If the human soul is something spiritual can we not understand it in terms of science? Although the derivation of the word ‘psychology’ literally means study of the soul, science has failed to pinpoint the location of the soul in the body and contemporary psychology is now defined as the study of mental processes and behaviour.
These days the “soul” can also stand for “spirit”, “mind”, “psyche” or “self”. So what actually is the human soul? Is it something that goes beyond the meaning of those terms?
Soul as the individual
When we say “I won’t tell a soul” we are promising not to tell anyone something. Nothing more is implied with the term “soul” than an individual person.
Soul as consciousness
Humans have conscious awareness but the same cannot be said of a machine. No computer can appreciate a beautiful painting, a garden of fragrant flowers or an uplifting musical composition.
Conscious experience is thus a huge problem for science which denies the existence of non-material reality. Most neuroscientists today are reduced to assuming that consciousness and intention is merely a by-product of the activity of neural cells. Some argue that no amount of physical data is sufficient to provide the “what it is like” of first-hand experience. If you likewise find the idea that neural activity and sense of “I” are not the same thing, then you may wish to think of the experience of having awareness and intention in terms of your soul.
Soul as the central essence of something
Getting to the heart and soul of a matter is to explore the central essence of something. We refer to “soul music” because it is so expressive of deep feeling. Likewise to reveal one’s innermost thoughts is to “bare one’s soul”.
In current usage, “soul-mate” usually refers to a romantic partner, with the implication of an exclusive lifelong bond. It is often accepted that finding a “soul-mate” one will feel ‘complete’ because of harmony between the deeper side of the two people.
Soul as source of life
The ancient Greeks used the same word for “alive” as for “ensouled”, indicating that the soul is that which gives the body life. And so in this sense all living things may have a soul including animals, fish, and birds trees other plant life. Science has difficulty disproving this idea as it cannot create life itself.
Soul as the human element to our make-up
An animal, while possessing a certain consciousness, is arguably not conscious of that consciousness i.e. is not capable of self-reflection. According to this point of view, human beings can engage in thoughts about ethical matters that go beyond their desires: so that in the light of rational thinking are free to make right and wrong personal choices, for example succumbing to or resisting temptation to follow natural inclinations. Animals are thought to be limited to their instinctive nature modified by conditioning and so are not thought to be culpable in law for their behaviour. Human beings however are seen as responsible for their criminal actions.
Soul as the higher degree of the mind
If “confession is good for the soul” then one will both feel better and be a better person by honestly examining one’s failings. Spiritual teaching often maintains that prioritising self-love and materialism will hinder mutual concern and spiritual awareness. A healthy soul can be contrasted with what we might call the sick soul. We speak of the latter in terms of selling one’s soul to the devil and this may well involve the enjoyment of manipulating others, a sense of egoism, resentment or greed and the corrupted ways of thinking that go along with those desires.
“Greed has taken the whole universe, and nobody is worried about their soul.” (Little Richard)
A general religious idea is that mystical altered states of awareness become more common when you adopt a modest self-attitude searching for deeper meaning and ideals beyond yourself: also a deeper soul state will result from a conscientious approach to your dealings with others and an interest in fulfilling your potential whatever that might be.
Soul as the immortal spirit
At a funeral we might hear the words “God rest her soul” referring to the well-being of a person who has died. The survival of the individual beyond bodily death is unproved but nevertheless a common belief. Many people have no clear idea of what an afterlife might involve thinking of the immortal soul as a kind of phantom — something having no bodily reality; like a ghost. However many spiritualist mediums have described spirits of dead people. The 18th-century spiritual philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg claimed he could continually experience an altered state of consciousness seeing and hearing what goes on in the spirit world. There he said he could see many souls each in human form, the spirit body showing the entire inner character of each person who survives after death.
Soul as the reception of divine inflow
Surveys in the USA and Britain have shown that a surprising number of people, about a third of the population, report that at least once or twice in their lives they had felt as though they were very close to a powerful spiritual force that seem to lift them out of themselves.
According to some religions for example the Baha’i faith, heavenly enlightened consciousness can be seen as the soul’s state of nearness to God — defined as the source of love and wisdom — and a hellish dark state of mind as a state of remoteness from God. In other words there are levels of spiritual reality to which we can open up our soul. For example a high degree of spiritual reality being a sphere of altruistic care for others and a low degree being a sphere of selfish intent.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul” (Jesus Christ)
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems