Got Soul? (Or “Where do we hang the damn thing?”)

I’ve been thinking about the idea of the soul lately, and I keep coming back to one question: what is the soul? Christian theology teaches us that the soul is the “real” us, the software, and that our bodies are just “temporary dwelling places” — the hardware. The “real” me is not something physical, but something spiritual.

But what is it? Where can we hang the soul in the body? The soul is synonymous with consciousness in many ways, but consciousness and all it entails (memories, emotions, personality, etc.) is merely a load of very complex chemical reactions going on in our brains. Brain imaging is mapping more and more of what we traditionally associated with the soul and showing these things are just that — physical things.

Furthermore, if the real “I” is a soul, how can things that seem to be so basic to the real “I” (personality, sense of humor, emotions, etc.) be affected by physical things? When someone gets drunk, their personality usually alters a bit; when one takes an anti-depressant, it changes an emotion; and of course there are plenty of other examples. If the real “I” is a soul, then how does this happen?

A related question would be when the soul enters the body. Catholicism says it’s at the moment of conception. Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, writes,

Sometimes several sperm penetrate the outer membrane of the egg, and it takes time for the egg to eject the extra chromosomes. Where is the soul during this interval? Even when a single sperm enters, its genes remain separate from those of the egg for a day or more, and it takes yet another day or so for the newly merged genome to control the cell. So the “moment” of conception is in fact a span of twenty-four to forty-eight hours (225).

And what about fertilized eggs that split and become twins? When does that extra soul enter into the picture? And what of the phenomenon when two fertilized eggs merge into one embryo which, as Pinker writes, “develops into a person who is a genetic chimera: some of her cells have one genome, others have another genome.”

I posed this question on Catholic.com’s discussion forums, but I didn’t get any satisfactory responses.

One individual responded quoting F. J. Sheed’s Theology for Beginners:

Our ideas are not material. They have no resemblance to our body. Their resemblance is to our spirit. They have no shape, no size, no color, no weight, no space. Neither has spirit, whose offspring they are. But no one can call it nothing, for it produces thought, and thought is the most powerful thing in the world—unless love is, which spirit also produces.

The soul is like an idea — you can’t measure the color or size of an idea, so the argument goes, and so it’s immaterial. Not quite.

What is an idea if it’s not remembered, recorded somehow? If I have the idea, it’s recorded in my brain in a sequence of proteins and such; if I write it down, it’s recorded on paper; if I tell another person, it’s protein sequences in her brain. But it always depends on something physical. An idea must have a physical medium to survive, else it ceases to exist in a practical way.

This is the same analogy Chuck Missler uses when he talks about humans, hardware, and software. He asks, “How much does a piece of software weight?” He points out that you can load a floppy disk or CD with data, weigh it, and it still has the same weight as it did empty. This is intended to prove the non-material nature of software, which of course is the soul in humans, according to this analogy. But it suffers from the same problem as the “color of an idea” analogy. Software also depends on something physical — a magnetized plate of metal called a hard drive; radio waves as its transmitted from a wireless modem; the scrap of napkin on which the programmer scribbled a particular algorithm.

And so this is indeed not a proper analogy for the soul, for the soul is not supposed to be dependent on anything physical. Ideas and software are dependent on their storage mechanisms. The soul isn’t supposed to have a storage mechanism.

Blinded by science? Most likely not — probably just not interested in questioning a taken-for-granted belief.

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One thought on “Got Soul? (Or “Where do we hang the damn thing?”)

  1. Isabella says:

    What loaded questions. That nobody can answer. I don’t know if you’re a reader of fiction (heck, I barely know you at all), but your entire post reminds me of an SF novel — Terminal Experiment, by Robert J Sawyer. I don’t think he’s a very good writer, but he grapples with some very interesting ideas, starting with the 21 grams that leave the body when you die.

    Coincidentally, The Blank Slate is next up in my bookstack — I’ll be keep these ideas in mind.

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