Evidence of the soul

April 17, 2007 | Uncategorized | 33 comments

As you can tell from my post from the other day, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my spiritual journey was really started by simply acknowledging that there’s more to life than the measurable. After a lifetime of insisting that all emotions, gut feelings, thoughts, etc. were nothing more than mere chemical reactions, at some point the dam began to crack and I could no longer keep up my stoic facade. Too often I came across an image, story, song or work of art that evoked a sensation that, to me, was clear evidence that there was some source of greater good (and evil) that lay beyond the material world. At some point the evidence overwhelmed me, and I just couldn’t deny that there was more to life than meets the eye, and that there is such a thing as the eternal soul. Whenever I come across such things these days, I wonder how I could have ever denied it.

Since I’ve been meaning to start using Blogger’s category feature anyway, I’m going to start a category called Evidence of the Soul, where I’ll post examples of the types of things that slowly chipped away at my rock-solid atheism.

These pictures I recently came across from Pompeii are a classic example. Though I’ve never visited the site of the 79 A.D. eruption myself, every time I see pictures of the figures of the people trapped beneath the ash, my heart almost skips a beat. I remember the first time I saw photos of these plaster molds made from the holes in the ash left by the life in Pompeii. A friend brought back some prints after a vacation to Italy, and the scenes from Pompeii took my breath away. Yet it just didn’t seem logical that I should react so strongly to the deaths of people who could not have anything less to do with me. I’m not related to them, their deaths didn’t improve my or my offspring’s chances of survival, they lived and died in a very far away place more than a thousand years ago…why should I care?

I tried to think of a good evolutionary reason that I would feel so deeply touched to see photos like the one of the form of a mother comforting her child as they suffocated to death so long ago, but I came up short. Nothing from the material world fully explained it. Now I understand why.

33 Comments

  1. lyrl

    There are certainly attempts to explain such feelings through evolution. Good Natured by Frans de Waal is one example.

    I also don’t think that the “evolution explanation” and a theistic world view are mutually exclusive. Is God not so great that he could have created a material world with chemical reactions that reveal the souls he created?

    There is also the issue of a dualistic (good force/evil force) theism vs. a unified (everything – good and evil – comes from God) world view. I find the unified type of theism feels more true to me than the dualistic view.

  2. SteveK

    Jen:
    What you went through in your ‘past life’ is what I call ‘The Atheist’s Dilemma’. In my opinion it’s why most people leave it. Here it is:

    On the one hand it’s cruel and heartless to break the heart of a grieving mother who has lost her child by telling her ‘the truth’ according to atheism; Yet on the other hand it would be living a lie to console the mother and pretend that life has any meaning, that the emotions behind the tears have any significance beyond the physics and chemistry that produce them.

  3. Martin

    I’ve been rereading Steve Ray’s book, Crossing the Tiber. In it, he includes a quote from the British painter Francis Bacon about in order for a man’s life to have meaning, he must have a God …. or conversely, life without God ultimately has no meaning.

    “Also, man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. I think that even when Velazquez was painting, even when Rembrandt was painting, they were still, whatever their attitude to life, slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities, when man now, you could say, has had cancelled out for him. Man now can only attempt to beguile himself for a time, by prolonging his life — by buying a kind of immortality through the doctors. You see, painting has become — all art has become — a game by which man distracts himself. And you may say that that is always has been like that, but now it’s entirely a game. What is fascinating is that it’s going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all, so that he can make like a little more exciting.”

  4. Darwin's Dagger

    You’re reacting to an image that you see, an archetype with which you are culturally familiar, that of mother and child. You feel something for the larger idea that these people represent more than you do for them. If you were spiritually attached to people who died 2000 years ago why would you need the picture to feel something, shouldn’t you be in a perpetual state of grief over every mother and child whoever suffocated through history? And while feeling connected to the past is definitely a human trait (we can trace the history of our civilization back through the millennia and the evolution of our species for millions of years) it isn’t proof of anything more than the fact that we have complex brains that can store and process both ideas (our connection to the past) and feelings (our empathy for Holocaust victims or people caught in volcanic eruptions). Empathy evolved as a survival strategy because humans were particularly fragile when they first emerged, and those who were able to feel something for each other were better able to bind together as a society and thus survive in a hostile world. The fact that your brain is complex enough to extend that empathy to people who died 2000 years ago only proves that you are highly empathic and emotionally complex. It proves nothing about souls or eternity.

