The question has never been simple and easy to deal with. Though, the issue at hand is almost a steadfast notion which is never questioned by adherents and devotees of whatever thought system–or religion, if you will–where such a notion is held in grand esteem. The concept of soul is an important component in the infrastructure of a metaphysical system that puts the human being within a larger belief context dominated by supernatural forces. In this sense, the materialistic/physicalistic scientific presuppostion has absolutely no access into it for it is never observable much less experimentable. The most we can say about it in positive terms is it is a construct to strengthen pre-established convictions zealously guarded by their defenders from the aggressive onslaught of prospective assailants.
In the Hindu religion, the soul is known as the “Atman” which is the human counterpart of the divine “Brahman”. There is therefore an ontological link that connects the Atman and the Brahman which grants the meaningfulness of human existence. Without such link, humanity is nothing. The Atman is the essence of being that guides humanity in pursuit of earthly pleasure and desire (“Kama”) as well as power and wealth (“Artha”) but without setting aside or ignoring the demands of duty and responsibility (“Dharma”) towards fellow human beings, society and the entire cosmic reality. These are human states of affairs whose trajectory is guided by the Atman towards the final achievement of liberation (“moksha”).
In the Christian tradition, the Hebrew concept of “nephesh” lives on from its Jewish theological rootage and in the new dispensation is directly associated with the Greek “psyche” where it is understood as the soul. However, the association is basically more theological than etymological because a deeper analysis of the Hebrew “nephesh” leads the inquirer not to the concept of soul because there is no such concept in Judaism. Early Bible translators (particularly those whose translation became known as the King James Version of the Bible) who worked on the Hebrew Scripures (also known as the Old Testament in the Christian Bible) were heavily influenced by their Greek-dominated theology as they translated “nephesh” into “soul”. Modern-day Biblical scholars have unanimously resolved the problem by a general consensus that “nephesh” in the overall context of Jewish theological system should more accurately be understood as “being”. In this light and as it is used in the Hebrew scriptures, “nephesh” doesn’t only refer to human beings but even to animals. In other words, both human beings and animals are “nephesh.”
However, the Greek concept of “psyche” is not totally isolated from the Hebrew “nephesh” as they are synthesized in the Latin concept of “anima” from which the English word “animal” is derived. The “anima” is the soul as it was configured in medieval theology but with a significant dosage of Aristotelian ingredient in the theological formulation of St. Thomas Aquinas.
“For Aristotle and for his medieval interpeter, St. Thomas Aquinas, in animals, the soul was the form of the body; even plants had souls which gave their body form. The growing oak tree was attracted towards the material form of the tree by the soul of the oak. Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas thought that there were animal souls which coordinated their movements, their instincts, their senses, their emotions. Of course, the word “animal” comes from the Latin word for “soul” which is “anima”; they were beings with souls. In addition, human beings had rational conscious minds concerned with the use of language and these conscious minds were embedded within the animal and the vegetative parts of our soul. The vegetaive soul shapes the embryo and the body had to maintain health and recovery from injury and disease. The animal part of our nature gives us our animal nature, our emotions which we share with the animals, our senses which we share with other animals.” [As quoted from Rupert Sheldrake’s lecture entitled “Cycle of Wonder: Can Science Revive Spirituality” . . . http://iai.tv/video/cycles-of-wonder ]
This whole exposition and any other related discourses as well on the complex issue of the soul do not, however, strengthen the case to prove the existence of the soul as a space-time entity. Nevertheless, in the language-game where it is traditionally used, the soul is more basically understood as a principle upon which certain observable and experimentable aspects of life–human, animal and plant–are reckoned to signify activities–both external and internal–that constitute the empirical and the rational in the whole gamut of reality where consciousness plays a vital and imminent role. This entire landscape is now the present specialized concern of the science of psychology which in its infancy had focused more on the unquestioned given-ness of the soul as a metaphysico-theological assumption. Psychology’s emergence and modification from being a thought system that initially dealt with the study of the soul (“psyche”) to becoming a science now engaged in the study of behaviors and mental activities in both humans and animals has gone a long way. With the rigorous demands of modern scientific paradigm, it has transcended the nebulae shrouding the concept of soul and directed its attention to focus on the more concrete and hence observable matters of behavior and cognition that constitute the transformational path of ontological progress towards a goal that integrates experience both external and internal.
The evolution that the concept of the soul has gone through gives us the image of a seemingly formidable and unassailable institution of a concept destined to survive in eternity, so to speak. Then, finally, it got to the point of standing face to face with the instrumentality of scientific investigation which has conclusively determined that the concept of the soul as it was theologically formulated on the basis of medieval metaphysics is nothing but a construct to sustain a belief network which in turn likewise sustained the soul’s image as real within the framework of such a belief system.
Now, the more scientifically enlightened among us don’t use the concept of the soul in its medieval configuration. Its most common appropriation at present is in the figurative sense which is encountered more in poetic versification and prose. In retrospect, this modern understanding jibes well with the ancient Hebrew concept of “nephesh” which is properly translated as “being” and thus never evokes a mysterious or an ineffable aura. In the final analysis, we haven’t really dismissed and thrown away the concept of the soul in the dustbin of insignificance but rehabilitated it in the sphere of literary endeavor.
(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 29 September 2015