A Brief Meditation on Souls

I probably wouldn’t think about souls much if it weren’t for the number of times I’ve been hit in the face with how much other people’s opinions diverge from mine on the simple matter of what souls even are.

First of all, in this cultural context of mine, unless you bother to specifically seek out information on them, the primary exposure to ideas about souls is going to come in the form of narrative media in the supernatural genre (meaning stories that feature vampires, demons, magic-users, etc.), and although they differ in how they go about it and what the consequences are, I can think of numerous examples that feature a character losing their soul (while their body still goes on living).

Before I explore that concept in more depth, there’s an objection I’m anticipating here, which is that the fictional world that a writer tells stories about doesn’t necessarily reflect their own personal beliefs about how the real world works.  I agree, to some extent.  Certainly you don’t have to believe in the existence of vampires to write about vampires.  On the other hand, any time something has Joss Whedon at the helm, you can bet the main tenets of Christianity are not going to be validated by the narrative.

The dilemma of what to do with souls falls perhaps somewhere between the two, and a given supernatural writer may not write a soul system that they personally believe corresponds to reality, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll be assuming that for writers (and some members of their audience), their fictional soul systems fall into a “believed plausible in an alternate universe” category.

One of the ways I’ve seen nonlethal loss-of-soul handled in fiction treats a soul as something roughly equivalent to a moral compass.  Without their soul, the character loses all barriers to unbridled evil and becomes a monster, as if a soul is some ethical threshold that keeps human immorality to a more nice and tidy level.

I figure this idea can be traced back to the use of “soulless” to deride an operation that is run as if by a distant, nonsentient automaton, and from there the concept of “soullessness” warped into the concept of “losing one’s humanity”, and… well.  Even if you think having a soul is a trait to exclusive to humanity (an idea which I’d go right along with), neither souls nor humanity come with a default morality rating.

See, if you’re writing a world in which most or all of humanity has souls, and souls provide a +10 boost to morality, then it’d only make sense for your fictional world to include a retcon of global human history, eliminating an awful lot of depravity and violence from our past and present and in effect leading to some rather alien circumstances.  At that point, can you even really say you’re dealing with humans anymore?  That’s a truckload of differences between the real world and your fictional one you’d have to have exposition on, and I never see anyone dealing with that.

Or if you’re inclined to claim that human history is staying mostly the same and it’s just that we’re capable of that much evil even with our souls, then what the heck is a soul good for?  They’re not making much of a difference here.

It’s almost as baffling as the type of narrative in which souls are deliberately and voluntarily sold off by their original owners, which doesn’t kill them somehow, and then they just carry on with their lives as they would after any other type of transaction.

Haven’t the faintest idea how that one works.

Here it would be valid to point out “well, those people who write about that stuff, they probably don’t believe in souls at all,” but that would also be a form of disagreement on what constitutes a soul to begin with.  When people say things like “I don’t believe in souls” or “souls don’t exist,” they’re making the kind of enthymemic oversight that is the same reason why I’m amused by statements like “I don’t believe in Jesus,” which is not the same as a statement like “I don’t believe in God,” because while the latter typically expresses a lack of theism, the former intends (I presume) to convey “I don’t believe Jesus is Christ” but instead ends up sounding like a claim of disbelief that Jesus ever existed — which, given the secular historical evidence, is an idea I find kind of funny.  Pedantic, I know.

When people claim not to believe in souls, though, what it seems as though they actually mean is that they don’t believe souls can be immortal.

Granted, the concept of a soul is not very ideologically useful if you think souls all cease to exist concurrently with physical death, but there’s also no particular reason to get in a fight with someone about whether souls exist, unless, again, you have a different understand than I do about what “a soul” even refers to.

