What is the soul and does it survive after death?
This question has been mulled over by poets, priests and philosophers for millennia. Various concepts of the soul can be found in most societies past and present. Many primitive people believe that plants and animals as well as humans have souls, and may even attribute souls to inanimate objects, including representations of gods made of stone or wood. This tendency to ascribe souls or spirits to everything is called animism and forms the basis of many primitive religions.
Lacking a rational explanation for most aspects of nature, particularly the behaviour of animals and humans, the primitive mind developed the idea of soul to explain how things moved and behaved. Among the natural phenomena they encountered was death, and the concept of soul became strongly associated with this mystery. The cessation of movement, breathing and all the usual activities of a human or animal suggested that the soul was no longer present in the body of the dead. This loss of soul formed the important link with death and raised the question as to where the soul had gone.
The separation of soul and body inherent in the idea of an animating principle developed into many complex theories about the relationship between the human body and the human soul, which were considered to be distinct entities. What seemed clear was that the soul could exist without a body, because it wandered off and sometimes did not return, but that the body could not exist without its soul, because it ceased to function and decayed.
The occurrence of dreams supported the idea of a wandering soul that could leave the body. The dreamer often visits different places and meets familiar people in dreams, which suggested the relative freedom of the soul to leave the body. This phenomena presented dangers to the body should the soul be prevented from returning. Sickness was viewed as such a problem and the shaman or priest would perform ceremonies to restore the soul to its rightful place in the body. Such were the ideas of the soul that formed the basis of more complex religions and the metaphysical speculations of the earliest philosophers who analysed the traditional ideas perpetuated by poets and priests.
What should be clear at this point is that the answer to the question is relative to the beliefs of different peoples at different times over most of human history. Some of the earliest religious ideas about the soul are to found in ancient Egypt, Babylon, ancient Greece, Rome and the Christian empire that succeeded paganism. Indian, Chinese and pre-Columbian American civilisations should be included too, but the central theme of the soul in so-called western civilisation is most easily traced to the Greco-Roman civilisation and its predecessors in the Middle East.
Another approach would be to consider the doctrines of the soul and death in the major religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. However this would involve both encyclopaedic scholarship and exposition. Suffice to say that a simple explanation precludes this approach but can readily outline the main ideas involved without it.
The mystery religions of ancient Greece and subsequently of Rome, including Christianity share common ideas about the soul, although their rituals differed greatly. It is these ideas that form the basis of popular beliefs today, after they have been strained through the elaborate filters of conventional religious sects, occultism, spiritualism and the thousands of variations to be found in modern day society. Even to list the main players in this elaborate industry since the beginning of the 19th Century would be too arduous.
The field of philosophy, in contrast to theology, must be considered too since this is where the most careful, and hopefully rational, consideration has been given to the concepts of soul and death. An important schism arose in ancient Greece on these questions. Plato (427-347 BCE) was strongly influenced by traditional thought, including the ideas of the mystery religions from Southern Italy. Consequently his ideas focus on the spiritual and immaterial aspects of life. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) took the pragmatic view that the soul meant the functions of the living body, such as breathing, cardio-vascular circulation (which he didn’t know about), digestion and all the rest. The permanent cessation of these bodily functions was death so that Aristotle’s definition of the soul excluded the possibility of its existence as an entity separate from the body. Aristotle’s soul, therefore, was just the sum total of all the complex processes that constitute human, animal or plant life.
For rational materialists this looks like an open and shut case but the ‘idealist’ concept of humanity cannot be so easily dismissed. Much of the history of philosophy is concerned with the division between materialist ideas, following Aristotle, and the so-called ‘idealism’ of Plato and his successors. The most influential advocate of Plato’s ideas was the Roman philosopher Plotinus (205-270 CE). The Neo-Platonic system of Plotinus is perhaps the most thorough doctrine of the soul devised at that time and was subsequently incorporated into Roman Christianity by the early theologians. It is worth mentioning that Constantine’s Council of Nicea served to integrate Neo-Platonism and other religions into Roman Christianity, which consequently overshadowed the ideas preserved by the actual followers of Jesus as opposed to the writings of latecomers like Paul of Tarsus.
Plotinus was a metaphysician who believed that a supreme being, which he called The One, was beyond all human understanding and was consequently beyond all attributes. For example, one could not say that The One was good, wise, omniscient, omnipotent or anything else. The supreme foundation of the cosmos was ineffable ie simply too great for human thought. However, he did say that The One ‘emanated’ a second entity, which he called The Intellectual Principle. The function of this second order being was to contemplate The One and ‘think about’ what it could possibly be. The result of such ruminations was the emanation of a third order being called The Soul, which also contemplated the wonder of The Intellectual Principle but also emanated the Sun, the Moon, the stars, the Earth and all material entities whatsoever. It is this world soul that forms the connection with the human soul and gives human life a special place in the scheme of things.
