I was given a link to this essay by a fellow Twitterer because I had referred to the soul as an imaginary “ethereal, invisible, float-y thing that whooshes out of our bodies at death.” Souls truly exist, I was told, and this essay by Tim Staples would set me straight.
Well, for starters, the title of Tim Staples’s piece is misleading. To speak of “seven proofs for the natural immortality of the human soul” presupposes that souls exist. But what evidence is there to show that humans have souls? That should be the first order of business before discussing a soul’s supposed natural immortality. Let’s get started.
Staples begins his piece with some throat-clearing about Antony Flew and about how Flew went from being an atheist to becoming a deist. Staples points out that while Flew spoke warmly of Christianity — “I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true” — Flew not only never accepted Christianity “or any of the distinctively Christian teachings like the inspiration of Scripture, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the incarnation of Christ, etc.,” he “also never came to accept the immortality of the human soul.” Notice that Staples didn’t write “never came to accept the existence of the human soul.” As I intimated above, you have to first establish that souls exist and then move on to a discussion on whether these souls are immortal or not. Staples is still writing about souls in a “given” mode.
Dr. Flew was certainly not alone in his struggle with the concept of the natural immortality of the human soul. (I say “natural” because human beings uniquely possess an immortal soul by nature. That means, man does not need grace in order for his soul to live forever. It would do so naturally, even if he ends up in the isolation and emptiness of hell forever.) This is a point of difficulty for many skeptics [“skepetics” in the original; I’ve corrected the typo].
“By nature”? How so? And does this “by nature” refer to things that are of the natural world and not the super-natural world (hyphen for emphasis)? And notice how Staples brings “Hell” into the discussion in a manner to suggest that its existence, like the existence of souls, is a given. Staples is certainly correct about the “point of difficulty,” which is now a double-barreled difficulty: getting me to believe in the existence of souls and Hell (I prefer to use the capital “H” as a way to designate Hell as a formal place, like a town or city). Let’s get down to business on how and why human beings have souls.
But hold on: Staples reminds us that Aquinas thought “non-rational animals” and plants have souls but that only “man alone possesses what St. Thomas calls a ‘rational’, or ‘spiritual’ soul” whereas the souls of plants and animals are “material in nature.” Aquinas did not offer up evidence for this twin claim that a) plants and animals have souls, and b) that these souls are material in nature. But if a soul is said to be an evanescent vital “essence” that can’t be detected with our senses (nobody has seen a soul whoosh away from someone who’s just died), then where does Aquinas get off in saying these non-human souls are material in nature? He doesn’t say. He only asserts his position (that non-human souls are material) without providing evidence to back up the claim — the stock and trade of any believer who likes to proclaim ideas without evidence to back them up. Sorry, my snark is showing. Moving on.
This third type of soul, according to Aquinas, is the “rational” soul that humans have that, in Staples’s words, “is capable of acquiring intellectual, or ‘spiritual’, knowledge as well, and of choosing to freely act toward chosen ends. The question now becomes: how does any of this demonstrate the soul of man to be immortal?” No, sir. That is not the question now. The first question remains this: Why, Mr. Staples, do you believe that the source of our ability to acquire knowledge is something ethereal in nature and yet apart from us? Staples and Aquinas are asserting a Cartesian dualism: that there is the body — but then there is the soul. The scientific correlation is that we have a brain — but then there is the mind. Just as believers in souls don’t know where the soul resides in the body, scientists don’t understand how the mind “emerges” from the brain. But a distinction here is crucial: Scientists don’t think of the mind as existing separate from the brain.
