Last week an interesting debate was sparked by Simon Barnes in the Times, who slams Richard Dawkins for having the gall to write a whole book about religion without having read the complete works of the Venerable Bede, or whatever it is you have to study before you earn the right to argue with a theist.
You may believe that you have a soul. Professor Dawkins believes that you don’t. Both positions are equally tenable in that both are matters of belief, of faith. This stuff can be neither proved nor disproved, therefore it is nothing to do with science.
Now, I believe that souls exist. I believe that people have a spirit – a dæmon, if you’re a Pullman fan. There has always seemed to be a kernel inside myself that defines my identity. I used to argue about this with a good friend of mine, who was into Buddhism at the time and kept emphasising that the self is constantly changing – I think the image he used was that of a clay pot thrown into new shapes on the wheel.
That idea struck me as repellent at the time and it still doesn’t convince. I believe that people can change, but in practice, people do not change as often or radically as we think. I still reflexively fall back on the idea of a permanent integral soul. If the self is an illusion, it can be fucking convincing. Perhaps I’m confusing the self with consciousness… but then we’re getting into deep ontological shit here…
Do I part company with the ‘New Atheists’ on this? A scientist might say that our idea of an individual self is created by neurons bouncing around in our heads. I’d have no problem with the principle that the soul is generated by the body. There’s an episode of the Simpsons where Lisa says: ‘Whether or not you believe the soul is real, it’s the symbol of everything fine inside us.’ The scientific explanation doesn’t detract from this point. We all speak in terms of the soul and spirit, especially when it comes to relationships. We lament the fact that we’ll die alone even if we die in each other’s arms. (No man is an island? Every man is an island.) The spirit is still the signifier of integrity: when we see Iggy Pop selling car insurance, we say that he has ‘sold his soul’.
As for whether the soul survives the experience of dying or can exist outside the body – we don’t know. The various theistic afterlifes are unconvincing, and also immoral, in that they encourage people to think of life as a prelude to death.
But Barnes is certainly wrong to claim that ‘this stuff… is nothing to do with science.’ If life and death isn’t the subject of rational inquiry, what is? Designing fucking mobile phones? It would be a massive blunder to cede the territory of the spirit and the self to the domain of the faithful. As Sam Harris said: ‘Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not.’