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The Immanent Soul

SoulMigration What would it mean to talk of a soul solely in terms of the immanent world?

The word 'soul' has fallen into disrepute recently. Many people see the idea of a soul as a throwback to earlier beliefs, and consider it to have been discredited in scientific terms. But the term, as a metaphysical reference, cannot be disproved or eliminated, it can only be abandoned or ignored. In an attempt to demonstrate that the term can still hold meaning, I shall attempt to provide a definition of “soul” entirely in terms of what Charles Taylor has called the immanent frame – the physical, natural world of matter that we all experience.

What does 'soul' mean in a traditional sense? Most religious traditions have a concept of the soul, and use it to mean the immaterial part of a person – an idea that draws upon notions of transcendence which cannot be applied without stepping outside of the immanent frame. The soul may be associated with our personality and experience, as in the beliefs of the Abrahamic religions that the soul lives on in transcendent reality after death, or it may instead be associated with the essence of a person, such as in Dharmic traditions where by rebirth the soul reincarnates into new living bodies. These two ideas are closely related – both envisage the soul as the quintessence of a person, they principally differ as to whether the memories and direct experiences are preserved.

Thus to show that we can still use 'soul' as a meaningful term, even within the immanent frame, we must show that there is something that can be attributed to a person that is essential to our notions of who they are, that is ineffable, and that also survives in some sense after death.

Perhaps the reason why the soul is usually considered a priori excluded from the immanent frame is that the technological successes resulting from the development of the physical sciences has leant an artificial air of confidence to models of reality that depend upon reductionistic principles – we look at a body (say), and see that the smallest operating principle is the assembly of protein molecules by the action of DNA and RNA, and thus see biology as based around genetics. The popularity of these kinds of viewpoint doesn't change the fact that these models are still only representations – as Alfred Korzybski noted, “the map is not the territory”. That the genetic mechanisms are foundational doesn't make them fundamental – and indeed, behavioural studies focussing solely on genetics are entirely misleading, since genetic mechanisms merely construct organisms, they do not literally “program” them to behave in certain ways (although they do create a suite of possible behaviours by virtue of the physical systems they describe).

One way of thinking abut the soul in immanent terms is to consider that the soul is whatever is non-physical that distinguishes two individuals. Now calling upon terms like “non-physical” may seem to step outside of immanence, but there are non-physical elements within the immanent frame – the gravitational constant, the ratio pi, and the concept of time are all immanent concepts, but none of them are physical in the sense this is usually applied. Similarly, we are familiar with splitting up mind and body and calling the latter 'physical' but the former 'mental' (however misguided this dualism might be). There is an abstraction involved – we still recognise that what we call 'mental' is dependent upon what we call 'physical' – but we do not find it difficult to imagine our mind as a non-physical element. Indeed, this perspective is what makes it easy for us to believe in science fiction scenarios involving downloading our personalities into machines or computers, no matter how far fetched.

But a person is more than just a mind and a body, they also create and maintain physical spaces – bedrooms, houses, gardens, offices, cities, nations – and they acquire and support relationships between other people, and animals other than humans. There are numerous networks of connection between each and every person, none of which are strictly physical. If we agree to go swimming every Thursday, there is much involved beyond the physical elements of the vibration of air when we talk to one another, and the immersion of our bodies in water – there is the nature of the discussion between us, our use of language and our inflections or idioms, and the notion of a shared calender that enables us to make such an agreement in the first place. These are the subtleties of interaction between beings, the dance of life that includes but is also more than the merely physical.

Within this subtlety of interactions we each have our own unique identity – and this is more than the sum of our memories and experiences. Should we suffer a terrible accident in which our mind was addled with amnesia and our body disfigured beyond recognition, our friends and family could still “know it was us” from our inflections, our movements, our unique qualities. Thus, even within the immanent frame we can still find a way to conceive of the quintessence of a person – more than just their identity (which is a mental state an individual possesses concerning themselves) it is the flavour of their interaction with the world – which can be expressed in speech, in action, in living spaces, in habits and in myriad other ways beside. I would suggest this is the minimum required to show a concept of an immanent soul.