A soul is a concise but comprehensive term for an individual’s whole selfhood, as far as this can be conceived as something distinct from their flesh-and-bone form, and is not mutually exclusive from the brain — similar to how sometimes people make a conceptual distinction between physical and metal processes even though the brain is a material body part, an organ, that is just as worthy of the term “physical” in some ways.  Souls entail sentience and life, and if one believes all souls are immortal (as is true within most variations upon Christian doctrine), then the point of a soul is that it functions as a ticket to an afterlife; the soul is what gets judged as worthy of being sent to one place or another.  Therefore, your soul is you.  It is all of your you-ness.

And if someone tells me “I don’t believe people have souls,” then I have to presume that’s only a manner of semantics.

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28 responses to “A Brief Meditation on Souls

  • rimonim

    Another interesting post. I feel similar, actually, about when (most) people say “I don’t believe in God.” This often really means, “I don’t believe in a bearded demiurge who has obvious opinions on the current US election cycle.” And I’m like…yeah, me neither. No offense meant to opinionated bearded demiurge worshipers–it’s just a different question, and a difference of opinion on the meaning of certain words.

    Anyway, your post makes me think about my own view of the soul. Not entirely sure my view is, though.

  • Siggy

    I used to say I believed in souls, because a soul is just the pattern that makes a person who they are. But then I found I had no reason to ever explicitly use this concept of soul, so I stopped saying that. Even if we’re talking about p-zombies, which isn’t exactly a problem with everyday applications, people talk about consciousness rather than souls.

    • acetheist

      Right, it’s not a concept that’s very useful in and of itself without some additional appli– …What are p-zombies?

      • Siggy

        Philosophical zombies. They behave exactly like real people, except that they don’t have any experiences or consciousness. Or formulated a different way, they don’t have souls. Although I’m really not sure what concept of soul is typically used for p-zombies.

        It’s actually a huge topic in philosophy, as testified by its long entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia. I love some of the titles in the bibliography. “On the Conceptual, Psychological, and Moral Status of Zombies, Swamp-Beings, and Other ‘Behaviourally Indistinguishable’ Creatures” Ha!

        • acetheist

          That sounds… possibly very interesting, except that I don’t understand what people would be thinking about this for.

          …That’s kind of my default response to most philosophy, actually.

          Still, mayhaps I will investigate.

  • apprenticebard

    I don’t really get the whole fictional “person without a soul” thing, either. (It bothered me for approximately two minutes while watching Buffy, then I got over it). I generally think a human without a soul ends up a vegetable (at best) or, more likely, dead. They certainly wouldn’t be recognizably themselves, because they’re missing the very thing that makes them who they are.

    Anyway, yeah, I’m firmly in the “immortal version of you that gets passed into the afterlife” camp. Although I might be a bit odd in that I also think our bodies are a part of our souls. Like you said, part of what makes you you is your brain, and to some extent the other physical parts of you, so I suppose that will be passed on into the afterlife in some form. Presumably glorified form. :)

    Oh, and there’s also Church teaching that says all life forms have souls, but only humans have immortal souls. I’m not really sure on the specifics (like how a tree or slug or something can have anything resembling a soul), but apparently the idea of souls that cease to exist at death isn’t totally foreign to Christianity. So there’s that.

    It’s certainly an interesting topic of discussion!

    • acetheist

      “It bothered me for approximately two minutes while watching Buffy, then I got over it”

      That was one of the examples I was thinking of as I wrote this. I could enjoy (most of) the story in spite of it, but whenever the narrative shined more attention on that particular underpinning of the plot, it was like… c’mon.

  • luvtheheaven

    Whenever the average person I’m gonna come across talks about a person’s soul, they usually mean something supernatural-ish. And as an atheist who only believes in the material and real world, who accepts determinism over free will and that the answer to the mind-body problem is pretty clearly that your body is what creates your mind… well… I don’t believe in souls. I wouldn’t simply “say” it, just like that, in most contexts. If it ever were to come up, I’d want to clarify – of course I believe people have personalities, memories and life experiences, and just so many things that make them “them”. I also know that taking psychiatric medications or experiencing brain trauma can kind of change these aspects of you. That “you” are not really “the same you” that you were when you were only 1 day old with no memories yet, no life experiences. I mean, to take it further, the way a very young person (a baby or child) experiences the entire world is so different than how they do when they reach age 20.

