What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Souls?

The question that got me interested in philosophy in the first place is the idea of “souls.” As a youngster, I noticed how much people talk about souls, in both a religious and a secular context, but never seemed to define them very well. I would hazard to say that most people in the United States, whether they would profess to this or not, live their lives with the belief that all persons have an immaterial seat of consciousness & personality called a “soul,” and this soul departs one’s body upon death.

What came to bother me is how to square “Soul Psychology” with the knowledge we have about brains. Strokes and head injuries have the potential to not only cripple people, but to alter one’s personality. Why then do we often assume that our tastes, interests, dreams, hopes, delights, fears, ideas, etc. are rooted in an immaterial, and yet centered, soul?
I have not seen too many philosophers actually talk about “Souls” per say, but I see this same sort of issue come up under the problem personal identity, and the problem of consciousness. In the problem of consciousness, philosophers and neuro-scientists try to answer the question as to how subjective experience is possible, given a material brain. The answer has not been reached; however, most people have moved away from “Cartesian Dualism,” which describes the mind as a wholly different substance than our material bodies. There are many objections to Cartesian (or Substance) Dualism, but one of the earliest, and possibly most damning, is the question as to how an immaterial substance can interact with a material body.

It’s worth noting how “Immaterial” is not the same thing as “Something you can’t touch,” as radio waves, gravity, light, electricity, and radiation are all physical phenomena, and thus can be explained without appealing to a spiritual realm. Other commonsense objections to Cartesian Dualism include wondering why our immaterial souls can only control certain parts of our body, but not others (you can’t will your hard to stop, for example), or why substances like alcohol, or conditions like a lack of sleep, clout your consciousness if it’s supposed to be immaterial.

The seemingly simplest answer to the riddle of consciousness and souls is to say that the physical world is all that exists, and consciousness is a biological “computer program” being run on the system of our brain. I think there are some problems with this view, but I am more interested to turn to what I think is the reason why souls interest people in the first place: an answer to the riddle of personal identity. Even if we can pin down the machinations of consciousness arising from a physical system, there is still an uncertainty as to how and why we feel like we are consistent persons throughout time and space. What I mean by this, we regard ourselves as going through great physical, emotional, and psychological changes throughout our life, and still understand, and speak of ourselves as a single person experiencing all of this. To believe in a soul, especially in the popular Christian sense (regardless of whether this is particularly orthodox, my early construal is a broad folk belief), allows one to believe in a single, simple, consistent personal identity that withstands and survives all changes, especially death.

While many find this comforting, there are some who challenge this notion. David Hume, possibly the most influential English-language philosopher, argued that when we introspect, we encounter thoughts, feelings, impressions, memories, sensations, etc. but never a ‘self.’ Our conscious experience is a “Bundle” of impressions and moments, not a centered self. Following this contemporary philosopher Derek Parfit argued that we ought to be “Liberated from the Self,” and that getting rid of the idea that personhood is a sort of sealed vessel that transverses the same river, but can only bump up against other sealed vessels, is necessary to contextualize our relationships, life, and inevitable death. These ideas are not news if one is familiar with Eastern religion, especially Buddhist, Jainist, and Daoist teaching. To say that “one does not believe in the self” is not an especially controversial thing to say in academic or spiritual circles anymore, and is often seen as a response to the excesses of Cartesian Dualism, as mentioned earlier.

I find David Hume’s Bundle Theory of Self a compelling vision for many reasons, especially because it emphasizes how divided and jumbled our internal world tends to be. Building on this foundation, I would say that “The Self” is a narrative construction more than a non-entity, meaning that it is ultimately a fiction, but a useful fiction. Contemporary psychological practice appears to confirm this, as therapy works to contextualize memories of the past to create a new narrative to compel better feelings and actions in the present.

I am drawn to believe that “Soul-Talk” is a poetic way of talking about our narrative selves, a way to understand and experience the history and weight of our subjective experience. I am not convinced that conscious experience, at least the way I am undergoing it as I type this, will continue uninterrupted upon death in a non-corporal form. I don’t think my conscious experience of this hour is directly contiguous with the conscious experience of the person I will be in the next. This is, I insist, a gift, as we are always changing, always becoming, and always in relationship with others. As my consciousness ends at death, for all I know, the Soul-Narrative is passed to the next writer. And perhaps this is not exceptionally different than the experience of waking up each day.

Caribou Coffee & The Epistemology of Faith

I used to visit a Caribou Coffee in Waukesha quite frequently. They were the best, because they sold dark chocolates by the register, and had free refills. Many of the workers seemed to belong to a local, hip evangelical church, given their tattoos and turns of phrase. As somebody who is very interested in epistemology, the study of knowledge, I once posed this question to one of the workers with an ornate Jesus tattoo:

“What, if any kind of evidence or argumentation, would you need to dissuade you from Christianity?”

