Who Do People Believe in the Soul & Other Invisible Entities?

When the body (soma) becomes the tomb (sema) of the soul, the true home of the soul is sought beyond this world. Thus the soul is the source of the supernatural. As long as man does not feel divided against himself, he lacks the notion of the supernatural. The supernatural is a projection of man's sense of alienation from nature.

—Walter Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy

Since before antiquity, after people began recognizing causality (cause-and-effect), it was obvious that there was an immense difference between a living person and a dead person. A living person was animated and warm, moved about, interacted with his-or-her environment, and generally smelled nice. A dead person, on the other hand, was no longer animated and became cold, ceased moving, and quickly began to decompose and fill the air with nauseous fumes. It was therefore surmised that something had transpired causing a living person to become a dead person. What had happened, the belief goes, is that an invisible 'soul' had left the physical body and was now being entertained elsewhere—that's why the body was no longer 'alive'. The soul, long thought to be that magical essence which animated the body, was supposedly the 'real' person, the 'true' person, 'who' the person really was in the grand scheme of things, a ghostly spiritual presence that existed outside the realm of the material body. As such it 'inhabited' the body much in the same way a genie lived 'inside' a bottle (i.e., the soul 'occupies' the body but is itself not the body).

The Soul Floating in the Spiritual Nethergloom Awaiting Divine Judgment

For thousands of years this explanation served relatively well and gave nascence to all kinds of accounts as to what 'happened' to the human soul once it left the human body. It also gave birth to several religious doctrines, the promise of 'Eternal Life' and reward or the threat of 'Eternal Damnation' and suffering. With the 'discovery' of the brain (and eventually it's function, biology, and chemistry) and cognitive science, the whole notion of soul—which was thought for millennia to reside in the heart, since it was the heart that quit beating at death—began to be seen as a 'quaint' and naïve explanation for the cognitive workings of the brain. Today a great many of us are wise enough to know that when the heart quits beating the brain stops receiving oxygen; when the brain stops receiving oxygen the person dies—the 'real' person, the 'true' person, utterly and completely ceases to exist. No magical genie pops out of the bottle to go exist elsewhere. Death negates consciousness. The end.

Still, there those who continue to believe in the soul for the simple reason that the need to believe in the existence of souls is the cornerstone of religion. Not God, not Jesus, not Mohammed or Allah, but souls. Without souls there can be no weight behind promises of Eternal Reward or threats of Eternal Punishment. If we simply die when we die—which all evidence shows we do—then most organized religion is simply meaningless, all the promises and threats merely empty, church doctrine man-made and imaginary.

Now, knowing what we know about biology and the brain in the twenty-first century, it becomes clear that the only place the soul exists is in religious and metaphysical language. There is absolutely no evidence of the soul, no rational reason to presuppose its existence, except for the proclaimations of religious and metaphysical words! You can't point to the soul, you can't measure it or analyze it or define its attributes and characteristics outside of the realm of language, in which case such talk is empty and meaningless. The whole notion of the soul came about because our ancestors had no concept of the brain or how it worked so deduced the existence of a 'soul' in order to explain consciousness and various types of behavior. When a person suffered a head injury or a stroke, chemical imbalance or psychological disorder, our ancestors saw either demonic possession or God-inspired 'visions'. Today we know better. We can watch a person's entire personality be irretrievably altered by the smallest blood clot or a knock to the head and not attribute it the workings of God, Satan, demons, or angels.

The soul, therefore, is a product of language. There is absolutely no reason to think it exists except that religious and metaphysical literature claims it exists. People continue to believe in the soul because of the tradition of religious and metaphysical words and for no other reason! Knowing what we know about consciousness and the brain, there is no other rational reason to believe in the soul. It is nowhere to be found except in words.

And words alone do not reality make.

Action is what takes place in front of the camera, with the lights turned on, to throw the rest of reality into darkness…Those for whom not to be seen is nonexistence are not alive; and the kind of existence they seek, the immortality they seek, is spectral; to be seen is the
ambition of ghosts, and to be remembered the ambition of the dead. The public realm is the stage for heroic action, and heroes are specters of the living dead. The passport which grants access to the public realm, which distinguishes master from slave, the essential political virtue, is the courage to die, to commit suicide, to make one’s life a living death.

“One must pay dearly for immortality: one has to die several times while still alive” (Nietzsche).

—Norman O. Brown, Loves' Body

Death and the Soul (from ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA)

The first attempts to localize the soul go back to classical antiquity. The soul had originally been thought to reside in the liver, an organ to which no other function could, at that time, be attributed. Empedocles, Democritus, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans had later held its abode to be the heart. Other Greeks (Pythagorus, Plato, and Galen) had opted for the brain. Herophilus (flourished c. 300 BC), a famous physician of the Greek medical school of Alexandria, had sought to circumscribe its habitat to the fourth ventricle of the brain; that is, to a small area immediately above the brain stem. Controversy persisted to the very end of the 16th century.

