Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Examining the Soul

What is the soul? This is a question science can’t answer – at least, not satisfactorily. Merriam-Webster offers this definition: “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.” And various religions offer various definitions – some equating the soul with the spirit, some differentiating the two terms.

In an earlier post – – I examined whether humans have souls or free will and I explained my position mostly in terms of free will because that’s where the science led me. Psychologists have studied the issue of free will much more than the issue of souls because the former is much easier to quantify and measure.

But the soul (or spirit), if it exists, generally amounts to a God-given essence that lies behind or beneath the individual – an inanimate something that provides a connection to the divine, lifting us above the animals and plants that surround us.

Possibly this is nothing more than human consciousness, the ability of a collection of cells to exponentially increase the body’s understanding beyond what one might expect from a group of chemically driven biological entities that have coalesced into a larger whole.

And possibly it is a holy noumenon handed down from on high and judged according to how well it handles the human machine it drives. If so, we have a slight problem because our understanding of what God wants (assuming God exists) relies on texts that are often obscure.

One holy book may tell us to do X while another instructs us to do Y. Even the same book can offer contradictory notions of what kinds of behavior are pleasing to the Lord. The sacrifices of the Old Testament give way to the forgiveness of the New. Yet even the New Testament contemplates slavery as an ordinary human practice.

Putting that aside, another question occurs: what happens to the soul when we die? Does it go to heaven or hell, purgatory or limbo? And when does it depart the body? Upon brain death? The heart stopping? Somewhere in between? We know that electrical activity in the brain continues for a short time after death. Is that the soul getting ready to depart or something like the run-on of a car engine after the ignition is turned off?

If we could transfer our consciousness into a computer or robot, would the soul follow? Or would the soul stay behind in the slab of meat that no longer holds the mind? If the transporters of Star Trek existed and we could beam ourselves (recreate ourselves, actually) to another location, would the soul come along?

Although the question of whether we have souls is for philosophers, not scientists, the bottom line is that we likely will never know the answer while we occupy the green side of the grass. If one particular philosopher makes sense to you, then you should feel free to follow the teachings espoused by that person.

But to assume that this one philosopher speaks the universal truth of all mankind is to lock yourself in a cage, allowing yourself to be fed by only one jailer (even if a benevolent one).

What do I believe? I don’t know whether we have souls. I suspect we don’t. I think the most likely explanation is that we – being desirous of anything that helps us understand the world – created the notion of the soul as a way of accentuating our belonging in a community separate from the rest of the world – a special community that makes us feel better about ourselves.

Either way, isn’t it nice to be able to contemplate the mysteries of our existence in this grand universe?

For more on this topic, packed into an acclaimed thriller, you can get The Devereaux Decision by clicking on the image below.


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