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Christianity, philosophy, Religion

The Soul — A simple error

At some point in our evolutionary history, pre-humans made an important leap in cognitive ability.  We moved from first order contemplation to second order.  That is, we went from thinking to thinking about thinking.   Before this leap, we were not very much different than most of the animals we’re familiar with — dogs, cats, horses.  We know they can think, and they are often very good at solving problems, but it’s pretty obvious that they don’t have the ability to think about the way they solve problems.

My cat gets upset with me because I don’t change his water until he drinks what he has.  He prefers fresh cold water out of the refrigerator to water that’s been in his bowl for a day or two.  Several months ago, he took a good look at a glass of water I had set on the coffee table.  He recognized it as water, but found that he couldn’t get at it because his head is too big.  Within a few minutes, he’d figured out that tipping the glass over put a nice puddle of fresh water on the ground that he could lick up at his leisure.  As a result, I now have to either finish my water completely within a few minutes, or drink from a sealable bottle.

In my cat’s brain, there are objects and actions.  He recognizes water when he sees it.  He knows there is water in the sink, in the toilet, in his bowl, and in my glass.  He experiences desire for water, and acts upon it, by walking to his bowl or searching out a glass I’ve left unattended.  That’s pretty much the extent of it though.  He never spends time thinking about how or why he craves water, or how or why he goes about getting it.  He just thinks and acts.

Pre-humans were like this at one time.  Then we made the leap.  Unfortunately, when we made the leap, the scientific method, philosophy, logic, and empiricism were tens of thousands of years away.  We were the only animal that had ever been able to think in this new way, and natural selection didn’t provide us with a user’s manual for our new ability.

In all of our experience as first order thinkers, we had only known objects and actions.  We couldn’t think about “two” or “forever” or “greed.”  We knew “gorilla” and “run.”  We saw problems, and we solved them, but we didn’t think about how or why we solved them.  We just acted on our thoughts without thinking about them.

Then, when we made the leap, we suddenly realized that there was a lot more to existence than what we had known before.  We looked at other people and thought about them thinking, and thought about ourselves thinking, and noticed that even though other people were…. people… they weren’t us.  Each person, in fact, was unique.  They were recognizable not only by their face and body, but by the way they think.  We could predict how other humans would act based not only on some vague notion of how all humans act, but because of how each specific human had acted in the past.  Because of our newfound ability to think about thinking, we asked… why?

Our caveman brains struggled for an answer.  Clearly, humans are something completely different from gorillas or tigers or running.  Each human is unique, yet all humans are the same.  This was a huge puzzle, and we simply did not have the philosophical framework in place to find the answer.   Instead, we guessed what we were most accustomed to — “human-ness” is a thing.  An object.

If human-ness is an object, what kind of object is it?  We can’t see it, or taste it, or hear it, yet every human has it.  When a human dies, he is not a human anymore.  The human-ness has left him.  So man searched for the thing that makes humans humans, and after doing as much research as cavemen could do, he came to the only conclusion possible — Human-ness is something invisible that lives in the bodies of humans, and escapes the body upon death.

And that is where we stand today.  We have created layers of intricacy, complexity, and philosophical pretzel twisting, but at its core, the concept of a soul is the same today as it has always been.  A soul is what makes us human, and it is an existing “thing” in the universe.   When we discovered the scientific method and empiricism, it soon became obvious that the soul is not measurable in the ordinary way, so we invented another kind of object — a “supernatural object” — which is defined as not being measurable in the ordinary way.

Apologists have written voluminous defences of the ontological validity of the supernatural, but they have never crossed the simple hurdle of creating a universe of discourse.  They have never been able to say what the supernatural is without borrowing or comparing with the natural.   The answer is shockingly simple, of course.  The “soul” as a “thing” is simply a category error.  “Soul” is a fancy word for “human-ness,” and human-ness is a concept, not a thing.



8 thoughts on “The Soul — A simple error

  1. Okay….I get it. Hmmmm….

    Posted by Jessica Anderson | September 13, 2009, 8:16 pm
  2. I do like this post. Concur. Do you not think that a “ness” or concept is a thing (not in the empirical sense), but as something that is pointed to, a construction in the “mind” of the persona? In regard to noting thing and nothing.

    Posted by theadividual | September 14, 2009, 6:42 pm
  3. Yes. A concept is a thing, but I framed this post in the kind of layman’s terms that pre-philosophical man would have used. To them, “things” would be objects.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 14, 2009, 7:13 pm
  4. Strong work, Hamby. With all the reading I’ve done on materialism, dualism, evolutionary underpinnings of religion, etc. I have not come across a more frugal or elegant depiction of the source of duality.


