Thought Experiments on the Soul

If death is like this [i.e. sleep], I say it is an advantage, for all eternity [ho pâs khrónos] would then seem to be no more than a single night [mía nýx].

"The Apology of Socrates," 40E , G.M.A. Grube translation, Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Hackett Publishing Company, 1981, 1986, p.43; Greek text, Loeb Classical Library, Plato -- Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Harvard, 1914, 1966, p.40


Gokuraku no
hachisu no koto o
omou ni wa
honoo no naka mo
suzushikarikeri
When I think
of the lotuses
in the Land of Bliss,
I feel cool,
even amid the flames.

Waka recited by the deceased nun Saimyô, daughter of Yoshida no Tsunefusa, in a dream of a court lady 17 days after her death, recorded in his diary, 1183 AD -- she is protected by falling lotus blossoms of the Pure Land, , from the flames of hell.


Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou are not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, proore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee....
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

John Donne (1572-1631)


5.631 Das denkende, vorstellende, Subjekt gibt es nicht.

[The thinking, representing subject does not exist.]

5.631 There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or enterains ideas.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921/22, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961, 1972, Translation by D.F. Pears & B.F. McGuinness, pp.116-117, more literal translation in brackets.


But nowadays, as far as I can tell, no one believes in the existence of immortal spiritual substances except on religious grounds. To my knowledge, there are no purely philosophical or scientific motivations for accepting the existence of immortal mental substances.

John R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, the MIT Press, 1992, p. 27

Editorial Note, 2011

It now seems to me that the following page should be prefaced with a review of the metaphysics of the soul in the history of philosophy. The statement by John Seale above means that he has rejected a great deal of the history of metaphysics. Perhaps it deserves to be rejected, but we don't get a review by him of what was wrong with it. There seems to be a lot of naive materialism in recent philosophy, despite the fact that 20th century physics has produced a theory of matter that few materialists in history would recognize as having anything to do with them. Also, so little is understood of metaphysical theories of the soul in popular culture that the informed person must feel exasperation at very turn.

I was reminded of this by a recent documentary, "The Science of the Soul" [2010] on the History International (now H2) cable channel. When the narrator says that in Buddhist meditation monks approach what has been called the "universal soul," a certain cognitive dissonance results, since in Buddhist metaphysics there is no soul (the doctrine of anatman or anatta), and to say that there is one is a serious heresy. But, presumably, in a show about the soul it would be awkward to deal with a major world religion where such a thing is denied. But the documentary does not do a much better job with Western metaphysics. An interview subject, Lisa Miller, the religion editor at Newsweek magazine, confidently says things like "the Greeks believed in reincarnation" or that the doctrines of the immortal soul and bodily resurrection in Mediaeval Christianity did not fit together. People believed one or the other. No. And all she would have needed to do was ask a Catholic priest, let alone a Catholic theologian. Now, people interviewed for these kinds of documentaries sometimes find that their explanations have been edited to the point where their assertions are misrepresented. It doesn't look like that in this case.

The History of the Soul

Some Greeks did believe in reincarnation. That would be the Pythagoreans and Plato. Otherwise, no. What we might say that the Greeks in general did believe was that the soul is what gave life to the body, any body. When the soul leaves, the body dies. Before philosophy, it looks like this soul was typically thought to be the breath. Death is the last exhalation. The Greek words psyché and pneuma (from pnéô, "to blow") both originally meant breath and came to be used for "soul" and "spirit" respectively.

In the early days of Greek philosophy, life was often closely connected with what was thought to be the arché ("beginning"), the original stuff of the universe. Thales thought of water because living things are moist. Heraclitus thought of fire because living things, especially the intelligent and active, are warm -- and the body goes cold at death. And then Anaximenes returned to the traditional air.

The original Greek soul goes down to the Underworld (perhaps like the Biblical She'ol), crosses the Styx, and may or may not enjoy much of a life in the hereafter. The vision of the Iliad and the Odyssey is a grim one, not unlike the view of the afterlife in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh [note]. The dead are miserable and not even in possession of their senses. Odysseus calls up the dead with a blood sacrifice, and Achilles says he would rather be an serf hired to a poor farmer alive than the glorious Achilles dead. This renders the entire Iliad pointless, since that epic describes how Achilles achieves fame at the cost of his life.

A religious movement developed in Greece, perhaps under Egyptian influence, that perhaps the afterlife wasn't so bad. Orphism and then the Mystery Cults began to offer hope of a better lot through initiation in certain Mysteries. This culminated in the Eleusian Mysteries in Greece, but spread to religions of various origins in the Roman period -- with Isis from Egypt, Mithraism from Iran, and finally Christianity, from Judaism.

The Pythagoreans became the principal exponents of reincarnation, which otherwise was not a popular idea in the Mediterranean world. The Greeks themselves thought that Pythagoras had gotten the idea from Egypt; but there is no evidence of such a belief in Egyptian religion, which we probably know a lot more about than Pythagoras did. Some might expect that Pythagoras got the idea of reincarnation from India; but that was a new idea at the time in India itself, and the striking thing about Pythagorean belief is that it was unique. The soul is reborn in a cycle of births that goes through all living things. This takes a while. It also logically explains the Pythagorean solicitude for the welfare of animals. In Indian religion, an animal rebirth is a misfortune that is only the result of great evil. This reflects an ethicization of the hereafter that seems to be missing from Pythagoreanism.

Plato preserved the idea that the soul represents the principle of life, and this was the basis of his argument for immortality in the Phaedo. Otherwise, Plato began to think that souls went up to Heaven rather than down to the Underworld at death, though this may also reflect an Orphic influence. But we also have ethicized Judgment and reincarnation. The good are rewarded and the wicked punished, as detailed in both the Phaedo and the Republic. Those sufficiently wicked may be punished for Eternity. Otherwise, the dead eventually come back to be reborn, and the character of their next life can be a matter of choice. They had better choose wisely, although, of course, not all do.

Aristotle did not believe that the soul was immortal, but Aristotle's metaphysics became the basis of most thought about the soul on through the Middle Ages. All things in the world consist of form (eîdos) and matter (hýle), with the former representing actuality (enérgeia) and the latter potential (dýnamis). Livings things have a particular kind of form, which is subject to generation and corruption. At death, a living being loses its form and transmutes into less actualized matter. It dies. In principle, the soul could not sustain postmortem existence because form is only individualized by matter. Without matter, we do not have individual identity.

This all might have been a very awkward metaphysical system for Christianity. Of course, the explicit promise of the New Testament (as for the later Qur'ân) is for bodily resurrection, which means that Aristotle's metaphysics might be used without modification. There are a few Christians, called "Sleepers," who still believe this (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16). However, not only was there already a widespread belief in the immortality of the soul (perhaps thanks to Plato), but there were strong forces in Christianity with mixed feelings about the body. Gnosticism, in agreement with Neoplatonism, viewed the body as debased and evil. To Gnosticism, the material world, along with the body, was not even created by the true God, but by a selfish and cruel lesser deity, the "Demiurge," who was in fact the Deity of the Old Testament. The promise of Christ was a purely spiritual existence apart from the body and the world.

