What is “the Soul”?

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In all the other essays in this blog, as controversial as they might be, I could at least argue from some part of the content of our experience. Whether or not libertarian free will is real (or even possible) can be debated, but most people at least do admit that it seems like it is real and that we exercise it. The same is true of values: truth, beauty, and goodness. Are they illusions? Do we make them up, deliberately invent them? Perhaps we really detect their presence, they are real and stem from the same source as consciousness itself.

When it comes to the soul, however, we are at a loss. Simply put we experience nothing what-so-ever of our soul. Now philosophers of religion and theologians will perhaps disagree with me here, but their world is quite mixed up as concerns the soul. Mostly they use it as a word to mean just about anything they want having some bearing on what they take to be our “experiential core”. ‘Soul’ has been used as a synonym for ‘essence’, ‘personality’, ‘mind’, and any combination of any of them even including the body. I do not believe the soul is any of these things. To put it bluntly, we do not experience anything of the soul.

If we do not experience it, why should I think there is a soul at all? The key here has to do with the conviction that God, if he exists, must be both infinite, good, and the source of personality. If “God’s purpose” has to do with personality’s progressive alignment with the “will of God” as described in my first and third books, and more briefly my blog essay “Why Free Will”, then it doesn’t make sense if, on material death, the personality simply vanishes from the universe never again to be expressed. If we are supposed, progressively, to become perfect, like God, in a spiritual sense, this process certainly is not completed by the end of a very short (in cosmic terms) mortal life. What is the point of the fixed temporal reference of personality, of all that we acquire, if it vanishes after a few score years on Earth?

If all this process has a point then personality must somehow survive mortal death. When we die our brain-based consciousness is obliterated, but not the information, the pattern configured into it by God. There is no consciousness here, something that we might best relate to having surgery under general anesthetic. In that case, consciousness (along with its configuring personality) is placed into a deep sleep. With no consciousness in which to operate, personality simply ceases to experience anything, and that includes the passage of time. But as our brain-based consciousness returns to wakefulness, the personality is again expressed. The inference that there must be a soul if God is real is one of the “consequences of Infinity” I discuss at length in my books. In this case, a consequence that lies strictly beyond our subjective experience. Unlike personality, whose direct apprehension skirts the edge of our self-consciousness and must be present to explain, for example, free will, the soul doesn’t have to be there at all as far as we, that is our personal selves on Earth are concerned. In short, it has nothing to do with our mortal lives.

Following material death consciousness ceases, but after some unknown duration we wake up again. The person emerges in association again with mind, that is, a consciousness produced by contact with Cosmic Mind. There is also, I presume, some vehicle of expression, something analogous to a body recognized by other persons as the locus of the individuality that is ourself. The vehicle isn’t material by our present reconning but it can be seen and identified by the expanded perceptual systems of its own type. Other post-mortal persons can see and discriminate one another from some environment. In this new case, the mind isn’t brain-based, but associated with some other kind of real stuff, something not material, not measureable by physical instruments, but something in which the new person-mind combination can express itself. What kind of stuff is that? Is it the same “spirit stuff” of which God is made? I do not know and as we cannot detect it, we cannot say much about it. But if non-material reality actually is real, a part of the Universe’s fundamental ontology, then there can be any number of levels or layers or types of “non-material stuff” between God and the material world with which we are familiar.

So we have “the person” and we have a consciousness (likely greatly expanded over our present semi-material one), and a vehicle of expression, but so far no memories. As I noted in my “Why Personality” essay the person has no purchase on its identity without memories which, in our case, are brain-based and so vanish when we die. This, I believe is where the soul comes into the picture. It is, if you will pardon the metaphor, the lifeboat, the escape mechanism that retains memory of the mortal existence. Memories with which we are re-associated when we “wake up”.

What memories? All of them? In our present estate the soul must evolve, grow, along with us even if we experience nothing of it. It is something like a baby within us albeit a baby we do not experience. Possibly it contains all of our memories, God must remember them after all, but I do not think so. As with life, self-sustaining once it has got going, I think soul development in individuals is likewise automatic. It might not require God’s direct action to sustain it. Whatever is retained, the mechanism of retention has to be non-material and thus may interact with only those experiences of ours that involve values (truth, beauty, and goodness) the only “stuff of spirit” with which we, in our brain-based minds, have contact. I hypothesize (and this is purely a speculation) that the memories we retain and wake-up with are the instances of “spiritual choice”, value choice, that we make during our mortal life. Every time we make a positive spiritual choice, a choice to fit or instantiate some value into the world (more precisely to attempt that instantiation since we are not always successful and often only partly successful) that choice is recorded in the soul.

