What the hell is a soul? Damned if I know. Like most people I try to answer that question for myself, but the fact is, nobody has a clue and despite the fact that we're all struggling to find the answer, none of us has. After all, if one person could truly show everyone what a soul was, there would no longer be a debate about its composition and/or existence. Sure, there are those who believe in the religious aspects of a soul - most of the world's population, in fact - but even they would be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what it is, and when exactly it becomes a part of our physical beings. Nobody can tell you what it consists of, or where it sits while waiting for a body to embed itself in.
Not everyone believes in a soul, of course. It's rather an ephemeral thing having more to do with a belief that there's something beyond our corporeal existence. I can't imagine atheists believing in a soul of any kind, as it goes against all the basic principles of atheism. I'm not saying that makes them immoral. Morality is based on our actions, not our beliefs - a stance too few people seem to take while they spout religious doctrine in loud voices at the nearest passersby.
Many believe that life begins at conception, and it seems logical to them that the soul would be there from that moment. Well, wait a minute. Let's take a look at the logistics of that. For what it's worth, I'll share my opinion on the topic. This particular blog posting springs rather naturally from my previous one on the pro-choice/anti-choice debates on abortion and reproductive rights. A friend made a comment on it that I felt I had to address, but it turned into such a long response I've chosen to put it here instead.
Personally, I don't think
we're viable as human beings until we are capable of thought. It's not so much the pain
issue for me, although that's a concern, too. In my opinion, once we are sentient, we're a valid life form. I
mean, most people have that outlook if they look closely at their
beliefs. If you have a relative who is on life support, and you know
they're brain-dead, eventually almost everyone chooses to remove life
support. Granted, that's with the belief that they will never again
become sentient creatures and there's no hope. Still, (for me anyway,)
until something is capable of its own thought processes, I have a hard
time regarding it as a living creature. No more so than I would
bacteria, I suppose. There are far too many living, sentient, suffering
creatures out there already - human or otherwise - and they have my
sympathies and my empathy far more readily than what amounts to nothing
more than a cell cluster that isn't suffering in the least. (This all
coming from a woman who has a hard time killing a fly - literally - and
will do so as quickly and humanely as possible.)
I find that
most people who feel life begins at conception have a
religious/spiritual slant to the belief - a belief in a soul basically. I believe in a soul, but probably not in the same way a lot of
people do. I'm not conflicted by it, as I think they need a
brain to latch onto. The reason I feel that way might be because of what
I think about paranormal stuff in general. I believe it's all
scientific, involving a great many electrical impulses. Those are
already present in the human body in spades, and I can see our spiritual
energy being physically attracted (similar to how magnetic attraction
works) to our physical nervous system once it's developed enough to
start sending out the electrical impulses that force our hearts to beat,
and our lungs to expand.
Now, assuming I'm wrong (and that
happens *gasp*) and our soul is there right from the moment sperm meets
egg, if you believe in past lives/multiple lives, then the soul will
simply find another clump of cells to inhabit if a pregnancy doesn't continue. If you believe in an
afterlife, it goes there to be forever happy. I don't see a problem with
any of that. With the sperm-meets-egg concept, though, I find it
confusing. I mean, sperm and ova are life forms, too. Short-lived ones,
of course, but therein lies the problem with the whole "personhood"
debate. If we define life as anything that isn't organically dead, sperm
and egg are life. So my question there is, do they have a soul? If they
do, what happens when they merge into a single being? They each have
their own chromosomes. Each contributes half of the chromosomes required in order to grow a human being.
