Do human beings have souls? If not, does it matter?
Humans observe human capacity, and put it down to Gods or Devils, muses or spirits. Prometheus stole fire from the Gods, because humans could not make it or control it without Divine intervention. At one moment I am unconscious of a poem, and then it flows through my mind, apparently fully-formed, and that must come from Inspiration, something outside myself.
There’s a particularly stupid article in the NYT today, where Avi Shafran argues against materialism, which he diminishes to “electrical activity within our craniums”. If we humans are nothing more than our physical cells, and the innate human awareness of our souls and sense of free will are mere illusions, we have no ultimate value beyond that of any insect. And no compulsion, beyond an ultimately meaningless utilitarian social contract, to bind ourselves to any ethical or moral system. A society that denies the soul idea is, in fact, in the word’s deepest sense soulless.
Shafran makes a leap without an attempt to justify it: humans are capable of creation and destruction, so there must be something beyond the mammal that we see with our eyes, which he calls a soul. His only definition of it is “an entity which can be sublimated or polluted by the conscious exercise of free will”, but he implies it produces all our best and worst acts, and our spiritual value. If a devil possesses the traitor, as Dante imagined, we might hope he is a thing apart, and we are not capable of such wickedness.
Humans observe human capacity. We see the banality of evil and the heights of altruism, the acquisitiveness of a Charles Koch and the organisation for the common good in the Beveridge report. Shafran’s example is Yo Yo Ma playing a cello concerto, where we can see the technical ability and the emotional content, the power to move human beings and possibly to purify or ennoble us.
The ennobled human, the good they do and the beauty they create, are real whether or not evolution is capable of producing a brain with these capacities, or a multitude of brains capable of appreciating them. It might be terrifying that such capacity could age and die, that the creative power of, say, Leonard Cohen should simply be gone, a function of complexity which fails at last and dissolves into simpler molecules. Yet the creative power of Daniel Barenboim and others endures. We lose the person, yet keep the music; and there are more people, developing and extending the creative tradition.
And I too will die. My brain will submit to entropy and be burned or buried. The Earth will become too hot, so that its oceans evaporate long before it is absorbed into the red giant Sun.
It is not just a brain. It is a nervous system, capable of sensation from all over my skin, of moving my body and increasingly complex tools, of communicating with others so moving them to action and contemplation. That which is me is so bound up in the body and its physical needs, affected by tiredness, sickness and pain, that I cannot imagine a “me” without that body and those sensations, that physical way of achieving closeness. My words can move in your mind so that we become momentarily one, but those words relate to that physical reality, the mystery of what it is to be human.
The compulsion to be ethical comes from our humanity, from being one of a social species incapable of survival alone. Practices we call “spiritual” have value, and as humans we are drawn to them for what they achieve, individually and collectively.
The range of human possibility from transfiguration to depravity is hard to imagine, and so we use metaphors of spirits and Spirit. If there is no immortal Soul that does not make us worthless insects, but more precious, as evanescent. If not me, then who? If not now, when?