What Is the Soul? From Anima to Abstraction
What Is the Soul?
What Is the Definition of "Soul"?
There have been many definitions of the soul throughout the years. Beliefs about the soul arose from an attempt to explain observed biological and psychological phenomena. Anthropologists have found a belief in souls in virtually all cultures.
According to dictionary.com the soul is:
"the principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans, regarded as a distinct entity separate from the body, and commonly held to be separable in existence from the body; the spiritual part of humans as distinct from the physical part"
Debates about the soul revolve around two competing theories.
- The first is “dualism” which posits that the soul exists separate from the body and is responsible for intention. The anima, or soul, animates the body and gives intentionality to the body.
- The other is “materialism” which states that there is only a single substance, physical matter. The mind is a manifestation of the body. The soul is a manifestation of the mind. Both the mind and the soul are abstractions arising from neurological functions in the brain.
What Was the Earliest Thinking About the Soul?
The word soul can be traced back to the Old English word, sáwol or sáwel. The earliest known use of the word is found in the 8th century poem. Beowulf. The original concept of the word means "coming from or belonging to the sea or lake," and it reflects the old German belief that souls are born out of, and return to, certain sacred lakes.
One of the earliest references to a soul as a separate entity from the body is the stele of Kuttamuwa. Kuttamuwa was an 8th-century BC royal from an ancient kingdom in what is now Turkey, who ordered an inscribed stele, a small monument, to be erected upon his death. The inscription requested that his mourners commemorate his life and afterlife with feasts "for my soul that is in this stele."
But the idea of a soul probably began long before the 8th century. .It most likely began when human consciousness arose and humans came to understand death and first had language to put the idea of a soul into words. That would place the time frame for the beginnings of the concept of soul around 200,000 years ago.
Humans have always sought to understand why some things, like animals are living, and other things, like stones, are not. And, why humans are different from other animals. And since humans don’t like to think that death is the end of us, the concept of an eternal soul provides a way to survive death.
The ancient Chinese believed that humans had two souls. The lower corporeal soul, called po, remained with the corpse after death, but the rational soul, called hun, survived death. However, one of the traditions within Taoism proposes a soul structure of seven po and of three hun.
The ancient Egyptians believed that a human soul was made up of five parts: the Ren, the Ba, the Ka, the Sheut, and the Ib. The body was a separate entity, the ha. However, the number of souls changed from one dynasty to another, sometimes five parts, sometimes seven, sometimes even nine.
What Did the Classical Philosophers Think About the Soul?
According to Plato (428-387 BCE) and Aristotle (322-384 BCE), humans were thought to have many souls. There were “body souls” which animated the body and “ego souls” which animated the mind, giving rise to thoughts and feelings. Some souls were “free souls” that could leave the body, and these souls carried us off into the worlds of our dreams. It was believed that souls could survive death.
Plato wrote about an immortal soul in two of his dialogues, Phaedo and The Republic. Plato believed in an endless cycle of reincarnation--souls originated in the realm of the dead and only temporarily existed in living beings before returning to the underworld.
Plato posited that the soul consisted of three hierarchical parts. The lowest was the appetitive; in the middle was the spirited; and the highest was the rational. The appetitive was located in the belly and controlled basic bodily functions (thirst, hunger, sexual desire). The spirited was located in the heart and controlled the emotions. The rational was located in the head and controlled thought and reason.
Plato’s student, Aristotle, wrote about the soul in his treatise on the nature of living things, De Anima (On the Soul). He posited that all living things had a soul (or anima). The nutritive soul was found in plants and controlled growth and decay. Animals had both a nutritive soul and a sensitive soul; this second soul controlled the five senses. Humans had three souls: The highest soul, the rational soul which controlled thoughts and emotions, was found only in humans and was what distinguished humans from the other animals.
Democritus (460-370 BCE) had an opposing view. He formulated the doctrine of materialism which posited that there was only one kind of substance—matter which was made up of the invisible particles called “atoms.” There was no separate soul substance; instead highly volatile atoms called “fire atoms” animated the body.
Dualism: Body and Soul
When Did the Modern Concept of the Soul Begin?
Early Christian thinkers, such as St. Augustine (354-430 CE) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274 CE), adopted the soul concepts of Plato and Aristotle. It was not until René Descartes (1596-1650) at the dawn of the Renaissance that a new idea about the soul took hold. Descartes downsized the three souls of Aristotle down to just one soul, thereby formulating the dualism approach that predominates today—a material body animated by an immaterial soul.
Descartes had a mechanistic view of the human body. Humans were machines with tubes (blood vessels), pipes (nerves), and springs, (tendons and muscles). He ran into a problem with this line of thinking—machines can’t think and feel. He thus posited “res cognitive,” the thinking substance, an immaterial substance, the soul.
The noted British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, scoffed at this idea of dualism in his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind. He called it the “ghost in the machine,” a phrase that has since been used by many others,
Today “the-body-is-a machine” concept is used only as a metaphor, but the idea of an immaterial soul that inhabits the material body continues. It is commonly thought that the soul is responsible for consciousness, as well to have the ability to reason, to have thoughts and feelings, to have a sense of right and wrong, and to have free will.
What Do Some Religions Believe About the Soul Today?
There are many different sects of Christians and beliefs vary from one to another, but some generalizations can be made.
