Who am I? What constitutes me? Am I merely the sum total of my physical atoms? What about the soul? Is there any evidence for it’s existence?
These are questions that have been raised in an article written by an atheist friend of mine following a discussion on secular morality and justice. In this article the author raises the question of the soul, defined as a “spark of life”, specifically the it consists of and how it relates to the concept of justice.
The question of identity is, indeed, very complex and has been fought over and discussed as far back as we have recorded history. This is probably because of it’s close proximity to the two fundamental questions of philosophy, “Who am I” and “Why am I here?”. In short, meaning and purpose.
While I won’t attempt to provide an exhaustive exploration of the subject, something I will defer to men like J.P. Moreland and Jon Rittenhouse, I will address the question of the soul in two parts. First, the secular notion that the soul is merely a “spark of life” and the second that the soul is independent of our memories and consciousness.
The “spark” came from somewhere
The field of teleology, or the study of the design and purpose of objects, has been all but abandoned with the rise of philosophical naturalism, and Darwinism in particular, in the 18th century. This is unfortunate since, if we were still attuned to asking the questions this field covered, we would immediately recognize the question a notion of a soul, even in it’s most simplistic “spark of life” form, begs.
Where did the spark come from?
We need to answer this question before we can begin to answer what the spark is here for or what it’s attributes are1. I would readily agree that the spark exists, at least in part, to drive and direct growth and development in living organisms. Stem cells are a perfect example of the need for such a teleological force2 to direct these “super cells” which contain the potential to develop into any number of different types of tissue to actually develop into the tissue the body needs at the appropriate time.
The origin of the soul is of utmost import since, in order to retain a philosophical presupposition of naturalistic causes, a materialist must come up with a natural explanation of what is inherently non-physical and therefore metaphysical.
Theists, however, would easily recognize the origin of the spark that gives us life to be a raging fire in the form of God.
Outside of a prejudice against a metaphysical mind that is similar, yet superior to ours, there is no reason to think that our soul not only had it’s beginning with a creator God but also bears some resemblance to this God in accordance to what we are taught in Scripture about being created in the image of God.
We can be less than human
Peter Kreeft has observed that the question of identity is addressed as a central theme in J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings series. Through such characters such as Gollum and Sauron, Tolkien fleshed out the concept of “inhuman” by showing us that evil corrupts us and has a visible (though not as drastic as the characters in LOTR) impact upon our lives. We are very accustomed to thinking of such heinous crimes we read about in the papers as having been done by people we deem “inhuman”. We even liken these people to animals many times as a way to show that their actions are not in keeping with what we think it means to be a human being.
Consequently, we consider people who give their lives for the sake of others to be “heroes” and “saints”. We call their work “humanitarian” and consider them to be better examples of what it means to be a human being. We hail as heroes people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many more who have willingly risked, and in some cases paid, much for the sake of others. If we, our souls included, are merely a compilation of atoms that will be forever lost or “wiped clean” when we die, such acts of altruism ought not to be praised but pitied.
We don’t operate on these naturalistic assumptions, however. We somehow expect that our actions will outlive our bodies and even the recipients of our actions. If we get right down to it, we expect our actions to have ramifications that transcend the physical realm. Regardless of what we claim to believe, the way we live our lives betrays that we really believe that, as Maximus puts it in Gladiator, “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.”
Why the distinction?
When we are borne, we have no memory, no ability to communicate3 our ideas, and no “personality”. Throughout our childhood our minds are grown, ideas acquired, and personality formed. If we were merely products of external stimuli and genetic predispositions, we should expect siblings that grow up in similar environments with similar genetic makeups to behave and think the same, or at least very similar. What we find, however, is that while environment and genetic makeup do have a notable influence on us, we are ultimately endowed with a consciousness that is not inexorably shackled to our material makeup. In short, we have the ability to be human or inhuman. Good or bad, kind or cruel.
The source of such freedom in action cannot logically come from a purely material source4 since, by definition, a purely physical existence would mean there we are mere robots.
However, we are not robots trapped in a coldly deterministic universe. We have the freedom to choose whether to be kind or cruel and our choices, good and bad, shape us and mold us. Our consciousness grows. We may begin as a “spark of life” but we grow into much more. As our bodies grow, so does our consciousness.
What does this have to do with justice?
When we talk about the soul in relationship to the justice we expect to see in the world we must first step back and ask ourselves why we expect to find justice in the first place. If the world is merely a product of time + chance + matter5 then the concept of “justice” becomes merely an expression of our individual preference. Further, since the universe as we know it will eventually end, a fact that is established as firmly as that the universe had a beginning, any and all of our preferences, thoughts, actions, etc. that are done therein are rendered meaningless if they do not transcend the physical realm.
However, if our souls are metaphysical and our consciousness rooted in our soul6 then the notion of the finality of death is, in turn, called into question. If we don’t cease to exist when we die, but are rather judged according to what we have become7, then the justice given is not diminished but rather made more complete since at the end of one’s physical existence we would have a fer better idea of their chosen direction in life. This would also provide adequate time (in most cases) for us to repent of past wrongdoings and redirect our course in life.
In this view, the end of justice is not placed outside of what we can know. Most people understand a sense of justice, shame, guilt, and an idea that their actions have real rather than merely perceived significance. From a naturalistic perspective, it is hard to see where such ideas of transcendence and purpose come from if we are merely our physical bodies who are here one day and gone the next.
Rephrasing the question
Ultimately the question of the soul and our identity must be answered by answering a relative question of, “Where does my value lie?”
If my value lies in my physical makeup then we call into question our relative equality and we run into the question of the finality of our universe and whether justice really matters or is simply a mental construct we’ve tricked ourselves into believing. Eugenics and the historical atrocities perpetuated in it’s name ought to serve as a somber warning against placing our value in anything physical or temporal.
If my value lies in my metaphysical soul then I am free to love others as much or more than myself. I am free to pursue altruistic goals such as laying down my life for my fellow man and am justified in thinking my actions matter beyond the end of this universe. In fact, it is only in a specifically theistic universe that questions of justice, love, mercy, and worth make any sense because it is only in a theistic worldview where these concepts are objective and carry meaning beyond our existence.
The wisest man who ever lived once said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”8 I think his words are worth pondering, because they cut to the core of our question of who we are.
- Such as whether or not it can retain memories or grow along with the physical organism it directs. [↩]
- That is, something outside the physical atoms and quarks that makes up the organism that provides direction and purpose. [↩]
- Outside of crying [↩]
- The reason for this comes from a long line of sophisticated philosophical arguments discussed recently in a series of articles published in Philosophia Christi. For more information look up “causally closed naturalism“ [↩]
- Which still begs the question of how any of this came into existence in the first place. [↩]
- So that we don’t possess a soul but rather are our soul. [↩]
- That is, what we have turned our spark into. [↩]
- Mark 8:36, Luke 9:25 [↩]