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Can We Still Believe in a Soul?
Is there really any such thing as a soul? If so, what's the evidence for it? And if not, is it time to let it go?
by Harris Bor
There are serious issues with the traditional idea of a soul. The first is that it seems almost impossible to locate or define. The soul is sometimes thought of as the “real you,” but where does this “you” reside? Behind the eyes, in your brain, scattered across your body? Also, what does the soul comprise? Reason, character, feeling, simple awareness, self-reflection, qualia (the subjective conscious experiences that make my experiences mine and your experiences yours), memory, perception, thinking? All or none of the above?
Discussions on the soul found in religious sources provide little direction here. Medieval Jewish views on the soul, such as those espoused by Sadia Gaon (882-942), Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), or the Kabbalists, do not offer a single agreed-upon view, tend to rely on ideas found in the ancient Greeks, and appear alien to modern views of the self with which we are familiar.
We might then be forgiven for viewing the idea of the soul as an outdated concept that a scientific understanding of the brain has overtaken, which, unlike earlier conceptions, can properly explain all the above states. However, a brief dip into current thinking on the self shows how far we are from reaching such a proper explanation.
Daniel Dennett is a modern champion of physicalism (or materialism), the belief that everything in the world involves physical processes and can be explained by reference to them. In “Consciousness Explained” (1991), Dennett depicts the mind as multi-layered computer programs running on the brain’s hardware. The interaction between these various programs is what gives rise to self-reflection and consciousness.
Physicalist views like this claim that matter is the only substance and that the brain and mind are the same thing. Every state within the human being, such as pleasure or pain, is caused by the firing of our neurons in particular ways and other physical processes. Once we investigate these physical properties sufficiently, we will come to understand the causes and mechanisms which give rise to consciousness. There is no need for a soul, or any other immaterial reality, to explain our inner worlds.
The attraction of physicalism is its promise to deliver based on the tried and tested methods of empirical science without resorting to magical thinking. There is, however, something missing in this endeavor, namely a recognition that our investigations of the world force us, not so much into magical thinking, but a profound sense of awe at the mysterious nature of our rich inner lives, which are reluctant to give up their secrets. There are indeed many philosophers and scientists who do not think that physicalism holds all the answers. These thinkers assert ideas that leave room for something beyond mere matter, ideas we might once have associated with the term “soul.”
Unsplash.com, Ahmad Odeh
The philosopher David Chalmers describes the problem of consciousness as the “hard problem.” 1 The “easy problem” (which may not actually be that easy) describes what happens in the brain when we think and feel. The hard problem is how to account for the relationship between that physical process and our inner experience. How do physical phenomena give rise to thoughts, emotions, and all the other internal states we experience? Where are these inner experiences stored? How are they formed into a coherent whole, and how are they retrieved and ruminated upon? Science seems to be far from providing answers to these questions.
Richard Swinburne, a fellow of the British Academy and Emeritus Professor at Oxford University, thinks the hard problem presents a serious challenge to the physicalist conception outlined above. 2 Most specifically, it highlights that there are events that humans experience better than research scientists who observe behavior or inspect brains. Swinburne puts it like this: “My sensations, for example — my having a red after-image or a smell of roast beef or feeling a pain — are such that, while I can learn about them in the same ways as others do (by inspecting my brain-state or studying a film of my behavior), I have an additional way of knowing about them other than those available to the best student of my behavior or brain; I actually experience them. Consequently, they must be distinct from brain events, or any other physical events.” 3 (emphasis added)
Others take exception to such a conclusion, preferring instead to root consciousness in the physical body while recognizing consciousness as something distinct from it. Panpsychists, for example, hold that matter contains consciousness. The more complex a system, the more consciousness it has. Physical entities, therefore, are composed of both mental and physical aspects. Numerous philosophers have been associated with this way of thinking, from Thales in ancient Greece to early modern philosophers such as Benedict Spinoza (1632–77) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), to modern philosophers, most notably Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). An alternative account is “emergent dualism” (associated with the American Philosopher, William Hasker). This idea considers the mind to be distinct from the brain but claims that the former causally generates the latter. 4
Swinburne is critical of views like the above because they do not tell us the whole story of the mind. They can tell us about which material entities exist and the mental and physical properties associated with them, but they cannot give an account of what it feels like to be an “I” separate and distinct from the rest of the world. In place of what he calls “soft materialism,” Swinburne opts for a traditional dualist view of the soul as something distinct from the body. This view is most strongly associated in the modern period with René Descartes (1596–1650). Swinburne relies on evidence that identity can survive the removal of one of the two hemispheres of the human brain to argue that we are not our brains. He makes the same point by engaging in gruesome thought experiments involving the cutting and splicing of parts of the brains of different people. The “I,” he maintains, is distinct from these conglomerations. 5
While objections can be raised against all philosophical views of the self, the current thinking on these issues and my own inner experience provide me with good reason to believe that we are more than the sum of our physical parts. However, I also trust in science to advance our
understanding of the mind and am prepared to follow it wherever it might lead.
