The Guardian asks the question. Mark Vernon gets the first shot. The question is in response to a new book by Nicholas Humphrey: Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness. According to Vernon, Humphrey
discusses life in a “soul niche”. Fish live in a water niche, bedbugs in a blanket niche, humans live in a soul niche; the “territory of the spirit”. This is the magic of human consciousness. To have soul is to enjoy the beauties of the cosmos, the responsibilities of free will, the comforts of prayer, the illusion of life after death. Evolution must have concocted such a grandiose dream-world for us for a purpose – probably, according to the author, to make us feel special. That encourages us to give of our best and so is good for our survival and the survival of others.
Vernon finds Humphrey’s view reductionistic and offers a primer on a deeper notion of the soul in which mind and body are linked. It’s a notion that goes back to Aristotle. He concludes:
To put it another way, perhaps it’s time to consider the possibility that the hard problem of consciousness is not primarily to do with consciousness, but is to do with materialism. Perhaps consciousness is thought hard from this point of view because, in fact, energy, information or something quite like consciousness is the basic stuff of the cosmos? Matter might be the epiphenomenon, not mind. As Keith Ward entertainingly puts it in his new book, More Than Matter: “Minds are not illusory ghosts in real machines. On the contrary, machines are spectral, transitory phenomena appearing to an intelligible world of minds.”
You don’t have to be spiritual or religious to entertain such thoughts. Physicists do so quite routinely these days. It’s hardly avoidable when you deal with subatomic particles – the stuff of “matter” – as waves of probability rippling across fields of energy.
I’ll be interested to read the other responses, and the Ward book that Vernon mentions above.
I find this question or the related one having to do with those people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” interesting on theological grounds. But it is also an interesting question pastorally. I was intrigued by the recent essay from the Alban Institute on how religious organizations might reach out to the “spiritual but not religious” market, although I think many of the questions at the end of the article are focused on trying to fit the spiritual seeker back into an institution that may not be the focus of their spiritual search. The spiritual seeker, I think, tends to be very individualistic, at least in the quest aspect of their lives; and it may be more important to help them find ways to encounter the holy, and at the same time to do active outreach, than to offer bible studies and the like.
I’m looking forward to the other responses to this question.