  5. Orangeblossoms

    This is my first time here. Very cool blog and entry. I am always interested in what brings people to faith– especially after athiesm. I have a friend who went from no religion to joining a Catholic Holy Order– now she’s a sister. Cool stuff.

  6. Darwin

    The fact that your brain is complex enough to extend that empathy to people who died 2000 years ago only proves that you are highly empathic and emotionally complex. It proves nothing about souls or eternity.

    “Prove” is a much overused word that applies to very little if one is truly rigorous. Something may indicate or suggest a conclusion to us, perhaps even very persuasively, yet not in any sense “prove” it.

    After all, when you say:

    Empathy evolved as a survival strategy because humans were particularly fragile when they first emerged, and those who were able to feel something for each other were better able to bind together as a society and thus survive in a hostile world.

    you are implicitly accepting the idea that it is in fact possible for human being to have knowledge. Someone who wanted to go deeper down the deterministic rabbit hole could reply: “No, actually, we do not know that empathy evolved for that reason. We percieve certain phenomina which trigger the pattern recognication instincts in our brains and cause us to imagine we see a pattern which looks like an evolutionary reason for having empathy. However, this may simply be a coping mechanism that we evolved in response to a need to ‘understand’ a chaotic world.”

  7. Darwin's Dagger

    A careless semantic shift on my part. I should have written: The fact that your brain is complex enough to extend that empathy to people who died 2000 years ago only provides evidence that you are highly empathic and emotionally complex not that you have an eternal soul.

    And rather than go even ‘deeper down the deterministic rabbit hole’ I’ll just concede that tracing an evolutionary adaptation as intangible as empathy is well beyond certainty, and that my explanation is just one of many that may account for it.

  8. Mike J

    I wonder how much of such empathy is explained by, “That could have been me, or someone I know. And someday it will be me.” The realization that life is so very fragile, especially when that realization is highlighted by something like a sudden end to life, can be quite unpleasant.

  9. Michael D.

    May be it is not so much your soul that has been pulling you toward your new faith as it is the awareness of your soul. How many people can look at pictures like that and not feel anything. How many people go through their entire lives and never feel what you have felt.

    It wasn’t until after the death of my parents that I really began to connect with my Catholic faith. Although, I’ve always considered myself to be a good Catholic, the spiritual journey I’ve been on, especially since the death of my mother, has shown me, and is still showing me, how unaware of my soul and how far from God I’ve actually been.

  10. Professor Chaos

    Hi, Jen. I haven’t read your blog in a while, but I see it’s still quality stuff.

    With regards to this post, methinks you should study some biology, neuroscience and evolutionary science.

    Just because you don’t understand something, doesn’t make it evidence of something else.

  11. Professor Chaos

    Howdy, stevek!

    The old, “warm and fuzzy” makes me feel good, therefore God exists, huh? 😉

  12. SteveK

    Hmmm… I didn’t refer to God, nor did I try to prove his existence.

  13. professor chaos

    Stevek wrote: “In my opinion it’s why most people leave [atheism.]

    So “leaving atheism” isn’t choosing to believe in god(s)?

  14. steveK

    agnostic?

  15. Professor Chaos

    Right. That’s what you meant.

  16. SteveK

    Right.

  17. Professor Chaos

    “…the emotions behind the tears have…significance beyond the physics and chemistry that produce them.”

    Naturally, this is referring to agnosticism.

  18. professor chaos

    Bear in mind that I totally agree with you, by the way. This IS why so many converts “leave” atheism.

    Of course it has nothing to do with evidence or facts. Otherwise, atheism would remain.

    It’s all about the “warm and fuzzy” feeling.

    Nail on the head, my friend. Thumbs up!

  19. SteveK

    It’s all about the “warm and fuzzy” feeling.

    Feelings may or may not reflect factual reality. You seem bent on promoting the idea that all feelings point toward some untruth about reality. Is this your claim?

