BY HARRIS BOR 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?
Can we still believe in a soul?
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We might then be forgiven for viewing the idea of the soul as an outdated concept that a scientific understanding of the brain has overtaken, which, unlike earlier conceptions, can properly explain all the above states.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 programmes running on the brain’s hardware. The interaction between these various programmes is what gives rise to self-reflection and consciousness.
There is no need for a soul, or any other immaterial reality, to explain our inner worlds.
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.
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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 endeavour, 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.”
The philosopher David Chalmers describes the problem of consciousness as the “hard problem.” 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.
These thinkers assert ideas that leave room for something beyond mere matter, ideas we might once have associated with the term “soul”.
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. Most specifically, it highlights that there are events that humans experience better than research scientists who observe behaviour 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 behaviour), I have an additional way of knowing about them other than those available to the best student of my behaviour or brain; I actually experience them. Consequently, they must be distinct from brain events, or any other physical events.”
Others take exception to such a conclusion, preferring instead to root consciousness in the physical body while recognising 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. —Online