Monday Meslier: 100 – What Is The Soul?


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.

Jean Meslier Portrait

Jean Meslier

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.

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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?”
Believer: “…”

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?”
Variant #2:
“Have you ever experienced a vivid dream? One you thought was completely real? Does your ‘sensus divinatus’ feel kind of like that?”

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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.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Descartes, among others, attempted to answer the question Meslier asked by pointing to the pineal gland as the soul-body interface.

    Research has (ahem) so far failed to substantiate that hypothesis.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    As for the fate of the soul, I imagine it as an intangible balloon dragged along behind me, doomed to face endless abuse because of my preferences for pleasures of the flesh.

    Sorta like what my good twin has to go through regularly once the sleepy pills wear off.

  3. invivoMark says

    I have had several conversations with believers where the conversation steered toward the question of souls. I think the nature of those conversations can be informative. The believer always (in my experiences) defines a soul in terms such as “energy” or “force.” I point out that these terms have specific meanings to scientists, and that their vague usage of the terms is gibberish. I ask them to be precise and specific in their descriptions and definitions. At this point, they usually try to deflect or change the subject, because it is clear that they don’t have a specific conception of what a soul is.

    The reason I think this is informative is because I have found that this sort of vague thinking tends to pervade all of the believer’s perceptions. A believer who is a skeptic of evolution, for instance, often thinks that all of science, including the language it uses, is vague and hand-wavey, and so that is how the believer will tend to discuss scientific topics. In fact, scientists like to be precise in their language, and will go to war over their preferred definition of a term. Scientific studies are full of specific observations of empirical events, and are often lacking in broad or vague concepts, for better and worse.

  4. John Morales says

    invivoMark:

    I have had several conversations with believers […]
    […]
    In fact, scientists like to be precise in their language, and will go to war over their preferred definition of a term. Scientific studies are full of specific observations of empirical events, and are often lacking in broad or vague concepts, for better and worse.

    Ahem. No quibble with your first sentence (though it could really use qualification!), but I think that your second is true only in relation within the domain of scientific discourse, and even then mostly only aspirationally rather than actually.

    (BTW, do you dispute that you have yourself made use of broad and vague concepts in your own contention? ;) )

  5. John Morales says

    PS invivoMark — I take it you do realise that numerous scientists are also what you call believers (in souls), the which is problematic for your purported contrast between the two.

    If I take it that you intended to refer to the scientific and the believer’s mode of thought, rather than to scientists and believers per se, however, then to that degree I can’t dispute you.

  6. cartomancer says

    Having written my doctoral thesis on twelfth-thirteenth century ideas of the soul, I find it quite interesting how pretty much all modern speculation on the subject (and by “modern” I mean post-medieval) presumes one very specific set of ideas – a Christianised Platonic version of the soul. I.e. an immortal, non-substantial essence of some kind, with kinship to the supra-mundane, that attracts merit and demerit over the course of its union with a physical body.

    This is not the only conception that there has ever been. It is one of the most influential – deriving from Plato through Augustine and various medieval Christian and Islamic theologians to Catholic orthodoxy in the early modern period – but it was far from the consensus. In pre-modern times the question “what is the soul” was actually a valid, interesting and fruitful one, because it was essentially a wide-ranging research programme. The soul was simply whatever made the difference between a living and a non-living thing, so the study of the soul was the study of biology, psychology and medicine. It was the study of mind and thought (the Greek for soul, “psyche” carrying more of that for us today), the study of bodily faculties, sensation and instinct. Purely theological questions did attend it during the Middle Ages, but in general the main Medieval paradigm for the soul was Aristotle – who conceived of the soul as the “substantial form” of the body – the metaphysical spec sheet that determined what shape and powers the matter that formed the body was to have. Aristotle’s concern was with how rude prime matter could be organised into a human being, or some other creature, and his soul was an attempt to address that. Hence he came up with a tripartite division of souls into vegetative, sensitive and rational, to distinguish between plants, animals and humans in their capacity to conduct biological functions such as feeding and reproduction, to sense the world and respond to it, and to think. Aristotle wasn’t really interested in whether human souls were immortal or not, and only brings the question up briefly at the end of his section on thought in peri psyches book 2 to say that if rational thought does involve some non-physical element then the rational soul must indeed be immortal in some sense. He then returns to questions he actually is interested in.

