If there is a mind, what about science

Why we believe in the soul

Because that's obviously the case: a brain injury can erase memories or change personality; conversely, fear gives us goose bumps, and lovers' hearts pound violently. In the course of time, researchers gathered more and more evidence that perceiving, feeling, thinking and remembering emerge from physical processes. Accordingly, mind is what the brain does (or how it appears to us subjectively).

Nonetheless, according to many psychologists, we are intuitive Dualists, because we live in a mental sphere that is fundamentally different from the physical one. We learn from an early age that many things are imaginable that have no place in the real world - from flying carpets to fairies riding unicorns. Even more: What we do and not do must be based on our thinking and not on physical processes, otherwise we would be nothing more than automatons! So we say, for example, we have a brain that we use (or not) for this and that.

The catch: who should use my brain if not my brain itself? There is no such thing as an "unmoved mover", none dwelling in my brain convolutions Homunculus, who inspires me with any kind of decisions and commands to act. This idea is nonsensical - unless you bring the soul into play.

The psychologists Jesse Preston, Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner dubbed free will as "the godfather of soul" in a specialist article. He is the godfather of belief in the soul, because anyone who takes his free will seriously can hardly avoid this fictional authority. In 2013, Preston and other colleagues showed that scientific explanations are tough competition for the soul.

The researchers presented students with various descriptions of university courses that differed only in their title. A psychology seminar was announced sometimes with "Mechanisms of Love" and sometimes with "Mysteries of Love". Then the test subjects were asked to decide whether they would prefer a transport method for a risky Mars mission that would "beam" their body safely but could damage the soul, or vice versa. Okay, a bit of a far-fetched example. But as it turned out, even a more scientific course designation meant that the respondents no longer considered an intact soul to be so important - who knows whether it even exists? Another experiment also showed that it strengthens belief in the soul when one points out gaps in explanation in brain research.

Brief history of the soul

The idea of ​​an immortal human essence is much older than Western philosophy. Already in the cave paintings of Lascaux in southwest France, which were made at least 15,000 years ago, the spirit of the dead is depicted as a bird. The natural philosopher and number mystic Pythagoras of Samos (around 570-510 BC) formulated as one of the first thinkers of the West a theory of transmigration of souls and rebirth, which had a long Buddhist and Hindu tradition. Ancient thinkers spoke of the "psyche", derived from the ancient Greek word "psyché" for breath. The German word "Seele" is probably of ancient Germanic origin and could be related to "saiwaz" for sea.

In his dialogue "Phaidron" Plato (around 428-348 BC) lets his teacher Socrates (469-399 BC) argue for the immortality and incorporeality of the soul after he has emptied the hemlock. Platonic idealism is characterized by the idea that the soul also encompasses the faculty of knowledge: it is only thanks to it that humans have access to the sphere of "pure ideas".

Plato's student Aristotle (384–322 BC), on the other hand, regarded the psyche as the "invigorating principle" and distinguished it from intellectual abilities, the spirit ("nous"). The seat of the soul was mostly located in the heart, only the doctor Alkmaion (late 6th / early 5th century BC) from Croton in southern Italy recognized the soul organ in the brain.

In modern times, René Descartes (1596–1650) was particularly influential with his doctrine of the two substances "res extensa" (the extended) and "res cogitans" (the thinking), also known as substance dualism. A view that is widespread today is the so-called duality of properties, according to which the spiritual is a product or a concomitant phenomenon of neural processes. The Australian philosopher David Chalmers (* 1966) takes such a position.

The most important alternative to dualism is monism, which in its materialistic variety says: Everything is body, mind is just another (subjective) way of describing it. One exponent of this attitude is the consciousness philosopher Daniel Dennett (* 1942).

Despite all the differences in ideas of the soul across epochs and cultures, the idea of ​​an immortal essence shaped people's self-image for centuries. It is only recently that more and more thinkers are moving away from it.

Refuge for what defines us

Such observations support the assumption that our belief in the soul ultimately results from the way we think about ourselves (and others). When we speak of the soul, it is not for nothing that we often mean certain values ​​that are important to us: "He has sold his soul" means that someone betrayed his true convictions because of the money or other advantages. The soul appears to us as a kind of refuge for what defines us in our innermost being - and what is not determined by natural laws.