Menu

Theology

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion                                         

8. Sundry Reflections on the Soul and God

 

1.     About the soul

 

The soul is what we regard as the essence of a person, the unitary substance that is both subject of consciousness and agent of volition. This soul need only be present during the life of the physical organism sustaining it, not before or after.

Ontologically, whether the soul is perishable or imperishable does not seem relevant to our study of its cognitive, volitional and evaluative capacities. Epistemologically, how would we know it as a fact either way? If there is no contradiction in either concept, and no evident immediate knowledge of it, we must revert to generalizations and hypotheses to establish it. From a philosophical point of view, the soul may be either short-lived or undying; equally. Some souls may be short-lived to different degrees (animals, humans), some undying (God’s at least). There is no law of causality, nor law of knowledge, requiring all subjects or agents to be imperishable or to age equally.

Mortality does seem more empirically justified – in that people and animals evidently are observed to physically die. If the soul is an epiphenomenon of matter, it is probably mortal. Immortality implies literally an eternity of existence, and not merely life after death for some time; this seems a very unlikely hypothesis, unless we refer to the religious thesis that the soul originates in God and eventually merges back into Him, or similar ideas. The issue remains forever (i.e. so long as we exist) open, speculative.[2]

I am not sure Judaism (at its Biblical core, at least) and allied religions ultimately believe in immortality, though they may believe in some transmigration, or at least in the ultimate resurrection of the dead. The ‘messianic age’ is projected as a period of happy existence for differentiated individuals, rather than as a nirvana wherein all will fuse with God. Just as at some past time, God was alone, so at some future time, He will again be alone: only He (or His Soul, pronoun and noun having one and the same referent) is Eternal. But on the other hand, logically, just as we came from God before we got to Eden, perhaps after the messianic age we shall indeed eventually return to Him.

The philosophical position concerning the soul adopted in this volume is that it is either directly intuited by itself, or at least implied by its functions of cognition, volition and valuation, some of which are certainly directly intuited (i.e. experienced, although not as concrete phenomena). We could refer this position to the Cartesian “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), if we understand the term ‘thought’ broadly enough, as referring to the three functions. Epistemologically, I infer that I am, due to having experiences, using logic and forming concepts (cognition), intending or doing actions (volition) and expressing preferences (valuation). Ontology reverses this order, acknowledging the self as logically prior to any and all such ‘thoughts’, as their implied subject or agent.

The notion of a soul no doubt has a history. I do not claim to know it, can only roughly guess at it. The idea of a personal soul is thought by historians to be rather recent – dating apparently from the time humans started burying their dead, or otherwise ritually disposing of them. Much later, philosophers (notably Aristotle[3]) developed the hierarchical distinction between vegetative soul, animal soul and human soul. The first level of soul (involving birth, nutrition, reproduction, growth, decay, death) was found in plants, beasts and humans; the second level (involving locomotion and sensation), only in the latter two; and the third level (involving reason, and exceptional liberty), only in the last.

Buddhism (or at least some currents of it), distinctively, denied the real existence of a soul, considering the ‘self’ apparently at the center of the individual’s consciousness as an illusion[4]. According to the mentalist school (Yogacara), the apparent self is based on eight modes of consciousness – the five due to sensory perceptions; the mental faculty correlating and interpreting them (like the ‘common sense’ of Aristotle); and two more. The seventh mode (called manas) refers to the deluded impression of having a separate self, giving rise to conceit, selfishness, and similar afflictions. The eighth mode (called citta or alayavijnana) is considered the repository of ‘karma’, making possible the delays in consequences of actions.

Thus, the ‘seventh consciousness’ may roughly be equated to the ordinary concept of present soul, although it is declared illusory[5]; and the ‘eighth consciousness’ may be ultimately compared to the religious concept of a soul that passes on from body to body, although a carryover of potentiality is implied rather than perpetuation of actual existence. This series might be completed by the notion of the ‘original ground’ or ‘causal ground’ of consciousness and existence, the Nirvana of one-mind and no-mind – which could be considered as related to our concept of God. Although Buddhists would likely deny it, the analogy seems to be apposite, because it shows the recurrence and uniformity of certain concepts in all human cultures.

