(I’m trying to compile facts and thoughts on the existence of soul. My knowledge on this topic is limited to what follows below, and if you have something to add, then please don’t hesitate to do so.)
All important questions about life, the universe and everything depend on another one: Do we have a soul? Most, maybe even all religions depend on its existence, and a negative answer would have a devastating effect on them. The possibilities are:
There is no such thing.
This would mean that life is just a biochemical process, mind is a function of the nervous system. When the metabolism breaks down, the life ends ultimately. The rational, materialistic view.
We have a soul that cannot survive death.
Here the existence of a distinct immaterial complement to the physical body is assumed, but it cannot survive on its own. Similar to the first possibility in regard to what happens at the moment of death. But if the soul is the carrier of consciousness, this possibility would enable astral projections and out-of-body experiences.
We have a soul that survives death.
This would open the door to reincarnation and all sorts of afterlives. Religions are obviously based on this version. Possible afterlife scenarios are:
- After death, all souls move on to “heaven” or “hell”, depending on some selection criteria. There is no way back into the world of the living.
- Depending on how you lived you life, your soul either returns to a “source” and then gets another chance, or it has reached a “higher level” and moves on to the next reality.
Rationally, i have to assume that souls aren’t real, so no further arguments against the existence of souls are needed, but one solid proof would suffice to remove the doubt that they exist. Nevertheless i put together some arguments both pro and contra, although only those pro-soul really matter, because if one of them can be convincingly demonstrated, then the answer is clear.
Having a soul helps to cope with the grief and the inevitability of death. This is probably the origin of the idea: When somebody dies, their body remains, but the life, that what animates the body, is gone. But there is still the hope that the personality of the deceased lives on in a different form in a different place. So the person is not lost forever, but will wait for those remaining in a better place. A nice, soothing thought, but there are no facts to support it. Sorry.
An afterlife is needed to justify some ethical systems. If everybody dies the same, then how they lived their lives makes no difference. The righteous ones would die just the same as the evil ones. The evil ones tend to have more wealth and work less to earn their living, which is obviously a reason to be evil. But to provide a stimulus to hold on to the righteous ways, the idea of divine justice is introduced, where after death everyone is judged by an almighty god and the evil ones finally get their punishment. The catch is that morals are not absolute, what is evil depends on the cultural background, whose side you are on, and god’s existence is at least debatable. So probably, not true either.
Astral projection or an out-of-body experience would at least prove that the physical body is not all there is. I’ve read about special setups in operation rooms, numbers placed where they can only be seen from above to rule out the possibility that the brain creates the illusion of floating by synthesizing pictures from what the patient has seen before the operation. But if they would be able to recall the hidden number, that would make it clear that they’ve really left their body. I haven’t heard of any results so far though.
The more thrilling alternative would be to make such an experience myself and see it with my own eyes, but it didn’t happen to me yet. That book on astral projection i’ve read once was very inspiring, but i had no success so far. Any advice not involving damage to health and risk of life would be greatly appreciated.
Reincarnation bears the possibility to remember previous lives. There are these stories about children reporting details from their previous lives, which they could impossibly have found out in any other way other than experiencing them in the previous life and somehow keeping the memory after going through reincarnation. A credible case of this would be a good argument in favor of reincarnation and souls, but i don’t know if such a case has already been reported.
Another way to test reincarnation would be by hypnotic regression, where the subject’s memories of the previous life are reactivated under hypnosis. Chances are that among these memories are some that can be backed up by independent sources. This is potentially promising, but recovering memories that can be positively verified as historical facts and not just known facts that the brain has assembled to fit the assumed period when the previous life took place, knowledge picked up from book and media, might be not that simple. The best way to find out would be to try such a regression myself, but i fear, i’m not a good subject for hypnosis. The one time i tried it didn’t work at all.
