During an interview today with a woman whose son had passed away, I took note of her unquestioning belief in spirits and the human soul. She told me stories about how she felt her son’s presence even after he had passed away, stories that made her believe even more firmly that he was still a presence in the world. While looking at an old picture album that she showed me, I came across a goofy-looking school photo of him. The woman explained to me that her son had never liked that photo and that she believed he still felt that way. While they were setting up a display for the funeral service, she and her daughter kept trying to glue that particular photo up on the display, but it wouldn’t stay on. The woman felt that it was her son’s doing, that his spirit wouldn’t allow the photo to be put on display, that it kept taking it down. While I know this anecdote is not evidence or proof of the existence of a human soul or spirit, what is undeniably true is that there are so many people who sincerely believe in the notion; some even see or claim to see or hear from the deceased. It made me wonder: why would so many people believe in the notion of an immortal, non-physical soul or spirit if it were not true? But then I remembered that until Christopher Columbus’s voyage, everyone firmly believed that the Earth was flat, that the notion of it being round was laughable. I can’t help but wonder if the same will happen with respect to the debate over whether a person’s ideas arise from his soul or instead from billions of neurons firing away in his brain, firings shaped by a brain structure inherited through genetic code and through interactions with the environment.
Our conversation and vote about from where our personalities, thoughts, and emotions arise has really resonated with me. The two competing notions of their origins – a non-physical human soul vs. the strictly physical and chemical process of neurons “firing” — are so diametrically opposed to one another, which is why I have so much trouble wrapping my head around the debate. I can’t help but think that in the future people will look back on us and think how ridiculous we were for ever believing in something as silly as a human soul, that the notion is as silly as the belief that the world is flat. On the other hand, just thinking that makes me feel as if I’m too much of this world, or, in fact, “soulless.”