A Few Thoughts on the Soul

So, my daughter recently asked a very interesting and important question: why do we need a soul if the brain does the same job?  Probably without even knowing it, she expressed a common philosophy known as Materialism.  Materialism holds that there are no immaterial actions or objects, just material ones.  So, what does that mean?  Basically, if everything is material, we should be able to verify everything empirically, or through our sense (or scientifically, if you prefer).

But there are a few problems with materialism.  I’m not going to directly express any of the philosophical arguments against materialism because they’re a little complicated and frankly they frighten me.  So, I’m gonna try to break the arguments down into bites that anyone can accept.

I think one of the most glaring evidences against Materialism is simply the fact that there are actions and objects that are unobservable and even that cannot be observed.  Just to list a few, there are emotions, legal or philosophical theories such as justice and mercy, thoughts, ideas, creativity, historical events and people, and the list goes on.  Some may even say that the list of unobservables includes sound waves, gravity and much of atomic theory.  But, then again, that list may be countered by saying that our technology has simply not caught up with our theory and, when it does, then they’ll become observable, and therefore not immaterial.  In my humble opinion, that’s nothing more than hopeful Confirmation Bias, but who am I to argue?

So, there are objects and actions which are immaterial, so strict materialism isn’t an option.  Okay, now that we’ve got that foundation set, we can move on.  But just disproving materialism does not prove that there is such a thing as a soul and that each human has one.  So, how do we go about proving that humans have souls?  Well, first, because a soul is immaterial, we won’t be able to prove the immaterial through the scientific method because that can only measure those things that can be identified through the senses.  Can’t measure the supernatural through natural means, can we?  So, we’ll have to try and prove that humans have souls through logic instead.  Let’s see what we can do about that.

The first thought that comes to mind is that people often retain their personalities (and I’m gonna use personalities synonymously with souls) when their brain has been damaged.  If the brain houses the personality or the essence of the self, then the personality should be changed as well.  Now, there are two problems with this statement.  First, as my daughter pointed out, people’s personalities change as they grow older, because personalities are formed by experiences.  But do they really?  People may grow in knowledge.  People may be affected by events that occur to them.  People’s personalities may be affected by drugs or alcohol.  But do any of those things really change the basic personality?  I guess, to figure that one out, were gonna have to take a minute to look at personalities.  So…rabbit trail!

People are like snowflakes, and not just appearance-wise.  How they react to circumstances, in social settings, whether they are introverted or extroverted, a leader or a follower, what their favorite pastime or hobby may be all form who we are: our personalities.  So, yes, there are some aspects of our personality that changes over time and through experiences.  But have you ever been separated from a group of people for years and then suddenly brought back together?  People begin assuming the functions they once played in that group, even though they haven’t been together in forever.  There’s the comedian, the leader, the gossip and who knows how many other types and they all can fall rapidly back into place.  But does that always happen?

I’d say no.  There are people who’ve been transformed so those who were loud and boisterous and now quiet and shy due to some life-altering event.  But does a simple characteristic shape our character?  Because my daughter was right in a way.  Our experiences do shape who we are, but they don’t define our potential.  Our family and friends helps define who we are as well, but those influences do not strap us into carefully-designed cages of certain personality types.  Our personalities can break free from familial influences.  They can rise above or below our schooling level because they are more than just those things.  We can even, over time, change our core beliefs through some great transformation, but changing core beliefs does not fundamentally alter our personalities because our personalities are more than that: they are the entirety of our thoughts, feelings, experiences and history.

Okay.  So, what about those who suffer through Alzheimer’s or Dementia and no longer remember their history.  Does that mean that their personalities have changed?  Or what about those who’ve had brain trauma that seems to alter their personality in some significant way?  Well, I’ve got a theory about that, and I’ll share it along with my proofs for that theory.  My theory is simply that the soul (or the personality) interacts with the body/the brain/the senses like a conduit.  When the conduit is broken, it affects how others may sense us, but does not affect the base personality.

Example time.  Say I’m using a voice changer (a toy that allows me to speak in one end and the sound of my voice is modified so that what comes out the other end appears altered), and I say a sentence in my regular voice, but you hear what I’m saying as the voice of a robot.  My voice hasn’t changed in the least.  The sound you heard has been altered.

