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Exploring the 'soul'
What is the soul?
When people claim there is a life after death they are suggesting a particular understanding of the relation between the person and the body; the body can be viewed as a vehicle which we live in and which we rely on to function in our daily lives; however the important part of us is what is inside. The concept of the soul is a difficult one and many disagree on whether it exists and what exactly it is if it does. A materialist would claim that we are no more than chemical elements and that our emotions are chemical reactions in the brain; a dualist on the other hand would argue that we have to separate parts, a body (the case) and the soul (our thoughts and feelings and everything that makes us who we are). Those who believe in a soul believe that this lives on after death and thus, is the most important part of us – our body is just essential in this short life.
We can think of the soul as something which inhabits our bodies and that without it, our bodies would be like a cup without a drink, or an iPod without the music. It is almost as though our bodies are puppets and our souls the puppeteers allowing us to use our senses.
John Locke raised the problem of our personal identity through his story of the prince and the cobbler. The story tells of a prince and a cobbler who one day wake up to find themselves in each other’s bodies – the cobbler was anxious to explain how he had not broken into the palace, however due to his appearance of the prince nobody understood his problem. The prince was angry with the cobbler’s wife, thinking he had been kidnapped. Who is who in this story? What makes us who we are - the mind or the body? This is a difficult question to answer.
Most theists believe that people have souls even when their minds have been destroyed by old age or illness; however the soul is described as the part of a person which develops a relationship with God, the part which is conscious and makes moral decisions. This raises problems however as people with little mental awareness often lack skills to do such things.
Plato, a famous Greek philosopher, believed that the physical world and the world of Forms were two sepearte realms and in the same way made a distinction between the body and the soul, thus, taking a dualist view. The soul is the part of us that has the ability to know the truth and be perfect, like the forms, however our body does not know perfection and has dragged us away from those perfect forms as it can only learn through physical sense experience rather than connect with the spiritual world of Forms. Plato believed the knowledge we achieve through reason is better than knowledge achieved through experience as the senses can be mistaken whereas the soul cannot. Plato deduced that the soul is unchanging and able to obtain certain truth, therefore it must immortal, not only existing after death but before it too. Plato views the soul as the real part of a person that is simply attached to a temporary physical body in this life.
Plato described the soul as a guiding force, helping the mind and body to work in harmony. He believed it was made up of emotion, appetite and reason, which are three basic instincts which make us do the things we do. Each of the three elements plays a part in the balance of the individual.
Personally I would love there to be such thing as a soul that lives on after death, however I think our behaviour, feelings, and memories are all controlled by chemical reactions in our brain and once our brain is destroyed that is it. People often have accidents that leave them brain damaged, this causes them to lose the ability to do things, and most importantly all their memories that make them who they are; if the soul was something separate from the brain it could not be damaged in an accident, therefore, the soul must actually be the brain but people are mistaken in thinking it is some separate entity that can survive death. It seems to be able to survive death but it can be damaged in an accident; that doesn’t make sense. If somebody has an explanation for me I would be happy to hear it