The Soul: Re-imagined

"I'm sure we all interpreted it somewhat differently. Some of the fellas would go right to a religious explanation. I didn't - I went to a more science-based explanation [...] all of that is wonderful. That's what it takes to build a civilization."
- Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, on the experience of seeing Earth from orbit.

"'Sacred' is what happens to questions when we can no longer stand to seek an answer."
- George Murray, Glimpse: Selected Aphorisms (2010)

While the nature of numinous reality has been roughly ascertained by spiritual initiates over many millennia, concentrating on portions that are measurable by established metrics is preferable, for both practical and philosophical reasons.

By its very nature, numinous reality defies definition. Compounding this difficulty, conventional scientific method - that is, the established protocol of observation, measurement and experimentation established in 17th century Europe - has proven itself to be wholly inadequate to the task of revealing reliable truths about the metaphysical.  

In fact, the word 'metaphysical' - beyond physical - puts any subject it defines outside the purview of credible inquiry, empirical or otherwise.

(In the context of this writing, the word 'metaphysical' is used unchangeably with 'spiritual' or 'numinous' to indicate an understanding of the world which is not grounded exclusively in material physicality.)

(In addition, it should be made plain that this essay is not intended to address so-called 'spiritual' behaviors like 'compassion' or 'kindness', certainly among the most noble traits demonstrated by the human animal.)

(Likewise, the idea of metaphysical 'consciousness' [or 'awareness'] is not explored in-depth here. By the estimation of the writer, this concept is better left as a subject for future exposition.)

For hundreds of generations, humans have clung to metaphysical beliefs, and taken consolation in assumptions about invisible realities - realities they have invented themselves or inherited from others.

Even in the earliest years of the 21st century, faith in objective truth - whether embodied by deities, or represented by a political, legal, cultural, religious or scientific system - is still the default mode for most people.

Beliefs based around these sorts of objective truths are the epistemological equivalent of believing that the sun revolves around the Earth. They represent the last - and most deeply entrenched - vestiges of prehistoric instinctual reasoning in modern humans.

This instinctual reasoning has been well-documented by scientists who have studied young children and their receptivity to explanations that evoke design or purpose. Based on these findings, it is sensible to conjecture that humans of any age are amenable to perceiving agency in the world, that - in effect - we cannot help but believe.

Some researchers have used this data to argue for the existence of deity (and by extension, an objective truth), claiming that - in the words of 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) - "there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of everyman".

Or, in layman's terms, since it has been demonstrated that humans are predisposed to believe in gods, logically, they must exist, because we were created this way.

Propositions of this sort are - and always have been - quite common. They must be accepted on faith, and for the majority of humans in the 21st century, lacking this faith is perceived as a character flaw.

Even atheists - who would generally scoff at being compared to the religiously-minded - succumb to Pascal's 'God-shaped vacuum', choosing to satisfy the need to believe with scientism, aesthetics, hedonism, activism, nihilism, or what-have-you.

(To be clear, in the context of this essay, objective truths - whether espoused by atheists in the form of scientism or by believers in political/religious/cultural ideologies - are equally fallacious.)

(Personal truth - the abstraction of one human being's experience in the world - or consensual truth - a consolidation of two or more personal truths - is neither conclusive or absolute, and must be always evaluated with great care, depending on context, the perceiver(s), and what is being perceived.)  

It is with cautious, thorough scientific experimentation and documentation that researchers have theorized the primacy of belief in the formation of humans' understanding of the world.

With this information in mind, attention can be turned to a subject that has traditionally been regarded as an important locus of human belief, and a source of both numinous reality and metaphysical agency in the world: The existence of soul.   

In keeping with the themes disclosed at the outset of this essay, imagining a idea of soul relevant in the 21st century is quite challenging.

The temptation to conceptualize 'soul' according to ancient wisdom traditions or new age vapidity is pervasive in this era, as is the tendency to reject the notion altogether.  

Foundational to the concept of soul proposed by this exposition is the insight offered by the English poet, artist and mystic William Blake (1757-1827).

In his seminal poetic work 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell', Blake states that, "Man has no Body [sic] distinct from his Soul [sic] for that calld [sic] Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses [sic]. the [sic] chief inlets of Soul in this age."    

Of principal interest here is not the inference that the soul does not reside in the body - like the heart or some other internal organ - but that the human body is inside of soul.

Even more radical is the poet's proposition that the body is the part of the soul discerned by the five senses - a statement which, if accepted literally, suggests that the soul's existence can be revealed and studied by adopting a different understanding of what our physical bodies actually are.

