The soul

Author: Juan Luis Lorda, Lecturer in Christian Anthropology, University of Navarre
Published in: Nuestro Tiempo n. 603, 101-108.
Date of publication: September 2004)

With big words, especially if they have a lot of use, one has to be careful. For as they pass from mouth to mouth and mind to mind, they become confused, lose their connections to reality and float around in the world of ideas like drifting balloons. They suggest too many things at once. To work with big words, you have to anchor them in reality: to go to the original places where their meaning comes from.

The word soul is a huge word, a gigantic globe. Very venerable, because it is related to the most sublime. But also picturesque, when the popular mentality represents it as a goblin inside man. A culture as scientific as ours is no place for goblins. "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem" (Ockham: "there is no reason to admit more things than necessary"). Chesterton or Tolkien would protest in unison, and would also defend the necessity of elves, precisely to counter an exclusively scientific vision of the world. But I will confine myself to defending the existence of the soul.

If we start by asking what the word evokes, we will float. We have to ground ourselves and relate the word to reality. In its origin, the word "soul" is related to three very important human experiences. The first is the mystery of life and the difference between life and death. The second is the question of the afterlife, and in particular of survival staff. The third concerns the characteristics of the human spirit, the life of intelligence and the exercise of freedom and creativity. It is not about goblins.

Life has a wonderful wealth of properties. There are many stories where the protagonists climb on a rock and it turns out to be an elephant or they think they have reached an island and find themselves on a turtle's shell. Of course, in stories and in reality, there is a lot of difference between climbing on a pile of earth and climbing on an elephant. The elephant or the tortoise can do things that you wouldn't expect from the mountain or the island.

The child who is enthusiastic about his puppy will be terribly upset if it dies: no more games, no more running around, no more looks, no more jumping for joy when he comes home. When you touch the animal's cold body, you will feel the difference. He will look at the tragedy of death, at that tremendous threat to life. The motionless body in front of him looks the same, but it is no longer the same. It has ceased to be animated: it has lost its life. In this first sense, soul is the same as animation. Everything alive is "animated". It is what is visible to the naked eye.

As we live in a society enlightened by scientific knowledge, we can no longer take what meets the eye. We know much more about reality. This is an advantage, but also a disadvantage. Of course, knowing more is always an advantage. The disadvantage is that the knowledge of the details can prevent us from seeing the big picture. The trees can hide the forest from us: the forest can only be seen with the naked eye, without analysis.

The subject

The modern scientific mentality is, to a large extent, "constructivist", pardon the word. pardon the word. That is, it understands that explaining something is the same as saying how it is made, what its components are and how they combine. Of course a large part of modern science, Chemistry, atomic physics and biology, has progressed by analysing compounds and finding the elements and their structure. This leads many scientifically minded people, when they look at reality, to always think about its composition. They see a mineral and remember what it is made of. They see a tree and remember its Structures. And the same when they see a dog or a person. Today we know that, with different Degrees degrees of complexity, everything is composed of the same elements of the periodic table that Mendeleev (+ 1907) put in order more than a hundred years ago.

When a scientifically minded person sees an animal or a person die, he or she thinks of the organic alterations that have occurred and that make life impossible. He is right: to explain death it is enough to look at the alteration of the organic components. The problem is that when they see a living being or a person, they think that it is alive only because it is made of these components. And they see it as if it were a huge structure Biochemistry that functions in an orderly fashion. Many will say that, "at bottom", it is an agglomeration of materials that functions thanks to the physical and chemical properties of its elements. And here they are wrong. Or, to put it better, they are only partially right. Because this explanation is very reductive: it hides the mystery of the vine. It is as if we were to say that Don Quixote is an ordered set of letters or a house an ordered set of building materials. True, but we hide much more truth than we say.

No materialist would be happy to have his child exchanged for a bucket of water and a bag of dust. And yet it is true that, from a material point of view, the child is, "at bottom", like the whole of the living subject , 80 percent water and a few kilos of calcium, carbon and other chemical elements. If he were consistent in his thinking, he would have to accept change without batting an eyelid. But something tells us he would not. And rightly so. He may claim in theory that it is the same, but he will not dare to live as if it were the same. Only a few scoundrels in history have been able to be consistent to the end. The others have been paralysed by their humanitarian feelings, by their spontaneous intuition about things. Something just doesn't add up. Maybe the trees are hiding the forest.

The form

Why is the organised and functioning subject more than the loose subject ? Asking the question in this way, honestly, is already a big step, almost a somersault, because it can lead us to see things upside down. But it is the only way to defend that the child "is more" than the bucket of water and the sack of dust.

