In a recent conversation a fellow skeptic commented that we don’t really know what happens to us when we die. What? I thought. Of course we know what happens: Our hearts stop beating, our brains stop functioning, our bodies start to decay. But of course that’s not what he was talking about. What he was referring to was the idea of soul.
Most of us grew up believing that we have both a body and a soul, a sort of dualism. The body is physical. It’s made of atoms that are governed by the laws of nature. We have a pretty good idea of how it operates. When we die the body corrupts. The soul, on the other hand, is more mysterious. It’s not clear what’s it’s made of, but, whatever it is, it is not the usual physical stuff.
We were taught that the soul is “spiritual,” though it’s not clear what exactly that means. Generally, the soul is tied into religion in the sense that we are taught that it comes from God. Most people of faith think of the soul as the most important part of us. If we are to be judged, it is our souls that are on trial.
So what happens to the soul when we die? Nearly all Christian religions agree that the soul survives the death of the body. But beyond that there is disagreement among different faiths. Some believe that our souls are reunited with God and that we retain our consciousness and personalities, presumably in heaven (or perhaps “the other place”). Other faiths believe there is a period during which our souls “sleep” pending a resurrection at some point in the future.
Does all this sound familiar? Well, let’s look a little more closely.
The conventional belief is that it is the soul that is in control. It hangs around the brain somehow and is the agency actually responsible for our actions. Our bodies are simply the marionettes; our souls are pulling all the strings. But how does that work exactly?
Under our current understanding of physics, there are subatomic particles and there are forces that dictate interactions among those particles. That’s it. Together, they account for essentially everything that happens. Our bodies, including our neural systems, are made of the same stuff as everything else. So how exactly would the soul intervene? When we investigate neural activity, all we find are the same particles and the same forces that make up everything else in the universe. And we understand that activity quite well. At a microscopic level there is nothing out of the ordinary. There is no mysterious, inexplicable activity that might be the result of the intervention of the soul.
Unlike objects in the physical world, souls are unobservable. They don’t show up anywhere. We may think that we each can observe our own soul, but is that really true? If you can, how would you describe it?
Perhaps the key to this is to ask yourself, Do only humans have souls? Do dogs have souls? What about sharks? Grasshoppers? Earthworms? Bacteria? Where do you draw the line, and how? Then ask yourself, Which animals are conscious? Dogs? Sharks? Grasshoppers? Earthworms? Bacteria? My guess is that, generally speaking, you would draw the line on consciousness more or less at the same point that you would for the soul.
So here is what I’m suggesting. What we call the soul is the same thing that we perceive as consciousness. Even though we may think of the soul as different from consciousness, the latter is the source for the idea of the former. Yes, you might say, but the soul has a spiritual element. We don’t really know what that means, however, other than what theologies have claimed, and they don’t have anything concrete to back that up.
Speaking as a physicalist, I do not believe the concept of soul is a useful one. It appears to be indistinguishable from consciousness, an internal experience which, while compelling, does not affect physical activity, including that of our neural system. More importantly, there simply isn’t any reliable, objective evidence that consciousness or the soul or whatever you want to call it survives death.
In short, the soul is simply our experience of consciousness to which we have attached our wish for the survival of death.
© 2016 John M. Phillips