Thoughts on the Soul

soul-pineal gland

The soul-theory of the mind as long been popular amongst both armchair philosophers and also serious scholars. In this post I would like to explore some implications and problems of this theory and also, how it effects our day-to-day lives, even for those of us who don’t take it seriously.

First of all, why would men have come up with a soul-theory to explain the inner workings of our minds? I think one the most obvious answers is of course, immortality. As William James said,

Unquestionably, this is the stronghold of the spiritualistic belief,-as indeed the popular touchstone for all philosophies is the question, “What is their bearing on a future life?”
-James, Principles of Psychology, 1890

However, James is apt to point out some immediate problems with the soul-theory. One of which is that the kind of immortality offered up with the theory is not the sort that we care for. What he means by this is that the only things we are cognizant of, and thus care about, are the things in our stream-of-thought. But surely, our stream-of-thought ends when we die, so why would we, meaning our personal selves, care one way or another about something beyond what we are conscious of? In other words, the conscious stream-of-thought that soul-theorists use to substantiate their ideas on immortality gives no such guarantee merely because it is there on a phenomenal level.

James gives several more answers to the question of why scholars have utilized the soul-theory for ages. One reason is that it might give an account for the “closed individuality of each personal consciousness”, that is, the fact that our Thoughts are “insulated” from the thoughts of others. There are immediate problems with such accounts, as James notes, in pathological cases such. As he says, “the definitively closed nature of our personal consciousness is probably an average statistical resultant of many conditions, but not an elementary force or fact.”

Furthermore, the soul-theory does not have any explanatory power above and beyond non-soul theories. One can give a full phenomenological account of the subjective facts of consciousness without ever referring to a soul, and furthermore:

[If we] take the two formulations, first of a brain to whose processes pulse of thought simply correspond, and second, of one two whose processes pulse of thought in a Soul correspond, and compare them together, we see that at bottom the second formulation is only a more roundabout way than the first, of expressing the same bald fact. That bald fact is that when the brain acts, a thought occurs.
-James, ibid

James final conclusion is that “the substantial Soul…explains nothing and guarantees nothing.”

So, if the soul-theory does not give us an edge in our subjective descriptions of the mind nor in our scientific ones, why is it so pervasive? Perhaps, as Douglas Hofstadter said, we see the “‘soul’ emerge as a function not of any clearly defined inner state, but as a function of our own ability to project.” By this he is referring to the fact that as humans, we have a tendency to project “souls” into inanimate objects such as cars and toys. We “animate” our pets and teddy bears with mini-souls. However, as he notes, we also have the ability to be highly selective in our “attribution of soul”. For example, one might not be capable of killing an animal in cold blood, but still eat meat on a daily basis. An extreme example is the Nazis being capable of viewing Jews as mere animals. Some emotions then, such as patriotism, can act as a “valve, controlling the emotions that allow us to identify, to project,-to see our victim as as (a reflection of) ourselves.”

We all have a storehouse of empathy that is variously hard or easy to tap into, depending on our moods and on the stimulus. Sometimes, mere words or fleeting expressions hit the bull’s-eye and we soften. Other times we remain callous and ice, unmovable


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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

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