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Meditation 537
The Soul and Agnosticism

by: George Rush

A discussion has been opened on this Meditation. To contribute your own thoughts to this exchange, please use the Contact form.

What does an agnostic think about the soul? Sure, God is unknowable, but would you also assert that "The existence of a soul is unknown and unknowable"? If you find it hard to separate the two concepts, it's probably because you were raised in a Christian milieu: even without accepting the doctrine, you've absorbed Christian metaphysics. However Buddha believed in soul (reincarnation), but was agnostic about God; while Jews believe in God but not soul. Really, the two ideas have little in common.

Personally I'm agnostic about the soul. It may exist; on the other hand it may not. However I'll bet that many of you are quite certain it doesn't exist. To you, I'd like to present the following argument. I was inspired by the Talk Back 64 discussion, where I found all the quotes given below. In that thread, the topic morphed from soul to consciousness, at which point JT pulled the plug because no one could define consciousness. The thread had the right idea: consciousness is the key.

My first claim is: consciousness has not yet been explained by science. The explanation will require a new fundamental theory, as basic as electromagnetism.

Let's consider Margarita Carrión's objections.

MC: Citing the book “The Brain and the Myth of the I”, by the neuroscientist Rodolfo R. Llinás, having consciousness implies:

  • The capacity of discriminating, categorizing and reacting to external (ambient) stimuli
  • The integration of the information through a cognitive system
  • The capacity to inform about the mental state
  • The capacity of the system to have access to its own internal state
  • The focus of attention
  • The deliberate control of behaviour, and
  • The difference between being awake and asleep

MC: In fact, consciousness has been studied extensively. There is a lot we already know about it. For those interested, the book I cited above is an excellent example of the actual state of neuroscience in the matter.

- But this is not a definition of consciousness. Note the key phrase, "Having consciousness implies: ...", not "Consciousness is: ...". He's simply listing the behaviors of a typical conscious animal (about which, I admit, he knows a lot). To confuse these behaviors with consciousness itself is an elementary logical error, equivalent to confusing a disease with its symptoms. A doctor in medieval Europe could tell you, in excruciating detail, the symptoms of Black Plague; but did he understand the disease? Did he know what it was? Of course not. He could also tell you the symptoms of consciousness, producing a list similar to the one above (except in Middle English). But did he understand consciousness, know what it was? No, he didn't; and neither does Rodolfo R. Llinás. In fact, books like this - carefully read - are the best proof of my claim.

Second claim: Evidently there are only two general types of scientific explanations of consciousness: it may be some sort of effect of a process (e.g., a field), or it may just be a fixed property of matter, like electromagnetism. I'm not entirely sure of this claim, but can you think of any other possible non-faith-based approaches?

The first explanation is mentioned by Maarten van den Driest (assuming that where he said "soul" he was thinking of consciousness):

MvdD: Why can't the [consciousness] be a process? That's what it looks like, at the very least. That way it can arise from matter and science can easily study emergent phenomena.

- Why not indeed? After all, every consciousness we've ever seen resides in an animal's cognitive system (brain), which coincidentally implements the most complex process we know of. (BTW if this is right, we would expect computers to become conscious someday.)

Philip van Bergen provides an example of the second type of explanation.

PvB: ... each single particle in the universe has an electrical charge and each single particle in the universe has a property, say, C. That property C is the one that allows our brain to be conscious.

- Why not? It's as good an explanation as any.

So one of these days science will discover that either consciousness arises somehow from a temporary process, or else is somehow enabled by an inherent property of matter. In the first case, there could be no "soul" as traditionally understood: the effects can't exist without the process. In the second case, however, it's quite possible that the "soul" - some sort of very minimal spark of pre-awareness - survives within a tiny bit of matter (particle, or molecule, whatever). The particle could conceivably be reincarnated, or travel out-of-body - like a traditional soul.

This argument demonstrates that the soul's existence is scientifically plausible. There are certainly some weak points in this very brief presentation; I'll be happy to clarify anything you would like to criticize. However JT was right: further discussion will probably not get too far until consciousness is defined. Fortunately I can do that; it's actually quite simple, the basic idea can be expressed in just three words; however it does require considerable explanation. If anyone's interested, I'll be happy to define consciousness in a later post.

Respectfully, George Rush