When I came across this article by Candida Moss and Jessica Baron with the title Where in your body is your soul? I groaned, expecting yet another mushy spiritual mess. (I am sure that many readers of this blog had a similar reaction when seeing the post title.) But it is actually quite an interesting article, tracing the origins of the concept of the soul and how people have addressed the numerous problems associated with it.
Moss and Barron say that the concept did not originate with Christianity but entered it from the Greeks, suggesting that it originated with them. I am not so sure about this. That may be a somewhat western-centric view and, although I have not looked into it, I would not be surprised if the ancient philosophies of the East also had similar concepts. The strong sense that we have of an enduring personal identity is universal and can easily morph into viewing it as something distinct from the body.
The authors say that while Plato thought of thought of the soul as an “intangible, incorporeal essence” others conceived of it as something physical, made up of bits of air and fire and other invisible materials.
For those who thought that the soul was material, this led to another question: where is it located in your body? Ancient philosophers and philosophically educated doctors like Aristotle and Galen wanted to know. For many, the soul resided in one of the mysterious and generally misunderstood internal organs. The stomach in general and the kidneys and liver, in particular, were commonly believed to be the fleshy containers of the soul. But while ancient physicians and philosophers sometimes caught a glimpse inside the body when it was wounded in battle or by accident, human dissection was largely forbidden.
Galen thought the soul resided in the brain while Aristotle thought it was in the heart. But a fourth century Christian theologian Nemesius thought the soul was an incorporeal entity that was spread through the body, because the idea of the soul being made up of material substances caused all manner of theological problems.
Questions about the soul now became rooted in finding material evidence. Despite having no overriding religious agenda, those who argued for the presence of a material soul were labeled atheists, since it was presumed that this meant that human bodies operated like clocks, with all the material pieces merely doing their jobs, unimpeded by a higher power. The possibility of a material soul was even more worrying to Christians, who were concerned that a material soul might get trapped or destroyed.
Exploration of the New World and the racist caricatures of the “Natives” as cannibals that resulted, led to more extreme questions: what would happen to bodies and souls if they were torn apart and eaten? If the soul is made of matter and that matter is ingested and processed into nourishment by an animal (or a cannibal), would the soul still be intact?
The rise of medical education raised a new problem. The dissection of a dead person might mean that their soul would get fragmented and not survive the resurrection so dissection began to be viewed as one more punishment for executed criminals since they deserved to lose their souls as well as their lives.
For people in general dissection was worse than death. As Hulkower puts it, “While execution was a threat to one’s life, dissection was an assault on one’s soul.”
Interestingly, the later idea that associated the soul with the brain and the central nervous system led to treaties limiting the use of nerve gas partly because of the fears of what it might do to the soul.
To this day some scientists continue to talk about the nervous system as the home of the soul. In 2012, Professor Stuart Hameroff and British physicist Sir Roger Penrose put forward the theory that near-death experiences are the result of the soul leaving the nervous system. They further hypothesized, in a way that would please the ancient Stoics, that when a person dies their soul does not die but dissipates into the universe at large.
(As an aside, Penrose has done excellent work in physics and mathematics but his quasi-religious, mystical views that he has expressed later in life are, in my view, bonkers.)
Many people still associate the heart with the soul and this has interesting consequences for transplant operations.
In the arena of organ donation, for example, heart recipients often experience depression and existential angst after they receive the transplant. This is in contrast to kidney, liver, pancreas, and lung transplantees who might experience a sense of guilt, but rarely worry about whether they are themselves anymore. Part of the reason for this is that, as a society, we associate the heart with our emotions and identity. For heart transplant recipients it’s hard to get away from the cultural baggage associated with the heart and the sense that something of ourselves is lost when we literally lose our own.
The concept of a soul is an unnecessary one, a relic of our past ignorance of how the body works. But it does serve the purpose of giving people a sense of immortality, that while our bodies may perish, our true essence will live on forever. This may make the prospect of death easier for some to face, thus the enduring popularity of the concept.
But while all of us have a unique sense of self or identity, that is better seen as the creation of our brain. Invoking the idea of a soul as anything other than a metaphor for that feeling is a mistake.