    The late antique peripatetic Alexander of Aphrodisias went even further in his materialism, stating that the soul arose from the constitution of the body and perished with it at death. Alexander’s work was known and studied in the central and later Middle Ages, and this conception was far from unknown to his Christian successors.

    The research programme of the ancient and medieval thinkers on the soul is thus, properly viewed, not a dead and irrelevant thing – it is flourishing today in ever greater strength in biology labs, psychology studies and much of modern science. Which are providing new and more detailed answers to the fundamental questions of what makes living things different from non-living ones and how the processes of life are organised and managed. What has changed is the language. The word “soul” has been hijackd by narrowly religious concerns wedded to outdated science and philosophy and abandoned by everyone else. To the extent that one very specific set of Christianised Platonic deas is now seen as the entirety of what the whole programme could mean. One can perhaps forgive someone of Meslier’s station and experiences for buying into this, but in the clamour of Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers that followed him to pour scorn on the Middle Ages the breadth and diversity of thought that had once been brought to bear was buried and ignored.

  7. Dunc says

    One of my favourite questions to ask about the soul is also one of the simplest: how many souls are there? Depending on what sort of believer you’re talking to, this can then go in several ways… If you’re talking to someone who believes souls are “single use” items, you then get the question of whether there is a pre-determined number of eternal souls in some cosmic waiting room, awaiting their turn to be embodied (and all the associated difficulties that flow from that idea), or whether souls are created as needed in some kind of just-in-time manufacturing process (and all the associated difficulties that flow from that idea). If you’re talking to a believer in reincarnation, you then point to the huge increase in the human population in recent centuries, and ask where all those extra souls have come from. If they say they’ve come from other beings via some sort of karmic promotion, you ask how it is that the numbers can be guaranteed to work out properly, and so on.

    Then, of course, you can always raise the question of aliens… (Related: the fascinating mediaeval debates as to whether dog-heads can be saved.)

    Whichever way you go, you end up requiring some sort of heinously complex celestial bureaucracy to manage the supply of souls and ensure that they get hooked up to appropriate bodies in a timely fashion, and most people seem to find that that takes a lot of the romance out of the idea.

  8. cartomancer says

    Dunc, #7

    The two positions you outline – the creation of souls directly in each body and the moving of souls from somewhere else – are well known in medieval theology as “creationism” and “traducianism”.

    The debate over which is true was especially relevant in early Thirteenth-Century Europe thanks to the prominent fight against the Cathars and their dualist cosmology. The Cathars, following Gnostic ideas (or so orthodox theologians believed – we don’t actually have any authentic Cathar texts to tell us) suggested that there were two gods, the good god of spirit and virtue and the evil god of matter and sin. In their dualistic cosmology souls were created pure and immaterial by the good god and then embodied into corrupt flesh by the evil god, which was a very bad thing. As such traducianism was increasingly seen as a heretical doctrine, opening one up to suspicions of dualist belief, and had to be vigorously countered. Orthodox medieval theology required the body to be an essential and necessary part of the human as well as the soul (it was very big on the actual bodily resurrection at the end of time), so each soul must be a bespoke creation of (the one and only) God for its intended body.

    So actually, far from being off-putting, the grand celestial mechanics of god creating each soul individually when the body is at the right stage of development for its “quickening” were seen as a glorious and affirming part of divine destiny, intimately tied up with the cosmos and its eventual salvational purpose. The souls of the departed hanging round throughout the rest of history waiting for their Last Judgment was what much of medieval Christianity was based on. They would have found it weird not to believe in such things.

  9. John Morales says

    cartomancer,

    Orthodox medieval theology required the body to be an essential and necessary part of the human as well as the soul (it was very big on the actual bodily resurrection at the end of time), so each soul must be a bespoke creation of (the one and only) God for its intended body.

    Still the case in Meslier’s time, no?

    When Meslier wrote about essence, he was probably writing about substance (in the philosophical sense). Thus the initial quotation in the OP, which is an objection on analytic grounds, on a par with Leibniz’s.