The second tier in the concept of soul proposed here comes from the emerging field of quantum computing, a system of information processing that utilizes atomic and subatomic particles to perform complex mathematical operations.

Quantum mechanics - the foundational basis of quantum computing -  was once characterized as a theory of limits, a descriptor which connoted a view of world in which human observation was unavoidably uncertain and where randomness pervaded all natural phenomenon.

In the early part of the 20th century, this conceit was embraced by the logical positivists, a philosophical school which stressed an epistemology of sensory-based empiricism coupled with mathematical and linguistic rigor.

Perhaps the most well-known expression of this "theory of limits" is Werner Heisenberg's (1901-1976) uncertainty principal, which set a daunting restriction on quantum mechanics' capacity to describe and control physical phenomenon.

Essentially, the uncertainty principal posits that the more an observer knows about one "sharp" property of a particle - such as its position - the less can be known about another "sharp" property, for example, its velocity.

While this conceit held sway for much of the last century, today physicists routinely encode information in individual atoms or elementary particles with tremendous precision, despite the restriction placed by the uncertainty principal.

It is this particular notion that is relevant to the re-imagining of soul.           

Digital technology stores information using bits, a physical system in which values have either a yes or no / true or false / 0 or 1 value. In classical computers, the presence or absence of a charge on the plates of a capacitor can represent a bit.

But in quantum computers, qubits - quantum bits - can assume values between and including 0 or 1, permitting a level of functionality that would be impossible with digital tech.

This functionality is accomplished by making direct use of phenomena like quantum superposition, where elementary particles can take on a range of different values simultaneously.

By utilizing such observables, physicists have shown that problems predicted by uncertainty can be overcome by following a simple rule of thumb: If some particle properties are hard to make sharp, do not attempt to store information in those properties; use other properties instead.

To briefly review, with these elements in mind, a) the human proclivity towards belief, b) the body as part of the soul and c) the use of quantum superposition to store information, a picture of the numinous reality represented by soul begins to take shape.    

Imagine soul as a field of energy - both continuous (analogue) and discreet (digital) - comprised of particles and waves the same way light is. Yet, unlike light, the soul is both temporal and atemporal, operating inside and outside of space-time.

While metaphysical by definition, the soul's "sharp" property - the physical body - is  measurable, but of limited use to store numinous information. To wit, as Blake suggested, the body is just "a portion of soul discerned by the five senses."

However the body's other physical properties - like particles described by quantum superposition - exist in all theoretically possible states and are therefore accessible to store numinous information. More importantly, the states can be creatively conceptualized by human imagination, and by thoughtful reasoning.

Re-imagining the soul could begin with an inventory of genetic data inherited at the moment of conception. This will include not only parental heritage, but the condensed history of the species, expressed chemically. 

Lists of foods, drinks and other ingestible substances consumed by the progenitor during gestation might be tallied; then the same thing could be done for the offspring as well, insofar as they can be determined. The origins of these consumables should be considered also, since what we put into ourselves, becomes us.

Devise an algorithm to discern the residual lasting effects of these consumables within the body, but also what is released by the body, both in terms of scatological waste, cellular decay, and quantum leakage.

Consider breath, how many breaths are taken in a lifetime. Consider how the body is sustained by breathing, and what that implies for the concept of soul.

Disintegration of the body - the soul's "sharp" property - upon death ends the human experience of temporally-based sense input and expression.

So the body disintegrates. But as a part of soul, it continues to exist in any one of theoretically possible states, and is gradually reintegrated into the surrounding environment, in the form of molecular constituents, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous.  

For at its most basic state, the body - whether living or dead - is energy, and energy can be neither created or destroyed. The soul - in the context of this writing - is an expression of that same energy.

Eventually, like the body, the Earth will disintegrate and return to the stars, where the entirety of matter in the observable universe had its origin. Yet for soul, existing both temporally and atemporally, this is only the final (or the first?) of the all the theoretically possible states for the body.   

If this new idea of soul sounds uncannily like an old concept - that the whole physical universe is a "sharp" property, existing in one of innumerable theoretically possible states, and that it is only part of a much wider field of energy - then the desire of this essay's author has been satisfied.

We live in a remarkable historical period, one that demands that we throw off the self-imposed shackles of antiquated beliefs and superstition, for our own sake and the sake of the species.

It is a time that demands a re-conceptualization of soul - not as some abstract notion that remains elusive and indefinable, accessible to only mystics, messiahs and metaphysicians - but as something that surrounds us all the time, and that is available to anyone willing to make the effort to imagine it is there.