 14:5, Thomas tells Jesus that despite his assurances to them, the apostles do not know what will happen to anyone after death. Jesus responds with a complex explanation of how the afterlife works, and no more is said on the subject. (In Australian political terms, Thomas fed Jesus a dixer here.)

Finally, in chapter 20, there is the story for which Thomas is best known, when Jesus begins appearing to people after his resurrection, and Thomas keeps missing him. It would qualify as a running gag if it were better told. Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus has come back from the dead – not an unreasonable position, although given that he has already seen Jesus resurrect Lazarus, and the lack of any history showing the apostles playing practical jokes on each other, his doubt is somewhat obdurate. One gets the impression it has less to do with rigid adherence to proof and more with feeling left out.

In any case, Jesus finally appears, and tells Thomas to examine his scars – and how I love that every analysis I can find makes a point of mentioning that it is not clear whether or not Thomas touches the scars, because touching scars is, y’know, icky and all. Thomas does, and is convinced, and Jesus reverses his earlier position on proving resurrections, telling Tom that he should have believed without proof.

So, given all this, why do I think Thomas can be seen as an agnostic? First, he wants to see the miracle for himself when Lazarus is resurrected. Next, he is the only one to point out that no man knows what the afterlife is like. And finally, of course, he demands proof of the resurrection of Jesus. In the first and third cases, it’s made clear that he believes after seeing. In the second, it’s less clear what he believes, but the fact that Jesus successfully predicted his own return to life surely lends credence to his other remarks on the subject.

And despitethe remarks made by Jesus about belief without proof, it’s clear that requiring proof for one’s beliefs is no disqualification for sainthood. St Thomas may not be the most popular of the saints, but there is still no shortage of churches named for him. By implication, the church does have a place for those who adhere to a higher standard of evidential proof – although there’s very few Christian sects who’d come out and say so.

There is, and need be, no contradiction between doubt and belief – they can be seen as the absence and presence of proof, respectively – and as such, I think it’s no great stretch to claim St Thomas the Doubter as a proto-agnostic.

The Soft Option

One of the criticisms I hear about agnosticism is that it’s a soft option. That despite agnostic rhetoric regarding the search for truth and so on, most agnostics aren’t searching very hard.

There’s certainly an element of truth in that. I don’t know any agnostic whose entire life is devoted to the search for truth.

But then, I don’t know anyone else whose life is either. After all, if you’re atheist or a theist, you believe that you already know the truth (despite the lack of any verifiable proof). Why would you need to keep searching for it when you already know it? (Particularly if you’ve got this fun double-standard to apply.)

And even if you did struggle with it in making that decision, if you had doubts about your faith before you committed to it, or you committed to your faith and then had doubts about it later, the odds are that you spent less time in that search for truth than an agnostic the same age as you has.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that agnostics are like Argus, with an unsleeping gaze that misses nothing. We’re human. We have our failures, misunderstandings and lazinesses like the rest of you.

But what we don’t have is the close-mindedness necessary to reject new claims or new evidence out of hand. Agnosticism no more requires nothing but searching than theism requires nothing but prayer. It does require an open mind, one that does not race to judgement, and one that admits to and corrects error when it occurs.


The most common characterisation of agnostics that I’ve come across, from both theists and atheists, is that agnostics are simply indecisive. (Rather amusingly, Richard Dawkins mentions this in “The God Delusion” – it seems that this is the one part of the Christian dogma he was taught in school that he has inexplicably failed to subject to his normal heroic scorn.) There is an overall sense that agnostics are somehow weak-willed, pusillanimous folk who really just need to show some backbone.

As if standing up to this pressure from both sides to make a decision – any decision being better than none, apparently – did not require considerable backbone.

We’re all familiar with managers and politicians who need to be seen to be making decisions, leading to an endless and pointless stream of changed decisions. The usual cure proposed is that they should make up their minds once and for all. (The idea that persisting in an error might well be worse than not making a decision – Iraq, anyone? – seems just a foreign.)

Let me ask you something: Why?

Why is it so important to make a decision, now, today, before all the facts are in? Generally speaking, in this life, anyone who wants you to do that is selling something – and hiding some nasty surprises in the small print. That’s what I would assume about any salesman or politician who tried to it on – why should I assume any differently just ‘cos it’s a preacher talking?

But let’s assume good faith (so to speak) on the part of those pushing us to make this decision.

I think they suffer from a failure of the imagination.

They don’t seem able to see that there might be more information on which to base decisions later on. They don’t want to admit that there will probably be more options to choose among if the decision is delayed (despite the fact that even the most cursory glance at religious history will show that there will most likely be some new splinter faith formed in the next five minutes or so).

Most insultingly, they don’t seem willing to acknowledge that choosing not to choose is a valid (or in extreme cases of this narrow-mindedness, a possible) choice.