For example, in a debate, Christian apologist William Lane Craig was asked if the bones of Jesus Christ would destroy his faith. Craig answered yes, as Jesus’ bones would indicate that He did not raise from the dead, and the Resurrection did not occur.

In response to my question, this fellow said he believed by faith, and that was not the sort of thing that could be dissuade. I didn’t want to press him more, but I found it interesting how we seemed to be operating with differing epistemological models.

The Harvard Professor, and perhaps the only American Libertarian of widespread respect in Anglo-American philosophy, Robert Nozick offers a theory of Justification of Beliefs that I find compelling, the “Truth-Tracking” account:

An agent has knowledge of something if…
1. Proposition P is true
2. The agent believes P is true
3. The agent believes P because of a method[s] of inquiry that support that proposition is true
4. If P is false, those same method[s] would indicate that as well

For example, if my friend and I got into a dispute about the price of soy milk, we could settle this dispute by going to the store to investigate. If I believe the price is $2.99, I know that finding the soy milk section will either reinforce this belief, or if the soy milk is actually $3.99, contradict this belief. I can state how my beliefs are justified, how they may be justified, and what would contradict or challenge my beliefs. Notice, all knowledge in this schema is justified belief; even the most basic or well-supported knowledge is still a form of belief.

Of course, evaluating evidence is a complicated matter, and there are many instances in which we could not give an example of one piece of evidence knocking down a belief, because confirmation and knowledge are holistic. Medicine is a clear example of this, as well as evaluating another person’s character. Still, intellectual honesty compels us to consider how our beliefs might be challenged, and what it would take to change them.
Religious epistemology is a different, as “Believing” in Jesus Christ includes both accepting descriptive propositions (the details of His life, his sayings, tenets of the Church), but also a devotional assent, an acceptance of a set of normative principles. While this was not my intention, I’m sure the barista took my question more as, “What sort of worldly things would keep you from going to church and participating in your community” rather than, “What, if any, empirical findings would challenge your belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?” Faith, for many, appears to operate like this,

An agent has knowledge of something, by faith, if…
1. Proposition P is true.
2. Faculties of reasoning are faulty by the corruption of Sin.
3. God instills a warrant to believe P by a faculty of faith, distinct from reason.
4. Empirical evidence does not, in and of itself, overturn faith. Only a new, clarified sense of faith can do that. Thus true-faith causes a belief to be super-warranted, and other evidence is to be treated with great suspicion.

Following point four, this is why I suspect that many religious people will respond in a debate by questioning the doubtful one’s character or intentions rather than the doubtful’s argument, because access to truth, according to this epistemological model, has little to nothing to do with methods of reasoning. Doubtfulness is a result of rejecting God’s warrant and relying on one’s faulty faculties of reason; if they cannot accept the truth they already know to be true, than there can be no debate.

This line of thinking, of course, begs the question, because it presupposes the conclusion (God has given us warrant for the truth) in the premises.

This faith-based epistemology, rooted in emotional conviction is not, of course, limited to Christianity, or religious group at all. The fact there is more than a dozen active socialist parties in the United States, none whose membership exceeds 20,000 people, strongly suggests that faith-driven epistemology is more common than one would initially think. Notice too, how disagreements with a zealot political participants often turns into accusations that one is brainwashed by the media, being manipulated by various conspiratorial forces, lacking class-consciousness, and so forth. Once one believes they have a supreme warrant for their beliefs, they seem to become remarkably difficult to converse with.

I do suspect that the best theory of justification rests somewhere in the middle of these two systems; Nozick’s theory may work for a number of direct, empirical questions, but it doesn’t obviously translate to many of the “Big Truths” we seek: What is the best political party to support? Who should I trust? Should we have children in the age of Climate Change? What kind of lifestyle will be the best for me? Is church something worth going to? Who is to blame for economic inequality? What is the responsibility we owe developing nations? The bigger the case, the more robust an epistemology we will need before we can even attempt to claim “The Truth?”

A resistance to responding to empirical evidence is a sign of fanaticism, and an inability to recognize the complexities and holism of life decisions is juvenile.

Scientific Theology?

Is Theology, the systematic study of God and the Church, a science? The intuitive answer to this question for most people, even the pious, is an abrupt “NO!” To this I ask, why is theology not a science? Many would respond that science is the study of the natural world, observable phenomena, not the supernatural, which seems to be the realm God occupies, assuming God exists. Fair, but I wonder about science fields that don’t study the natural world, such as data science or computer science, or fields of scientific research that have no empirical observation, like String Theory, or a good deal of conjuncture, like evolutionary psychology, or have an enormous amount of disagreement despite decades of research, like prescriptive nutrition.

