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.