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The Great Abortion Divide – Part III

The Theory and Evolution of The Soul

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

PREFACE: This is the final part of a series of short essays called The Great Abortion Divide. It is less of an original essay than an organized compilation of my notes on the evolving history of the human soul. Its purpose is to give an overview how concepts of the human soul originated and developed over time. It is not my purpose or intent to minimize or refute anyone’s belief in the human soul, but only to point out that a rigid adherence to a specific doctrine regarding the human soul cannot be fully justified. My notes are taken from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and other sources, as noted.

During the time period of writing The Great Abortion Divide there have been a number of attacks on Planned Parenthood facilities nation-wide, including a mass shooting on November 27, 2015, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A police officer and two civilians were killed. Five police officers and four civilians were injured. The attacker, Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., surrendered and was charged with first-degree murder. In his December 9th court appearance, Dear repeatedly expressed anti-abortion and anti-Planned Parenthood views, calling himself “a warrior for the babies.”

It may be that Mr. Dear is mentally ill, we shall see. Even so, his belief that every fetus, at any stage of development, is “a baby” reflects a religious doctrine shared by many. Biologically speaking, a single cell or even a fertilized egg is clearly not a baby with complex, fully functioning organs and a conscious, intelligent brain. Gestation is a biological process where cells develop to become” a baby”. You can argue, as I have in the past, that even an early stage fetus is treated by a woman’s body as a foreign object, but it is clearly not a baby. At what point that transition happens is open for debate. It is, in fact, at the core of the abortion debate.

From a legal perspective, personhood and certain (not all) human rights have been conferred at the time of birth. Even after a child is born, there are limits on the constitutional rights they have until they become legal adults. In limited cases, and under special circumstances, the courts have granted status to unborn fetus’ prior to birth. This was done, in one case I know, to protect the life of a child at birth from a schizophrenic mother who threatening to drown her baby at birth. The concept of assigning personhood to a zygote (a fertilizes human reproductive cell) and characterizing it as a human being is a more recent theological development. The principal argument for extending personhood to a fertilized egg (or even unfertilized eggs as some see it) is that it contains a human soul. (See Part II)

In most of our childhood religious training the existence of the soul is assumed. It is a self-evident fact and It receives no other explanation. We all have a soul. In Christian theology our soul contains or supplies our essential self and it collects the history of sins and good deeds while we are on earth. Human beings are “ensouled” by the time of our birth and leaves us (or our bodies) at the instant of our death. It continues its existence after death and (at some point) our souls are judged by God as worthy or unworthy of entering eternal paradise. If our souls are found to be unworthy they is cast into hell and eternal damnation. It is an essential tenant of Christian theology that our souls are not born pure. They are born with original sin that must be restored before we die. This is at the root of salvation theology. This concept of being “ensouled” with an imperfect soul speaks to one philosophic concept about how the soul originates. It suggests that souls, like people themselves, are somehow begotten from the souls of Adam and Eve who committed the first sin. There are other philosophic positions on the origin of the human soul.

These matters about the nature and origin of the human soul are not scriptural. The Torah, Bible and Koran offer no solid clues or specific instructions. It is therefore useful to a discussion about the morality of abortions to consider the philosophic theories of soul and how they evolved over time. Only then may we see the inherent uncertainty underlying the premise that a fetus is fully human in a spiritual sense. The categories that follow are my addition to the notes, but the content is not my own. This discussion below starts in ancient Greece, but the concept of soul goes back much earlier in time. The reason I start in Greece is because it was the Greeks who first introduced the concept of soul to the Hebrews in the Middle-East, according to many Greek and theological scholars.


GREEK theory of soul

Notes taken directly from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ancient-soul/

Life Force: The soul is, on the one hand, something that a human being risks in battle and loses in death. On the other hand, it is what at the time of death departs from the person’s limbs and travels to the underworld, where it has a more or less pitiful afterlife as a shade or image of the deceased person. It has been suggested (for instance, by Snell 1975, 19) that what is referred to as soul in either case is in fact thought of as one and the same thing, something that a person can risk and lose and that, after death, endures as a shade in the underworld. The suggestion is plausible, but cannot be verified. In any case, once a person’s soul has departed for good, the person is dead. The presence of soul therefore distinguishes a living human body from a corpse. However, this is plainly not to say that the soul is thought of as what accounts for, or is responsible for, the activities, responses, operations and the like that constitute a person’s life. Homer never says that anyone does anything in virtue of, or with, their soul, nor does he attribute any activity to the soul of a living person. Thus, though the presence or absence of soul marks out a person’s life, it is not otherwise associated with that life.


