A ‘Soul’ Is Just a Person

I had to take a break from blogging to do a thorough reboot. I now feel I have come far enough to be able to write again, but I have to warn you: my posts are going to seem pretty random for a while. That’s because dialogue is impossible without some common framework in terminology and concepts, which I suppose explains why there is so little productive dialogue these days. I want to talk about some key subjects, but I now realize I will have to take a measured approach, carefully laying out what I actually mean when I use a term — especially terms that come with heavy baggage from the past. One such term is ‘soul.’

C. S. Lewis is often quoted as having said, “You do not have a soul: you are a soul. You have a body.” All those childhood discussions about whether or not people have souls, and if so, what are they made of, are completely flipped on their head by this simple remark. Lewis is pointing out that the word ‘soul’ is just a word, and it means person. Consciousness and free will may at the end of the day turn out to be mere epiphenomena, but whomever is being addressed by the pronoun ‘you’ just is a soul according to the definition of that word. Now I understand that some people believe that souls are eternal and indestructible, but that view is by no means universal even among the writers of the Bible (it is thought to be a Hellenistic accretion by many scholars, but I digress). Such discussions are irrelevant to what I am trying to say here.

On the other hand, Nietzsche famously said that we are in the process of discovering that “the soul is just something about the body.” Well, fine, if we drill down to the mechanisms of the organs of the body and it turns out that this thing we call consciousness is a mere physiological cyber-function that happens to pass the Turing test, I am still left with my experience of being a conscious subject. It’s like telling me that my body is essentially a driver-less car: my belief that I am steering it is as cute as the preschooler thinking they are steering the toy fire engine car on the carnival ride. But then, you still haven’t explained who this ‘I’ is who thinks he is driving.

But for the sake of the discussion I want to have it is oh so much simpler than all that. Let’s just approach the thing externally (as the Turing test does, by the way) and say this: there is the body, and there is the soul, and by “the body” we mean that collection of atoms you take to the morgue when the person is dead, and by “the person” we mean everything else about them that animates them and makes them who they are.

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