How then do I deal with traditional religious conceptions of the soul? Should such models be assigned to the trash heap of intellectual history while we wait for science to do its work, or do they still hold some meaning to us? I think the latter. Traditional ideas of the soul are varied and capable of accommodating almost any modern conception of consciousness and the self. Some describe a detailed psychology, while others view the soul as something very fine and inscrutable. 6 Some views associate the soul closely with the body. 7 Others do not. 8 Some accounts treat the soul as a unity. Others see it as comprising several aspects. 9 There is room to pick and choose and modify, but I see two features that stand out as a message to our own times.
The first is the conviction that the human being (and all creation) reflects some higher essence-divinity. This conviction is rooted in the description of God breathing life into Adam (Genesis 2:7) and given vigor by Plato and his followers. It frames the belief in the dignity of every person and calls us to act with compassion and justice. It points to the possibility of experiencing a state which transcends thought or emotion. It also speaks of a trust that God is close at hand and has our back.
The second feature is the primacy of virtue and ethical concerns. For our forebears, knowledge of the soul is not just about scientific curiosity but wanting to understand what makes us tick so we can overcome those things which distract us from our goals and harness our powers for good.
Knowledge exists to serve virtue. These are powerful takeaways to sustain us as we continue to grapple with that which lies within.
Featured image: Unsplash.com, Doug Kelley
Chalmers, D. J. 1995. “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2: 200-19.
Swinburne, R. "Body and Soul." Think: Philosophy for Everyone 2, no. 5 (2003): 31-35.
Hasker, W. “Persons as Emergent Substances.” Soul, Body, and Survival: Essays on the Metaphysics of Human Persons, ed. Corcoran, and Corcoran, Kevin (Cornell, 2018).
Swinburne, R., 34-35.
Moses Maimonides, Eight Chapters, Ch 1- “It [the soul] has many different activities”; Ch 3 “The virtues are states of the soul…”: Saadia Gaon. Sefer ha-Emunot v-Deot (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions), Sixth Treatise – “The substance of the soul in its purity is like the heavenly spheres… it attains its brightness from the light it receives from God….” Note also Maimonides’ Introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:3: “Just as a blind man cannot imagine colour, or a deaf person sound, or a eunuch sex, so, too, the body cannot understand the pleasure of the soul.”
In one place, the Zohar proposes three grades of soul Nefesh (vitality), Ruach (spirit) and Neshamah (soul) (205b-206a). In another, two further aspects are included; Yechida (unity) and Chaya (life) (Zohar II, 158b (Raya Meheimma).
About Harris Bor
Harris Bor is a Research Fellow and Lecturer at the London School of Jewish Studies and English barrister (trial advocate) specializing in international arbitration and commercial litigation. He holds a PhD in theology from Cambridge University, is a rabbinic scholar with the Montefiore Endowment, and has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University and University College London. His book: “Staying Human: A Jewish Theology for the Age of Artificial Intelligence” was published in 2021.