Do We Possess a Soul?


The concept of a “soul” comes to us, in our Western part of the world, from Greek Philosophy and from Judaism and Christianity.

In Greek Philosophy, the key word is psuche. Its root meaning is located in the experience of breathing, and so it’s associated with life. Whatever lives breathes; whatever dies doesn’t. Putting these together gives us ‘the breath of life’, which animates the body. We then picture the gods bringing their creatures to life by breathing into them, this life-breath being distinct from the body as such, and then becoming the ‘soul’, divine in origin, which can survive the death of the body.

This seems all very well, until we pick it apart. When we talk about the ‘soul’, we’re not talking about something empirically verifiable, nor about something that can simply and clearly be defined. How does the ‘soul’ differ from the ‘self’, or the ‘mind’, assuming that it does? And If the soul/self/mind is immaterial, how can it interact with our material bodies? Put a cup in front of you on a table, and ask your soul/self/mind to move it by the power of thought or the force of will. It can’t. 

If the soul is divinely ‘breathed’ into us, when does this happen? Is it at the moment of conception, or during foetal development, or at birth? Was it created at that point in time, or had it pre-existed and reached the top of the queue? That such conundrums exist, are debated, and sometimes hotly disputed, should warn us that we’re in the territory of variable beliefs and opinions, not verifiable facts and truths.

For me, difficulties increase if the idea of the ‘soul’ becomes a foundation for human ‘exceptionalism’ – the notion that we are in a different category from all other animals – that we alone have ‘souls’, and that the whole purpose of creation was, eventually (!), to arrive at us, as its crowning glory. One theologian at least, Thomas Aquinas, was troubled enough by such hubristic ‘human supremacy’ to decide that all creatures had ‘souls’ but, lest he overstep the mark, only human ones were immortal – in case heaven became impossibly over-crowded perhaps.

We now know that up to 98.7% of our DNA is shared with other animals. We also know there are those among them that have far greater powers of sight, hearing, smell, speed and strength than we do, that they have sophisticated methods of intercommunication, and that they display individual and social traits once thought to be ours alone. We ought to treat fellow animals, and indeed all living things, with far more respect than we do. We’re all going to need each other, if we’re to survive.

So, do I think I possess a soul? If we read Genesis 2:7 in the King James Version, we find that “the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” This is a reminder that while the KJV may be worth reading for the quality of its English, (though some is past its use-by date), it’s not necessarily true to the original Hebrew. 

In Genesis 1:24, “God said, Let the earth produce living creatures“. Transliterated, the Hebrew for “living creatures” is nephesh chayah (Scottish ch). Nephesh is the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek psuche. It’s similarly rooted in the idea of ‘that which breathes’. Chayah is rooted in the idea of ‘life’ and so, when we put these words together, we get a breathing, living being, hence the “living creatures” of Gen. 1:24. To return to Genesis 2:7, after God “blew the breath of life into his nostrils, the man became a living being” – a nephesh chayah – exactly the same as all the other creatures in Genesis 1:24. So there’s no exceptionalism here. A human being does not become a living soul, in contradistinction to all the other creatures. All of us are exactly the same breathing, living beings.

So I don’t think I possess an exclusive, divinely given, soul. I have a mind, which generates the experience of a ‘self’. I’m prepared to believe my awareness emerges from the Awareness built into the bricks of the universe, and that it may well, at my end, be reabsorbed into that, but whether or not it will retain a measure of my ‘selfhood’ I’m inclined to doubt. Perhaps I’m tempted to give a greater degree of importance to that idea than is merited, in the great, ultimate, cosmic scheme of things.

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