If true, this has interesting consequences. Notice in describing this mechanism I have said nothing about any intellectual belief in the reality of God. Atheists and theists alike make “spiritual decisions”, choices based on and for “reasons of” truth, beauty, goodness, or some combination of them. We commonly relate these to “the moral” and choosing “the moral” in any given instance has nothing directly to do with the intellectual baggage carried by the choosing individual. It might seem that “a believer” has more reason to make value-laden decisions than “an unbeliever”, but this is only theoretical. There are, in real life, many atheists who make more of these decisions than many theists. All of them have a soul.

Suppose we take two normal people (atheists or theists it doesn’t matter). One of them makes some value-instantiating decision on average every day of her life, at least those in which she was aware of herself and values. Lets say she had 50 years of such experience since becoming “self-aware” and before she dies or dementia degrades her brain enough to destroy her sensitivity to values. Our other person, on average, makes only one value entangled choice once every month over the same 50 years.

Upon waking in the post-mortal life our first candidate will retain some memory of every day of those 50 years, more than 18,000 memories. Even those she has forgotten in the mortal life will be available to her. By contrast our second candidate will have memories of 600 days of his previous life. Our two candidate’s status, as concerns personality, consciousness, and expressive vehicle when they wake is the same. But one of them retains far more memories of her prior experience (even if she was an atheist and never attended a church in her life) than the other even if he believed in God and attended church every week! To the extent that “going to church” motivates you to make more spiritual decisions the experience is of value. If it does not then, as with what you believe about God, it makes no difference what-so-ever.

Although this is the variation that recommends living a better, more value-entangled, life on Earth, I do not know how much of a difference it makes in the end. Like two siblings born 3 or 4 years apart, the difference in ages makes a considerable difference in their comprehension of the world for a few years, but by the time 30 or more years have elapsed the age difference is washed out. This is the meaning, I believe of Jesus’ parable of the harvest. Everyone gets the same thing in the end. Even a 75 year life on Earth is but 28,000 days. It might take trillions of days measured in Earth-time to reach some provisional end to the process of “becoming perfect as God is perfect”, more than enough time to obliterate the difference of a few thousand memories. But in the early times of the post-mortal career, there will be a difference. Our first candidate will advance in the program more quickly than the second.

I would make two quick observations before ending this. First philosophers have debated the nature of such identity transfers or duplication. Usually these are cast in terms of clones or star-trek-like transporters, but the notion has been applied to God. Does God move the person (and/or soul) from Earth to somewhere else, or does he use his omnipotence and perfect memory simply to recreate them? While such thought experiments are indeed puzzling as concerns clones or transporters they amount to a difference that makes no difference as concerns God. God is not subject to the second law of thermodynamics. Either way, the resulting copy, if that is what it is, is perfect, suffering no degradation whatsoever. From the subjective view of the individual no difference could be discerned. Either way, we will wake up aware that we are the same person who lived another life in another place and that the memories we find in the contents of our new consciousness belong to that person, us.

Second there inevitably arises the question of soul death. Can a soul die? Since it is non-material I do not think it can suffer death by accident or be murdered. But if free will is genuine, we must be able to commit suicide, to choose not to continue in the post-mortal adventure. Suicide of this sort is probably very rare if it ever happens at all in the post-mortal experience, but it must be possible if we are genuinely free. There is nothing to suggest that the post-mortal experience is timeless, the soul is not immortal in an unqualified way. On the other hand, I am not sure simple cosmic-suicide is possible on Earth. We can kill our body, but in that case the automatic life-boat mechanism kicks in and that person/soul combination survives having developed up to the point of physical suicide. In the next life, we begin where we left off here whether we were 80 or 10!

It might be possible to kill our souls on Earth through consistent, repeated choices of evil, choices in opposition to what is represented by the values. If we are (individually) evil enough, so steeped in evil that we lose the capacity to discern values altogether, we also lose the capacity to know right from wrong, and not just most of the time but always. We become, in short, iniquitous! It is possible (though I do not know) that in such a case our souls can wither and die. From that point on, in the life of that mortal, no survival raft exists and such personality vanishes (perhaps merging back into the infinite as a drop of water merges with the ocean) on physical death. Notice that this suicide entails the repeated exercise of free will choice. A single horrifically evil decision would not seem to be enough to obliterate the soul. Accident or disease, the degradation of the physical brain to the point that value discrimination is no longer possible, might freeze the soul in its present status at that time in the life of the individual, but God well knows that the individual has not chosen this outcome of his or her own will and the survival mechanism remains operative.

My speculative story ends here. I have gone into these things in more detail in my books (the first and third). More importantly it is there connected up with what we do experience of spirit. I emphasize here, in conclusion, that this is nothing but a speculative story based not on direct experience but on inference from basic assumptions about the nature of God and the purpose of experience, in particular the point of free will in a physical universe of purposeless mechanism. I tell this tale because it fills a hole in the theology I describe in my first book. If God’s “perfect universe” takes billions of years to complete, then the short mortal experience, something usually less than 100 years, we have on Earth cannot be the end of the story even though we have no experiential (subjective or otherwise) evidence of this mechanism’s operation.

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