    Posted by Mig Hein | September 15, 2009, 7:31 am
  5. I would like to introduce the word ‘process’. IMO, huamn-ness is a concept, yes, but it describes something in the real world, specifically a certain kind (or class) of process. The ‘soul’ — or, more correctly, the mind — is a physical process. It *is* what the brain does. Processes are ontologically valid under physicalism, i.e. they exist per se. They would fall under the broad category of information theory. A process is a stable transformation of information in a system over time. Combustion is a process, digestion is a process, evolution is a process, and the mind is a process.

    The ‘soul’, a supernatural mind, does not exist, but the mind, a natural/physical process, does exist. The word ‘soul’ is just a confused pointer to an actual thing. Just like a ‘ghost’ is (usually) a misunderstood hallucination, and hallucinations actually exist, a ‘soul’ is a misunderstood mind, and minds actually exist.

    Posted by Wonderist | September 15, 2009, 12:59 pm
  6. I’m ok with your categorization, wonderist. I think the distinction between process and concept is a difference in perspective, and doesn’t represent a problem to be solved, but a historical narrative to be studied. The pre-human mind I’ve described could recognize processes but not categorize them. Both “three” and “process” are, in a broad sense, concepts which cannot be touched or seen or heard.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 16, 2009, 9:35 am
  7. IMO, a concept is a physical thing. It is an informational structure in a mind. Like an ‘object’ in an object-oriented computer program, it exists as an informational pattern that reacts to inputs. The substrate of software ‘objects’ are the bits of memory in RAM. The substrate of concepts are the neural connections in the brain. Both software ‘objects’ and mental concepts can be “touched or seen or heard”, although we do not yet have the technology to do so. Like atoms could not be directly observed before we had electron-tunneling microscopes, concepts cannot be directly observed until we develop much higher-resolution neural imaging, and also the theoretical neuroscience necessary to understand how neural connections encode functional neural entities. Like genes, concepts are fundamentally informational in nature. Genes are embodied in DNA and RNA, but their informational structure can also be sequenced into a digital form on a computer, printed out on paper, etc. Concepts are embodied in neurons, but they will also be able to be digitized and stored on other media. It is the information that makes the concept, not the material medium/substrate.

    A concept is different from a process in the same way a word is different from the thing it describes. A concept is like a pointer. It exists within a brain, but it refers to, or points to, something outside itself. (I suppose it is possible for a concept to refer to itself, such as the concept of ‘concept’, but even in this case it is important to distinguish the pointer from the pointee.) A process, on the other hand, is a physical entity in its own right, and does not need to exist in a brain. Process is much closer to information in this ontology. It is more fundamental than concept. A concept is a kind of information, and it plays a part in the process of cognition, just like a gene is a kind of information that plays a part in the process of evolution. There can be a concept of ‘process’, and in this case, being a concept, it would exist within a brain, but the concept points to the general phenomena of processes.

    In other words, I see concepts and processes as very distinct. When I talk about the concept of ‘human-ness’, I’m talking about the unit of understanding which exists in a brain. The thing to which that concept points is an *actual* process, the process of human-ness, or more accurately, the process of human consciousness, or the mind.

    So, while ‘human-ness’ is a concept (i.e. we each hold an understanding of what it is to be human), it is also an actual process in the real world (i.e. there really is something distinct about the process of the human mind, and it is not entirely imaginary). It is when we ‘see’ human-ness in things which do not actually embody the process of a human mind (e.g. when we imagine gods or souls), that is when the concept of human-ness is getting triggered in the *absence* of an actual process of a human mind. It is a misfiring of our concept/understanding of minds.

    I guess my ultimate point is that the concept of a ‘soul’ has its roots in an actual thing, the physical process of the mind. It is just that the concept of ‘soul’ is incomplete/broken. It does not recognize the thing it is pointing at as a physical process. It mistakenly attributes a supernatural/non-physical aspect to it. But just because this concept is wrong in this way, does not mean that the underlying process (the mind) is not actually a physical thing.

    Human-ness is a thing. What kind of thing? A process. There is also the concept of human-ness or ‘soul’. The concept is also a thing. What kind of thing? Information. The two, concept and process, are very distinct, just as a word and the thing described by the word are distinct. Both exist independently of each other, which is how it is possible to have an incomplete/broken concept of human-ness and yet still have an actual process of human-ness. Just like atoms were always atoms, even when we mistakenly thought that they were indivisible, and had point-like electrons orbiting them, or even embedded in them like plum pudding. Our mistaken conceptions of something does not automatically mean that the thing conceived of does not actually exist outside of our minds.

    Posted by Wonderist | September 19, 2009, 1:23 pm


  1. Pingback: Everyone Craves the Afterlife, Right? « Life Without a Net - December 9, 2009

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