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.