behalf of us all, Eric Harrison poses the ultimate question:
when we die does our soul live on?
When Shakespeare said, "To thine own self be
true", he was quoting a proverb that had its roots
in ancient Greece. "Examine yourself," said
Socrates, who argued that self understanding is essential
for happiness and the pursuit of any knowledge whatsoever.
It is little exaggeration to say that all of Western
psychology and science starts with Socrates' little
When I look at myself, however, I see an endless cavalcade
of sensations, emotions, memories and habits within
in one everchanging body. I seem to be too big, too
complicated, too disconcertingly variable to nail down
in any meaningful way. And yet, despite all this, I
still know exactly who I am. I will never mistake myself,
nor be mistaken, for any other human being.
This gut feeling of individuality comes from a place
that precedes words. Even amoebas, with the most minimal
degree of consciousness, and no understanding of language,
can recognise self and not self. If nothing else, this
ability is essential for the functioning of the immune
system and thus life itself. Thanks to the vagaries
of sexual reproduction, every living thing is utterly
unique, and vigorously protects its autonomy.
But does a bug have a soul? Aristotle thought so.
He quite sensibly regarded the soul as the integrating
intelligence of any living organism, including animals
and plants. But this hasn't stopped people in the past
from trying to draw lines in the sand.
It goes without saying that educated males have always
had souls. But at different times in history, women,
slaves, Negroes, Asiatics, those of different religions
and even the lower classes have been regarded as soulless,
and therefore ripe for exploitation. And that is just
referring to human beings. Now that we know we share
98 per cent of our genome with apes, and 60 per cent
with fruit flies, it becomes so much harder to regard
ourselves as quintessentially superior.
But is the soul immortal? Aristotle defined the "soul"
as being virtually the same as "life". Consequently,
when the body dies the soul does, too. According to
him, the soul, or "anima", is that which animates
all living things, including plants and animals. "Psyche",
another old word for the soul, literally means "breath"
and "life" in the same sense as the Sanskrit
word "prana" and the Chinese word "chi".
The soul is fundamentally that which keep us alive and
well. Shaw calls it "the life force"; Bergson
calls it "the vital spirit"; Schopenhauer
calls it "the will to live".
Aristotle also said that the soul has different levels
of functioning. The first is life itself, which even
plants possess. The second involves functions such as
the kinds of memory, emotion and judgement that animals
have. The third is "human" reason, our usual
mode of operating. The fourth level is the capacity
for self reflective, abstract, independent thought,
or "Reason" with a capital R. This is what
Descartes, who was also a great mathematician, regarded
as the most glorious function of the soul.
The soul in all its complexity is unimaginably smart,
far smarter than our conscious minds. Our biological,
self regulatory mechanisms keep us from excess. Our
emotions keep us safe and satisfied. Even our intellectual
activity is clearly shaped and guided by deeper forces.
Aristotle describes all these as functions of the soul.
All this, however, is dependent on being alive. When
the being dies, the soul does, too. The soul, after
all, equals "life". It is anchored in biology
and, as such, can't be immortal. So where does the myth
of the immortal soul come from?
Meister Eckhardt, the 14th century German mystic,
said the soul also contained a "scintilla",
or spark of the divine. We recognise this most vividly
when mind looks back on itself and becomes entranced
by its own radiance, its capacity to see. In this state,
the soul seems to transcend the usual objects of consciousness,
and thus time and space itself. It sees what seems to
be the Absolute.
When mystics try to describe this experience, they
typically say it is eternal, infinite and beyond matter.
They also say it is our true nature. The Indian formula
is that "atman is Brahman". The individual
soul becomes one with God, and is therefore equally
The mystical vision is often described as the insight
that all is one transcendental consciousness, and that
nothing of real importance ever dies. Only people. And
leopards. And polar bears. And dragonflies. Unimportant
things. I do have my doubts about the mystical vision.