This idea can be taken further. A version of the Dharmic notion of rebirth can be expressed in immanent terms: if each individual has a flavour of interactions which we can attribute to an (immanent) soul, then what if two people express the same flavour? Those two individuals can then be seen as expressions of the same soul – of sharing the same soul. In this way, rebirth can be cast in immanent terms not as a chain of souls, but as an eternal cluster of souls – many expressions of the same quintessence. We think of ourselves as individuals because our minds naturally supply an illusion of self, but seen from another perspective these many selves may be seen as instances of the same patterns. In this view, our (immanent) soul has lived many times, and will live again even after we have long since passed on.

There is even a faint trace of what the soul means in Abrahamic traditions which can be reached within the immanent frame. When the body dies, the soul (in the sense used here) no longer expresses itself through that person, but continues to assert an influence – for the person has affected the lives of their friends, their family, and their communities. In this sense, that soul continues to influence long after the death of the body it once emanated from – as long as those that knew that person live on, the immanent soul persists, and in the chain of inheritance from parent to child and onwards, the faint breath of the souls of those long passed continue to reverberate through time.

I do not construct this thought experiment to show that this is all that a soul might mean – far from it. Rather, I hope that by demonstrating that something of the idea of a soul can still be made to work within the immanent frame that the metaphysical beliefs people hold about souls are not as insanely outlandish as they first appear. It seems to me a strangely arrogant belief that humanity happens to be blessed with a suite of faculties capable of detecting all facets of what is, and the blanket rejection of transcendence (of all kinds) amounts to this. It's a narrow perspective, a modern variant of geocentrism that still places our species at the centre of the universe, albeit in an existential rather than a physical sense. It is not that this viewpoint is unreasonable, merely that it is one perspective among many, and as such does not enjoy any privileged position.

If I have succeeded in demonstrating that we can make the term 'soul' have meaning even in immanent terms, I hope it will go some way towards showing that transcendent beliefs about souls have not been invalidated – indeed, as metaphysical beliefs, this is essentially impossible. Stories about transcendent souls are encrusted with the embellishments, dogmatic echoes and even the poetry of bygone times, but none of these are explicit reasons to reject these beliefs. As ever, we must look deep into our own selves – into our own souls, if you will – to discover which beliefs ring true for us.

The opening image is Soul Migration by Iranian-born artist Rassouli, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

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"It seems to me a strangely arrogant belief that humanity happens to be blessed with a suite of faculties capable of detecting all facets of what is"

I honestly find this ending, rather mild restatement of an equivalency principle of human concepts, to be more convincing than the main argument itself.
The immanent soul would be a very impermanent and amorphous thing indeed if it had to rely on the memories of others, or one's genetic legacy.

Hey Chris. Glad to see you took my suggestion of talking about Philosophy of mind!

"Thus, even within the immanent frame we can still find a way to conceive of the quintessence of a person – more than just their identity (which is a mental state an individual possesses concerning themselves) it is the flavour of their interaction with the world – which can be expressed in speech, in action, in living spaces, in habits and in myriad other ways beside. I would suggest this is the minimum required to show a concept of an immanent soul."

... I don't know whether to reject this notion, or to embrace it wholly. I feel both when I read this, but no ground in between. I suppose for me it comes down to a simpler semantic argument about the word "soul"...

"what if two people express the same flavour? Those two individuals can then be seen as expressions of the same soul – of sharing the same soul."

This idea, however, I highly dislike. In fact, I don't even understand its place in your argument here.. If I understand correctly, you are saying that if 2 people have the same tendencies, i.e. "the same inflections, movements, unique qualities", those 2 people share the same soul? Even if 2 people were exactly the same (which nobody is... there are so many different combinations of preferences and habits that I seriously doubt there are 2 people on the earth that are exactly the same), how does this relate to a soul, immanently? I don't see the connection, I would just say that they are 2 extremely similar people.
I don't understand this argument.
(Breaking the realm of the discussion here just briefly) The only reason we are talking of souls in the immanent sense, is because we know of or believe in the concept of souls in a spiritual sense... And unless you really believe that every individual person does not have their own seperate soul in a metaphysical sense, why would you propose that there are "shared souls" in an immanent sense ?????
??? Baffling my mind here I guess ...
Chris, do you believe there are shared souls in a metaphysical sense?

