The following is a piece I wrote for the student paper at my university.  Some of you might find it interesting: it questions the existence (and the use) of the soul.


Where is the Soul?

In recent years, scientific attemps to prove the existence of the soul through quantum physics have only succeeded in finding that the observer changes that which is observed. The film What the Bleep Do We Know comes to mind. In it, New Age gurus use quantum verbiage to propose all kinds of metaphysical hypothesis without fully understanding the complex world of quantum physics, of which scientist Richard Feynman has been quoted, most famously by Richard Dawkins, as saying "If you think you understand quantum theory, then you don't understand quantum theory".

The experiments that led to the discovery of the "observer effect" are indeed fascinating, and mark the beginning of what might evolve into a bona-fide metaphysical science. But to say that they prove the existence of a supernatural soul, or of something that has inherent reality and is eternal and independent of external factors (including "that which is observed") is taking it too far.

The first instance of philosophical speculation regarding the seen and the seer as ways to articulate the existence of atma (soul, or being) take place in the ancient Vedic tradition of Hinduism where sages pointed out that seer and seen are one, that there can be no seer without that which is seen (and sometimes vice-versa, since the mind with its naming capabilities is a reality-creating machine), and that both body and mind are part of 'that which is seen' (by the self, or the seer). Therefore, for ages Hindu thinkers have been asking themselves "Where is the Self / the Seer?"

It's often been cited (particularly within the shamanic religious traditions) that the fact that we dream is evidence that there is an out-of-body reality that the soul partakes in and we now know that dreams are the result of the pineal gland's activity. Terence McKenna and other DMT researchers point out that magic mushrooms activate the pineal gland and that it has the power to produce hallucinations and create the appearance of colors that we see when we dream. Hindus and New Agers now equate the pineal gland with the third eye.

Along these lines, I should mention also studies on near death experiences (NDE), where people have visions and other strange experiences as the body begins to die but are able to live to tell their experiences. The NDE phenomenon has been linked with activity in the temporal and limbic lobes of the brain and it has been shown that the brain, when is lacks oxygen, produces ecstatic experiences (1). It must be noted that the temporal lobe is also tied to epilepsia, and many of the great mystics and prophets of history who believed they were having visions or hearing voices are now believed to have been epileptic or schizophrenic. In old Ireland, epilepsy was known as Saint Paul's disease.

Our attempt to discern if there is a soul should include a study of the etymology of words like spirit, which has its roots in breath. Again, we are brought back to shamanic religious traditions where, at the time of death, our primitive ancestors noticed that the breath left the body and at the time of birth, breath entered the body. Spirit means breath in Latin. In the Gospels, the word that Jesus used for the Spirit was Ruach, a feminine noun that translates as Breath and which his followers personified as the Holy Ghost.

In yoga, there is no distinction between the cultivation of our spirits and the cultivation of breath: breathing exercises not only have the power to hone our attention and strengthen our bodies and immune systems. Breath is what feeds the body. We can spend days without food but only minutes without breath. Even public speakers are taught a lower belly breathing technique to have more control over their emotions.

Breath is also interpersonal: the ceremony of smoking the pipe of piece consolidates friendships, precisely, because we are sharing our breath. A deep kiss, where breath is shared, is another intimate act of giving oneself. Humans have always considered breath a very intimate part of ourselves, but again, this is not a supernatural idea.

There are also poetic or platonic concepts of soul as having to do with what gives meaning to or that which resonates with one's life (twin souls, soul purpose). Our sense of destiny is tied to our concepts of soul.

To make matters worse, salvific religions at times see people (souls) as commodities and treat the soul as a currency: a soul can be saved, it can be sold, given, redeemed, and of course souls can be fought for. As humanity progressed, it became much easier to enslave a population using religious salvific verbiage than old-fashioned verbiage related to slavery and feudalism. Salvific religions have historically served the ruling classes' imperialist and colonial interests, so much so that the term 'white missionary' is sometimes used as an insult for racist people who act naive. The nature and identity of the soul in the salvific religious traditions is not only unclear, but has also been alloyed by the values of capitalism as they are applied to humans as commodities.