Human Life Force
: … whatever precise way the soul is conceived of as associated with life, it is in any case thought to be connected not with life in general, or life in all its forms, but rather, more specifically, with the life of a human being.

General Life Force: In ordinary fifth century Greek, having soul is simply being alive; hence the emergence, at about this time, of the adjective ‘ensouled’ [empsuchos] as the standard word meaning “alive”, which was applied not just to human beings, but to other living things as well.

The semantic expansion of ‘soul’ in the sixth and fifth centuries is reflected in the philosophical writings of the period. For instance, once it becomes natural to speak of soul as what distinguishes the animate from the inanimate, rather than as something that is restricted to humans, it becomes clear that the domain of ensouled things is not limited to animals, but includes plants as well.

Thales of Miletus, who is credited with successfully predicting a solar eclipse occurring in 585, reportedly attributed soul to magnets, on the grounds that magnets are capable of moving iron (Aristotle, De Anima 1.2, 405a19-21). Thales’ thought was presumably that since it is distinctive of living things to be able to initiate movement, magnets must in fact be alive or, in other words, ensouled. Thus, while Homer spoke of soul only in the case of human beings, in sixth and fifth century usage soul is attributed to every kind of living thing. What is in place, then, at this time is the notion that soul is what distinguishes that which is alive from that which is not.

Socrates explicitly appeals to the idea that it is the soul that animates the body of a living thing

Motivational Force: It is also the case that an increasingly broad range of ways of acting and being acted on is attributed to the soul. Thus it has come to be natural, by the end of the fifth century, to refer pleasure taken in food and drink, as well as sexual desire, to the soul. People are said, for example, to satisfy their souls with rich food (Euripides, Ion 1170), and the souls of gods and men are claimed to be subject to sexual desire. In contexts of intense emotion or crisis, feelings like love and hate, joy and grief, anger and shame are [became] associated with the soul.


Soul as Conveyer of Attributes:
In the Hippocratic text Airs, Waters, Places, the soul is thought of as the place of courage or, as the case may be, its opposite.

The connection between the soul and characteristics like boldness and courage in battle is plainly an aspect of the noteworthy fifth century development whereby the soul comes to be thought of as the source or bearer of moral qualities such as, for instance, temperance and justice.

Soul as a Source of Conscience: To educated fifth century speakers of Greek, it would have been natural to think of qualities of soul as accounting for, and being manifested in, a person’s morally significant behavior. Pericles acts courageously, and Hippolytus temperately (or chastely), because of the qualities of their souls from which such actions have a strong tendency to flow, and their actions express and make evident the courage, temperance and the like that characterize their souls. Once we are in a position properly to appreciate the connection between soul and moral character that must already have been felt to be natural at this stage, it should come as no surprise that the soul is also taken to be something that engages in activities like thinking and planning. If the soul is, in some sense, responsible for courageous acts, for instance, it is only to be expected that the soul also grasps what, in the circumstances, courage calls for, and how, at some suitable level of detail, the courageous act must be performed.

Thus in non-philosophical Greek of the fifth century the soul is treated as the bearer of moral qualities, and also as responsible for practical thought and cognition.

[The soul].. as Plato conceives of it in the Phaedo, is crucially characterized by cognitive and intellectual features

Body/Soul Distinction: As a result of these developments [the semantic expansion of the word “soul”], the language made available something that [earlier] Homeric Greek lacked, a distinction between body and soul. Antiphon says of a defendant who is sure of his innocence that though his body may surrender, his soul saves him by its willingness to struggle, through knowledge of its innocence. For the guilty, on the other hand, even a strong body is to no avail, since his soul fails him, “believing the vengeance coming to him is for his impieties”

Plato [later] furnishes the conceptual framework needed for saying that body and soul differ in kind, the one being perceptible and perishable, the other being intelligible and exempt from destruction. What he does, in fact, conclude is that the soul is most like, and most akin to, intelligible being, and that the body is most like perceptible and perishable being.

Immortality of Soul: It is probably true that in mainstream fifth century Greek culture, belief in an afterlife of the soul was weak and unclear

.. Socrates’ arguments for the immortality of the soul, most prominently in the Phaedo, are offered to interlocutors who, at the outset of the discussion, are by no means convinced of the idea. “Men find it very hard to believe”, Cebes says at Phaedo 70a, “what you said about the soul. They think that after it has left the body it no longer exists anywhere, but that it is destroyed and dissolved on the day the man dies.” This view .. includes the idea that the soul is a material thing, and is destroyed by being dispersed, “like breath or smoke” (70a). Glaucon, in the last book of the Republic (608d), is taken aback by Socrates’ question,

“Haven’t you realized that our soul is immortal and never destroyed?”

He looked at me with wonder and said: “No, by god, I haven’t. Are you really in a position to assert that?”

Qualities of an Immortal Soul: Moreover, apart from the question of immortality or otherwise, there is the further question whether the soul, if it does have some form of existence after the person has died, “still possesses some power and wisdom”. Answering both questions, Socrates says not only that the soul is immortal, but also that it contemplates truths after its separation from the body at the time of death.

[Again,] … the soul is most like, and most akin to, intelligible being

Socrates attributes a large variety of mental states (etc.) not to the soul, but to the (animate) body, such as, for instance, beliefs and pleasures (83d), and desires and fears (94d). At the same time, the soul is not narrowly intellectual: it too has desires (81d), even passionate ones (such as the non-philosophical soul’s love [erôs] of the corporeal, 80b), and pleasures as well, such as the pleasures of learning (114e). Moreover, the soul’s functions are, as we have seen already, not restricted to grasping and appreciating truth, but prominently include regulating and controlling the body and its affections

Where Immortal Souls Reside: The argument that sheds most light on what Plato takes the nature of the soul to be is the affinity argument (78b-80b). This argument confronts head-on the widespread worry that the soul, at or soon after death, is destroyed by being dispersed. It begins by distinguishing between two kinds of things: on the one hand, things that are perceptible, composed of parts, and subject to dissolution and destruction; on the other hand, things that are not perceptible, but intelligible (grasped by thought), not composed of parts, and exempt from dissolution and destruction. These two categories are obviously mutually exclusive.

JEWISH theory of soul

Notes taken directly from The Jewish Encyclopedia http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12340-preexistence-of-the-soul

Life Force:  There are no direct references in the Bible to the origin of the soul, its nature, and its relation to the body

The Mosaic account of the creation of man speaks of a spirit or breath with which he was endowed by his Creator (Gen. ii. 7); but this spirit was conceived of as inseparably connected, if not wholly identified, with the life-blood (ib. ix. 4; Lev. xvii. 11).

[T]he Alexandrian Jewish school, especially of Philo Judæus,.. sought [in an] allegorical interpretation of Biblical texts the confirmation of his [God’s? Plato’s? not clear from the text] psychological system.

Body/Soul Distinction: Only through the contact of the Jews with Persian and Greek thought did the idea of a disembodied soul, having its own individuality, take root in Judaism and find its expression in the later Biblical books, as, for instance, in the following passages: “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord” (Prov. xx. 27); “There is a spirit in man” (Job xxxii. 8); “The spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Eccl. xii. 7). The soul is called in Biblical literature “ruaḥ,” “nefesh,” and “neshamah.” The first of these terms denotes the spirit in its primitive state; the second, in its association with the body; the third, in its activity while in the body.

In the three terms “ruaḥ,” “nefesh,” and “neshamah” Philo sees the corroboration of the Platonic view that the human soul is tripartite (τριμεής), having one part rational, a second more spiritual, and a third the seat of desire. These parts are distinguished from one another both functionally and by the places occupied by them in the body. The seat of the first is the head; of the second, the chest; and of the third, the abdomen

In rabbinical literature the dualism of body and soul is carried out consistently.. .”The soul of man comes from heaven; his body, from earth”

Immortality of Soul: An explicit statement of the doctrine of the preexistence of the soul is found in the Apocrypha: “All souls are prepared before the foundation of the world” (Slavonic Book of Enoch, xxiii. 5); and according to II Esd. iv. 35 et seq.the number of the righteous who are to come into the world is foreordained from the beginning. All souls are, therefore, preexistent,

Both the rational and the irrational sprang like two scions from one root, and yet are so strongly contrasted in their natures that one is divine, while the other is corruptible.

