Care of the Soul
In light of our increased knowledge about who we are as human beings, we have a real need to grapple with the question of ultimate human identity, or in other words, with the questions of self and soul. Do humans have a “soul” beyond their body? And if so, what do we mean by this? I would propose that a starting point for exploration of “soul” is to observe a profound paradox of identity, which I will call “the body/self paradox.”
The Body/Self Paradox:
1) Your body creates “you”…
In the twentieth century, neuroscience discovered that the brain and mind are a unified entity. Indeed, the physical brain is what creates the experience of mind. The understanding that brain creates mind was necessary for dispelling superstitious notions about the mind, and produced an era of accelerated progress in understanding human behavior and cognition. No longer, for example, are epileptic fits seen as signs of demonic possession, and no more do we drill holes in the heads of schizophrenics to release evil spirits trapped therein.
2) “You” are not your body.
The triumphs of neural monism (i.e., the understanding that brain creates mind) are wonderful. However, further scientific investigation informs us of a startling reality; namely, you are not your body. Your concept of who you are is not accurately captured by the idea that you are your body or your brain. The self you think of as you is not an entity in the way our brains are naturally wired to think. In fact, the you in you is not an entity at all.
So here we are with a paradox: your body creates you, but “you” are not your body. If this is vexing to you, it should be. For a very long time in human history, the self has been put into a blackbox and called soul. The simple designation of self as soul has done little to help us unpack the contents of the mysterious ultimate human identity. However, this is not to say that the notion of soul is empty. On the contrary, the concept of soul is like a zip file that we are still trying to unzip: it is so data rich, that we still aren’t sure what it means. It is no wonder, then, that the human mind has fallen into error and superstition in efforts to conceptualize the true meaning of human identity, or soul.
Why does soul matter?
The modern philosopher Thomas Moore has remarked the following:
I like to think that it was the theology of soul worked out so painstakingly and so concretely in Renaissance Italy that gave rise to the extraordinary art of that period…Care of the soul is an appreciation of the paradoxical mysteries that blend light and darkness into the grandeur of what human life and culture can be.
The act of entering into the mysteries of the soul, without sentimentality or pessimism, encourages life to blossom forth according to its own designs and with its own unpredictable beauty. (Care of the Soul)
By wrestling with the paradox of body and self and probing deeply into each of the tenets in this paradox, I believe we are in a position to discover a new, refined concept of humanity and soul. What opportunities might we encounter both personally and culturally as we redirect this ambitious aim to know ourselves?