Sunday, May 16, 2010

What's a Soul?

As its Big May Question, UU Salon asks, "What is a Soul?"

Does it exist before we are born? Does it disappear when we die? It is unchangeable, or capable of growing/shrinking/strengthening? Can you lose your soul, or gain one?
Answers to such a question are explicitly rooted in one's theology. Those are theological questions. Is there a soul? What is it? Depending on what one believes, those answers may be defined (by a faith's doctrines, or by authorities who've already weighed in...). Or not.

Unitarian Universalists, of course, don't have an easy out; we don't share a theology that defines these answers. Even if we've adopted an existing theological view, within the context of our UUism, that offers answers, that's something that we have to consciously adopt.

So what are my answers?

Well they arise from the things I've already concluded. I'm not a supernaturalist (and having said that, I think we actually know so very little that I'm entirely confident that there are things that look entirely supernatural...). I'm some form of pantheist. "This"--all of this that we see, touch, feel, experience (and the much, much greater part that we do not) is part of what I describe as nature. And that's all there is.

"Soul" is a term I use to describe that experiential essence of being; the "I" that seems to exist within a living being. Not the thinking, but the aware observer that experiences being aware and observing. Perhaps that is an illusion--but if so, it's a "real illusion," in the same sense that solid objects are illusions.

I tend not to believe in a soul as an entity that has a coherent existence separate from the living wave-form of a being. (But I'm entirely at ease with the idea of being wrong; it's something humans are particularly adept at--being spectacularly, flamboyantly, fervently wrong). It's a part of the universe, too. It, I suspect, ends with death. And just like matter, it doesn't go away. "Away" is a false concept. There's no away to go to. It just changes form. Matter decays into component materials and becomes other forms of matter--living or not. Energy goes off as well. The essential thing that is us doesn't remain coherently us; instead, traces of what we were end up smeared across the rest of the planet and all life and through the universe (given enough time).

It's an answer that's actually the same as other answers--it just depends on the perspective one takes on it. It's entirely possible to look at this and say "There's only one soul, and it's shared and interwoven through everything and everywhen." Which is about as good a metaphor for god as anything I've heard.

Can it die? No. Can it be squandered? Sure. Soul is--as best I can make out--'meant' to be exercised and enriched. Shared.

12 comments:

Gerry said...

So, since the #1 principle for UU is the inherent dignity of all persons, should that include preborn girls and boys since they are persons who have inherent dignity?

ogre said...

Gerry, it's not the "#1 Principle," but merely the first of the list. There's no order of precedence--and some have argued that they are more of a pyramid, and the seventh is (in their view) more important than those that rest on it.

As to your question, there are certainly some UUs who might agree with you. We don't have a creed, and there's no hierarchy that can impose a point of doctrine and insist that we all believe it. We disagree--and agree to stick together regardless of disagreement.

I'll just note that your question has some built-in assumptions about who is a person and when. (The term "preborn" is an entirely loaded term.)

For *me*, person refers to that thing we call personality ("person" comes to us through Latin from Etruscan, where "phersu" meant "mask"). Until there's a functioning being there with a personality, I don't think it's meaningful to talk about a person. It turns out to approximate what was traditionally termed "quickening" (which more or less means 'coming to life'), which used to be in Catholic doctrine when a soul entered a body--not this idea that the instant a sperm and egg come together, presto, there's a person there.

It might help you to understand that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person--but a) that's something committed to by congregations in their covenant with each other (not by the individuals who are members of congregations), and b) there is a conscience clause; no one may be imposed on to accept any specific point against their own conscience and belief.

You'll find a significant number of UUs who feel that every living thing has inherent worth and dignity--and thus we find it the challenge of walking lightly on the web of existence, since each of us, no matter what we would like, is inescapably caught up in living, which means some form of harm to other beings.

I know of no one who takes the issue of abortion lightly. I take it too seriously to give you a snappy sound bite answer.

Gerry said...

I'm sorry, I was wrong about the actual Principle; it's, "The inherent worth and dignity of every person". (I left out "worth".)

