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.