In Neoplatonism, some advantage is taken of exceptions in Aristotle's metaphysics. There is a being of pure form, i.e. pure actuality, which is Aristotle's God. But he also allows for some other beings, the intelligences that move the planets, to be pure form also. Since these are without matter, they are not individuals of some more general form; they are each unique of their kind. But Neoplatonism does not extend this condition to individual human souls. Immorality is achieved by rising through the "declesion of Being" and achieving mystical union with the One (a term for Being from Parmenides), which is God. Individual existence in the material world, polluted by the darkness of Not-Being and evil, is not desired. This goal of loss of individuality and union with the One sounds a great deal like Unqualified Advaita Vedanta in India.

Gnosticism was eventually regarded and prounounced a heresy. The Orthodox doctrine was that the body was not evil, was created by God, and that there would be bodily resurrection. Eventually, by the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, an Aristotelian synthesis was put together for Christian doctrine. The soul now survives death because each human soul (but not an animal soul) is unique of its kind. The soul goes to Heaven, Hell, or Purtagory (in Catholic doctrine), to await the Resurrection and the Judgment Day. Meanwhile, to the extent that soul endures punishment in Hell or Purgatory, it may assume a temporary body. Indeed, when we see ghosts, this is no less than the immaterial form of the soul imposing itself on air or mist, giving it a degree of material visibility. A bit of wind, and the image is gone. At the Ressurection, the material of the original mortal body is restored to the soul, through which the punishments of Hell or the bliss of Heaven are experienced more acutely. After the Judgment Day, Purgatory is abolished and Hell sealed shut.

This elaborate system survived in Catholic theology until quite recently, if not to the present. Indeed, there are modern Aristotelians who are not going to have any serious objection to it. History, however, had meanwhile gone off in a different direction. René Descartes decided that the soul was not the principle of life, but the substance of consciousness [note]. The abandonment of the original and fundamental Greek perspective was a matter of the greatest consequence. To Descartes, life is a material and a mechanical phenomenon, common to vegetable, animal, and human bodies. There is a sharp break between this and consciousness. Thus, Modern philosophy becomes taken up with things like the Mind-Body Problem; and the theory of Descartes, riddled with paradoxes, comes to be caricatured as the "ghost in the machine." Reductionistic, behavioristic, and materialistic theories become popular in the 20th century -- this is where the caricature comes from. Ironically, "Philosophy of Mind" became a significant part of philosophy with Gilbert Ryle, whose "mind is to body as kick is to leg" principle launched a form of philosophical behaviorism paradigmatic of the reductionistic approaches.

Yet the persistence of the Mind-Body Problem reveals the force of the new perspective in Descartes. It is not the existence of the soul that is the real issue but the existence of me, as Descartes put it himself (ergo sum). The real point about "mind" is that my existence as an individual is a conscious existence. Death is about the annihilation of my existence. All of Greek and Mediaeval metaphysics about the soul shared with materialism what I have called an "externalist" perspective. The soul is in the body; the ghost is in the machine. This conceded half the battle. Descartes, in a sense, pulled the ground out from under these perspectives (even when he otherwise seems to continue with them, as with his need to locate the soul in the pineal gland). People like Ryle simply missed the point. For others, even when they wanted an approach like Ryle's, in the nihilistic spirit of the age, there was a sort of itch from Descartes that persists. Or, alternatively, we could say that Descartes poked traditional metaphysics in the eye, and now the afterimage simply will not go away.

In 19th century materialism, there was for a while the idea that a "life force" was necessary, not just for living things, but even for the existence of organic chemistry; but when organic molecules began to be synthecized, the idea of a "life force" faded from science and only survives in popular fantasy. In science itself, there seemed little looking back after that.

Meanwhile, however, what was popular in philosophy was not always what was best. After Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, it is hard to understand how a serious philosopher could be a materialist. In physics itself, the naive realism that was preferred by Einstein collapsed under the paradoxes of Quantum Mechanics. Reality, it seems, works differently depending on whether an observer (presumably conscious) is present or not. This is like nothing so much as Kant's metaphysics, where phenomenal reality is a synthesis of consciousness, losing some of the possibilities that exist among things-in-themselves. Kant's system is the closest to the metaphysical dualism of Quantum Mechanics, and I have considered this under the topic of "Kantian Quantum Mechanics."

A fundamental feature of Kant's philosophy is that the attempt to develop a systematic treatment of transcendent objects, i.e. things that cannot be objects of a possible experience or that involve unconditioned realities, necessarily results in contradictions, or Antinomies. An immortal soul is an unconditioned reality because it would not be subject to decay from physical processes. Also, if the soul has free will, it contains unconditioned causes, which are not subject to the Determinism that is a postulate for events in the phenomenal world. At the same time, Kant believes that free will is a postulate of morality, which provides a datum and motivation for belief in it regardless of the nature of our scientific knowledge of the phenomenal world. A good way to look at the matter is that, as we already know that our naive perceptual knowledge only gives us a fragment of the physical world, i.e. we don't perceive atoms or quantum states, so all of scientific knowledge is limited to the conditions of phenomenal existence, which is only a fragment of reality in general. It is then almost eerie to add to this the quantum principle that even physical reality functions differently depending on whether or not it is observed by a consciousness.

It may now be of interest to consider the statement of John Searle above -- "But nowadays, as far as I can tell, no one believes in the existence of immortal spiritual substances except on religious grounds. To my knowledge, there are no purely philosophical or scientific motivations for accepting the existence of immortal mental substances" -- I guess he's not an Aristotelian. Now, since Kant did not believe that the nature of substance among things-in-themselves could be understood, that is not really the issue. If Searle is contrasting "spiritual substances" with material substances, it sounds like he is addressing Descartes and has not caught up with the progress of philosophy up to Kant. And if he himself does believe in "material substances," I must confess some curiousity about what he thinks is the metaphysics of matter (or even of substance). His statement regarding "no purely philosophical or scientific motivations" features the kind of appeal that he often makes to science. But does science contain a non-problematic metaphysic of matter? Certainly not. Does science even directly address metaphysical issues, such as the ontology of space? Scientists do so only as digressions that usually evidence half-baked and misconceived versions of traditional philosophical debates. I must conclude then that Searle's assertion suffers from fallacies of relevance, to the point where the characterization by Wolfgang Pauli would apply, that "It is not even wrong" (Das is nicht einmal falsch).

From the largest metaphysical perspective, the "Mind-Body" Problem and the dualism of Descartes are based on a fundamental dilemma:  Is consciousness, which we association with physical persons, an epiphenomenon of physical existence? Or is physical existence, which only appears to our perception and knowledge within consciousness, an epiphenomenon of consciousness? This tends to be construed as the post-Kantian conflict between "Materialism" and "Idealism." However, one of the oldest, clearest, and strongest versions of "Idealism" is found in Vedânta. If Brahman is the only thing that exists, if Brahman is essentially conscious, and if the world is an illusion that only exists within the consciousnes of Brahman, this certainly sounds like a "spiritual substance" that is both a matter of current philosophical belief (at least in India, if not at Big Sur) and of a venerable historical pedigree. But, of course, in Kantian philosophy, it is not a matter of either/or. Consciousness itself is a relationship of internal and external, and whatever may be epiphenomenal to the other is concealed among things-in-themselves. I have considered this at length in "Ontological Undecidability."