On closer inspection, it is astonishing that nature is like an immense construction set, with so much complexity and so many properties. This is best understood by architecture and Meccano enthusiasts. There are many good construction sets. And you can do a lot of things with simple parts. But certainly not as many things as nature does. No game is sold with such versatile pieces, capable of forming such surprising shapes Structures.

There is no game that allows you to build a dog or anything like that. There are meccanoes that allow you to build cars. They give you the pieces and the plans to put them in place. If you have imagination, you can also build things that are not foreseen in building games: wonderful palaces or curious mechanisms. There are limitless, infinite variations. You are limited only by the possibilities of the pieces. But no architecture game allows you to build, for example, an internal combustion engine. The parts do not have the necessary mechanical and thermal properties.

If we had very strong metal parts in the right shape, we could fit them together and make an internal combustion engine. But only if they are the right shape. Not just any part will do. To make a combustion engine, we first need the idea of the combustion engine and then, with little freedom, we can make the parts. The curious thing is that here we go in the opposite direction to normal scientific analysis. We don't explain the engine by the parts that make it up, but the other way round: the characteristics of the parts are explained because we need them for the engine. It is the idea of the engine that rules.

It would be ridiculous to explain the combustion engine by saying that it is an accumulation of parts. First of all, the engine is an idea. We can make the parts in different shapes and materials, but we have to respect the idea. It is a curious circumstance that the properties of the combustion engine are properties of the idea of the engine, not of the parts. The individual parts do not have these properties: if someone were to look at them individually, he would not be able to deduce the properties of the engine. Only when they are put together according to the idea of the engine, they have the properties of the engine. The engine has more properties than the parts.

Exclusively scientifically minded people are used to explaining life by its elements. And they say that everything is, at bottom, a combination of elementary parts with elementary properties. Everything above is explained by what is below; and, in the end, it boils down to what is below. What is really real is what is below. This is said by serious scientists (S. W. Hawking, S. Weinberg, F. Crick) and also by others (C. Sagan, E. O. Wilson, R. Dawkins) who devote themselves to the knowledge dissemination of science and to the (sometimes uncontrolled) extrapolation of knowledge. But it is a reductionism, as big as explaining a house only by its bricks or Don Quixote by its letters.

What's more: it could very well be that the world is explained the other way round, like the engine. That the characteristics of the elementary parts are explained by the higher ideas. It may be that the elements of the subject have to be understood as the parts of something higher, which has many more properties than the parts. Otherwise, the extraordinary capacity and versatility of this construction set cannot be justified.

It is interesting to note that ideas, forms have properties (the explosion engine). They take advantage of the properties of their components, but they behave as a whole that has more properties than its components. In the mysterious difference between the living and the dead, this happens, with a fabulous level of complexity. The living, with the whole organism in place, has many more properties and far superior to the non-living. This is sometimes called emergentism (M. Bunge): although the word suggests a bottom-up direction.

Perhaps it is necessary to turn it around. Perhaps it is more sensible to think that the elements of the subject are, in reality, the pieces of the living. If the idea of the living were not somehow foreseen in the construction game, how could such a huge leap upwards take place? In construction games, such leaps of quality never take place. Especially not by chance. If we put millions of pieces of architecture in a concrete mixer and let them go round and round for thousands of years, a piece of wall would be produced from time to time, but never a castle, let alone a horse. No matter how many times we turn it around. And if we put in marbles, nothing would ever be produced. There is no problem in admitting that the shape of a pile of earth has been produced by chance. But it seems absurd to say that the shape of living things has come about by chance. Higher forms have to be foreseen somehow in the game; they have to be possible. Shouldn't we think the world from above instead of from below?

The spirit

Living beings are animate beings. And this expresses their entire capacity to act, to move, to maintain themselves in certain conditions, to protect themselves from the environment, to feed and to reproduce. There is an enormous leap between the properties of the living and the non-living. Not only in the order of complexity, in the quantity of materials put in place. But there are also "new ideas", higher forms, with new properties. As we move up the ladder of life, we encounter more and more complex and interesting behaviour. A behaviour that is not explained by the parts, which are always the same, but by the forms that make up the parts.

And there comes a moment when we encounter another leap. Our own. When we climb the ladder of organic life, at the highest level we meet consciousness. And we enter an incredible terrain. We are used to it. That's the problem. We live there and we look at everything from there. Our consciousness has completely amazing properties, but they don't catch our attention, because we are used to them.

In consciousness, there are three concatenated properties: intelligence, freedom and spiritual causality or creativity. Our self has all three properties at the same time. Intelligence is the capacity to know and think with abstract ideas. Freedom (will) is the capacity to design concrete behaviour by thinking about it in the abstract. Spiritual causality or creativity is an effect of all this. Through the mastery we have over our intelligence and our body, we can intervene in the physical world. We move in it, we move things around, we handle tools and we build. With these properties, humans have transformed the surface of the planet. Everything we see around us, everything that is human culture, has been born from ideas managed by our consciousness and executed by moving our hands (and tools) with a freely designed plan.