This naturally leads into the definition of what a human being is really comprised of. Are we nothing more than a group of cells, or is there something else there? Obviously we're capable of sentient thought, whether we all choose to take advantage of the capability or not, but then so are all animals. Dogs gets excited when their human companion comes home from work. Cats get pissed off and take a crap in your shoe if you go on vacation. (Yes, it really is that deliberate.) Ferrets will climb all over you if you've been gone for a while. All of these things I know from personal experience with the animals I've shared my life with. They obviously have feelings, as they notice a loss when we're not there. These emotions show us there's an intelligence there. So, I would go so far as to say, if we have a soul, then so do the animals of this world. This isn't even something we have to teach animals, as it happens in wildlife in pack animals as well. They already have, and use, the capacity to feel emotion.
Some of you may feel as though I'm missing the point when I avoid biblical references, but the fact is I do not believe in the bible. I believe it's a collection of stories, possibly loosely based on real events, but when even the Vatican admits that the stories about Jesus were written fifty years after his death, by someone who wasn't there at the time, it amounts to nothing more than hearsay. If you've ever played the sociology gossip game, or even heard about it, you can see why I put little faith in hearsay. Basically you tell someone a 'secret' and then wait to see what it turns into by the time it gets back to you. I've heard of (yes, that's hearsay) it being used as a sociology experiment/project in universities and colleges, but have no real-life experience with it other than regular gossip. I've heard some pretty interesting stories about myself, for that matter, that made me wish I'd done half the things I was purported to have done. The threesome one (with two guys no less) was iffy on my bucket list.
The point is simply that any rumour that goes around usually comes back as something completely unrecognizable. So, how is it that the stories of Jesus or Moses would be any different? Humans certainly weren't any more truthful back then, than they are now - not if the bible is to be believed. God supposedly destroyed everything except Noah and his family at one time, and then smote Gomorrah at another, and all for the various "sins" inherent in human beings. Nothing has changed there apparently, except that we're destroying ourselves without any help from a higher being, and that was probably what happened back then, too. There was a great flood according to scientists, and quite frankly it looks like there will be again. This time created by humans and global warming. That's another article altogether, however.
So, what is a soul? When do we become real human beings? Is it from the moment we're conceived in amongst all the lustful grappling? I don't know about you, but that's kind of an "ick" factor for me. I'm not sure why, but it is. I have my quirks. So be it. Are we something like the beings that Plato describes, where we spend eternity looking for our other half, but in reality the other half is either a sperm or an egg? That would certainly throw people for a curve. I mean, so many people talk about romance and their other half, when really, we were in two halves. We started out that way as sperm and ova. We became whole at the moment of conception. This is assuming that our souls are present within the sperm and egg, however.
Of course, I don't believe in the romantic aspects of having an 'other half' of myself. When I was young and far more neurotic than I am today, with no confidence and belief in myself, sure I ate up that whole idea with a spoon. I grew up.
(That spoon thing may not be the best analogy when talking about sperm and eggs, I'm thinking. "I do not like my eggs and sperm. I do not like them, Sam I Am. I would not, could not in a boat. I would not, could not on a goat." Okay, that brings up some very disturbing imagery for me, however it might amuse me. I wonder what Dr. Seuss would think. After all, I'm pretty sure he had to be fairly disturbed to write some of that stuff. Kind of like me, I suppose.)
Maybe the debate is more about what truly gives us the right to a life. I don't mean the term 'right to life' as it necessarily applies to abortion debates, but as a question regarding what makes us worthy of being allowed to exist in the first place. Are human being so sacrosanct that every little blob is sacred? Are we so fantastic that the universe guarantees us an unquestioned right to live? I have to say, based on some of the crap I've seen us do, I'm pretty sure the universe could do quite well without us. We're certainly not doing anything to improve it. We're an infinitesimal piece of a ginormous quilt, and we have a tendency to rip out the stitches holding our little piece in place.
That being said, as a whole I think there's hope for us. I just think we need to get our priorities straight. We need to protect what we have already. Whether that's our planet, the people living on it, or the other living creatures that inhabit it. Until we're assured that those things are taken care of, and that we're responsible and well-behaved as a species, continuing the infestation of our planet should really be further down on the list. If we truly do have a soul, that's probably our best way of saving it.