Lastly ..

"the faint breath of the souls of those long passed continue to reverberate through time."

That's simply poetic. :D

zenBen: it's interesting, as I almost cut this as being too forceful an assertion. But then, it's key to my stand on transcendence that while I may not be able to express in words the whisper of a transcendent world, I cannot possibly conceive of a way to eliminate it and remain intellectually honest.

(Well, apart from Hume's approach, which is the "leap of unfaith" that discounts all things improbable a priori). :)

It's ironic that I find so many intellectuals making the reverse argument - how can you claim belief in a transcendent reality and remain intellectually honest? Perhaps the rather shallow accounts of transcendence that are more often bandied about make it all too easy to poke holes, and cause people to forget that any account of transcendence in human terms is always going to be, frankly, a bit crap. :D

organic i/o: this was directly inspired by your earlier comment, but precisely because I *don't* want to talk about souls in the context of philosophy of mind (it blurs between philosophical domains, and I want to stay "in bounds" when I go there - nothing to allow materialists to discount my claims prematurely, basically). So I mulled it over, and having mulled, a piece on what we mean by 'soul' naturally fell out. :)

Regarding "expressions of the same (immanent) soul", I'm not sure I can elaborate on this in any useful fashion. To me, this is an easy concept to access - but I can see why it is a strange an alien concept, and why you would want to reject it. I believe this might make more sense to someone coming from a Dharmic tradition, but I could be wrong about this. My immanent version, for instance, allows for "simultaneous rebirth" which might well break the head of even the most esoteric Buddhist! :p

Perhaps to make this work in your mind, you have to stop thinking about people as individuals, and start seeing people as expressions of cosmic archetypes or some similar concept. Imagine that we are not these fleshy beings, but rather abstract consciousnesses who just happen to impinge on this reality by expressing themselves via physical bodies (and being unaware, in this state of embodiment, of their transcendent origins).

I know many people prone to Rational-thinking that are resistant to thinking in these terms, precisely because they do not want to deal with the idea that they might be linked "on another plane" with other people, many of whom they rather not be in the same room as, let alone spiritually linked! :)

"Chris, do you believe there are shared souls in a metaphysical sense?"

This is a difficult question for me to answer, as I am profoundly agnostic about almost all metaphysical issues. So my default answer is "how could I know?"

But you ask whether I *believe* there are shared souls in a metaphysical sense, and I suppose I might say that I believe that the notion of a unitary soul could be quite misleading, for in my deeply personal view of this there is only one soul, and that soul is what I might call God (my transpantheistic God, at least - your theistic mileage may vary).

(Similarly, the question "do animals have a soul?" is as meaningless to me in this context as the question "do rocks have a soul?" or "does a discarded coke can have a soul?" It would be quicker to ask "what does not have a soul in your view?" to which the answer would be "I don't know - I didn't do it!" :D)

The Sufi get at this idea with their concept of all reality returning to God in each instance of existence, the Hindus get at it with their notion of Maya (reality as illusion), and the Zen Buddhists get at it with their notion of non-duality. (That's three of my five religions right there!) We are all one, and we are all many.

But now I have wandered off into the abstruse metaphysical corners... Perhaps that was the point of your question. :)

"That's simply poetic. :D"

You accuse me of poetry! *gasp* I'd be offended, if I wasn't secretly touched by the complement.

Thanks for pushing me towards this subject!

I suspect my viewpoint on this is the merely mundane: I have no idea whether I have a soul or not - I have no evidence either way. I may never find out, in the sense that I-as-identity may not survive this body's death, even if some soul survives. Bit of a shame really, as it'd be nice to know, even if one of the rules of knowing is not telling the living :-).

