Does a soul, or an inner spirit, or a "center of consciousness" (take your pick) dwell independent of the body? Put more poetically, does anything really exist beyond this ever-wounded flesh form that we ambivalently inhabit? Speaking of wounded flesh - bear with me, I know that sounds weird - one of the few things I like about the "conventional" Jesus story is the fact that he experienced both profound agony in being utterly human while also realizing at some fundamental level that he was deathless and connected to something indestructibly good and divine. But is he? Are we?
The great French philosopher Descartes, for instance, felt that our "thinking faculty" was somehow in cahoots with God, that we are in our very essence operating - in a mathematically understood way - above the body as a divinely intelligible entity. The mind is itself experiential proof of a metaphysical presence, attesting to the absolutely unique nature of human beings as mental creatures. The mental in other words is the transcendental spark that connects us, in VIP fashion, to a blazing God who is unknown to the rest of creation.
This Descartian view points to what has become, and in many ways always has been, a widespread conviction or belief of having a spirit or soul that is completely separable from the body, that is immortal. British intellectual Gilbert Ryle famously characterized this view of the body-mind as "the ghost in the machine." In any event, the so-called "death of God" is really the death of this notion that 'something' escapes the great cycle of life and mortality, the death of the consoling view that an invisible presence in us transcends the fragile, messy, dysfunctional experience of being in the world.
To go on a slight tangent, the infamous philosopher Martin Heidegger called this dysfunctional experience humanity's "throwness." This essentially means that we are a far, far cry from living as free beings dwelling temporarily in physical bodies while ultimately made in the impeccable image of god, or as fractals of a pure rational essence through which we operate willfully in the universe (as Kant might put it). Rather, Heidegger saw that we are profound messes. All of us! Profound. Messes.
As 'messes,' we are entangled with our surroundings like fumbling clumsy flesh knots bumping into each other without a clue into existence while pretending to know it all; we are loaded with ambivalence and a herd mentality; we are basically slaves to our present and past conditions, whether we choose to be or not. As 'profound,' Heidegger saw that we persistently neglect aspects of ourselves and the world that are strikingly intelligent and coherent - like the act of walking, or hammering a nail into wood, or talking on the phone, or a road being built. Thus the operations and things of daily existence bordering on the miraculously intelligent are not to be found in a metaphysical presence hovering above the body or in some nonmaterial dimension of the cosmos. They are to be found on the ground, or, rather, below the ground and in-between the lines, in the concrete and taken-for-granted things, assumptions and intricate affairs of life. We could call this phenomenon simplexity.
Contrary to Descartes, then, for Heidegger even our clearest thoughts are construed out of the wildly messy, murky, multiplex affairs of living that neglect (by default) the simplexity of the present, and the deeply ingrained biases and conditions of our histories. Heidegger called the direct awareness or realization of this throwness - anxiety. Can any of you relate to this word? I think we all can! Then again, he didn't exactly mean it the way we do in contemporary usage.
Returning to the question of whether there's a consciousness or soul in us that transcends the mortal cage of worldly existence: there's currently a heated debate about the nature of reality as either: A) ultimately made of something like consciousness or spirit OR B) ultimately nothing more than dead matter accidentally endowed with various mechanisms, survival genes, and cosmic activities - all of which have given (and continue to give) rise to life and the universe as we know it.
Now social scientists, strict atheists, secular humanists, and evolutionary naturalists are likely to support some version of B), whereas parapsychologists, certain philosophers, theologians, open-minded contemporary spiritual folks, meditators, contemplatives, and yogis are likely to espouse some version of A). Imagine a spectrum from 1-10. If 1 is a complete rejection of anything spiritual and 10 is a full-fledged certainty in life after death, where do you stand? If you're wondering where I stand, well, I'll say only this much: at the moment, I am certain that something escapes the "immanent frame." Just what that something is or is not remains to be seen.
The following quote by the 10th century Indian polymath Abhinavagupta captures my own spiritual hunches on this topic: "It is the very nature of ultimate reality to manifest. Creativity is the very essence of divinity. Otherwise, it (reality) would be something like an inert jar."
