Soul-talk: ground for philosophical problems, intriguing opportunities

Philosophy prof Stephen T. Asma writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education that when it comes to the subject of the soul, his students at Columbia College Chicago are loading him up with the most interesting fodder.

Lately, perhaps sparked by Dan Brown’s best seller The Lost Symbol, I have had to repeatedly extinguish confident student dogma assuring me that “noetic science” has “proven” the existence of the soul. Since the early 1900s, a handful of marginal experimenters have tried to weigh the soul—by arranging dying people on scales and taking their weight before and after the moment of death. Nothing even vaguely suggestive was discovered by that experimental approach, except a very high degree of wishful thinking. One humorous and underreported “finding,” made by an Oregon sheep rancher and earnest amateur scientist, was the discovery that sheep actually gain a little weight as they die. It’s hard to know where to start with all this….

Instead of asking whether we can verify the soul’s existence—find some empirical evidence for it—I suggest a Wittgensteinian approach. Following the Austrian philosopher, I ask: How do people actually talk about the soul? How is soul talk used in ordinary language? And here we find that the soul is alive and well in certain kinds of expressive language. When you look at actual soul talk, you find the following kinds of expressions: “He is my soul mate,” or “She really sold her soul,” or “That’s good soul food,” or “This nature hike is good for my soul,” or “She is an old soul,” or “James Brown has soul,” or “The soul reincarnates,” or “Her soul is in heaven now.”

Asma writes that among philosophers, some soul-talk is rooted in a category mistake because “it exports the soul concept from the domain of subjective expression to the domain of objective fact, where it can have no empirical corroboration.” But as soon as abstraction is removed and the metaphysics cleared from the conversation table,

… you begin to see how the soul is used in social contexts of ordinary language. When a minister tells parents at their son’s funeral that they will see their son again, and his soul is in a better place, I cannot dismiss it or heap scorn on it. If we professors hear this language as a description of reality, then we’re bound to be irritated by the issue of truant evidence and the lack of warrant. But if we hear it as emotive hope, then our objections fall away. The students in my class are right to want to hold on to this language. Metaphysics aside, the minister’s language seems to suggest that there are emotions so deep and bonds so strong that not even death should end them. That is a beautiful sentiment no matter what you think of the soul.

It’s a clear enough proposition, but how would you faithfully do it? Asma seems to be saying we should be content to live with the emotion kicked up by soul-talk as merely expressive or impressionistic, and be content to let it be. So when Deuteronomy and Jesus exhort us to love God with all our heart and mind and soul as the summary of the law, is it more than emotion that’s being referred to, or is it merely neat poetry to have three items together in a list?

If we took this suggested tack literally, what exactly would we be commending in our burial? What exactly would we be saying about God as a “lover of souls” on Good Friday? What exactly would we be making of the Bible’s benedictions, the 23rd Psalm, or the Song of Solomon?

Your thoughts?

h/t Arts and Letters Daily

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