A technician explains measurements whilst a scientist explains observations.

The Nature of the Soul


Won't somebody tell me
Answer if you can
Won't somebody tell me
Tell me what is the soul of a man?
Blind Willie Johnson


If there is a religious or spiritual aspect to life then it must be here, now. If it exists we must be exposed to it every day but we do not see it or we misinterpret it. It may come as a shock but there really is an aspect of life that we overlook and misinterpret every day. In fact its not just an aspect, it is our life itself that we overlook. I'll explain.

The first thing we overlook is the fact that no-one knows how we can see anything. Yes, this thing that we call "seeing" is unexplained. Just look around. How do you see the world? Light comes from the sun and the light rays that are not absorbed by objects are reflected in all directions. This reflected light falls all over the lens system of your eye and is focussed to form an image on the back of your eye (on the retina). So what are you seeing? Are you seeing the sun, the image on your retina or the last thing that reflected the light?

The answer to this question has caused a lot of debate because we use the word "see" in an odd way: if I see a cow then I believe its the cow that I see. But if I go up to a cow I find that its a dirty great thing, a whole volume of body, and it has parts that I didn't see before I got close up. What's more, if its dark and I shine a bright light on the cow I can use a lens to make an image of it on a screen and this image looks more like the cow I "saw" than the real thing. So when I say I "see" a cow what I actually see is like the image on the back of my eye made from the light that has bounced off a cow. Our words refer to the actual cow, out there, but our sight contains an image.

Why is this cow important? Its important because even though our sight contains a flattish image this image appears as if it is out there, in a field. You've got a flattish image of a cow on your retina, like a photo, but you appreciate this image as if you were at some point a hundred metres away from it. How do you do that? Its like sticking a flat photo in your brain and your brain creates a whole space where the things in the photo can reside. No wonder we get mixed up between whether we are seeing an image or an actual cow.

This trick of making some sort of visual space is amazing. I can have dreams that have things in a visual space. I can shut my eyes and imagine things in a visual space. Even if you cannot form images with your eyes shut you can still notice a dark, visual space.

Still don't believe this is weird? Well, look at your eyes in a mirror. Do you ever see them move? Move your eyes, do they move in the mirror? No, they don't move. They don't move because what you have in your experience is a visual space within your brain that is based on data from your eyes. You don't even see the image on your retina, you see an entirely mental image based on the data on your retina.

So, here is an aspect of everyday life that is amazing and unexplained - the visual space that our brains make.

The second aspect of life that we overlook all the time is our ability to know our thoughts. Knowing our thoughts is deeply related to the existence of time. When is "now"? Say "Now!". When was that? Is it now or has it gone? Yes, its weird but now is always just gone. The present moment occupies no time at all, it is zero seconds long so if you have anything that takes time in your experience it is always composed of a slice of time from the past. You know your thoughts because your experience contains a second or two of the past, not as memories but as what we call the "present" - even though it is just past.

So, what are you? You probably think of yourself as the person who meets your relatives and friends and talks to them, a player on the stage of life. But what is the stage you experience but the mental space that you generate in your head and what are the events that you mull over except segments of time past that you generate in your head. So what are you? You are the events distributed in the space and time in your head - what people call a "mind". A man is his mind.

Most people splutter when they hear this and say "You might live in a dream but I see the world mate!". Do you? Or do most people have no idea what the actual world is like? The real world is almost entirely empty space with little tiny atoms surrounded by waves of electrons, photons carry energy from the world to our eyes and electrical forces allow us to touch things. Do you really see mostly space, do you watch the oscillating electric and magnetic field in photons, do you see the back of three dimensional objects or do you see a wonderful interpretation of these things that we call our minds?

How your mind is made is a complete mystery. As a scientist I would guess that its components such as events, space and time, are the stuff of the ordinary world and we just don't know how they can come together as a mind. Another name for this spatio-temporal mind is the "soul". The soul involves time as a "form" and so actions are crucial to its harmony - but what are the right actions? (See Time and conscious experience).

There is the most remarkable amount of discussion by philosophers about this soul. Some of them deny that they have minds and others are transfixed by nineteenth century science and claim that because the possibility of mind is incompatible with what we knew about the world a century or more ago then the mind could only exist if "dualism" applied. The simple truth is that we don't know how the physical world has minds, it obviously has them but we will need to know a whole lot more about space, time, matter, quantum theory etc. before we can integrate the spiritual into our knowledge of the universe. Religious folk are often even worse than philosophers, many of them have so little faith that they declare that the spiritual is unknowable and forever inexplicable. Well, if there is a God He is here, now and also then and He is part of ourselves and the world or even the totality of these things and the problem of explaining this would be entirely our own.

If our minds do indeed extend in time to allow us to hear whole words and see movement then there would be an existent time dimension. We still exist. Furthermore we could exist at any instant in the past as much as now. This has huge implications because it means we live before death and continue to do so. Of course, this would only be of interest if it is possible that even now I am taking decisions that branch my life into a different existence from the one that I experienced, if that were the case then "Heaven is amongst you" would be true, it would just be a matter of adopting it.

See also:

Presentism and the denial of mind.
Materialists should read this first.

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