Then again, why not just see material reality itself as infinitely alive, full of surging vitality, plurality and unknown possibilities? After all, if the spiritual must always flow through the material (which is certainly true for us embodied humans), then why not just emphasize the infinity of materiality? This view resonates with contemporary trends of thought called by different (though related) names, such as: "new materialism," "speculative realism," and "object oriented ontology." To put it very simply, such views orbit around an understanding that material existence is itself largely unknown to humans and pregnant with infinite potentiality, that the possibilities are endless and real here, even as the best efforts of the human imagination and "anthropomorphic" thought fall entirely short of grasping the 'inside of the outside,' so to speak, of reality. The brilliant French thinker Gilles Deleuze" poetically refers to this as "the body without organs."
While this materially oriented vision of the cosmos is compelling and highly plausible, Canadian intellectual Charles Taylor argues that such a new materialist approach does not quite capture the unprecedented diversity of experiences and visions people have related to spiritual life and the big questions these days (or throughout time, for that matter). He refers to this diverse landscape as "the nova effect," an ironically rather scientifically oriented metaphor. For Taylor, we need to find sensible, broad-minded and respectful ways to acknowledge and engage the many spiritual worldviews and ways of life.
Now Taylor is not defending staunch religious believers nor is he preoccupied with those who take sacred texts to be literally true, or those who believe the earth was created in one week, if you catch my drift. (Note: there's an abundance of scholarship in the professional study of religion that analyzes and makes critical sense of different strands of religious extremism and fundamentalism, and the tragic violence, ideologies, and political theologies associated with them. Just make a request in the 'Comments' section of this page, and I'm more than happy to provide you with references). In other words, the point for Taylor is not to drink the Kool-Aid of others' dogmatic beliefs or mystical prescriptions, but to remain open, reflexive, dialogically engaged, and continually attentive to the multiplicity, beauty and power of the embodied spiritual imagination, thereby taking seriously the relevance in contemporary life of the spiritual topics explored in this piece.
Without this "open spin" on reality, Taylor argues that we are liable to exclude a large portion of humanity, lose touch with our moral depths, give way to some species of nihilism, or perhaps just become profoundly bored (something Heidegger wrote specifically about after his philosophical peak came crashing down in the wake of his disillusionment with Nazism).
What are your thoughts? Are we meat robots or spiritual beings having a human experience? Can we somehow be both? Here a middle-way outlook seems at odds with common sense, even paradoxically impossible to reconcile. At the end of the day, it appears that we can either affirm something positively (like a soul or energy or transcendental mind) beyond what is empirically verifiable or we can not make this metaphysical move. Yet many folks who deny the existence of a spirit, soul, goddesses or whatever aren't entirely ready to give up on the possibility that A) something might live beyond death, or that B) something might have made (and continues to make) this astounding moment-by-moment outpouring of life and existence possible in the first place. We might say here that A) is a pervasive feature of our existential experience - in such matters as death, tragedy and contemplating the dark mystery of reality itself - while B) is a sensitivity that is compatible with an intelligent design view, although that phrase has too much baggage biases associated with it, a topic for another time.
Do spiritual outlooks amount to nothing more than merely wishful thinking and clever forms of attachment to the romantic imagination, one that yearns for the recovery of mystery and divinity in a world gone sterile with the crushing insights of science revealing the sober facts of our instinctual, evolutionary, violent and, alas, all too human nature? On the other hand, if reality is undeniably a mystery - and few would deny that in the broadest sense (think of dark matter, for instance) - does this mean it's perhaps better to see reality as enchanted and even magical, since the nature and possibilities of material existence surpass all human knowledge and security?
These sorts of questions, and especially peoples' lived experience of such questions, are some of the main reasons why I study and write about religion and spirituality. If you have any answers or experiences to convey, please share them in the comments section. All are welcome! I end this windy adventure into the nature of reality and humanity with a wonderful quote from contemporary cultural theorist and philosophical provocateur, Peter Sloterdijk: "With or without God, each person will only get as far as their own form carries them."