“The soul is nothing else than the succession of my occasions of experience, extending from birth to the present moment.” —Whitehead
Talking about the soul is confusing.
I believe my earliest understanding of the soul was instilled in me by my mother at a fairly young age. Hers was a very Jewish understanding of the soul, in my opinion (even if she wasn’t aware of it), as the soul was explained to me to be essentially equated with life which was breathed into me by God while I was still just a tiny little bean in her belly. This basic understanding of “soul” and “spirit” as “life” or “breath” has always sort of stuck with me in the background, which is good, but I just wonder if I could have avoided a lot of trouble and confusion if I had simply kept this Jewish sort of understanding at the forefront. It was the plethora of Christian, Cartesian and other Western philosophical understandings of the soul that I was later exposed to which really screwed me up along the way, I believe, and I’d bet that I’m not the only one for which this is the case.
It didn’t take long before the most common, abstract and confusing, Christian understanding of the soul was taught to me in a very authoritative sort of way (No surprise there! Thanks White Euro-American Christians!). The idea of the soul as some sort of ontological reality which is distinct, but yet somehow related to the body in some way, and which is a “substantive substance endowed with reason” (as Augustine says), is pretty common among many Christians (Catholic and Protestant; not sure about Orthodox though…). The soul is also very valuable, according to Christians, so much so that God takes special interest to judge them; good souls go to heaven after death and the not so good ones go to hell. Obviously I’m cynically-generalizing quite a bit here and I confess that there is, assuredly, a wide diversity among Christians regarding matters of salvation and human anthropology. But on a serious note, one thing that sort of holds true, in my experience, for a large number of people regarding the soul is that it is basically understood as the immortal, transcendent, incorporeal essence of a person. This is the message I got growing up in church anyway, and to be honest I really never understood any of it.
This view of the soul as the immortal and/or pre-exsistant, essential, supernatural self-thing, which demarcates humans from nature, is not easy to let go of once it is “understood” and accepted as a fact. Aside from providing some desirable certainty about an issue which can be extremely ambiguous and difficult to comprehend, this abstract and archaic understanding of the soul also gives one comfort as it assures us that we are not merely bags of meat and bones that live a short time and then decay in the grave after death (can’t blame people for wanting to avoid that worldview!). But now, as a special type of religious naturalist, the more I think about those abstract, confusing doctrines of the soul that come mainly from Christianity and Western Philosophy, the more I feel it’s important to not be mystifying or convoluted when we talk about the soul. In other words, it’s not that we should stop talking about the soul, it’s that we should get better at talking about it, and definitely stop conceiving of it as a mysterious, alien, abstract, completely inconceivable, super-natural thing.
Enter Whitehead’s very Eastern, but also very Western (in a naturalistic/radically empirical sort of way), understanding of the soul. Although Whitehead’s understanding of the soul differs from Platonism, Cartesianism, and historic Christianity, he thinks it is still an important concept that should be reclaimed, and I appreciate this. I also appreciate that Whitehead’s conception of the soul is, as usual, creative and very intuitive (imo). Whitehead explains very simply that:
“The soul is nothing else than the succession of my occasions of experience, extending from birth to the present moment. Now at this instant, I am the complete person embodying all these occasions. They are mine. On the other hand it is equally true that my immediate occasion of experience, at the present moment, is only one among the stream of occasions which constitutes my soul.”
John Cobb, in his book A Christian Natural Theology, puts it this way:
“Individuals exist only momentarily…we must think of the soul as that society composed of all the momentary occasions of experience that make up the life history of the man [sic]. The soul is not an underlying substance undergoing accidental adventures. It is nothing but the sequence of the experiences that constitute it.”
More poetically perhaps, another process-relational philosopher, Bob Mesle, remarks:
“…a soul is not a thing, it is not something which stands untouched by the events of your life. Your soul is the river of your life; it is the cumulative flow of your experience. But what do we experience? The world. Each other. So your soul is the cumulative flow of all of your relationships with everything and everyone around you. In a different image, we weave ourselves out of the threads of our relationships with everyone around us.”
Upon gaining this understanding of the soul as living person/organism in relational process, I amazingly sort of found myself back were I started, with a very valuable, Jewish, and organic/naturalistic take on the what the soul is (or could be). For me, thinking of the soul as who we are from a first person perspective (one might want to talk about self-awareness, psyche, mentality, or consciousness here, which is associated with the brain in humans, but is yet more than the brain), plus that which makes us unique, but which is also actually composed of all that has come before and which is always incomplete, is so much less confusing than trying to wrap my mind around whatever the hell Augustine was trying to say about the perfect unity of two substances. Obviously, I’m not going to say there is not a whole lot more to the process-relational understanding(s) of the soul (which are many and diverse); it’s true that one could easily meander into confusing, technical talk of ‘dominant occasions’ and raise questions about the uniqueness of the human soul and even ask if souls could exist without brains (John Cobb seems to think it’s logical). I enjoy that sort of detailed discussion, and I am all for imaginative speculation, but for the purposes of this post I’ll just briefly say that I’m personally fine at the moment with remaining agnostic/ambivalent (if not hopeful) about life after death. However, I am more than willing to dethrone humans as I have come to adopt a sort of indigenous animism, which would posit that all non-human animals, plants, and inanimate objects possess souls, as I can also say that I do not see any sharp distinction between the spiritual/psychic/subjective and physical/material/objective realms.
All in all, I do think it is possible to talk about the soul and not be confusing and mystifying, and this is a good thing. I don’t mean to imply that we don’t already speak intelligently or technically about the soul (like I said above, we do and it’s confusing to me). What I’m saying, conversely, is that if we make the soul into this weird, hard-to-understand, abstract sort of mysterious “thing,” well…then we’ve already went down the wrong road.
Art above by Vincent Castiglia