Thursday, August 19, 2010

Narcissism and the Human Soul



Full disclosure. I like the soul. I like the poetry of an incorporeal, invisible, immortal essence that lies within each of us. I like the thought of being special. In the story of my conversion, from Christian to Atheist, the soul was the last chapter. Or as I like to call it: “The Last Delusion”. It is such an attractive thought that I cannot completely rule it out. Even now. Not because of any evidence other than experiential. When I hear of any discovery about the presence of a soul (or the weight of a soul) I find myself hoping. Inevitably, reason wins out and I must remind myself that evidence is the ultimate authority.

In many cultures, the soul is synonymous with the self. It is the essence of the individual. To avoid the urge to plagiarize. I'll let the good people at Britannica give us the multicultural synopsis:

"Immaterial aspect or essence of a person, conjoined with the body during life and separable at death. The concept of a soul is found in nearly all cultures and religions, though the interpretations of its nature vary considerably. The ancient Egyptians conceived of a dual soul, one surviving death but remaining near the body, while the other proceeded to the realm of the dead. The early Hebrews did not consider the soul as distinct from the body, but later Jewish writers perceived the two as separate. Christian theology adopted the Greek concept of an immortal soul, adding the notion that God created the soul and infused it into the body at conception. In Islam the soul is believed to come into existence at the same time as the body but is everlasting and subject to eternal bliss or torment after the death of the body. In Hinduism each soul, or Atman, was created at the beginning of time and imprisoned in an earthly body; at death the soul is said to pass to a new body according to the laws of karma. Buddhism negates the idea of a soul, asserting that any sense of an individual self is illusory."

To keep this post under 100 pages, I’ll refer only to the Judeo-Christian concept of the soul.
Theists will typically tell you that your personality is a reflection of your soul. The real you is spirit. This does not account for the drastic personality change that can accompany a brain injury. If a quiet and pleasant man suddenly becomes loud, angry and irritable (after a shot to the hippo campus), which soul does he get in the afterlife? Who is he really?

We rarely consider the soul without describing The Mind. Most of us imagine a god that thinks like us and has the same motivations. Many look to consciousness as another proof of God. I say consciousness is what the brain thinks about what it is thinking. It is not difficult to see this from an evolutionary perspective. In order to maintain multiple abstract concepts in mind at once. An organism would need to be able to distinguish and organize those concepts. Self-awareness is just the knowledge that those little shoves behind your eyes are thoughts.

Heaven
The body is not a suitable vessel for the afterlife. Who wants to inhabit their own imperfect shell for eternity when they can have an intangible essence? One could argue that it wouldn't be Heaven if I still have a bad back, or arthritic fingers. Early conceptions of Heaven made it a much more physical place. This would necessitate at physical body in order to interact with the environment. Heaven was a literal paradise with mountains and streams. Its no surprise that as the science of matter and physics became undeniable, our conceptions of heaven evolved in step. Heaven became a feeling, rather than a place. Dante alluded to it as being in the presence of God's love (or Hell as the absence of God).

Hell
In survey after survey people just don't believe that they are going to Hell. There are varying degrees of the belief that the individual can accurately judge others who will be burned and rent asunder for all days. But very few believe that they are going to Hell. Ironically, there appears to be some comfort in the idea of others going to Hell. (I wont bother to post a link on this -- just google "hell" and you'll see thousands of "other people" who are destined for the Inferno. Conceptions on the physicality of the soul differ here as well. Eternal torment of a non-physical type does not carry the sting to being boiled in hot blood or hung on meat racks. The soul needs to be able to feel actual pain in order for the concept of hell to work as a social control construct.

The human soul represents man at his most vulnerable while also catching him at his most narcissistic. The firmly held belief is that I am so special and individual in this immense spinning cosmos that there is an immortal life force attached to my body (without, or even in spite of a shred of evidence) that will live on in paradise or hell when my neurons stop firing.

This is the claim that more than half of the world subscribe to. Could all of these people be wrong? Well, yes. Yes they are.
Death is frightening. Oblivion is downright terrifying. Anything. Anything at all is better than oblivion. Even Hell is better than oblivion. Hell means the universe is just and that bad things will (eventually) happen to bad people. A spinning rock hurtling through a violent, and indifferent cosmos...well that chills us to the core. Or, whatever.

Our fear of death is the fear of the unknown. Enter the soul. If everything that makes up you is immortal then the flesh is just a shell. Death cannot mean the non-existence of self if the self cannot die. These sentiments appear to intensify in the face of death. Terror Management Theory describes the existential anxiety that accompanies knowing that we will someday die. The individual, when faced with the finite existence will develop/embrace a belief in a transcendent state (Goldenberg et. al.). We immerse ourselves in a culture that reinforces this worldview, and cling white knuckled to this belief system when we feel threatened. The belief in the immortal soul is an extension of this fear.
I know, this is an ancient argument for the evolution of religion as a vehicle to make order out of chaos. There is a particular narcissism to the soul however, that should be acknowledged.
I cannot avoid the reality that my body is fragile. No matter what illusions I convince myself or others, Death is sharpening his scythe for me too. The belief that the individual has such intrinsic value that each of us carries a piece of god within us...sounds ridiculous when looked at through the glasses of reason.

To the vast majority, it confirms what we already suspected. The entire universe was made, just for us.

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2 comments:

Ron Brown said...

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