[Meta note: I didn’t really keep up with writing this blog during 2018, but it’s a new year now and I’m determined to get back on track. My current plan is to update this blog once a month at the New Moon.]
[Epistemic status: Exploratory. More an outline of a model than an exposition of facts. Probably reinventing several wheels here.]
Since this blog is just getting started, I want introduce a couple of important points that will provide context for much of what I’d like to discuss in the future. First, I am an avowed naturalist (in the ontological sense, not in the sense of natural history, though that kind of naturalism is also wicked cool). Second, I am probably going to be frequently talking about things like gods, souls, and spirits. I realize that this is likely to confuse people. This post and next moon’s post are my attempt to square this circle. In this post, I’ll be discussing what naturalism means for the nature of the soul. Next time, I’ll explore what I think this implies about divinity. (Spoiler alert: a lot of ancient cultures might have understood things better than we usually give them credit for.)
Let’s start with the easy parts. What do I mean by “naturalism”? The most common definition of ontological naturalism is that it is the position that nature is all that exists; or conversely, that everything that exists is part of nature. This has always seemed a little tautological to me, though — what, exactly, would it mean for something to exist but not be a part of nature? A more precise definition, which as far as I can tell was proposed by Richard Carrier, is that naturalism is the position that the most ontologically basic level of reality is nonmental. That is, any mind — anything capable of thinking, feeling, and perceiving — is on some level made of or caused by things that are not minds, and it cannot exist without them. Supernaturalism, by contrast, is the position that mind is ontologically basic, and cannot be reduced to nonmental things.
Naturalism has always made more intuitive sense to me than supernaturalism — after all, complicated things are typically made up of simpler things, and a mind is one of the most complicated things that there is. But my goal in this essay isn’t necessarily to argue for the naturalistic point of view over the supernaturalistic one — you’ve probably already made up your mind about that one way or another, and in any case there’s not much I could contribute there that better writers haven’t already covered ad nauseam. Rather, I’m going to be taking naturalism as a starting point, and exploring some of the weirder things that can be found lurking within a naturalistic ontology.
In my experience, most people on both sides of the naturalism/supernaturalism divide tend to assume that naturalism necessarily implies atheism. For a long time I agreed, but lately I’ve come to regard this assumption as representing a distinct lack of imagination.
In his book A Guide for the Perplexed (not to be confused with The Guide for the Perplexed or A Guide to the Perplexed, which are entirely different books), E.F. Schumacher makes the following critique of naturalism, which he refers to as “materialistic Scientism” (a term which I rather resent, but that’s neither here nor there)1:
With the rise of materialistic Scientism, finally, even the soul disappeared from the description of man — how could it exist when it could be neither weighed nor measured? — except as one of the many strange attributes of complex arrangements of atoms and molecules. Why not accept the so-called “soul” — a bundle of surprising powers — as an epiphenomenon of matter, just as, say, magnetism has been accepted as such?
Contra Schumacher’s title, I personally feel more perplexed after reading this. Schumacher doesn’t really argue against the naturalistic viewpoint; rather, he states it and seems to expect his readers to find it self-evidently absurd. Yet I’m not at all sure why this should be the case. What, precisely, is lost when we treat the soul as an epiphenomenon of matter? I’m not asking rhetorically; I genuinely don’t know, and neither Schumacher nor any other supernaturalist writers I’ve ever read have managed to tell me. (If any supernaturalists are reading this and want to chime in in the comments with an answer, you’re more than welcome to!)
Schumacher and the other supernaturalists seem to assume that something without a fixed identity can’t properly exist — that if something is divisible and hence transient, it isn’t really real. And if something isn’t real, then to them it can’t be meaningful in any existentially relevant sense. If the universe is made of matter, then matter must be all that matters (pun semi-intended), and the entire project of spirituality goes out the window.