 

2.     About God

 

Another Indian culture, Hinduism, as well as other peoples and philosophies, consider God more frankly as the Soul of the universe, the common root of all particular souls. In Judaism and sister religions, God is projected as a conscious Presence overseeing (in a cognitive and volitional sense, and in the evaluative sense of lawgiver) the whole world, much as each of us has a soul reigning over his or her own little world. Some suggest, as already mentioned, that our own soul is but a spark[6] out of God’s.

Some consider God as transcendent, others as immanent. The latter end up equating God with Nature, in the way of pantheism (Baruch Spinoza comes to mind, here). The human belief in God may have historically developed out of animism, itself probably a generalization of the vague notion of a personal soul.

Peoples living close to Nature (the Indians of North America, for instance) tended to perceive an undifferentiated godliness in all life and indeed in all of nature. Everything had a soul—a bubbling stream or a roaring ocean, a majestically immovable mountain, a pebble rolling downhill, the Sun, the Moon, the vast sky, one day blue, one day grey and rainy, rolling clouds and thunder in the sky, the wind brushing though the forest, a bud flowering, a soaring eagle, a roaming cougar, field mice scattering, a fish jumping up. God was everywhere to be seen and encountered.

Such ideas may have in time become concretized, with the notion of discrete “spirits” residing in a stone or tree or river or mountain. Each thing was thought to have consciousness and volition, just as people intuited these powers within themselves (probably long before they named them). People might then seek to talk with bodies of inanimate matter as with animals; for instance, to respectfully ask permission to interact with them in some way. Or they might have to trick or fight them into doing what they wished them to. Eventually, these small, scattered “gods” were taken home or at least represented in stone or wooden idols (as apparently in Africa).

Some gods, like perhaps those of Nordic peoples, may of course have evolved out of historical persons – kings or heroes who were remembered in stories and eventually became larger-than-life myths. Later, as in Greece and Rome, more abstract gods evolved, who represented broad domains of the world (like the heavens or the sea) or of human activity (like love or war).

Eventually, apparently thanks to the Hebrews, monotheism was born, i.e. belief in a single and sole universal spiritual God. Founded by the patriarch Abraham, Judaism became a more organized national religion a few centuries later[7]. Eventually, through Christianity and Islam, both much later offshoots of Judaism, abstract monotheism gained ascendancy in large parts of the world. Christianity is closer to Judaism than Islam in some respects, further in others. The former is more explicitly rooted in Judaic textual details, whereas the latter uses them more as a tacit springboard. Christianity retains some concrete ideas and images relative to its founder Jesus, while Islam like Judaism eschews all such deification or representation.

Still today, in India for instance, the pantheon of gods and the ubiquity of images of them is striking. Although Hinduism has also long ago reached the idea of abstract monotheism, it has not made it exclusive. Buddhism, for its part, attained a high level of abstraction, but without personalizing it as God (at least not originally, although many Buddhist offshoots have in practice identified the founder Buddha with God). This is consistent with the Buddhist doctrine that even the human soul is ultimately “empty” of personality. However, Buddhists have remained influenced by ancient idolatry, in view of the statues of Buddha they worship (and thus mentally project ‘soul’ into, note)[8].

Jewish monotheism is not about God being the Soul of Nature. Nature (hateva) is sometimes said to be one of the ‘names’ of God – but this is taken to mean (e.g. by Maimonides) that Nature is in God’s power. In Judaism, God is absolutely abstract and without any concrete manifestation whatsoever – no incarnation in human or any other form, and nothing that can be represented by an image. Or more precisely, God is purely spiritual and never material. He is nevertheless the Creator of the world of nature, and remains all-knowing and all-powerful in it. Omniscient – not merely in the sense of knowing generalities (as Aristotle suggested), but also in the sense of knowing every particular; and thus able to exercise providence down to the last detail – as befits omnipotence.

