And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and man became a living soul.
In Ridley Scott’s cult classic, Blade Runner, set in 2019, we meet an L.A. cop, Captain Decker (Harrison Ford), sent to hunt down renegade replicants, or androids, up to no good, being highly resentful that their creator had timed them to die.
Captain Decker meets Rachael (Sean Young), the most advanced replicant. Decker can’t figure out if she, as the creator’s assistant, is a real human being with a soul, or simply his masterpiece. In the end, Decker falls in love with Rachel, and takes her with him. To Decker, it really doesn’t matter whether she is human or not. He simply can’t tell the difference.
When you speak of the soul, everyone knows what you are talking about, but hardly anyone can clearly explain it. Soul is clearly what makes us human. Soul is the very core of our being. Soul is the essence of our individuality over and against our body.
The soul is defined with various ancient words. In Hebrew, it is nefesh, or the breath of life. In Greek, it is psyche, or mind. In Sanskrit, it is the jivatman, our essence as an individual that migrates from life to life. It speaks of our heart as much as our mind, being closer to the heart.
Genesis depicts the soul as the breath of the Creator that makes the clay figurine, Adam, come alive. Adam is no longer dust; he is “a living soul.” Although this narrative is clearly metaphorical, it speaks to our divine nature, what differentiates us from other animals. We are human, if not also divine.
In the Bible, spirit is represented with different words in the original. “Ruah” (breath or wind) in Hebrew and “Pneuma” (air) in Greek. In Sanskrit, God, from an impersonal standpoint, is “Brahman” (Infinite expansion). In Buddhism, it is often thought that humanity has no soul, as all phenomena are continually changing and are ultimately illusion.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, the apostle, most likely Saint Paul, distinguishes between soul and spirit, knowable only through revelation. In this context, the soul is the foundation of our human nature, while spirit is our divine nature.
The soul may be everlasting, but not eternal. There was a time when your soul was not, but it may never end. Your spirit, however, is eternal. It always was, it always will be, because it is the very nature of God.
Your soul is the very heart of your individuality, what makes you “YOU” as “Mark” or “Audrey” or “Phil.” It suggests your presence. If you are in love with her, you feel her independent of her physical appearance. Your spirit, however, is one with the Source of the Universe, in which the galaxies spin.
Several hundred years ago, before the modern age, you would seem very strange to the people in your life if you asked a question like this. It was obvious to most cultures, societies and civilizations in the world that we have a soul. The only intelligent question was, “What happens to our soul after we die?” Here again, most societies accepted that our souls actually went somewhere. They survived the body.
With the emergence of the scientific method, the philosophy of rational empiricism emerged out of the immense success of science in making predictions and advancing technology. For experimental purposes, if you can’t publically sense something and actually measure it, it is unreal. It just doesn’t exist.
In the modern age, the soul got increasingly associated with the brain, as opposed to the heart. It became popular to suppose that our mind was entirely due to the intermittent firings of our neurons, much like a cortical thunderstorm. The moment you pull the plug and stop the action, the mind is gone, along with your soul.
Clearly, this assumption didn’t sit well with most people. Thanks to the father of modern philosophy, Renee Descartes, they took refuge in dualism, that the soul resides entirely in a different realm. The body is the body, and the soul is the soul.
As Descartes famously put it, “I think. Therefore, I am.”
In the past decade, research on the brain and the human nervous system has escalated. We have already decoded the human genome. Whereas earlier we were in the kindergarten stage, we may be confident that we are now in the elementary stage of understanding brain functioning. The global IT infrastructure required to support this research is now many times greater than it was even a decade ago.
The more we know about the brain, the more tempting it is to try and explain away the soul as simply neurological processes. However, the brain is vastly complex, with billions of neurons in intelligent patterns. If you look at all the possible combination of patterns in any single brain, you will have more than the number of stars in the known universe.
Scientists have started to attempt on a crude level to reverse engineer the brain with varying degrees of success, as many of our neurological processes are analogical, rather than digital, meaning they are not simply on / off states. In addition, the brain does massively parallel processing way beyond what our current computers can do. Currently, software developers are in the early stages of writing and perfecting code for parallel processing.
A.I. research is finally bearing fruit after decades of exasperating setbacks. Back in the 1950’s, mimicking the brain seemed much easier, as our understanding of both the brain and computer technology was so basic. Early on, there were two directions in developing computing. The first was to look at the computer as an ultimate replacement for the brain. The second was to look at the computer as an instrument to augment human intelligence.
