You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.
What deity in the realms of dementia, what rabid god decocted out of the smoking lobes of hydrophobia could have devised a keeping place for souls so poor as is this flesh. This mawky wormbent tabernacle?
I love the sentiment and the poetry of this. I do. I get that it’s important.
But (with apologies to Theremina, who is awesome) it drives me CRAZY. Why?
Because NO, NO, NO, you are not a ghost driving a machine. You are not a tiny green homunculus sitting at the controls of a steampunk automaton. You are not Spock trapped in a body that wants to be Kirk. You are not dual, you are not refined intellect riding gross matter like an unruly mustang. You are not Ariel carried by Caliban.
You are you. Your body is you. Your cognition exists in the flesh. It is not separate, not spun glass in the hands of a chimp. Your body creates your mind. Your gut, the ropy intestinal tract that digests your food, has 100,000,000 neurons in it. There are quite a lot of animals with fewer than that. Your whole physical shape, your food and drink, exercise, amount of sunshine, of sex, of affection, sitting position and amount of sleep, affects not only your mood but your supposedly pure cognitive choices. Look down and to the left and name a string of random number between zero and ten million. Now do the same looking up and to the right. The second batch will be higher. And your body’s genes play a role in your thinking, too – identical twins separated at birth and raised separately are often seen to develop, if not similar politics, similar moods of political opinion.
The need to separate the body from the mind comes from an old slander that physical matter is dross, simply too crude to support the fineness that is thought. Physical matter, forever dancing around energy, shifting from one configuration to another, even now withholding secrets from our most sophisticated inquisitors, is not crude. It is brilliant, and yes, you are made of stardust and stars are made of you, so why – oh, why – would you try to distance yourself from the beauty of it and reach for comfort in the form of some old Cartesian slur derived from a tacit heteropatriarchal fear of physical desire?
Consider what you are: the most recent iteration of your genetic code, itself the product of strange chemistry in bubbling primordial pools, in turn resting upon vast releases of energy into stunning cold according to a template almost bizarrely suited to the emergence of conscious life – which may, in turn, be a vital component of its function. Caught midway between the appalling vastness of the Newton-Einstein universe and the implausible mechanics of the tiny, you exist in both; composed largely of water, whose relationship with the quantum world is only just beginning to reveal itself, you are gorgeously liminal, fragile, biological and complex.
And, that, that is why you’re incredible.
“The need to separate the body from the mind comes from an old slander that physical matter is dross, simply too crude to support the fineness that is thought.”
No, it comes from the fact that 100% of humans, including you, have experienced the fact that our bodies and our souls want very different things. Our bodies want to eat, reproduce, and not get killed. Our souls have other aspirations: to achieve things, to behave morally, to understand the universe. These things frequently conflict with each other. That is why we admire people who, for example, defy their bodies’ wishes in order to risk their lives rescuing others.
The contrary idea, that we are our bodies instead of that we merely occupy our bodies, is nowadays held to be “scientific”, but in fact is a direct descendant of traditional Christianity. Let’s explore the history a little. Virtually all ancient peoples understood that the body and the soul are too separate things. The main exceptions were Zoroastrians and Egyptians, both of whom believed that eventually, the world would be reborn as a much niftier place and all the dead people ever would reconstitute their bodies and live in them forever. (That is the reason behind mummification.) Most historians think that ancient Jews got this idea from Zoroastrians, though it seems to me logical that they would have picked it up from the Egyptians during their generations of slavery there. Christians inherited the idea from Jews. It’s called “the resurrection of the body”.
Technically, Christian theology holds that you and your body are the same thing. If you feel lust, it’s not because your body has hormones prompted by your genetic code, it’s because you are a sinner. If you have an impulse to steal something you want, or to assault someone who angers you, it isn’t because your body remembers its ape ancestry and gives you impulses fit only for apes, it’s because you are a sinner.
Most contemporary Christians and Jews don’t even know that this is the traditional theology of their faiths. I converted to Judaism, which required considerable study before I was allowed into the mikveh, and I didn’t find this out until later by pure chance. Even many clergymen do not know this idea! The reason is that Christians and Jews have steadfastly resisted this idea for all of history, because everyone has experienced that their bodies and souls want different things, and because very few people find the idea of eternity trapped in a slab of meat appealing. When churches had the political power to do so, they would torture and execute people who believed that the soul and body are not one indivisible thing. Only the threat of torture and death could make people accept this idea. When churches could no longer threaten people with this, they all but ceased to teach this notion, because hardly anyone wants to believe it. When I was researching this concept, I read about one Protestant minister who read a book by a Catholic priest about bodily resurrection that convinced him of the scriptural soundness of it. He started preaching it to his congregation and they all started complaining; they hated the idea.
This, by the way, is why cremation was illegal until recently, and why doctors used to have to rob graves to dissect human bodies to study. Burial was supposed to keep the body ready for the resurrection. The bodies of condemned criminals were given to doctors and medical students to dissect as further punishment to the condemned: they were being deprived of their afterlife.
In the days when people believed in vampires, if they believed that there was a local vampire, they had to wait to get ecclesiastical approval before they could burn the suspected corpse. In my opinion, the only good thing about the idea of bodily resurrection is that if we had practiced cremation for most of European history, we wouldn’t have been able to much develop the idea of vampires, thus depriving us of a lot of great movies and novels.
As is probably obvious by now, I find life in a physical body revolting and have no interest in continuing that forever. That’s my emotional response and I decline to be shamed for it. If you like it, bully for you, it’ll make your sojourn here more pleasant than mine. It doesn’t make you a better or more enlightened person. Nor does it make me “heteropatriarchal” – I’m not heterosexual, not male, and the notion that body and soul are one was in fact enforced by Christian patriarchy for centuries.
Obviously, I am a religious person and do believe in immortal souls. People with a materialistic, atheistic worldview will have to work out their own solution to the fact that their bodies and their souls want different things, I can’t help them with that. Pretending the division doesn’t exist isn’t a good one, though.