This is analogous to the human soul, which has no phenomenal aspects[9] of its own, although it is capable of knowing and interacting with the phenomenal world. However, the analogy is not total, since Judaism teaches that the world is not God’s body, and moreover that humans did not create their own bodies but God created both their bodies and their souls (Genesis 2:7):

“And 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.”

So, it is conceivable to Jews that whereas God is eternal, humans are not; and it is also conceivable that God’s ‘breathing life’ into us was animating our bodies with a bit of His eternal Soul.

As these reflections show, the histories of the notion of soul and of that of God are closely intertwined. One of the functions of religion and/or metaphysics is to propose origins for soul and God, and explain how they are known.

Catholic Christians, to varying degrees, use material representations of Jesus in their homes, churches and processions. This may historically be an inheritance from the representation and worship of Roman emperors, which was widespread and seemed normal in the world Christianity took over. Protestants, later on and for various (political as well as spiritual) reasons, have for the most part eschewed three-dimensional sculptures and dolls, but they still resort to mental representations as well as to two-dimensional pictures. Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism similarly resort to incarnations of numerous divinities, giving them bodily form or thinking of them concretely.

These are perceptual ideas about divinity. Judaism, and later on Islam, on the basis of the narratives in their scriptures (the Torah and the Koran, respectively) ascribe perceptible behavior to God, in the way of manifest miracles (if only the sending of an angel or a prophetic vision, or the decree of a legal system), but they exclude any physical or mental representation of God, which they reprove as “idolatrous”. The idea(s) of God transmitted by their holy books, and later reinforced by interpretative commentaries, are essentially conceptual.

As philosophers we might ask: what is the rationale for the worship of statues or other representations? Does the worshipper consider that material (or mental) object itself to be what he or she is worshipping (fetishism), or to contain the divinity aimed at or be an emanation of it or a channel to it – or does the concrete object at hand merely serve as a mnemonic or as an expedient means to focus personal attention on a divinity far beyond it?

One would have to enter people’s minds to find out for sure (for their own introspections and oral reports are not necessarily reliable). I would suspect that there is a wide range of attitudes in different people, some imagining a more literal interpretation, others being more conscious of the possible distinctions. The spiritual issue is: does this practice ‘weigh down’ the soul, preventing it from ‘rising’ to the formless?[10]

I should add that I personally suspect that people who believe in some incarnation(s) of God, or in narrow gods or idols, and even atheists or agnostics, often or at least occasionally lift their eyes and prayers to the heavens, effectively intending to appeal to or thank God. That is to say, adherence in principle to some non- or not-quite monotheistic doctrine does not exclude the occasional intuition and practice of monotheism. The issue here is not the culturally specific name given to the Deity, or the theoretical constructions usually associated with that name, but the actual intention of the praying soul at the moment concerned. I think all or most humans have that understanding and reaction in common.

 

3.     Theology

 

Philosophical theism or theology offers no narrative, no stories, concerning God; it is therefore, of course, free of any concrete representations. It consists of frank, changing speculations of a general sort, as to whether in the context of ordinary human cognitive faculties an abstract God can be definitely known to exist – or for that matter, not to exist.

Extraordinary forms of knowledge (allegedly attained, for instances, through prophecy or meditation) are not inconceivable, but hard to prove to us ordinary people; they therefore remain speculations. Honest philosophers have no prejudice on the subject, and freely admit room for doubt. Nevertheless, they find it possible to formulate consistent theories, which might be true about God and soul. On this basis, though no dogma is allowed, various personal faiths are possible.

