It’s perfectly natural to think of ourselves as something separate from our bodies. I’d bet that a major factor in the starting of religions thousands of years ago was the uncanny sense that we each have a “self” floating somewhere behind our eyes. Surely our vast range of emotions, mental capacity to contemplate the universe, empathy and communication with other people, and the whole of our personalities are evidence of a special spark of the supernatural inside each of us that goes beyond what is possible in the mere physical world.
Yet, even before I gave up my belief in Christianity, I concluded that the whole concept of the soul was totally superfluous.
A number of things that I learned in my college classes regarding philosophy and psychology caused me to question the existence of immortal and immaterial souls. It was in a class on psychology at my Nazarene University that I was first exposed to the concept that some people think that the mind is identical to the brain, with no soul needed. Being that this was a Christian university, the idea was quickly glossed over and was apparently only mentioned for completeness, but the idea stuck with me. It shocked me.
The same semester, in an introductory philosophy class, we discussed Descartes and the ways he tried to figure out how an immaterial soul could influence a physical body. Descartes thought that the soul interacted with the body though the penial gland. Everyone in the class thought this was funny, but the question was interesting. And it got me thinking: How would an immaterial soul interact with an influence human flesh? Did it even make sense at all?
Back in Psychology, the professor had the class watch a video recreation of the story of Phineas Gage. This particular event sticks out in my memory, not least because one of the students in the class fainted when the metal bar shot though Gage’s head up through his cheek and out the top of his head. (The prof warned us this could happen, and had happened before. I heard this was the last time he showed the video in class.) The most amazing thing about the Phineas Gage story is not that he survived, and was conscious and coherent even in the minutes right after the rod blew through his brain. It was the way this injury totally and irrevocably changed his personality and his character (though I have also read since that the changes were not fully documented and may have been exaggerated). If both his personality and character changed due to a physical injury, that must mean those things are contained in the brain and not in an immaterial soul.
And it’s not just Phineas Gage, but look at all the people who take drugs that affect mood, personality, and a range of other mental characteristics. What about people who lose their memories due to a blow to the head? Assuming there were an immortal soul, does that mean that when we die we lose all of our memory since memory is stored in the brain and dies along with our body? If an immortal soul lives on, but without our memories or personality, then what would that even mean? Would that thing that survived my death even be me at all?
What about animals? It’s clear that our mammalian relatives have emotions and personality. Chimps, for example, have been observed to show compassion and empathy towards one another and even at times towards members of other species — impulses once thought to be the domain of humankind alone. Yet I still hear from time to time that the thing that separates humans from animals is that we have souls, and they do not. What sense does it make to try to prove our uniqueness by claiming that they don’t have something that we cannot even clearly define or prove we have ourselves?
I mentioned above that I stopped believing in immaterial souls while I still was a Christian, which may be puzzling to some of my readers. But the thing is, Christianity has never had a hard-line, consistent, explanation of what is supposed to happen to our soul after we die. Some Christians believe that the soul goes directly to heaven or hell after death. But others believe that after you die, you “sleep” until the resurrection at the end of time. So when I no longer believed in the soul, the second option made the most sense to me. However, I eventually gave up all those beliefs using the same type of reasoning that lead me to doubt the soul.I think that the concept of the soul is a wonderful metaphor for who we are inside, even if I don’t believe such a thing literally exists. We can use the concept of the soul just like astronomers use constellations, even though the stars that make up these shapes really have nothing to do with each other. There is not really a lion in the night sky, or a hunter, or a bull. Constellations are intuitive and useful, even if not actually real. Such it is with the soul.
My disbelief in the soul did not directly lead me to atheism, but it was a step in that direction. The same method of thinking that lead me to conclude that the soul is superfluous and probably made up was the same type of thinking that lead me to conclude the same about God.