There is a question that has plagued people for all of history, in one form or another: What is the soul? I thought I'd take some time to muse on the topic, not that I necessarily have some great insight into the matter, but simply that it was on my mind this morning for some unknown reason.
Firstly, I'd like to lift from a comment I left in Hellbound Alleee's blog (italics are H.A.'s words) :
Brucker, what reason to you have for believing that there is an essence of who we are?Since the discussion came to an end after my comment (I doubt I "stumped" her, she probably got bored and moved on.), I figured I might as well continue it here, since there are concepts I think are worth mulling over.
I think Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum" is rather convincing. I don't know that the sorts of conclusions Descartes inferred from this position follow so logically as he might hope, but the central concept is there.
I feel that I can know that I exist, despite the fact that I can perform no experiment to tell me if my true essence is the sum parts of my body, just the brain, a disembodied spirit, or the hallucination of Hindu's Brahman. From a radically skeptical perspective I can doubt just about anything other than the basic fact that I exist as a conscious entity.
How about this: we have a body that perceives, metabolizes, feels emotion, and has a memory?
Who is this "we" that owns this body? Do you "have" a body, or are you a body? Choose your words carefully when talking about consciousness and self-identity.
There is no reason to believe in an "essence," a "soul," a "spook," a "homunculous," or a "self." If there is a reason, you should be able to point to something other than a body.
Is there reason to believe in your blog? I read some words on my computer screen, but is your blog on my computer? If so, does it cease to exist when I turn my computer off? Perhaps it's on a web server somewhere? If you took me to this server, would see your blog, or would I just see some boxes sitting in a room humming softly to themselves as electrical impulses passed through them?
The world has room enough for things that are not located spatially such that one can "point" to them, without having to even consider the spiritual realm. Indeed, where is the Internet? If you can't point to it, does that mean it doesn't exist?
There isn't a little man inside feeling and seeing. We already have everything we need in our bodies to do those things.
I agree. I would in no way advocate the concept that the soul is some sort of smaller self contained within the larger self. The soul is frankly something that I cannot define, but suspect resides in the physical body in much the way software resides on one's computer.
As I said, there are some things that Alleee said that I agree with. Our physical bodies are in no way lacking anything needed in order to function. (Well, one might argue that there is that mysterious "spark" of life that makes us alive, and is the difference between a live body and a dead one.) Despite what some philosophers have said about the soul being attached to the body via the pineal gland, it seems to me that if the soul is an entirely discorporate entity, a specific spot for the soul to attach itself to the physical body seems like a strange concept. Indeed, in Hindu philosophy, the purusha (soul?) is in no way connected to the prakriti (body?), and as such, when studying that religion, it was hard for me to understand the relationship between them, if indeed there was one at all.
As I said, I think there may be a possibility that what we term the "soul" may in fact be as much a part of the physical world as the "mind" is, or the "sense of self". That is to say, they exist, and in some way are localized within the brain, but rather than being a specific tangible object are instead an abstract concept that is an outgrowth of the function of that organ. (If I haven't made this clear, I'm not claiming it to be the case, only speculating it as a possibility that has merit to me.) I think the Internet comparison is a good starting point. The computer that I am now using has internal memory and a hard drive. To some extent, both of these are currently storing information about the program "Internet Explorer 6.0" which I often use to access this web site and create posts. Is IE6 a real thing? Most computer users with a good amount of knowledge know exactly what IE6 is when I refer to it, which suggests it is a real thing. Yet it has no mass, nor does it (as a concept) occupy physical space. Before my computer was set up with all of its software, the hard drive and the memory chips started out empty of information. After the software was installed, these components of my computer had the exact same gross physical characteristics they did before the installation. No mass was added, the shape did not change, and everything stayed in pretty much the same location until it was time to ship it off somewhere to eventually end up under my desk. If I wiped the memory clean, then like a dead body without a soul, it would still be there, looking exactly the same, but no longer functioning.
It's weird to me, but 100 posts into my other blog, after writing thoughts for a year (and more elsewhere) and creating page after page of information, I really have "created" nothing. Electrons have shuffled around, disks have spun, photons have fired out from monitors, but indeed, nothing was created. Go back to those hundred posts and replace every character with a "space", and in the purely physical sense of "you should be able to point to something", all would be the same as it was before.
Years back, I had a computer that had some serious problems, and ceased to function. When this happens, you've got a hunk of largely useless plastic and silicon. I got a new computer, a bigger (memory-wise), faster, and generally better one; and what did I do with the old computer? I opened it up, removed its hard drive, and hooked it up to the new computer. I cleaned out any viruses or spyware, took off the files and programs I wished to keep and voila, I had a new computer that carried all of the pertinent information from my old computer! Could the soul function like that?
But Brucker, you say, when you die, there is no hard drive to remove and plug in, your brain deteriorates like the rest of your body. True, but on the computer I am using now, most of my files are kept on a server down the hall. I could shut down my computer, smash it with a sledgehammer, come to work tomorrow with a new computer and pretty much pick up right where I left off. A lot of my personal stuff is kept on the Internet in places like this site. All of these storage sites are backed up repeatedly with redundancy. The building I am in could burn down, blogger.com could go offline, and I'd probably be able to get all this stuff back in a matter of days. Who says our souls, as "software" are not being constantly "backed up" on another plane of existence?
Software concept aside (as much as I obviously enjoy toying with it), who said the soul has to be "other than the body"? Most sane people believe in the "mind", but this thing is not floating somewhere out in space, but accepted by just about everyone to be located between one's ears. But the mind is more than that. My mind is here in my writing, and as such, pervades wherever someone logs on to one of my blogs, anywhere in the world. My mind is in the words that I speak through my mouth, and thus is experienced by anyone within a certain range when I talk. My mind is in the people that I influence through communication. It is part of my body, and it is filling out my sphere of influence. If my "mind" and "soul" may in fact be the same thing, then no wonder the soul is such an important thing for God and other "spiritual" forces to control.
Perhaps the thing that most fascinates me about the soul as information, be it static (like a file) or dynamic (like a program) is that knowing what we do about how flexible information is in the physical world, I see no reason that the concept of a soul has to defy materialist philosophy. A materialist would strive to deny that souls exist, based on the premise that things which you cannot clearly define, point to, and perform scientific experiments on are not real. (This is probably an oversimplification.) If the concept of a "soul" is only suffering from a bad reputation afforded it by inaccurate definition, then it may be no more or less real than the "mind". A materialist of course may deny the existence of "mind", but I think that puts them on shaky ground, as so many people are more than prepared to accept that concept, and not prepared to deny it.