It seems normal to us. But, if we think about it scientifically, it is extraordinary. Our ability to form, transmit and manage ideas is a mystery. So is our ability to concretise by foreseeing and designing our behaviour (freedom). And so is our operative capacity: that is, that consciousness moves the subject, starting with our own body and hands. If we have studied physics, we will know that, after a gigantic effort of research , we have come to the conclusion that everything that happens in the universe is due to the action of four elementary forces. Well, in addition to the four forces, there is our consciousness which is able to move a body, our body, and through it, with tools, everything else.

The subject

Today we are more aware of how mysterious all this is when we want to make computers that mimic human behaviour. We find that computers cannot form ideas or understand words (intelligence), and they are not able to decide on concrete behaviour from abstract ideas (freedom). Instead, they are able to move things. A computer program, which is something like a bit of condensed intelligence (ideas, forms), is able to act, following a process. Of course it works in a very rudimentary way and without creativity. Nor do they have the delicate relations with the body that we have: they have no emotions. And they certainly have no aesthetic sense; they have no sense of humour; they have no sense of justice; and they cannot love their neighbour as themselves. These are just properties of our consciousness.

A computer is just a processor of programs. Computers follow processes, but they do not "understand" ideas or words, they just use them. There is no "I" that understands. There is no "I" that forms ideas, that draws analogies, that moves from the concrete to the abstract or from the abstract to the concrete. There is no "I" that understands and thinks in the abstract, that draws analogies and shifts them around. They cannot learn in the abstract and use what they have learned in another context, analogically. And, as they cannot handle ideas in the abstract, neither can they concretise by thinking (freedom): they cannot decide, they cannot be creative, they cannot face new problems. They are a set of assembled pieces, with an idea of construction and some borrowed ideas of functioning. They are capable of executing processes thought up by others. But there is no subject, no protagonist, no self that knows what it is doing.

Instead, each of us is a subject. Our spiritual operations, intelligence, freedom and spiritual causality have a subject and make us subjects. We act as a subject. It is a peculiar and distinct way of being in the world. Beings who think, who understand, who draw experience and knowledge, and who can act by opening ways. That is why each man is a singularity in the world, which is not explained by his environment and which cannot be reduced to its parts. He is a centre of operations in the universe, creative and autonomous, with a mental universe inside his head. A mental universe capable of transforming the physical world with ideas and actions.

The Greek Philosophy , since Plato, already realised this argument: the human subject performs immaterial operations and is therefore not material. The process of training and the use of abstract notions (ideas) is not material; the use of freedom, which allows us to trace a concrete path by thinking abstractly, is not material and contradicts the determinism of subject; the causality of consciousness, which operates freely on the body, is not material. Immaterial behaviour indicates that the subject is immaterial. In other living beings, there is no subject, there is no spirit, there is only a form with spectacular properties, a form that vanishes when the body is corrupted (although the idea remains, because it can be repeated). But the human being is not just an idea, a repeatable structure, but an immaterial and autonomous subject. And because it is immaterial, it cannot be corrupted, it must be immortal. This is the classical argument of human spirituality that has been used by all spiritualists, from Plato to Bergson, from St. Thomas Aquinas to Descartes.

Combining elements from the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, St Thomas deduced that the soul is both the spiritual subject (Plato) and the form of the body (Aristotle). It is a felicitous formula, although, to understand it properly, one has to get an idea of what the spiritual subject means in Plato and what the form means in Aristotle. Other modern thinkers have resorted to some more or less happy analogies to point out the difference between soul and brain. Eccles and Popper said it is like the piano and the pianist. But it is only an example. The piano may be an extension of the body, but it is not the body. All analogies are flawed because the case of the relation of the soul and the body is unique. We have a form with such a level of unity and structure that it has the property of being a subject; it is an idea like the "explosion engine", but with such a category that it is a person.

The philosophical tradition connects the idea of the spiritual human subject - the person - with a permanent and spontaneous aspiration of humanity, survival after death: it is the third root of what we understand by the soul. The idea of an afterlife, where people survive, is an aspiration that we find everywhere and is expressed in all cultures, albeit in different ways. Many cultures and many religions affirm that the human subject remains after death in some form. And what remains, the subject, they call "soul".

It is very difficult to think of oneself as not existing. Unamuno knew this very well, and he never stopped thinking about it. It is very difficult to think that the people we have loved are nothing when they die. How could I have loved so much a little bit of water and dust? Why don't I have the same love as another little bit of water and dust? The afterlife is an obscure question, because we don't know what it might be like, but the desire to live on and the love of people beyond death are clear tendencies.

