What on Earth are souls?

Today I am asking for a little help from all those moderate, middle of the road, reasonable believers who accept all the science about the age of the Universe, the age of the World and the full implications of the theory of evolution etc, and yet still believe in a god and still believe that we are special to him and that we must obey his rules, if we are to live for ever and ever in eternal bliss, amen.

I need a little help to understand souls - those little mind-pearls of mysterious essence that reside within us and record our personalities for posterity when our frail physical bodies bite the dust.

Now I'm no expert on this subject, which is partly why I'm asking for help here, but it seems that all cultures and all belief systems, from your basic common or garden animistic ancestor-worship, right up to your full-blown global monotheism with aspirations of World domination, all have some kind of belief in an eternal soul. It must surely be one of our most ancient beliefs; any people that took the time and effort to ceremonially bury their dead and include grave-goods such as food, valuables and so forth, would surely have some kind of belief that their recently departed were not gone forever, and the earliest confirmed burial sites are around 130,000 years old.

So this idea of an eternal soul is by no means a recent one, and my bet is that it is as old as a mind complex enough to form the idea.

Before the rise of monotheism, all religions would have been animistic or polytheistic. Animisms ascribe souls, or at least 'intent' to everyday items such as rocks, animals, the sky, volcanoes, rivers etc, because everything around us has some kind of effect on our lives and it may be easier for us to accept or understand these effects, if we believe that these things have 'intent' just like us (see Dennett, 1971, 1983, 1987). Polytheisms on the other hand are generally more advanced in that they have creation myths and ascribe the perceived intent of objects, and even other people, to supernatural beings called gods.

Then along came monotheism - the idea that all of these intents are controlled by a single mind. Curiously enough, the Old Testament makes no claims about the nature of our souls, merely saying that they will return to the God that gave them (Ecclesiastes 12:7) though later Rabbinical literature does talk about our souls being made up of several parts. These later teachings also claim that animals have simple souls.

With Christianity came the idea we are all so familiar with now - that an eternal soul is given to you by God, who will then judge it upon your death on the actions it took while you were alive, and decide whether you should join him in heaven, or burn in the fires of eternal torment. Islam is of course descended from the other two and agrees with Christianity that you either burn or die happily ever after.

Since most of my believing readers will be followers of one of the trinity of monotheisms (sorry, bad pun) I can conveniently skirt around my considerable ignorance of the nature of the soul in the other major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, and the minor religions. Any passing Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Shintoists (is that the right word?) Jains, Zoroastrians or any other faith are welcome to contact me and let me know their take on the soul, if they so wish.

So lets turn to Christianity and Islam, whose ideas about the soul have such a profound impact on all our lives, unfortunately. It is to practitioners of these faiths that I make my request for help, in understanding how they can believe in eternal souls, whilst still accepting all the science about our origins.

Catholicism is quite clear in that humans have souls, and animals do not. It also claims that the soul is inserted by God into the embryo at the the time of fertilisation, hence all the rubbish about contraception and abortion going against God's design. Why am I suddenly picking on Catholicism, you may ask? Because it is the World's largest Christian sect by a country mile, and so far as I can tell, Islam hasn't really worried too much about how we got souls, you simply have one and if you doubt this, well, you're an apostate and you have to die, so stop asking silly questions and believe what we tell you. To accept the first point, I need this question answering - at what point in our evolutionary history did we develop souls? If animals, which I am assuming include our close brethren, the other great apes, do not have souls, and yet we do, then at some time in the 5- 7 million years or so since our ancestors diverged from the ancestors of chimps and bonobos, we developed, or were given, souls. Now as a card-carrying evolutionist I am tempted to try and solve this puzzle by trying to imagine when and how we evolved souls, but I rather think this is doomed to failure. We can imagine how speciation occurs over time - think if you will of an unbroken chain of your ancestors stretching right back to the dawn of life itself; each successive generation would be able to mate with it's immediate forbears and progeny, but if we took one ancestor out of line and make him or her jump along the chain, say a few thousand or so generations, we'd find that it would no longer be able to produce viable offspring with whichever one of your ancestors is in the line at that point, such would be the accumulated change in the descendant's genome. Yeah OK, so we all know how evolution works, but can it work for souls? Imagine if you will, Ancestor A, a proto-human without a soul, and Ancestor B, a proto-human a couple of thousand generations later with a soul. What happened in between? Did a soul gradually develop from mutations in DNA? Say intermediate Ancestor A1 survives death a few seconds, A1000 for a few hundred years and so on, and then, hey-presto you get Ancestor B with a fully formed soul capable of lasting 'til kingdom come? Doesn't quite work for me, but then maybe I'm suffering from a failure of imagination, or simply the closed mind I am so regularly accused of having. Also of course, if souls were embedded in our DNA then we would be able to isolate them, once we understand fully what each part of our genome actually does (what a coup that would be!) but this is most unlikely since DNA simply codes for protiens, and souls cannot be physical structures as they survive death, so what would soul DNA code for?
Presumably some kind of structure in our brains that holds the magic energy of eternal life. Once again it would be a great coup for the neuroscientist who finds this structure, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