Despite my skepticism of Scientism or Scientific Triumphalism, I still believe that the work of publicly-funded, methodologically-sound science is more trustworthy than just about any other source available. I trust physical therapists any day over chiropractors, and I immediately am drawn to skepticism whenever somebody informs me that a particular substance with a long name causes cancer.

Having drawn this boundary, I tend to view science and religion as being two different “Language Games,” as Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein termed it, two different languages with different references, expectations, rhetorical traditions, syntaxes, and so forth. To take the claims of a religious tradition, especially in its stories of the miraculous or claims of values and assumptions about the universe, and plop them in a scientific discourse, one will completely miss the point. While many science educators will make note about how poor science literacy is in the United States, and how religious traditions are used in the place of science’s narratives (albeit more empirically backed up narratives, but narratives none-the-less), I believe this attitude is dangerous when used to recklessly criticize the religious beliefs, narratives, traditions, and languages of marginalized groups. This too often is a thinly-disguised cultural colonialism, and is an especially unwelcome position in a pluralistic society.

(Note: this is not to say that all cultural practices must be accepted as good or legal. I, for one, oppose the consumption of meat in almost all circumstances, but I recognize it is not my place as a white person to be challenging Inuit people over seal hunting. Instead, I might support the reformers already in place within that community, paying special attention to their needs and perspectives. In short, nobody ever said living in a pluralistic society was easy or without ideological conflict.)

Perhaps the greatest difference between theology and science is how theology is a language of normative claims, that is to say, theology makes claims about what you ought to believe and ought to do. Science generally exclusively makes positive claims, claims of “It is the case that …” or more often, “The experiment produced this result, which suggests …” Positive claims appear to be objective statements about the world, but they lack the sort of moral or civic or cultural “Push” that normative claims give us. Along these lines, I do not believe morality can be reduced to positive statements, and I suspect some scientific fields, like nutrition or clinical psychology, can never fully divorce themselves from the language and work of unscientific normative claims.

There is much, much more to be said about the spectrum between normative and positive claims, but for this piece, I am interested in how the theologian could take a scientific approach to her work. Many German theologians in particular spent a great deal of energy investigating the historical Jesus of Nazareth in the 19th and early 20th century, hoping to find meaningful insights. Unfortunately, very little extra-biblical evidence of Jesus’ life could be found, and the general sense became that notions of the Historical Jesus need to be set aside to focus on the discourse and the community of the early church. Many contemporary theologians have began to re-read the Letters of Paul with a bit more background knowledge of local politics, and the era’s Judaism, giving a reading of Paul that sounds much more contiguous with Jewish tradition, and with less of an individual-salvation focus. Enhanced studies in comparative literature have confirmed very definitively that Isaiah has at least two authors, the Pastoral Epistles of Paul were almost certainly not written by Paul, and the Revelation of St. John was not written by the same author of The Gospel of John, or the Johanne Epistles. Of course, even with this positive knowledge, our theology can go in many different directions. Some theologians became much more heterodox, taking a very non-supernatural reading to the text. A lot of contemporary seminaries have largely ditched metaphysical approaches to God, and now take more of a post-structuralist/Social Justice Oriented approach to the text.

I wonder what could be learned if the theologian took the positive study of God & Church one step further by attempting to document a cohesive theology by simply interview people of their religious beliefs. That is to say, not of the official dogma or doctrine or transcribed liturgy, but an objective collection of people’s beliefs. Even atheists can participate in this survey, as questions about civic duties, moral duties, rights, values, views on money, views on family, general perspectives on the human condition, and so forth are often too normative of claims to be meaningfully confirmed in a scientific discourse. For example, an Atheist follower of Ayn Rand, and an atheist Trotskyite, an atheist (but still spiritual) yoga-hippie person, and an atheist men’s rights activist are bound to have markedly distinct fundamental values and narratives of the world, even if they do not hold a belief in the existence of a deity.

To more of a Christian turn, it seems to me that the notion of Hell has virtually vanished from mainline protestant denominations’ discourse, along with any notion that the Jewish People need to convert to Christianity, or the notion that God is gendered. Regardless of the official doctrine, the theology of the people (or of the Spirit, if you are incline to believe), has re-focused the Church.

The classic line remains, “Man must bow to God, not God to Man,” and while I recognize the emotional sincerity and urgency in this sentiment, I would remain cautious of the notion that the will of God can be definitively known through language, but yet is independent of the discourse inherent in language. For this reason, I advocate for assuming the first source of a good theology is the practice of the people, and then the work of the scholars.