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.

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