Does an Atheist Have a Soul?

Posted by on August 11, 2010 in Thoughts | 58 comments

I’ve not covered this topic as yet, so what a better time to do so than now?

I’ve covered death, afterlife, evolution, space, existentialism, gods, demons, medicine et al., but haven’t really touched on soul. And there’s a reason for it, it’s a difficult topic to cover with any sense of authority because it’s a grey area, one where there is no proof either way as to its existence. And because it is such a hotly debated and highly sensitive are for some,  I am also bracing myself for a barrage of criticism over this one, so I’m a bit hesitant to publish it.  But it is a loaded question, for if there is no soul, and it is eventually proven by science to be the case, then the basis for the major religions’ fixation with the afterlife falls over, and after all who is going to enjoy eternity by god’s side, or get the promised 72 virgins?

Theists claim there is an eternal soul, one that carries on forever well after the body has rotted in the ground. This suggests that there is a living soul within every human that is breathing right now. As usual, a quick search for the definition of “soul” reveals this:

1. The animating and vital principle in humans, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity.
2. The spiritual nature of humans, regarded as immortal, separable from the body at death, and susceptible to happiness or misery in a future state.
3. The disembodied spirit of a dead human.

So the soul is what makes us breathe, move, think, act, and emote. It is immortal, and continues to have feelings after it is separated from the body at death. And it is a ghost. Very convenient for those who want to postulate that there is indeed a soul; it can’t be seen or measured, has never been observed, and is immaterial. In fact some might say it is beyond understanding (now, where have I heard that before?)

Recent scientific studies which include brain scans can reveal that certain parts of the brain fire when we experience something, or make a decision, or do something. These firings happen all over the brain, like an electrical storm, and the long-held belief that humans “only use 10% of their brain” has been disproven or at least refuted. We can now watch real-time how the brain fires off when a person is thinking about a loved-one, or experiencing pain, or playing chess. We can also, through stimulation of parts of the brain, replicate feelings like extreme sadness, sensations such as the taste of roast beef, or out-of-body experiences such as feeling like you are floating a metre above your physical body. So where does the idea of “soul” fit within the framework of the discoveries of modern neuroscience?

But before we look at that, let’s first look at the human animal.

We like to think that we are pretty special among the animals on earth, and to some extent we are quite special, and unique in many ways. We have evolved to a point where we can alter the world to our liking, have developed complex language and commerce, societies that contain millions of individuals. We are the only animal to have taken this path of evolution, where the body has remained relatively unchanged for 500,000 years, but the brain and our built societies continue to evolve. We have free will, and a very distinct sense of self. We also have a very distinct sense of “others”, and can empathise at the plight of those around us. We have built moral structures around our societies, firstly to preserve ourselves and our immediate communities, then to help us interact with other communities with the least amount of bloodshed ( this is not universal, but it is common). And with our self-awareness comes this thing we call “consciousness”.

People like to separate “self-awareness” from “consciousness” as a way to back up the idea of a soul stating something like “How can we be conscious of ourselves if there is no soul?” But consciousness is merely the ability to know that you are alive (living), you are separate from others around you (individual) and to recognise that fact (self-aware). So from that, consciousness is a description of the act of being able to discriminate between our own self and those around us, and to realise our own “living”.

Self awareness develops from almost none (we are born and only recognise outside influences such as food) to a very acute “persona” (I am me, and I know these things, like these things, dislike these things, my history is this, I belong to these groups). A baby doesn’t know the idea of self until well after it starts to consciously make decisions about its life, and after it discovers that the decisions that he or she makes can be advantageous to him or her.

And we become very attached to our own consciousness. Anyone who has knowingly had a change of their consciousness, either through illness of or injury to the brain, will attest that the idea of losing themselves, or at least their perceived selves, is a very scary thing to experience. Brain injury sufferers for instance may still be able to think and do things they had been able to before the injury, but may feel disconnected from themselves due to this injury, as if they’ve lost their sense of their own selves.

And we make our judgments of the world and those around us consciously. But consciousness also varies in nature from person to person. Temple Grandin, a diagnosed autistic person famous for her work with ethical treatment of animals, says in the introduction to her essay “Consciousness in Animals and People with Autism”:

“As a person with autism, my ‘autistic like’ consciousness is different from normal people. I think in pictures and language is not used to form thoughts or make decisions.”

In this document she talks about varying levels of consciousness and decision-making in animals, talking from her perspective as a person living with autism. She has been able to make breakthroughs in the way humans treat domesticated animals because she believes her consciousness is much more akin to that of a non-human animal than to the human public at large. She definitely has a good understanding of the way non-human animals think and will react to given situations as has been proven by her work in the field.

So in different people consciousness and self-awareness will differ depending on brain chemistry, neurology of the brain, brain injuries, illnesses of the brain etc. This means consciousness, and the definition thereof, is subjective to the physiology of the person describing it. We all have it, but it is different for each one of us. And the general consensus is that many of the animals on earth have consciousness also, but in varying degrees of complexity.

Higher consciousness is a concept whereby, through  great control of the mind and body, once can see better, think better and more clearly, and have a transcendent understanding of the world and the universe. Things like meditation can alter the patterns of the brain and allow for different kinds of experiences, some of which could be called “a state of higher consciousness”. These states are reached through techniques of breathing control and bodily relaxation, and have been proven to change the patterns in the brain. Some people attribute this sense of “higher” consciousness to the existence of a soul, because it is so unusual to our accustomed knowledge of our consciousness it must be otherworldly. But is it really proof of the existence of the soul?

Our consciousness is all we know. It defines how we interact with the world, and it informs our emotions and reactions. It allows for us to reflect on what certain situations mean for us, for those around us, and for our surroundings. And it is for each of us, as well as our sense of self, our sense of individuality, our identity, and some would say our soul. We hold onto it tightly in our waking hours, and let go of some of it every night when we sleep and dream, but a loss of this is a very scary concept indeed.

And when we die, and our brain ceases to function, the MRI stops showing the lightning storms of neural activity, the body’s electrical impulses stop functioning and the heart stops, so too does our consciousness. But some would argue that the consciousness is then freed from the body in the form of a soul (which weighs 21 grams apparently).

Could it not be said then that the concept of “soul” could be encapsulated in here somewhere, somewhere within the consciousness, self awareness and self-preservation of our identities, and our longing not to die (the abyss scares us so much as a species), that we define the idea of “soul”? Or do we just fizzle out, our electrical impulses and chemicals dissipating to be redistributed among the universe, following the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics?

I think that, with all the evidence pointing in one direction, humans, like rabbits or insects, are no more than the sum of the incredibly beautiful and astoundingly complex parts from which we exist.

So to answer the question, “Does an atheist have a soul?” I would say, all things taken into consideration, probably not. But then again, I don’t think it’s likely that a theist has a soul either.  What do you think?

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