    I think the concept of “souls” seems to be relevant when the pro-life people try to explain why abortion is “evil” (you’re murdering a person who already has a soul) and the fact that I don’t believe in souls matters in this debate. (I fall on the pro-choice side.)

    I don’t believe in an afterlife either, so the idea that a soul lives on and is immortal is contrary to my beliefs. I believe once you’re dead, you’re dead.

    I see no point in discussing a who a person is in the terminology of souls. I feel like it implies I believe things that I don’t believe. I don’t want people to think that I believe in things that have no proof, like a thing called a “soul” that is separate from a person’s body. I don’t. I live a scientific skeptic’s evidence-based life and I’m quite happy this way. ;)

    So those are my thoughts on the matter.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    As for in TV shows like the ones you mentioned, it does certainly seem like writers for shows consider your soul to be just the good sides of you, or something. Ideas of the afterlife also seem to be often stuff that they can’t actually believe, but are more just “fun” to write about for the time being. Thinking about it now, I like how on Smallville in season 4 episode 17 “Onyx” http://smallville.wikia.com/wiki/Onyx when Black Kryptonite didn’t remove Lex’s soul from his body but rather split the man into two – meaning he suddenly had two bodies, lol, which is quite nonsensical but what they really were doing was splitting his soul in two. They were giving one Lex his good traits and one Lex his bad side. And both sides are “him”, they make that clear throughout the episode. Both are actually parts of his soul.

    • acetheist

      “That ‘you’ are not really ‘the same you’ that you were when you were only 1 day old with no memories yet, no life experiences.”

      True, true.

      “split the man into two – meaning he suddenly had two bodies, lol, which is quite nonsensical but what they really were doing was splitting his soul in two. They were giving one Lex his good traits and one Lex his bad side.”

      That… makes even less sense to me. How does one divide up what counts as someone’s “good side” and one’s “bad side”? What about traits that are good in some circumstances and bad in others? That just doesn’t seem feasible. …you know, apart from the whole splitting-him-in-half to begin with thing.

      • luvtheheaven

        It doesn’t really make sense, because nothing is really that black and white. I agree. The whole show was struggling with trying to make a prequel to a villain. The Lex Luthor we meet on Smallville is a better guy than the Lex Luthor he will one day be. Episodes like this one are an attempt to explore that but they usually go over-the-top in many ways.

    • acetheist

      “they usually mean something supernatural-ish. And as an atheist who only believes in the material and real world”
      “I don’t want people to think that I believe in things that have no proof”
      “I live a scientific skeptic’s evidence-based life and I’m quite happy this way.”

      You know, I just had a thought… The supernatural/natural divide doesn’t mean much to me (and I normally don’t bring that up because I know what people mean anyway), but if the supernatural is anything that has no observed material presence and has not been scientifically proven in a definite sense, and if there are people who don’t believe in my orientation because of that, does that mean my orientation is supernatural?

      • Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist

        I agree with theacetheist here. There are a lot of things that are very commonly accepted without material evidence. Causality (the bare idea that events can have causes), the foundation of all of science, is one of them. Causality is metaphysical (which I think is what we all mean by “supernatural” in this thread). The idea that nothing exists that cannot be experienced with the senses is also metaphysical. (And unprovable.)

        • acetheist

          To be clear, I wasn’t mocking the idea of considering it supernatural — I’m actually kind of jazzed about the idea. Can we co-opt the X-Files theme as an asexual anthem?

          Still, those are some interesting points, so thanks for bringing that up, Hezekiah!