Finally, we should consider the very common notion that the soul is an "energy," which inhabits the body but then can leave at times and finally moves on at death (rather the way Heraclitus viewed fire). This kind of talk provides no real mileage for a theory of soul. "Energy" is a physical phenomenon. Energy and matter, according to Einstein, are equivalent. And so, despite the temptation or misapprehension that "energy" is immaterial, it is just as material and physical as anything else in the world. Moreover, even if we want to build a theory of soul as "pure" energy, this will immediately fall flat on its face. If pure "energy" means the field quanta of the forces of nature -- photons, W's, gluons, gravitons, or the elusive Higgs particles -- structures cannot be built out of these particles. That is because the field quanta are Bosons, particles with an integer spin which do not obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle. Such particles can exist in a system with all the same quantum numbers, which means they all collapse into the same physical state. Our material bodies are structured around Fermions, which have half-integer spin and obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle. This means that particles cannot exist in a system with the same quantum numbers, and so they build up into structures, like atoms, molecules, organs, planets, physicists, tooth brushes, etc.

Bosons can carry information, as we see photons do every day; but this is also thin ice for the soul. So, at death, does the body broadcast the energy of the soul? This requires conventions to encode and decode the signal. Otherwise it's just noise. And the body doesn't have that much energy to work with. The signal is going to be weak, and it loses strength as it propagates (at the inverse square of the distance). Soon it is lost in the noise of cosmic radiation (and "I Love Lucy"). And it would be detectible. Our Ghostbusters could set up antennae to capture the signal (some of it) as it leaves the body at death. This, apparently, has not been done; and, of course, even if energy (perhaps white light) were detected leaving the body at death, this would, again, be meaningless without the ability to decode it.

The soul is much better off without pseudo-science.

What follows below is now the original content of this page. There may be some duplication or redundency, but I thought that the "history of the soul" should now be addressed in detail in its own right, as I have done.

The Egyptian Soul

Editorial Note, 2006

While I am intrigued by the following argument, I have never been quite sure whether to believe it. That is not because I find anything particularly wrong with it, just that it seems, well, too easy. As Robert Heinlein said, give a philosopher enough paper and he can prove anything. I am not interested in proving just anything. John Searle's statement above does still strike me as grotesquely false. But I would be happier if there were some dramatic phenomena that would vindicate the existence of souls, e.g. evidence of survival after death, transcendent existence, or supernatural powers, etc. Of course, many people believe that there is such evidence, but I have not encountered it personally. So for the time being, the following argument (from 1997/8) is, indeed, just an argument. Following it, however, are some more recent thoughts.

Why am I myself, rather than someone else?

This is a very basic question about life, but it may also strike someone as nonsensical. What would it mean for someone else to be me? Or, what would it mean for me to be someone else?

These questions, which are not easily addressed empirically, can be dealt with by way of thought experiments.

First, I can imagine someone else being me if a duplicate were to be made of my body, with all my features, memories, habits, etc., and then if I were to be replaced by it. This was essentially the plot of the science fiction movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978), although the duplicates in those cases were not precise copies of the replaced individuals -- they were actually alien beings that were duplicates to all external appearances, but not internally. However, it is not hard to imagine true duplicates being made, especially with the kind of technology imagined for the transporter machines in the Star Trek television series. The 6th Day, a recent Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (2000), was about just such complete duplicates. Nature itself produces duplicates, but only in the very first stages of life:  Identical twins are genetically the same, but their experiences and memories begin to diverge as soon as the individuals start to develop separately -- something already happening in the womb. A true duplicate of an adult would require a mapping of every atom in the body, which can now more or less be done with Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging (NMR or MRI) technology, and then a duplicate set of such atoms being assembled in precisely the same way, something rather further from present technology. This would not be a "clone," as presently understood, since a clone is only genetically identical. A clone would not have the same memories as the original individual, and it would be no more and no less like the original than an identical twin would be.

Could I be replaced with such a complete duplicate -- every atom, not just genetically identical -- it would think that it was me. But clearly it would not be me, especially if I were not destroyed in the replacement and continued to exist off somewhere else. We can imagine that such complete identity might produce a being that would simply see itself as existing in two places at once, but this would require some kind of communication; and that would require the existence of some kind of extrasensory or paranormal connection between the two bodies, which is not now part of established science. Without such paranormal communication, the identical individuals would each think of themselves as the original individual, although only one of them would be right; and they would immediately begin to diverge as individuals because of differing experiences.

So what would be the difference between the two individuals? Well, they would exist in different spatial locations, and they would consist of different, albeit identical, atoms -- and it is a postulate of quantum mechanics that all particles of the same kind are absolutely identical. I know what it would mean for me not to be that other individual, since it would not be part of my consciousness. However, what if I were to be instantaneously destroyed and replaced with that individual, so that there was, to all appearances, a spatial continuity between us, and a material continuity since, as noted, identical material particles really are identical (there is, according to quantum mechanics, absolutely nothing about them that would enable us to tell them apart). If that individual would still not be me, then there would have to be something else about me that makes me myself apart from physical content, memories, and spatial continuity. In other words, I can perform the thought experiment that would remove "me" from my body, leaving behind an individual that looked, thought, and felt like me, but was not. It would simply not have my consciousness, but another one, which could then ask over again why it is itself and not someone else.

This same kind of thought experiment can be run the other way around:  What would it mean for me to be someone else? I can easily imagine suddenly waking up and having another body. Franz Kafka wrote a famous story ("The Metamorphosis," 1915) in which someone wakes up and has turned into a cockroach. I can also imagine suddenly losing my memory and not remembering who I am. This actually happens to people occasionally. It is also possible to imagine, as in the science fiction movie Total Recall (1990), that the memories of a different person have been put into me, and I wake up, not just not remembering who I am, but actually thinking that I am someone else. Combining these would produce a very dramatic effect:  I might wake up both with a very different body and thinking and believing that I am a very different person. If this left me with at least the same brain, however, we would have no difficulty imagining how this could still be "me" in some accountable sense -- it would still be my brain regardless of how the body around it might change or what kind of memories might be scrambled or reprogrammed in it. Interestingly, however, our own brain is usually something that we never experience; so were body and memories to be changed, it would be difficult to verify our personal continuity short of neurosurgery. From an internal point of view, and an external one for most practical purposes, everything would be different.

Now if I imagine body, memories, and brain to be replaced, then it would be easy to say that the result could not possibly then be me. However, it is still possible to imagine that the resulting individual could be me, and this act of imagination has actually occurred in multiple world religions for centuries:  it would still be me if it were the same immaterial soul. Thus, if I were to believe in reincarnation, I would actually think that I have been innumerable different persons in the past, all with different bodies, memories, and brains. As Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:  "I have been born many times, Arjuna, and many times has thou been born. But I remember my past lives, and thou has forgotten thine" [4:5, Juan Mascaró translation, Penguin Classics]. Krishna, implies, of course that memories of past lives are retained by the soul. This is not necessary to the thought experiment. It is possible to imagine a soul that does not carry memories but still carries an identical consciousness that would distinguish Arjuna from another individual physically and mentally identical. Since Arjuna (and most of us) does not seem to remember any past lives, this is what is given in experience anyway.

What the thought experiments demonstrate is a truth of metaphysics that the same attributes can belong to different individuals, or in other terms that an individual as an individual cannot be exhaustively defined by abstract predicates. Thus, bodily features, memories, personality, etc. cannot uniquely determine an individual; so I cannot identify myself as an individual by any such qualities. This metaphysical principle has only been disputed by philosophers like Leibniz, who postulate the identity of indiscernibles, that individuals that cannot be told apart are actually the same individual. But such a postulate only works for Leibniz because he denies the existence of space, which can serve to distinguish otherwise identical individuals.

The spatial separation of otherwise identical individuals also can be interpreted to mean that the individuals consist of different quantities of matter. To philosophers as diverse as Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, and Schopenhauer, different space and different matter are ontologically identical conditions:  Space itself, in effect, is matter. This may now be restated in terms of quantum mechanics:  If identical subatomic particles are postulated as absolutely identical by quantum mechanics, then spatial separation, again, is the only thing that individuates identical particles as materially different.

In the thought experiments on my personal identity, spatial or material difference might seem to do the job. An identical copy of me would be spatially and materially different, and if I were replaced by an identical copy, however quickly, it is still possible to imagine that it is materially different, even if instantaneously placed in the same space. However, such a transference would result in no externally ascertainable difference whatsoever, which sounds somewhat paradoxical if were are to say that the "matter" is different. In these terms "matter" must actually be defined in such a way that it is not materially or empirically distinguishable from other matter. Another postulate of quantum mechanics is that if two things cannot be in principle distinguished, then they are the same thing. The only thing that can distinguish identical particles is their spatial location. Thus, if we say that two individuals consist of identical particles and cannot be spatially distinguished (because they are temporally contiguous in the same space), quantum mechanics would then judge that they are the same individual. That there would be a temporal difference doesn't help, since there is no empirical criterion by which it could be determined whether the "matter" has been switched from one moment in time to another or not. The only way in which we could then say that an identical individual could replace me instantaneously in the same space and still not be me is to require that there be a form of "matter" that is not accessible to physical science. A form of "matter" not accessible to physical science, however, would not be "matter" in any familiar or common sense meaning. An immaterial substance standing in the place of what we would ordinarily call "matter," however, would more easily be called the "soul."

If quantum mechanics loses track of matter by only using space to individuate identical particles, the thought experiment of me becoming a different individual contrariwise loses track of space and is only able to use matter for individuation. Thus, I can imagine instantaneously acquiring a different body, different memories, and also finding myself in a different place. If that is nevertheless still me, with my consciousness, it would have to be because the "matter," or the substantial substrate of my self, was moved to that new location, even if nothing else moved by way of the contents and characteristics of my physical and mental identity. Since such "matter" would then be inaccessible to physical science, it would be reasonable to call such a substantial substrate "immaterial"; and an immaterial substance would reasonably be the "soul."

It may help to recall what it would mean to say that I could find myself with a different body, a different mind, and in a different location and still be me. It would mean that the conscious existence that I experience now, the conscious existence that seems to disappear in sleep, and which I imagine, or suspect, or fear may simply become nothing in death, can still be imagined as the same conscious existence even if what appears in it is a different body, a different mind, and different place. Thus, I have not become nothing and can still be me, even if I seem to be someone else, cannot remember my old self, and have appeared in a different place. This conception of conscious existence as perfectly divorced from, and so possibly perfectly empty of, content first occurs in the Upanishads, especially the great Brhadâranyaka and Mândûkya Upanishads. Advaita Vedânta then concludes it is only the Self (Âtman) that has substantial, independent existence, while physical objects only exist as illusory appearances in consciousness.

Although "matter" in the senses examined, whether physical or immaterial, is a metaphysical conception that is not accessible to physical science, the device of thought experiments to examine these issues is a perfectly legitimate procedure, not only for philosophy, but even for physical science itself:  Einstein's entire theory of Relativity was based on his own thought experiments. Thus, the basic question here, "Why am I myself, rather than someone else?" is no more dismissible than Einstein's question about what a light wave would look like if we were moving at the velocity of light with it. The paradox, however, of ending up with a definition of "matter" that abstracts from it all identifiable qualities was not lost on Buddhism, which rejected the idea of a substantial substrate to anything. Like Hume, Buddhism adopted a kind of empiricism where the very conception of substance, whether material or immaterial, did not qualify. However, that produced its own paradoxes, since Buddhism, like Hume, could not then account for the duration in time of objects or persons. Much of Buddhism accepted the doctrine of "momentariness," that individual objects do not abide for more than a moment, but this is considerably more paradoxical and counter-intuitive that the duration of a substantial substrate. What the Buddhist paradoxes show us is that the substrate, however intangible, is not an unnecessary hypothesis -- without it, as a synthetic ground a priori (as Kant would put it), the duration of individuals cannot be accounted for.

Instead, I must appeal to the doctrine of The Origin of Value in a Transcendent Function. Both kinds of "matter" are conceptions of "Negative Transcendence," the emptiness of existence over and above the phenomenal content of consciousness. Negative Transcendence has internal and external poles. External transcendence then corresponds to physical substance, which in terms of quantum mechanics, as we have seen, is functionally identical to space itself. Internal transcendence is then the substrate for the sense of personal identity that has been examined here in the "thought experiments on the soul." The question left open in The Origin of Value in a Transcendent Function was in what way internal and external transcendence corresponded to each other.

Now it appears that internal and external transcendence must in an important sense be independent of each other, since external transcendence, as space, cannot account for personal identity from an internal point of view, and internal transcendence, as the "matter" of personal identity, varies independently of space and what can be accessed by physical science. Thus, for there to be personal identity, there must be more than just space and external transcendence. Such a conclusion, however, does not produce a Cartesian Dualism of material and immaterial substances existing in the same logical space, for internal and external transcendence are kept ontologically apart. They are only united through "Positive Transcendence." Negative Transcendence, in other words, cannot be added as a transcendent object to the order of phenomenal objects. Transcendent objects are subject to the Kantian Antinomies. Rather than being added as a transcendent object to phenomenal reality, internal transcendence casts a "shadow" of Positive Transcendence on phenomenal objects:  the numinosity of the self or soul in religious conceptions, or even just the "supernatural dread" associated with dead bodies or cemeteries.

The question, "Why am I myself, rather than someone else?" then, cannot be answered just with natural objects. It can only be answered with transcendence. But transcendence appears in the phenomenal world as the numinous quality of natural objects. This may be called the "soul." The soul, as an independent, transcendent object, however, cannot be said to be established by this argument. The fact that Buddhism rejects such an object is an important clue that it is subject to the undecidability of a Kantian Antinomy. There is no doubt, on the other hand, of the numinosity of persons in Buddhism, especially as they become Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, and of the reality of karma and reincarnation, despite the denial that reincarnation is the transmigration of a substantial self. Buddhist doctrine thus expresses the paradox of Negative Transcendence as an existence which nevertheless cannot be placed as an object in conceivable (i.e. phenomenal) reality. Later this would be conceived as the "Buddha nature" of individuals, an idea that, not surprisingly, set off controversy about whether this involved a "substantialist heresy" or not. It is, indeed, a fine line, although easily drawn with the theories of Negative and Positive Transcendence.

Postscript

As noted, it is a postulate of quantum mechanics that subatomic particles in the same quantum states are absolutely identical in characteristics. Although many have believed that Einstein vindicated Leibniz's view of space, as relative, over Newton's, this feature of quantum mechanics decisively contradicts Leibniz, for whom space does not exist and objects that are indistinguishable from each other are identical to the same thing. But indistinguishable electrons are not identical to the same thing. They are distinguished from each other by their locations in space (although their possible locations may be summed in the wave function). Leibniz, of course, could respond that what makes the electrons different is their history, and their relationship to other objects. However, while Leibniz believed that his "monads" contained their history, and a representation of their relationships, within themselves, this is not the case for electrons. Indeed, quantum mechanics rules out any such things as "hidden variables." With an electron, what you see is what you get. And since Leibniz's monads don't actually interact with each other, the only terms of their history and their relationship with other objects are their motions and relationships in space. If space does not then exist, monads actually have no history and no relationships.

If we allow that identical objects, however, are distinguished by their locations in space, location in space will not work to account for identity. That is because, as an object moves, it comes to be at a different location. So if different locations serve to distinguish different objects, why does not a object become a different object by moving and coming to be in a different location? This poses a grave difficulty for the theories of matter in Descartes and Spinoza, where matter is all but indistinguishable from space itself. But space does not move around, while matter must move around, to maintain its identity. On the other hand, it is not clear that fundamental particles in quantum mechanics possess any "matter" in the traditional, substantial sense. Energy turns into electrons and positrons. Electrons and positrons collide and turn back into energy. What we see is a collections of attributes, or quantum numbers -- mass, charge, spin, etc. -- that looks like nothing so much as the "aggregates" (skandhas) of non-substantial existence in Buddhism.

Unfortunately, the denial of substance in Buddhism is intended to effect a denial of identity. If the problem is accounting for the identity of an object or sub-atomic particle from moment to moment, Buddhist metaphysics is specifically designed not to do this. The result is an effective thought experiment in what is required for identity:  The "aggregates" are not enough. If an electron has an enduring existence, something has the mass, charge, spin, etc. that characterize it. And if the electron, as electron, ceases to exist, neither Parmenides nor Democritus would be surprised to learn that it does not simply become nothing. Mass/energy is conserved, and there are particles that carry them away. Matter will not be a Cartesian fixed quantity of "stuff" that no transformation can alter, but it will represent a durable continuity of identity, which carries the quantum attributes and can merge with other objects or itself divide into new objects.

This, indeed, is more an Aristotelian than a Cartesian view of matter. Perhaps the only difference is that Aristotelian matter only accounts for different individuals of the same kind. Something unique of its kind (sui generis) doesn't need matter and can exist as pure form (like God or the celestial intelligences). In the argument here, however, material substance does not merely account for different things of the same kind, or for different individuals that are otherwise identical in every way, but also for the identity of anything with itself from moment to moment -- and Aristotle's substance (ousia), after all, was in the form, not the matter. A Buddhist analysis of Aristotle's God would be that it has no self, no identity, and no duration. Probably not what Aristotle wanted to say, but then he is vulnerable to the critique, since for "substance" he can only offer attributes, i.e. the form.

While Aristotle thought of form as substance, it might be noted that a curious thing happened to the terminology in the translation from Greek to Latin. Ousia is from the participle of the verb "to be" in Greek. Thus, it looks rather like essentia, "essence," in Latin, which is from the infinitive of the verb "to be" (esse). Substantia, "substance," itself, is entirely different, meaning to "stand under." There is a word that means "stand under" in Greek, and that is hypokeimenon. Aristotle does not use that synonymously with ousia. He applies it, as it happens, to matter. Perhaps it would be better to translate ousia as "essence," in which case we could take substance, the underlying thing, as always being what Aristotle associated with matter. His reluctance, however, is understandable, since he thought of matter as mere power or potential, which would disappear in God. By the time we get to St. Thomas, of course, that idea of a powerless God was unappealing.

If our concern then becomes personal identity, will the identity of material substance account for that? As I have argued, no. In physical terms alone, we know that there is a turnover of matter in our bodies. I believe that after 20 years or so, all the matter in our bodies is supposed to be different. A defendant in a legal case once even tried to argue that he was literally not the same person who had committed the crime, some twenty years plus in the past. His argument was not allowed as, indeed, we trace personal identity across that transformation. With the material objects, this can indeed produce some paradoxical results. The Stoics noticed that in their day the ship kept at Athens, which was supposed to have born Theseus to Crete, had finally been repaired so much that every single plank and other part of it was no longer original. Was it the "same" ship? In a way yes, and in a way no. One report is that this question was put to the Pythia at Delphi. With material objects, the less the original material, the less it is the original thing. There is no such ambiguity with people. And we can ask them.

Similarly, we can use the thought experiments detailed above. We can think of ourselves persisting even through transformations in body, memories, and everything else. We can even, as it happens, think of ourselves persisting through absences of consciousness. Indeed, we do that every day, as we awake from sleep. This would be challenging for Descartes, for whom the soul was essentially thinking, or for Advaita Vedanta, where the self (âtman) is essentially conscious. But it is not really a problem -- consciousness is not essential to identity when the identity of consciousness from moment to moment must itself be accounted for. If personal identity requires a substantial substrate different from material existence, our word for it would be "soul." This would be a different and more fundamental meaning for it than what soul was for the Greeks, the life force, or for Descartes, consciousness (Searle's "mental substances").

The remaining problem would be the epistemological one of why we believe there are substances at all. Not only Buddhism, but Berkeley and then, especially, Hume point out that since substances are behind or beneath everything we experience, we are not directly acquainted with them as such. So what is our evidence that there are such things? The Kantian argument of the "possibility of experience" is then that "substance" is a category, like causality, which is an a priori expectation about experience, not something deduced, derived, or proven from it. Our expectation that the existence of objects is durable, separable, and identical is the principle of "substance" by which we organize and understand experience. While Hume himself said that all reasonings about matters of fact are based on the relation of cause and effect, it is obvious enough that many such reasonings are also based on the persistence, independence, and identity of substance.

What Kant would ask, of course, is what we can know about a substantial soul outside the limits of a possible experience. The soul, after all, is not a natural or phenomenal object, and it is difficult or impossible to imagine how it can exist, as a substance, in the phenomenal world. Kant's answer then is that the limits of possible experience represent the limits of our knowledge of objects, so that we do not know how it is that substantial souls can exist. An immortal soul, which would be immune to the slings and arrows of man and nature, is in that regard an unconditioned reality, the sort of thing that does not appear in phenomenal existence, either for Kant or Buddhism. Yet even Buddhism does not deny that there are unconditioned realities -- most importantly Nirvana. Thus Buddhism, which is ultimately neither materialistic nor naturalistic, actually has more in common with Kant than it does with Hume or, for that matter, John Searle. The soul as a numinous reality, is fully present in the numinosity of the Buddhist Arhat, Bodhisattva, and Buddha. This is no comfort for the materialist, the skeptic, or the nihilist.

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Thought Experiments on the Soul, Note;
The Dry Land

Enkidu, the friend of the hero Gilgamesh, has a vision of the hereafter as he is lying on his deathbed. It is still chilling:

There is the house whose people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness. I entered the house of dust and I saw the kings of the earth, their crowns put away for ever... [N. K. Sanders, Penguin, 1964, p. 89]

The Greek hereafter of the Iliad and the Odyssey is not unlike this. We may suppose that the Underworld is dark, but we don't get details like "dust for food" or "clay their meat." The Greek descriptions are more about the condition of the dead. The mother of Odysseus cannot recognize him without being revived with a blood sacrifice; and when he tries to embrace her, she vanishes "like a shadow or a dream" [cf. Homer, The Odyssey I, Book 11, lines 145-220, translated by A.T. Murray and George E. Dimock, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard, 1919, 1995, pp.410-417]. Otherwise, the Odyssey details more elaborate features of the Underworld, such as Minos judging the dead and offenders like Tantalus and Sisyphus suffering punishment.

