By Liah Greenfeld
The soul is an important subject for many people, but few of us would say it is scientific in the sense that it can be studied and understood by science. Science studies real things, which are referred to as “empirical,” and many of us are not entirely sure that souls are real. Many neuroscientists, in fact, don’t even believe that they exist; I would bet $1000 that 99% of them would not consider them “empirical.”
In this post, I would like you, my readers, to participate in proving such neuroscientists wrong. We are going to do this together, you and me, and we are going to do so empirically, that is relying on evidence or data. You and I are going to demonstrate empirically the reality of the soul.
Let us begin with a little experiment: Consider your daily experiences from the moment you wake up to the time you are falling asleep at night.
Give yourself two minutes.
What are these experiences? What do they consist of and where do they happen?
Remember: you hear the alarm. The first thing you feel is, perhaps, irritation: “Oh, Gosh, it’s time to get up again,” you say to yourself. Or, perhaps, your first experience of the day is joy: you say: “Aha, another day—so many wonderful things will happen!” and imagine these wonderful things. You get out of bed, your cat rubs against you, you say to the cat: “Hello, gorgeous” and think: “Oh, darling, darling kitty! Isn’t it a privilege to share one’s life with such a creature!” Or, perhaps not; perhaps you, rather, feel that old pain in your back and think: “One day I’ll have to get this thing checked.” The whiff of coffee reminds you of that day, long ago, in your grandmother’s kitchen, and its smells, the touch of your grandmother’s hand, the feel of that kitchen flood you for a moment, but you switch on the radio and hear a favorite melody; its sounds bring with them different images and replace your grandmother. You brush your teeth, notice their perfect whiteness, congratulate yourself on choosing a great cosmetic dentist and spend a moment smiling at your own reflection in the mirror. Your mood changes when the morning news reports on another turn in the presidential campaign and you express your disgust in a manner that causes your cat to raise its tail and walk out of the room. Or something else. Your feelings prompt your thoughts, these thoughts provoke other feelings, and so it goes until, 14 hours later (or 18 hours later, if you are twenty) you close your eyes, and thoughts, feelings, and images become blurred and transform, and whirl wearily, and you lose consciousness of yourself.
All these experiences are mental. Even if they have a physical aspect to them, they are mental, and most of them lack physical aspects: sounds you hear are mostly noiseless, sights that present themselves clearly to your “inner eye,“ occur irrespectively of what you are looking at. An overwhelming majority of these experiences are also symbolic: they are thoughts and emotions which involve words and images. They happen in our heads; they are experiences of the mind.
The sum of these daily experiences is our Experience with the capital “E”: it is the only direct knowledge we have of reality; it is, in fact, what reality is for us, for whatever it is for subjects of other kinds—for gods or dogs or trees—for human beings reality is only that which we know of it directly, by experience, while everything else we believe we know we extrapolate from it and is a matter of interpretation. To put this in other words, we have no empirical proof of anything else, because empirical (from Greek empeiria=experience) means “experience.”
You have just demonstrated that we have abundant empirical evidence for the existence of the mind.
Most languages do not have a word for mind; they refer to it as “soul” or “spirit” (psyche in Greek; anima and spiritus in Latin; âme and esprit in French, Seele and Geist in German, dusha and dukh in Russian, etc.) In English, these words (mind, soul, and spirit) are synonyms; they emphasize different aspects of the phenomenon, but denote the same referent. For instance, the proper vernacular rendition in English of the famous “psycho-physical” problem is the “mind-body” problem.
You have just demonstrated the empirical reality of the soul.
This experiment opens my recent book, Mind, Modernity, Madness, which was conceived as an introduction to the science of the mind (or soul). Clearly, if the soul is an empirical reality, it should be as amenable to scientific study as any other empirical reality, therefore, there should be a science that focuses on it. Why isn’t neuroscience this science is a good question, and we’ll explore it too in some of the future posts.
[Originally published on Psychology Today]