Rod Dreher

Philosopher Stephen Asma is irritated by the imprecise way students use the word “soul.” He says that science cannot prove the existence of the soul, so it’s an extremely dubious concept to use when philosophizing. But he believes he’s come across a way to hold on to the “soul” idea without involving metaphysics. Excerpt:

Once you take the metaphysics out of the language of soul, you begin to see how the soul is used in social contexts of ordinary language. When a minister tells parents at their son’s funeral that they will see their son again, and his soul is in a better place, I cannot dismiss it or heap scorn on it. If we professors hear this language as a description of reality, then we’re bound to be irritated by the issue of truant evidence and the lack of warrant. But if we hear it as emotive hope, then our objections fall away. The students in my class are right to want to hold on to this language. Metaphysics aside, the minister’s language seems to suggest that there are emotions so deep and bonds so strong that not even death should end them. That is a beautiful sentiment no matter what you think of the soul.

Well, okay, but that seems to me like a pretty weak approach. It’s not going to satisfy people who speak of the soul as the part of oneself that exists in some immaterial way, and which will survive the death of the body. I see Asma’s point about the impossibility of proving empirically that the soul exists — though I wonder what he would make of the many, many testimonies made by people who have experienced clinical death, but have been revived by doctors and returned with stories of having floated above their bodies and seen what was happening. Many of these people relate accurate physical descriptions of what they saw, things they couldn’t have already seen. Anyway, if Asma is trying to get Aspie-ish philosophers to open their minds to meanings in soul-talk that don’t require one to sign up for a belief in a noncorporeal human person, that’s one thing. But few people who genuinely care about the question of immortality and numinous phenomena are going to find this to be much of an answer. But perhaps it’s the best answer philosophy can manage.

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