A vivid literary version of the hereafter, that seems to draw on the Babylonian precedent more than the Greek, is found in the "Earthsea" fantasy books of Ursula K. LeGuin. The books now number five:  A Wizard of Earthsea [1968], The Tombs of Atuan [1971], The Farthest Shore [1972], Tales from Earthsea [1997, 1999, 2001], and The Other Wind [2001]. LeGuin's land of the dead is dry and dark but it is not actually an Underworld. There is a sky with stars, but there is no apparent motion of it. No dawn or moonrise ever approaches. There are mountains and watercourses but no standing or flowing water -- no Styx or any of the other rivers of the Underworld. Dust and rock, including hard, black, brittle, and sharp volcanic rock, constitute the landscape. Hence it is called the "Dry Land" in the books. It is entered from a long slope that goes down to a low wall. Dead grass is above the wall, and the dead are below it. Crossing the wall is to enter the land of the dead proper. Living wizards with great power can cross the wall and return, and the dead can be briefly Summoned among the living by the proper magic. The slope goes down to a dry riverbed, which is at the foot of mountains, called "Pain," that rear up against the dim sky. The dead are not deprived of their senses, as in Homer, but they are passive, apathetic, and without any passion, drive, or interest about anything. There are cities in the Dry Land, but the dead do no building and do not dwell with any recognizeable activities among them. They circulate aimlessly and take little heed of each other. Visitors from the living can question the dead, but any initiative must come from them.

LeGuin's Dry Land is a striking addition to the ancient traditions of belief where something is thought to survive of the dead, but they are left without any real life and do not exhibit any of the active characteristics of living beings that would go with the ordinary conduct and enjoyment of life. Not long after originally reading the first three books (for long the "Earthsea Trilogy"), I was reminded of the description of the Dry Land when visiting White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Out amid the bare, sugar-white sand of the gypsum dunes, the peaks of the San Andres Mountains, dark and featureless against the evening sky, loomed to the West. Given the right mood, it really seemed like the Dry Land.

In Christian belief, of course, all the dead go down to the Underworld until the "Harrowing of Hell." Jesus, lying dead in his tomb, liberates all those from the Underworld who had been saved under the Old Covenant (i.e. Israel). From then on it becomes a proper Hell, for the Damned -- with less rigorous provisions for those Dante calls the "virtuous pagans," including even the occasional Muslim, like Saladin. The Saved subsequently go to Heaven.

LeGuin does something of the sort with her own Dry Land. In the fifth Earthsea book, The Other Wind, it turns out that the land of the dead did not occur naturally but was created by magic, as a device to secure immortality. It did not turn out as expected, since it's creation did not at the same time secure either happiness or even a meaningful existence for the dead. Finally moved from their apathy, the dead begin to launch a kind of rebellion into the dreams of the living. The masters of magic of Earthsea are more or less compelled to take action, breaching the low wall, which releases the dead -- the Earthsea Harrowing of Hell.

It turns out that the Dry Land had been appropriated from another world, which had properly been the domain of the dragons of Earthsea. As the dead are released, the Dry Land comes alive with light and movement, and the dragons reclaim their rightful possession. What happens to the dead is not clear. Other inhabitants of Earthsea, from the "Kargish Lands," had always believed in reincarnation and had never countenanced the Dry Land nor appeared there after death. This could imply that the liberated dead will now be reborn. But LeGuin doesn't actually say this, or ever explicitly endorse the Kargish belief. We sometimes get statements about the dead returning to the Earth, which makes it sound like their "energy," perhaps, is dispersed. Death as individual annihilation. But there is no unambiguous assertion of this. The fate of the dead is left uncertain. Since the "other wind" of the title is the alternative world of the dragons, one is left to wonder about the nature of such a world, or the possibility of others.

Metaphysically, LeGuin's Dry Land, miserable as it is, sounds like nothing so much as the sort of "Pure Land," , one finds in Mahâyâna Buddhism. Pure Lands are created in the "interim state," between death and rebirth, in order to avoid unfavorable realms of rebirth, including falling into the Hells or becoming hungry ghosts () or demons. The most famous Pure Land is that of the Buddha Amitâbha, and Pure Land practice usually involves him. But there are other Pure Lands, and Amitâbha is not unique. The idea is that Amitâbha, as a Bodhisattva, vowed that if he was able to become a Buddha, he would create a Pure Land, where he would enable anyone who called on him, by the Power of his Vow, to be reborn, avoiding all suffering as they worked out their salvation.

Not everyone, including all Buddhists, finds Amitâbha's Pure Land attractive -- there is no sex, no mountains, no need to eat, etc. Other Pure Lands may be more attractive, and there are practices that avoid such things altogether, either to remain in the world or to go on to Nirvâna -- about which Classical Buddhism is as ambiguous as LeGuin is about the ultimate disposition of the dead.

Thus, Ursula LeGuin's little fantasy books are evocative of a great deal in the history of religion about the fate of the dead. Certainly, it is more terrifying that the dead should live a miserable half-existence than that we should simply become nothing. But it does seem in line with New Age non-judgmentalism that LeGuin's hereafter does not contain the kind of moral reckoning and punishments that are found in Buddhism or even in Greek belief. The Earthsea Harrowing does not perfect the nature of a Hell.

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Thought Experiments on the Soul, Note 2;
The Chinese Soul

There is a nice dualistic distinction in traditional Chinese belief between the "animal soul" or the "sentient life which inheres in the body," [character #4988, Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, Harvard University Press, 1972, p.692], which descends into the earth at death, and "the spiritual part of man... the wits," , which "ascends to heaven" [ibid., character #2365, p.350].

In strict Confucian belief, both of these may dissipate in their respective realms. Thus, the Hung-wu Emperor, founder of the Ming Dynasty, was told by one of his counselors:

People are born possessing the material [qi] of Heaven and Earth. This is why physically they go from young to mature, mature to senior, senior to senile, and senile to dead. At the moment of death, the hun rises to Heaven and the po sinks to Earth. The hun is made of spiritual substance but is exhausted when it reaches the empyrean and is blown to the four winds. The po on the other hand consists of the bones, flesh, and hair. When it touches the Earth, it decays into dust and mixes into the mud. That is why Confucius refused to talk about the spirits. [Timothy Brook, The Troubled Empire, China in the Yuan and Ming Dyansties, Belnap Press, Harvard, 2010, p.168]

Qi or "ch'i," , as "material" or "energy," is discussed with the Solar Terms. Although Confucius is often said not to talk about "spirits," the word in Chinese usually translated "spirits," , can also mean "gods." More relevant in this passage is that Confucius also would not talk about ghosts, [Analects 11:11], whose character figures as an element in the characters for hun and po. Nevertheless, both and can each mean "soul." The expression , "soul no peace," means "be distracted; have the jitters" [ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis, University of Hawai'i Press, 2003, p.826].

