In yesterday’s post, I asked “What is Spirituality?” Naturally, today’s post asks “What is the Spirit?” It is a related and timely question, especially given Eric Simpson’s recent post over at HuffPo Religion, “The Tyranny of the Body in the Quest for Spiritual Life.” In keeping with the Western metaphysical tradition, Simpson simply assumes there is something called the “spirit” that is separate from the body.
This is an old idea that has pre-Socratic roots, though it was first systematized by Plato. Plato’s ideas, in turn, were adopted by early Christians (primarily the Greek churches which were steeped in Platonic thought) and fully incorporated into Christianity by Augustine and Aquinas. Outside the theological realm, it received major support and formalization from the French philosopher Rene Descartes. Cartesian dualism (i.e., the separation of the mind-spirit from the body) was nothing new, but simply a reformulation of some very old Platonic-Christian ideas. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was also a dualist, and argued strenuously — if unconvincingly — on its behalf.
There is of course no empirical evidence or data which support the idea there is a separate “spirit” or soul lurking inside the body (which significantly includes the brain — you may have noticed that brains are always encapsulated by bodies).
Given this fact, it is reasonable to ask why so many obviously smart and sometimes brilliant thinkers have argued there is a “spirit” separate from the body. Because this assumption is so deeply embedded in Western thought and religion (i.e., Christianity), perhaps a more fruitful way to approach this question is to look at other non-Western and non-Christian cultures to see if they have similar ideas.
Somewhat surprisingly, it turns out they do. So why do so many people across the world have the idea there is spirit or soul which is separate from the body? In a brilliant article from 2006, cognitive scientist Jesse Bering largely answered this question in “The Folk Psychology of Souls.” The answer, it turns out, is that the brain-mind — through ordinary cognitive processes — naturally generates conceptions of a “spirit” separate from the body. Thus, the notion of a separate spirit is a mental chimera that the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom calls “commonsense dualism.”
Although Bering’s and Bloom’s work is compelling — and has considerable empirical and cross-cultural support — I doubt that the faithful, or those who believe in spirits/souls, will be convinced. Indeed, I doubt they will even be interested in such research.