Staples reminds us that the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines death as “… the separation of the soul from the body” to which Staples says is an “excellent definition.” It is not. A simple online search for the definition of “death” yields better definitions: “the end of the life of a person or organism” (I’ll accept that) and “the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue” (even better). To say death entails “the separation of the soul from the body” is to once again speak in terms of a given: that we have souls, the existence of which Staples still hasn’t established at this point in his piece. Staples goes on to note the distinction between the person and the soul:
[M]an is more than just a soul. He also directly experiences the “I” that unifies all that he is and all that he has done down through the decades of his life. This “I” represents the individual “person” that constitutes each human being. Is there a distinction between the soul and the person? Yes. But it can be a bit tricky to demonstrate.
I would argue that the distinction is illusory: “the soul” is a religious stand-in for “the mind.” Mind is self and self is mind — and this sense of “I” is rooted in our self-awareness: no supplemental “soul” is needed to experience or explain that “inner” sensation of being a self in the world.
Staples then points to the electrical stimulation of people with epilepsy and how this stimulation get can get people to move their limbs but that the surprised stricken individuals would say things to the doctors like “I didn’t do that. You did.” This sensation of being stimulated to do something but to not feel in control of the doing prompts neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield to say “there is no place in the brain that can ‘cause a patient to believe or decide’.”
But here’s the problem. That Penfield could stimulate a brain to “deceive” a person with epilepsy but to then say we can’t locate the place in the brain that can “cause a patient to believe or decide” doesn’t give license to the idea that there is something mysterious in an extra-natural way that accounts for how we believe or decide. Scientists and philosophers in 2018 are, as of this writing, in agreement over one of the most profound mysteries of living: no one knows how the mind “emerges” from the brain. But emerge from the brain it does. Where there is no brain there is no mind. The mind most certainly resides “in” the brain, but nobody has the foggiest idea where, if “resides” is even the right word to use (I suspect it isn’t: instead of being in one location, the mind is probably an across-the-brain activity of emergence).
We’re then told about our ability to abstract things and that this ability points to a soul. We meet someone named “Tim” and we get to know this person as an abstraction derived from the material reality of “Tim” being a man in the world, and so “this essential ‘form’ abstracted by the intellect is a spiritual reality. It transcends the individual.” We are quickly reminded that “non-rational animals do not have the power to abstract the form of ‘man’.” That may be true, that only human beings can comprehend “man-ness” and “dog-ness,” but it doesn’t follow that our ability to do so is due to some ethereal presence in us that exists apart from the body.
If the soul has this spiritual power to “abstract” the form of “tree,” or “man,” it must be spiritual. And if the soul is spiritual, it has to be immortal. It cannot be “reduced to its component parts.”
“If the soul is spiritual.” Once again, we’re told, without providing evidence, that there is a soul, but now it’s a case of whether or not it’s “spiritual.”
The human soul not only abstracts the forms of material entities encountered, but it also has the power to know the ideas or “forms” of immaterial realities like logical sequence, moral goodness, property rights, philosophical categories like “substance,” cause and effect, and more.
But why maintain a belief that some unseen, ethereal “soul” accounts for all this rather than an aspect or mechanism of the brain that we don’t fully understand (yet)? And “moral goodness”? Robert Wright argues persuasively in his book The Moral Animal that morality is derived from evolution. This isn’t the place to discuss his research in detail, but the takeaway is that there is no reason to believe we’ve been “endowed” with a moral capacity by a Celestial Being, aka God. We even see a measure of morality play out among other animals (yes, “other” because human beings are, of course, animals). Among chimpanzees, we see, as discussed in this essay, how “cooperation is rewarded and freeloaders are punished.” And what about animals helping animals of other species? There are countless YouTube videos available where we see animals coming to the rescue of other animals. Just the other day I saw a video of a cat whose head was stuck in a plastic cup. A dog comes along, grabs the cup with its jaws, and frees the cat from its mishap. Why would a dog do this? Why would a dog “care” about a cat’s problem? These aren’t trivial or flippant questions. Something is going on in an animal’s mind: it somehow sees or detects the distress of another animal and then proceeds to help. Amazing, but true.