I watched a new special about a girl that had autism and couldn’t communicate with her family.  (you can find the article here: http://abcnews.go.com/2020/MindMoodNews/story?id=8258204&page=1 or simply search for Carly Fleischmann).  But then one day, her family found that she could communicate with them through typing.  And she’s quite articulate and nothing at all like her body could communicate on its own.  I highly encourage you to check out the story.  It’s fascinating.  But the point of the story as it applies to the personality is that the young girl’s personality was not affected by her autism as was revealed by her typewritten communication.  The body was not directly able to communicate through its own actions, but the personality stayed the same.

One more example could be in order so let’s go for it.  In 1990, there was a movie called Awakenings, starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro.  It was based on the real-life experiences of Dr. Oliver Sachs and his interactions with virtually comatose patients, who had all been victims of encephalitis.  Basically he likens their condition to an extreme form of Parkinson’s and so tries a drug that is utilized on patients with Parkinson’s.  The result is that the patients wake up from their catatonic stupor with their personalities intact.

Both of the above examples illustrate that the problem with conveying the personality to the outside world may rest in damage done to the body and not specifically in an altered personality.  The personality is intact, but because of damage to or difficulties within the brain, the personality cannot be properly conveyed.  It could very well be that experiences like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Schizophrenia and Manic Depressive (or Bi-Polar) Disorder also impact chemicals in the brain, that these neurological disorders may also hamper or distort the brain as a proper conduit to reveal the personality.

       Now, my second point about the possible existence of the soul is a little more dicey, but I’m gonna give it my best shot.  Animals have brains as well, but they can’t speak or use critical thinking beyond the fight or flight mechanisms.  What would make sense, therefore, is that humans have a little something extra that can perform these functions.  Now, there will those who argue with me over if animals have souls.  But if a brain was all it took to give us personalities, intelligence and creativity, then animals should have just as much as humans have.  In fact, there are certain animals that have larger brains than humans, so they should be the ones that really get Calculus and Particle Physics, right?

Well, no.  Animals may at times appear to exhibit intelligence or may exhibit some rudimentary forms of intelligence, but as to creativity and critical thinking, I believe that humans are in another league.  Now, some may say that there’s this elephant that can paint, so that proves they are creative.  To which I would reply, but have you seen the elephant’s paintings?  It’s like they strapped a paint brush to a cat’s tail.  It’s not too pretty…mainly because it’s an elephant doing the painting.

In addition, there are many animals that have larger brains than humans.  A human’s brain averages around 3.3 pounds.  Okay, fair enough.  But a sperm whale’s brain averages 18 pounds and an elephant’s brain is about 11 pounds.  So, if thoughts, senses and beliefs originate from the brain, then it only makes sense that the bigger the brain, the bigger the amount of thoughts, senses and beliefs being generated.  Now, granted, physiology puts some limitations on animals, but if brains produce thoughts, then sperm whales should have been able to figure out String Theory by now.

Next consider the growth of the human brain.  If all thoughts and senses come from the brain, then the concept of a blank slate slowly being filled should apply to experience and knowledge.  And technically, there should be relatively little difference between those humans who have a similar brain shape.  Instead we find amazing variety in not only aptitude, but also creativity.  And how do we account for geniuses like Leonardo DaVinci and those idiot savants?  Same brain functionality: No clear brain damage: But worlds apart on the application level.  And what about those born without a full brain but appear to have full thinking capability?  Is it simply a case of “thank goodness they were born with the piece that really matters” or is it because the thoughts and personality originate from somewhere else?

And I do have two other arguments for the existence of the soul apart from the body that are not mine, but I’ll use them.  First, there’s the argument from divisibility, which states that material objects can be broken down into percentages but I (as a person) cannot be reduced beyond one.  Basically, I can chop up a desk and throw half away and I’d be left with half a desk.  I could cut a brain in half and I’d have half left.  But I, even if I lose all my limbs, will never be considered less than a full person.  So, there is a difference between state of being and a physical object.

Next, if I am just my brain and nervous system, then my behavior is completely dictated by chemicals and the laws of physics.  As such, I shouldn’t be held responsible for my actions as I didn’t possess the freedom to act otherwise.  You can’t blame an animal for acting like an animal, can you?  So, you may as well toss the majority of laws out the window.

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