Today, A.I. is being commercialized and introduced in every field and industry. We are about to see personal robots, drones, self-driving cars and flying automobiles on an everyday basis. Google has been using deep learning in its apps for years. Systems are now capable of simple self-learning. For example, you can instruct a system to identify pictures of cats from thousands of photos without any labels.
We aren’t yet at the stage where a system can fool people into believing it is a person, but we now see IBM Watson routinely beat, not only world-class chess players, but Jeopardy participants, a game requiring cultural sophistication. One system has even designed a crude, but intelligible, one-act screenplay!
When Timothy Leary, the acid guru, was about to pass away, he gave instructions to freeze his brain immediately after he was gone in the hopes that a future generation could thaw it, and plant it into a human body. If we can transplant hearts, why not brains?
Transhumanists go beyond this. Since many neurological operations can be coded, one might suppose that human consciousness is an “epiphenomenon” of the brain. We are conscious only in so far as we are programmed, and have an electronic current flowing through us. Should this be the case, then all of the code could be put together and stored in a large rack-mounted platform.
The problem with this line of thinking is that we are, from a biological standpoint, organisms, not machines. We are most definitely not simply an assemblage of parts. Rather, every system of the body grew out of a single fertilized egg. Can we really equate life with machinery?
Right now, computing platforms can do many operations much faster than human beings. They can do more operations and do them faster on some, but not all aspects of thinking. The issue seems to be whether computers can beat human beings in generalized intelligence. There are at least a dozen different kinds: verbal, abstract reasoning, spatial logic, kinesthetic, aesthetic, spiritual, emotional and moral.
It would seem to be a long time before computers master all the different types of human intelligence and can be totally mistaken for human beings. However, it is very clear, as with Apple’s Macintosh, that manufacturers and developers can humanize and personalize systems in certain ways, SIRI being a crude beginning.
Even more to the point, it is dubious how successful systems will be in replicating human beings’ actual feelings and emotions. To date, most of the focus on A.I. and neuroscience has been around rationality and perception. Intuition and emotion seems to be largely overlooked. Given the role of the human heart (which is highly intelligent from a neurological standpoint), it might be more appropriate than the brain in these areas.
Scientific research into neuroscience and A.I. has yet to deal with what it calls “the hard problem.” How do we explain human subjectivity? When I see a gorgeous sunset upon closing my eyes, where is that sunset? Surgeons can’t really isolate any particular group of cells where it is happening. Our imagination seems to reside in a wholly different dimension.
Dr. Deepak Chopra and Dr. Menas Kafatos recently published a marvelous book, “You Are the Universe,” popularizing what they call “qualitas,” the experience of quality in what is superficially considered a quantitative world. They suggest that the brain might be a tuning mechanism for experience, which resides “nonlocally,” meaning it can’t be reduced to any specific locality.
We can’t isolate any experience as happening “out there,” as it is only through our internal sensations and thoughts that we can construct the concept of an external body and world. Quantum physics has eradicated the notion that you can have a world without someone to observe it.
Throughout history, most cultures have seen the soul going on well after the body has dissolved. Death is seen as the separation of the soul from the body. The body is temporal, but the soul is everlasting. One thinks of reincarnation on the one hand, and becoming one with it all and merging with God on the other.
Near death experiences are vividly narrated, with a strong suggestion of the survival of our individuality, and the overwhelming experience of love and well-being in the afterlife. It would seem that we have another body every bit as real as our current human body. The testimony of Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who flatlined his brain for seven days, seems most impressive in this respect.
The New Testament narrative of resurrection points to a glorified body that has a relationship to the former body, but it is not subject to the same laws. It can eat fish, and yet walk through walls. It can be touched, but is capable of levitating into the sky. Could this be a transformed soul body? In Hinduism, ever subtler dimensions of ourselves each have their own discrete body, culminating in the “Anandamayakosha,” or bliss body.
While it is often considered blasphemy to claim that you are God, this may be our greatest truth. If there is only God, which is not a ridiculous proposition after a thorough study of quantum physics, then each of us is God hiding out as you and me. It may be that we live in a divine love story, where the individuality of each one of us is infinitely precious to our Source.
In the wink of an eye, God can bring us all back in a glorified body. If an advanced computer system can launch an entire universe in 3D virtual reality, could God do any less?
If you are interested in exploring the infinite nature of your soul and how it impacts your experience of the world daily… we recommend you do it with Deepak Chopra, a world-renowned thought leader in this space. Click here for more details.