  10. Dunc says

    cartomancer – thanks, that’s very interesting. I’ll probably not use that particular line of reasoning with any mediaeval Christians I should happen to run into. ;)

    Say what you like about ’em, at least they took the implications of their theology seriously. The vagueness that invivoMark complains about seems to be a more modern phenomenon.

  11. invivoMark says

    John Morales – Some scientists believe in gods and souls and all kinds of metaphysical stuff. But there is almost zero overlap between scientists and those individuals who both believe in a rigorous metaphysical framework and want to discuss that framework with a non-believer. I only have these conversations with individuals who fit the latter qualification.

    I was, of course, sloppy with my terminology, but I think I was specific enough to give a good description of my experiences.

  12. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#1 and #2:
    The pineal gland; yeah! That’s a really great example of religious ‘science’ — “OH LOOK there’s a thing we don’t understand, therefore it must do goddy stuff! Take that scientists!” Descartes was really overrated in the philosophy department; I gather he was OK at math.

    With respect to the soul coming detached: I can’t remember who it was but some writer had a part in a book where a character believed that maybe since humans evolved in a slow world where very few things moved faster than, say, 30mph, souls weren’t very well attached and when we get in a jet plane, it sometimes lags behind us. That’s the real cause of jet-lag. You reach your destination but your soul is still stuck somewhere in the air over New Jersey.

  13. says

    cartomancer@#6:
    That’s insanely cool.

    The word “soul” has been hijackd by narrowly religious concerns wedded to outdated science and philosophy and abandoned by everyone else. To the extent that one very specific set of Christianised Platonic deas is now seen as the entirety of what the whole programme could mean. One can perhaps forgive someone of Meslier’s station and experiences for buying into this, but in the clamour of Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers that followed him to pour scorn on the Middle Ages the breadth and diversity of thought that had once been brought to bear was buried and ignored.

    It seems to me that the idea of souls got so deeply entangled with religion, that it’s best to reject it and talk instead about other things like consciousness, proprioception and the appearance of choice. “Soul” was a sort of catch-all explanation for uncomprehended things that happened at the edge between self-awareness and bodily awareness. I always felt it’s a great big “WTF” really. So I join those enlightenment thinkers that want to bury the term.

    A skeptic, it seems to me, would say that lacking evidence that there is such a thing, its best to refrain from judgement about it. Of course, per our earlier discussion in the Voltaire thread, one can remise by observing that the word has usefulness and there’s no reason not to call certain things “soul” if they behave the way we’ve long thought “souls” behave. Much like compatiblist ideas of “free will” (though, again, I’d say they appear to me to be illusions: I’m quite comfortable discussion your imaginary soul or your illusion of a soul, because then we are discussion your experience of feeling you have a soul – without presupposing you actually do.)

  14. says

    Dunc@#7:
    One of my favourite questions to ask about the soul is also one of the simplest: how many souls are there?

    Do identical twins have one soul, or two?

  15. says

    InvivoMark@#12:
    Some scientists believe in gods and souls and all kinds of metaphysical stuff. But there is almost zero overlap between scientists and those individuals who both believe in a rigorous metaphysical framework and want to discuss that framework with a non-believer.

    Yes, I’ve met a couple scientists who appear to be believers. They’ve been very cagy about it, and basically don’t want to talk about it – my interpretation being because they know it’s embarrassing foolishness.

  16. says

    Dunc@#7:
    What, do you think WAL-MART invented just-in-time provisioning? Clearly, the Soul Department (probably run with the assistance of front-man and godfather James Brown) There are probably pretty amazing stories to tell about some of the crises they had to face, during the swine flu influenza of 1911, WWII, the baby boom, etc. And, the Lost Souls Department was apparently a pretty depressing place until they got the process automation system from Oracle…

  17. John Morales says

    Marcus:

    What, do you think WAL-MART invented just-in-time provisioning? Clearly, the Soul Department (probably run with the assistance of front-man and godfather James Brown)

    Teleological thinking, very much as Cartomancer noted.

    One could not less justifiably hold the soul to be, say, an immaterial imprinting, and like the “akashic records”, ab initio tabula rasa.

