WHAT IS THE SOUL? WE KNOW NOTHING ABOUT IT. IF THIS PRETENDED SOUL WAS OF ANOTHER ESSENCE FROM THAT OF THE BODY, THEIR UNION WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE.
The superiority which men arrogate to themselves over other animals, is principally founded upon the opinion of possessing exclusively an immortal soul. But as soon as we ask what this soul is, they begin to stammer. It is an unknown substance; it is a secret force distinguished from their bodies; it is a spirit of which they can form no idea. Ask them how this spirit, which they suppose like their God, totally deprived of a physical substance, could combine itself with their material bodies? They will tell you that they know nothing about it; that it is a mystery to them; that this combination is the effect of the Almighty power. These are the clear ideas which men form of the hidden, or, rather, imaginary substance which they consider the motor of all their actions! If the soul is a substance essentially different from the body, and which can have no affinity with it, their union would be, not a mystery, but a thing impossible. Besides, this soul, being of an essence different from that of the body, ought to act necessarily in a different way from it. However, we see that the movements of the body are felt by this pretended soul, and that these two substances, so different in essence, always act in harmony. You will tell us that this harmony is a mystery; and I will tell you that I do not see my soul, that I know and feel but my body; that it is my body which feels, which reflects, which judges, which suffers, and which enjoys, and that all of its faculties are the necessary results of its own mechanism or of its organization.
I had never heard of Jean Meslier, back when I used to ask believers “what is your theory of ensoulment?” So I could take apart their epistemology. It is interesting, is it not, that many christians believe attacking Darwin’s theory of evolution somehow proves their god – yet they cannot defend their theories against even the most gentle enquiry.
Atheist: “What is a soul?”
Believer: “It’s something unknown to science.”
Atheist: “Do you have any idea what it’s made of?”
Believer: “It’s energy!”
Atheist: “Given that the electromagnetic spectrum ranges from ‘zero energy’ to ‘cosmic rays’ and we understand something about everything on the spectrum that is theoretically possible, where does the soul fit on the EM spectrum?”
Believer: “Waaaah! You’re being mean to me!”
Meslier and I appear to be arch naturalists. He also argues the primacy (and only possibility) of the senses.
The little dialogue I have above would be fun to replay with a pyrrhonian.
Pyrrhonian: “Why do you believe you have a soul?”
Believer: “I feel I have one!”
Pyrrhonian: “How do you know you’re not delusional?”
I’m being silly, of course, as usual, but there’s a real point there. When talking to a believer, if they play the “sensus divinatus” card you can always ask them “How do you know you’re not delusional?” which I prefer to formulate in a more subtle way:
“Have you ever experienced making a mistake? You know, when you feel certain you know something and it turns out you were completely wrong? How are you sure you’re not making a mistake about this whole thing?”
“Have you ever experienced a vivid dream? One you thought was completely real? Does your ‘sensus divinatus’ feel kind of like that?”
Normally I convert Meslier’s ALL CAPS titles to mixed case (did you know that they did that because BOLD type was a hellacious technical problem? I’ve laid type, and – believe me – mixing weights on the same line is seriously difficult because the bold type is slightly taller, which means you either need to use a line-leading that’s going to take the largest type you want to use on a line – and then sort it out into the bins when you break the page down. Or you use ALL CAPS) Anyhow, Meslier’s title kicked so much ass, I just couldn’t alter the typography.