Lots of people believe in what philosophers call "mind-body dualism." Or if they're mystically or religiously inclined, they'll say that the soul is the non-physical side of who we are.
Regardless, this is a dualistic view of life. It's nothing new. Plato was a dualist, as was Descartes.
Nowadays, science has discredited the notion that human consciousness has a metaphysical aspect. Mind states clearly are related to brain states. There's no convincing evidence that consciousness exists separate from a body.
Yet belief in an immaterial soul or mind that survives physical death is still widespread. Most Christians believe this. So do most Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and other followers of a religious faith (including eclectic New Ager's).
One is simpler than two. So a dualistic outlook on life is going to be more complex than a unitary viewpoint.
For example, believers in mind/soul-body dualism have to explain how it is that something immaterial could interact with something material. How can a ghost pass through walls, yet also knock over a lamp? How can the soul be unaffected by the body, yet also inhabit a physical form?
In Stephen Bachelor's new book, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist," he tackles these questions -- finding Buddhist (and other) notions of an immaterial mind/soul to be highly problematical.
I've only read a few chapters of the book, so Bachelor probably expands upon these ideas. But here's the way he explains the issue so far.
First, "emptiness" is a key Buddhist concept. This doesn't mean nothingness. Rather, it is that nothing has a fixed identity.
An empty self is a changing, evolving, functional, and moral self. In fact -- and this is the twist -- if the self were not empty in this way, it would be unable to do anything. For such a hypothetical self would be utterly disassociated from everything in the living world, existing in a purely metaphysical sphere, incapable of either acting or being acted upon.
Pretty dismal notion.
But this is what the idea of an immortal, immaterial, unchanging soul utterly divorced from the body points toward. We would have no idea that the soul existed, because the soul would have no connection with human cognition, experience, perception, or anything else.
Stephen Bachelor writes:
How can such an immaterial mind [or soul] ever connect with a material body? Being immaterial, it cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. If it is untouchable, how can it "touch" or have any contact with a brain?
...I rebelled against the very idea of body-mind dualism. I could not accept that my experience was ontologically divided into two incommensurable spheres: one material, the other mental. Rationally, I found the idea incoherent.
Yet this is what I was being asked (told) to believe. I could not accept that, in order to be a Buddhist, I had to take on trust a truth-claim about the nature of the empirical world, and, having adopted such a belief, that I had to hold on to it regardless of whatever further evidence came to light about the relation of the brain to the mind.
Belief in the existence of a non-physical mental agent, I realized, was the Buddhist equivalent of belief in a transcendent God.
If God is transcendent, there is no way for a living, breathing, bodily-existing human being to know God. Likewise, if soul is transcendent, there also is no way to have a soulful or spiritual experience while alive.
So blind faith is required to believe in either an immaterial God or soul. Many people are comfortable with this sort of dogmatic religiosity. Bachelor isn't. Neither am I.
I'd rather live in reality than illusion. "Soul" and "God" are enticing ideas, to be sure. However, just as it isn't possible to relieve hunger from imaginary food, genuine meaning in life can't be founded on imaginary concepts.