The philosophy tutor was describing how to be fully in the moment. “Even if it’s a mundane task, such as tying your shoelaces,” she said, crossing one leg over the other and looking at her shoe, “give your complete attention to each detail. Feel the texture of the laces, see the pattern develop as you twist the laces around each other, feel the leather of the shoe tighten against your foot as the shoe presses evenly against the skin. And finally, feel the weight of your body as you stand up, ready for the next action: walking.”
“It’s good for the sole,” I offered.
Philosophy tutors don’t glare or grimace, but she was thinking about it. “Britni Pepper, troublemaker,” I could see her making mental notes.
The Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death by the Athenians for disrespecting the gods and corrupting the youth. Socrates believed that he had a soul, and that after death it would be rewarded or punished.
He described the souls of murderers floating along the looping rivers of the Underworld, where occasionally the souls of their victims would regard them, to judge whether they had repented sufficiently or might be required to go around for another trip, the scoundrels!
He believed that the true worth of one’s life was not wealth, or great deeds, but whether one had lived a good life and been faithful to the truth. A liar was akin to a murderer or a thief in his eyes. Socrates went to his death with a clear conscience, confident of an afterlife on some blessed isle.
His disciples, when he was about to drink the hemlock poison, asked what they were to do with him. “Have you not understood me, friends?” he said. “You may do whatever you like. If you can catch me.”
He saw his essential spirit as going beyond the reach of the living, and his body no more than the husk.
Two thousand years later
This view of the soul seems to be a popular and attractive one. The worthy enjoy a pleasant eternal life after death, retaining their memories — of those who wronged them, at least — all their capacity for judgment and appreciation intact, thoughts, skills, emotions, all going strong, free of the frailties of the body.
In some religions, this is the whole point of existence. Follow the edicts of the priesthood, respect them, give them money, and you’ll have a wonderful existence in the next world, as opposed to this one, where everyone has their hands in your pocket, including the priest who explains how the scheme works.
Nice work if you can get it, I think. Have someone else support you in a position of privilege and honor, and when it comes time to payout, it’s not coming from your bank account, and there are no complaints from beyond the grave. No wonder these guys are always wanting more converts.
It’s bunkum, of course
Science has detected no evidence of any soul particles or radiation. We cannot find the soul in the physical world, and there is no trace in quantum theory. What soul particles might there be, and how do they interact with those we know about? Electrons, bosons, quarks and all the rest of the atomic physicist’s world, but there are no elements of the soul, no spiritual atoms.
Because, if the soul is endowed with our memories, such as the sight of a loved one’s face, or the sound of a familiar song, then there would have to be some way of loading it up with these and other things, in order to be drawn upon in the afterlife.
There would have to be some interaction between the physical neurons in our brain where memories are stored, and whatever incorporeal entity constitutes the everlasting and insubstantial soul.
Science tells us where memories are stored in the brain. They can stimulate a point with a tiny jolt of current, and suddenly past events are brought to the surface. You may not have thought about Uncle Andy for years, but suddenly there he is bending down to kiss your toddler's cheek, brought back to life by the touch of an electrode.
Certainly, death can offer no mechanism. Those who die instantly — the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, perhaps, converted into a cloud of plasma in a millisecond — have no way to transfer memories from the brain to some incorporeal entity. They vanish at the moment of death.
It’s an attractive notion, but there is not a shred of scientific evidence for an eternal soul. At least not in the popular perception.
But we have something, surely?
We can all, I trust, accept that we have something going on that we may call a soul. Thoughts, skills, experiences, memories: all stored in the physical brain, but there is something deeply personal observing all of this going on.
What is it that feels the rush of love? What is uplifted at the sight of a rose, or a forest, or an exquisite piece of art? What is it within ourselves that thrills to the majesty and tranquillity of a cathedral?
Do we not say something like, “I felt my soul being uplifted.” “My spirits soared.” “My heart had wings.”
I trust that every one of us feels such moments. We don’t have to think about it to work out if a rainbow is beautiful, or a child’s smile brings us joy. The feeling is immediate, and it touches us deeply.
Whatever this immediate connection to love, joy, beauty, and truth may be, it is something common to all of us, I think. I do not have to ask if someone holds these qualities. I can see it in their shining eyes.
Something to cherish, something to love
And, I hope it goes without saying, if we hold our own soul as something sacred, then surely we can appreciate the same qualities within another, and hold them equally dear?
One’s opinions, skills, experiences, memories are all part of the brain and body. There is nothing intrinsically universal about them. They may all be similar, but they are not essential.
I like to consider human beings as being like phones. If two people have the same model of phone, identical in all respects at the factory, then the instant they are turned on and used, they differ. We give them different identities, names, apps, phone cases. They are assigned background photos, chimes, a collection of songs, and photographs. We add our phone number and send emails and texts.
Each phone is as individual as its owner, and that is exactly the way we like it.
But the operating systems are identical.
It is far from a perfect analogy, but if our bodies are the hardware of our lives, then whatever it is that we can call our soul is the software, identical throughout humanity, over the ages, across the globe. It is what makes us human.
We see the sunrise over blue ocean, we see the beauty, as fresh and as pure as it surely was for the first woman being to watch dawn over some long-vanished beach, and exactly the same as our distant manchild descendant might see on some as yet unknown planet orbiting a distant star thousands of years in the future. We see beauty, we feel love, we stand in awe, and those things will never change, no matter what we call ourselves, what language we speak, what or where or when we were born.
I call that deep and instant connection to love and joy and beauty, the soul.