A few weeks ago, I attended an aboriginal dance performance called The Seven Sisters. For 90 minutes, seven grandmas (topless if you really want to look very closely) shuffled around the stage while a chorus on the side sang a rhythmic chant and intermittently paused to tell the story of how these women wandered around the desert, found a man, hid from him, and were finally chased by him into the heavens where they became...Pleiades.

When I shared this experience with friends, they generally reacted with, 'how quaint', or 'how boring!' And they were right. While it was interesting to see an ancient mythology story come to life so untouched by our last 10,000 years of scientific discovery, it can really only be treated as a relic. As a nice story.

This is the way I feel about souls.

Usually, I really look forward to writing this philosophical blog post each week. I always learn something new when I do my research for it. So far I've covered my foundational belief statements (my tenets), and begun the search to know thyself by examining where I have come fromwhere I am, and what I am. These have been filled with fascinating discoveries by the greatest minds of our species - often against great odds, opposed by centuries of dogma, and found in blinding eureka moments after years of labored searching. The story of how we built telescopes, learned about light refraction, teased out the periodic table of elements, calculated the laws of physics, and grew to understand the birth of stars and the actual composition and location of the stars in the Pleiades constellation - now THAT is a story worth reading. And it holds my attention for far longer than 90 minutes. And it is helpful to our knowledge of how to survive.

In the same way that this aboriginal myth is just a story, the story of souls is also just an ancient fabrication. Souls were invented by people longing to be comforted about death. We'd like to believe in them, but there hasn't been a single scientific discovery of anything that would indicate they exist. As I wrote in my section on souls:

There is no basis to believe a soul exists as something separate from the body. Consciousness does not arise before birth, go on after death, or transfer between lives. It can be vastly affected by physical changes to the body. Out of body experiences have been found to originate in brain functions. Psychics and mediums are unproven scams. Do all animals down to the smallest bacteria have souls? If not, given that we have all evolved from single-celled organisms, when did souls first appear? Souls are a comforting concept, but have no basis in reality. It is better to savor the time we have, build the person we can be, feel deep satisfaction and happiness about the shared contributions we make to life’s struggle against death, and rejoice in the luck we have to be a part of it all.

In trying to make sense of the question, "What Am I?", I've discussed our bodies, our minds, and our mind-body interactions. This brought me through discussions of emotionneeds and desires, and personality. So much can be said about these topics from the thousands of man-years of research we've devoted to them. They offer great instruction to lengthen our lives and bring us happiness while we are here. But what can be said about a soul? Nothing but conjecture and wishes. When we ask the question, "What Am I?", can we add to our personal inventory the item of a soul? What for? So religious dreamers can make up rules about what tarnishes or cleanses them? So we can invent imaginary homes for these imaginary entities? So we can quarrel about who has a soul, whose is going where, and why? Without any proof that any of this exists, that's nothing but idle story telling whose purpose has been superseded by actual research into what makes us happy, what makes life live on after we're gone, and what we can do to be remembered and loved. Stories about the origins and destinies of souls are like the primitive stories about the origins and destinies of our stars. And that's the truth about souls - they are quaint relics, and they are boring.



03/15/2013 12:04pm

After reading Douglas Hofstadter's "I am a Strange Loop" I was left with what I would describe as the only notion of a "soul" that makes any scientific sense. I'm not sure how much is pure Hofstadter and how much I added but it goes something along the following... Our biological CPU at the top of our spinal cord holds a dominant model that we describe as our "selves". In addition, that CPU builds models of everything in the world around us including everyone we have ever met including those we have only met indirectly (print & other media). Those " mini copies" of other persona become, in effect, the soul that persists after death. To some extent I think this explains the endurance of religion in that followers immerse themselves in all the details of the holy books to the extent that they build a god persona that rivals or surpasses their own selves... The more of an impression that you leave on the world, the longer your "soul" survives. Once forgotten by the world and your atoms mixed into the cosmic dust your soul is essentially gone. Multiple personality disorder may be an example of a breakdown of the process that keeps one personality in control. In any case this is my take on the "soul" concept. I think a lot of our ancient ideas have to have a tie in to the natural world. Ideas like god and souls formed in response to things humans experience so even though we know they have no place in the scientific world, their origins deserve scientific inquiry...

03/15/2013 1:45pm

Hi John. Nice to meet you on here. Thanks for the thought-full comment. I haven't read I am a Strange Loop (or Gödel, Escher, Bach yet for that matter) so I can't say if you've represented Hofstadter's full theories in only one paragraph (I'm guessing not quite :-) but I suppose that's one way of defining a "soul" that lives on - as memories in others. Dawkins might even call these meme-souls. These remembrances certainly "live on" beyond our bodily deaths, but I don't think that's the kind of soul that most religious people are concerned with. I suppose I should have said something in my post about how I'm defining the word soul - as the common view of a dualistic incorporeal part of ourselves that goes to heaven or hell and meets up with all our dead friends and watches over the rest of us from above. That's the "soul" I dismiss and am bored with. Could just be me and my long Catholic upbringing. It's enough for me already.