Getting back to Staples, he argues that ideas (property rights, understanding of logical sequences, and so on) have no color (this is true) or weight (also true) because ideas of the mind are not “things” in the world of substance. “We are not talking about the material world here,” writes Staples. This is true. “Love” has no weight or color; it is not something I can hold in my hand.
The individual “tree” will die, but not the “form” or “idea” of tree that man alone possesses among creatures of earth. From this knowledge of the eternal springs a spontaneous desire to live forever.
Wait, what? How does the knowledge of an eternal “tree” (that the form of a tree stays with us in the mind in absence of seeing a real tree) have to do with a desire to live forever? Oh, wait. I think I see what Staples is doing: saying the “eternal” tree (the “form” of the tree) is equivalent to a desire for eternal life. Nah. There’s a more simple and straightforward explanation available to account for our desire to live forever: we are aware of our mortality. We don’t want to die, and so we create religions that encourage us to believe that our time on Earth isn’t the end. There it is, people. I just summed up the central motivating force behind all religions.
From ancient Egypt’s Book of the Dead, to Western Civilization’s Bible, every civilization, every culture, in all of human history has attested to the existence of an afterlife.
No, these civilization have not “attested” to the existence of an afterlife. They have imagined an afterlife and have created stories and myths to support this imaginative yearning. Turning now to Mark Twain would be helpful:
My final proof for the natural immortality of the human soul is derived from the existence of the Moral Law that we can know apart from divine revelation. This is a true law knowable to all, and a law that man did not give to himself.
It’s true that man “did not give to himself” a Moral Law. Our sense of morality is instead an emergent, evolved capacity. Evolution explains why humans can be altruistic. The ol’ atheist adage is true: We can be good without God.
And yet, it is often unpunished and the sanctions of law not carried out. Hence, there must be an eternity where all is rectified.
There must be an eternity? Why? Staples doesn’t say. He only asserts.
Necessarily rooted in the reality of the justice and wisdom of God who created us and created this that we call “Natural Law,” Plato said without the immortality of the soul there is no justice, which would be absurd. If there is a God who is just, then there must be final justice. Since final justice so often does not occur in this life, there must be a next life in which justice will be served.
“Necessarily”? Why is it necessary that there be justice in some supposed afterlife? As you can see, Staples has taken an unexpected turn. Rather than sticking to the narrow subject — the existence or non-existence of souls — he now wants to hitch souls to the wagon of an afterlife, that there must be a soul because there must be an afterlife where wrongdoing is punished and the righteous prevail. Why should there be justice after death, as Plato believed? We exist on this speck of dust in the cosmos, we live out our lives, and then we die. That’s all folks, to quote Porky Pig. But death is not final, goes the shaky syllogism, because we can think about death, and because we think about death as a bad and awful thing — it can’t be true, ergo, it mustn't be true — which means there must be an afterlife to assuage our anxiety about death.
I am not moved by this off-ramp discussion. That Staples tethers his talk about yearning for justice in some supposed afterlife is a diversion. The crux of the matter is that he has failed to demonstrate the existence of souls and has instead made a classic “leap of faith” in positing the notion that our sense of abstraction — the “tree-ness” of trees — and our ability to be moral can be sourced to an evanescent “thing” in our bodies. The principle behind Occam’s Razor can be helpful here. There’s no need to concoct the existence of a special entity to account for morality and abstraction when a simpler solution is at hand: we don’t have souls; we have minds, and these minds are somehow a “product” of the brain that no one yet understands. There is no need to shoehorn in a “leap of faith” idea to account for something we don’t understand. What caused the Big Bang? Nobody knows. Religious people will say, “God did it.” But there is no evidence that a supernatural source is behind the Big Bang — and there is no evidence that a supernatural source, an implanted “soul” from God, accounts for why we can be moral.
Barry Lyons is not fond of religion. Here, have another essay on the subject: “‘Ten Questions That an Atheist Can’t Answer’? — I’m Up for the Challenge”