So is this the Truth, or is it just a vision? Can
a deep conviction of eternal life be regarded as any
kind of proof at all? Or is "eternity" just
a metaphor for an experience which, by its very nature,
is transient? Is the soul the deep, organic intelligence
of the whole body and mind, which is bound to disintegrate
like all living things, just as Aristotle says? Or is
it some pure essence – a ghost in the machine
– that lives forever, even when the body dies?
As human beings, we are very good at holding contradictory
opinions simultaneously. There must be some evolutionary
advantage in it. I am always astounded that it is so
easy for people to believe in life after death, although
the evidence to the contrary could not be more overwhelming.
Everything that lives dies, and always has. Not a single
one of the countless billions of living beings since
time began has escaped death. Yet we find it so easy
to believe that we can't "really" die. It
is virtually our default position.
It is easy to imagine dying. It is like being sick,
only worse. But it is impossible to imagine being dead.
We have to be alive to do so. Parmenides, 2600 years
ago, drew the logical conclusion from this that death
is a fiction, and that, in fact, nothing ever dies.
Ramana Maharshi, the Indian sage, about a hundred years
ago, came to exactly the same conclusion. He could imagine
his body dying and being cremated, but he couldn't imagine
the death of his consciousness. He therefore concluded
that his consciousness had to be immortal.
Ramana spent the rest of his life in almost total
silence, isolation and inactivity, refining this conviction.
He spent decades doing virtually nothing at all except
sitting and sleeping. He even let people feed and bathe
him, like a baby. Although he eventually started to
teach, he was probably one of the most peaceful men
who have ever lived. His photos show a face of vacuous
serenity. Yet when he died of cancer at the age of 73,
I'm sure his "immortal" consciousness died
with him, despite what he believed.
I suspect that the conviction that we can't "really"
die has something to do with our clumsy, cobbled together,
perception of time. To me, the future beyond the next
week or two seems more like an idea than a fact. I thoroughly
sympathise with people who spend every penny they earn
because the future seems so bloodless.
We are not hardwired to understand the passage of
time. We have to learn it. It seems that we are only
conscious of time because we notice movement. Our bodies
move, our minds move, the world moves around us. Over
the years, we develop a working sense of passing time
by reading this constant sensory input, but it is always
approximate, and something of an effort, and frequently
This sense of time can easily vanish if the movement
around and within us slows down or stops. In deep meditation,
when the mind falls silent, and the body becomes very
still, the sense of passing time can collapse. In this
state, the breathing virtually stops, and the space
between out-breath and in-breath can seem to last forever.
To look inwards, to have no thoughts, no sense of
the body or personal identity, and no awareness of any
movement paradoxically results in total bliss. It is
an experience of infinity and eternity even though,
from another perspective, it may only last a few seconds
of clock time. A good yogi, like Ramana Maharshi, can
enormously enhance that sense of timelessness until
it feels like second nature to him. To perfect this
state, however, demands a profoundly narcissistic withdrawal
from the world, which few intelligent people would feel
was worth the sacrifice.
The other way we feel eternity is to recollect the
mindstate of childhood, before we really developed our
sense of time. Unlike Ramana Maharshi's cold detachment,
this is a state of connectedness and love. The metaphysical
poet Thomas Traherne, 250 years ago, exquisitely described
this feeling of being a little child enchanted by the
"All appeared New and Strange at the first, inexpressibly
rare, and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger
which at my entrance into the world was saluted and
surrounded by innumerable joys.
"The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat, which
should never be reaped nor was ever sown. I thought
it stood from Everlasting to Everlasting. The Dust and
Stones of the Street were as precious as Gold. The men!
Immortal cherubims! I knew not that they were Born or
should Die. But all things abided Eternally as they
were in their Proper Places. Eternity was manifest in
the light of the Day, and something Infinite behind
I am quite certain that we are not "spiritual
beings", capable of surviving the death of the
body. I find the concept of an immortal soul very silly
indeed if taken literally, but it does have one great
virtue. It tells us that we really can know infinity
and eternity as an experience, if not as an empirical
fact. Through stillness and silence, it is quite possible
to escape the dreary plod of time. On our noisy and
polluted Earth, every inch of which is stalked by death,
we can still see the face of God.