About This Blog

Welcome to James' Philosophical Agora - James' Meeting Place On-Line. (Updated September 2017)

This blog is the place where I write in a more personal way on various areas of philosophical interest. Please be careful when I say 'philosophical' because this does not often mean about purely academic or abstract subjects and ideas; but rather like much of the philosophy of Socrates, it means an investigation of some fundamental things that have a very important baring on the way we live our lives as individuals and as communities.

I have a separate blog where I share my enthusiasm for the specific philosophical tradition and ideas of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle Plutarch and others at: Socrates 4 Today However, this blog James' Philosophical Agora expresses mostly personal viewpoints and so I prefer to have two separate blogs.

Please feel free to comment on any of the blog posts, or add some thoughts of your own to the subjects discussed. You can also contact me personally if you would like to discuss any particular items further at: jamesdelphi2000@gmail.com

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Is There Such a Thing As The Human Soul, and Is It Immortal?

‘Only fools, fanatics, and madmen do not have doubts….’ (Anon.)

Well if we are going to examine this question in a fairly contemporary way, yet hopefully a mildly Socratic way as well, then we had better start with a few short words about what we actually mean by a ‘soul’ since the word must surely mean different things to different people. It is perhaps the word in modern English usage that carries the most baggage of all. My first comment would be to suggest that ‘should’ we have a soul, then it does not necessarily need to be a religious or somehow sacred thing, but could just as easily be a rational scientific thing - as I suggest in one of my points below. This is not to say that I believe it is myself, but clearly in the absence of firm proof, all options must presumably be on the table?

The ancient Greeks used the word psyche (meaning literally breath) for the inner self or rational conscious mind. Someone was thought of as being alive from one’s first breath until the last. This word psyche has been rather clumsily translated by the word ‘soul’ for most translations of ancient writers such as Plato and Aristotle into modern English. However, for the ancients the word psyche did not necessarily have as much or the same religious or spiritual baggage as the word soul holds for us today. As mentioned above, the existence of the soul does not necessarily have to be a leap of faith but could just as easily be physical scientific phenomena as yet to be discovered. (Of course, it might still be a leap of faith as well for many people J

Having given, albeit briefly, just a few words of caution about the nature of the word soul and what I am trying to discuss in this blog, let me now proceed to give you some reasons which lead me to believe that the soul probably does exist, and whether immortal or not, probably has a longevity beyond this mortal life span. I will make references to ancient Greeks sources in one or two of these paragraphs, but try and give more contemporary reasons in others.

Firstly, I would like to tell you what Socrates discusses with a young man called Alcibiades as recorded in Plato’s book with that name. Socrates asks Alcibiades if he thinks a musical harp is the same thing as the actual musician him or herself, or whether the knife a shoemaker uses is the same as the shoemaker him or herself. Alcibiades obviously agrees that the musical instrument or knife is not the same thing. Socrates then asks about the eyes and hands a musician or shoemaker uses – and once again Alcibiades agrees that these things are not the same thing as the musician and shoemaker themselves. (We only have to see seriously wounded soldiers returning home from battle zones with missing limbs to understand that the young soldier is not simply his hands, legs, or battlefield equipment).

Finally, Socrates asks Alcibiades whether a man simply uses his whole body and his young student once more agrees. Finally, Socrates asks that if a man merely ‘uses’ his whole body, what then is a man? To this question Alcibiades replies: ‘I do not know’.  Now for discussing complicated and uncertain matters like the existence of the soul I think that to say: “I do not know for sure” is an excellent starting point – and that is why I have taken the liberty to start a contemporary discussion of the soul by referring to this recorded conversation from more than 2,400 years ago. To clarify my point, if we do not think that we have a soul, psyche, inner consciousness, we have to describe what the actual ‘self’ is in one way or another or offer an alternative answer. (Socrates simply suggests the self is something different to the body which is merely used by the self.)

Let us now jump forward 2400 years from ancient Greece to modern science which in spite of huge developments in all sorts of areas of biology and bio-chemistry is still undecided about what consciousness actually is. Science has made several discoveries to suggest what the inner self is not; but as yet there is no definite consensus or explanation of consciousness. Therefore, if someone is going to suggest that there is no soul (religious or scientific) I think it is necessary to express some opinion on what the consciousness or the ‘self actually is. If someone is unable or unwilling to do that, I think the prudent thing to do would be to keep an open mind at least while the scientific jury is very much still out in the area.   

