New Ways of Understanding Soul
by Rabbi Rick Brody
Soul is not some thing, no “stuff” that is (temporarily) attached to (but fundamentally separate from) my body. No, soul is the totality of my body, all its experiences, and all the meanings it both internalizes and externalizes — through both my brain (my inner life — my impressions, my sensations, my feelings, my cognition) and my self’s interaction with the world “outside of me” — my relationships to others, my deeds, my communications, my contributions to a greater whole.
People are fond of quoting C. S. Lewis as saying, “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.” Also popular is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s quip that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” I think that simply throwing around these pithy statements as wisdom actually reduces them to pablum. We need to examine them. Both of them trouble me. While I think there is truth in these words, I do not think they tell the whole story; at the least, they are misleading, suggesting to the naive reader some kind of mythical narrative about a soul (or spirit) that lives eternally, enters a body — or, better, takes on a bodily form — and then maintains a conscious existence after it “leaves” the body — or “sheds” it, like snake-skin (some contemporary critics of classical theology derisively refer to this presumed process as a “soul-ectomy”!) — leaving it behind as an ultimately irrelevant tool that mainly obscures our awareness of a deeper, disembodied truth. I see some elements within this narrative that meaningfully characterize our experiences and our place in the Cosmos, but I think there are also aspects to this narrative that themselves are obstacles to enduring meaning.
Teilhard de Chardin’s statement is more troubling. Am I, at my core, not a human being? As I will discuss below, I believe I start out entirely human, and my journey of self-conscious interaction with the world outside my human body opens up a process of “spiritual” or soulful growth, discovery, and becoming. But the human experience isn’t “part” of my journey — it is my journey; it just happens that this journey extends beyond the limitations of my physical human body. But all of my experiences are physical — or at least are necessarily mediated through the physical (this view fits in with a current outlook in philosophy of science and philosophy of mind called “nonreductive physicalism”). Without my physical brain, “i” will lack the apparatus to have conscious, subjective experiences. I will “live on” in ways that I believe are part of the soul-process, but I do not expect to have awareness of that life.
I am a human being. Or, more appropriately, I am a human becoming. It’s the becoming that I think we tend to identify as “spiritual,” but I fail to see how that quality has a fixed essence that could be described as a “spiritual being.” It is certainly more a process than an entity. But more to the point is that it requires the body. There is no spirit that is me that precedes my body. Rather, that quality of transcendent becoming, that sense of participating in something greater than “me” is one that emerges from the reality of our bodily existence, a reality at the core of our being/becoming, of our sense of self — and not one I wish to undervalue.
I believe there are levels of self and that indeed we are restricting ourselves if we confine our understanding of self to be synonymous with our bodies. Clearly, Lewis is worried that people see the soul as something “smaller” than the self-defined-as-body, contained by it, subservient to a “greater” self that possesses a soul. It seems right to want to debunk this misconception. But it also seems dangerous to want to dismiss the fundamental role that the body plays in defining and constructing self, in making me me. And I believe that level of reality precedes that of soul. I believe there is a “me” that is smaller than my soul — a “me” that mediates between what seems to be a completely inner life of mind and an outer world that we touch through our bodies and that in turn touches our bodies and, in rapid succession, our minds. Soul is a process that encompasses all these other processes and that begins with the body.
The metaphor of an ecosystem is instructive here. It seems that much of the quest for meaning, particularly within religious contexts, involves an effort to transcend that sense of “small self” — an individual tree, for example — and become fully in touch with the greater self that is not just an intermediary, but rather the great forest itself, the entire system. But the system, as grand and impressive and awe-inspiring as it is, consists of the individual trees. You can’t have a forest without them. They comprise the whole, each one playing a vital, necessary, and sacred role. There is no “other side” where we can arrive by climbing a ladder of enlightenment, transcending the role of being a singular tree to simply being the entire forest. Rather, we are constantly becoming more and more of a tree, and that becoming contributes more and more to the becoming of the forest, of which we are a part.
I start out as a body. The problem is that I am not really an “I” yet. I am “mere fluid,” a clump of cells, a mass of tissue, and ultimately an intricate network of physical processes that is ready to engage the process of interaction with the world that will give birth to new soul. That new “soul” will interact with the wider soul-process to which it contributes and with which it grows, evolves, and becomes.
