The Immortal Soul

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The idea that the essence of a person is non-physical and survives the death of the body is a truly ancient one. Early conceptualisations of the soul included the idea that bodies contained a “breath of life”. Some viewed the soul as a force that enlivens and drives a body. What’s interesting about the problem of the soul in history is not so much that people have recognised this thing named “soul” and sought to describe it but rather have sought explanations for how human beings work and labelled various descriptions as “the soul.” It may be that questions about self-awareness, conscious thought and imagination have been answered with recourse to supernatural explanations in the absence of better accounts. The soul has become quite an influential idea. It’s a convenient means by which everything that makes you who you are can escape death. With the idea of an immortal soul we can envision life or lives after death and begin to construct a picture of where we go, what it’s like and what we need to do in life in order to get there.

If we take our definition of the soul to be “an immaterial part of a person that contains the essence of who they are and survives the death of the body”, what evidence is there to support a belief in it? Well, some people make bold claims on behalf of science, saying that there is evidence for the existence of the soul but these claims should probably be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism. The fact is that if there was solid scientific evidence for the soul we would all know about it, it would be enormous news and the real world implications would be huge. The problem here is that we are looking at the soul as if it’s a thing with features like personality, memory and feelings rather than as an explanation for these things as they occur in human beings. Is your personality immaterial? Are your memories immortal? Can your feelings persist beyond death? Some people will claim yes to all of these, providing pretty dodgy evidence if any. Yet we know that chemical changes in the body can alter mood, personality and the ability to access and create memories. Anyone who has known a loved one suffering dementia will be aware of how damage to the brain can fundamentally alter personality and recollection. Unfortunates who have suffered acquired brain injuries have permanently lost aspects of who they were. The immortal soul is simply not a very good explanation. Who we are is very much physical and far from immortal.

I’ve suggested elsewhere that what we believe matters because our beliefs have real world implications. In the case of the soul the consequence can be a devaluing of the body and a devaluing of life. Some people might be less inclined to sacrifice themselves for religious or political reasons if it were not for their belief in an immortal soul. It makes it easier to stomach human suffering and profound inequality without taking direct tangible action if you can believe it’s just a temporary part of an immortal existence. Some find solace in the idea that they will be reunited with loved ones when they die or at least that their loved ones persist. In a sense it feels like a harmless idea that because it brings comfort shouldn’t be contradicted. I’m not convinced that it is harmless though. It slots in with other unfounded beliefs and explanations of the world and can act as a cornerstone that props these beliefs up. For example I’ve known several people who genuinely believed that humans can be possessed by spirits or demons. Others I’ve known believed that the soul can become detached from their body and lost. For some the soul is a means by which people can carry their culpability beyond death. It’s a belief that can give people a feeling that justice cannot be escaped. It’s also a means by which our behaviour and expectations can be influenced. If you happen to believe that your essence will escape death then you might want some assurances about how you’ll be spending eternity and there are plenty who are willing to provide conditional assurances.

We need to recognise that the concept of an immortal soul is an outdated attempt to understand and describe difficult human features like personality, imagination and memory. The soul is a wrong answer where much better answers are available. Accepting that we are all physical, fragile and vulnerable should broaden our compassion. Proceeding on the basis that we probably don’t persist beyond death should cause us to value life. Rather than believing that wrongs will be righted in the here-after, let’s take responsibility for righting them in the here and now.

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16 comments

  1. Matt S. · April 16, 2016

    Thank you for this. Very thoughtful piece.

    Like

    • Matt · April 16, 2016

      Thanks for the comment, I’m glad you liked it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Immortal Soul « babelbricks
  3. Christ Centered Teaching · April 16, 2016

    11He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts,

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    • Matt · April 16, 2016

      That’s very poetic, I like it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. KIA · April 16, 2016

    as a christian, i saw the soul as a descriptor of the mind, will and emotion of a person. i still see it that way but i don’t see it anymore as a separated part of the person that survives death, but as an integrated part of our human and physical existence… the result of our brain activity and consciousness.
    i am going to be pleasantly surprised if “I” survives the death of my body, but at this point, i have no way of knowing or proving that it’s even possible.
    -KIA

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    • Matt · April 16, 2016

      When I believed in God I thought something similar. Thanks for commenting KIA 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Christ Centered Teaching · April 16, 2016

    King Solomon wrote that in Ecclesiastes 3:11, The Bible.
    He, being God, has placed the knowledge of eternity in mankind. We are hardwired to know eternity exists, death is wrong, and life should never end.

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    • Matt · April 17, 2016

      CCT I’m always curious to know how religious people engage with topics like this (I’m assuming from your name and comment that you hold religious beliefs). If you’re comfortable with me asking, what went through your mind while you read this post? Particularly in connection the idea that the soul is an unverifiable explanation for human properties that are demonstrably physical.

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      • Christ Centered Teaching · April 19, 2016

        I think that our senses indicate the existence of the supernatural. We see further evidences in the natural world and our reaction to beauty and our awe and wonder at the scientific as well.
        We seem fascinated at something higher and beyond our comprehensive abilities regardless of how much we discover and understand.

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      • Matt · April 19, 2016

        Thank you for getting back to me CCT. If I follow your meaning, what you took away from the post is that people are naturally curious. They are aware of the current limits of their understanding and strive to find answers. I think I agree.

        Is it that we sense the supernatural or is it that we sense things we don’t understand and explain them with the supernatural?

        I think that if we use the supernatural as an explanation, then we don’t have to do any more work to figure things out since we can’t explain things we willingly place outside the realm of the knowable. Yet history shows us that yesterday’s unknowable is today’s known. So perhaps we shouldn’t give up too easily 🙂

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      • Christ Centered Teaching · April 19, 2016

        Who’s giving up?
        My God commands me to love Him with ALL my mind as well as my heart and all my strength.
        Newton wrote more about religion than science, yet he is to this day the undisputed king of scientists.

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      • Matt · April 19, 2016

        I find the idea of being commanded to love somewhat uncomfortable and I wouldn’t be able to or want to do that. I think that’s why comments like yours are interesting to me, because they represent a way of thinking that’s very different to my own. It’s right to recognise Newton’s achievements but I think one of the strengths of science is that claims that are made using scientific methods don’t rely on the names of the people who make them. Fortunately we don’t have to pray to Newton to keep the gravity switched on 😉

        Feel free to comment more but as a reply to a higher comment. I’ve set the comment depth so that comments remain readable.

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      • Christ Centered Teaching · April 20, 2016

        God is good, perfect, and all He has created reflects who and what He is in a very small way. Yet we are often filled with awe and wonder.
        God is therefore not a self absorbed megalomaniac. He knows it is good for us to love Him.
        But God also made a way for our love to be purely reciprocal.
        “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” ( John 3:16, The Bible )

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      • Matt · April 20, 2016

        It’s an appealing quote if you don’t think about it too closely. But deconstruct it a little…

        God loved the world and as a consequence he had his son put to death. This is because people don’t do what he wants and he made death the punishment for this. God decided sin requires blood to wipe it out. It doesn’t have to be your blood though. So if you believe in God, his son and this story, the human sacrifice of Jesus will be accepted instead. If not you’ll die.

        I’ll agree the original sounds much better and mine sounds a little mean spirited but the message is essentially the same and seems kind of arbitrarily horrific.

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  6. Secular Detective · April 18, 2016

    Well written.
    You might like my piece on the same topic:

    https://seculardetective.wordpress.com/2016/03/21/the-possibility-of-a-soul/

    Liked by 1 person

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