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Soul

The soul is a staple of virtually every known religion, and religion itself would actually be pretty pointless without it.

In early religions, the soul was a basic and largely unstated assumption, since your body would obviously just sit around on its ass unless a soul was giving it directions. In fact, that was pretty much the definition of the soul -- that thing which told your body how to act. It was simple. Life was good. Predictably, humanity couldn't leave well enough alone and began overthinking the concept.

As It Was In The Beginning

For millennia, it was generally assumed that souls continued to exist after death. One possible reason for this is that early civilized people may have actually heard their dead ancestors speaking to them. According to the landmark study "The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," there is a strong body of evidence (both biological and archaeological) to suggest that until very recently, the two hemispheres of the human brain worked independently of each other.

All that is a very intellectual way to say our ancestors probably heard voices in their heads. According to Julian Jaynes, author of the once-controversial study, human consciousness may have existed in this bifurcated state until just a few millennia ago. Jaynes says that early temples and tombs were structured to help encourage the "bicameral" voices to speak. People then interpreted these voices as the spirits of their ancestors or as the voices of the gods.

With such a visceral proof, it's little wonder that the concept of the soul went unchallenged for thousands of years, although the nature of the beast was at times hotly debated. However, as human mental structures became more sophisticated and their neural networks learned how to negotiate between right and left hemispheres, the voices began to recede and eventually became the aberration rather than the rule.

In Eastern religions, the soul (or rather its approximate equivalent, translated as "subtle mind") was considered a sort of raw material, without an inherent personal identity, which is consistent with the broader spiritual practices of religions like Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Under this world view, when an individual dies, their soul is reintegrated into the great oneness of the universe and subsequently returned to earth in a new form.

In the Mesopotamian-Sumerian-Egyptian tradition which eventually gave birth to Judaism and Christianity, the definition of the soul went from an inarticulate assumption to the sense of individual identity, finally becoming (more or less) a modern synonym for "mind" or "consciousness."

Once the concept of the soul is articulated, regardless of the surrounding theology, the paramount question becomes the afterlife. Almost every form of religion contains some form of judgment that influences the soul's journey after death. In the East, the karma earned during life affects the form in which an individual is reincarnated. In the Western scheme, God lays the smack down on recently-deceased souls and sends them to Heaven or Hell (or one of a handful of alternatives, such as Purgatory or Limbo, offered for morally ambiguous cases).

During the Renaissance, theologians and scholars went through a series of fairly clever and completely erroneous theories about the science behind the soul, considering such issues as "What does a soul weigh?" or "Is it a solid, liquid or gas?" or "What color is it?" Almost no one gave any thought to the basic question of whether there was a soul in the first place, nor to the basic abstracted concept of its nature as the quintessential "self."

...As It Is Now...

Around the time of the Enlightenment, a train of secular humanism left the station and careened ahead at breakneck speed right through the Industrial Revolution and into the Atomic Age. Science was on the rise, and the soul fared poorly.

What was that damn thing anyway? Despite folk tales and urban legends, you can't weigh it. You can't locate it in the body. You can't touch it. You can't prove it continues to exist after death. In scientific terms, it was a phantasm. Unable to prove the positive, a growing body of skeptics took the lack of measurable evidence as proof of the negative.

The soul as a concept, like God before it, was declared dead by a growing percentage of the population, and especially by the intellectual, scientific and medical communities, who have a tendency to dominate media reports and history books.

But the idea of the soul was destined to rise again.

And Ever Shall Be...

The first step toward saving the soul was, in many ways, strictly semantic. It had to do with the definition of mind and consciousness, two concepts with which the idea of soul had become inextricably linked.

Part of the function of science through the Industrial Revolution had been reductionist: scientists were mostly concerned with breaking things down into their smallest parts. This was considered the best way to learn about what makes things tick.

But during the early Twentieth century, physicists started to realize that life was a lot more complicated than that. For instance, you could take a human brain and dissect it down to its neurons, but that provided very little insight into the brain's primary functions, including the production of thought. Even though it couldn't be measured or seen, everyone agreed that the mind was a real phenomenon.

The same mechanics applied to things like emotions, which were not measurable phenomena. You just kind of know them when you experience them, and they appear to arise out of complex systems without being simply the sum of that system's functions. In other words, a functioning brain couldn't account for the mind it supported, even though the two were believed to be related.

Everyone was really stressed out about all this until someone cleverly came up with the theory of "emergence," calling the results of emergence "emergent properties." Mind was an emergent property of the brain, and consciousness an emergent property of mind.

None of this required a soul in any meaningful sense. In fact, it didn't really even require a particularly stringent definition of consciousness. Quick -- give a concrete definition of what consciousness means in 10 words or less... Quick, quick, quick... Didn't think you could.

But science wasn't quite done.

You see, at the same time all this was going on, a bunch of rocket scientists -- literally -- were coming up with quantum physics. One tenet of quantum physics, grossly simplified, requires that in order for anything to exist, it has to be observed by a conscious mind. Whatever that is.

Suddenly, the race was back on to rediscover the soul. Although many scientists still bristle at the term, the definitions for mind and consciousness being bandied about were increasingly metaphysical, as were their ramifications. One valid way to look at the quantum puzzle (again grossly oversimplified) is to say that consciousness creates reality. You don't get much more metaphysical than that, but more to the point, under this worldview there is a desperate need to define consciousness, which is now at the root of all other definitions.

There is, in fact, a very well-liked theoretical physics definition for consciousness which suspiciously resembles a soul. It's called a Bose-Einstein Condensate, which is an impressive-sounding way to say it's a field that can't be seen, touched or measured. D'oh!

One major inhibiting factor in developing a theory of consciousness is it requires a sweeping grasp of multiple scientific disciplines. To be thorough, a theorist addressing the issue needs to be well-versed in psychology, biology, conventional physics and quantum physics. That's a tall order. It's hard enough to be cocktail-party proficient in all four topics, let alone to be serious-scientific-breakthrough proficient.

Then, just to make matters worse, if you want to discuss the idea that this thing called consciousness is somehow related to the concept called a "soul," you'll need to spend some time studying comparative religion. If you actually manage to acquire the expertise to develop a credible theory, you also have to be proficient in a sixth discipline -- writing -- in order to explain your theory to other people.

And nearly all of those other people have preconcieved and strongly prized notions of how to define their own souls. Many people become deeply offended when confronted with ideas about these topics which diverge from their own. Which means you ought to be proficient in yet a seventh discipline: self-defense.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The verse applies rather aptly to mankind's historic pursuit of its own metaphysical tail, as outlined here. All this frantic pursuit of the soul sometimes seems inevitable and yet still quite ludicrous. Whether an "emergent property" or a "gift from the Creator," somehow it seems appropriate that you just know it when you see it.

If we're all endowed with this amorphous, unmeasurable, magical thing called consciousness, then what's the meaningful difference between having that and having an amorphous, unmeasurable, magical thing called a soul?

If we're being honest, the real question here is simply this: Does "it" continue on after your body dies? Rotten.com is happy to report that you can now answer this question for yourself with 100% accuracy. You'll only have to wait 85 years, give or take a few. (Then again, there is one option if you want to cut to the chase.)

Fun fact: There is not a 21 gram difference in weight between a living body and a dead one. That's just an urban legend. Sorry!


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