The language of the soul

How comfortable are we in talking about “the soul”? I must admit that I do not often use the term myself, and this reflects a wider tendency in both the church and wider society to move away from talk of “the soul” in favour of words such as “identity”, “individuality” or “personhood”.

However, the Anglican priest and theologian W.H. Vanstone (whose best-known book, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, I blogged about last year) argues against this abandonment of “soul talk” in the closing chapter of his final book, Fare Well In Christ. Canon Vanstone writes:

It is quite recently, within my own lifetime, that the word “soul” has drifted out of common and colloquial usage. Its use is confined to strictly and specifically religious gatherings and occasions. (pp.141f.)

He continues by observing that “the reason for this is not difficult to see”. The traditional belief in the soul as something that inhabits the body (and departs at death) was rendered untenable, in most people’s eyes, by scientific investigation of the human body:

Science denied what religion taught; science dismissed as a non-entity “the soul” which was constantly being referred to in religious teaching and practice. Religious teaching was misleading and even fraudulent in telling us that we have a soul. Surely the conviction, or at least the suspicion, that religion is fraudulent in this respect is the cause not only of the drift of the word “soul” out of common usage but also of what we call “the decline of religion” in the present century. (p.142)

Vanstone argues, however, that we still need the language of the “soul” in order to express “the mystery of what I have so far called ‘my identity'”. He writes:

We should admit that the soul is not in the body; but we can still speak of “body and soul” as our forebears did. My soul is what I have, or am, in addition to my body, and it would be an improvement to our language if we all spoke of this addition as “my soul” rather than “my identity”, “my individuality”, “my uniqueness” or “my personhood”. (p.143)

Now in many ways I think Vanstone has a point – and his preference for the “religious” language of “soul” over the “scientific” language of “identity” reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s attempt, at the end of Out of the Silent Planet, to reinstate the term “the heavens” in place of “outer space”.

However, I’m less keen on his references to the soul being “what I have, or am, in addition to my body” – which, in the context, would appear to mean in addition to what can be scientifically described or analysed, whether in our physical bodies or our minds. This seems to be a “soul of the gaps” argument, analogous to the old “God of the gaps”, and suffering from the same problems: first, the marooning of the soul (or God) in the ever-smaller “gaps” left by scientific investigation, and second (and more importantly) the conceding to science of its claim to give the sole and exhaustive account of everything outside the “gaps”.

I’ve said before that I think the proper Christian response to science is not to try to pick holes in the story that science tells (or to seize on any “gaps” left in science’s story), but rather to insist that science “is not the only story that can, or needs to, be told” – that different accounts or descriptions of reality can be more or less useful in different circumstances and for different purposes.

I wonder if the same principle can be applied to talk of the “soul”: that the soul is not the “something else” which is left after science has completed its examination of our bodies and minds, but rather that talking about the “soul” is another way of telling the story about who and what we are, another way of organising and arranging the data about our bodies and (especially) our minds – one that expresses the mystery of “my awareness that I am I and your awareness that you are you”, and the wonder evoked by that mystery, more adequately than scientific-sounding notions of “individuality” or “personhood”.

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2 Responses to The language of the soul

  1. Nightvid Cole says:

    The way you are describing things, sorry to be frank but it still sounds like the soul is the sum total ignorance of our understanding of the brain. The more neuroscience teaches us, the more it seems like there is no reason to say personality, identity, opinions, memory, feelings, perception, intelligence, and consciousness do not originate entirely within the brain, obeying the ordinary laws of physics at the molecular level. If you define the soul as that possessing the personality, identity, opinions, memory, feelings, perception, intelligence, and consciousness of someone, then I am in my rights to say you have defined the soul as identical to the brain. Unless, that is, a soul is the sum total ignorance of our understanding of the brain.

  2. Rick Ritchie says:

    “If you define the soul as that possessing the personality, identity, opinions, memory, feelings, perception, intelligence, and consciousness of someone, then I am in my rights to say you have defined the soul as identical to the brain.”

    The English word “soul” is often used to translate the Greek word PSYCHE. And in English, we also have a word “psyche.” The language of the psyche can be somewhat correlated to that of the brain, but not perfectly. Not everything brains do is entailed by psyche. I hardly think autonomic actions like breathing or chewing or temperature regulation are in view when we speak of someone’s psyche. Further, a loved one may have a brain tumor or other problem which interferes with normal function. The brain is active through the whole process. But we make distinctions. “That isn’t like so-and-so to say that.” If this were brain talk, we would say, “That is like so-and-so with a brain tumor.” Afterwards we say things like, “So-and-so is back.” From a neuroscience understanding, soul would be something more like a recognizable pattern of brain activity, especially in its relations to other persons, than like a brain.

    There are also hanging questions about where much that is important to this happens. Does all the computation that is involved in our thought happen in our brains? Or does some of it happen in other parts of the body? Certain theorists speculate that the brain is a quantum computer, the bulk of which is not in the current universe. Soul talk made sense long before such questions were considered. To turn this into brain talk, at a time when many long-settled questions have been reopened seems short-sighted.

    To say a soul is a brain makes as much sense to me as to say an algorithm is a computer. It may not be a physical addition to a computer. But its presence or absence will be noticed. Its description is also likely to be quite separable from that of the computer.

    “[T]here is no reason to say personality, identity, opinions, memory, feelings, perception, intelligence, and consciousness do not originate entirely within the brain.”

    I don’t think anyone is trying to locate them in another “place.” But the bald way this is stated makes it sound parallel to a claim that my view of a sunset originates within my eye. But what is seen exists apart from my seeing it. To state that memories originate in the brain could be taken to suggest that the same memories would have formed if the brain had been deprived of all contact with the outside world. I suspect that was not what was meant. But to have a fruitful conversation on this matter, great care has to be taken with language. We’re trying to discover first how we already speak of such matters, and then, how we would match these ways of speaking up with the world.

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