  20. professor chaos

    No, you’re making your own ridiculous leaps.

  21. SteveK

    I’m asking, not leaping. How do you know which feelings relect reality and which don’t?

  22. Professor Chaos

    Heckuva question there, in that it makes little to no sense.

    Using your terminology, I suppose all “feelings” are reflective of reality, in that feelings are real.

    Just as all trees reflect reality.
    And all tires.
    And all white blood cells.
    And all…

  23. Mike J

    I have something that I think apropos to this thread. It is written by a professor at Virginia Tech who is an atheist. He is eloquent and shows much dignity about the atheist position or reaction to the tragedy there.

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/4/19/18451/0971

    You may go to D’Souza’s blog if you feel a need. But be warned; a more ugly soul you don’t want to find.

  24. Jennifer F.

    Just because you don’t understand something, doesn’t make it evidence of something else.

    I agree. But just because we can measure and learn about aspects of life through science (e.g. emotions and neuroscience) doesn’t mean that that’s definitely all that’s there. The soul, the realm of God, etc. are, if they exist, not identifiable through traditional scientific methods.

    I haven’t read your blog in a while

    Glad to have you back!

    …OK, sick toddler in the house, so that’s about as deep into the discussion as I can get for now. 🙂

  25. Kiwi Nomad 2006

    Hi Jen
    You realise you have a very stray Catholic that gets inspiration from your blog 😉 For a long time I lost any feeling of “mystery” that seems to have been largely rekindled in the last couple of years. I have no idea where I am going with this. I spoke to a priest the other day though who talked about “listening to the whispers inside”. I found the chat with him very encouraging and I am looking forward to seeing him again one day, as I think he will understand what I need to try and say.

  26. SteveG

    Kiwi,
    For what it’s worth, I’ll be praying for you.

    And speaking of whispers, for some reason, I felt I should recommend a wonderful little book that is an extended interview that Pope Benedict (when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger) did with the then agnostic German reporter Peter Seewald (who in large part due to his interactions with the Cardinal returned to the practice of the faith).

    It’s called Salt of the Earth. It’s really wonderful and I think maybe it might speak to you where you are at present. Just a thought.

  27. SteveK

    Using your terminology, I suppose all “feelings” are reflective of reality, in that feelings are real.

    Feelings are reflective of the reality of feelings? That’s deep. Of course I didn’t mean it that way, and I don’t think you meant it that way either when you said “No, you’re making your own ridiculous leaps.”

  28. Kiwi Nomad 2006

    Thanks steveg. (What a lot of steves in here!)

  29. Professor Chaos

    So why don’t you go ahead and spare us the meaningless dialogue and clarify, stevek? I’ll take a stab at what I think you mean, correct me if I’m wrong:

    1.) Believing in god makes some feel warm and fuzzy.

    2.) Therefore god MIGHT exist.

    Still doesn’t make much sense to me, though.

  30. SteveK

    1.) Believing in god makes some feel warm and fuzzy.

    2.) Therefore god MIGHT exist.

    Not quite, but most important is you have it backwards. You clearly fail to understand that ontology precedes epistemology when it comes to knowledge. You’re like Descartes who got his famous “I think therefore I am” backwards.

    I’m content leaving things where they are. We’ve been over this many times.

  31. Mike J

    Ever seen children’s reactions to things like the Pompei story and pictures, or the Holocaust, or hearing news of a parent or child killed, or stories of a dead pet?

    Quotes that come to mind:
    “Daddy, that’s not gonna happen to you is it?”
    “Don’t let our kitty get run over.”
    “Would that happen to us if a volcano blew up?”

    All very pragmatic. All tied to the realization that such things could happen to themselves.

    Soulful ties? Not really. Just the realization that death and suffering can’t always be stopped. Hence their pain could be yours.

  32. Professor Chaos

    Thanks, stevek, for providing me with incessant laughter! Attacking me for summing up your position…BRILLIANT!

  33. SteveK (not SteveG)

    Attacking me for summing up your position…BRILLIANT!

    I stated that you summed up my position incorrectly and then explained that your (still incorrect) argument is philosophically backward. This is considered an attack?

    Um….OK.

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