The departure of the soul from the body had always been central to the Christian concept of death. But the soul had come to mean different things to various classical and medieval thinkers. There was a “vegetative soul,” responsible for what we would now call autonomic function; a “sensitive soul,” responsible for what modern physiologists would describe as reflex responses to environmental stimuli; and, most importantly, a “reasoning soul,” responsible for making a rational entity (res cogitans) of human beings. The reasoning soul was an essentially human attribute and was the basis of thought, judgment, and responsibility for one's actions. Its departure implied death. The Anatome Corporis Humani (1672) of Isbrand van Diemerbroeck, professor at Utrecht, appears to have been the last textbook of anatomy that discussed the soul within a routine description of human parts. Thereafter, the soul disappeared from the scope of anatomy.

The modern and entirely secular concept of brain-stem death can, perhaps rather surprisingly, find both a conceptual and a topographical foundation in the writings of René Descartes (1596–1650), the great French philosopher and mathematician who sought to bring analytical geometry, physics, physiology, cosmology, and religion into an integrated conceptual framework. Descartes considered the body and the soul to be ontologically separate but interacting entities, each with its own particular attributes. He then sought to specify both their mode and site of interaction; the latter he deduced to be the pineal gland. The pineal was to become, in the words of Geoffrey Jefferson, “the nodal point of Cartesian dualism.”

Before Descartes, the prevailing wisdom, largely derived from Greece, had regarded the soul both as the motive force of all human physiological functions and as the conscious agent of volition, cognition, and reason. Descartes succeeded in eliminating the soul's general physiological role altogether and in circumscribing its cognitive role to the human species. Descartes's writings about death show that his concept of the soul clearly implied both mind and the immaterial principle of immortality. It had to mean both things, for no one had ever conceived of survival after death without a mind to verify the fact of continued existence, to enjoy its pleasures, and to suffer its pains.

The relation between body and soul had been discussed in patristic literature, and, because of his Jesuit education, Descartes would have been familiar with these discussions. The church's interest in these matters was strictly nonmedical, seeking only to reconcile earlier Greek theories with its own current doctrines. Descartes was the first to tackle these problems in a physiological way. With one foot still firmly on consecrated ground (and with Galileo's difficulties with the Inquisition very much in mind), he sought to give a materialistic, even mechanistic, dimension to the discussion. In this sense, his De Homine (On Man; published posthumously in 1662) can be thought of as an updating of Plato's Timaeus. His contemporaries viewed Descartes as having delivered the coup de grace to an earlier Greek tradition (dating back to several centuries before Christ) that had claimed that animals, as well as humans, had souls. This had been the subject of much discussion in the early Christian Church. During the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom (onetime archbishop of Constantinople) had denounced the idea, attributing it to the devil, who had allegedly managed by various maneuvers to deceive people as varied as Pythagoras, Plato, Pliny, and even Zoroaster.

Descartes probably was impressed by the central location of the unpaired pineal gland, situated where neural pathways from the retinas converge with those conveying feelings from the limbs. This “general reflector of all sorts of sensation” is, moreover, sited in the immediate proximity of the brain ventricles, from which (according to the wisdom of the day) “animal spirits” flowed into the hollow nerves, carrying instructions to the muscles. In his Excerpta Anatomica, Descartes had even likened the pineal to a penis obturating the passage between the third and fourth ventricles.

Descartes proved wrong in his beliefs that all sensory inputs focused on the pineal gland and that the pineal itself was a selective motor organ, suspended in a whirl of “animal spirits,” dancing and jigging “like a balloon captive above a fire,” yet capable in humans of scrutinizing inputs and producing actions “consistent with wisdom.” He was also wrong when he spoke of the “ideas formed on the surface” of the pineal gland, and in his attribution to the pineal of such functions as “volition, cognition, memory, imagination, and reason.” But he was uncannily correct in his insight that a very small part of this deep and central area of the brain was relevant to some of the functions he stressed. We now know that immediately below the pineal gland there lies the mesencephalic tegmentum (the uppermost part of the brain stem), which is crucial to generating alertness (the capacity for consciousness), without which, of course, there can be no volition, cognition, or reason.

It is a matter of vocabulary whether one considers the mesencephalic tegmentum either as being involved in generating a “capacity for consciousness” or as preparing the brain for the exercise of what Descartes would have considered the “functions of the soul” (volition, cognition, and reason). In either case, the total and irreversible loss of these functions dramatically alters the ontological status of the subject. Descartes specifically considered the example of death. In “La Description du corps humain” (1664) he wrote that “although movements cease in the body when it is dead and the soul departs, one cannot deduce from these facts that the soul produced the movements.” In a formulation of really modern tenor, he then added “one can only infer that the same single cause (a) renders the body incapable of movement and (b) causes the soul to absent itself.” He did not, of course, say that this “same single cause” was the death of the brain stem. Some 300 years later, in 1968, the Harvard Committee spoke of death in terms of “irreversible coma” (where Descartes had spoken of the “now absent soul”) and stressed, as had Descartes, the immobility of the comatose body. The religious and secular terms seem to describe the same reality.