Now my final (I promise) paragraph mentioning Socrates and Plato on this matter is to tell you that in Plato’s book Phaedo, Socrates is sitting in his prison cell age 70 on the very day his death penalty is about to be enforced, and he is chatting to a small group of close friends about the existence and immortality of the soul. Some of his close friends and students, who we presume have benefited from many years of companionship, friendship and teaching from Socrates, still have doubts about the soul’s existence and its immortality. (We should not be too hard on ourselves then if we also have doubts…..) Socrates gives five ‘reasons’ why he thinks the soul exists, some of which I find fairly convincing and others I find much less so. One point that I do find convincing is that “if” something is immortal (or let us suppose with hundreds of years of longevity at least) then it cannot be made of finite and mortal things like flesh and bone or wood or leather.  Obviously these materials perish over time as does anything that they are made into. Something immortal must be made of ‘other stuff’ if it exists at all; and this I find an interesting point for contemplation.

Now this immortal ‘other stuff’ does not have to be that exotic, strange or fantastic from a scientific point of view. After all, there are many wavelengths of light we cannot see such as gamma rays and infrared.  There are many wavelengths of sound we cannot hear as any dog owners will know. Atoms of most things are for most parts indestructible (unless bashed apart in a collider or bomb) and many of the atoms on the planet are re-cycled time and time again over hundreds of years. This includes all the atoms that make a human being. Apparently we all contain a few recycled atoms of William Shakespeare which will no doubt be good news to any budding playwrights or bloggers like myself.  J  My point is only a small one, and that is, that the stuff of mystery, invisibility, and immortality is not necessarily so strange and could easily be all around us.

Another small point that makes me wonder about the existence and longevity of the soul is that human beings (and indeed most other animals for that matter) seem to be born with certain essential ‘pre knowledge’ on how to do some important things. Of course we now know that DNA holds the blue print by which our stem cells ‘grow’ arms and legs and all manner of other body parts; but those basics memories like babies suckling, or those little new born kangaroos that climb up their mother’s stomach to find that snug little pouch; it is as if someone or something told them exactly what they have to do. This essential information or memory seems to have been passed on in some way. Of course, scientists will explain it all away as a mere ‘survival instinct’ based on Darwinism, and no doubt they are correct most of the time; but I just wonder whether they are right all of the time?

A further point with DNA is that hardly a year goes by without another major announcement of a new understanding of the information contained in the DNA – such as whether a child will have black or blonde hair, be gay or straight, or have a greater risk of cancer in later life. However, there is still so much we have yet to decipher about DNA and the enormous amounts of information it holds about us. I understand that human DNA holds something like 6 billion bits of information and I must ask someone more technical how many gigabytes that is equal to in computer terms. (Addendum: It’s 715 megabytes apx. which would all fit uncompressed on a normal CD – slightly disappointing in some ways J  See Footnote 01 ) Anyway, I still cannot help wondering what other secrets our human DNA’s might hold?

Let us jump from kangaroos to more human characteristics. In every part of the globe..... and during every epoch of time….. people have been spiritual or religious in huge numbers. Why? Well sociologist and behaviourists will have their own theories which include the human need to belong, or to believe in something greater than ourselves. Many modern commentators accuse spiritual people of weakness and the need for a crutch to cope with the world…. I wonder whether this is why most spiritual people are the way they are. Did these commentators ask the people concerned, or do they know religious people of various persuasions? One wonders why these commentators feel the need to comment in the first place. Can it be that it is they who need the crutch or defence mechanism? After all, there have been many traditionally ‘successful’ spiritual people as well as a few who are less so. Perhaps it is more important what any individual thinks about these matters rather than what other people or commentators have to say. Just to clarify the point I want to make, I wonder given such vast numbers of believers over the centuries and millennia – is it just possible that there might be something in it all?

Leading on from my previous point in some ways, in addition to the many people who simply believe in ‘something up there’, over the years a lot of people have reported strange or unusual experiences of a spiritual or mystical nature. However, I suspect that much greater in number to those people who make these types of claims in public (for varied reasons I agree) are those people who have had these types of experiences and have said absolutely nothing to anyone for personal reasons, including fear of ridicule or being considered weird or even mad.  