There are also dubious ways to “photograph” the aura or measure some kinds of electromagnetic fields around the body, but they are no proofs for the soul. The body is full of ions, charged moving particles that unavoidably create a magnetic field. The question is, what happens with this field at the moment of death? If it simply disappears, then it’s a normal by-product of the bloodstream and bio-electricity. I can’t imagine that this field takes off into the sky or some other place, that doesn’t fit into the modern knowledge about the universe and that the sky is nothing more than the atmosphere and the view of the space beyond it.
If you can think of another reason why we must have a soul, or even a way to verify or measure it, please feel encouraged to share. Maybe we can figure it out before the inevitable end and use this knowledge to guide our decisions to the better as long as our lives last.
While participating in a discussion about atheism vs. religion on another blog, i had this idea that never occurred to me before. If somebody with a religious (Christian) background can help me out on this, i’d be very grateful.
It is my opinion, that religions have the purpose to give people searching for answers to the hard questions about human existence (“Who are we? Where do we came from? What is the purpose of our lives? etc.”, and i think everybody asks them at some point in their life) something solid to hold on to, an answer that more or less makes sense and that one can agree on. “This world is so full of beauty because god decided to make us this gift”. “He watches upon us, his own creation that he loves so much as to sacrifice his own son for, and therefore everything is his will and happens for a reason”. I actually do think that this is quite a positive attitude, that can help people get on with their lives in a meaningful way.
But here comes the question: If we assume that god has created the universe (well, the Earth. The bible doesn’t tell anything about other planets, or even about the Earth being a planet at all), why did he do it in the first place? Love for humankind doesn’t seem to apply as a valid reason because when he started creating, there was no humankind yet, and you cannot do anything good to something that doesn’t exist. Why would he produce a world out of nothing, populate it with strange two-legged creatures, give them a set of laws and the optimistic outlook of a great judgment in the “near” future, where part of them would be put into lakes of burning sulfur? What kind of a sick experiment is this?
Personally, i find this thought way more scary than what science has to offer: no higher goal in life, other than to reproduce and adapt to the environment, generation after generation, then death, and the drama is over. I find it much easier to accept that my existence has no point whatsoever than to be a pawn in some strange experiment. So if the bible is correct and god exists, then for me it is one more reason to pretend i never heard about god and stick to science and common sense…
Today i’ve received a nice lesson about humility. Without going into detail of what exactly happened, it was the type of situation, where you think you have everything under control and enjoy yourself being the man, and all of a sudden something happens that blatantly shows you how wrong you are, that you’ve got lost in your own illusions once again and the reality sneaks up on you to bring you back to earth. I felt embarrassed by my vanity at that moment, but at the same time it was very comforting to be relieved from it for a while.
This was not the first time i felt this way, and each time it happens i say to myself that i’ll give my best to hold on to this humble state, and each time a couple of days later it’s gone again. Like so many things, it happens in waves. Once i’ve realized what it is that i want, i concentrate on it, examine myself every now and then, try to imagine that state i’m aiming for and bring it back. It works for a day or two, and then slowly slips away, and i can’t figure out, why? Is it because our senses only work in a relative way and need reference to compare the current state to, and once the memory of this state i’m trying to stay in has faded, i’m stuck somewhere in the middle and don’t remember anymore, how far it really goes? Or am i distracted by other things and forget how important i considered being humble?
But whenever i’m lucky enough to catch this feeling for a couple of days, i realize that it’s probably the most valuable thing. Ever. It keeps you from erroneous self-satisfaction, from looking down upon other people showing a weakness, who might teach you a lot otherwise, from relying too much on something you don’t question, but that still can be wrong. It also reminds me of how the world was a place full of wonders and surprises when a was a child, and how dull and predictable it seem now. Of course there is much more to discover in the childhood than it is a couple of decades later, but still there are days when simple things bring me joy if i manage to subdue that “Been there, done that”-attitude and stop feeling omniscient, immortal and infallible. And on top of this, humility feels pleasant, physically. Something inside, that was tense for a very long time and have been causing a general feeling of discomfort, relaxes, sinks and expands. And so far, relaxation has always been an indication of having done the right thing.
(While in part 1 of this topic i’ve focussed on issues in a global scale and geological timeframe, this one is going to be more about those facets of human existence that affect us in our daily life.)