You said,

"For *me*, person refers to that thing we call personality ("person" comes to us through Latin from Etruscan, where "phersu" meant "mask"). Until there's a functioning being there with a personality, I don't think it's meaningful to talk about a person. It turns out to approximate what was traditionally termed "quickening" (which more or less means 'coming to life'), which used to be in Catholic doctrine when a soul entered a body--not this idea that the instant a sperm and egg come together, presto, there's a person there."

As I see it, the main problem with your view (functioning being with personality) and all contingent views regarding actual, realized traits of people is that it runs logically against the actual principle which rests on the *inherent* worth and dignity of persons.

In other words, it's not what the person does, it is what the person is and is capable of doing (note, I didn't write potential of doing).

Really, person and human are interchangeable in the Principle since the word "inherent" is used. (I would argue that "inherent" is not necessary, but that's another thing.)

I'm really trying to understand the nature or the "inherent" term of the Principle.

If something's inherent, it doesn't matter what people think it is, it just is.

Put it in your terms: if someone has less "personality" can I say that they have less worth or dignity than me? How about a newborn baby?

As Lincoln said in his debate with Douglas regarding the enslavement of black people, "You say A. is white and B. is black. It is color, then: the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be a slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own." (He then went on to levels of intellect and interest.)

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BTW, as a Catholic, the Thomistic argument (which came from Aristotle) about the soul was from a theologian contemplating about the nature of the sin of abortion (mortal or venial etc), not if it was a sin or not. From the Didache ("you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten."), abortion was a sin for all Christians. The Didache was a Christian oral Tradition before the Catholic Bible.

ogre said...

Gerry, we're back to the fundamental question, "what is a 'person'?"

You ascribe personhood differently than I do. From a biological understanding (I don't believe in a supernatural soul), there's nothing there to be a person at the moment of conception. No nervous system from which that thing we know and experience as a person can arise.

You're quite right that there's an issue with "inherent" and... I agree. It's not necessary, and is in fact highly problematic. Rev. Bill Schulz, former president of the UUA and former exec director of Amnesty International has come to strongly object to the word--because of his extensive experience. He's gone so far as to state that in its current formulation, *he* does not subscribe to the first principle. A number of us don't, or do so with a caveat around "inherent."

In my case (Bill's views are somewhat similar, but I'm highly wary about speaking for him!), I consider all life to have worth. We're caught in a web in which every act has effects on other life that is worthy and due respect--and there is no way to remain alive and not impact other life and even to do it harm. That's a profound conundrum that underlies a number of religious traditions (like the Jains, and the Buddhists), and it informs many UUs.

Given that understanding, one has to make choices *constantly* about the harm one does in one's actions and in one's inactions--direct and indirect.

I just want to observe that we--you, I and others--make various presumptions about what's true, what's fact, etc.

The acorn is not the oak. The potential is not the reality. Life is inescapably a majestic mystery, both a comedy and a tragedy, and there's no escaping that.

Gerry said...

Could you link some quotes or articles about Bill Schulz on the supposed "inherent" problem?

Regarding my inquiry about inherent, it sounds like the Principles aren't really principles at all but just Opinions. Should they be called Opinions instead of Principles? I assume yes.

If this is so, why does the UUA advocate so strongly for abortion "rights"? Aren't they just opinions that all UUers can freely retain or reject? Why have any official UU positions or Principles since they are just opinions anyway? These are serious question and not meant to be attacks.

Back to the question at hand, if inherent is to be brushed aside as "highly problematic", should it be assumed that worth and dignity are contingent on some actual ability that is actuated currently in time? How about sleeping/coma/coma after which nothing is retained in memory/knocked out?

"Given that understanding, one has to make choices *constantly* about the harm one does in one's actions and in one's inactions--direct and indirect."

Yes, but UUers positively support the position that innocent preborn humans can be directly killed for really any reason. I understand that the question about their worth and dignity is now up for discussion, but if killing an innocent born human is always wrong and if preborn humans are shown to be equivalent in essence, worth, and dignity as born humans, shouldn't UUers advocate the positive protection of all innocent human life?

"I just want to observe that we--you, I and others--make various presumptions about what's true, what's fact, etc.

"The acorn is not the oak. The potential is not the reality. Life is inescapably a majestic mystery, both a comedy and a tragedy, and there's no escaping that."