[The Jewish philosopher ] Saadia devoted the sixth chapter of his “Emunot we-De’ot” to questions concerning the human soul.. According to him, the soul is created by God at the same time as the body. Its substance resembles that of the spheres; but it is of a finer quality.

General Life Force: Maimonides, except in a few instances, closely followed Aristotle with regard to the ontological aspect of the soul. The life of the soul, which is derived from that of the spheres, is represented on earth in three potencies: in vegetable, in animal, and in human life.

The Status of Soul: Philo does not say why the soul is condemned to be imprisoned for a certain time in the body; but it may be assumed that, as in many other points, he shares also in this one the views of Pythagoras and Plato, who believed that the soul undergoes this ordeal in expiation of some sin committed by it in its former state (see Philo Judæus).

Even before entering the body [presumably as the animating life force] , the mind [one aspect of soul] possesses not only rational faculties, but also ascending powers which distinguish the lower orders of creation, the habitual, the organic, the vital, and the perceptive.

As a divine being the soul aspires to be freed from its bodily fetters and to return to the heavenly spheres whence it came.

The Rabbis [tradition, however, holds] that the body is not the prison of the soul, but, on the contrary, its medium of development and improvement. Nor do they hold the Platonic view regarding the preexistence of the soul. For them “each and every soul which shall be from Adam until the end of the world, was formed during the six days of Creation and was in paradise, being present also at the revelation on Sinai. . . . At the time of conception God commandeth the angel who is the prefect of the spirits, saying: ‘Bring Me such a spirit which is in paradise and hath such a name and such a form; for all spirits which are to enter the body exist from the day of the creation of the world until the earth shall pass away.’ . . . The spirit answereth: ‘Lord of the world! I am content with the earth, where I have lived since Thou didst create me.’ . . . God speaketh to the soul, saying: ‘The world into which thou enterest is more beautiful than this; and when I made thee I intended thee only for this drop of seed.'”

The Rabbis question whether the soul descends to earth at the moment of conception or after the embryo has been formed

[NOTE: This is the likely origin of Christian beliefs that human life is sacred from inception, or even before inception, but even in the origin of the concept it was a debated point as to when the soul entered the body, at inception or upon the development (birth) of the formed body.]

Mutability of Human Soul: This belief was rejected by the scholars of the Talmud, who taught that the body is in a state of perfect purity (Ber. 10a; Mek. 43b), and is destined to return pure to its heavenly abode. When God confides the soul to man He says, according to the Haggadah. “The soul I have given thee is pure; if thou givest it back to Me in the same state, it is good for thee; if not, I will burn it before thee” (Eccl. R. xii. 7; with some variations in Niddah 30a).

The soul has control over [the inclination towards good or evil], and, therefore, is responsible for man’s moral conduct.

The descent of the soul into the body is necessitated by the finite nature of the former: it is bound to unite with the body in order to take its part in the universe, to contemplate creation, to become conscious of itself and its origin, and, finally, to return, after having completed its task in life, to the inexhaustible fountain of light and life—God.

Where Immortal Souls Reside: [again, the soul] is destined to return pure to its heavenly abode.. if not, [God] will burn it before thee” (Eccl. R. xii. 7; with some variations in Niddah 30a). [NOTE: The threat here is not that our soul will be consigned to hell, but that it will be destroyed, its immortality terminated.]

The entry of the soul into the embryo (see Golem) is similarly described in a conversation between Judah the patriarch and the emperor Antoninus. The spirits which are to descend to earth are kept in ‘Arabot, the last of the seven heavens, while the souls of the righteous dead are beneath the throne of God. Associated with this belief is the Talmudic saying that the Messiah will not come till all the souls in the”guf” (the super-terrestrial abode of the souls) shall have passed through an earthly existence (‘Ab. Zarah 5a; comp. Gen. R. viii. and Ruth R., Introduction).

