DOES THE SOUL EXIST?
Watching Ted Kennedy’s funeral, and I realized that no matter what new scientific findings teach us, many people will still stubbornly cling onto the idea that there is an immaterial, immortal, indivisible and absolute soul in their body that can continue to exist even after their bodies cease into an afterlife.
Many people frown on Darwin’s idea of evolution and natural selection because it seems to be a bleak code and a ruthless explanation to the meaning of life. One of the reasons is that the process of natural selection seems to be brutal, forceful, destructive, blindly violent, and full of suffering. But I think the main reason why people are put off by natural selection is because it seems to disregard the supernatural support for explaining the purpose of their lives, their psychological states, and their well-being. In other words, people would rather not hear about the biological side of the explanation because it detracts from the idea of an absolute and immortal soul.
Our brain is a meaning-making system; it evolved through natural selection to ask questions and to have a problem-solving mechanism because this was something that was beneficial to the survival of our cave-dwelling ancestors. The cave people who survived to reproduce you and I were the ones who evolved to successfully answer questions like:
Where is the food?
how can I find the best possible partner to mate with (in order to have the fittest offspring)?
and how do I hide from predators?
But when these questions were fulfilled and answered, the mind, with its automatic problem-solving and sense-making mechanisms, began to attempt to solve bigger problems by asking deeper and more philosophical questions such as:
Where did we come from?
why are we here, who we are, and where do we go after we die?
Without modern tools and a sliver of scientific rationality, men in earlier eras did not have the means to answer these questions thoroughly.
This leads to irrational and supernatural explanations like filling in the gaps with crazy (although very creative) ideas and fabricated stories about an omnipotent God creating the world in 7 days, ghosts, spirits, constellations, goblins, and of course, the idea about an immaterial soul that makes up the human psyche.
This, I think, is the birth and the origin of religions, superstitions, ghost stories, spirits, and souls. These explanations and ideas give purpose and meaning to an otherwise meaningless, chaotic, and random universe and life.
The idea of a soul I think, is especially important to people. There are people I know who aren’t religious, but still believe in some sort of an immortal soul in order to justify the complexity of their emotions, their sense of well being, behaviors, how they are different from other people, and lastly, gives them hope that they will somehow exist after their bodies decompose and wither away.
If the word “soul” is used to describe human emotions, consciousness, memories, behaviors, thoughts, creativity, sense of self, and life in it of itself, then I do believe we have a soul.
But my version of the “soul” is a material and a mortal one. My version of the soul is made out of neurons. There are no immaterial, vitalistic, and supernatural processes in creating a “soul”, or an experience that we call consciousness. Rather, the sense of self and the feelings of being alive and knowing that you are alive and conscious is a process that arises from the normal functioning of the neurons in your brain.
Each individual neuron is a blind and lifeless robot that doesn’t care, feel, and know. They are just doing their jobs like tiny little ants in a massive ant colony. Ant colonies display the emergence of intelligence from unintelligent sub-units of lesser entities. Finding foods, feeding their queens, protecting and building their colonies are all intelligent “behaviors” expressed by the collective colony as a whole, with each individual ant doing specific tasks. Yet no such ants “knows” and “feels”, in a meaningful sense, what it is doing and why it is doing it.
By the same token, no individual neurons know where you are from, who had sex with, your name, or whether or not you are angry or happy right now. But with enough of these stupid and blind neurons – hundreds of thousands of them teaming and wiring together the right way, you have basically what we call a “soul”.
This system gives rise to the abilities to imagine, to think, to feel, to remember, to love and to create. Now you have the control system and the memories to hold a person responsible for his or her or each other’s actions, behaviors, and thoughts. This is the stunning fact that emerges from Darwin’s theory of evolution, that indeed, mindless, goal-less, purposeless, and unconscious substances and processes can, over time generate things that have goals, purposes, and consciousness.
Traditionally, it was thought that God implanted this soul inside our bodies and gave it purposes to fulfill. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
With scientific evidence and tangible proof, we can finally explain and realize the origin of a “soul”. The “soul” is a product of the neurons in the brain working together, and the neurons of the brains are merely cells that arise out of genetic and natural selection. A lot of people think that this way of explanation devaluates the amazement and wonder of life, and that it demystifies the excitement of mystery. But what could be more amazing and wondrous than the way life emerges out of dead things? Science show us that yes! It is possible that you can make the living out of the dead, the conscious out of the unconscious, and a soul out of substances that don’t have souls.
And this line of thinking – the scientific explanation and image, is in my opinion, far more creative, beautiful, amazing, and most importantly, plausible and sensible than anything dreamed up by writers of religious scriptures and any of the stories told in the Bible.
As biologist Richard Dawkins pointed out, we should all be more inspired and amazed by the fact that we are living creatures that are part of the creation and the exploration of the evolutionary process. And that this process is far more intriguing and inspiring than the myth that we are little clay dolls made by God with his hands and breath. The creationist story is so simple minded and cliché that it demeans and takes away the real creation process of life. Understanding evolution and Darwinism by looking at life through a scientific perspective does not undermine and strip away the meaning, purpose, and the poetry of life. The exact opposite is true.
