Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Soul Problem

"...to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished." - Hamlet, Act 3, Shakespeare
In Christianity, a goal for adherents is to receive eternal life, but what does that mean, exactly?  There is some debate over whether or not those resurrected into eternal life will have a regular physical body like we do now, or if it will be some sort of glorified physical body which stays perfectly intact and is at a perfect age forever (like 35 years old), or if instead it will be a completely spiritual body with no physical matter at all.  But one thing is certain: no matter what bodily form awaits you in eternal life, you will still be you.  The only caveat is that, in most theoretical versions, you will no longer have the desire for sin.

That fact spawns the question: what are "you?"

What is your personality?  Not personality type, but your actual personality.  What is it that makes you act differently (even if marginally so) than anyone else in the world?  What is it that drives your decisions and fosters your relationships?  What makes you an individual?  Christianity offers up the "soul" as the answer to these questions.  This body you have now will die.  Your soul, your "you," will allegedly continue on to face God on Judgement Day.  By that time, your old physical body may have turned into clay.

In this perspective, your soul is presently using your physical body as a meat puppet through which it lives its life, and because of this, all of those nasty, evil, physical temptations nag at your soul to pleasure your body.

That is a great myth and all, but no soul exists.  No soul exists, and I can prove it in two words: brain damage.

It is a well established fact that brain damage, depending on the type, will affect behavior.  It can do so in very profound ways, ways which completely change a person's personality, ways that effectively change the outward manifestations which collectively we would consider to be evidence of a particular soul.

But, you Fool, that is BRAIN DAMAGE!  (You might object.)

That is exactly my point.  It is brain damage, not soul damage.  If our bodies are nothing more than meat puppets to the soul, then there is no way in which your "you," your soul, can be changed directly by physical damage.  At most, what would happen in this "meat puppet" case is that you would be unable to make the body do what you want it to do because the controls are broken.  Your inward personality could not be broken, because, according to Christian theology, it is not at all physical.  Yet reality is quite different.


  1. There are several versions of the resurrection among Christians, it seems.

    If God grants a new perfect body, a renewed, redeemed perfected you results. God wisely chooses something from amongs what you thought you were in this life and adds perfection.

    After all, he is much smarter than us.

    1. Indeed! That, to me, is one of the strangest paradoxes. If the "end" (as far as we know it) is to be reincarnated into perfect sin-free selves, why not just start creation there?

      I guess if I had infinite wisdom, it might make sense.

  2. "but no soul exists."

    I guess I like the "appropriate and adapt" method myself, when people take a religious idea and re-write it. Kind of like Dennett's use of a soul- "we have a soul but it's made of lots of tiny robots, and not one knows you or cares who you are."

    I'm tempted to suggest it doesn't even need to be brain damage. Doesn't any physical damage or inadequacy affect a person's personality?

    1. I'd agree with you about the appropriate and adapt. The "soul" concept is still handy. This post was more of a quick refutation of the traditional concept, but I am happy to use the concept in new ways.

      As for any physical damage affecting personality, I think that there is some truth to that, but it was a little too ambiguous to touch in this brief post. For example, if you lost a foot due to diabetes, I think most people would argue that you are still you, that your soul did not change, it is just that the actions of your soul are now influenced by your handicap. Yet, in a very real sense in line with your question, you are different, and those differences could spill over into the realm of morality and thus tie into the Christian notion.

  3. I often wondered (well, not anymore, I got over it) why God would entrust perfect souls to imperfect minds and bodies. It's like giving your gold watch to the guy standing in the shadows around the corner from the bail bondsman.

    1. It is a recipe for disaster, isn't it, Paul? There is a lot of waste and suffering from that approach.

  4. I've had these same thoughts regarding the soul, as well as many others. But then I realized that I was making assumptions about what a soul is. It's not uncommon to assume that soul=personality. If that were the case, then it would have to be concluded that not only brain damage, but drunkenness, illness, and even sleepiness significantly change one's soul. But I'm convinced that soul cannot be equated with personality. In fact, I doubt that one's soul has much, if anything, to do with personality at all; or, for that matter, intelligence, wisdom, maturity, or possibly even goodness.

    The theological question of what constitutes a soul must begin with a study of the term as used in the Bible. I haven't yet developed what I feel is an accurate understanding of the term, so the best I can do at this point is refer you to a study on this question at The Christian Think Tank that I've found helpful: http://christianthinktank.com/hmosoul.html

    1. Thanks for the link. It's got some interesting information there, and a lot of it. I scanned over some sections, but I'll have to save the whole of it for a time when I have a great deal of time.

      Job 7:11
      "Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul." NIV

      Psalm 31:9
      Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. NIV

      Psalm 34:2
      My soul will boast in the LORD; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. NIV

      Some time ago, I did a little Bible research, trying to see the difference between spirit and soul. Often, as you see the Job quote, they are used interchangeably. From what I could tell, the soul is portrayed as its classical notion, that "self" within the body, and having emotions. Also, typically when using "soul" associated with emotions, it seems to imply the deepest-felt emotions, not the superficial ones which come and go with the daily events.

      Quantum physics aside, if your soul is not "you," why would it matter to you where your soul ends up after life?

    2. At the risk of further complicating the issue, I believe that the soul *is* you, and it's more you than anything else. It might seem that your personality is really you, but I think that your personality is mostly (if not entirely) just a product of your upbringing, your education, your culture, etc. Your physical body has a lot to do with your personality. A lifelong alcoholic will have a personality that's profoundly influenced by alcohol, for example. Similarly, a woman born with MS will have a very different personality than that same woman born without MS. Even one's diet can affect one's personality. So what is the soul? Is it the mind? The self? All I can safely say is that it's the immaterial essence of a person. It's that part of you that interacts with God.

    3. Thanks for the reply, Mr. Wallflower. The language gets a little more nuanced here, and very difficult to deal with on a comment thread, so thanks for having another swing at it.

      Indeed, a woman born with MS would probably be very different without it. And the same for the alcoholic.

      That, in and of itself, is very interesting, because one fairly common mantra is that physical trials and tribulations actually present the "real" us.

      "These are the times that try men's souls." - Thomas Paine

      By the way, it was probably poor word choice on my part to use "personality" because of the more superficial connotations of the word, which your responses have highlighted. Yet even those superficial aspects are important, because most people assume that they would be able to recognize friends and family members in the afterlife. Part of that recognition, beyond literal acknowledgment and identification, would by on a personality-level. Sinfulness aside, if your friend doesn't have the same personality in the afterlife which he had in real life, then how could you recognize him as your friend anymore? It would be as though he had brain damage. ;-)

      Your views are probably different than the majority, I know. :-)