There have been other neurological controversies concerning the locus of the soul. Early in the 18th century Stephen Hales, an English clergyman with a great interest in science, repeated an experiment originally reported by Leonardo da Vinci. Hales tied a ligature around the neck of a frog and cut off its head. The heart continued to beat for a while, as it usually does in the brain dead. Thirty hours later, the limbs of the animal still withdrew when stimulated. In fact, the elicited movements only ceased when the spinal cord itself had been destroyed. This observation gave rise to a great controversy. Reflex action at spinal cord level was not then fully understood, and it was argued that the irritability implied sentience, and that sentience suggested that the soul was still present. The “spinal cord soul” became the subject of much debate. It is now known that such purely spinal reflex movements may occur below a dead brain. It was shown during the 19th century that individuals executed on the guillotine might retain the knee jerk reflex for up to 20 minutes after decapitation.

The church is still concerned with the diagnosis of death, but the theological argument has, during the last half of the 20th century, moved to an entirely different plane. As mentioned earlier, in 1957 Pope Pius XII raised the question whether, in intensive care units, doctors might be “continuing the resuscitation process, despite the fact that the soul may already have left the body.” He even asked one of the central questions confronting modern medicine, namely whether “death had already occurred after grave trauma to the brain, which has provoked deep unconsciousness and central breathing paralysis, the fatal consequences of which have been retarded by artificial respiration.” The answer, he said, “did not fall within the competence of the Church.”

Until about 100 years ago, people had by and large come to terms with death. They usually died in their homes, among their relatives. In villages, in the 18th or early 19th centuries, passers-by might join the priest bearing the last sacrament on his visit to the dying man or woman. Doctors even stressed the public health hazards this might cause. Numerous pictures attest to the fact that children were not excluded from deathbeds, as they were to be during the 20th century.

The general acceptance of death was to be subverted by the advances of modern medicine and by the rapid spread of rationalist thought. This led, during a period of only a few decades, to a striking change of attitudes. In the advanced industrial countries, a large number of people now die in hospitals. The improvement in life expectancy and the advances of modern surgery and medicine have been achieved at a certain price. A mechanistic approach has developed, in which the protraction of dying has become a major by-product of modern technology. The philosophy of modern medicine has been diverted from attention to the sick and has begun to reify the sickness. Instead of perceiving death as something natural, modern physicians have come to see it as bad or alien, a defeat of all their therapeutic endeavours, at times almost as a personal defeat. Sickness is treated with all possible weapons, often without sufficient thought for the sick person—at times even without thought as to whether there is still a “person” at all. The capacity to “care” for biological preparations, with no other human attribute than physical form, is part of the context in which the reevaluation of death described earlier has taken place.

Parallel developments have taken place at the level of the psyche of the dying person and of the person's relatives. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, an American psychiatrist, has outlined the stages (denial, anger, bargaining, preparatory grief, and acceptance) through which people, informed of their own approaching death, are said to pass. Her writings are based on a wide but essentially American experience, and their universality has not been tested, particularly in other cultural contexts. They may well prove somewhat ethnocentric.

The development of the death industry (satirized in Evelyn Waugh's Loved One and explored in Jessica Mitford's American Way of Death) is also a by-product of the technological revolution and of modern attitudes to death. Undertakers have become “morticians” and coffins “caskets.” Embalming has enjoyed a new vogue. Drive-in cemeteries have appeared, for those seeking to reconcile devotion to the dead with other pressing engagements. Cryogenic storage of the corpse has been offered as a means to preserve the deceased in a form amendable to any future therapies that science may devise. Commercial concerns have entered the scene: nonpayment of maintenance charges may result in threats of thawing and putrefaction. In a contentious environment, the law has even invaded the intensive care unit, influencing the decisions of physicians concerning the withdrawal of treatment or the determination of death. A wit has remarked that in the modern era, the only sure sign that a man is dead is that he is no longer capable of litigation.

"death." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 1 June 2006

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. They merely act and move reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. If they pause at all, it is only a physical pause; inside they are anonymous, and even their faces have no name. They live in a world without time, pulsating, as it were, in a state of dumb being. This is what has made it so simple to shoot down whole herds of buffalo or elephants. The animals don't know that death is hap­pening and continue grazing placidly while others drop alongside them. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one's dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that's something else.

—Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

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Copyright © 2007 by Craig Lee Duckett. All rights reserved
LAST UPDATED: May 20, 2009
May 20, 2009