          • apprenticebard

            Not to sound silly or anything, but the idea of gender/sexuality as some kind of supernatural phenomena does make a lot of sense to me. Especially since I think of gender as being related to someone’s soul/selfhood, not just their physical form. Just because something is “supernatural” certainly doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect our day-to-day lives, or that it can’t be a major component in how we perceive the world.

            We can observe that gender has real affects on the world around us, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be a solely physical/natural thing. I don’t know about orientation… Maybe it’s just that I’m pretty sure sex is an act exclusive to earth/this life, but it doesn’t seem like quite the same thing. Could be related, though, I don’t know.

            Sorry, that idea just… Sorta clicked with me, I guess. I don’t think the line between these two things is always clear, especially where human minds are concerned.

          • acetheist

            I like that idea — if gender were supernatural, it would make a lot more sense to me. Not 100% sense, but, more than otherwise. It would help elucidate why it’s so hard for me to understand or relate to, anyway.

      • luvtheheaven

        Well, I accept the basics of things like causality because they appear to work. We can predict huge hurricanes. tornadoes, and blizzards now. Modern Medicine has changed so much. These things are evidence for me in a way that matters, even if it’s hard for me to pinpoint or explain it. I don’t think I’m taking anything on faith or mere “anecdotal evidence”. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to accept these fundamental things. I think I’ve been a scientific skeptic my whole life, long before I knew the term for it. I generally need to be given a reason to believe in something. I don’t think it’s fair to say “well, tell me why NOT to believe in science and until you give me a good reason to STOP believing in science, I’m gonna keep believing in it”. That’s contrary to most of what I stand for. However, I think there is a big different in believing certain “things” exist or don’t exist like gods, souls, etc and believing in the whole framework of science, or logic, or other complicated philosophical things. Epistemology is confusing.

        I think the whole concept of “believing in” a sexual orientation is a really different thing than believing in a god, a soul, etc. I’m asexual too, and I don’t think it’s a supernatural thing. I accept that asexual is an accurate way to describe my experiences and am happy to see some scientific research has slowly been being done to examine what potentially causes or doesn’t cause the orientation, to examine its frequency, to examine if it happens in animals too, to see it’s not just a hormone imbalance, etc.

        I accept that religious people really do believe in whatever religious concepts they believe in, just like I accept that people of any sexual orientation really do (or don’t) feel certain feelings. Going further, accepting it is an orientation rather than a health issue (mental or physical) is something I couldn’t quite do without at least a little convincing, but the scientific research backs up asexuality so far, and… it’s not like people identifying as asexual (or as other sexual orientations, or even as transgender/other non-binary genders/agender) is actually hurting anyone. I don’t know. It’s hard for me, with asexuality, because I have my own personal experience of feeling no sexual attraction to cloud my judgment. I want to be objective and consistent when I come to my beliefs about reality. And I am striving to do that as much as I can. :P

        • acetheist

          “I don’t think I’m taking anything on faith”

          Faith is relative.

          “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to accept these fundamental things.”

          Oh certainly. I agree.

          “I want to be objective”

          I don’t believe in objectivity, haha (that’s the comm major in me) but I suppose that’s a philosophical debate for another day.

          (Also: not sure if you got the notification for it, considering how WordPress works, but Hezekiah also replied to your comment via mine. Not sure if you saw that or not.)

  • Calum P Cameron

    There are some interpretations of Christianity that I know of (and therefore, I presume, there are some interpretations of other faiths) wherein it is believed that one’s soul is some sort of metaphysical source of their goodness (usually, as I understand it, these interpretations speak of “the flesh” as where evil temptations come from and “the soul” as where good ones come from). This interpretation, while perhaps problematic, does handily explain why the people in Heaven don’t go around making the afterlife miserable for each other, which is what you’d expect to happen if a person’s immortal soul contained all the bad bits of humanity as well as the good ones. Under this system, removing the “flesh” (ie body) from a person means they are no longer tempted to be evil. The flipside of this, of course, is that removing the soul of a person means they are no longer tempted to be GOOD.