Finally, the subject of where the soul resides requires an exploration of the mind, which is at times confused for the self. The Greek for soul was psyche, a word which gave birth to our modern field of psychology (the study of the soul). But here, rhetorics are confusing and anyone who has ever practiced zazen, or sitting meditation, knows that the mind and its activities can be observed and the mind is therefore not the seer but the seen. In Buddhism, all reality originates or becomes defined within the mind.

Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.
If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts
suffering follows him
like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.
If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts
happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

- First two verses of Dhammapada

I cite Buddhism because it's the only empirical religion, that is, its metaphysical theories reject speculation and Buddha encouraged everyone to test and try his theories for themselves and through direct observation. No other founder of any religion has ever encouraged people to not believe him unless and until his teachings made sense empirically.

In the article 'Killing the Buddha', neurologist Sam Harris argues that we need a new science of contemplation free of the trappings of organized religions. But we also need a new set of words if we are to free our contemporary, scientific form of spirituality from the inertia of its superstitious origins. Words have power, including the power to confuse, and part of the role of researchers trying to understand the self is to employ words that are not speculatory and have the intended meaning.

Sam Harris argues that Zen Buddhists have the beginnings of this science of contemplation. They also have interesting non-supernatural verbiage for spiritual reality. The belief that the only reality exists now and that we should anchor our awareness in the now, and the lack of an immortal self has resulted in the use of the term presence in Buddhist practice. For instance, we may see sutras where practitioners are invited to say "May I be a kind and loving presence in this world", etc.

English speaking Zen Buddhists have also coined the term mindstreams to refer to the steady collection of memories and experiences that evolve over time, that have a beginning and an end, and that we may think of as our many identities.

The buddhist doctrine of anatta (no-self) is quite different from nihilism, rather it accepts being as a process: being is a verb, not a noun. It teaches that the seer, that which appears to have an identity and be a separate self, has no inherent reality but is made up of five skandhas, or aggregates, which are: material form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness.

The Buddhist notion of reality as essentially impermanent and constantly changing accepts no nouns, only verbs, processes, constant becoming. For instance, to an awakened being there is no tree: a tree has to have been a seed, then taken hold as roots and grown, it has to have been the water, the solar energy and soil nutrients that fed it. All these variables are the tree. There is therefore no self to speak of, instead there are variables that, when they are found together, produce a phenomenon that feels like an identity, a self. Without the aggregates this self vanishes. All things have causes and variables. This is known in Buddhism as codependent origination, or interbeing, and resonates with Native American notions of 'all our relations'.

We are temporary presences in this world, and this is an awe-inspiring reality, but we are not the eternal, undying entities that our megalomania (and our fear of death) has led so many of us to believe. There is absolutely no reason to think that humans, of all the trillions of entities in our planet, and probably our universe, are immortal souls that live on after death.

1. See

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You've described some religious and new age perspectives on the soul, but you have not given any original ideas, or solutions to the question.

There is no soul, Jonathan.  Only temporary presences.  I mention that in the article.

But you did not mention how you arrived at that conclusion besides that Buddhism also holds a similar position.

There has never been a soul demonstrated as real anywhere. 

Of course, but if that's just what you believe, then what's the point in presenting some Buddhist doctrine as evidence? I read the title as "Where is the soul?" and I don't feel that you've provided any insight to that question. Instead, you've apparently come to the conclusion that "we are temporary presences in this world, and this is an awe-inspiring reality" beforehand, and it felt to me like you've merely used Buddhism to justify that position. There was no bridge in the gap between what Buddhism says and your conclusion. The article would have been better renamed as: "What Eastern Religions Say About The Soul".

I don't know what criteria your college will judge your paper, but as merely a reader on the internet, this article feels more suited for editorial journalism than academic.

lol i DID write it for the student paper, not for a class.

lol doh! I missed that. Well, that explains it then.




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