A further point to keep in mind when contemplating the existence or non-existence of the soul is that because one may not understand all the details and processes involved in a certain process or complex system (e.g. some extreme weather events, the formation of stars, the spread of some diseases); it does not mean that the process or complex system does not exist. In many instances – even though we do not know all the details – we can still give a likely overview of what is happening and what the effects of any phenomena are. Sometimes we do not need to understand exactly how something works to know that it is there.

There is another observation in nature that makes me wonder about this business of a human soul; and that is those many special qualities and characteristics that make human beings ‘special’ compared with all other animals and species. Yes, human beings have hearts, lungs, blood, brains in a similar way to many other species – but there are many ‘special’ things that humans uniquely have. I am including here things like a sense of humour, kindness, justice, the intelligence to design and make endless commodities and products. We can all think of many different things and examples here. If you do not believe in the soul then you still have to account for these things in a fairly logical way. For me the existence of these special and uniquely human qualities again leaves my mind open to the existence of the soul.

To summarise this blog briefly, if anyone asks me whether I believe in the existence of the soul and its immortality (or even its longevity for a few hundred years) after the death of our mortal bodies, then my honest answer would be: “Yes, on balance I probably do….”. However, I would agree with the ancient writer Xenophon (a contemporary of Socrates) who wrote words to the effect that even if someone was telling us the complete truth about the soul and other ‘spiritual’ things – how we know that for sure – and so in spiritual matters one’s own opinion seems unusually to be the most important factor.

If I am asked why I believe in the soul, my honest answer would be that there is no one single factor that makes me think positively about the existence of the soul, but that rather it is a combination of all  the factors as discussed above being:

a.      The soul may exist in a purely scientific way and does not necessarily need to be spiritual or divine.
b.      That a person (the self) is different to the arms, legs, and eyes that the person simply makes use of, and is therefore something different to the whole body.
c.       Science is still undecided about exactly what consciousness is – and the jury is still very much out.
d.      If immortal things exist at all, they must be made out of different things than mortal things and so we should not expect to see, hear or touch them in the usual way.
e.      Although anything immortal would have to be made of ‘special’ stuff, this ‘stuff’ would not have to be particularly mysterious or exotic. For example, atoms and sub atomic particles are to all intents and purposes immortal….
f.        Human beings appear to be born with essential ‘pre knowledge’ which needs to be accounted for.
g.      Our DNA code, although now better understood, still has many secrets to reveal.
h.     In every part of the globe and at every epoch of time people have been spiritual in very large numbers. One has to account for why, and be more convincing than saying that we spiritual people are all in need of some emotional crutch, since many traditionally ‘successful’ people have been spiritual, and many atheists have had nervous breakdowns and financial problems too J
i.        Many people have spoken about having religious experiences, but many more have remained silent.
j.        We still do not scientifically understand all the details about some complex systems – even everyday examples like the weather. Even with masses of scientific research and data people still cannot agree about global warming and the extent to which it may or may not be caused by human activity. Because we do not understand all the details does not mean that something does not exist, or that we cannot describe what it is like and what its effects are.
k.      We can all observe some very special and unique characteristics that human beings possess such as kindness, justice, creative ability – and although we have physical similarities to many animals our special abilities (and hopefully qualities) need once more need to be accounted for.

My final thought on this matter is to mention the sentiments expressed by a young man called Timaeus who talked with Socrates on these ‘metaphysical’ matters. Timaues said (as recorded in Plato’s book of that name) that there are many theories about all these things and none of them can be proven for sure at this time. He said it is therefore sensible for us to consider what seems probable as oppose to what seems improbable and unlikely; and this leads me personally to believe in the existence of the soul and its longevity – based on the probabilities described above.

(James. London 2014)

Footnotes:

‘Our haploid genome is 3 billion base pairs, so the amount of information would be 6 billion bits, which is about 715 megabytes.’
‘The human genome (haploid, 3 billion nucleotides) fits uncompressed on a CD, so ~700 megabytes. There are organisms with a much, much larger genome than ours.’

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