The person from the Christian faith

The Christian message is not Philosophy. But it connects directly with personal aspirations for survival and with the convictions of love. It also connects with the other roots that have given meaning to the word soul.

For the Christian faith, God, who is a spiritual being, has created the world. And he has organised it from top to bottom, with all its properties unfolding in the history of the cosmos. That is why, because it comes from a creative intelligence, the world is so full of intelligence and high properties. That is why the construction set is so marvellous and capable of so much.

Moreover, the visible and material world is ordered to man, who is its summit, and probably the core topic of all its properties. In the field of science Philosophy , this idea is called "anthropic principle": to think that the world is explained because it is ordered to man: the curious characteristics of the subject, the surprising history of evolution, the very existence of the earth (which is a very curious system). But the Bible takes it for granted from its very first pages: man is the cima of the visible world, and everything is ordered to him.

But it is a cima that goes beyond what lies beneath it, because man is made "in the image of God". This expression appears in the first creation account, in the first pages of the Bible, and is very important in the Jewish and Christian tradition. It indicates that man resembles God and reflects his image on the world. Like God, man is a subject, an intelligent being, capable of creative action.

There is something divine about the human being. The second creation story expresses this with an image: God puts his breath and spirit into man. Man does not only come from below. He also comes from above, from the spirit of God. Even if he has subject, he is not explained by the random combination of the forces of subject. He has something that comes from God and reflects what God is.

But God also created him for an eternal purpose. Human beings are created to know and love God for all eternity. He has been prepared for that destiny. God has made man capable of knowing and loving, and of lasting eternally. This is the religious argument for the foundation and understanding that man is a spiritual subject (destined to know and love) and that he is immortal (destined to last forever).

Religion is not afraid to think of a spiritual subject, it is not afraid to think of an existence that is not material, because it believes that God is a spiritual being. The idea of a person, which is a Christian idea, expresses the dignity of a spiritual subject. The quality of a being that is not explained by the analogies and properties of the subject. Neither his being nor his action can be expressed with the vocabulary used for subject.

At the same time, man is a bodily being. This is not an addition. It is his way of being, it belongs to his form, to his idea, as God has willed it. We know from experience that for the spirit to be able to express itself in the body, the body must be fit. The organic basis must be developed. If the brain is not well constituted, the consciousness cannot express itself, cannot open itself to the world. For the normal functioning of man is a consciousness with a body; and the body situates the person in the world, and serves as an expression and instrument for the consciousness. The Christian faith believes that the spiritual subject remains after death, deprived of his body, but it also believes that his perfection is with the body, and will reach it in the end, in the resurrection. It has its model in the resurrection of Christ.

We believe that in every human being, from the very beginning, there is a spiritual subject, even if it cannot yet be expressed. But there is more. Experience teaches us that for consciousness to begin to function, it needs to be spoken. It needs to be stimulated by the word, awakened by the word, so to speak, or at least by the sign (as in the case of Hellen Keller). We see this when we observe how children develop, and, by contrast, it is confirmed by the sad experience of the so-called "feral children" (Enfants sauvages, Feral Children); children who have not been brought up in a human environment. Without a human relationship, human consciousness cannot unfold (or does so very rudimentarily). This is astonishing. It is a manifestation that the human spirit is relational. The Christian tradition of thought sees in this a trace that man is a being for relationship: he comes from relationship with God and is destined for relationship with God.

For Christianity, it is a very serious matter. Human relationship has its perfection in love. Christian morality is summed up in loving God above all things; and others as children of God. Every human being aspires deep down to love and to be loved, and there seems to him no better good than this.

When the value of each person is understood, it is understood that he or she deserves to be loved. John Paul II calls this the "rule personalist". Many Christian thinkers (Marcel, Pieper) have realised that all love contains a desire for eternity. To love is to say "thou shalt not die". In men it is only a desire, but in God it is a promise that creates reality. God's love staff is what makes us subjects forever. This is the foundation staff of man's peculiar way of being: a subject before God: a you created forever by an I who is all-powerful and eternal (Buber).

We have to finish. We have approached the experiences that root the word "soul" and we will have realised that we are talking about something very serious. The word "soul" contains the mystery of life and its amazing properties; the mystery of the afterlife and the deepest human aspirations; and the mystery of human consciousness, intelligence and freedom. The word "soul" also indicates the person, the spiritual being, willed by God and constituted, by his love, as a partner for ever. The human soul is neither a sprite, nor a thing in man, nor a part of man. It is the spiritual subject, with its form and properties, the person willed by God. All this is what is contained in the word soul.