    I presume that this interpretation is the one Joss Whedon et al are familiar with when they start treating “lost his soul” as synonymous with “lost all apparent sense of empathy or compassion”.

    In narratives where the soul is sold off by the owner but the owner then lives on as normal, the usual explanation is that the demon/fairy/whatever they sold their soul to only actually owns some sort of legal “right” to the soul, allowing them to do with it as they will upon the person’s death, rather than having removed the soul at the instant of transaction.

    As a personal inquiry, can I ask why, if a soul is merely “a concise but comprehensive term for an individual’s whole selfhood, as far as this can be conceived as something distinct from their flesh-and-bone form”, would you be inclined to say that only humans have them? I can assure you, my dog was a sentient (although probably not sapient) individual with a recogniseable selfhood and personality distinct from her flesh-and-bone form, just as much as I am. The only difference is that my set of personality traits included more in the way of intelligence, moral judgement, etc, and less in the way of liking to fetch things and so forth.

    • acetheist

      “these interpretations speak of ‘the flesh’ as where evil temptations come from and ‘the soul’ as where good ones come from”

      Yeah… uh… raising an eyebrow at all of that.

      “In narratives where the soul is sold off by the owner but the owner then lives on as normal, the usual explanation is that the demon/fairy/whatever they sold their soul to only actually owns some sort of legal ‘right’ to the soul, allowing them to do with it as they will upon the person’s death, rather than having removed the soul at the instant of transaction.”

      Right, that’s what I’d assume, except… I’ve encountered a book where it was quite clear on the point that the protagonist had sold off his actual soul and was not in possession of it anymore, while still being alive, in a standard sense. The devil didn’t just have a promise to get his soul eventually — he spoke as if the soul was already separated from him.

      “As a personal inquiry, can I ask why, if a soul is merely ‘a concise but comprehensive term for an individual’s whole selfhood, as far as this can be conceived as something distinct from their flesh-and-bone form’, would you be inclined to say that only humans have them?”

      Well, I went on to elaborate (meaning that’s not the sole/defining trait), but I’d expect animals not to have souls because, if they did, they’d be subject to the same terms and conditions (so to speak) of Christian doctrine — facing temptation, being capable of moral discernment, needing a relationship with God for salvation, etc. I don’t generally see that applying to animals. Then again, this argument is not one I’m… ideologically invested in, as it were, and if someone were to insist to me that animals do have souls and explain their reasoning, I’d probably shrug and go along with it.

      • Calum P Cameron

        Interesting. I tend to believe that animals have souls because I tend to assume that temptation, moral discernment, and so forth are symptoms not of having a soul but of having sapience. And on the relationship with God thing, I always just kind-of assumed that animals DO have a relationship with God, just not one of the same kind as an adult human because that would not be appropriate in the same way as it was not appropriate for me to have a relationship with my dog of the same kind as my relationship with my human friends and family (I also tend to assume that God’s relationships with children are also a little different from his relationships with adults, again because of the difference in mental capacity, but that’s a whole other frequently-debated topic).

        If, however, moral discernment is viewed as a symptom of having a soul, that could also be a reason in some cases why “lost his soul” gets used by some people to mean “turned evil” (Yes, I realise “no moral discernment” doesn’t necessarily mean “evil”, but possibly some of those writers did not).

        I can only presume that, in the canon of the book you read, people had a “soul” that was simply some metaphysical ticket to the afterlife and no more. In that universe, losing your soul means you carry on as normal, you just don’t get to go to Heaven or whatever. Personally, I don’t believe that’s how souls work, but it wouldn’t be the first time something I personally don’t believe got into a fantasy fiction book. Yeah, that particular case also seems to me to be a less interesting way to write about the concept, but I guess that might be a personal taste thing.

        Wow, I just got super pretentious and navel-gazey super quick.