From a modern perspective it is clear that Plotinus just made this stuff up in a way that would convince his contemporaries that there was a benign order underlying the suffering and strife that constituted life under the Roman Empire. However, the integration of the mysteries and vagaries of Platonism into a coherent and logical system of philosophy was a major achievement. The difficult question that it answered was where souls came from and where they went after death. The answer was that human souls always existed as part of the immaterial world soul.
Although The Soul had created the material world it was an entirely spiritual being. Matter was viewed as the lowest level of its emanations beyond which it could not go. In other words, matter was the lowest possible entity in the scheme of things. The creation of humans involved the capturing of a bit of the world soul into the body. It was this soul that controlled the body through the faculties of the intellect, the emotions and instinctual desires. The natural desire of the human soul was to return to The Soul, where it had lived in bliss. The descent of the soul into a material body was considered to be death from the perspective of it origin and was therefore a living hell.
This idea of the descent of the body and its yearning to return to a perfect and immortal life had been the subject of the many pagan myths that preceded Plato’s philosophy. In particular, the Eleusinian mystery religion manifested as a variety of secret doctrines on this theme prior to its integration with the official pantheon of ancient Greece. The principle myth was that of Ceres and Persephone, which related life and death to the growth of crops. Recent archeological research has revealed that the original urban societies were agricultural rather than pastoralist, so their main economic concerns were centred round the successful growing of crops. The content of religion reflected these concerns.
The theme of the descent into the underworld and the return to the light is a metaphor for the planting of crops in the winter months, the growth of crops in the spring and reaping in the autumn. The myth finds Persephone picking flowers in the Elysian Fields with her mother Ceres, the goddess of corn. The god of the underworld, Pluto, bursts out of the ground and carries off Persephone into the underworld. Ceres complains to Zeus, the brother of Pluto, but gets no sympathy. Descending into Hades, Ceres persuades Pluto to release her daughter. Pluto agrees but says she must not look back on the journey to the light. Pluto gives Persephone four pomegranate seeds to nourish her on the Journey. She eats the seeds that force her to return to Pluto for four months of the year. In this way Persephone becomes Queen of the dead and determines the fate of all those souls who end up in Hades. `
A similar myth is to be found in the death and resurrection of Osiris, but there is some dispute as to whether the Eleusinian mysteries originated in Mesopotamia or Egypt or a bit of both. Suffice to say each stage in the religious development involved the relation of the soul to the material body and to the afterlife. The immense body of religion and philosophy concerned with this matter has had a profound effect on many societies subsequently, including the control of medieval societies through the doctrine of salvation and the terrors of Hell. However, the brief picture provided so far provides sufficient basis for considering the question, does the soul exist and does it survive after death.
If we accept Plotinus’s theory or something similar we have to accept the existence of an immaterial world soul that does not come under the domain of physics by definition. The usual scientific approach to such theoretical entities is to apply Occam’s (William of Occam was a medieval theologian) advice that we should not needlessly invent entities to support our theories. If there is no evidence for the soul beyond poetic or emotional sentiment, then it must be rejected as unscientific. The contrary view is that the soul by its very nature is not part of the material world and can only be understood by deep metaphysical enquiry.
This latter was Plato’s position. He thought that human salvation could only be achieved through the perfection of the soul during its term of imprisonment in the body. The best way to do this was to become a philosopher and seek out the good. By so doing there was a good chance that the soul would escape the body and unite with the divine world soul forever.
If we discount the idealist, immaterial definition of the soul to be found in religion and Platonic metaphysics, Aristotle’s more scientific approach remains. The soul is just a handy name given to the totality of the life processes going on in a living thing, whether human, animal or plant life. The soul in this sense is the intuitive idea we have of life. Logically, when this life ceases, the particular soul associated with that life ceases too. The analogy of the body with a candle and the soul with the flame is a handy one. The candle can be relit and a new flame appears. Relighting the human body, within narrow limits, is a regular medical occurrence, but is generally beyond human powers in the long term. The physical body and the higher faculties of intellect and memory associated with it are easily destroyed for good if the brain is damaged. In this event, it seems clear that the soul does not survive death.
The conclusion that there is no soul implies there is no survival of the human individual after death. This raises questions about consciousness and the meaning of human identity. For example, is the person in a perfect clone identical to the originating person? These are related but different questions.
Given the considerable understanding of physics and cosmology that has been achieved, an immortal soul is surely impossible, since the cosmos itself is more likely to have a finite existence beyond pure chaos. We do not really know the answer to such difficult questions but little purpose is served in mistaking ancient mythological ideas for the basis of sound philosophical enquiry.