I owe the credit for this article to a friend whose name escapes me at the moment. “Fuck all various claims,” well, these were not exactly his words but that was the spirit of things, “It’s not any proof that convinces many people to believe in god and religion – it’s this issue of ‘soul’ or whatever it’s called.”
People who use scientific terms will not talk to you about a ‘soul’. They will most probably use terms such as ‘Awareness’ or ‘Self-awareness’ or ‘Consciousness’. Purely from the linguistic point of view, while using ‘soul’ implies something separated from the physical body, using ‘awareness’ or ‘consciousness’ implies something related to the physical body.
Of course it is not the linguistic analysis which determines the nature of things, still it is worthwhile trying to explain what we’re talking about: Ever since we were kids, we’ve remembered ourselves and the continuous feeling of “I exist here” – this experience that makes us feel we are here and now, independent and separate from the rest of the world around us, even from our own body. This is our internal worlds, which only we can experience, and its very existence is so amazing to us – we cannot even grasp its inexistence.
The link between the ‘soul’ issue and various religions is obvious: If that feeling of existence, with everything accompanied to it, is something “separate” from the body, which cannot be explained by science — then there is allegedly a “different world” of “spiritual” things, totally separated from the physical world explained by scientific research. From here the road is short to your favorite religion’s gods and angels.
The concept of an entity “separated” from our body also brings instant comfort to our natural fear of death and inexistence. “Heaven” or “reincarnation” or any other solutions become equally legitimate, once we legitimate the concept of a separate entity. Mankind has developed numerous religions and faiths, dealing with the fate of our “soul” after the “hosting” body dies – sometimes even while it’s still alive.
Scientific research does not ignore things just because they are difficult to discuss. While it’s true we do not have the required technology to fully enter someone else’s internal experiences, we do know quite a bit about the ways these experiences are formed, and also how they can be affected and manipulated. More than everything, we know about the clear link between that feeling of “soul” and the brain and nervous system of humans and other creatures. As far as the feeling of existence is concerned, the decapitation of a person’s head (and for that matter, also of an elephant’s or a mouse’s head) is in practice the decapitation of the body, as the feeling of existence remains – even if momentarily – with the part that contains the brain, and not with the rest of the body.
The main problem that makes it difficult for us to accept the absolute link between the feeling of “soul” and the brain – is also known as the ‘Mind-body problem’: How is it possible that the will of our “soul” causes physical events to occur in the physical world? For example, how can our decision to move our hand in a specific second (an internal issue that is allegedly non-measurable and does not have clear scientific reasons) cause our physical hand movement (an external issue that is obviously measurable and has clear scientific reasons)?
Multitudes of articles have been written about this topic, and the scientific research does not ignore it at all (as well as several philosophical approaches). In a nutshell, one of the good explanations for this phenomenon deals with the concept according to which we do not really “decide” on things. In fact we really have no free will – only an illusion as if we have a free will and control over our decisions and actions. Even if we “change our mind”, this change will be part of a chain of events, in which it is not really us who decided on the change (for example, it may be triggered due to brain activity derived by reading this paragraph). This philosophy, called ‘Epiphenomenalism’, defines the “soul” as a “read-only” thing (using computer terminology) – a feeling generated by our brain, while that “soul” itself generates nothing. Epiphenomenalism is also partially backed-up by certain researches that demonstrate appropriate brain activity even before we are made aware of our decisions. Not exactly “Everything is anticipated but choice is given” (from Jewish resources), as it is unclear if and how much randomness is involved with the chain of events.
A problem parallel to the mind-body problem has to do with the very limitations of our brain. Just as we cannot imagine more than three dimensions, or grasp the distinction between a finite and an infinite universe – similarly our brain’s limitations make it difficult to research… our brain. Putting it differently: In our topic, we are in a special situation of a “brain researching itself” – the more limitations we discover in it, the clearer it is there are things that are difficult for us to find or grasp, including (and especially) in the realm of brain research.
Therefore, any attempt to produce “instant” religious solutions, let alone going into fine details, and especially by those who lack scientific education – any such attempt is ridiculous and pathetic.