[In the Talmud tradition the] soul’s relation to the body is an external one only: when man sleeps the soul ascends to its heavenly abode (Lam. R. iii. 23). There it sometimes receives communications which appear to the sleeper as dreams.

Good and Evil of Soul: A parallel is established between the soul and God. As the world is filled with God, so is the body filled with the soul; as God sees, but cannot be seen, so the soul sees, but is not to be seen; as God is hidden, so also is the soul (Ber. 10a). The Rabbis seem to have considered discernment, reflection, and recollection as faculties of the soul; but they held that the power by which man distinguishes between right and wrong and the inclination to one or to the other are two real essences which God places in the heart of man. These are called “yeẓer Ṭob” (good inclinations) and “yeẓer ha-ra'” (evil propensities).

[The Jewish philosopher ] Saadia devoted the sixth chapter of his “Emunot we-De’ot” to questions concerning the human soul.. According to him, the soul is created by God at the same time as the body. Its substance resembles that of the spheres; but it is of a finer quality.


The Body as Incubator For The Soul:
[The Jewish philosopher, Saadia, also postulated that].. like every created thing, the soul needs a medium through which to attain activity; and this medium is the body. Through its union with the body three powers which are latent in it are set in motion: intelligence, passion, and appetite or desire. These powers or faculties are not to be considered as three separate parts of the soul, each having a different seat in the body, but as belonging to the one and indivisible soul, which has its seat in the heart. It is to the advantage of the soul to be united with the body. Without this medium it could not attain paradise and eternal bliss, because these are vouchsafed to it only as a recompense for its obedience to the will of God.

POSTSCRIPT: A review of the history and evolution of human thinking on the concept of “soul” makes it clear, at least to me, that there is enough uncertainty to question the religious doctrine that all abortion is murder. It certainly is not a doctrine on which one should justify murdering healthcare professionals who assist woman wanting an abortion. Yet this is exactly the moral basis that anti-abortion advocates use when trying to extend the existing statues on murder. It clearly is a religious belief for which there is no consensus or certainty among Christians or the population at large. This account may not persuade anyone to change their firmly held beliefs, but it is my hope that it opens up a more fruitful and well considered dialogue.

The Great Abortion Divide – Part I

http://aseyeseesit.blogspot.com/2015/10/the-great-abortion-divide.html

The Great Abortion Divide – Part II
Religious Dimensions of the Abortion Debate

http://aseyeseesit.blogspot.com/2015/11/the-great-abortion-divide-part-ii.html

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1 Comment

  1. Sha'Tara says:

    Great historical perspective on the concept of soul. As with all great concepts, they remain open to further study and interpretation. As an ex-Christian, I had to rethink my concept of soul. With the help of archeology, I came to see that man is not what we are taught; that man did neither evolve as in pure Darwinism, nor was he “created” as in Biblical fiat. Something much more obvious happened, and it wont’ be found in System theology; education or science. Alternative view: man was cloned to serve as a slave to technologically advanced but mentally defective “aliens” who came upon this world millions of years ago. Skipping reams of information readily available, man became a living being. As a legitimate life-form, man was automatically equipped with a “soul.” What is this soul? Think of it as an implant that tracks and records a life. At the body’s death, that implant is harvested and its contents analyzed. Then it is formatted, upgraded, and sent back to inhabit another “new” physical human life. Who tracks these lives? Those who control this part of the cosmos, which some call the Time Lords.

    The aliens who formed man as a slave had nothing to do with the soul implant; they also had/have souls. So the soul should never be the issue regarding the legal wrangling about abortion. Man has to take responsibility for his acts.

    My view: in the case of pregnancy and abortion, the only way to justly and legally handle this issue is that all courts of the planet recognize automatically that the foetus inside a woman belongs to that woman: it’s her body. It is that woman, and only that woman, who has any right at all to decide what happens within her body. There are just and kind ways to handle a situation where a woman does not want a child but is willing to give birth to a child: The “global village” takes it upon itself to take care of the child once it is born if, and only if, that woman agrees with that. Bottom line, as long as the woman/prospective mother is denied her legal rights to determine what happens within her own body, this issue is never going to be settled. So, come on men, grow up and stop bullying the women of this world and forcing your short-sighted views and that short “other thing” on them.

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