    (Dualism does not entail theism)

  18. John Morales says

    BTW, this is also implicit in the Kurtzwellian dream of copying one’s consciousness to a different substratum.

    (What is it that’s transferred, if not functionally a soul?)

  19. says

    John Morales@#18:
    Dualism does not entail theism

    I am not sure of that. Are there instances of dualism that are not theistic?*

    At the very least, dualism entails some notion of supernatural something, because otherwise the apparent absence of souls contradicts it. The dualist has a difficult road ahead of them, epistemologically. They have to make a convincing case that there is a whole alternative physics and reality that remains undetected – and then explain how they can make claims of knowledge about something undetected and undetectable.

    (* I’ve heard people claim that about buddhism, for example, but those claims hinge on a very careful definition of “theism” that is constructed to allow them to make that claim; I am so far unconvinced by it. I guess there are probably an infinity of fringe belief systems that assert supernatural souls and lack of dieties or diety-like things.

    I wasn’t asking that as a “gotcha” – other than buddhism, which I don’t accept is non-theistic, I couldn’t think of any and I put some real effort into it.)

  20. says

    John Morales at #19:
    What is it that’s transferred, if not functionally a soul?

    If we were speaking poetically, sure.

    Otherwise I am going to have to (respectfully) not accept that argument unless we first agree what the function of a soul is, and perhaps what it is. It’s hard to imagine functionally transferring something without knowing what is being transferred, so presumably before we could functionally transfer a soul we’d have to sort all that out. For one thing, I’d say that we could very well say that we might transfer people’s illusion that they have a soul, if that illusion was contained in their brains. That would be an interesting thing because it’d entail moving the substrate of an imaginary idea from one instance to another. Since movement implies a copy/destroy action:
    body 1 (soul 1) -> body 2 (soul 1)
    verify transfer is correct
    destroy body 1

    If you omit the destroy step you have:
    body 1 (soul 1) -> body 2 (soul 1)
    verify transfer is correct
    body 1 (soul 1) body 2 (soul 1)
    two instances of soul 1, which presumably would begin to diverge fairly rapidly as they experienced different things. Being able to perform that experiment sure would be interesting.

  21. John Morales says

    Marcus,

    Are there instances of dualism that are not theistic?*

    No need for Buddhism, regular New Age woo is an illustration, as is anyone who identifies as spiritual but not religious. Or, if you want to go to basics, any of the animistic traditions — Native American, for example. (Or, the ancient Romans, for that matter — cf. genius loci)

    (I note arguing spirits vs. souls is an amusing but silly conceit)

    @21,

    I suspected you’d pick up on my phrasing, given your IT literacy.

    (The canonical Star Trek transporter has buffers, hence it is a functionally a copier and the issue raised by The Prestige is present, if hidden.)

  22. says

    John Morales@#22:
    as is anyone who identifies as spiritual but not religious

    There are multiple definitions of animism, ranging from “the great spirit” (which sure sounds godlike) to the idea that objects and places have souls. OK, so I’ll accept that there are non-theistic dualists.*

    FWIW – Just because someone identifies as spiritual but not religious doesn’t mean I accept that they are not religious, any more than I would accept it from the pope if he said it. It gets tricky. I’ve had self-identified buddhists assert that samsara and dharma are not parts of buddhism. I’m sure there are christians out there that would say (with a straight face) that they believe jesus was just some guy. There is an infinity of potential bullshit and it’s not for me to sort it out.

    (* The epistemological problem there is one that makes my head hurt: a rock can’t even assert it has a soul, another person somehow gains the knowledge. uh… I know you’re not trying to defend that hill.)

    BTW – there is a simple argument why star trek transporters don’t work.
    1) James T. Kirk is indestructible
    2) Kirk steps into a transporter “Energize!” and is recorded, then transmitted and a copy is assembled at the destination
    3) The transporter at departure point then unsuccessfully attempts to dematerialize Kirk, but cannot since James T. Kirk is indestructible
    4) There are now 2 James T. Kirks, identically indestructible
    4) The universe eventually would fill with an infinity of indestructible Kirks
    5) We observe this is not so
    6) Therefore transporters do not work

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