The Other I

March 15, 2012

The invention of the soul

I read a post on The Writer’s Treehut yesterday discussing the legacy of  isolation and despair that the concept of soul and of our separate individuality generates in so many of us.  I believe it does.  I too believe that the idea that we each have a soul that separates us from the consequences of what happens to everybody else is often destructive for ourselves.

Most people, I think, assume that the concept of soul has biblical roots. But it does not. Souls are not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament and to my knowledge not in the New Testament either. The core of the idea comes from Plato who lived almost half a millennium before Christ. He was trying to solve the intellectual problem of how we can have ideas of perfect things when perfect things do not exist in the material world. He decided there must be another world where these things are perfect – perfect triangles, perfect flowers, perfect people, perfect everything.

This perfect world represented the scientific – not religious – thinking of the day. It’s rather like our scientific ideas today about dark energy. We really haven’t a clue what dark energy might be, but it seems to be the only kind of thing scientists can think of at the moment to explain the extraordinary things we do observe. The secular idea of a soul was adopted by Christian theologians because it represented the scientific thinking of the day.

The idea of the soul was discarded long ago as a scientific concept, but its usefulness for controlling the behavior of believers by religious authorities remains. The existence of the soul comes packaged with the promise of eternal life – as a way for my most precious personal ego to survive forever. And the promise is that it will survive in perfect bliss if I do what religious leaders tell me to do. Eternal life as ME is no longer an idea that personally holds any allure or coercive power over me, but it did for a long time.

The invention of the idea of soul also has another hidden and I think immensely destructive result – it suggests that salvation is individual. You as a sinner might not go to heaven, but I can make sure that I do. In other words, we are not all in this together. I can feel superior to you, separate from your sinfulness, safe from it, whatever you do, even it kills me, even if it wipes out the entire human species. Because my soul will survive and go to heaven while you will go to hell. Ha! I shall win in the end!

The alternative is that we are all in this together, and that if we are, we must care about what happens to everybody else, care about their suffering, their lives, their opportunities. But there are many ways of doing this. Being incomplete as we are, many of those ways are self-absorbed, debilitating, neurotic, self-deluding. As a human race, we still seem addicted to “doing good” by bombing, shooting, punishing, and killing the bad guys. We even then pat ourselves on the back as heroic and patriotic. I have not been able to adopt the pacifist view 100%. Perhaps I was too influenced by the horrors of World War II gas chambers. But we are far too trigger-happy. We don’t really believe in diplomacy. We don’t really think that perhaps we too have to change, not just everybody else. We seem to think that because we have the bombs, we have the military, we must be right. It would be nice to say this applies to only America, but it seems to be a world-wide belief: the best way to impose the right way (which of course is the way revealed to me) is to be the biggest bully on the street. We imprison or kill anyone who does not accept our standards. Then people have to listen, even if they aren’t convinced.

There are two ideas that have most profoundly changed my view of the world in recent years. The first is the belief that there is no other supernatural, perfect world over and above our natural universe – or universes. What is of value is what is now, not some hypothetical future in some other world. And the second idea is the one that is central to this post – that we are all in this together. There is no possibility that I can just take care of myself. I myself depend in my very essence on what happens to all of us.

We know that children brought up in isolation cannot develop even the most basic human abilities.  We need others to have food to eat, to speak a language, to make a child.  We need others to be able to love, to feel that we are of value, to feel the joy of helping, of laughing together.  I don’t mean we have to agree with each other – what a boring dull prospect.

Home Safety


But we can’t become ourselves without everybody and even everything else.  We need the bees, and the cows.  We need the wheat fields and the sun and the rain.  In fact, we need the whole universe.

It’s our home.



  1. Amen, Terry.


    Comment by pianomusicman — March 15, 2012 @ 3:55 pm | Reply

  2. Yours is the best explanation of Plato’s notion of the “forms” or “ideas” I’ve come across, Terry: the Perfect. Also, thanks for pointing out that the idea of the soul is not Biblical,either Old or New Testament (in Christian terms). With my scant knowledge of these things, it has also struck me that Descartes, who opened so many windows, let the side down when he maintained the existence of a soul.

    Also, I like the idea that the soul, like so many religious ideas–ideas that now only exist as religious–was originally a “scientific” one. I’ve come to the conclusion that religion was originally an attempt to do what we now look to science to do: explain natural phenomena as well as theorize about the forces behind them. Even today, when I hear a thunderstorm it sounds a lot like anger to me, and I can see how it could be reasonable to assume that if there is anger there must be an angry being expressing it, a very powerful one. It seems obvious those original ideas hung on long after they became scientifically irrelevant because, as you also suggest, they served other purposes as well as because they had by then become “sanctified.”

