Posts Tagged ‘soul’

I have so often wished for the gift of being able to write as the great writers do.  And, together with that gift, I have wished for another ; that of thinking as they do.

As you probably know, Jonathan Sacks is our Chief Rabbi.  Read here what he says about how our Judaeo-Christian heritage has shaped us and so much of the rest of the world.


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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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The life of Man is the life of the mind.  Not for us the unconscious or semi-conscious world that the lesser creatures inhabit.  We are not automatons that simply ‘behave’ ; we are much more than our instincts and biological drives.  It was one of those frightful eighteenth-century agricultural scientists who remarked, “What is a sheep?  It is but a machine for turning grass into meat.”  But that’s not us ; we are not mere machines, however much our half-educated scientists try to make it so.  In fact, I doubt if even a sheep is a mere machine.

So, we have Mind, we have Soul, and we have Psyche (which is perhaps the broad boundary between the other two, or maybe a synthesis of the two).  These somewhat mysterious qualities of ours are impossible to describe.

Now it’s a strange thing that if you ask people, “What is the mind for?” most will answer that it is to think with ; and, if you ask them what they mean by ‘think’, they’ll usually give an answer that involves solving problems or formulating arguments.  They tend to see thinking as an effortful, even laborious, business.  Oh yes – and “thinking is for clever people”.  But actually they are referring to only one kind of thinking. They are referring to only one of the things the mind can do.

What is the point of having a mind unless you are going to use it?  And why not use it to develop new talents?  Talents that are new to you, but that are not new to your mind.  Your mind knows how to do many things that you don’t know about yet ; and usually you don’t know about them because you’ve been busy doing other things ; you’ve been too busy to listen to what your mind has been telling you.

You might like to think of something like your emotions.  Some emotions, such as pain, are unpleasant.  But the pain, like all emotions, is merely the messenger ; it is impelling you to do something.  It comes with a message for you, so why  not just comply with the message and file the paperwork away?  Why not  read the message and then put the pain behind you?

There’s so much to be said about pains ; too much to say it here and now.  But – just to whet your appetite – you might remember that pain is an emotion ; and you might remember that you can either enjoy an emotion or you may contemplate it ; but you cannot do both at the same time.  There are ways of contemplating pain which require no effort and which take only a little of your time.

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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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For Josh I.

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

O G-d within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life – that in me has rest,
As I – undying Life – have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts : unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity ;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou were left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou – Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

[Emily Bronte]

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It’s commonly believed that nothing ceases to exist, but that things change their form.

It’s generally believed that, when a thing changes its form, its function also changes.

It’s generally believed that, to observe change objectively, the observer must be unchanging.

It’s tacitly believed that there is some function of consciousness that is unchanging ; for, without that condition, all our observations of change are suspect.

An interesting question arises : is that stable function of consciousness a ‘thing’? If it is a ‘thing’, is it in a category of its own? It would seem so ; for, if not, then we are hard put to justify any of what we call our ‘knowledge’.

If it is in a category of its own, is there any reason to suppose that it perishes?  Opinion has been divided.

Reason alone might yield an answer ; but reason plus experience is better. What recorded experiences do we have for, and against, the proposition that something lives on after the body has died?

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