On the soul. – today, the soul has lost its presence. Even if we are to accept it in some form it is as a metaphor or as a construct to further give us a purpose or meaning. We are undoubtedly purpose-seeking, meaning-making entities. And that is our characteristic. Our imagination is our greatest gift and our ultimate curse.
Which type of “sweater” are you?
No, I am not talking about round necks and V-necks. I am talking about when it comes to souls there are the religious-type and philosophical-type.
Religious-types sweat when they hear someone say there is no soul. In fact, there is no single word for this except soulless, but that do not mean without soul, but without passion. Actually, the only religion that explicit says there is no soul is Buddhism. But neither do they panic when they hear people talk about souls.
Philosophical-types also sweat when they hear this. They often equate soul or spirit with mind. But like the religious-type not all of them sweat. Only a certain type – the idealists and rationalists – who have trouble explaining the mind. Gilbert Rule called this a belief in the ghost in the machine. Particularly, if one claims to be a materialist, physicalist, or empiricist one gets looks of incredulity.
The struggle then has always been how one can explain a being works without a soul and/or mind. But why sweat when either way the being has continued to work, live and survive. In other words, don’t panic, take off that sweater, wear a T-shirt, and carry on. Life continues no matter what.
Consider these three definitions from the LDOCE:
mind – your thoughts or your ability to think, feel, and imagine things mental.
self – the type of person you are, your character, your typical behaviour etc.
soul – the part of a person that is not physical, and that contains their character, thoughts, and feelings. Many people believe that a person’s soul continues to exist after they have died.
Often the mind, self and soul are synonymous, but as the definitions show they are not used in the same way. There are no true or perfect synonyms.
While the definition of the mind does not mention character, the definition of self does not mention thoughts. The former is about ability; the latter about quality.
In the definition of the soul both ability and quality are brought together. It also contains or emphasises two further qualities – that of non-physical and (sometimes the belief in) its continuation beyond physical death.
I doubt anyone thinks that thoughts and feeling continues to exist in the mind after his or her death, or that one can be described as being a type of person with a certain character or behaviour after his or her death. It is with the soul only that we continue to think of someone’s continued existence beyond their physical one.
But what is this ‘part of the person that is not physical’ that no one has seen and everyone infers to exist? By what evidence does one have to make this inference? I can infer thought from physical reaction, and character from physical attributes. But one cannot infer the existence of a soul from death, apart from the cessation of thought, feeling and characteristics. What can only be inferred is that death is the cessation of these. Souls, then, are the thoughts and remembrances of the characteristics of those who are living, or have since passed.
As a Buddhist I am taught to not believe in the existence of a soul. So if I sell my soul to the Devil I am in effect deceiving not only the Devil but myself as well. And not only am I deceiving myself about I having a soul but that there is even a devil to sell my soul to in the first place.
And I haven’t even come to the question of whether there is exist any meaningful value of things yet, let alone a price for my soul.
In psychology there is differentiation between sensation and perception. Sensation is the reception of signal alone. Nothing about this signal is analysed. Perception is the stimuli analysed within the brain to make sense of it.
So Buddhism makes sense to call the mind (or brain) the sixth organ that brings together all the information into a coherent whole. To not distinguish an organ as Western thinking has done has been a disservice to their understanding. The reasoning behind this is partly due to the belief in the soul and by extension the mind. Western science and philosophy has had a tough time reconciling the mind in relation to everything else.
For Buddhism there is no mystery to the mind. It has no higher place separate from the rest of physiology. It is as much part of and impermanent as everything else.