Usually spirituality is associated with "soulfulness," whatever the heck that means. I used to believe that I knew something about soul. Now, I don't.
Perhaps because soul is superfluous—it's an notion that is so much a part of most cultures, we take it for granted that a human being consists of something above and beyond the physical.
Before leaving for Maui I bought Nicholas Fearn's "The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions" at a Powell's Books outlet (one of the world's great bookstores; don't miss the main store if you visit Portland, Oregon).
Interestingly, the first chapter I read on "The Problem of the Self" echoed Douglas Hofstadter's conclusions in "I Am a Strange Loop," which I'd just finished (and have been blogging about).
In searching for a self we look for something over and above our attributes, but we do not usually think this way about ordinary objects. For example, I believe that my favourite armchair persists through time without imagining it to have a chair-soul or a chair-ego that possesses its traits.
It has characteristics such as being three feet high at the seat, padded with foam and covered with green cloth, but there is no chair over and above these characteristics.
If we took away the foam and the seat and the cloth and so on, we would not be left with a naked chair, as if objects were ghostly coat hangers upon which traits are hung. Yet this is precisely what we often imagine to be true in the case of persons.
Well, who knows? Maybe it is true. But since soul is, by most definitions, distinct from materiality and mentality, there's no way to perceive it or cognize it.
Like Fearn says, soul is considered to be something ethereal—pure consciousness perhaps—that (or who) somehow manages to serve as the core of our being even though it's essentially nothing.
The more we wish to gain immortality by divesting ourselves of earthly trappings such as physicality, memories and the like, the more we reduce ourselves to nothing at all – and, to quote the American children's author Norton Juster, doing nothing is hardly worth the effort.
Along the same lines, Hofstadter persuasively argues that the "I" of each of us starts out as a blank slate. He finds no evidence that a soul enters the body at birth, or conception, or somewhere in between, and thereafter serves as the "coat hanger" on which the attributes I consider to be Me are hung.
The key point, uncomfortable for you though it will be, is that no one started out in that brain – no one at all. It was just as uninhabited as a swinging rope or a whirlpool. But unlike those physical systems, it could perceive and evolve in sophistication, and so, as weeks, months, and years passed, there gradually came to be someone in there.
…This "I", this unreal but unutterably stubborn marble in the mind, this "Epi" phenomenon, simply takes over, anointing itself as Reality Number One, and from there on it won't go away, no matter what words are spoken.
It turns out, then, that soulfulness is eminently unspiritual. For when we believe that some part of us—no, even more, the essence of us—is eternally distinct from everyone and everything else we encounter in the world (sticks and stones may break my bones, but my soul is immutable), a sense of separateness is inevitable.
Soul is considered to be separate from body. The realm of soul is considered to be separate from the physical universe. Awareness of soul is considered to be separate from material and mental perceptions.
The writings of British philosopher Derek Parfit are discussed at some length in Hofstadter's book. Parfit also pops up in Fearn's first chapter. Hmmmmm. Parfit sightings in two consecutive reads, after a lifetime of never having heard of him.
Here's how that initial chapter ends:
The personal identity debate shows just what happens when we dispense with the soul. For Parfit, the consequences are liberating. He writes that when he thought his existence a fact distinct from his physical and psychological continuity, he seemed 'imprisoned' in himself. 'My life seemed like a glass tunnel, though which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there as darkness.' However:
'When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.'
Another response might be to dwell on how the fleeting status of human existence has been accentuated. Not only are human beings continually coming into being and passing away, but they are even doing this on countless occasions within a single lifetime. We are, it seems, a flicker within a flicker.