Religion: the Next Version
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Mark F. Sharlow

Thu, 05 Mar 2009

The New Face of Spirit: Part One

One of the most basic ideas of religion is that we are not just our bodies. According to most religious teachings, a human being is not just a physical body, but also has a soul or spirit. The soul or spirit is supposed to be an intangible part of us - a nonphysical "something or other" that makes us more than just hunks of matter or bags of chemicals.

Religions have many different ideas about the soul. Many religions teach that the soul is immortal. According to most Western denominations, the soul is a spiritual entity that inhabits the body. Buddhism offers a different view: that there is no permanent soul, but a person's mental processes (or some aspects of them) can start up again in a new body. Some liberal forms of religious thought hold that the soul is not immortal, but that we still are more than our bodies during this life.

All of these beliefs have a common denominator: we are more than our bodies. The soul, whether immortal or not, is what makes us different from the complex chemical and physical system that is the human body.

Are we really more than our bodies? Science would seem to say no. Scientific findings suggest that the mind and personality depend completely on the brain. Scientists have not found any need for a supernatural soul in their picture of the mind. Science seems to say that we are only hunks of matter.

But has science really debunked the soul? A little thought will show that the answer is no! Science has not proven that we are just our bodies. Instead, science has rejected one particular idea about the soul: that the soul is a supernatural, ghostlike entity that controls the brain and the body. This is not the same as disproving the soul. There are other ideas of the soul that are even better than the ghostly idea. Science cannot disprove these other ideas!

We are more than our bodies in at least two ways. I will discuss one of these ways in this post. I'll leave the other way for a future post.

Here is the first way in which we differ from the matter of our bodies: Human beings contain abstract objects as well as matter.

What are abstract objects? Are they supernatural or ghostly? No! Abstract objects are perfectly natural - but they can be spiritual also.

The following quote from my article "God: the Next Version" explains what abstract objects are.

[From "God: the Next Version"]

Our daily experience shows that there are other kinds of "items" besides concrete material objects. We live in a material world, yet not everything around us is a material thing. Material things are not just vague, featureless things. Instead, all material things have properties, or (as I will call them here) qualities.

What are some examples of qualities? All red objects have the quality of redness. All triangular objects have the quality of being triangular (which we also could call the quality of triangularity). All hard things have the quality of hardness. All liquids have the quality of liquidity.

Redness, triangularity, hardness, and liquidity are examples of qualities. They are not things - they are the qualities of things. There are red things in the world - but there also is a quality, redness, that these things have in common.

Qualities are examples of abstract objects. They are not things, but are found in things. Usually they are features of things. The mind can pick them out by examining many similar things and recognizing something in common. [...]

Other examples of abstract objects are relations. These are features that connect together more than one thing. For example, one mountain may be taller than another. The relation of being taller than connects together two physical things. Being taller than is not just a quality that one thing can have. It is a relation that can connect two things. A more familiar example of a relation is friendship. This is a relation that holds between any two people who are friends of each other.

For still other examples of abstract objects, we can look at patterns. The posts in a wooden fence form a definite, repeating pattern. Once your mind has recognized this pattern, you can notice it in fences anywhere. If you do digital photography, you probably know about the "Moiré patterns" that appear in some photos. These are patterns made of straight or curved bars of dark and light. A computer program also is a pattern - a pattern of bits of information, which can be found in any processor that is running the program.

Patterns, qualities, and relations are important to our reasoning and our experience. We find patterns, qualities, and relationships in the world around us. We did not invent them; they really are there. Yet these items do not "exist" in the same way that a physical object exists. They are not things at all. They are abstract objects.

At this point, you may be asking an important question: Do abstract objects really exist? Philosophers have been asking this question for thousands of years. They have developed several possible answers: that abstract objects really exist, that they don't really exist, that only some kinds of them exist, and so forth. Despite its popularity, I think this question is a fooler! The answer depends on whether "exist" means "exist in the same way that material things exist." Abstract objects are not things - they do not exist the same way that things exist. However, they are true components of reality. Things really do have properties. People really do form relationships. Patterns really do show up - sometimes in the most surprising places. The problem isn't that these items don't exist, but that they don't exist as things. A property, relation or pattern is not a thing. It's just a property, a relation, or a pattern - nothing more. But that can be a lot!

Here are two quotes, from my earlier work, about the reality of abstract objects. (One of these is from a blog post named "Spirit without the Supernatural" that first appeared on my other blog, The Unfinishable Scroll.)

