Do we have a soul? An internal essence that makes us who we are? A single self that contains all of our morals, ethics and personality. Or are we just a calculating machine that functions almost entirely on autopilot and picks from a variety of different selves to suit the requirements of the current environment? It’s a very human thing to feel like an individual and have control over who we are and what we do but you are not as in control as you think you are. Your brain is lazy and, given the opportunity, it will always take the path of least resistance. Rather than looking at hard evidence and statistics on a given subject and forming sensible conclusions. The right – and fully automated – side of your brain provides intuitive heuristics. These are short cuts that it uses based on previous experiences you have had of a similar type (intuition is just recognition or familiarity) and, provided the left side of your brain – the bit you control – agrees that there is enough coherence between these shortcuts and the problem at hand, that’s what is offered up as the truth. It’s a lot like complex versions of the algorithms Facebook or Spotify use to decide what you like and what might be of interest to you. If your brain feels cognitive ease (low work load) and the associative coherence is solid, that’s good enough. It doesn’t matter if actual evidence says otherwise.
If your brain is this lazy it seems unlikely that it is going to carve out a fully functioning, one of a kind self or accommodate an entirely separate spirit or “soul”. Your morals and ethics are mostly just ideas that appeal to you from various sources such as your parents, teachers, TV, books…etc and these are fluid and change all the time when you find new options that take your fancy more. Your “self” is just the same. An ever-changing entity that serves the purpose required at the time. A famous Thomas Cooley quote says,
“I am not who I think I am, I am not who you think I am, I am who I think you think I am”.
When you are around other people the automated right side of your brain is constantly monitoring the situation as it happens and making adjustments.
“Do the people around me seem happy?”, “are they interested by what I am saying?”, “Do I look good in what I’m wearing?”, “Does that guy think I’m chatting his girlfriend up?”, “Do I like the people around me?”, “Those people over there look more fun”, “I’m bored with this conversation, maybe it’s time to leave”.
All of these perceptions are taking place without your control but they are also shaping the person you are at any given moment. I am not the same person when I am talking to an attractive single girl in a bar as I am when I am talking to a potential employer in an interview or if I am being condescended to by someone who I don’t really like or if I am trying to comfort a frightened child. You are basically a biological robot who makes constant calculations and adjustments to who you are and what you believe all the time. This process enables us to mould ourselves to suit the environment and is one of the many reasons we are so much more successful than other animals.
This behaviour is very tribal, dates back a long way and has its roots in our attempts to work our way up the tribal hierarchy by behaving in ways deemed favourable by our tribal superiors in the hope that we might make our way up the ladder of power and gain preferable choices of partners to mate with and earn more influential and useful friends. We still do it now except it’s usually in the pursuit of “likes” for pictures depicting us having better lives and being more attractive than our peers that we post on social media.
The feeling of having a soul is, most likely, the best explanation we have as to why we are conscious. Consciousness make us aware of ourselves almost like we are the pilot of our own bodies and minds. It has been defined variously in terms of sentience awareness, subjectivity, the ability to experience or to feel wakefulness having a sense of selfhood or soul. There is, as yet, no solid explanation for it. It is both the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives. There is certainly a large debate as to what degree other species experience consciousness and because of this we humans consider ourselves to be superior and we like that feeling. The soul is what makes us different to them. So much so that we often find it hard to think of ourselves as being animals at all. Religion has a huge presence in human history and teaches us that our soul was a celestial gift that God gave to man as he created us and that eternal bliss or damnation awaits it after the physical body dies.
I would argue that what we think is our soul is actually just the narrating left side of our brain doing it’s best to make sense of the constant stream of thoughts and information churned up by the automatic right side. The left side of our brain, as well as maths and logic, handles what is called ‘thinking in words’ where we think about things linguistically which could appear to be another internal entity talking to you. We literally live most of our lives on autopilot and our brain does nearly everything we require itself. Seeing colours, recognising objects, having spacial awareness, hearing sounds and identifying them, making us feel fear or joy or hunger, choosing what or who we like or dislike the look of. It just gathers up information as it goes and pieces it together to form a bank of data that can be accessed almost instantaneously when needed. The slower left side of the brain that we control gives us the ability to pick through that information, analyse it and form opinions thereon. It’s limitations would explain why we feel “human” and not like an infallible computer that never makes errors. There are, however, many new technologies and ideas emerging that allow us to tamper with the human brain doing such things as controlling which neurons are firing by delivering small electrical currents to certain parts of the brain to do such things as curing depression or giving individuals much longer and more intense attention spans to make high stress tasks more easy to do. These will bring many moral dilemmas as technologically enhanced humans may start to look down on less efficient basic humans and then we really are facing selling our souls to the devil. If we have one to sell…