Chris -

"abstract consciousnesses who just happen to impinge on this reality by expressing themselves via physical bodies "

I'm down with that. I can conceptualize this.. What I *don't* still understand is how you are trying to connect this idea and use it as a justification that souls can somehow be observed in the immanent world. I still don't see the connection. I want to say that you have a weak argument on this point, but I am also just worried that I still simply don't "get" it... :)

RE: poetry. MUAHAHAHA. }:D But what do you mean "accuse"!? Are you saying it is some sort of crime? My girlfriend is a poet, and she can commit crimes against me any day :-D

Peter: it fascinates me that you use no concept of the soul in your personal view of the world, yet are still intrigued about the possibility that you might be able to use such a view. :) As with so many metaphysical topics, it's one of those areas where there is a natural desire to be able to take upon "the God's eye view" of it all, but no capacity for us ever to achieve this! :)

organic i/o: I think your problem here is that in this particular case I am suggesting a deployment of soul in a very different sense to the way it is usually used. This in itself might make the claim weak, but it tracks neatly in my own mind. As a riff on a theme, I'm happy to have found the different places these ideas took me.

As for poetry, I was being flippant. I have great admiration for poets - one of my childhood friends has moved into this strange career space, although I have sadly lost touch with him - but I just never have seen myself in these terms. Too damn rational for my own good. ;)

Best wishes!

"Perhaps the rather shallow accounts of transcendence that are more often bandied about make it all too easy to poke holes, and cause people to forget that any account of transcendence in human terms is always going to be, frankly, a bit crap. :D "

I suppose that's why the best speakers on the subject usually try to point out that you can't really talk about it, you can only experience it.

In terms of metaphysical souls I'm agnostic, naturally, since its metaphysics innit?
Immanent souls though - if everything tangible or cultural that comprises the individual is an evolution of prior individuals, then that could be seen as a soul...in which case there could only be a handful of these things in the whole world. The globalised world, at least.

I don't think its too far out - anyone who is completely consumed and moved by practicing an activity conceived by someone else is expressing a part of that other person, and all the people behind that person...
yet it's amusing to me that (if we're on the same page here), what we're talking about could also be described in terms of selfish genes and memes!

Your concept of immanent soul is immediately obvious to me. Given the understanding that any way you perceive reality is nothing more than a model, a crude approximation to something that might actually be "truth" (but is impossible to really understand), there is absolutely no distinction between physical and non-physical phenomena in regards to their observability and provability. As long as you can describe what a soul is, it's just as real as anything else.

This logic can be extended further beyond the immanent frame; the mere notion that there is a border between the immanent and the transcendent is already a layer of abstract concepts placed on top of what is perceived as reality. The refusal to acknowledge this is what irks me the most about strictly materialist, scientific worldviews.

Vitor: "As long as you can describe what a soul is, it's just as real as anything else."

I totally agree! Which is why I find the claim "God does not exist" to be quite strange. Is this supposed to mean "there is no ontological entity to which God corresponds?" - in which case, how do you know? Or is it supposed to mean "there is no phenomena to which we can apply the term God", in which case, what do you call the phenomenological object of worship rituals? Even if you don't believe in transcendence, the phenomenological God is as real as the phenomenological notion of a nation (an "imagined community" as Benedict Anderson says).

Confusing materialist ontology with phenomenological ontology is a common philosophical error outside of comparative religion (which has adapted brilliantly to metaphysical problems, unlike many academic disciplines). "There is no material phenomena to which the term God might apply" is a reasonable claim, but then, who ever suggested God was made of matter? :)

The thing about materialist worldviews is that adopting this view is the safest (most conservative) way to conduct scientific enquiry. I think there is merit to the materialist viewpoint - the problem comes (as with any worldview) when one insists that the choice that one has made is a choice *everyone* must make. And this applies whether we are dealing with transcendence or immanence.

Thanks for commenting!

Thanks for the information...I bookmarked your site, and I appreciate your time and effort to make your blog a success!

Rachael: I really appreciate it when people stop by to let me know they enjoy what I do here. Hope to see you around in the comments!

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