Body, Mind And What Exactly?

Ever since Socrates, we have known that people are often quite unable to explain what they mean by the words they use every day. It is the same with the terms “spirit” and “spiritual”. If you ask people what these words mean, you will get at best concepts or entities that are already quite adequately covered by other terms, at worst total confusion.

Since “spiritual” necessarily means “pertaining to ‘spirit'”, let us begin with the noun. Some people think themselves composed of two elements, called variously body and mind, or body and soul, or body and spirit. This is presumably for two reasons: we experience ourselves, or have been taught to experience ourselves, or our natural languages force us to consider ourselves, as something that inhabits a body. When a person dies he does certainly appear to be a body minus something-or-other, and our noun-oriented language compels us to think in terms of a thing that has gone away rather than a process that has terminated. Ordinary dualists, however, cannot seem to agree whether to call the departed component “spirit” or “soul”, or about what relationship, if any, both terms have to “mind”.

It gets worse when people start positing not two but three elements. For one group this is body, mind and soul, but others say they are made of body, mind and spirit. In both cases we may assume that they are thinking of the mind as a part of what dies, and the soul or spirit as something that does not. As we shall see, the big confusion is then the difference between soul and spirit. A third group, however, names their three components as body, soul and spirit. It is not clear what they think the mind is, but otherwise they have the same problem as the second group, what they actually mean by soul and spirit and which bit is supposed to be immortal.

If “soul” is supposed to mean that bit of us which is judged and goes somewhere or other, what then is the spirit? Ancient Egyptian religion certainly talked of several components that outlasted the body and encountered different fates in the afterlife, but this is no part of any Christian theology. So what is a human spirit if not a synonym for the soul? The confusion increases if we reflect that we talk about immortal souls, not about immortal spirits; similarly, we talk about the blessed and the damned souls, not usually about the blessed and the damned spirits, which tends to refer instead to the angelic orders. So souls are from humans and spirits are older than us? Well, perhaps not, because our haunted houses are afflicted by unquiet spirits and not by restless souls. Anglican churchgoers used to hear, “The Lord be with you”, and make the response, “And with thy spirit”? Why not “And with thy soul”? If it is the soul that is bound for heaven or hell, surely it is the soul and not the spirit that the Lord needs to be with? It is no better in Scripture. Jesus commended to God on the Cross, not his soul but his spirit. Was this just a way of saying, “Now I am going to let go and die”, or did he mean his immortal component? If the latter, why did he speak of a soul as well (what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul)? If the two Greek and/or Aramaic words meant the same thing in his time, what then is meant by the “spirit of God” and the “Holy Spirit” – is God the same sort of stuff as a human soul, but just more of it? And if they meant the same thing then, why do some people speak of the soul and spirit as two different things now; alternatively, if a reason has since been found to distinguish between them, what is it?

Then again we have the German language, which identifies Spirit (Geist) not with Soul (Seele) but with what the English call Mind. A perception that links the professor with the deity explains a lot about German academic life; but it also suggests that not everyone regards the spirit and the soul as synonymous.

It is interesting to note that in Muslim thought, the djinni and shayatin evade the sensory perception of most men, but that this does not make them ‘spiritual’ beings; this term is reserved for the cosmic guardian intelligences, the ruhani. In other words, the djinni are just a peculiar part of the natural world; moreover, some of them are malicious while others are good Muslims.

One traditional meaning of “spirit” is that which is thought to leave the body at death, not least because in some languages it is the word for breath: for example ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek, spiritus in Latin and so forth – though not in German, as we have seen. Since people generally stop breathing when they die, identifying soul or spirit with breath is not an entirely unnatural move, which is not to say that it is a correct thing to do. Despite an unrepeated, and thus deeply unscientific, weighing experiment that inspired the title of a film, there is no compelling reason to believe in any material component of a person – other than the air in his lungs – that leaves him with his last breath and goes somewhere else. Any in any case, were there really to exist such a component, measurable in grams, what would that have to do with what religious people mean by the soul or spirit, namely something that bears the essence of the person onward to a new realm? Unless all a person’s memories can really be encoded into a mysterious something that weighs 21 grams, why should we care what happens to it?

