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Regardless of where you live in Canada – Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Halifax or Montreal, St John’s, as an atheist, it can be difficult for me to describe what the soul means to me. Nevertheless, it is a concept that had captured the minds and hearts of humans for as long as history itself, no matter the belief system in a given time and place.
Though I don’t have much to say on the matter myself, there’s clearly a lot to consider about what the soul might be. What is it about our shared human experiences that leaves us still so unique in each other’s eyes, and what of that have we lost when the body dies? We can think of that factor as the soul.
This is because in yogic philosophy, it is understood that the sense of self is an illusion to be rid of, because the soul is itself just a small piece of a single spiritual consciousness shared by all living things, something that we individuals can tap into to experience oneness with all other life.
This is done by practicing the whole philosophy of yoga in order to gradually strip away the pretences that keep the parts of us separate, eventually succeeding in unifying mind, body and soul in a whole consciousness experience, understood to be both enlightening and completely blissful.
Across many (perhaps all) cultural belief systems, there appears to be this shared understanding that the thing that makes each person truly unique, this invisible force that animates the body and mind, is something that can exist independantly of the body, something that continues to exist after the body fails, something that has a divine god universal connection to the power that makes the world turn, and that something is called the soul.
Some belief systems feel that the soul stays in the form of the person it has exited and goes on to exist eternally in some unseen place; others believe that the soul is recycled into new bodies in order to continue fueling and experiencing life on earth.
As someone with a Bachelor’s degree in the sciences of Biology and Psychology, I also have the dubious privilege to know about some of the ways that empiricists like myself have tried to prove that the soul exists as a real factor of human life, that it’s more than just a combination of neurons firing in reaction to our cumulative experiences.
Sadly, these are often ugly moments of hubris within the scientific community, displaying poor methods and serious biases in the quest to be right. In one infamous example, the physician Duncan MacDougall weighed dying patients in order to determine whether or not patients immediately lost any weight at time of death, implying that the soul had weight that was lost when it left the body.
After getting wildly different results across four patients, he decided that the one result that matched his expectations (the loss of 21 grams at death) was adequate for publishing as evidence of the weight of the soul.
He also provided a “control” in the form of dying dogs (which he likely poisoned in order to conduct the tests) that lost no weight at death (which fit his expectation that dogs do not have souls).
Unsurprisingly, there is a wealth of argument in the academic community about how problematic this study was and still is, but since the concept of the soul still grips the human imagination so tightly, the claim that the soul weighs 21 grams lives on in some social knowledges.
Whether the soul is real or not, it certainly has real value as a concept in human philosophy and communication. It’s a concept that we all understand as real, whether it can exist separately from our bodies or not.
Personally, I use the word to describe the part of the individual human experience that’s not necessarily logical like the mind is, but that is more powerful in determining my overall state of wellbeing. Real or not, a happy soul is a happy me.