    Several years back, purely by chance when surfing in, I came across a book by Edward Carpenter (1920ish?) that is about the pagan origins of Christianity. In it he tries to re-create the mindset of human beings back when we were still very much embedded in nature and still just another species, and not the most skillful one either. I suspect, as he maintains, that we got it right then and have gotten it wrong ever since. What I mean is that when our self-consciousness was less developed we didn’t just believe but knew that we were part of something bigger. The greatest evil that could befall us was to be alienated or exiled from our fellows, because we could hardly be said to exist outside that relationship. He traces the origins of “communion” back to those times, when the entire clan or tribe participated in eating the sacred bear or other animal with which the tribe identified, revered and wanted to draw strength from. The idea of an individual soul to those people would, I should think, have not only been incomprehensible but laughable (reminding me, for whatever mischievous reasons, of the reception the Jesuits got in China when they try to convince the Chinese that homosexuality was evil).

    The “problem of evil” you touch upon is unresolvable, I think. I gravitate toward literature, both as reader and maker, because it implies that a good stating of the questions is the best we can do. My scientific inclination also inclines me toward observing human behavior the way a chemist observes reactions in a test tube. When we finally come to the general acknowledgment that we are all indeed individually different in the way our brains are constructed, we may then have to accept that morality, while being socially useful or even necessary, is a construct in much the same sense as is the idea of the soul. Rattling around in my head for many decades now is that comment by Jesus that few people in any generation will hear what he says. By which I took him to mean that you either are or are not inclined toward the kind of message he preached, and the same could be said for any other way of seeing the world. We should hardly be surprised that the best elements of any of the world’s religions have not carried the day, if we take Jesus at his word.

    Like you, I can’t entirely renounce violence, though I admit to a cautious admiration of those who do. On the other hand, what you and I have witnessed in our lifetimes shows the complete bankruptcy of those who choose violence either to work their wills on the rest of us or who oppose, at least nominally, those who are out to oppress us. Our technology has so out-run our human nature that it’s a wonder we continue to exist at all.


    Comment by pianomusicman — March 15, 2012 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

    • Tom, yes, I agree that Descartes “let the side down,” as it were. But let us remember just how dangerous — I mean physically dangerous, life-threateningly dangerous – it still could be to express certain ideas that threatened those whose power rested on religious grounds. I know in myself that I could not accept some ideas for years out of what I now think of as fear. Not fear for my life, but fear of being socially disgraceful, of being seen as a disgrace because I didn’t toe the party line.

      I agree that our being alienated from nature is a terrible fracture. But I’m not so sure how it happened. For me, the irony is that it is science that has liberated me more than anything else. It is through science that I realized that I’m not in exile waiting to return to my true home in some supernatural world. I already am home. I already am where I belong. Psychologically it has been an immensely rooting and calming realization. As if some great existential misfit has been lifted from me.

      I’m not convinced either that morality is entirely arbitrary, cultural, or individual. Obviously much of it is. But whether there are some universal principles that arise out of the very nature of our being human parallel’s Chomsky’s view that despite that words and grammar, etc. are learned, nonetheless all language arises out of a fundamental structure determined by the nature of the human brain. I’m inclined to believe that there are some universal fundamental moral principles as well. If for no other reason than that concepts of fairness, or sharing, or loyalty, of defending ones offspring exist in many other animals than in Homo sapiens. I think some moral principles arise out of the evolutionary imperative.

      I do fear our capacity to kill has technologically run so far ahead of our moral imperative to protect life, however. Even the India liberated by Gandhi’s nonviolence is now a nuclear power. I’m not convinced it will not destroy us altogether. I move closer to being 100% pacifist. But I may lack the courage.


      Comment by theotheri — March 17, 2012 @ 9:02 pm | Reply

  3. “Souls are not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament and to my knowledge not in the New Testament either.”

    Are you saying that the multiple Biblical instances of the word “soul” are mistranslations? Things get very murky linguistically between–in English–soul, spirit, consciousness, psyche, and even person, and their etymological counterparts in Greek, Hebrew, or whatever.

    “The first is the belief that there is no other supernatural, perfect world over and above our natural universe – or universes. What is of value is what is now, not some hypothetical future in some other world.”