Humankind may be special in certain aspects, but mainly we are still an animal species, and as such have many things in common with the rest of the animal kingdom. Leaving birth, death and nutrition aside, the most important thing is reproduction, to keep the evolutionary competition going, that proccess that has shaped everything living on Earth, and still does, with no goal or aim, it just goes on, endlessly. And if you look at the hard facts, that’s pretty much all there is. The life is usually all about finding a reliable mate and producing offspring, or better known among humans as falling in love, making love and bringing up the fruits of this love. Even if a huge part of what we do every day may seem not to have much to do with sex, indirectly, it usually does. Well-paid jobs, fashionable clothing, perfumes, trained bodies, luxurious cars: it’s all about attracting potential mates and showing that your social position is a stable one and a long-term undertaking like raising a child with you will take place under safe conditions. Though today (in “developed” countries) sex is usually not followed by a pregnancy, but close your eyes for a moment and imagine that suddenly all contraceptives would disappear. Then people would again be doing what nature intended their sex drive for.
But, if reproduction is really the only reason why we are here, then why doesn’t our life end in a bright flash of sexual activity, like it does for e.g. salmon? If there is a distinct goal that a human has to achieve in life, shouldn’t it be something more ultimate, like moving on into some higher reality (heaven) with full awareness, finding a way to defeat death or changing into an enlightened being? Well, no. Even if reproduction is all there is, reproductive strategies vary between species, and ours is that we usually have one child at a time that at first is rather helpless by itself and therefore needs parental care until it reaches a certain level of independence. After that the parents are free to bring up another one, and another one, each time increasing there reproductive success, which is exactly what the biological term “fitness” stands for. The better your adaptation to the evironment, however it may be shaped, the more children you can bring up under given circumstances and pass on the genes that made you this successful.
What does distinguish our species from others is our ability to accumulate and store knowledge, made possible by the evolution of language, or better a brain that is able to operate in abstract ideas and pictures, and so share thoughts with others by expressing them with spoken or written word. Other animals are far from unable to teach their offspring, e.g. the right hunting and survival techniques, but they can only do this by direct demonstration, and therefore only the same very basic knowledge can persist over generations. (Interestingly, animal children don’t need explanations of how the whole reproduction stuff takes place, as human children do, or rather as adults think they do. How other species find which ends to connect and have survived the last hundreds of millions of years without proper sex-ed remains a mystery. ) Whereas we multiply our knowledge (which, by the way, is not the same as wisdom), and keep it for following generations, laying a foundation for them to build upon instead of starting at point zero over and over. But, even with this steady progress that defines our culture and civilization, each persons life remains the same old cycle of “birth → survival → reproduction → death”, with added spice in form of art, technology and science, that maybe give our daily life more diversity, but, in my opinion, ultimately don’t help you advance towards achieving whatever purpose there is in life.
However, i wouldn’t write about enlightenment if i were convinced, all we are here for is being fruitful and multiply. As i said, this is what’s left if we look at the hard facts. What makes me doubt are those days when seemingly impossible things happen three times in a row, as if some mysterious force was trying to tell you something; when a song you haven’t heard for years but for no reason have been singing to yourself since the morning suddenly plays on the radio, when people you’ve been thinking of calling on the phone suddenly call you instead. And reports of people remembering their previous lives and reporting details from that time that can be proven to have happen with no chance that this person could have found out in any other way. Although, as long as this doesn’t happen to you, you have to trust the sources, be it stories or TV, and they may be just making things up they know the audience wants to hear about. And the only way to deal with it is to follow the quote from X-Files:
Trust noone, and from Timothy Leary (quoted by Tool):
Think for yourself, question authority. Try to find your own way and make up your own mind about everything, listen to what your hearts tells you, or whatever organ it is that tends to give you subconscious hints every now and then.
