|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
The idea that human beings are
a composite of physical and spiritual elements is as old as humanity
itself. As such it has served well. Many still think that each of us
"contains" an irreducible element which is in some sense indestructible.
But this concept of "soul" no longer stands up to examination. Likewise,
the philosophical concept of a "mind" fixed somewhere in the human brain
is ever harder to sustain. The answer lies entirely elsewhere.
word "soul" carries a common meaning quite distant from its more technical
uses in philosophy and religion. It's not until this meaning is probed
more deeply that its great difficulties come into focus.
As a concept, however, the idea
of "soul" has been around for thousands of years. We know from Egyptian
hieroglyphics dating back some 4 000 years that most people thought of an
after-life or second world into which people would pass when they died. It
seems that humans have always conceived of this world as contiguous to the
next. Because the physical body clearly dies and decays, it must have an
aspect which continues after death and this has been known as the "soul".
In Homer's Greece the soul was a
shadowy, indistinct entity. It is talked of as psyche (the breath
of life) or thymos (the life force). Later the two terms become
psyche kai thymos (soul and life-force). Still later they merge into
or the permanent, though hidden, part of a personality. In the Hebrew Old
Testament humans are intensely physical. There is mention of nephesh
or human spirit which goes to Sheol, a sort of shadowy underworld
rather like the Hades of Greek mythology.
The origins of the idea of a personal soul are no doubt buried deep
beyond recovery in the earliest human cultures. But perhaps it arose from
the sense almost all of us have - that there is something inside me which
is eternal, that it is impossible for me merely to cease to exist one
Modern exponents of general systems theory propose that each of us is
a system of many parts, open to the outside world. The notion of a person
"having" a soul (the secular counterpart being the mind) derives from the
way we experience ourselves. Looking at ourselves one way, we perceive
ourselves as purely physical - an incredibly complex organism comprising
multiple parts. Looking at ourselves another way, we experience
ourselves as being. Neither way is either right or better than the other.
The latter way, however, can lead to the belief that the "me" which is so
much more than the sum of the parts which comprise the physical system has
an independent existence.
The Greek philosopher Plato was
among the first of those who formulated an thought-through concept of
soul. Before him, however, Pythagoras and his followers, asserted that it
was better to immerse oneself in the so-called purity of abstraction. This
was in turn best evinced in the study of numbers, which could be built up
from a base into a towering edifice of theorems.
The pyramid of abstract
propositions was self-evidently perfect, since to change one element of it
brought the whole crashing down. Ordinary, money-grubbing life did not
show this completeness and was therefore of less worth than the love of
wisdom sought by philosophers. Plato echoed the idea of philosophy in his
... the lover of wisdom
associating with the divine order will himself become orderly and
He goes on in his Timaeus:
... he who has been earnest in
the love of knowledge and true wisdom ... must have thoughts immortal
and divine ... and insofar as human nature is capable of sharing in
immortality, he also must be completely immortal.
Given this outlook, it was
natural to suggest, as did Pythagoras, that in each of us there resides a
perfect and therefore lasting element. He went on from there to propose
the transmigration of souls - what we commonly know today as reincarnation
(though some suppose that at about this time the idea of reincarnation was
introduced through Greek contact with Indian thinkers).
Plato, no doubt building on
Pythagoras (or rather, the Pythagorean school of philosophy), went on to
propose that reality consists of two aspects. The first aspect is "form"
or true being. It is this reality which is expressed in matter, which is
in turn in the process of becoming real or realising its inherent
potential. So too with people. Each of us has a real, perfect counterpart
which we seek to realise in the imperfect present. His was essentially a
dualistic universe consisting of two aspects. There was real Form and
semi-real matter. The latter is a reflection of the real or ideal world,
rather like shadows cast by a light on a wall. Dualism has persisted to
this day as a way of construing the world.
We know that a primitive
soul/body dualism was dealt with differently in other parts of the world
in ancient times. The Jews in Maccabean times (168
bce) developed Hellenistic thinking (in turn influenced by Persian
Zoroastrianism) into a doctrine of bodily resurrection. This no doubt
influenced early Christianity through the Pharisees, a Jewish school of
theology which taught resurrection.
Christians, however, have held
from the earliest times that resurrection is of the entire person,
consisting of soul and body. In the New Testament the Greek word psyche
means "life" (in opposition to soma or "body"). This life, for
Paul, means our inner life or, in modern terms, the "power of
personality". Paul uses psukikos for life of the physical body, and
for the resurrection or "spiritual" body.
Today these words have issued in
the loosely-used terms "spiritual" or "spiritual life" - apparently
meaning a dimension of life to be distinguished from "ordinary" life.