A distinction we also see is that the is the spirit of the outside the body, while the is the spirit of the outside the body. Thus, the hun is not only more god-like, but it is not unknown in Chinese religion, indeed it is quite common, for human beings of great spiritual attainment to achieve immortality and even divine status. Since religious Taoism is built around these aspirations, it is not surprising that Confucianism would be more skeptical. The hun is also associated with the yang, , force and is characterized as ming, , "bright." We also find , "vitality; energy; the spiritual part of man that has an existence apart from the body" [Mathews' character #1149, binome or digraph 11, p.161]. The po, on the other hand, is associated with the yin, , force. Yin and Yang are the , "two forces" of Chinese philosophy and religion. In popular religion, Yang is associated, not just with light and action, but with life and warmth, while Yin goes, not just with the dark and passive, but with death and cold. This is contrary to philosophical Taoism, where Yin is more akin to life and the Tao, , which controls all things through "Not Doing," . But, since that is not popular belief, the cold () of the dead, ghosts (), and winter () all goes together with Yin.

Despite the Confucian orthodoxy of the Hung-wu Emperor's counselor, popular Chinese belief would have none of it; and the counselor was rebuked by the Emperor, who said:

If one believes there are no spirits... then there is nothing to fear in Heaven or Earth and nothing with which to nourish the ancestors -- what kind of person would think this? [Brook, op.cit.]

This sounds like the moral principle considered in Dostoevsky, that if there is no immortality, then "all is permitted." This is the common belief, also in Western religion and philosophy, that morality is to be motivated by a "consideration," i.e. that it is a form of prudence.

The po soul that descends into the Earth sounds like the Greek soul, and the Confucian belief that it dissipates with the body would be the Aristotelian variant. The hun soul that ascends to Heaven would then be more like a Platonic soul. To have both of them, as with the multiple parts of the Egyptian soul, poses a paradox if, as in popular Chinese belief, there is some kind of personal immortality. Is just one of them, probably the hun, immortal? or both? I don't know if this was ever addressed.

But this picture does seem rather pre-adapted for Descartes, with the qi of animal life going with the body, while the principle of human "spirit" or "wit," i.e. rational consciousness, goes up to Heaven.

Chinese Elements and Associations

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The Egyptian Soul


In Western philosophy and religion we have grown accustomed to a sharp and simple distinction between body and soul. The soul carries consciousness and individuality, and the only question is whether, as the body dies and decays, the soul survives. The paradigmatic definition of all this was in René Descartes. However, things were not and are not always that simple. For the Greeks, the soul was the principle of life, not of Cartesian consciousness, and it was perfectly conceivable that, as life failed in the body, the soul failed with it. Thus, while Plato believed in the immortality of the soul, Aristotle did not. Other philosophers, like Heraclitus, thought that the soul might or might not survive, depending on circumstances ("For souls it is death to become water," Heraclitus, Fragment 36, Kirk & Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1964, p.205). In adapting Aristotle to Christianity, Scholastic philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas had to take Aristotle's metaphysics for the existence of the gods, as unique and separable form, and use it for human souls. Since this was not done for animal souls, we find Descartes dispensing with the idea that animals have souls at all, reducing life to a purely mechanical, indeed robotic, function. Ultimately, this provided ammunition for the materialist rejection of the existence even of human souls.

In India, the problem was sometimes different. The soul as the Âtman could be conceived as conscious and immortal but, in unqualified Advaita Vedânta, perhaps not as individual. The individualty of the soul was then carried by subtle bodies, of which there is usually more than one and possibly several. This is a conception that has gained little traction in the West. Now a fair number of people have at least heard of the "astral body," but then this tends to be conceived along the lines of a Western soul, as unique, conscious, and immortal, when in Indian terms it is nearly as transient and illusory as the physical body.

It may be of interest to go back to the source. Perhaps the oldest attested, and one of the most elaborate, conceptions of human existence is in Egyptian religion. Some of the elements of the Egyptian soul are familiar, others are strange, perplexing, and controversial. Nothing was more important for the Egyptians but has proved stranger and more difficult than their notion of the "Ka," . This is often called the "Double," and it is always portrayed as a duplicate of the living person in shape and size. The potter god Khnum, who is supposed to have created the first human beings on his potter's wheel, is always shown creating both a person and his Ka, as we see at right. The Ka certainly survived death and was regarded as the object of offerings and prayers by the living. The Egyptians never acted like the Ka was part of the living person, but then exactly what its relationship was to the living person is one of the most perplexing questions about Egyptian religion. One of the interesting contributions to this issue was the suggestion of Julian Jaynes that people used to converse with their own minds in the form of hallucinated voices, which they took to be gods or spirits (the theory of the "bicameral mind"). The Ka would then be our own companion spirit. Unfortunately for Jaynes's theory, it is not clear how our brain would transition from hearing voices to the simple inner dialogue of self-consciousness without some kind of organic evolution. Jaynes sees the transition as a cultural innovation, which hardly seems sufficient. Nevertheless, it is possible that people thought of silent inner dialogue as a true inner voice. When it is said that St. Augustine was the first person to read a book without reading it out loud, it is possible that inner dialogue was not as common as it was later. Be that as it may, the Ka does represent a unique conception in that it is essentially separated from the living person.

Another form of the soul often shown with both the body of the dead and the Ka, is the "Ba," . The Ba is not shown with the living person but emerges at death. We see it either as a bird or, characteristically, as a bird with a human head. The Ba has a dedicated function, and that is simply to go places. The Ba leaves the tomb, visits the world, and returns. Thus, we see an image at right of the Ba returning down the shaft of a typical Old Kingdom sort of private tomb. All of these would seem to go along with a wide cross-cultural association of birds with death or the dead. In European traditions, a bird flying into a window is an omen or a sign of death. This happened at the time of the death of my own father. In Navajo tradition, owls are signs of death or ill omen. This is all much stronger with birds at night than in the day, when their form and movement are less easily observed, and their business less obvious. What is flitting around there out in the dark could well be the dead blundering about or checking up on us. Owls, of course, are night hunters -- it was not even know until recently that their diet often consists of bats.

Another form of the soul could be the Shadow, . This is something we don't see much about in treatments of Egyptian religion or the afterlife, but it does have strong cross-cultural counterparts in regard for the shadow as a somewhat unnatural or supernatural component of the self. Some persons or beings are said to exist without shadows, or with shadows that move independently. Shadows can be magically detached or restored, as we see in a story by Lord Dunsany (Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron), The Charwoman's Shadow [1926], where we are told,

On Earth, the shadow is led hither and thither, wherever he will, by the man; but hereafter it is far otherwise, and wherever his shadow goes, alas, he must follow; which is but just, since in all their sojourn here never once doth the shadow lead, never once the man follow" [Ballantine Books, 1973, p.144].

This, of course, is fiction, but regarding the dead as "shades" or "shadows" has a long history in religion, as we see in the Greek Epics and still reflected in Plato, who has Socrates say in the Meno, referring to Homer, that the dead "flit about like shadows" (with Plato's double meaning of the world as a "shadow" in relation to the World of Being). The "Shadow" also comes to have an interesting modern meaning in Jungian psychology, as the sum of the negative unconscious influences in the personality. In general, however, there is not a lot about the shadow that we know of in Egyptian religion.

