Monday, June 20, 2011

Mortal soul

This from a review in the TLS of Beryl Bainbridge's new novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. The reviewer mentions an earlier Bainbridge novel in which a girl views the dead body of a member of her adopted family:
Myrtle reflects: "Now, if proof were required that the soul flees the body, I might have pointed the finger at him; there was no mistaking his emptiness". This case for the existence of the soul is repeated in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, when Rose remembers seeing her dead mother: "'The good thing it did for me,' she persisted, 'was to make me believe that there's something beyond death. Her body was there but her soul wasn't'"
It is easy to understand the origin of the idea of an immortal soul, a personal essence that leaves the body at death and continues to exist in another guise or dimension. The idea apparently had its origin early in human history, perhaps contemporaneous with the dawn of self-consciousness. Articulate awareness of self is the defining essence of our species. It provided our ancestors with their first universal metaphor. Animism was the original philosophy.

Just as the perceiving individual was aware of a self that somehow seemed to reside in her body, so she endowed every part of her environment with selfhood, not just other humans, but also animals, plants, rocks, pools, mountains, Sun and Moon. Everything had an animating spirit. Piaget showed us that animism is the default organizing concept of very young children. Crayoning a smiley face on a flower or the Sun is a way of endowing the environment with the thing we recognize so fiercely in ourselves

The immortal soul is a primal meme. In a world where everything is assumed to be alive, death is an aberration, an unnatural event, explained away by being denied.

We live in a very different world today. Since the 17th century, the machine has become the predominant scientific metaphor for understanding the world. Pick up any issue of Science or Nature and you will encounter explicit references to the machinery of life. In the new dispensation, the body is as much a machine as my MacBook Pro or a Boeing Dreamliner. And when my Mac stops working or the Dreamliner crashes, we don't go looking for its spirit in some other place. We accept the inevitable. Finished. Kaput. The animating principle was the machinery itself -- while in working order.

We can now imagine personal mortality because we have an intellectual framework in which functionality is finite.

Which is not to say that very many of us are prepared to abandon the primal meme. The idea of personal immortality is so deeply entrenched in our culture that it is hard to let it go, even though not a shred of empirical evidence can be educed to support its existence. The immortal soul is a notion we clutch to our breast with a jealous tenacity.

Can soul be saved, stripped of immortality? More tomorrow.