The implication that “spirit” or “soul” is a material substance may not have bothered the Ancients, but certainly ought to bother adherents of a religion that uses “the material world” as a term of abuse. Some people who believe in spirits – in the sense of dead people, of something inside living people, or both – explain them in terms of “energy fields” or other hand-waving taken from the flotsam of popular science. Let us agree for the sake of argument that human consciousness might in fact be vectored by means of electromagnetic phenomena that are independent of the body. The big question would then be, not whether this is inconceivable in itself, but what it would have to do with the claims made by the religions. These energy fields, these “spirits”, would then be a part of the natural world, on the same footing as, say, hamsters. We fail, however, to find hamsters either numinous or of great ethical import; in particular, we do not speak of the hamsterish realm, much less of hamsterish values. It is also doubtful whether hamsters have a hamsterish Destiny; although there again, perhaps they say the same about us.

The same applies if “soul” is shorthand for the totality of personality and identity. It is not unreasonable that there should be such a shorthand expression; but there is nothing in it to suggest persistence after death. And indeed, there have been cultures that spoke of the “soul” as something that died with the body, or shortly afterwards. It may be worth noting that the Koran originally knew of neither immortal soul nor immaterial spirit; both are the result of later influences. In Mohammed’s original revelation, there is only Man, who dies, and then is resurrected following the annihilation of the entire creation. Presumably all his memories are reloaded in the instant of resurrection by God. The Indian epic-period Lokayata school described the soul as akin to the intoxicating quality of a mixture. It is obvious that when the medicine perishes, so too must its emergent property of being intoxicating. The Chinese philosopher Fan Chen described the soul as the “functioning of the body”. He compared the relationship between the body and the soul to that between a knife and the sharpness of its blade, and went on to ask: “I have never heard of sharpness surviving if the knife is destroyed, so how can it be admitted that the soul can remain if the body is annihilated?”

A common use of “soul” is as a shorthand for integrity, such as when someone “sells his soul” for career advancement. This just means that he has done bad things, and that the repeated doing of the bad things has permanently warped his character. However, we can perfectly well speak of such ethical and aretic matters without presupposing any immaterial essence that survives death.

We also have the idea of “spirit” as the vital principle or personality, as when we speak of a “spirited” horse. This refers to the horse’s energy, vigour and courage. Obviously this does not mean that the horse possesses an immaterial component that is not vouchsafed to weak and cowardly horses. Well, I suppose that some people might claim precisely that for humans, particularly those who think that heroic deeds can lead to apotheosis, but I hope it is clear that these are two different meaning for the same phonemes. The same applies to when we say that a person is in “high spirits”; is anyone really saying that a third, separable, component of the person, after body and soul (or body and mind) has entered a different state? Again, perhaps the thing is not impossible, but I should prefer to treat this as yet more evidence that we use this word to mean far too many things at once. Moreover, if “spiritual” were mean nothing more interesting than “cheerful” or “pertaining to positive, vigorous behaviour”, that would leave such a concept as “the spiritual life” high and dry. Which might actually be a good thing.

Anyone who treats “soul” and “spirit” as synonymous and meaning our putatively immortal part, as opposed to our body, is at least using concepts economically and not entirely incoherently. The person who thinks he has both a “soul” and a “spirit” but has no idea what he means by them or what the difference might be is in a worse position. If you do not know what you mean by your own “spirit”, it is unlikely that you will be using the adjective “spiritual” in any meaningful manner.

Posted on May 18, 2009 at 16:34 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion And Conceptual Muddle

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  1. Written by Urban Djin
    on May 18, 2009 at 18:21

    My own spiritual life consists of the consumption of distilled spirits, generally in the form of tequila.

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