31 January 2013

Evolution vs. Dualism

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume you’re a sensible person and acknowledge that evolution through natural selection is the definitive way that all life on this planet progressed from the first organism to where it is today. Some of you, however, may be holding on to some residual or incidental belief that we all possess a soul of some type.

Here’s my question: if we humans evolved over billions of years, from single-celled organisms, to tiny mammals, to primates, to homo sapiens, then at which point along the way did we develop a soul? (Or spirit, or emergent mind, or universal consciousness antenna, or what have you.) I want to be clear here: evolution takes place over long expanses of time and, at any given point, it is possible to identify a life form as a specific species, but it is not possible to pinpoint the exact moment when one species became another. So, if the inanimate strands of RNA that eventually coalesced into our single-celled ancestors didn’t have souls, while we do, where along the way did we pick them up?

Bonus question for animists: where along the way from a trickle to a waterfall did a river get its soul?

I’m going to think of a few evolution-friendly soul development scenarios:

1. The entire universe, even the things we see as inanimate objects, are all part of a single soul.

2. We evolved structures in our brain that just happened to allow us to tap into the universal consciousness. Like lightning rods. Or decoder rings.

3. When god saw that we had evolved to the point where he had intended, he then imbued us with our souls.

4. Our souls sought us out when they saw we were adequate vessels (similar to #3).

5. The soul itself evolved with us as a spiritual component to the properties of physical life.

6. I don’t know, man. Why can’t you just appreciate the beauty and harmony of the universe without questioning it so much?

I bring up these examples to demonstrate something very simple: they’re all just conjectures without evidence. They’re neat ideas. They’re cool to think about. To the untrained mind, they may even sound like endorsements for the existence of a soul. But they are made of the same stuff that a screenwriter comes up with to patch up the fact that the lead actor quit mid production. The truth is that the concept of a soul is ill-defined and unsupported. The best way we can justify it is to simply use our imagination to fill the gaps that our reality, justified as it is, presents to us.

But a soul, you say, is just like our consciousness; an emergent property of our complex minds that we cannot explain. Well, here’s why they’re different: we know we have a consciousness because, by the very definition we give it, it is that thing that allows us to be aware of our thoughts and actions. And that definition makes a consciousness no more supernatural than, say, love, which can be quantified as mere chemical reactions under the right definition. But what exactly is a soul and how do we know that it exists? In order to acknowledge that a soul exists, must we, too, neuter its definition so that it no longer assumes the immortality or physical transcendence that is believed by many? If your only recognition of your own soul comes from within your own mind, can it not then be said that your soul is likely just a part of your mind? A thought? An idea? A narrative device?

Some say that the soul is the breath that gives a body life, but that only brings us back to the evolution problem. Did a single soul start the entire chain reaction? Why don’t more souls do that? Sounds like mythology. Some say that the soul is the source of your mentality and sensibility. In that case, I ask you this: if a doctor can surgically turn off one hemisphere in your brain, or just give you a large dose of some medication, that is, a physical action upon a physical body part, to drastically change your personality and thought process, what’s he doing in terms of your soul? Futzing with your antenna?

The answer all along is that souls don’t exist and minds are merely the result of the physical behavior of your brain and the chemicals within it. The whole soul idea was just something they came up with before anyone had the means to know better. It’s a shame that with every discovery about how our physical world works, some people come up with even more convoluted explanations for what a soul is exactly. I think it’s safe to say that we can put that one to bed now.