What is a soul?

I was perusing my previous posts on this blog, and I realized I hadn’t written anything specifically about the soul. That’s quite an oversight, since reading and thinking about souls is a lot of what pushed me away from Christianity and towards atheism and humanism. Very briefly then, here’s an outline of my thinking on this topic.

(1) Most people today, in North America, believe in souls. That is my experience, and, to the best of my knowledge, the polls bear it out. This means that most people are not materialists. They think there is “more” to us than the stuff of our bodies–our blood cells, veins, muscles, gray matter, etc.

(2) What the word “soul” means is actually a matter of some debate. When I’ve asked my students, at least, they can’t seem to give me a straight answer. The simplest explanation is that soul-talk is something we’ve inherited from the culture, for whatever reason, and its reference is something underdetermined by its use.

(3) From the perspective of the history of philosophy, the evolution of the idea of the “soul” is easy enough to trace. For the ancients (Plato, Aristotle), the soul is what makes a body alive. Having a soul is what separates the animate from the inanimate. Students are typically surprised to learn that plants have souls (on Aristotle’s conception of the soul), but plants are very different from stones and dirt when you think about it. (“Soul” here is an empirical posit of sorts–it does something, it explains something. Not so, nowadays.) The more rationalist and human-centered approach of Plato has recurring appeal, and shows up, in some version or other in the later work of thinkers like Augustine and Descartes (to choose from two very different time periods). In Descartes’ work, “soul” or “mind” is characteristically human. It is known best through introspection, and it is a fundamentally different kind of stuff than material substance (which, unlike the soul or mind, is extended in space). In a way, materialism has been controversial for as long as people have been thinking about what is necessary to explain the world around us. The notion of the soul has been used as a stop-gap for whatever people have thought mere matter couldn’t explain.

(4) Soul-talk, in brief, is essentially dualistic. That is, it encourages us to view human beings (and perhaps other animals) as matter + something else. The view we get from the natural and human sciences, however, is fundamentally monistic. That is, rather than view human beings as matter + something else, it sees us as very complex organizations of matter. Of course, “matter” itself is weirder than we’d ever imagined. But the fact remains that our best scientific theories (our most empirically successful theories) tell us there is one world–not the two worlds of our culture’s “soul”-talkers.

(5) Soul-talk, as a result, has become obsolete. The reason my undergrads can’t pinpoint the nature of the soul is that it has no nature. At this point in our cultural evolution, the “soul” has become little more than a placeholder for that-which-makes-immortality-possible. My soul is me, minus all the material stuff that makes me me, like my body, my face, my feelings, my personality, and so on (fishy, no?). There’s a good story to tell about why thinking about souls is natural to beings with our evolutionary history (see Pascal Boyer’s work, for example). But we’ve got all sorts of cognitive predispositions which have likely been useful to us in the past, without by the same token telling us anything true about the world. The inchoate sense of a something “more” to life or to human persons is, in all likelihood, one more example of this type of phenomenon.

So what is a soul? Nothing much. Just a figment of our imaginations. A holdover of our evolutionary past; a hangover from Christianity. A lie we need to outgrow.

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