Christians believe that the human soul (and only humans have souls) is central to personhood. Some believe in the dualistic concept of body and soul while others believe that humans are triune with body, soul, and spirit.
Some Christians emphasize the importance of the soul by saying you are not a body with a soul, you are a soul with a body. Others say you should not look at the body and soul as separate entities because they are unified within each individual, essentially fused together. However, the soul departs the body at death and ascends to Heaven. (Presumably, some go elsewhere.)
They believe that the soul is eternal and survives death. Every soul that has ever existed still exists.
The word in the Hebrew that is often translated as soul is “nephesh.” However, its actual meaning is “a breathing creature.” It can also mean desire, passion, or appetite. In the five books that comprise the Torah, there is no sense of nephesh as meaning an imaterial entity that inhabits a body.
When the Jews came into contact with the Persian and Greek influences, the idea of a soul began to be part of Judaism, especially in the more mystic traditions like Kabala.
In Islam, a person's soul is located in the heart. It possesses two opposing impulses—good and evil. After death, the souls of the pious remain near Allah so that, on Judgment Day, their souls may be reunited with Allah.
Atman is the word used for soul in Hinduism. (it is derived from the word “atma” which means breath.) It underlies all bodily functions, including the ability for rational thought. It is the eternal core of the personality. When a person dies, the soul will either transmigrate to a new life or be liberated from any further bodily existence.
Buddhists take a materialistic approach. In Buddhism, as Gautama Buddha taught it, there is no reincarnation and no soul. The word anatta means no self or no soul, is central to the Buddhist tradition.
When Do Humans Get a Soul?
When Does Ensoulment Occur?
If a religion teaches the existence of a soul, the natural question is ,"When does the soul enter the body? Most believe that God creates each individual soul in a special act of creation, but there are many different beliefs about when ensoulment occurs.
The various beliefs about the time of ensoulment are:
- When the sperm enters the egg
- When the fertilized egg attaches to the uterine wall (Conception is a process that takes several hours.)
- When the embryo's heart first starts to beat (About 18-21 days after conception)
- When the embryo first begins to look like a human (At the end of the first trimester, more or less)
- When the mother first feels the fetus move, e.g. quickening (At about 4½ months)
- When sentience is attained, e.g., the fetal brain is capable of some higher functions and has some form of primitive consciousness (At the end of the second trimester)
- When the fetus has emerged half-way from its mother's body
- When the umbilical cord has been cut and the newborn is breathing on its own
(Interestingly, the Catholic church opposes abortion at any time by any means, but it currentlly takes no position on when ensoulment occurs.)
Where is the Soul?
How Does Science Explain the Soul?
Although some people think of body, mind, and soul as three separate entities, modern science proves that the materialism theory is correct. There is only body. The body gives rise to the mind, and the mind gives rise to the soul.
The brain is part of the body, and the sense of self arises in the brain. Your sense of “me-ness,” your identity, arises from the functions of the brain. When brain activity stops, the self ends.
Biologists have determined how the body works. All physical processes—the nervous system, physical feelings like pain, hormone secretions, heart rate, and thousands of other bodily functions are all controlled by complex processes that occur within the brain.
Neurologists have discovered the processes that occur within the brain produce all of our mental states. Abstract thinking, judgments, thoughts, instincts, memories, personality traits (niceness, politeness, friendliness, etc.), and emotional states (love, hate, anger, depression) all have biochemical causes. All can be radically affected by stimulating the brain in certain spots, by consumption of certain substances (e.g. alcohol, drugs), by brain damage, and by brain surgery. This is all only possible if consciousness and emotions all have physical causation.
How then to explain a soul? If the brain can and does control and affect everything about our behavior and mental states, what is left for a soul to do? If physical changes or damage to the brain cause changes in behavior and mental states, do these physical changes affect the soul also? Can the soul—an eternal, non-physical, and non-material entity—be affected by physical means? Clearly, there is no soul that exists independently from the body.
Why then do so many seem to feel the presence of a soul? Again science has the answer: Emergent Reality. Both consciousness and the soul are illusions created by the brain.
It’s not a very well-understood phenomena. That is why scientists call it “The Hard Problem of Consciousness.” Nonetheless, I’ll provide a very over-simplified explanation. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
As you read this, you are actually just seeing pixels of black and white. The brain gnores the white specks and interprets the black specks as letters, then interprets the letters as words, and then finally gives meaning to these words. It may then have a mental reaction to the message. All of this occurs almost instantly in the brain. The meaning is not in the pixels, but it emerges from them.
There is no specific site in the brain for consciousness; no single spot that we could label “ego.” To use an analogy, there is no command center where the self (or soul) sits controlling everything. Consciousness results from the interaction of vast arrays of neuronal processes.It is all neuro-biological. It is all an illusion.
The soul is no more than a metaphor for a feeling, the sense of self that we feel. It is a word best left for the poets.
From the “anima” of philosophy and theology to the “abstraction” of modern science—the concept of the soul has evolved over the centuries.
The Soul Fallacy
Please take this poll
Do you believe humans have a soul?
Conundrums, Quandaries, and Questions
The concept of a soul raises more questions than answers. The following essay shows why the concept of soul cannot survive thoughtful examination.
© 2016 Catherine Giordano