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Do You Have a Soul?

Updated: Aug 27, 2022

Dear Soul,

What a marvel is the human ascent to space and the human understanding of the seemingly invisible realities in the air, as well as of the microscopic particles which make up our universe. These marvels of thought, and countless others, are great revealers of human ability, but how is it that each human has the capacity for such outstanding thought? Such a capacity, I will show, is grounded in the immaterial human soul, which allows us to think rationally and to freely will/act. I find it good that I define the soul, consider the evidence of our human experience, and then lay out arguments in order to justify my claim that the soul exists, as also to justify why I call you a “soul.”

The soul, classically understood, is simply the animating principle whereby living things are alive. So, yes, your friendly neighborhood squirrel has a soul in the traditional sense, but we will consider only the human soul here. This soul is characterized by its unique powers of rationality and free will. These two powers are, more precisely, the ability to reason and the ability to make choices of one’s own accord. Think about it for a moment: does it seem that we have the ability for such things?

I might expand your thoughts on this point with my own, considering, firstly, free will. Our lives are pungent with an aura of choice. When one goes out to the coffee shop and decides what drink to order, when strenuously deciphering what restaurant to eat at, or maybe when pondering what to do when one is bored, we are deciding between a plethora of options. Each of these choices seems unimpeded: there is nothing within us which pushes us along and forces us at metaphorical gunpoint to order a large iced latte at the coffee shop. It might be said that such a choice is actually a sort of programmed decision based upon one’s past experiences which only imitates a free choice, but this seems dubious. For one thing, if we have free will, we of course will use our past experiences to make educated, wise decisions about action, so past experiences will universally be utilized, whether with or without free will. But simply being more strongly inclined to act in given ways based upon past experiences doesn’t entail a lacking ability to freely choose, it merely suggests a tendency or directedness towards certain actions which is engrained in us. For another thing, sometimes people make decisions so repulsive to their desires that it seems hard to deny their freedom in choosing. We might think of a three-cups-a-day coffee drinker as an example. Say he gives up coffee for a day after a daily espresso streak of five years because he has recalled a fact that he heard two years ago about the effect of coffee on digestion. Suppose he has no digestive problems but is simply curious. Claiming that this espresso addict’s choice to drop coffee for a day is simply because his random spark of curiosity was stronger than his delightful, perpetuated, and biologically engrained tradition seems to be a weak claim. Especially if he were to sustain this sacrifice through the headaches and fatigue of the day without a strong reason to think there’d be a positive payoff for his digestion, this truly seems a weak claim (plus he hadn’t acted on his knowledge of this digestion fact for multiple years). I might add a third piece of evidence to the case, which touches on how we interact with one another: praise and exhortation. These things are only truly possible with free will, otherwise such speech is mere sound ushering forth from biological impulses which don’t actually reference a person’s good or bad acting, but simply address a given stimuli in a vague way. After all, it'd be absurd to exhort a first degree murderer for his cruel "decisions," when they are simply biologically forced actions. Thus, all in all, it seems that our general experience affirms our free will: we apparently aren’t forced or determined to certain action based upon experience or biology.

What about daily experiences of rationality? These are everywhere! First, we often find ourselves discussing or debating with others about questions of politics and the like, giving reasons and explanations for our beliefs. You may also have seen a faulty method of reasoning in discussion which didn’t rightfully bring forth the conclusion being argued. These are all things which constitute argumentation and its methodology, things which our animal friends are incapable of. Second, we often make decisions against our emotions or strongest desires because we realize something else is better for us or for others: we have to get work done, we should escape dangerous habits, etc. Our furry friends in the animal kingdom don’t act as such: they instinctually act according to their strongest biological impulses, without any process of reasoning between alternatives. My puppy Mac, even when I’m out of treats, will persist in a loud craze forever to attain to his nightly treat because he doesn’t infer that an empty treat bag and my telling him that I'm out of treats means there’s no treats left in the house. He can’t render his desires ineffective by thinking, but it seems that we certainly can do so. Third, the vast societal infrastructure around us in all of its facets (c.f., laws, financial markets, cities, etc.) is astonishing; it is incomparable in nearly any degree to that of any other creature. This is surely a sign of complex thought and points vividly to a different kind of thought, a different kind of mental capacity. This list could grow quite larger, but to avoid mental fatigue, this suffices to showcase our experience of rationality.

