Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


The "I" and the Soul, Lead: Penelope Angiulo& Shellie Chiavetta


Summary by Tom Ash:

"God for the 21st Century" Part 8, by Russell Stannard ed.

"Introducing Consciousness", by Papineau & Selina


The class discussion regarding the existence and nature of the “soul” in human beings, and possibly in other life forms as well, brought many interesting and difficult questions to light. It also generated a large number of definitions of what a good model for the nature of the soul is, thus increasing the difficulty of attempting to understand the nature of the soul.

The discussion started off with Penelope giving a brief overview of the literature on the idea of the soul. A few authors noted were as follows:

          John Polkinghorne described the soul as the essence of a person, something that exists within us and leaves us at death.
          Aristotle described the soul as the “form” (or the pattern) of a body.
          Malcolm Jeeves suggests that the body, mind, and the soul are all one package and should not be thought of as separate entities.
          Francis Crick holds the opposing view that there is no soul.
            All that we experience is the result of interactions between the various physical parts that make up the body (i.e. nerves, cells, molecules).
          • Many skeptics of religion also claim that there is no soul.
            They say the soul is merely a figment of people’s imaginations that brings them comfort when they ponder what lies beyond their deaths.

The class then began to discuss how and why there might be a soul. Is the soul an inherent or acquired entity? Many might opt to say that it is inherent. One way to illustrate this is through artificial intelligence. Computers exist today that seem to far surpass the limitations of the human brain, yet we do not think of any artificial intelligence as being able to have a soul. Professor Davis explained that brains and computers respond similarly when they experience stimuli, but this phenomenon is not enough to account for subjective experience. It seems humans have something that computers do not have, even though we can’t see it. Just like dark energy, we know it’s there even though we can’t see it.

Members of the class began explaining why they felt there might be a soul. Penelope brought up the fact that, upon dying, the human body loses 21 grams of mass, and many people seem to think that this small amount of mass is the soul leaving the body (though a study found only one out of six people, when weighed at their deaths, actually lost 21 grams of mass, thus limiting the idea’s validity). Steve mentioned that he’d always equated soul with consciousness, and because he was conscious, he knew he had a soul. Ian stated that, if an exact clone were made of him, he would still only know what it was like to be himself, not to be the clone, and he felt he had his own soul because of this. Tavus chimed in, likening the soul to heart, and she felt that having a soul meant having a sense of good and bad, right and wrong, and compassion towards others. These few were among the many definitions of “soul” that would eventually surface during the discussion.

Mark then asked about death, and the idea of the body dying and the soul living on. Professor Whittier quickly responded to Mark’s problem. We often think of the soul as being able to live on forever even after the body has died, but what about Alzheimer’s disease? In this case, the mind dies before the body and thus may be finite. Also, it would not make sense to think about the soul as beginning at birth and then never ending. If we are to think there is soul after the body, then we must accept the Hindi view that there is soul before the body as well. Given this idea, it seems we should not worry about what happens after our deaths since we do not worry about what happened before our births.

This brought about the idea of there being one big soul as opposed to many individual ones. The idea of panpsychism suggests that there may be a soul in everything from humans to tables. Perhaps more complex systems (humans, intelligent animals, etc.) are more conscious than less complex systems (tables, chairs, plants, etc.), and a system’s level of complexity signifies a more complex soul. After the class established this idea, someone proposed that perhaps it is through the mind that the soul may connect to an individual body. The body and the mind are thus tools of the soul, and as with Alzheimer’s and death, the soul can lose the ability to control such tools. Mark had questioned as to why the soul leaves only at death and not just leave whenever it wants, and the above seemed to explain that. The soul “stays” as long as it can still manipulate the mind and body.

As the class neared its end, one other question came up. Can things like mind-altering drugs affect the soul? Most would probably say no, but if we think of the soul as our nature and ability to distinguish right from wrong, then it seems that drugs can affect the soul, counterintuitive as it may seem. Decent people can do dumb things because they get drunk or high. This seems to go against the notion that the soul controls the body but not visa versa, as a change in the body (through drugs) can change a person’s ideas of right and wrong, or their entire personality altogether (which we see as being connected to the soul).

The class ended somewhat inconclusively, as many discussions of such magnitude and vagueness tend to end. Because everyone can give their own definition of the soul, we may never be able to understand what exactly the soul is or how (or if at all) it works and exists. Still, we do all appear to have some sort of subjective experience of the world around us that science and logic do not explain, so our attempts to understand the existence and nature of the soul will continue, conclusive or not.