In this way, without imposing any particular religious doctrine, philosophy may yet save the fact of religion from annihilation by pseudo-thinkers. Here, religion is denuded of all extraneous material (that which has made it disreputable), and limited to certain essential propositions given credence through philosophical discourse. The spiritual dimension of human existence is thus confirmed and reaffirmed.

 

Drawn from Volition and Allied Causal Concepts (2004), Chapter 16:3[1].

 

 


[1]           This chapter should have been included in the first edition after chapter 4, but was for some reason left out.

[2]           Note that my position concerning knowledge of the existence of God is that we can neither prove nor disprove it; on this topic, see my Judaic Logic, chapter 14. My views concerning how we ordinarily arrive at knowledge of the nature of God are expounded in Phenomenology, chapter 9. Note that I make no claim that anyone has attained to prophetic knowledge, though I keep an open mind relative to this notion.

[3]           This distinction was later adopted by Jewish mystics, using the terms ruach, nefesh and neshamah (although they seem to interpret them in very divergent ways, however convenient – probably because the terms are not clearly defined, and seemingly interchangeable, in the Bible, from which they are drawn). Similar ideas are found in other cultures, but here again I can only guess the history.

[4]           Although, if we examine some of the arguments put forward in support of the no-self claim, their illogic is glaring! This is particularly true of the pseudo-reasoning of the foremost philosopher of the Madhyamika school, the Indian Nagarjuna (2nd Cent. CE). To give an example I recently came across in a book by the Dalai Lama (pp. 54-5): “The Vaibhashikas therefore understand final nirvana in terms of the total cessation of the individual. A well-known objection by Nagarjuna… [if so] no one ever attains nirvana, because when nirvana is attained the individual ceases to exist.” Nagarjuna is a joker, who likes to play with words (see my Buddhist Illogic for many more examples). He here suggests that ‘attainment’ is only conceivable through alteration (where the subject remains essentially the same, while changing superficially). But it is logically quite conceivable that the individual disappears upon crossing over into nirvana: that would simply be a case of mutation (where the one-time subject becomes something else entirely at a later time). There is nothing absurd in the said Vaibhashika position. (Note incidentally that that position is analogous to the theistic idea of merging back into God, mentioned higher up.)

[5]           The accusation of illusion is due to their considering the notion of self as a product of conception from mental and sensory perceptions (i.e. dharmas, phenomena), rather than as I propose as something known by direct self-intuition (i.e. experience with a non-phenomenal content).

[6]           The idea of a ‘spark’ is drawn from Lurianic kabbalistic philosophy.

[7]           A more concrete ‘monotheistic’ religion, consisting of worship of the Sun exclusively, appeared briefly in Egypt at about that time. But the question is, who inspired whom? It is certainly equally conceivable that a small foreign contingent (Hebrew slaves) culturally influenced the larger host (some of the Egyptians).

[8]           To be fair, it may be that in the minds of some practitioners of meditation, statues and flat images are not objects of worship, but mere aids to achieving the depicted stillness, silence and concentration. One would have to ask individual practitioners what their real intentions are. All the same, it would seem likely that someone starting with imitation in mind, will develop an emotional attachment to the representative object and end up personifying it and bowing down to it. Which, to my mind, is silly, to say the least.

[9]           In this respect, Judaism has similarities to Buddhism; although unlike the latter, the former recognizes a non-phenomenal ‘spiritual’ substance for soul. Another possible analogy is that between the “Ayin” (non-existence, nothingness) of Jewish kabbalah and the “Shunyata” (emptiness) of Buddhism.

[10]          The essential purpose of idolatry, I would say, is to imprint people’s minds with alleged representations of gods or God. It is a powerful form of advertising, which produces psychic dependence on the idol, so that it is voluntarily or involuntarily recalled and appealed to in various circumstances. This incidentally benefits the clerical class tending and serving the idol; although, to be fair, the members of that class are rarely hypocritical, but themselves true (indeed, usually truer) believers.

Go Back

Comment

Blog Search

Blog Archive

Comments

There are currently no blog comments.