Now to the nitty-gritty: let’s consider some arguments to put atop our experiences and to prove free will and rationality. Starting with rational thought, consider the difference between the imagination and the intellect/reason, in other words, the difference between imagining and thinking logically about something. When we imagine something, say a ball, it is always of some dimension, of a particular color, amidst a certain scene, etc. It is always the case that we imagine something physical. Now juxtapose this with the intellect wherein we consider things in a different way. When we rationally think about a ball, we consider the equations relating to balls/spheres, the definition of a sphere, and certain qualities all spheres have. Notice: the things being thought about here are all purely conceptual: they are not physical things having dimensions and spatial-extension, but are concepts, wholly abstract things. Concepts concern universals, things which can be said of many particular things (e.g., triangle, true) whereas objects of imagination are particular things. These concepts aren’t just trivially different from our imaginations, they are different in kind from them. In other words, these types of thoughts don’t differ merely in degree but in kind from one another; they are substantially, essentially different forms of thought, which take place in unique forms of mental activity. This means that the explanation for each form of thought must be different in some manner. But not only this...because the objects of rational thought (concepts) are immaterial, physical processes are unable to produce them. Saying that physical processes could do such a thing is like saying that fundamental computer coding, which is made up of all ones and zeros, could receive a two into its code…and understand/process it! Yet this is impossible. The twos differ in kind from the ones and zeros as far as computer coding is concerned: two is something completely foreign and irrelevant to the structure of computer systems. Likewise, immaterial things are completely unknown and foreign to that which is just material. In this way then, thinking of abstract concepts (via the power of abstraction) and of immaterial things shows that there must be an immaterial explanation which gives us the capacity to think as such. This explanation is the soul, and more specifically, the intellect/reason. To summarize the argument for you: all creatures which have immaterial objects of thought require an immaterial explanation, some human thoughts have immaterial objects of thought, therefore some human thoughts require an immaterial explanation. It might also be helpful to add a further proof which mentions the universals I spoke of above: if the knowing of universals is not the work of a physical organ, then it is a spiritual/immaterial activity, and this knowing is not the work of such a thing, thus knowing universals is a spiritual/immaterial activity.

Now off to the free will it is! This subject is hard to quickly address, as it concerns much of scientific investigation into the brain, so I will keep it short and sweet here and write to you soon concerning the soul and neuroscience. The question here is about certain sorts of consciousness. To start, consciousness is not a uniquely human experience; recent studies in elephants and other animals demonstrate this well. The question is whether the sort of consciousness humans experience is unique. Let’s see, shall we? On one hand, we experience perceptual consciousness, but on the other, we experience a volitional consciousness. We have the experience of the senses (as animals do) which perceive involuntarily and continuously, but we also have the experience of voluntarily acting. This experience of a volitional, voluntary consciousness is unique to humans. The reason why this sort of consciousness is special and needs further explanation is because we have gaps in our conscious mental states. When we look at the decision process, which consists of deliberating, deciding, and acting, there are gaps between each stage/state. As John Searle points out, at each of the conscious stages in the decision process, the stages are not experienced as sufficient to force/necessarily cause the next conscious state, and thus we experience a gap between each of these stages. There’s a gap between the reasons for a decision and making it, between the decision and the onset of the action, and between the onset of an action and its perpetuation to completion. These 3 experiences of the gap are special phenomena, they should not be conflated with perceptual experience, which is involuntary (you can impede your perception, but this is simply limiting perception, not showing it to be voluntary). Nor should they be conflated with conscious animal states, for animals simply react to their environment, but we humans react and act, using the decision process to exercise free judgement and then choose courses of action. This “gap experience” thus needs an account, which is what we call the soul, specifically, the free will. Here’s the argument in total: all that has gaps in mental states has free judgement/decision-making, humans have gaps in mental states, therefore humans have free judgement/decision-making. This free judgement/decision-making is simply free will.

In closing my writing unto you, I’ll throw a cherry on top for you to chew on concerning the soul, just because, well, cherries are sweet! Picture yourself in a bedroom which is completely black and white (Mary’s Room thought experiment), with no windows, one white light, and you too are covered in these 2 colors. You have always lived in this room and have never seen other colors than these. Now consider, furthermore, that you are actually a neuroscientist and expert in color vision, having knowledge of every fact concerning color and vision which has ever been discovered. Imagine one day that your bedroom wall suddenly crumbles and you see the outside world in its full, splendid array of colors. Have you learned something new by this experience? Is there anything about perceiving these colors that wasn’t contained in your knowledge? If you do gain knowledge thereby, you experience qualia, or quality, in the world, which is inexplicable in merely physical terms. I think this thought exercise fascinatingly evidences the soul, and I hope it intrigues your mind also. In the end, regardless of this thought experiment's conclusion, have joy my friend, for you have a soul!


Ian Smith

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