The mode of analysis proper to the discussion of the soul

The easiest mistake one can make about the soul is thinking that he has to prove its existence. In all the vast history of the study of the soul, no one has ever proved its existence, nor even tried. This is not because they forgot about basics, but such a proof is unnecessary. The soul is whatever a living being has while living, and what it lacks when it is dead. That’s it. If this is brain activity, then brain activity is soul; if this is some kind of organization, then organization is soul; if this is some spirit in the body, then that’s soul. If it is some combination of these things, then soul is whatever is first and most causal among them. Regardless of whether you think that a a human body is nothing but so much meat and matter or whether you think we are only spirits caged in a body, it is ridiculous to ask whether the soul exists. It manifests a failure to understand what one is talking about. If you think that speaking about “the human soul” is too prejudicial toward the “spiritual” idea of man, too bad. You can’t hold a conversation hostage because of your inability to understand a term.

The reason why speaking of the soul seems awkward to us is it is a sort of question that we no longer ask, and it requires a mode of analysis that has fallen into disuse. We only need a terms like soul if we are trying to get a fundamental understanding of the definition of life. Not every kind of analysis of living things requires a definition of life- for it suffices that scientists have a general agreement about the things that are living. If “life” means nothing but a collection of some vast, agreed upon multitude of living things, then the need for a definition of life never arises. This vast multitude, of course, requires that we understand something fundamental about what makes living things living- and ideas like “soul” belong to a mode of analysis that tries to make this fundamental understanding of life more concrete. Our initial look at a running squirrel and a running faucet makes it clear that the one is living while the other is not. What is it that we see in this initial look? There are no doubt times when we will be unable to figure out whether something is living or not, but all this irrelevant to getting a clearer look at what we are seeing when we say that one thing is living, and another is not.

The ancients and medievals were very interested in the analysis of fundamental concepts as fundamental- we don’t seek to analyze things in this way. This is why a word like “soul” strikes us as arcane or  scientifically primitive. We have the same initial awareness of the difference between a live animal and a dead one, but we choose to analyze the phenomenon in terms of basic living units, measurable electrical activities, etc; but the ancients wanted to take a closer look at the general idea of life. We want to explain the common experience in terms of a more specialized experience: an experiment, a metrical reading, a microscopic analysis; but the ancients and medievals wanted to explain the common experience as common.  While staying at the level of common experience, the medievals and ancients sought to move from a confused idea to a distinct idea.

These two modes of analysis are in one way incredibly close, for they both start from the common experience of living and non-living things. This “common experience” is more like a multitude than a unity, but we manage to draw together just enough unity to coin the word “life” as opposed to “non-living”. The Modern scientist is content with an agreed upon multitude with minimal unity which he then tries to grasp in in the distinct parts of the living things, but the ancients sought to make that unity itself more distinct. In analyzing things in this way, the ancients needed a word like “soul”, the modern biologist has less need of it, for he immediately wants to analyse things by a specialized experience.

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10 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    August 10, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but I quite like the C.S. Lewis quote:

    “You don’t ‘have’ a soul, you are one. You have a body.”

    🙂

    -d-

  2. USS Ben said,

    August 10, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    “If you think that speaking about “the human soul” is too prejudicial toward the “spiritual” idea of man, too bad. You can’t hold a conversation hostage because of your inability to understand a term.”

    Ha ha! I love the way you put that! Thanks!

  3. Brandon said,

    August 11, 2008 at 4:00 am

    I think another aspect of it is that people tend today to think of the term ‘soul’ in Cartesian terms: immaterial substance, wholly separate from the body, which is (in opposition to the body) the real person, and makes us completely different from the animals.

    I’ve said before that many times when people say they don’t believe in a soul, what they really mean is that they are returning to a variation on the old position that the soul is a Pythagorean harmony. There really isn’t any kind of view of the matter that isn’t taken account of by Aristotle (although he couldn’t, of course, consider every possible variation of each kind).

  4. August 11, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    Must not the soul be your personal identity, retaining at least your will and intellect, habits, virtues and vices, and a record of past acts? In every near-death experience I’ve read about, people’s souls retained their identity, their self-awareness which was often sharpened, memory, even the sense of sight, though I have no idea how; they felt freer and lighter without the body; they became capable of being filled with the light of love and truth which brought untold bliss. To say that the soul is whatever differentiates dead bodies from living humans is to invite the question: what differentiates between them?

  5. Niggardly Phil said,

    August 11, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    Soul enlivening a body is a human person. If I understand ‘personal identity’ correctly (who the person is), soul is part of personal identity, but not all of it – to say it is all of it would be Platonic in conception.

    Will and intellect are powers of the soul, since their object is universal. Sensation, memory, imagination, and passions are powers of the composite of soul and body, because they all have the particular as their object. Virtues and vices are habits disposing to good or evil, and are qualities of the will. In a sense, they are a record of past acts since a habit is formed by individual acts.

    Near-death experiences present some problems.

    As for the question, what differentiates the living from the dead, begin with what is most obvious, and work to what is more obscure. Soul is the principle of those differences. Motion seems an obvious one – so soul is at least the principle of movement in animals. Growth is another one, so soul is the principle of growth in animals. etc

  6. Niggardly Phil said,

    August 11, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought, cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.

  7. Niggardly Phil said,

    August 13, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Our initial look at a running squirrel and a running faucet makes it clear that the one is living while the other is not. What is it that we see in this initial look? There are no doubt times when we will be unable to figure out whether something is living or not, but all this irrelevant to getting a clearer look at what we are seeing when we say that one thing is living, and another is not.

    It is not necessary to consider every living thing or apparently living thing to conceive of soul. The most general, hazy concept is a fine start, we’re not trying to formulate a final definition at the outset.

    If you have trouble observing the difference between a live cow and a dead one, you might try selling a live cow to a farmer and delivering a dead one, and see if he notices. The farmer will then make some observations, no doubt with many colorful metaphors, which will provide a good general concept.

  8. a thomist said,

    August 13, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    Regarding the near-death experience:

    We might include dreams, prolonged fasts, and states of calm meditation too. The farther we are from the body, the more we can be open to spiritual realities.

  9. August 15, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    No, I have no trouble observing the differences between a live cow and a dead one, as I have no trouble observing the differences between a working robot and a malfunctioning one. Yet we would not call a working robot “alive.” (Btw, my blog was down for a couple of days… it’s working now, so click on the link if you want to see the argument and the running robot, and speaking of working, is it alive?) Self-motion must needs be interpreted as desire-driven; a thing moves in order to attain a goal, whether purposive or instinctual, within it. A robot has no goals of its own; it serves the purposes of its builder blindly and mechanically. I have an article on this, actually: Worshipping the Machine.


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