Souls: immortal or just eternal?


What is the distinction between an eternal and an immortal soul? One answer seems to be that east of the Oder-Niesse line, they're still immortal. Western Christians will settle for eternity. This all matters because the soul is coming back into science: a statement which is a lot less mystical than it can sound. The dominant intellectual current in the scientific world at the moment is one of confidence that there are enough grand principles and cute technologies around to explain anything, including consciousness and the soul. A lot of this current is aggressively atheistic. Nick Humphrey, the author of one of the earliest current theories of how consciousness might have evolved, has argued that the state should prevent parents from teaching their children religious beliefs that he finds abhorrent, and written a book dismissing Jesus as a sort of conjuror. Against this, religions of all sorts have two strategies. One is to hope that science will never explain the soul. The other is to get there first, and defend their territories on whatever will be found.

The omens for the first plan do not look good. It concedes, for one thing, the idea that religion is there to explain the things that science can't, which leaves a remarkably passive and insecure position from which to await developments. The assumption will rapidly grow that scientific knowledge is the only sort that is reliable, and the only sort capable of growth. In fact that is pretty much what has already happened in popular culture - except that large swamps of bottomless credulity have also appeared there, in which strange monsters roam, devouring science and religion with equal voracity.

The idea that the soul is a kind of necessary cognitive illusion, a trick of perception like the illusions that allow us - or compel us - to see a succession of still pictures as a river of seamless movement across a screen might seem like the ultimate triumph of science against this first strategy. It dates back at least to Freud, who saw religion as rooted in the natural inadequacies of human perception, so that we mistake our parents for cosmic principles. However much of the rest of his theories have been discarded, this has stayed alive in the popular imagination. But actually it is much older than that; and in this fact lies at least one route for religion to occupy the high ground before the troops of science get there. The idea that our pictures of God get in the way of reality is not just scientific. It is central to any developed religion. In fact it might serve as the test to distinguish "higher" from "lower" religions.

Even the idea that our pictures of God obscure the fact that there is no reality behind them is hardly original to Freud: it seems to be the central insight of Buddhism. Either way, this means that some very smart people have been thinking about these problems for several millennia before the scientists started; and they have been doing so using the most important equipment that anyone can have in investigating these questions: their own minds and experiences. This claim that our own experiences are irreducible and cannot be explained away in terms of lower-level happenings is the central plank of any defence that religion (and philosophy) can hope to mount against the barbarians at their gates.

I think it's defensible. The scientific study of consciousness is hard to conduct except on the basis that consciousness matters: that our experiences of the world are not just byproducts of the workings of our brain, but in many respects the point of these workings, and the only way to understand them. In other words, I don't think you can try to fit the soul into a scientific world view without conceding that you are trying to fit in something more than an optical illusion. The concept of a soul or spirit - which is at least as widespread as an incest taboo - represents at the very least the autonomy and unpredictability of other human beings; and these qualities are real. They cannot be reduced to the chemical and electrical reactions from which they arise, even if they cannot survive without it.

There is, however, a price to be paid for defining the soul as an emergent property. A soul like that can die. In fact, it cannot be immortal, since the things and processes from which it emerges are not immortal either. This brings us back to the Oder-Niesse line. On this side of the line, the subtle theologians have determined that an eternal soul will do instead an immortal one. It can return to God in timelessness, when all its time-bound constituents fail. Whether such a soul will be much use in battles fought on earth is quite another matter.

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