Jung's association of the Shadow with the morally negative side of the personality was not without historical parallels. In Navajo religion, which is otherwise vague or silent about an afterlife, there is nevertheless a strong belief that at death the deceased releases a ghost, the chindi (ch'íídii), that embodies all the negative, mean, cruel, and violent propensities that may have belonged to that person in life -- i.e. the Jungian Shadow. Various indications are that a person in full harmony with life ("walking in beauty") may (1) not release a chindi at all, (2) release a benign chindi that harmlessly disperses, or (3) release a benign chindi that travels to a different life. There is no systematic theology involved, and popular beliefs, as is common in religion, are not always consistent. There is no doubt, however, about popular fear of the malicious chindi, which can cause sickness and death and can be used by witches to harm others. If death occurred within a dwelling, like a traditional hogan, that ghost is trapped within and the dwelling becomes dangerous and unfit for habitation. It must be abandoned. The Navajo thus traditionally exercise some care that people on the verge of death are moved into the open. This is an extraordinary conception with extraordinary consequences. One can imagine that traditional Navajo would be horrified to visit a hospital, where a great many people would have died over time. Otherwise, care must be taken to avoid anything else that might attract the chindi back towards the living. We also get shadows associated with evil in some popular culture. In the movie Ghost [1990], the souls of those who die, in effect, in sin, having done great evils, are literally seized and dragged down (presumably to Hell) by the shadows that rise up from the surfaces around them. In the popular television series The Ghost Whisperer, where the good in people, evidently, goes on "into the light," a theme is being developed that the evil in them is left behind as shadows, which begin to act much like the chindi. There is really no indication of ideas like this associated with the shadow in Egyptian religion.

While today the body is usually contrasted with the soul, the Egyptians did not accept that the body was something inessential to the self that could carelessly be allowed to decay and disappear. Few cultures have been more concerned for the care and disposal of the corpse, , than the Egyptians. The body was expected to come back to life, in the tomb, if the proper physical and ritual precautions are taken. After all, in the image of the Ba above, it is returning to the tomb because that is where the body is kept. Thus, on the one hand, we have mummification with its rituals, which delivers to the grieving family, not the hideous cadaver on view in modern museums, but a neatly wrapped and decorated body, swaddled, as it were, for rebirth. The rebirth is formally accomplished just as the mummy is introduced into the tomb, with rituals such as the "opening of the mouth," which restores breath and speech to the deceased. Within the tomb, the dead enjoy the possessions, activities, and companions of ordinary life, though they are also dependent on the offerings and good will of the living. All through Egyptian history, private tombs typically featured external chambers for visits and offerings, often with appeals even to strangers to at least speak the name of the dead. The Egyptians feared, it seems, not merely to be neglected but actually to be forgotten. Kings had less difficulty, with often massive mortuary temples and other works featuring their names.

Crossculturally, we have a range of attitudes about the bodies of the dead. Sometimes fear of pollution outweighs any solicitude for the afterlife. With the Navajo, again, death pollution is a matter of extraordinary concern. The best thing to do with the dead is to conceal their burial, lest their bodies be turned into "corpse powder" by witches and used to harm the living. A similar level of worry is evident in the earliest forms of Shinto, to the point where Japan long did not have a permanent capital, for fear of the pollution and ghosts lingering near the sites of their previous lives and deaths. These scruples were not overcome until the foundation of Nara as a permanent capital in 712 AD. Crossculturally, familiar practices for the disposal of the dead, like burial and cremation, historically are joined with various kinds of exposure. "Sky burial," i.e. exposure to birds, can occur because of worries about pollution (in Zoroastrianism, which did not want to defile earth, water, or fire and so uses "Towers of Silence") or because of lack of material for pyres (in Tibet, which is almost entirely above the timber line). In traditional Japan, the bodies of the poor were often just dumped, since the families could not afford cremation or burial, and few believed that insignificant people had the power to generate malevolent spirits -- although this was otherwise greatly feared about the powerful and still generates a modern horror genre in movies such as The Ring [2002] from the Japanese movie Ringu [1998]. Today, when few would think that the dead have some kind of ordinary life in the grave or tomb, people nevertheless visit the dead at graveside -- an annual and formal institution in Chinese religion at the time of Ch'ing Ming. It is hard to shake the sense that a living presence has some connection to the dead body. In the absence of a body, we then get the phenomenon of the cenotaph, an empty grave that is ritually dedicated as a substitute.

The foregoing are the parts of the soul as listed by Sir Alan Gardiner in his Egyptian Grammar [Oxford, 1917, 1964, pp.172-173]. We find other things, however, added to the soul in other sources. Of great interest to Henri Frankfort in his classic Ancient Egyptian Religion [Columbia U. Press, 1948, Harper Torchbooks, 1961] was an Egyptian term that may be less puzzling than the others, but which is quite vague nevertheless. This is the , the "blessed spirit." As a verb, , the word means "be beneficial, advantageous", and can even be associated with sunshine [Gardiner, op.cit., p.550]. In Egyptian history, the most conspicuous place we see the word is in the name of the Heretic King, Akhenaton, , the "Spirit of the Aton" -- Akhenaton's own solar deity. Although the "akh" receives little attention in most treatments, Frankfort saw it as quite central. The "transfigured spirits" of the dead achieve "harmony with the divine order" and are both benefited and beneficient. They leave the realm of ordinary existence and can even be associated with the stars in the sky, especially the Pole stars, as remote as they are perfect. This, of course, accompanies without difficulty beliefs that the dead live in the tomb.

Other popular sources mention other items that figure in the story of the afterlife and may also be taken as parts of the self or soul. Chief among these is the heart, . The heart, of course, is part of the body. The Egyptians (like Aristotle) believed that it was the seat of intelligence, thought, and will -- they did not know what the brain was for and in fact destroyed and discarded it during mummification. As such, the heart was important enough that it was the only internal organ that was returned to the body before burial. This organ, however, then makes another appearance in a very different context. We see it in the Judgment of the Dead, where it is weighed against a feather, which is the hieroglyph for Truth and Justice, . If the heart is heavier than Truth, the soul is eaten by a monster, the Devourer. Lighter or equal to Truth, the soul continues with the afterlife. Thus, in the Book of the Dead, we find instructions for the deceased to urge his heart not to falsely testify or reveal any awkward information about his life. With this appearance of the heart at the Judgment, we might think that this could not then be the physical heart, but the Egyptians may not have worried about that sort of question.

A person's name, , is also mentioned as a part of the soul. The name certainly plays an important part in the afterlife. The Egyptians would say that "to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again." This was taken with some seriousness. The chapels attached to private tombs, provided for visits and offerings, always implore the visitor to speak the name of the dead. That the deceased should simply be forgotten was viewed with horror by the Egyptians. It would certainly mean that offerings would cease and that relatives might have died out, but there also seems to be some sense the very existence of the dead might be threatened if they were not remembered and invoked. With all the other provisions and precautions for the afterlife, recollection by the living might seem the least significant; but it was part of the mix.

The Egyptians never had a systematic metaphysics or dogmatic theology in which all of this was sorted out. Some might like to think that the Egyptians were wise beyond our reckoning, and that they did have all the metaphysics worked out, and that these truths are preserved in secret doctrines and esoteric teachings -- but whenever examples of something of the sort are revealed in public, their derivation, naiveté, and often incoherence is usually painfully obvious. What we do have, however, is among the first attempts to conceive of the structure of our personal existence, and it remains of great interest for, indeed, its naive spontaneity. That there is a jumble of incoherent views of the dead and the afterlife is simply an example of the multiplicity of explanations in mythopoeic thought.

Thought Experiments on the Soul

Philosophy of Religion

Index of Egyptian History

Egyptian Royal Tombs of the New Kingdom

The Pronunciation of Ancient Egyptian

Philosophy of History

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