My soul doesn’t “live” inside of “me.” My mind lives inside of me. (Some philosophers of mind wish to talk about “mind” the way I am speaking of “soul,” as extending beyond the body. I find it helpful to distinguish between the two and keep “mind” as the “inner life,” with “soul” being the resultant interactions between these various networks of inner lives.) It dwells entirely in my network of nerves (my nervous system) — the mode of communication of sensation — which is headquartered in my brain. My soul, however, is the sum of all that is “me” (bodily, including my brain) and all of the extensions of me beyond my bodily definitions. It is “me plus.” I cannot contain it — I am subsumed within it. And it depends on me, on the entirety of my bodily existence. My body is a necessary predecessor to my soul, just as it is to my mind. The soul emerges as a result of the body’s obtaining of consciousness (mind) and its interaction with its environment — which not only reacts to and is transformed by its interaction with such a conscious body but simultaneously engages in a partnership wherein it exerts influence on that very body and its mind. This mutuality, this complex of interactions, this ecosystem, is the matrix in which soul “lives.”
There is no “part” of me that is not “part of” my soul. My soul continues to grow and evolve, throughout my biological epoch and forever after as my legacy. It doesn’t “go” anywhere — it doesn’t “leave” my body. It is always extending beyond my body through the world of meaning, impact, and influence. This quality, in theory, my body shares with all of physical existence. What most physical bodies lack, however — as far as we know — is the internal experience, the consciousness that allows me to identify myself as a subject. It is this quality that we are referring to when we speak of subjective experience. If “i” have no subjective consciousness, then it seems i am not (directly) involved in a soul-process. And what if there is no external consciousness to have an internalized awareness of what “i” have done, my influences, my legacy (e.g. if I were alone on the proverbial desert island)? Does that absence also negate the soul-process, or at least suggest that the entire process is completely terminated with my bodily death (or however else my consciousness ceases to function)?
Perhaps it is more helpful to say that we participate in our souls. These souls include our body, the entity that has a sense of self, a sense of participating in the activity of soul-ing. It can be correct to say that “i am a body” — “i” as small self that is physically bounded; and that “I am a Soul” — “I” as larger Self that emerges from the interaction between my “self” and the world, especially those “parts” of the world that consist of other “i” entities, other selves that comprise the ecosystem.
The degree to which we enhance our own consciousness and our interaction beyond our bodies is the degree to which we participate in soul (and that participation is still morally neutral, filled with potential for good, evil, or nothing). So, I’m not really any more comfortable saying that I am a soul that has a body than I am saying that I am a body that has a soul. I might be comfortable saying that “my soul” emerges from my body’s participating in a greater whole and that with that emergence, my soul becomes the “greater I,” “greater” than the “i” that is my body, continuing its existence — through meaning — even after my body has decayed. Rabbi Brad Artson has offered his own contribution to the conversation, shifting towards classical Biblical language and claiming, “You don’t have a nefesh; you are a nefesh.” Note that he does not echo Lewis by adding the qualifier, “you have a body.” I believe that the nefesh Artson is referring to—in keeping with its Biblical meaning—is the totality of processes that “i” experience that lead me towards “I” (or it might be “I”). This idea is not the same as what English speakers or translators tend to mean when they speak of “the soul.”
I don’t believe that this “greater I” has consciousness separate from the consciousness that my body experiences — at least I cannot conceive of such a consciousness. But I do believe that the “greater I” that our ego-selves, our individual trees, seek to know or commune with — the totality of the forest in which our individual trees participate (“foresting”) — may be the goal to which we aspire during the quests for meaning throughout our bodily human existence. So, yes — “I” am a soul, and that soul consists of the bodily “i” that is an integral part of that soul-process. And my body will sometimes know or commune with that “I” during its existence. And yes, “I” will continue to exist even after my body no longer does, but “i” won’t know about it, and as far as i know, “I” will have no knowing at all without my conscious body. It is thus my opportunity and my obligation to get my conscious self, my “i,” to know the “greater I” of my soul-process — that which “i” am creating and that emerges from my completely human experience — as much as possible during my limited time of human consciousness. This is my time.