From Free Life, Issue 20, August 1994
ISSN: 0260 5112
Is There a Soul?
Howard Perkins (Sean Gabb)
Most Christians, if pressed on the matter, would probably tell me that I have inside me an eternal something called a Soul, which is the animator of my body, and will be the object of Divine Judgement when I am dead. My normal reply to this would be roughly with Critias, that the whole notion is a useful lie made up to keep people quiet. But, since a longer argument is called for here, I will raise just two objections that occur to my flawed understanding.
The first concerns how surprisingly well-hidden the Divine Plan appears to be. Conforming with the above definition, I assume that one of the main functions of endowing men with souls subject to punishment and reward is to influence their actions while alive. Why therefore not clearly publish those laws by which judgement will be made? It was Caligula's habit to have new edicts set up in the Forum too high for people to read. That he then would levy tines for their breach was thought another sign of his madness and tyranny. Yet this seems to be exactly how God behaves to us. Direct rational knowledge of him, recall, Is impossible, since we can never infer from any event a cause greater than required to produce it; and nothing in the world requires a cause as unbounded as the notion of God. We therefore are left to sort unaided through a multitude of contradictory revelations. Which do we choose – Moses or Joanna Southcott? None commends itself as true on its own merits. For example, anyone who bases the truth of the Resurrection on the Synoptic Gospels must first show why these hooks have any better claim to credence than the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Belief, then, in revelation must be external of it. As external belief is determined most often by place of birth, at least the majority of people are being taught to obey false and often blasphemous laws. Is this just?
The second objection concerns the presumed nature of the soul. To begin, we take an individual – for example, Sean Gabb, my illustrious Editor, – and proceed, if possible, to locate his soul. We do this by removing everything not essential to it.
First, take out the contents of his mind. That is, take language, morals, learning – everything stored in the memory. For these are accidental features of him, things contingent on circumstances.
Next, take away instinct – the basic emotions of self-preservation, love, hate, and so forth. These he shares with every other living creature, and are the products of an evolution the criterion of which is preserving the material body so that other material bodies may be created.
Lastly, remove all five senses, which are again parts of the material body.
Having then removed from Sean Gabb all knowledge, desire and sense-perception, we are left either with nothing – in which case there is no soul – or with a primary essence – of consciousness or potentiality for it – to which the other qualities are additions only.
It could, of course, be that this essence is a product of mis-subtraction or just an epiphenomenon of the other qualities. But, in this ease, we should one day be able to make thinking machines that are as much alive as we are, though this is not yet thought a possibility. But, supposing the essence of Sean Gabb actually to exist, the further questions occur of where it comes from and where it will go.
Now, the first question is not important for us. The Gabb-essence – which term we shall abbreviate to soul – may be eternal or sempiternal: the matter is irrelevant. But, turning to the second, of corporeal death, two possible answers suggest themselves. First, we can suppose the soul to go on after death with all the qualities intact as acquired during life. This view, to say nothing else of it, seems consistent with the notion of reward and punishment. What purpose, after all, in judging a soul according to merits or defects that it no longer possesses? Yet, as souls so conceived would be notoriously unequal in their accidental qualities, would it be just to let them persist through eternity? Some acquire more wisdom than others, either through longer lives or more favourable environment. Some learn or possess happier dispositions. Some, on the other hand, go through life blind or stupid, or die very early, before acquiring much in the way of accidental qualities at all. What of these? Or should we perhaps imagine a levelling-up of souls, so that none may feel inferior to the others – as though Heaven were some vast comprehensive school?
Even this option has it problem, though. Inevitably, some souls would be altered more than others – Socrates remaining Socrates because already a saint near enough; a cannibal savage losing all his living persona in the process of improvement. Is this discrimination just?
Either this, with all its attendant objections, or our second option. This is of the soul's instant return on corporeal death to its first simplicity – essence only, all accidentals, good or bad, purged away. In this instance, there would be no mark of difference between each soul, and so no need to preserve any individual identity. All would be absorbed into one great mass of undifferentiated essence. We might even Perhaps call this great mass the Logos and call ourselves neoplationists – who for all their other oddities, are rather more clear about these matters than the Christians.
Possibly the soul exists. Possibly not. In either case, the commonly accepted Christian notion of it, stated above, Is clearly untenable.
Editor's Note: Perhaps Violetta Felciarova, or one of our readers, might care to reply to this rather strange piece.
© 1994 – 2015, seangabb.
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