        • acetheist

          “If, however, moral discernment is viewed as a symptom of having a soul, that could also be a reason in some cases why ‘lost his soul’ gets used by some people to mean ‘turned evil’ (Yes, I realise ‘no moral discernment’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘evil’, but possibly some of those writers did not).”

          Well, I… that’s not what I meant, and perhaps there’s a better phrase. It’s more that… gosh, and I can’t believe I’m getting into this… a dog is not capable of evil. It’s a dog; if it acts completely selfishly, that’s not a sin, that’s just how it’s okay for dogs to be. Dogs can be “good” (rescuing people) and “bad” (biting people) but I don’t regard that as being the same thing as human morality, and it’s more a matter of us evaluating them on their usefulness and obedience to us.

          • Calum P Cameron

            Well, yes, but I would probably be inclined to say that the reason WHY such actions don’t count as moral or immoral is that a dog, due to its lack of sapience, does not have the capacity to understand moral concepts enough to have anything we would recognise as a moral compass. It is not capable of moral discernment. For want of a better term, they cannot be capable of good or evil as we understand the terms because they cannot “know better”. (Granted, this is coming from a borderline Kantian, for whom motive and capacity are usually the primary considerations when trying to understand morality. You may have a slightly different spin on it.)

            Either way, if one was to assume that a dog’s lack of moral capacity was in some way correlated with the absence of a soul, you can see how one might, as a writer, go through the thought process “no soul -> no capacity to understand moral concepts sufficiently to be judged on them any more than a non-sapient animal has -> acts without any moral compass, deciding on actions according to more instinctive, “animalistic” priorities (amoral self-benefit, for want of a better term) -> acts in a way that (to us in the audience, who are used to judging people-shaped characters according to moral understanding) makes them look like a raging dickwad.”

            This would be backed up by the fact that sometimes when a character loses their soul and later regains it, any crimes they committed while soulless are written off as… not usually “not their fault” exactly, but at least not things they should feel guilty of. This could be hinting at a belief on the part of the authors that if you don’t have a soul, you don’t have any more moral capacity than a dog, and so you cannot “sin” any more than a dog can.

            I mean, this is all speculation from someone who neither has that view of souls nor has experience writing fiction about souls (which is weird, since I’m primarily a fantasy author), so I could very easily be way off the mark here.

          • acetheist

            Eh, trouble with that is, “deciding on actions according to more instinctive, ‘animalistic’ priorities (amoral self-benefit, for want of a better term)” is perfectly possible even with a soul, and being an animal doesn’t necessarily mean behaving badly (my horse is quite sweet despite being primarily instinct-driven).

          • Calum P Cameron

            Well, yes, obviously. I did note in my earlier post that this explanation does rely somewhat on assuming the writer is not realising (or choosing to pretend not to realise) that “no moral discernment” is different from “always acts evil”. Most writers do however seem to have at least SOME villainous characters who DO have a soul, and just act selfishly anyway for whatever reason, which kind-of addresses your first point by making it clear people with souls can (under the writer’s understanding) by choice behave just as amorally as the soulless ones ‘automatically’ do.

  • L

    I believe that everything has spirit, and that humans in particular have several souls or souls that can be divvied up into meaningful pieces. I’m a polytheist that follows a traditional religio-social sort of lifeway, so it makes a lot more sense in the broader context of what I “do”.

  • Silvermoon

    (Sorry for the late comment ^.^” ) Your entire article makes sense! But I think the difference is (as you mentioned) how people define “soul”. So many people define the “soul” as some essence that’s separate from the body (although housed within), which could potentially exist in any body or space (eg heaven) and still be the same thing, the same individual.

    But personally, I think your entire identity is formed by your brain’s chemistry and how you react to your life experiences so the concept of a soul as most commonly defined makes no sense to me. If I grew in a completely different part of the world with radically different life experiences, I would not say that person is me. The only commonalities would be those determined by genetics; I don’t believe that my character has a soul to determine the base essence of my personality.

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