    I agree with that last part especially, and don’t think it’s at all in conflict with living according to certain spiritual principles, like the golden rule. What we do here and now reflects and expresses what we value–those fundamental moral principles to which you refer. Maybe they arise out of evolution–certainly, it becomes more clear that long-term survival hinges on getting beyond pure self-interest–but I do think the element of choice (or free will) is an added, and all-important, layer. Of course, not everyone agrees that such a thing even exists–in a Darwinian universe, it’s all mechanistic. And yet we do sometimes experience fundamental, revolutionary changes in our lives based on what we choose to believe, as you point out in reference to the “two ideas that have most profoundly changed my view of the world in recent years.”

    As for the supernatural, I agree that most of our notions about it are childish, at best, or based on some logical fallacy; however, our understanding of the “natural” is still so very shallow and superficial that it excludes whole realms presently intangible, or unavailable to our crude instrumentation. The beauty of science is that recognition of our limitations is built in, rather than compensated for by cargo cult-style imagination.

    Thanks for this very thoughtful post; I’ve been chewing on it for several days now. For me, the heart of what you say has to do with the isolation and destructiveness of a faulty belief in individualism; I think that’s hypertrophied in America for a bunch of historical reasons, but also endemic to the West–and yes, Christianity, as developed by the church, is probably the real culprit, with that idea of soul possibly at the heart of the error. Unfortunately, the whole mindset appears to have had a short-term evolutionary “advantage” in terms of wiping out indigenous cultures with more in-it-together beliefs, which by nature produce a long-term view and less proclivity for violence–against each other and the planet–as a way of life.

    It’s so important to look for the wormholes in the apple before we bite down, isn’t it? The idea of a soul, as you outline it, has a definitely wormy interior, if not a downright poisonous one. How should we instead think of our unique, individual selves (compiled by genetics, experience, what we love and what we choose)? What power does consciousness have? If we free it up from the isolation prison, there’s pretty good evidence that there are real-world effects. See this interesting article about how language–or, I would argue, beliefs imbedded in language–affect measurable things like obesity, smoking, and retirement savings:


    Comment by Barbara Sullivan — March 26, 2012 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

    • Yes, “soul” is a mistranslation insofar as “soul” is understood as a separate and eternal entity whose origin is from a supernatural world and which is the source of life temporarily inhabiting our bodies.

      Iagree that concepts like spirit, consciousness, psyche, person, mind, become impossibly conflated when one person using the word is a dualist while the other is not. Which is what happened in the development of Christianity. I think the evidence suggests that the original texts of both the old and new testament originally reflected Jewish, not Greek, thinking.

      I also agree that the word “natural” is almost as conflated as the word “soul.” My sister told me she walked into the supermarket the other day where there was a big sign advertising “natural food.” She says she was tempted to ask where the “unnatural food” was. On a more serious note, how the RC Church can argue that homosexuality is unnatural is beyond my ken. What conceivable definition of unnatural can be applied to behavior that is present not only among the human species but among many many other animals? My own view is that if it exists it must by definition be natural.

      You suggest in your comment that the Darwinian view is totally mechanistic. I disagree absolutely. I think that represents a misunderstanding of Darwin’s view as it is understood today. Newton had a completely mechanistic view of the universe which has been dislodged with quantum mechanics on the one hand and by Einstein on the other. Consciousness is part of the evolutionary process, and both influences what is inherited and is itself influenced by our genetics. I think there is a strong case to be argued that consciousness, life, and intelligence are co-extensive (even the same thing).

      Not only that, but I have been convinced by Chomsky’s suggestion that our scientific notion of matter as being totally inert has been dethroned by Einstein’s theory that matter and energy are two manifestations of the same thing. E=mc2 is, for me, one of the most profound statements I have ever heard. It’s practically a prayer for me – a paean of wonder at this spectacular universe of which we are a part.

      All of which is a sort of blabby way of saying, I guess, that I agree with you 100% in your conviction (if I understand your blog rightly) that consciousness is paramount in determining how we live our lives. I’m a cognitive psychologist. How people think, what we believe seems to me, as I think to you, to be critical in determining what we do. It’s why I have called this blog “The Other I” — because I believe there is always another point of view that can completely change our world for better or worse. So it’s a good idea to do my best to adopt a view that is life-fulfilling and affirming.

      I know – this is a very long response to your comment. It’s because I find your ideas so interesting. Thank you.


      Comment by theotheri — March 28, 2012 @ 2:58 pm | Reply

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