Posts Tagged ‘body’

Bless my soul

Even a short while ago, people spoke without embarrassment or affectation about their souls.  Some remnants of their speech survive in expressions that are still quite common : Bless my soul : there wasn’t a soul to be seen : soul music : the soul of *****, and so on.  But, to what extent is the soul still believed in?  To what extent do we nowadays believe that there is a part of us that is not a material thing but a spiritual one?  A non-material entity ; the opposite, as it were, to the material body.  There are lots of ways of putting it without getting too technical.

When we say something like, “I have arms,”  we must ask, Who is this “I” who possesses the arms?  Or, when we say, “He has strong feelings,” we must ask, Who is this “he” who possesses the feelings?  do we refer merely to the body?  or to something else which is the essential person?

When we use those remnants of the older speech, such as Bless my soul, are we using the word soul with its original meaning?  or as a metaphor which simply means the body?  These are important questions, for the answers will have momentous practical consequences for all of us.

If we use the word soul to indicate some property or quality we possess that is not a material thing, then we open the possibility that there is a part of us that will never die.  On the other hand, if we are purely material beings, then we are no more than perishable machines.  And biological machines are, in principle, no different from the kinds of machines that we manufacture – cars, aeroplanes, and so on.

And, if we are just machines, is there any reason why we ought to value ourselves any more than we value any other animal? – or any car or aeroplane?


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Before Descartes, roses were red and violets were blue.  Since Descartes, that has changed.  Since Descartes, body and mind have been split asunder ; the world and the person have become two distinct (and some say incompatible) things ; matter and spirit have been divorced.  This was not all Descartes’ fault ; it was not his intention ; but it resulted from people adopting his philosophy.

So why are roses no longer red?  Because the rose of itself has been split from our perception of the rose.  The rose is one thing ; our perception of it is another.  The rose is a material thing, while our perception of it is a psychic, or spiritual, thing.  The rose exists in the world, while our perception of it is a cognitive model of that existence.  This view of things is quite logical but it has some puzzling consequences.

The rose is now no longer red, because redness is a psychical quality ; redness  exists in our consciousness but not in the material world.  It is a quality that exists in our consciousness, but not in our material brains.  You may examine a brain as closely as you like, but you will find no redness in there ; in fact, you will find no roses in there either.

After Descartes, the relation between our selves and the world has become bewildering.  So bewildering that many people are now afraid of psychology ; afraid of psychical phenomena ; in fact, afraid of themselves.

And yet, they are fascinated by it all.  They feel drawn to it willy-nilly.

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I know that many people were introduced to the writing of CS Lewis when they were children.  Usually this introduction was by way of reading the tales of Narnia.  Not so for me.  One of the earliest sayings from Lewis still sticks in my memory ; and I have no idea which book it came from.  It is this : “Once we have met a new acquaintance, that acquaintanceship endures for all eternity.”

I quote from a near-forgotten memory, but its substance has ever remained ; for his words refer to an insight he had which, although seemingly casual, is quite momentous.

We live in a world where physicality is taken for granted.  It is a world of science and technology.  It is a world where comparatively few people reflect on their essential natures.  Out of sheer habit, when a person thinks of ‘himself’, it is his body that comes first to mind.  It is such an ingrained habit that many people think that there is no more to a person than his body.

But it was not always so.  When the scientific revolution got under way in about the sixteenth century, people had to break a long-standing habit ; they had to stop thinking of themselves as being spirits ; they had to get out of the habit of thinking of themselves as souls.  To think of oneself as a ‘body’ required a conscious effort.

It is Renee Descartes who is most often credited (or blamed) for this shift in thought.  But really, he was only the writer who first formulated at length the notion that body and soul were two distinct entities.  Not everyone was convinced, of course ; but for nigh on four-hundred years our education system has ensured that, not only are body and soul seen as  distinct, but that the soul has no value in what is generally taught.  Or at any rate it is taught that the soul is essentially a powerless, ethereal thing.

But are body and soul two distinct entities?  Or is it the case that the body is simply a manifestation of the soul?  Is the body the soul incarnated?  Is the soul really powerless in this very physical world?

It is a modern paradox that so many people believe in the idea that the world is composed of atoms – those utterly invisible, silent, untouchable entities that will never, ever, be sensed by human bodies.  And atoms are essentially immortal and may only be rearranged in certain ways.  They believe all this and yet they baulk at the idea of a soul, which is also not detectable by our senses and may never be destroyed.

But both atoms and souls are inferable by the experience of introspection and of reason.  Why do people believe in the results of some introspections but not in others?  Why do they trust reason to tell them one thing but not another?

I suspect the answer lies simply in habits of thinking.

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