As you can probably guess, I reject this view. I consider every level of existence to be equally real, and I don’t see transience as an obstacle to meaning. If the human soul is ultimately composed of “complex arrangements of atoms and molecules”, this doesn’t in any way diminish the significance and the extraordinary capacities of the human soul. All it means is that these are ultimately the extraordinary capacities of atoms and molecules. Accepting a naturalistic worldview doesn’t mean rejecting the existence of the soul or the possibility of spiritual meaning; it just means that these things have to take place on a higher level of ontological compositionality than they’re typically assumed to.
This does, however, still raise an important question: if the soul isn’t ontologically basic, then what exactly is it? It may be an epiphenomenon of matter, but what in practice does this mean?
For our first attempt at an answer, let’s consider the following dialogue between a Christian missionary and a young indigenous man from Papua New Guinea (quoted in The Worship of Nature by James G. Frazer):
I began something in this way. ‘Your people say that everything has its own soul, but they also say that when a tree is felled its soul is expelled.’ He replied, ‘That is so.’ ‘Well, then,’ I asked, ‘how can this table have a soul, seeing that when the tree was felled from which its timber was sawed, the tree soul fled to another tree habitat?’ I can recall the image of that lad’s face as I write; it beamed with amused interest as he put this question, ‘How could it be here as a table if it had not a soul inside it to hold it together?’ I did not regard that as a poser, and replied, ‘It is here as a table because skilled men sawed the timber from a felled tree, cut it into lengths, shaped them into legs and top, nailed and glued the parts together, and it is held together by glue and nails, not by a soul.’ A Papuan does not contradict any one whom he regards as a chief. He could not even seem to confuse me, or in any way to suggest that my ignorance was palpable to him. He stooped down, got under the table, drew his finger-tips [sic] along the planks, came from under the table, stood up, drew quite near to me, held the finger-tips so that I could see them plainly and said, ‘Those tiny pellets you can see under my finger-nails came from the table, others will fall from it like them, and so the table will go on wasting until it will crumble away altogether; then, and not till then, its soul will flee away and it will no longer be a table.’ It was my turn, but I had nothing to say; only much to think about, to marvel about. He had not done, however, until he had given me what he considered the most conclusive evidence of the presence of soul in things. Again he stretched his right hand towards me and said, ‘Each of those little pellets between my finger-nails has its soul; if it had not we could not see it, it could not be.’ Such were his views of the omnipresence of soul.
Now, I’m no expert in traditional Papuan philosophy, and it’s coming to me filtered through a couple layers of Dead White Male rather than straight from the source, so I could be totally misunderstanding this. But I think what the Papuan guy is getting at here is that, in his ontology, the concept that corresponds most closely to the English term “soul” refers to pattern rather than substance — the shape and structure of things rather than the stuff they’re made of. The soul of the table is whatever patterns give it its particular tableness. Likewise, my human soul is whatever patterns give me my particular humanness.
This view of the soul may take some getting used to, since it’s radically different from the more common view that treats soul as something separate from matter. But I think it neatly resolves a perennial question that the typical dualistic view struggles to answer: by what means does the spiritual world of the soul interact with the physical world of matter? When soul and matter are treated as completely ontologically separate, it’s hard to come up with a satisfactory explanation of how the one can have an effect on the other. But this naturalistic perspective is able to unask the question: spirit and matter are able to interact because there was never any separation between them to begin with. Everything that exists has both substance and pattern, and thus is simultaneously material and spiritual.
This “omnipresence of soul” (in the words of Frazer’s bewildered missionary) has profound implications for humankind’s place in the cosmos, and for what other sorts of beings might share that cosmos with us. In next moon’s post, we’ll investigate what those implications might be, by means of a detour to a rather unlikely source.
1. This term bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, I find “materialist” to be a highly misleading term, as it can refer either to ontological naturalism or to the belief that only material things are meaningful or important, and (as this essay will hopefully make clear) I think the former in no way implies the latter. Second, “Scientism” is pretty much just a straight up insult. It refers to the attitude that the natural sciences are the only valid form of intellectual inquiry, which I don’t agree with and neither do most other naturalists.
Schumacher, E.F. A Guide for the Perplexed. Harper & Row, 1977. New York, N.Y.
Frazer, James George. The Worship of Nature. Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1926. London, U.K.