If humans have “souls” that are made up of tiny little neurons in the brain, then isn’t it possible to imagine little bits of the brain being a little fraction of a soul? Isn’t it possible to imagine having difference sizes of souls?
I think this way of thinking about the soul is completely plausible and reasonable. There are souls of different sizes. I often think that animals have souls too, but souls that are different from the human soul. But I don’t think animals have souls that are different in the qualitative sense, I think that animals have souls that are different quantitatively.
In other words, animal souls and human souls are different in degrees, but not in kinds. The difference is the level of complexity of the brains and neurons. Humans have the biggest brains with the most complex neural wirings out of all the organisms on the planet. This gives us the biggest soul – a unique type of soul of self-consciousness. We are probably one of the few animals that not only has a soul and a consciousness, but we have the ability to contemplate and recognize our own, and other people’s souls and consciousness. Putting it in short, human beings are the only animals that can think about their own thoughts, and be conscious and their own consciousness.
I think the sizes of souls vary across species in accordance to the level of complexities of their brains and neural mechanisms. Like I said before, all animals have souls that are made out of the same “stuff”; it is the size of souls that are different. Deep down into the deep structure of things, all organisms are made out of the same substances. It’s the different levels of complexity and arrangements that matter and give rise to different souls. The neurons of a bat are made out of the same atoms, protons and electrons as the neurons in our brain. But It is arguably true that bats have smaller souls than a human, mosquitoes have smaller souls than a bear, a dog or a pig has a bigger soul than a lizard, a fully functioning human being with average intelligence has more of a soul than a man in a vegetative state, and that bacteria and viruses have zero or almost no soul.
I think what’s even more interesting is the sizes of souls that are inside our minds. Each of our minds houses other people’s souls. If I know of a person, it means that his or her souls are imprinted in my brain and mind. We all live inside of each other whether we like it or not. Each person that we encounter through out our lives leaves imprints and traces on our brains, and each of these imprints is a soul installed and stored inside our brains.
If you think about it, our brains are huge storage factories for souls of people we meet throughout our lifetime. This is a physical process. We all have neurons and neural connections in our brains that are dedicated to different people under different experiences and situations. Each time I think of my mom, a specific collection of brain circuits, or segments of neural pathways and connections fire to represent my mom and to give me thoughts, memories, or impressions of that person who I called “mom”. When I think of my dad, different sets of neurons and neural circuits and connections are formed and fired and activated which are associated with and are in accordance to the dad (although these neural connections do overlap and associate with each other). The more we associate with or think about a person, the more experiences and memories we have of him, the more neural connections are formed that are dedicated to representing that person.
That is why people who are closest to us have the bigger souls in our brains than others who we are not as close to. This is simply because more neurons are dedicated to the people we know better and are closer to, since we think of them more often and spend more time with them. If my wife is the closest person to me, her soul is going to be huge, and it is going over-shadow everyone else’s souls in my brain. Souls in my brains can grow or shrink, in accordance to how much time and experiences we share with each individual soul. Each time I think of my wife and each experience I have with her creates stronger neural connections and brain circuitry. This will result in more neurons that need to be fired to represent my wife in my brain. In other words, the more time and experience I have with my wife, the more I think of her, the larger her soul becomes because more space in my brain is dedicated to representing the idea of her.
If however, if I meet somebody else and divorce my wife or if my wife dies, then over time, her soul in my brain will most likely shrink because the brain circuits that represent her will ultimately loosen, weaken, and wither away and eventually be replaced when I stop thinking about her as much. People’s souls grow and shrink, come in and out of our brains all the time. Think of how important, and how big the souls your first love or some of your ex-girlfriends or boyfriends were, and how over time, as you get over them, how much smaller their souls have become.
Aristotle stated that you can never really have more than one or two real friends at once. I couldn’t agree more. Your brain only has so much capacity and space and so many neurons to dedicate and represent; it’s a give and take game.
You can dedicate all your neurons and brain spaces to one particular person all you want, but that will only leave less room for other people and things in your life. This is probably something that we’ve all experienced from time to time. Having a girlfriend that you are obsessively in love with leaves you no room and time for others because the neurons in your brain are simply too busy representing her over everything else. Her soul is simply too large that it compromises and overshadows everything else in your mind and brain.
After our favorite person dies, he or she can continue to live on long after. This is why I didn’t hesitate to use the word “soul” in this note. Like the immortal and immaterial soul, my scientific, mortal, and material based soul can continue to exist after death – in other people’s brains as clusters of neural connections. If part of our very existence is how we are neurally represented in other people’s brains, then I do believe we can outlive our mortality.
The human soul itself is a product of both cultural and genetic evolution. The human soul is the most complex and intricate soul on the entire planet. This is why we are responsible for the well being of our planet and its future. It is said that the earth has developed a nervous system. The human population is its nervous system, and that each individual person is analogous to each individual neuron that comprises something larger and more conscious and complex. If the planet is endangered by meteors or asteroids, it is now possible that the planet can take actions against it. We, like no other species, can prevent such catastrophic events from happening.