What is the Soul?
By Rev. Dr. William C. Myers and Scott Blair | Sept. 1, 2018
I think the idea that we are each a created, non-material soul, temporarily possessing a body, is widely cherished because it suggests that death is not final. There may also be appeal in regarding oneself as an intended and lasting part of the universe rather than as a fleeting fleck of biology. The suggestion that we exist independent of our bodies is passed down to us in mythologies and is reinforced by modern-day accounts of out-of-body experiences.
However, all available evidence indicates our conscious “self,” our “soul,” is inseparable from our physiology. Emergence of awareness occurs with development of our brain during infancy. Consciousness, mood, perception, personality — our “selves” — are alterable by sleep, anesthesia, drugs, shock treatments, head injuries, or diseases like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. Out-of-body experiences can be induced with chemical or electrical manipulation of a person’s brain. These facts demonstrate that our very selves reside in the workings of the squishy organ at the top of our spine.
Analogous to the way a melody emerges from the arrangement of musical notes, our conscious self emerges out of the arrangement of atoms that make us up. Scramble the notes, and the melody is not there. Disrupt our physiology, and our consciousness is gone.
While this understanding does not offer an afterlife, it does not reduce meaning or value during life. It may actually increase it, as limited amounts increase the value of anything. And while our consciousness doesn’t last forever, our impact on those we leave behind will remain for a time, and the atoms that make us up will recycle into the universe. There is some poetic beauty there.
In trying to understand what we are, let’s start with an honest, careful assessment of the information we have before us. Look past the muddling emotions that surround inevitable death. Don’t give unwarranted credence to inherited mythologies. Graspable evidence points to a finite life in an often-beautiful world, surrounded by many similarly conscious, mortal fellow humans. Now, what should we do with that?
Scott, been watching Cocoon? That 1985 film is the last time I saw anything resembling a "non-material soul, temporarily possessing a body." Seeing Brian Dennehy and Tawny Welch step out of their skin and fly around the pool was cool, but it's a far cry from the human soul. What you're describing is closer to Gnosticism, the Christian heresy based on Greek philosophical beliefs that matter is evil and the spirit good. Gnostics, not Christians, believed they were spiritual beings trapped in a human body. The Christian belief in the soul is similar to your own. We also believe the soul is inseparable from our physiology. Where you and I differ is here: We Christians believe the soul is located in our being, not our brain. So, Christians — even those whose brains are damaged, whether by drugs, head injuries, or disease — are still created in the image of God, because their individual souls — this force, this mystery that begets life – are still intact. For Christians, the soul is as much about how we view people in this life, as we do in the next.
“All Thoughts, all Passions, all Delights/Whatever stirs this mortal Frame,/All are but Ministers of Love,/And feed his sacred flame.” —William Wordsworth
We know there is a soul. The poet sings of love. The scientist sees the fulfillment of the laws of chemistry and physics. The theologian speaks of the image of God. Whatever religion we choose — art, science, or faith — we are led to the same conclusion: Life is not death. Death is the absence of the song, the science, the soul — where once there was life.
If you have ever been in the presence of death, you know. The question is not: “Is there a soul?” The question is this: “What is this force — this mystery — that begets life?”
Science speaks of chemistry and physics. When these systems are working correctly, energy is produced, and we live. When they fail, it is as if someone has thrown a switch; we die. The “soul” of science is simply the chemistry and physics that give us life, what we might call animation.
Yearning to be more than animated dust, the poet sings of thoughts and passions and delights — “Whatever stirs this mortal Frame” — and life and love. Though it cannot be observed under an electron microscope, spun in a centrifuge, or replicated in a test tube, even the scientist must see there is more to life than animation. There is love!
Where science speaks of animation, and the poet sings of love, the Bible speaks of purpose — what we might call anointing. We were given life and love, we were given a soul, we were anointed for a purpose: to be like God.
“God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness … So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” — Genesis 1:26-27
The human soul is more than life or love. The human soul is the kiss of God!
Why yearn to be more than animated dust? It is a wondrous thing to be a conscious, feeling, experiencing collection of atoms. And we needn’t imagine an anointing God to give us meaning in life. Yes, the scientist speaks of chemistry and physics, but that same person may also speak of love, joy, beauty, and mystery. Bill’s statement intimates that we who appreciate the richness of the universe through science are somehow hindered from also feeling it and appreciating it through emotional (and some atheists even say “spiritual”) experience. This notion paints people who value inquiry and rationality as being deaf to the poet and blind to God. But science can provide new understanding as inspiration for poetry to stir our mortal hearts. And the nonbeliever is conscientious and discerning, not blind.
Whether life is born from natural causes or divine intention, Scott and Bill agree, that which begets life and manifests itself in the “soul” or “consciousness” of a human being inspires awe and wonder.