Potential is a loaded term, much less so than preborn which is simply an entity that hasn't been born yet.

In reality, i.e. objectively (I assume UUers believe that some things can be objective; although I guess that some are existentialists who don't believe in reality), there are passive and active potentials. A pile of parts has an passive potential to become a car by the action of some entity, while individual living beings have an active potential to develop into a mature living being of its kind. (Human sperm and egg have passive potential to become a living being with active potential since an act of a male and female is required to create another individual.)

Regarding your acorn/oak posit, an acorn, sapling, and tree (etc) are stages of an oak's existence. Similarly, a caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly are stages of a monarch's existence. Just because a caterpillar has no wings doesn't mean the caterpillar is not a monarch. Further, the worth of each thing doesn't change across its development if it doesn't have a specific trait of another stage.

So, crushing an acorn has the same moral consequence as killing a tree by cutting it down. Smashing a monarch caterpillar has the same moral consequence as crushing a monarch butterfly. An oak or monarch doesn't have worth or dignity such that it is necessary that it not be killed. Even if they did, that would even more render a preborn human as having worth or dignity.

However, it is different for humans. After fertilization (takes seconds), the boy/girl zygote is a human that has the same worth as a fully conscious or comatose boy/girl.

The science can't be really questioned (like the Earth is roughly round), I argue that the logic is sound too (no soul talk necessary). A person if and only if a human.

ogre said...

Gerry, use Google. "Bill Schulz, inherent worth".

The principles are statements--open to revision, and must be considered for revision at least every 15 years--of UU values. Shared values.

We're free to:
* disagree about what we think they mean,
* decide how we believe they guide us, and what they imply.

The very nature of liberal religion is that it is open to new insight, to revelation. It embraces the idea that any--or all--of us may be wrong.

You're seeking to have your assumptions accepted as fact. Granting assumptions frequently grants conclusions.

The UUA advocates for abortion rights because the delegates of the congregations voted--repeatedly--on issues that bear on the rights of women and individuals. Your body is yours, and no one has a right to use it. Women have that same right.

Opinions? Everything is an opinion. We don't--as a faith tradition--believe in any revealed truth inscribed on stone or the tongue of a prophet. "God said so" has no weight with us as a body.

You keep making the presumption that the "preborn" are human beings, are persons. You're assuming your (desired) answer.

Asserting that a zygote is a person makes no sense to me.

Inherent is a problem because we--as a society (and it's true of UUs, as well) don't agree that there's a god who grants us this inherent worth. If it's not, then where's it from? Remember, it doesn't matter what you and I believe (as a theological matter), because we're talking about what the society should legislate, and impose as law, on those who believe differently--who do not believe in god at all (secular Atheists, Buddhists, Jains...). The justification in law has to make sense outside of a single religious tradition's perspective, dogma, and belief.

if preborn humans are shown to be equivalent in essence, worth, and dignity as born humans

If. And you propose to show that, how?

You are arguing that there is no difference between an undifferentiated blob of cells--a new zygote--and an independent, functioning human adult. You're arguing that such a blob has a right to impose on the life and health of an adult human being. The first assertion has no apparent basis and the second *is* a violation of the idea that we have equal worth and dignity, as well as the right to control our own bodies and destinies.

"Potential" is an entirely justifiable term. If you take a zygote into the world, it's not a human being. It's incapable of doing anything for itself. It's not an independent being, it's something that *may* (potentially) survive (something on the order of 50% of all zygotes fail to survive anyway) and grow into a human being. If you take that week old zygote and show it to people, no one is going to look at it and recognize it as a fellow human being, a person. It is a potential human being.

Preborn instead implies that there's no real distinction between a human being before and after birth--it presumes that the only distinction is that one has been born and another hasn't, yet.

An oak or monarch doesn't have worth or dignity such that it is necessary that it not be killed. Even if they did, that would even more render a preborn human as having worth or dignity.

Here we disagree completely. I find the crushing of an acorn categorically different from cutting down an oak. I don't recognize a zygote as a person. And I'm not at all convinced that there's greater worth and dignity inherent in a human than there is in another creature--other than my own very real self-interest as a member of my species.

the boy/girl zygote is a human that has the same worth as a fully conscious or comatose boy/girl.