So if you'll forgive my rather fuzzy reasoning on this subject (we are talking about magic after all) I've come to the conclusion that we didn't evolve souls, they must have been given to us sometime in the last 5-7 million years. Hmm. I did say I needed help with this.

So lets turn to the second point above, the belief that souls are given to us at the point of fertilisation. This implies that a human egg is as soul-less as all the hundreds of millions of sperm swimming furiously toward it. But, fear not! For God is watching - nay in fact guiding one of these little spermies inexorably toward the egg, and, as fusion takes place, in goes the soul. So, perhaps we can identify the soul by looking at differences in energy between eggs, sperms and newly fertilised embryos? No? Why not? Because it seems that souls are made of some kind of undetectable energy - IE magic. What a shame, our quest is thwarted once more and we are forced back to the unreasonable position of simply believing in souls without any kind of evidence for them.

OK, so lets accept then that our soul is given to us, and develops along with us throughout our lives. Skipping past the hideous doctrine of limbo that awaits the souls unfortunate enough to be contained within the huge majority of foetuses that spontaneously abort, our soul is born, and takes in all the information provided by the baby's senses. Grows and develops within the mind of the child, becomes an adult and lives it's pointless life, waiting to be released and judged.

If the condition of the soul - it's personality and knowledge, for example - is tied to the body that houses it, what happens if that body is defective, or damaged, or dies before the adult mind is formed? Are we to spend an eternity as a child? As a paraplegic (for example)? As a brain damaged soul? I almost had this argument with a colleague a couple of years ago; I don't know how we got talking about it but I said that it was foolish to think that some part of us survives our death. Unfortunately she was in no mood for rational debate or thinking about this, stridently repeating 'it just can't be like that' whenever I tried to get a word in edge ways. I did manage quickly to ask what happens to a man who is brain-damaged in a car accident, will his soul be damaged too? but to little avail - she dodged the question and started trying to prove her point by talking about near-death-experiences, and all the evidence for them (haha) so I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and valiantly changed the subject. Any way, I digress.

Now if you happen to be one of those non-believers in any organised religion who still believes we have eternal souls, and are reading this thinking I'm being narrow minded, or attacking a straw-man by picking on the Catholic church (oh, if only it were true! What a better place the World could be if the Catholic faith were a straw man!) then these questions still apply equally to you. Perhaps you believe, as many people do, that animals have souls too; it is still the case that at some point in their evolutionary history they must have acquired them. So when? And How?

It is still the case that nobody can show where in the body the soul resides, or what it is made of, or has any idea how the transmission from physical sensation to ethereal knowledge occurs, whether you are a card-carrying Catholic or a new-age crystal-bothering homeopath.

So to sum up, I don't believe that any part of my psyche will survive the death of my body, being as it is an intrinsic part of it. As I said, maybe it's just because my mind is not open enough, as so many people have said to me (usually after I say I cannot believe in [insert faith-based assertion here] because there is no evidence for it).

So if you want to convince me that I will, in fact, live forever, you need to answer the following questions to my satisfaction:

What are souls?

What are they made of?

Where did they come from?

Which creatures have them, and why?

What happens to my soul if my body and/or brain is damaged?

Should be easy enough, so answers on a postcard please.

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