[From "God: the Next Version"]

Philosophers have long debated whether abstract objects are truly real. I think this question is somewhat confused. Instead of worrying about this question, we should just accept that our world contains physical objects, patterns, qualities, and relations, and stop fretting about which of these objects "really" exists. Patterns, qualities and relations do not "exist" in the same way in which sticks and stones "exist" - yet clearly a Moiré pattern in a photograph really is there. We should not try to deny that this pattern is real, even though it is "only" a pattern and not a physical object. The photographer who denies that a conspicuous Moiré pattern is there may end up losing a customer! And it seems rather silly to claim that a computer program is unreal.

[From "Spirit without the Supernatural"]

I think this question depends on confusion about the meaning of the word "exist." If someone asks whether properties exist, I'll answer the question with another question: What do you mean by "exist"?

If you think "exist" means "be a physical object," then the answer is no - properties don't exist, because they are not physical objects.

But if you think "exist" means "be something" (be any kind of item at all), then properties do exist.

I've written a philosophical paper on this subject, where I went into more detail and covered some points that I've skipped over here. The main lesson of that paper: We can safely assume that properties exist. [...]

To insist that properties don't exist is to cut off the idea of existence arbitrarily - to limit existence artificially to concrete, individual objects like physical objects. If existence includes everything found in the universe, instead of just concrete physical objects, then properties exist. They exist as properties instead of as physical objects - but that's just another way to be real.

So we find that there are abstract objects in the world - properties, relations, patterns, and more. So much for the belief that only material objects are real! Even if every thing is made of matter, the universe still contains abstract objects as well as things. We live in a natural universe - but not in a universe made only of lumps of matter. There is nothing supernatural about all this. (A Moiré pattern is not supernatural, and neither is the hardness of a diamond!)

Now, where does spirit come in? Here is a further quote from "Spirit without the Supernatural":

[From "Spirit without the Supernatural"]

What does all this have to do with spirit?

If properties are real, then spirit doesn't have to be a substance or stuff. Instead, it can be a property!

Instead of being an invisible substance, spirit might be a property of physical objects. As a property, it would be every bit as real as the redness of a sunset, or the hexagonal shape of a snowflake, or the brilliance and transparency of a diamond.

If spirit is a property, then the human brain could indeed have a soul. Science suggests that your personality or self is a property of your brain. If so, then that property might be your soul. [...]

Skeptics try to debunk the soul by claiming that the self is "only" a property of the brain. The skeptics had better watch out! They are making a serious mistake!

The skeptics begin with the idea (suggested by science) that the self or personality is a property of the brain. From this, they argue that the soul is nothing - that there is no soul.

But wait a minute!

The skeptics say the self is a property of the brain. However, we have found that a property is not just nothing. In its own way, a property is quite real!

If the self is a property, then the self has a real existence of its own - just as real as if it had been a real ghostly substance. By saying that the self is only a property of the brain, the skeptics are admitting that the self is real. Worse yet for them, they are admitting that the self has a type of existence that goes beyond the existence of physical objects!

The skeptics might not realize they are admitting all this. However, if properties are real in any way at all, then this is where their "skepticism" leads.

Without realizing it, the skeptics have painted themselves into a corner, and admitted that people have souls of a sort!

Granted, these souls are a little different from what most religions teach. They are properties, not ghostly supernatural objects. But the important point is that they are real.

Once we admit that properties are real, then the skeptical view that the self is a property of the brain becomes almost the same as the religious belief that people have souls distinct from their bodies. The property of the brain that we call the self is an entity different from the matter of the brain - just as the yellowness of the sun is different from the sun itself.

So it appears that the skeptics and the believers are not as far apart as they seem.

This is the first way in which we differ from the matter of our bodies. (I'll deal with the second way in a future post.) We differ from the matter of our bodies because we contain abstract selves - properties of our brains - as well as matter.

This idea that the soul or spirit is an abstract object is not new. It's been around for quite a while. (For references to some previous versions of this idea, see the references in "Spirit without the Supernatural" and also this paper.) The idea that the self or soul is nothing but a property of the brain, or perhaps a pattern of information (or both), will be nothing new for those who have done some reading about the brain. The important point, which most so-called skeptics overlook, is that these features of the brain have an existence of their own. They are real in their own way. To claim that they do not exist is to confuse different kinds of existence. If the soul or spirit is a feature of the brain, then people really do have souls or spirits - because the feature is an abstract object, and is not to be confused with the brain that has it.

The soul is not just the brain. We are not just our bodies. And you don't have to believe in anything supernatural to recognize this fact.

Can an abstract soul of this kind be immortal? I'll deal with that question in a later post, if I dare...



(Links in post slightly updated 10/18/2010.)

posted at: 20:55 | path: /soul | persistent link to this entry

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