WHAT IS THE SOUL, AND WHO OR WHAT ARE WE AS HUMAN BEINGS? These are two of the most important existential questions of humanity, and ones considered impossible to answer. The latter, the question “Who am I?” is also officially a Buddhist riddle, a question considered impossible to answer because it is considered that every individual has their own answer and there can be no universal answer.
Let us see if we can perform the impossible and define and these most important existential questions of humanity, what is the soul, and who or what are we as human beings in a universal way that applies to everybody and fulfills all criteria.
The first one, the soul, is described in various terms, mostly as the essence of a being as separated from its physical existence which survives after death but nowhere is there an actual coherent definition offered. To sum up the different viewpoints about the soul, I copy paste here a summary in www.urbandictionary.com which includes practically everything I could find:
“The existence of the soul is heavily debated in the first place, and its definition varies greatly from party to party, though everyone believes that everyone else’s definitions are wrong. It is generally agreed to be something possessed by every person, and that’s about all. Therefore, the soul may or may not be any of the following:
- The human mind, that is, that thinking thing lodged behind your eyes;
- The essence of humanity;
- The essence of that which makes a person good and decent;
- The quality of sentience or human intelligence;
- All of someone’s personality or what makes them unique;
- Some mystical version of a person that lives on after the body dies;
- A spiritual concept, created by God (or the gods if you prefer) or a part of him;
- The quality of being alive;
- Anything else you can think of along these lines.
Note that it is also up for debate whether or not non-human animals, or for that matter, plants, have souls; feel free to adjust these answers accordingly.”
None of the above is a definition, at least not a clear and universal one. Basically, as humanity, we agree that we have no idea what the soul is, however we discuss about the soul, we treasure the soul, and the concept, undefined, abstract and vague as it stands, has been the cornerstone of all spiritual inquiries. Although we may disagree on whether animals, plants, insects and other life forms have souls, we universally agree that machines, such as refrigerators, cars, toasters and computers do not.
However, the advances of science as well as the precognition of science fiction writers and visionaries constantly challenge this perception. In “The Bicentennial Man”, a novella by Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific and famous science fiction writers, and a movie featuring the late actor Robin Williams, an android is manufactured with a defect, one that allows it to have choice and overcome or modify its initial programming. The android has preferences beyond its software, comprehends the concept of art, one of the defining principles anthropologists use to determine whether a being can be categorized as Homo sapiens and thus human, and eventually chooses to become a human. Acquiring wealth through art, the android proceeds to change its mechanical body to a biological body over many decades as the technology develops and becomes available, thus gradually approaching the essential characteristics of life as explored in the introduction.
The android becomes a multicellular organism, he has a sense of self, he adapts, he acquires the capability and desire for sex and eventually chooses death, making a choice that overrides its self-preservation programming just as humans do in extreme situations, until he achieves to be recognized officially by the United Nations as human. In the popular television series Battlestar Galactica, mechanical androids called Cylons, made by humans to be used as workers and servers, wage war against humans and initially fail, until they create biological androids indistinguishable from humans to infiltrate humanity in order to sabotage and destroy us. As they develop their science, they give new Cylon models full memories of a human life, parents, fictional childhoods etc., the capacity for emotion as well as human belief systems, including the belief that they are human. Thus, they can remain undetected because they do not even know they are Cylons until activated for a specific task. In order for them to be as close to humans as possible and to not be discovered, eventually they give them choice. This seriously backfires because Cylons with choice are no longer machines and they often choose their allegiance to their human loved ones in lieu of their programming.
This theme is reproduced in many movies and books. In the blockbuster Terminator movie franchise the murderous android played by Arnold Schwarzenegger eventually acquires and exercises choice and fights its programming, becoming human in the process. There are many examples of this theme through human literature because we instinctively know what a soul is, although we collectively agree that we have no idea:
Simply put, the soul is choice.
This is congruent with every perception of the soul:
It is what is left behind when we die, because our choices, their consequences and their impact on others are all that is left behind after we die, our legacy. Choice is the essence that goes beyond our personalities, our character, the teachings of our parents and our society, choice is what can overcome our genetic, cellular, experiential and societal programming.
Our choice, our soul, is what makes heroes, kamikazes, artists, mothers who throw themselves into the fire for their offspring, cultural and political revolutions and everything else that is beyond our programming. We view employees doing repetitive work in cubicles, their eyes devoid of expression as soulless; people who have diminished souls, because they feel they have no choice but to do every day something that does not inspire them, something they dislike because they are not capable of pursuing a more fulfilling career. In the same manner, when we view an abused by her husband woman with empty eyes, we perceive her as soulless because she feels she has no choice, she cannot leave him because she cannot survive on her own, because he will kill her, because her children will suffer, whatever. In Goethe´s Faust, the character makes a pact a pact with Mephistopheles, Satan, where he can have anything he wants while he is alive, knowledge, women, wealth, in order to relinquish all choice after death and serve him in Hell; he sells his choice, his soul.
To provide further understanding, a dog makes choices, so it has a soul, but since it has fewer choices than a human, a less developed soul. A worm has less choices than a dog, thus an even less developed soul, a plant has even less choices since it cannot communicate with sound, has less sensors and cannot change its location, so an even more basic or less developed soul, and an amoeba even less.
The only reason this obvious, intuitive answer has eluded all philosophers and the totality of humanity since the beginning of time is our lack of clarity for thousands of years is our collective lack of clarity, namely our collective paradoxes. Just try to find something that anyone has ever said about that soul that is contradictory to this definition- I bet you will fail.
So, humanity´s existential mystery no1: “What is the soul?” Solved: CHOICE!
Let us now go to the second existential question, what or who are we as human beings, considered by the Buddhists as a koan, an unsolvable riddle, because it is supposed to be a personal answer with no universal solution that all humans could accept is even easier a to answer and in a way that is by definition undeniable:
Humanity´s existential mystery no2: “What or who are we?” Solved: Beings of Choice!, therefore, Beings of Soul!
Why is it undeniable? Because if you do not agree that you are a being of choice, you are making that choice, which automatically makes you a being of choice, regardless of whether you agree or not. If you choose that you are not a being of choice, by making that choice you are confirming that you are!
These and every other answer to all these undefined mysteries which we collectively agree that we can never solve, become easy and intuitive the moment we liberate our minds and bodies from internal contradiction; the answers are all around us, in every piece of literature and in life around us. Clarity provides every answer.