And i think it’s crucial to stay open minded and unbiased in everything you do, or you could miss something important, like when your destiny knocks at your door and you choose not to open because you think it’s yet another agent. If in fact there is some kind of a supernatural being, and it looked like, say, a three-headed ogre, and it appeared right in front of you to reveal the secrets of human existence, you wouldn’t know it’s god talking to you because you’d expect a tall white man with a glowing halo above his head, and simply turn around and run away. Perhaps, if you listen more frequently to your intuition, its voice will become louder and clearer, and maybe guide you to your own purpose. You might as well, because you won’t lose anything if you do.
But as long as i don’t make a deeply spiritual experience that gives me some answers, i think, the only way to live your life is to try to be always satisfied, give your best to make decisions so that won’t regret them later. And if your life should unexpectedly come to an end, you’d have no reason to wish having done anything differently.
(The final impulse for this posting came after reading this, so perhaps you should head there first and then come back here.)
There’s one question that keeps being asked over and over again for centuries, with no answer yet that could satisfy everyone asking: Why are we here? Is there a purpose that we are here for?
To start with, the idea that everything is there for a purpose is very human, but not necessarily inherent in the universe. Often things just happen, with no supernatural being pulling the strings in the background, driving the world towards some ultimate goal. This is what we are used to do, any effort that doesn’t earn us something has no sense and wouldn’t be a wise thing to do, and therefore we tend to think, that if something is happening, then there is a reason for it. Whoever created this beautiful world must be the most intelligent being imaginable and wouldn’t do anything without purpose, so there’s got to be a reason and a purpose for everything. But then again, this is how we are used to think. If something stands there, then once upon a time somebody came and put it there, because it can’t just be there without having been put there by someone who had an intention to do so. If it’s too heavy for men to lift, then it must have been god, who formed rocks into landscapes, carved rivers into the ground and planted trees everywhere. And he saw that this was good.
God is by definition almighty, and this is why, according to certain groups of people, the earth was created in just a week or so, about 5 and a half millenia ago. On the other hand there’s scientific proof that our planet actually exists for 4.5 billions of years. The first assumption is based upon words written by people who supposedly had a link to god, the second is delivered by science and ready for anyone to reproduce and understand. I choose to believe in the scientific version, although imagining 4.5 billions of years is beyond what i can fathom, but this vast amount of time is actually a good explanation for why this world is so complex in its beauty. It’s the result of aeons of changes, driven by forces that still put us in awe when they manifest in earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and volcanos. And since the first life forms appeared on Earth, they have been adapting to whatever conditions they found themselves in, and still do, since billions of years. This struggle for survival has lead to the overwhelming diversity of species that surrounds us. Not created in one day by god. But how can a human with a lifespan a few decades realize that the Earth has existed billions of years before the emergence of Homo sapiens and will stay after we will be long gone (which way ever, into space or towards extinction)? It wasn’t made for us, we just had the luck to have evolved a brain that enables us to ponder about the meaning of our existence.
It may appear as another proof for a higher purpose for humanity that this world provides just the right conditions for us to live under, and this cannot be just a coincidence, but a sign of the existence of an intelligent creator. The more plausible explanation however is, that under hostile conditions, our species wouldn’t have evolved in the first place. All we are is the result of changes our species has gone through during its evolution in order to adapt to its environment, millions of years worth of slow but steady changes towards a more efficient use of available resources and higher survival rates under given environmental conditions. The fact, that we are still here, alone shows that we harmonize well with our environment, otherwise our species would’ve died out or evolved in a different way. (This, by the way, is known as the Anthropic principle.)
We tend to see ourselves as “the summit of creation”, we even have a special term for our species to emphasize that we are not animals, but stand above them. While this may be true in the sense that we are the most successful terrestrial omnivore, how about facing a tiger one on one, with no gun around? Or a white shark? Who will eat whom? Where did the superiority go? It’s the same arrogance that we tend to display when comparing ourselves with other people that backs our claim for the throne of creation. I am better than YOU. WE are better then THEM. Everyone else sucks but ME. Why else does this world exists if not for US (no pun intended, I mean “us” as in “we” )?
So much for the big picture. To keep the posting at a sane size I decided to split it in two parts. The second one will follow soon.