THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE
In a 1999 Edge debate featuring the biologist Richard Dawkins and the psychologist Steven Pinker, titled “Is Science Killing the Soul?,” Dawkins pointed out that the word soul has different senses. One is the traditional idea that there is something incorporeal about us, that the body is spiritualized by a mysterious substance. In this view, the soul is the nonphysical principle that allows us to tell right from wrong, gives us our ability to reason and have feelings, makes us conscious, and gives us free will. Perhaps most important, the soul is the immortal part of ourselves that can survive the death of our physical body and is capable of happiness or suffering in the afterlife. This is the soul that this book is about. It is the soul that captures the imagination of a majority of our population. Here’s what some of the students I interviewed wrote about it:
Soul to me is the internal self of an individual. It’s separate from the physical part of the body and makes me what I am. It is what I refer to when I am thinking or talking about myself. . . . I do believe that my soul will survive the death of my body. I think soul is eternal and will still be there long after my body has perished.
I believe my soul is the non-material being of myself. The part that is distinct from both my mind and my external body. I believe the soul to be unchanging and eternal. . . . Because I think the soul is imperishable I also believe that it will survive the death of my body.
I would define my soul as the spirit inside of me that is currently present in a human form. The properties of the soul are that it contains all of our emotions and feelings. I believe that when I die my soul will live on.
There are, of course, other senses of the word soul. One has to do with emotional or intellectual intensity, as in “their performance lacked soul.” The word soul is also used metaphorically in a variety of expressions such as soul mate, soul food, soul music, soul searching, or lost soul, to name just a few. However, speaking of a performance that lacks soul, or of the poor souls that perished when the Titanic went down, does not commit you to a particular metaphysical view. Likewise, exclaiming “Oh my God!” upon realizing that the value of your stock portfolio has plummeted does not make you a religious zealot (if anything it makes you a materialist, albeit not one of the kind that we will be concerned with here). For these reasons, I will have nothing to say about these other senses of the word soul apart from pointing out, as Dawkins did in the Edge debate, that they are terms that exist, but that they are not the subject of this book.
The doctrine underlying the traditional notion of the soul is the view known in philosophical jargon as substance dualism, sometimes also called Cartesian dualism, after the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes. Descartes famously argued for the existence of two fundamentally different substances: the physical matter of bodies and the spiritual stuff of souls. In Descartes’s system, souls and bodies causally interact. Your soul pushes your buttons, so to speak, and makes you do the things that you do.
Conversely, what happens to your body is felt, or experienced, in your soul.