Tuesday 19 October 2010

The immortality of souls - consoling or terrifying?


Over recent centuries in the West, there has probably been no change more profound than the loss of belief in souls, including the loss of the assumption that souls were eternal.

In the past this was taken for granted.

Indeed, it seems that a belief in the soul is universal, spontaneous, and rational.


There was disagreement about what became of souls (whether they were recycled, became ghosts, went to another place, became godlike...); but there was no doubt to our ancestors (and indeed probably most people in the world today) that souls were real and survived beyond death.


It is remarkable that this universal assumption has - somehow - become so ridiculous as now to be literally incredible among mainstream intellectuals.

(That was certainly how I saw things for most of my adult life.)

Why such a seismic change? After all, there was no discovery of the non-existence of the soul, no discovery that soul was an incoherent concept - there was merely a reversal of assumption.

And since the soul is disbelieved, modern secular people do not not worry about what happens after their death - they see death as merely going to sleep then not waking-up.


In the past, people would worry about what would happen after they died - because it seemed to them that their souls would be around for a lot longer than their bodies. Indeed, it was usual to be terrified about what might happen to the soul after death - that its fate might be horrible.

Belief in the soul was certainly not a consoling one; or not usually.

But secular moderns, disbelieving in the soul, assume that a belief in the soul is a species of wishful thinking - that people believe in the soul merely because they cannot face the reality of extinction after death.

Moderns regard those who believe in the soul as weak, or feeble minded, or deviously manipulative; to be pitied or despised but not to be admired or emulated.


But someone could only imagine that a belief in the soul - in 'life after death' was intrinsically a consoling fiction if one didn't really believe it.

The soul can only be a consoling concept if it is fictional and evanescent - to regard souls as factual and permanent is to be faced with a major consideration which would tend to dominate life.

So, on the one hand, when someone really believes in the survival of the soul and is capable of reasoning and imagination, then this is worrying; and to believe in the immortality of the soul is nothing less than a terrifying prospect.


Perhaps it is, therefore, more rational to reverse the modern secular assumption and to regard disbelief in the soul as the soothing, consoling fiction, the belief of those who cannot face the terrifying prospect of an uncertain state of immortality.

Also, modern secular intellectuals may need to acknowledge that they are deluded in their subjective disbelief in soul.

They (and I was one of them until recently) really sincerely disbelieve, and this disbelief seems intractable -  yet rationally they must recognize that their subjective conviction is (at least highly probably) wrong, and souls are real.

Secular intellectuals therefore need, at least, a course in self-cognitive therapy. Sometimes this can shake a delusion. At root, this is a training in habit.

But even if by their best efforts they cannot shake the delusional disbelief, they still need rationally to acknowledge its delusional status.

Maybe it will help if they recognize that belief in soul in not consoling, but profoundly worrying - maybe belief in soul will then seem less pitiful and more heroic? 

However they cross the delusional divide - we need to see that the collective spontaneous wisdom of mankind has been that souls are real and survive death, and are probably immortal - and this is a starting point - a given - for understanding the world and our place in it.


The reason why acknowledging the reality and probable immortality of the soul is a necessary first step for understanding human existence is that otherwise human society, its institutions and civilization (art, science, philosophy etc.) will be valued more highly than the individual - because they outlast the individual (as well as being stronger than the individual).

Indeed, we came come to value the environment or the planet more than humans or human society, since the earth will outlast humanity.

Whereas, in reality individual souls will outlast all forms of human society; will outlast the planet, will survive even the death of the universe.

This dizzying recognition was normal for thoughtful humans in the past, but has now been lost from mainstream discourse.

Indeed it is likely that a typical modern intellectual (to whom the soul is a childish superstition) would go through life without ever encountering this basic underlying perspective; a perspective once all-but universal, and a reality that ought to underpin our understanding of the human condition.



Jonathan said...

You have an amazing talent for making me reconsider reality.

Why is it that the last 30 compelling ideas you've posted are utterly unlike anything I've ever encountered from organized religion? I was raised Catholic, but they never talked about anything like this. Do organized religions have a rule that they must hide everything good or thought-provoking they have to offer from the hoi polloi? More likely, I'll bet even the priests are oblivious to the ideas you've been setting forth lately.

What I mean to say is, organized religions are just terrible at making their case. But I suppose nothing brilliant ever came from a committee.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks - but all 'my' good ideas are stolen; usually without acknowledgement. This one comes from C.S. Lewis!

xlbrl said...

I believe you are spot on--the atheist is obsessed with the futility of preparing his life and the lives of others for perfection. The idea that his soul will be passed on to eternity is unnerving.

Chesterton had this insight--you do not have a soul, you are a soul.

Who could not understand that? Only people who are determined not to. Some things must be first believed to be seen.

Jonathan said...

"Stealing" ideas is an important service--all the brilliant ideas in history would be useless needles in a haystack without people to compile and propagate them.

ab said...

"After all, there was no discovery of the non-existence of the soul, no discovery that soul was an incoherent concept"

The typical belief is that the brain accounts for the mind and soul, and this was a (supposed) discovery.

In particular, it is the brain's functioning a specific way that has accounted for some mental aspects, and so people believe these discoveries will continue to account until all is accounted for.

Since the brain stops functioning the same way upon death (so the argument goes), and the soul is just a part of brain functioning in that way, the soul no longer exists upon death.

Bruce Charlton said...

ab - Thanks.

That is a reasonable summary of the line of reasoning; and of course it shows that the line of reasoning is historically ignorant and orthogonal to the question - it is an argument by analogy. First misunderstand the soul, by a false analogy, then explain it away...

Having said all that - I certainly used to believe it!

a Finn said...

I was an atheist before. I have never hallucinated, I am not prone to odd experiences, I have never lost my reason. Two times in very high fever reality became to some extent distorted, but the goals of reason stayed steady. My energy states sometimes vary, but the greatest effect of these is approximately the same as if people would drink plenty of coffee.

In conversations with Christians I demanded (scientific) evidence from them. One day, in a clear state of mind and out of the blue, I received evidence, but it was not scientific. I tried to explain it away by analyzing carefully all possible causal factors (sleep, food, environment, changes in something, actions, something missing, something added, something replaced, emotions, rationality, interaction between some factors, motivations, general state of the brains or body, etc.) I tried to reproduce the experiences and short messages in various ways. I read scientific literature about religous experiences, both connected to healthy brains and various dysfunctions in brains, and I had to say to myself: "Oh, please, (+ nasty sentence). Also, the experiences didn't seem to produce afterwards anything else than the new awareness. Later I have had some similar experiences.

Now I know God exists. Now I am saying to people "God exist", and atheists revile and despise me, and demand scientific evidence from me, and pelt me with evolutionary stories I already know. I don't know the whole meaning of this, but I have to say to people, among other things, that "God exist". I am an imperfect person and not the best person to this task, but I console myself with the fact that Moses was a stutterer, so I can do my much smaller and less significant part. Clearly, I am not the only one doing this.


It is often forgotten by or even unknown to atheists (except perhaps in America), that Christians have a large presence in our societies. Our public space information is misleading about this, and "advertizing" Christianity is not the highest priority of Christians.

Here is one example:

Professor Sakari Orava, who, it is said, is the best sports injury surgeon in the world, and who knows the information medicine offers, is a devout Christian and deeply religious: