Soul

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This page is about the core essence of a being. For the music genre, see soul music; for the chief city of South Korea see Seoul.

The soul, in several philosophical movements and many religious traditions, is the core essence of a being. In some traditions it is considered immortal; in others it is considered to be mortal. In most religions, and some philosophical movements, a soul is strongly connected with notions of the afterlife, but opinions vary wildly even within a given religion as to what happens to the soul after death. Many within these religions and philosophies believe the soul is immaterial, while others feel it may indeed be material.

Philosophical views

The Ancient Greek word for 'alive' is the same as 'ensouled'. So the earliest philosophical view might be taken to be that the soul is what makes living things alive.

Socrates and Plato

Plato, probably quoting Socrates, considers the soul to be the essence of a person that reasons, decides and acts. He considered this essence to be an incorporeal occupant of the body with its own separate, and immortal, existence.

Aristotle

Aristotle, following Plato, defined the soul as the core essence of a being, but argued against it having a separate existence. For instance, if a knife had a soul, the act of cutting would be that soul, because 'cutting' is the essence of what it is to be a knife. Unlike Plato and the religious traditions, he did not consider the soul to be some kind of separate, ghostly occupant of the body (just as the activity of cutting cannot be separated from the knife). As the soul, in Aristotle's view, is an activity of the body it cannot be immortal (when a knife is destroyed, the cutting stops). To be more exact, the soul is the "first activity" of a living body. This is a state, or a potential for actual, or 'second', activity. "The axe has an edge for cutting" was, for him, analogous to "humans have bodies for rational activity," and the potential for rational activity thus constituted the essence of a human soul. Aristotle used his concept of the soul in many of his works, the Nicomachean Ethics is a good place to start to gain more understanding of his views.

Aristotle's view appears to have some similarity to the Buddhist 'no soul' view (see below). For both there is certainly no 'separable immortal essence'. It may simply be a matter of definition, as most Buddhists would agree, surely, that a knife can be used for cutting. They might, perhaps, stress the impermanence of the knife's cutting ability, and Aristotle would probably agree with that.

Religious views

Buddhist beliefs

According to Buddhist teaching, all things are impermanent, in a constant state of flux, all is transient, and there is no abiding state. This applies to humanity as much as anything else in the cosmos; thus, there is no unchanging and abiding self. Our sense of "I" or "me" is simply a sense belonging to the ever-changing entity that is us, our body, and mind. This in essence is the Buddhist principle of anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: anātman).

Buddhists hold that the delusion of a permanent, abiding self is one of the main root causes for human conflict on the emotional, social, political level, that understanding of anatta or not-self provides an accurate description of the human condition, and that this understanding allows "us" to go beyond "our" mundane desires. The ineffable state of nirvana is solely recognized as being distinct. Buddhists can speak in conventional terms of the soul or self as a matter of convenience, but only under the conviction that ultimately "we" are changing entities. At death, the body and mind disintegrate; if the disintegrating mind contains any remaining traces of karma, it will cause the continuity of the consciousness to bounce back an arising mind to an awaiting being, that is, a fetus developing the ability to harbor consciousness. Thus, in Buddhist teaching, a being that is born is neither entirely different nor exactly the same as it was prior to rebirth.

However, scholars such as Shirō Matsumoto have argued that a curious development occurred in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, stemming from the Cittamatra and Vijnanavada schools in India: although the permanent personal selfhood is denied, concepts such as Buddha-nature, Tathagatagarbha, Rigpa, or "original nature" are affirmed. Matsumoto argues that these concepts constitute a non- or trans-personal self, and are almost equal in meaning to the Hindu concept of Atman, although they differ in that Buddha-nature does not incarnate. One should note the polarity in Tibetan Buddhism between shes-pa (the principle of consciousness) and rig-pa (pure consciousness equal to Buddha-nature). Even more controversial is the concept of tulku, a person who has, due to heroic austerieties and esoteric training, achieved the goal of transferring personal identity from one rebirth to the next (for instance, the Dalai Lama is considered to be a tulku). The mechanics behind this are described as follows: although Buddha-nature does not incarnate, the individual self is composed of skandhas or components that are reborn. For an ordinary person, skandhas cohere in a way that will be dissolved upon the person's death. So, elements of personality, transformed, are reborn, but they lose the unity that constitutes personal selfhood for a specific person. In the case of tulkus, however, it is supposed that they achieve a "crystallization" of skandhas in such a manner that the skandhas do not "disentangle" upon the tulku's death; rather, a voluntary reincarnation occurs. In this new birth, the tulku possesses a continuity of personal identity that is rooted in the fact that the consciousness or shes-pa (which is equivalent to a type of skandha called vijnana) has not dissolved after death, but is durable enough to survive in repeated births. The compatiblility of these concepts with Buddhist orthodoxy is matter of dispute.

Many modern Buddhists, particularly in Western countries, reject the concept of rebirth or reincarnation as being incompatible with the concept of anatta. They take the view that if there is no abiding self and no soul then there is nothing to be reborn. This is notably discussed by Stephen Batchelor in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs.

Christian beliefs

Most Christians believe the soul to be the immortal essence of a human, and that after death, the soul is either rewarded or punished. Whether this reward or punishment is contingent upon doing good deeds, or merely upon believing in God and Jesus, is a heated dispute among different Christian groups.


Many Christian scholars hold as Aristotle did that "to attain any assured knowledge of the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world." Augustine, considered one of the most influential early Christian thinkers, wrote that the soul is "a special substance, endowed with reason, adapted to rule the body." Philosopher Anthony Quinton said the soul is a "series of mental states connected by continuity of character and memory, [and] is the essential constituent of personality. The soul, therefore, is not only logically distinct from any particular human body with which it is associated; it is also what a person is." Richard Swinburne, Christian philosopher of religion at Oxford University, wrote that, "it is a frequent criticism of substance dualism that dualists cannot say what souls are.... Souls are immaterial subjects of mental properties. They have sensations and thoughts, desires and beliefs and perform intentional actions. Souls are essential parts of human beings...."

A sometimes vexing question in Christianity has been the origin of the soul; the major theories put forward are creationism, traducianism and pre-existence.

Other Christian beliefs differ:

  • A few Christian groups do not believe in the soul, and hold that people cease to exist, both mind and body, at death; they claim however that God will recreate the minds and bodies of believers in Jesus Christ at some future time, the "end of the world."
  • Another minority of Christians believe in the soul, but don't believe it is inherently immortal. This minority also believes the life of Christ brings immortality, but only to believers.
  • Medieval Christian thinkers often assigned to the soul attributes such as thought and imagination as well as faith and love: this suggests that the boundaries between "soul" and "mind" can vary in different interpretations.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses believe that men's soul is themselves, and every soul will die. (Gen.2:7; Ezek.18:4,NWT)
  • The soul sleep theory states that the soul goes to "sleep" at the time of death, and stays in this quiescent state until the last judgment.
  • The "absent from the body, present with the Lord" theory states that the soul at the point of death, immediately is present at the end of time, without experiencing any time passing between.
  • The "purgatory" theory states the soul, if imperfect, spends a period of time purging or cleansing before being ready for the end of time.

Christian Gnosticism: Valentinus

In early centuries of Christianity, gnostic Christian Valentinus proposed a version of spiritual psychology that was in accordance with numerous other ��perennial wisdom�� doctines. He conceived human being as a triple entity, consisting of body (soma, hyle), soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma). This is identical to the division one finds in St. Peter�s Epostle to Thessalonians I, but enriched: Valentinus considered that all humans possess semi-dormant "spiritual seed" (sperme pneumatike) which, in spiritually developed Christians, can be united with spirit, equated with Angel Christ. It is evident that his spiritual seed is identical to shes-pa in Tibetan Buddhism, jiva in Vedanta, ruh in Hermetic Sufism or soul-spark in other traditions, and Angel Christ to Higher Self in modern transpersonal psychologies, Atman in Vedanta or Buddha nature in Mahayana Buddhism. In Valentinus� opinion, spiritual seed, the ray from Angel Christ, returns to its source. This is true ressurection (as Valentinus himself wrote in "The Gospel of Truth": "People who say they will first die and then arise are mistaken. If they do not receive resurrection while they are alive, once they have died they will receive nothing."). In Valentinus� vision of life, our bodies go to dust, soul-sparks or spiritual seeds unite (in realised Gnostics) with their Higher Selves/Angel Christ and soul proper, carrier of psychological functions and personalities (emotions, memory, rational faculties, imagination,..) will survive- but will not go to Pleroma or Fullness (the source of all where resurrected seeds that have realised their beings as Angels Christ return to). The souls stay in "the places that are in the middle", the worlds of Psyche. In time, after numerous purifications, the souls receive "spiritual flesh", ie. resurrection body. This division is rather puzzling, but not dissimilar to Kabbalah, where neshamah goes to the source and ruach is, undestructed and indestructible, but unredeemed, relegated to a lower world. Similarly, according to Valentinus, complete resurrection is accomplished only after the end of Time (in Christian worldview), when transfigured souls who have acquired spiritual flesh are finally united to the perfect, individual Angel Christ, residing in the Pleroma. This is, according to Valentinus, final salvation.

Many non-denominational Christians, and indeed many that oestensibly subscribe to denominations having clear-cut dogma on the concept of soul, take an "a la carte" approach to the belief, that is, they judge each issue on what they see as its merits and juxtapose different beliefs from different branches of Christianity, other religions, and their understanding of science.

See also Christian eschatology.

Hindu beliefs

In Hinduism, the Sanskrit word most closely corresponding to soul is "Atman", which can mean soul or even God. It is seen as the portion of Brahman within us. Hinduism contains many variant beliefs on the origin, purpose, and fate of the soul. For example, advaita or non-dualistic conception of the soul accords it union with Brahman, the absolute uncreated (roughly, the Godhead), in eventuality or in pre-existing fact. Dvaita or dualistic concepts reject this, instead identifying the soul as a different and incompatible substance.

Islamic beliefs

According to the Qur'an of Islam (15:29), the creation of man involves God "breathing" a soul into him. This intangible part of an individual's existence is "pure" at birth and has the potential of growing and achieving nearness to God if the person leads a righteous life. At death the person's soul transitions to an eternal afterlife of bliss, peace and unending spiritual growth (Qur�an 66:8) . This transition can be pleasant (Heaven) or unpleasant (Hell) depending on the degree to which a person has developed or destroyed his or her soul during life (Qur�an 91:7-10).

In Sufism, Islamic mysticism, elaborate doctines on the soul have been developed, as explained in chapters on Sufi psychology.

Jainist beliefs

Jainists believe in a jiva, an immortal essence of a living being analogous to a soul, subject to the illusion of maya and evolving through many incarnations from mineral to vegetable to animal, its accumulated karma determining the form of its next birth.

Jewish beliefs

Jewish views of the soul begin with the book of Genesis, in which verse 2:7 states, "the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being." (New JPS)

The Hebrew Bible offers no systematic definition of a soul; various descriptions of the soul exist in classical rabbinic literature.

Saadia Gaon, in his Emunoth ve-Deoth 6:3, explained classical rabbinic teaching about the soul through the lens of neo-Aristotelian philosophy. He held that the soul is that part of a person's mind which constitutes physical desire, emotion, and thought.

Maimonides, in his The Guide to the Perplexed, explained classical rabbinic teaching about the soul through the lens of neo-Aristotelian philosophy, and held that the soul is a person's developed intellect, which has no substance.

Within Kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) the soul was seen as having three elements. The Zohar, a classic work of Jewish mysticism, posits that the human soul has three elements, the nefesh, ru'ah, and neshamah. A common way of explaining these three parts is as follows:

  • Nefesh - the lower or animal part of the soul. It is linked to instincts and bodily cravings. It is found in all humans, and enters the physical body at birth. It is the source of one's physical and psychological nature.

The next two parts of the soul are not implanted at birth, but are slowly created over time; their development depends on the actions and beliefs of the individual. They are said to only fully exist in people awakened spiritually:

  • Ruach - the middle soul, or spirit. It contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. In modern parlance, it is equivalent to psyche or ego-personality.
  • Neshamah - the higher soul, Higher Self or super-soul. This is what separates man from all other life forms. It is related to the intellect, and allows man to enjoy and benefit from the afterlife. This part of the soul is provided both to Jew and non-Jew alike at birth. It allows one to have some awareness of the existence and presence of God. In "Zohar", after death Nefesh disintegrates, Ruach is sent to a sort of intermediate zone where it is submitted to purification and enters in "temporary paradise", while Neshamah returns to the source, the world of Platonic ideas, where it enjoys "the kiss of the beloved". Supposedly after resurrection, Ruach and Neshamah, soul and spirit are united again in a permanently transmuted state of being.

The Raaya Meheimna, a Kabbalistic tractate always published with the Zohar, posits that there are two more parts of the human soul, the chayyah and yehidah. Gersom Scholem wrote that these "were considered to represent the sublimest levels of intuitive cognition, and to be within the grasp of only a few chosen individuals":

  • Chayyah - The part of the soul that allows one to have an awareness of the divine life force itself.
  • Yehidad - the highest plane of the soul, in which one can achieve as full a union with God as is possible.

Extra soul states

Both Rabbinic and kabbalistic works posit that there are also a few additional, non-permanent states to the soul that people can develop on certain occasions. These extra souls, or extra states of the soul, play no part in any afterlife scheme, but are mentioned for completeness.

  • Ruach HaKodesh - a state of the soul that makes prophecy possible. Since the age of classical prophecy passed, no one receives the soul of prophesy any longer.
  • Neshamah Yeseira - The supplemental soul that a Jew experiences on Shabbat. It makes possible an enhanced spiritual enjoyment of the day. This exists only when one is observing Shabbat; it can be lost and gained depending on one's observance.
  • Neshoma Kedosha - Provided to Jews at the age of majority (13 for boys, 12 for girls), and is related to the study and fulfillment of the Torah commandments. It exists only when one studies and follows Torah; it can be lost and gained depending on one's study and observance.

For more detail on Jewish beliefs about the soul see Jewish eschatology.

Other religious beliefs and views

In Egyptian Mythology, a person possessed six souls, three of the body and three of the mind. They were called Chet, Ren, Schut, Ka, Ba and Ach.

Some transhumanists believe that it will become possible to perform mind transfer, either from one human body to another, or from a human body to a computer. Operations of this type (along with teleportation), raise philosophical questions related to the concept of the Soul.

Crisscrossing specific religions, the phenomena of therianthropy and belief in the existence of otherkin have also been observed. These can perhaps better be described as phenomena rather than beliefs, since people of varying religion, ethnicity, or nationality may believe in them. Therianthropy is the belief that a person or his soul has a spiritual, emotional, or mental connection with an animal. Such a belief manifests in many forms, and the reasons for it are often explained in terms of the person's religious beliefs. A similar belief is that held by otherkin, who generally believe their souls are entirely non-human, and usually not of this world.

Another fairly large segment of the population, not necessarily favoring organized religion, simply label themselves as spiritual and hold that both humans and all other living creatures have souls. Some further believe the entire universe has a cosmic soul as a spirit or unified consciousness. Such a conception of the soul may be linked with the idea of an existence before and after the present one, and could be considered as the spark, or the self, the "I" in existence that feels and lives life.

Some believe souls in some way "echo" to the edges of this universe, or even to multiple universes with compiled multiple possibilities, each presented with a slightly different energy version of itself. Such ideas have been explored for example by science fiction author Robert Heinlein.


Science and the soul

The concept of soul and the idea of a soul entity are not recognized in mainstream science or medicine. Popular presentation of the dominant scientific view of the soul uses the "computer paradigm", where the brain is compared to the hardware and the mind (mental processes that have been long subsumed under the concept of soul) to the software. When the brain/hardware is gone, there is no place left for functioning mind/software. Others, like famous French neurologist Jean Pierre Changeaux deny the appropriateness of the computer paradigm and propose an analogy with the anharmonic oscillator from physics. Needless to say, both notions have dismissed the concept of soul as a self-sustaining entity. Some have tried to measure the soul, for example by attempting to measure the weight of a person just before and just after death in hopes of determining the weight of a soul. The results of these experiments were equivocal, especially due to conflicting reports on the findings, and are not viewed as good science. [1].

Other uses of the term

In popular usage, experiences that evoke deep emotions are often described as "touching the soul."

See also

External references and link

  • Batchelor, Stephen. Buddhism Without Belief.
  • Swinburne (1997). The Evolution of the Soul. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Therianthropy overview

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