I absolutely agree with your final thoughts about our ancient ideas originating in the natural world. That's pretty much the purpose of my site. (Look to the lessons from our evolutionary history to understand ourselves.) I forget who I saw say this, but someone has given a TED talk where they remarked about cultures using gods and religions to climb up the ladder of civilization until they get to the top of where that ladder can take them...and then they kick it away. I want more of us to do that. We can remember and study our past to understand it, but there's no reason to hold onto these things to guide our beliefs and actions anymore.

Julie Adams
03/16/2013 1:02am

I disagree of course...or do I agree? So much cannot be proven by science yet many things are still truth to the individual. I cannot prove to you what I believe. Belief and Non-Belief...Faith...No Faith...all are legitimate options. I rejoice in this life and the possibility of what is next. Do I have proof? No. Do I have faith in the possibility? Yes. Do I rejoice in this? Yes... Do I insist on this for others? No. Common views of all kinds exist but they should never be accepted or assumed as the views of all. This is one of the problems. I believe we are all on our individual journey. To apply a common or majority view to all is dangerous. I love the concept of evolutionary philosophy. It studies where we have been, what we have discovered, and, I hope, embraces that there is still more we don't know...more that may be discovered...

03/16/2013 7:19am

That's it Julie, you disagree with me...you're off the blog! :-) Seriously, thanks for sharing. This is always a good conversation to have. So I do agree with much of what you say, but I'd like to separate out a few points for further discussion. I'll go in order of your comment.

"yet many things are still truth to the individual" - I think I know what you mean, but I see this as a nod towards relativism that I have to disagree with. If a man is deluded that he is an all powerful superhero - that may feel "true" to him, but it not a truth. These are not dependent on the individual. There is truth and objective reality. The best our knowledge can do is predict the future with higher and higher certainty. Can any of us predict what will happen after death? No - because so far there hasn't been a way to repeat the experiment and report back on the results! So with absolutely no evidence either way, I agree we are free to believe what we want about what happens "next."

"Do I insist on this for others?" - You don't Julie, that's one of the things I love about our friendship from "across the aisle" so to speak. Unfortunately, way too many people do. Organized religions all too easily become organized unions who vote, influence, or ostracize against those who do not share their beliefs. This is a problem for our species when we must come together to tackle worldwide problems, and especially when faith turns from, "I don't know, but I believe" to "I believe, and so I know." Gay rights, abortion, interracial couples, slavery, kosher, halal, burkas, circumcision, female genital mutilation...on and on it goes with the "rules" of most faiths. Based on nothing.

"we are all on our own individual journey" - Somewhat true, but we are also all in this together. We are highly social creatures who need and depend on others. Cohesiveness and cooperation are much improved when beliefs are shared. I think it's been dangerous for modern people to adopt such an individualist laissez faire attitude about our philosophical beliefs. Saying all that...

"To apply a common or majority view to all is dangerous" - I agree, but only where our knowledge is unsure. It's not dangerous for all of us to believe that the earth is round, we can't eat hemlock, or that water is good to drink but you better not try to breath it. If we aren't sure about something - how an economy runs, what the atmosphere will do if we pump CO2 into it, if sugar or saturated fat is worse for our diet - then we act with caution, try some small experiments, let different groups try different things.

"evolutionary philosophy...I hope, embraces that there is still more we don't know" - Absolutely!!! There is so much we can still learn about this universe and how to survive and thrive in it. Let's focus our efforts and discussions on that, rather than worry about ancient stories about souls that record venal or mortal sins unless you confess them to your priest, the accounting record of which will determine where exactly you will spend your eternity after death. All that is just guesswork nonsense. (Which is not to say at all that I think that is what you believe in for your "soul" or destination. I don't know exactly what your personal beliefs are. I'm just reacting to prevailing definitions of souls from Christian teachings. I could do similar rants against reincarnation or animism too.)

Thanks again for speaking up Julie! I love the chance to clarify what I mean with these sometimes too short posts.

03/18/2013 3:33am

The soul, modern religion, and a universal god are all unfortunate by products of times in history when one group of people subjugated others. While the majority of the winners were evolving city states, political systems, agriculture, and social systems, many of the downtrodden were developing religions and belief systems that allowed them to get through the terrible times by believing that there "has to be something better than my current situation...." and "this life stinks, the next will be better," and "my soul will fly free when it is unshackled from this mortal coil." This is not to denigrate religious people, but when religious people "lord" it over others, their belief systems, that is where I have a problem.

Abortion is the prime example. In general, most anti-abortion people are conservative. So these people that are supposedly for people to make their own decisions, feel that god has spoken that abortion is wrong. (and it very well might be) But those same people who insist that all conceived fetuses (I like fetii, but that is probably not right...) who exhibit a heartbeat at 12 weeks must be born, also are extremely against any form of social or family support for those same kids. Against family leave, against subsidized preschool and daycare, agasint school lunches, and on and on. Seems to be a disconnect but I am sure their religion squares it for them and their souls will fly free one day....

03/19/2013 12:01am

Agreed. I would just add that religion and gods go back quite far in our evolutionary history. I like Jon Haidt's take that forming societies around shared views of the sacred helped their cooperation and survival. I like Dawkins pointing out how the pattern seeking optimism of animals (famous superstitious pigeon dances trying to get rewards that are actually random) explains us seeing gods pulling the strings behind it all. I'll talk about religion more on a later post for sure.


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