The same dualism of "composite being" is to be found in varying forms in
Hinduism, traditional Chinese religion and Islam.
Early Christians seem to have
held in creative tension both physical resurrection and the neo-Platonic
philosophy of body-soul dualism. Thomas Aquinas (1224-74), who influenced
Christian theology deeply right up to the end of the 19th century and into
the 20th, held that a person's soul left the body at death. But it was an
attenuated form of personality until united with the body at the general
resurrection at the end of the world.
Roman Catholic councils have
held as essential the teaching that the soul of each person is created by
God at conception and then infused into the embryo. Present Christian
liturgy and prayer at times of death, burial and memorial generally assume
a permanent soul which passes on into heaven to life of immortal bliss
with God, or into hell for an equally eternal life of torment.
Platonic dualism has been carried
forward in modern times by philosophers. Rene Descartes held that there is
an irreconcilable difference between thinking substance (what we call
mind) and extended substance (or matter). An ongoing difficulty with this
view is to explain how mind and matter interact, as they plainly do. Henri
Bergson in Mind and Memory defined matter as possessing the
qualities we perceive in it (like colour and texture). Mind is in effect
memory, by which we store up past perceptions and modify our present
actions which would otherwise be purely mechanical.
For some, the soul becomes a sort
of "shadow person". This is a spiritual person, but sufficiently human to
be identified as a particular individual. The spiritual or "astral" body
escapes from its corpse to proceed on a journey to "the other side". In
the late 20th century, much attention has been given to "near-death
experiences" in which people whose physical processes have ceased for a
short time report certain characteristics of starting to "cross over".
In short, the idea that human
beings consist of two parts - body and soul - is alive and well. Many if
not most so-called "New Age" spiritualities tout the idea in a wide range
But does the dualist concept
stand up to reason?
There are numerous difficulties,
of which those below are but a few:
Many in the Western culture have been brought up to test the truth
of things by searching for evidence. In this case, therefore, they
would ask, "If there's such a thing as a soul, of what does it
consist? How do I distinguish between an entity with a soul, and one
without? Are humans the only beings with this thing? Even light and
energy have mass: so how much do souls weigh? Can we see a soul? If
so, what frequencies of light enable us to see it?" As far as I know,
these and a host of similar questions have never been answered in the
sense that the answers have been demonstrated in the same way that the
existence of electricity or electrons or fire have been "proved". It
seems as though the soul has been removed from empirical enquiry. If
so, then it is a concept difficult for Westerners today to fully
It may be that souls are real only in a subjective sense. That is,
that we can experience the soul only internally - perhaps as thought
or emotion or a combination of the two. If so, surely everyone must
know that souls exist? Does the fact that not everyone reports the
experience of a soul indicate that some people have them and some not?
We know roughly how the physical side of humans works. We can even
observe thoughts and emotions as electro-chemical brain activity. Is
it possible to observe the soul at work in people? If not, why not?
It might be that souls of dead people can cross over from whatever
dimension they inhabit into ours and back again. If a soul is
incorporeal (without a material body or presence) then how do we
identify who it is? When I identify "me" as a unique individual, I can
do so only by indicating a certain arrangement of atoms and physical
processes, a particular configuration of a particular physical and
psychological system.. How does a soul differ from this? If a bodiless
entity can communicate with us, does it use sound waves the way we do?
If it uses some other medium, can we trace the origin and physical
effects of a soul's communication? If not, how might a soul
communicate with us? If it uses a medium other than one we can
identify and analyse, is that medium unique to the soul or is it to be
Another possibility is that we know about souls because God has
revealed their existence and nature to us, communicating the
information by some means like inspired writings or prophetic
utterance. But this only pushes the problem back a step. If there is a
revelation about souls, by what criteria are we to distinguish between
"soul" as revealed to us by God, and "soul" as a concept thought up by
humans? If God has revealed this to some but not to others, to whom
has God revealed the information and to whom not? Is the Greek version
the right one, or the Jewish one, or the Islamic one? Why has the
revelation been given to some and not to others?
Ultimately, we communicate meaning to each other in words. Which of
the wide range of meanings of the word "soul" is the correct one, and
on what basis? Are we sure that the word "soul" corresponds to some
real entity in the objective world? (Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of
Mind argues persuasively against this conclusion.) The word "soul"
should, like other words, indicate some quality of humanity. But if I
say that someone behaves in a certain way "because" he or she "has" a
soul, all I'm doing is to describe the behaviour in terms of an
unidentifiable phenomenon. Only when I can point to the substance
called "soul" does such an explanation work.
All-in-all the concept of "soul"
can only be held, it seems to me, as a matter of "faith" - and then only
if faith is thought of as an attitude towards reality which does not
require empirical, epistemological or rational support.