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.