Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What are we?

by writerdd

I am a spirit, I have a soul, and I live in a body.

That's what I was taught in Sunday school when I was a child. In a way, I no longer believe that today. I've come to see that the body is what I am. ("You are what you eat" has become more than a catch phrase to me.) Without a body, a soul or spirit cannot exist. There is no non-corporeal being that inhabits my body like a house, or a temple, giving it life. I'd figured this out on my own quite some time ago, a short while after I stopped going to church in the 1990s. When I read Francis Crick's book, The Amazing Hypothesis, I dind't find it amazing at all to consider that there is no spirit of life, breathed into my by a god, animating my mortal flesh.

But that's not to say that I'm a soulless being or a spiritual zombie like a vampire. We humans certainly do have souls, something that makes us different than other animals, something unique and amazing and wonderful. This soul may not be a literal force, and it may not be something that can carry on after the death of our bodies, but it is very real. We all feel it. We all experience it. We all know that we are more than just a hunk of meat.

So what is this thing we call a soul, or a spirit? I believe it is consciousness, the very thing that gives us the ability to feel and experience at all. It is nothing supernatural, metaphysical, or paranormal. But it is still quite mysterious. No one can even quite define what consciousness is, just as no one can quite define what a soul is. I don't think that's a coincidence. In the future, I imagine, that scientists will be able to give us much better explanations for how our minds work, but I don't think I'll get to find out in my lifetime. I can live with not knowing. I don't have to make up explanations about ghosts in the machine. 

Religious people may use the terms soul and spirit in a way that I don't like. But the word breath was once used in the same way. It was beleived that our breath was, quite literally, our spirit, and that it was the very breath of the gods put into our earthly flesh to give us life. After all, when we stop breathing, we die. Today we know that is, at best, a metaphor. I hope to be able to use the modern words soul and spirt in the same way: as metaphors that capture the essence of what it feels like to be alive and human. At least until someone figures out a better way to explain what we all experience with words that are easy for everyone to understand.

Descartes and my Sunday school teachers may have been wrong, and we may now know that there is no separate, ethereal being dwelling inside our flesh, but in a way I still do believe.

I am a spirit, I do have a soul, and I live in a body.

(Oh, and I changed my hair.)


Michael said...

Reminds me of a talk Dan Dennett gave about how one of his article about human consciousness was translated into Italian to be titled "There is a Soul But it's Made of Lots of Tiny Robots"

Justin said...

Sentience is truly mystical, and it's real! Which I like.

It seems that we can connect memory and personality to our physical brains to such and extent that the idea of those things surviving our brain's demise isn't workable. So whence comes the soul?

And yet, that I exist apart from my physical body is something I have a hard time shaking. So yeah, spirit, soul, body. But what's the difference, really?

writerdd said...

Michael, There's some really interesting stuff on the "soul" in Douglas Hofstadter's book "I Am A Strange Loop".

Justin, The difference is just in experience I think, hence the idea that this is metaphorical. I don't exist apart from my body, but I feel like I do.

Michael said...

Thanks! I've added to my very long list of books to check out.

Jim Aikin said...

"We humans certainly do have souls, something that makes us different than other animals, something unique and amazing and wonderful." Have you asked any non-human animals about this? If it were possible to do so, don't you think a dog or a squirrel might say exactly the same thing?

My point is this: There are certainly things about being human that are statistically quite unusual with respect to the rest of the animal kingdom. But it's probably a mistake to assume that those things are the same as a feeling that you have about your own consciousness.

You feel that you are a spirit or have a soul because evolution equipped you with a brain that stumbles readily into that bit of nonsense.

Saganist said...

I really like the way you put this, writerdd. Thanks.