I’ve begun attending monthly meetings of Socrates Café at the South Portland Library. Socrates Café is a gathering of citizens who get together by choice to discuss the big questions of life. Methods drawn from the book, Socrates Café, written by the program’s founder, Christopher Phillips, are used to guide discussion. The example of Socrates in conversation with peers in ancient Athens is the apparent inspiration. If the program sounds interesting, ask your local library about it. They might be able to sponsor a group. Ours provides a staff person to work with us. Programs can be convened anywhere using Phillips’ guides. There are hundreds of Socrates Cafés all over the world. They cost little, are educational and fun, encourage free thinking, and exemplify democracy.
When the chosen hour arrives— at 6:30 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of the month in our case—a volunteer agrees to act as facilitator for the evening, a list of possible topics is compiled from on the spot suggestions, a vote is held to identify the top two, and a second vote determines the question for the evening. The proposer says a few words to get discussion started, and then it’s delightful conversation for two hours or so. Nothing is concluded or decided! Then we split and go home.
It looks like we can bend the rules a bit if we want. At the end of the evening last month a participant mentioned that she would like to discuss the concept of “soul” one of these nights, and everyone agreed, so soul is to be our sole topic at the May Café, unless, of course, some newcomer suggests a more popular alternative!
In preparation I thought I might use this blog to tee up some thoughts on soul, and invite comments. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
The idea of soul is appealing. I can see why people would like to have one. I’d like to have one. If I had one, death wouldn’t have to be final and I would have a claim to integrity.. Souls are so constructed as to survive death and transfer to other bodies. They can represent us in heaven and hell. Having a soul apparently comes with eternal risks.
One big problem is that souls don’t provably exist. There is no corresponding organ in the body to study: nothing to locate, describe, measure, analyze, and make empirical conclusions about. Science doesn’t recognize soul.
A second problem is that souls seem to depend for their existence on fanciful language and linguistic tricks. Souls are said to “arrive” in bodies “complete” and “whole;” every animal is born with “one.” They are supposed to be “ageless;” yet some are said to be “old.” They “occupy” the body and “guide” head and heart. They are an “it:” I can “show” it, “hide” it, “take care” of it, “hurt” it, “sin” against it, “kill” it, and “lose” it. I can be “soulful” but also “soul sick,” and “soulless” if I treat others badly. Souls can be “felt”, and “expressed.” They “animate.” They “protect.” They “shield.” “They “move.” They are our “essence.” They insure our “integrity.”
A third problem is that other concepts equivalent to soul might be equally apt and efficacious. “Psyche,” “being,” “self,” “personality,” “spirit,” “essence,” “anima,” and “persona” are possible synonyms. “Consciousness” figures in the discussion too. Psychology is a scientific discipline that studies what was once called soul. Psychology seems to have grabbed the authority away from religion to make validity claims on human personality. In so doing, concepts of consciousness, conscience, mind, self, and personality are affirmed while soul is downplayed. The spirituality movement does much the same; its enthusiasts often describe themselves as more spiritual than religious.
In fairness, it should be noted that these alternative concepts depend as much on linguistic privileges and tricks as does soul. Consciousness, mind, self, conscience, and persona are also “it”s, “wholes,” “occupy” containers, have agency, influence action, and extend beyond the brain to the whole body, and beyond. They too appear to be fictional objects!
A fourth problem, a big one for me, is that souls are associated with religion. All religions appear to have a concept like it. Souls are useful to religions in “denying” and “overcoming” death. As the novelist José Saramago observed, religions seem to need death in the way bodies need food. They couldn’t do without it. Souls entail divinity, facilitate afterlife, and presume immortality.
Without going into detail, my concerns with religion include: the denial and degradation of nature; the invention of supernatural realms; the presumption of ersatz second lives preferable to this life; the divine plan assertion; concepts of end times, apocalypse, and judgment day; the loss of human responsibility in the concept of divine will; the authoritarian and dictatorial powers of God; assertion of belief without evidence; preference of faith to science; trust in ancient literatures over scientific knowledge; zones of belief rendered off base to questioning and learning; and, not least, persistent involvement in war; most wars are holy wars.
Soul’s association with religion inclines me to avoid the concept altogether. I might be able to live a good and decent life by thinking of myself as a “self” with a “mind” and a “conscience.” Then too, I have “consciousness,” “reason,” “personality,” and “character” to draw upon. I have “sensation,” “feeling,” emotion,” and “spirit” too. Couldn’t I with this mental architecture live a productive, happy, and joyous life? Do I need soul to be a good person and citizen?
But then, alas, there is the pesky problem of free will. Do I have free will? I’ve assumed I had a soul since childhood. Most people I ask believe they have one too. I got the belief from my parents. My father—who was also the pastor of our church, and my mother, who was also the church’s Sunday School director—taught me that I had a soul and backed it up with scripture and church attendance. I may want to disinherit soul, but can I actually do that? Is it really a choice? As a lifetime habit, might I not continue to believe in soul anyway despite a new intent? I’m as capable as anyone of deceiving myself!
Speaking of deceiving oneself, the example of the astounding René Descartes comes to mind. Might not his famous discovery offer a way out of my sad dilemma? Descartes, as we know from his own account, sat himself down in a lonely boarding room one evening, in a foreign country, with only a flame from a single candle piercing the darkness, and soberly willed himself to doubt away every single belief he had ever believed, as if all were untrue. And, incredibly, he almost succeeded in this destructive project. This full grown man, at the height of his intellectual powers, one of the greatest thinkers ever, doubted away every thing he believed up to the boundary of zero, and fell back exhausted, short by one stubborn belief. He found that he couldn’t in this excruciating-interrogation doubt away the doubter, the “I” doing the doubting. This lonely unidentified doubter, unknown even to its owner, if ownership is a relevant concept here, indubitably existed. Perhaps Descartes’ famous “cogito,” “I think, therefore I am,” with its “I” that asserts doubt, is the locus of “soul!” But no, it couldn’t be, I see that now. Descartes would have doubted soul away too that evening along with everything else! This “I” of Descartes’ is thoroughly bereft; it has no attributes whatsoever! But, hey, don’t knock it. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, we humans have, thanks to Descartes’ discovery, a “ghost in the machine” problem to cope and contest with. “I” exist! But who am “I?” I ask you: who is the ghostly “I” in your head? Where did that “I” come from?
Luckily for us, Descartes moved on promptly to invent a method by which valid knowledge could be extracted from nature and applied with confidence in the “real” world. We call that method science! So the ghost may be bereft, but “it” has good resources at hand in science. That may in the end be better than having soul! We should at the very least be able to appreciate what a wonderous puzzle we are to ourselves! On the other hand, it’s precisely at the end of the last day as the light wanes that having a soul would really help. Besides, once Descartes’ new method gains traction, it will give birth to the sciences of psychology and psychiatry, and off the practitioners will go in pursuit of personalities and diseases, but not souls; the merry-go-round is likely to circle endlessly.
After sifting through this little cache of thoughts on the subject of soul, the reader is in better position to appreciate why I’m attending Socrates Café. I like to think, talk, and air ideas, but I get tired of hearing my own voice and familiar thoughts. It is wonderful to hear other peoples’ ideas and points of view. In conversation, Ideas evolve and clarify; new possibilities come forth. Something like a sense of acquired wisdom pervades the group atmosphere. Ideas feel like nourishment for the soul at Socrates Café!
Your thoughts and comments are most welcome.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
May 17, 2019
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