No.

The science can't be really questioned....

Science? I don't see science in what you've asserted at all.

This isn't on topic (not about what a soul is or might be). I'm going to end this. Be well.

Gerry said...

I understand your keeping-on-topic principle.

The soul is that which is capable of knowing, loving, and serving God.

You and I are capable of this as is every other human: neither plant nor other animal have a soul.

kimc said...

I know you ended this, but I have to add just one more idea:
Being pro-choice and being anti-abortion are NOT equivalent opposites. the pro-choice position allows people to have or not have abortions according to their own beliefs, the anti-abortion position does not allow people to make their own decisions. This not only stops people who want an abortion from getting one, but also stops people who don't believe in abortion from being able to actually make what they consider the moral decision.

Gerry said...

"Being pro-choice and being anti-abortion are NOT equivalent opposites. the pro-choice position allows people to have or not have abortions according to their own beliefs, the anti-abortion position does not allow people to make their own decisions. This not only stops people who want an abortion from getting one, but also stops people who don't believe in abortion from being able to actually make what they consider the moral decision."

You are begging the question: Why does this matter if the preborn boy or girl is a person who should be protected by the 14th Amendment?

Does it matter if I think slavery is permissible? Does it matter if I think exterminating Jews should be allowable? Sometimes an action is just wrong no matter if someone thinks it's moral.

ogre said...

Finis, Gerry.

The short answer is that the 14th Amendment isn't applicable. If you're citing the Constitution, you'd better be on your game...

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside....

The Amendment explicitly to those born or naturalized. It would be a gross abuse of the language to insist that it applies to those not-born, when it's so clear.

(It would also drive the Latinophobes into hysteria--that would make any fetus ever present on US soil a citizen...)

Your question is an interesting moral one, but not on topic. And your position makes an assumption about what a person is--when personhood occurs. That's fine. But it's an assumption. There's no basis for it that's clearly better than others. The SCOTUS weighed on on this deeply grey and contentious issue in Roe v Wade. The law is unlikely to change.

People who've committed years to studying the issues and the facts disagree on the moral questions. In such a situation, it's grossly unjust to assert that you are right and others are wrong and should do it your way, and accept your assumptions and beliefs.

Which doesn't mean you should be happy with it.

But there are very useful things that could be done that would help. Those who oppose abortion *could* throw themselves into very effectively diminishing the number of abortions by cooperating with those who are pro-choice to drive very serious sex ed. The evidence from Europe shows that real education in such matters, as well as easy access to contraceptives makes a huge difference.

This is something that many UUs actively participate in, having helped create and running the Our Whole Lives program. Unplanned, unwanted pregnancies are the root cause of abortion. That's something we could agree on. Thousands upon thousands of years of history shows that "just say 'no'," wild misinformation and egregious fear-mongering *does not* diminish sexual activity.

It does help ensure that they don't know what they're doing, and that they take serious risks in the process of deluding themselves that it was out of their control.... And that results in a high level of unplanned pregnancy (and STDs--some of them fatal).

Without coming to an agreement about the morality (which seems highly unlikely...), we could cooperate to cut the number of abortions by a huge percentage.

Or we can just butt heads. It's pretty clear that the law (Roe v Wade...) isn't going to change. But the right can, it appears, strangle funding and support of real sex ed, and keep funding (highly ineffective!) abstinence only education--which keeps abortion rates high.

But as I said... finis. Any further posts here about this will be treated as emails to me, and will *not* be posted.

Gerry said...

Unfortunately, "kimc" doesn't have a blog, email address, or any contact info. Your blog is the only place for replying to him.

If you are graciously willing, please approve this comment and allow this link for kimc and me to further discuss this topic on my blog.

I won't comment at this post again per your repeated request.

Thanks.

Big Sap said...

ogre: You say crushing an acorn is categorically different from cutting down a majestic oak. Into which category do you place uprooting saplings? Saplings are in the same place biologically as, say, kindergarten-age children. Your positing of a hard categorical distinction would seem incompatible with any argument rooted in a notion of intermediacy.