A ‘Soul’ Is Just a Person (continued)

In my previous post I defined what I mean when I use the word ‘soul’ — it is essentially synonymous with ‘person’. I could just use the word ‘person’, but that word is usually taken to include the whole person, i.e., the body as well. By soul I mean everything about the person except their physical body, with the understanding that the line between body and personality is neither hard nor fixed. I am not suggesting that the soul is some sort of amorphous, nebulous substance that is added to a living body by some sort of higher power. I am philosophizing here, not doing theology. Thus, I want to start by pointing out what is obvious, uncontroversial, and indubitably true: stuff you can see for yourself to be the case.

Try this analogy: by itself a musical instrument is a material object. When I play it, the music that comes out is immaterial, except insofar as structured energy is being transmitted in the form of sound waves (so it is indeed physical, which is not the same as material). The music is not a ‘substance’ in the way that the material of the guitar is, but it is nevertheless real. You can hear it. What the music you hear is to the body of the guitar, so my soul is to the physical body you see before you. The obvious difference is that the guitar doesn’t make music on its own. It is not alive. My body is alive, and the patterns that emerge from my thoughts, words, intentions, actions, etc., comprise my ‘personality’, which I am arguing just is, by definition, what I mean by ‘soul’. It’s really not mystical or anything. Just as you can hear music and know that music is real, you can interact with me and see my soul, even though my soul is not, strictly speaking, a material thing.

There are consequences that immediately follow from the approach I am taking:

  1. Any animal has a soul in the sense that I am using the word. Your dog is a ‘person’.
  2. I make no claim whatsoever about the separability of the soul from the body. Quite the opposite, actually, because there are no examples of music you can hear arising without a voice, instrument, or electronic audio production system of some kind producing the sound.
  3. The soul arises naturally from the behavior of the living being as it interacts with its environment and other beings. It comes from just being alive and sentient. It is not added from the outside (no one “gives you a soul” — the soul is you, so it can’t be taken away either).
  4. When the body dies, we no longer see the soul associated with it — “the music stops.” Did the soul die with the body? Did it go somewhere else? I make no claims here in either direction. But it is no longer observable through the behavior of the body.
  5. It seems possible that a body in a vegetative state (i.e., a person is judged to be “brain dead”) might not have a soul, but I urge caution here, because people do come out of comas.
  6. For my purposes, I am going to say that plants don’t have souls, although they are alive. This is just to maintain the distinction between plants and animals: plants can’t walk around, they can be dead and then come back to life, they can be pruned, grafted, cut and propagated. So while a sensitive person may feel as though their plants have souls, because the individuality of plants is less defined I am going to say “no soul in the sense that I mean here.”

A final note: nothing I have said here is to be taken as an “assertion of facts about the soul”. What I am doing is taking things we all know to be the case and then constructing a way of talking about them. I am clarifying how the word ‘soul’ will be used in my writing, and specifically what it will indicate (and what it will not).

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.