Further Musings on the Soul
I have an essay on my main website (actually, a copy of an e-mail exchange between me and some friends), in which I argue for the existence of a soul. At the time, I'd given it a lot of thought, but hadn't done much actual research. My basic argument was that we're not just automatons - we experience things. Since "experience" isn't a property of matter, our experience must come from something immaterial - a soul.
Well, I've done a little more research into these things since I wrote that. Unsurprisingly, I've discovered that other people have already thought along these lines (that's one of the humbling things I've learned from the Internet - no matter how deep or profound of an idea I think I've come up with, it's almost inevitably been written about by someone else before me, sometimes thousands of years ago). What I was calling "experience" is more formally known as "qualia," and there's a whole Philosophy of Mind dealing with this issue.
One of my original assumptions was that experience couldn't be a property of plain matter. One could arm chair philosophize about this all they wanted, but that gets you nowhere. The best thing to do is to look for evidence that may or may not support this. Unfortunately, given the subjective nature of experience, it's a very difficult topic to find data on. However, since this is a discussion on souls, and the classical understanding of souls is that they are our true identity, and would influence our personalities, we could instead look for evidence dealing with what controls our personality. A very informative website, Ebon Musings, has an essay titled Ghost in the Machine dealing with this very issue. It lists a good deal of evidence explaining how our actions and emotions are controlled by our brains, and how physical changes to the brain can affect us. One of the examples he discusses, and probably the most famous in these types of discussions, is a man by the name of Phineas Gage. Gage was a foreman in charge of blasting for the railroad. In 1848, he was involved in an accident, where an explosion sent a tamping iron through his head, destroying a part of his brain in the process. He survived the incident, but had a completely different personality afterwards.
The fact that it is our physical brains that control our personality is not definitive proof against a soul. It's still possible that to experience qualia, we need an immaterial soul. However, with that line of reasoning, the function of the soul is greatly reduced. It's basically just an observer, along for the ride. And if that were true, what exactly would existence be like after death? Would a soul retain memories? Would it even have a personality?
I don't want to admit it, because the emotional side of me still really wants to reunite with dead loved ones, and to be able to still watch over my daughter after I die, but it really does seem most likely that we don't have souls, that our physical brains really are the true centers of what we would consider "self."
This raises some interesting questions. Where exactly does this awareness come from? Is there any way to know what else has this awareness? Barring solipsism, we can be pretty sure that other humans experience qualia, because we can easily communicate with them. Other animals, too, seem to share this trait. If this awareness is an emergent property of matter, and we know that it occurs in our brains, it seems only natural to assume that it would occur in the brains of other animals. But, are brains the only complex structures that can produce this property? The less we can interact with something, the less we can tell what it might be experiencing. Do plants experience emotions, but we have no way of telling because they can't talk to us? What about the sun? It appears to have some pretty complex reactions going on inside it. Could those reactions be generating some type of experience? Does it even take complexity? Could a rock have a very limited sense of awareness, but with no sensory organs, and no way to communicate with us, we just wouldn't have a way to tell?
And with as specialized as regions of our brains seem to be, how does our consciousness get manifested in a coherent way, incorporating all the thoughts and inputs from different brain regions? Is our consciousness really that coherent, or could it even possibly be that the region of the brain that incorporates input from all other parts is the true center of our "self," and that the other regions of our brain might even have their own sense of awareness? Or, not trying to sound too pantheistic, could this awareness not require actual physical contact (because in reality, no two atoms are ever truly touching, anyway), and be some type of heirarchical phenomenon? Could ant colonies be "super consciousnesses," or could there even be a super consciousness for the entire universe? That last concept seems a bit too outlandish and I really do doubt it, and even common sense would seem to indicate that it's absurd, but knowing how bad of a guide common sense is to the mysteries of the universe (such as quantum mechanics), this still remains an intriguing remote possibility.
In the end, even if we don't have souls, this universe of ours truly is a wondrous place. I'm glad, however it comes about, that I get to experience it.