Buddhist Concept of the Soul

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Recently, I read an article in “The Chronicle Review”, May 7, 2010, which is an academic newspaper visible in the Colleges and Universities all across the United States. Initially, the word “Soul” attracted my attention. Once I began to look at it carefully, I read the title of the article as, “What we talk about, when we talk about the soul” by Stephen T. Asma. He is a professor of philosophy, and fellow in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences Research Group in Mind, Science, and Culture, at Columbia College Chicago. Among his several publications one book stands out titled, “Why I am a Buddhist (Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2010).

According to him respectable professors of philosophy no longer discuss the soul in class rooms. Because it brings back the old theological arguments for its very existence and its distinction from the body which never had any meaning for the Hebrews, the Israelites, and the Jews to begin with. For them there was no distinction between soul and the body. Body and soul are one reality. Thus, speaking of the two does not make any sense. The analogies of salt water (the Hebrews) verses oil and water (Christianity) can help us understand this matter just a little better, though they have their own shortcomings. After all even salt water is still a combination of salt and water. However, for the former, namely, the Hebrews, soul was body and body was soul which was called “Nafash”. The two were identified and after all this division is the result of our mental activities. The distinction, not separation, of course, between the two had become a new entry by the time Christianity started to take shape in the first and the second century A.D (Anno Domini) or in modern historiography, C.E. (Common Era).

In 1978 I happened to become friend with a young man in Queens New York who was getting his Ph.D in physics at the state University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He told me that the recent discovery in science has shown that when a person dies his or her body becomes lighter. Therefore, he thought this could be an evidence for the existence of the soul. At the time I did not think too much of our conversation. Nevertheless, the more I thought of what he had said, the more I realized how a religious person like him could easily become the victim of the school of “positivism”. The positivists created havoc in the philosophy departments throughout the Colleges and the Universities of U.S from the beginning of the 20th century till the end of the 60’s. They maintained that unless something is verified scientifically it cannot be proven to exist. Thus, if soul is immaterial, it cannot be measured to even be. However, an Oregon sheep rancher together with an amateur scientist found out that in fact sheep gain a little weight as they die. Perhaps it is because sheep just do not have soul! I don’t know about that.

In the philosophy of science we ask the scientists whether they can prove the existence of “quarks”. Quark is “any of a group of hypothetical elementary particles with fractional electric charges, regarded as constituents of all hadrons which belong to the class of subatomic particles”.( The American Heritage Dictionary). Nevertheless, hypotheses and theories must not be discarded for the very fact that they are what they are. Well then the existence of the soul can also be considered as a hypothesis. Is it possible that soul is born with our body with its origin in matter and shall survive the body as spirit?

Stephen believes that the idea of the soul having weight is a category mistake. What is a category mistake? It is very much like saying that the number 4 weighs 30 pounds, or color blue stinks. These days “Positivism” is relatively dead in the academic circles. But to get some faithful followers off our backs, we do not have to look for some kind of empirical evidence in order to verify the soul.

All we should do is seek the advice of one of the most important philosopher of the 20th century by the name of Wittgestein. This Austrian thinker was an engineer by profession and then turned to philosophy. If we had the opportunity to ask him about the soul, what do you think his answer would have been? Well, he would have perhaps asked us: How do we really talk about the soul? How do people use soul talk in everyday language?
We can easily find out that the soul is very much alive and well in certain types of expressive language. When we concentrate on soul talk, we discover these expressions:”He happens to be my soul mate,” or “She really sold her soul to the devil for knowledge,” “Hiking in the Adirondack Mountains rejuvenates my soul, “Our president has soul, “According to Hinduism the soul reincarnates, “I’m sure Martin Luther King’s soul is already in heaven.”
If you notice, there is only little similarity among these expressions. They are different, like games in the casinos and yet they probably represent a family resemblance of meanings. However, there is no common essential definition involved here. In other words, the soul does not have one single definition which would be common to all usage of the word. The soul, Wittgenstein would say, does not have an intrinsic or an indispensable property to be defined with.
These expressions, more importantly, are not propositions regarding the world. In a word, they express emotional attitudes. They resemble other types of imperative or inspirational speech, such as, “You go, girl !,” or “Don’t do that,” or “Have a nice trip,” or “I got soul, and I’m super bad.”When we say, for example, “You’ve got soul,” this is not describing some factual state of affairs; it is rather an evaluation. This expresses as much about the subject as the object referenced. When I use such an expression, I’m also involved in it. After all, I’m the one who is doing the evaluation. Am I not? We cannot just remove the subjective expressive/evaluative properties from the sentence and come up with some testable proposition as we have in science. Saying “John Brown has soul” is not like saying “The cat is on the mat” or “Water freezes at 32 degrees”. These propositions can all be tested.
Soul talk is expressive like other non-descriptive sayings, such as “oh my God” or “Ouch” or “yuck” or “Yeah, that‘s funky.”As you can see, there is no open referent for those. A “referent” is the object or event to which a term or symbol refers.(The Random house, College Dictionary). They simply don’t appear to refer to or represent anything. Soul talk is very much like other emotive manner of speaking. They are emotional as opposed to being rational. In other words, they are not cognitive to give you knowledge whereby you can reach the truth.(Dictionary of Philosophy, by D.Runes).Therefore, Soul talk relates very little to the aims of scientific language, and probably can’t be evaluated with that language.
More than 200 years ago, the 18th century German philosopher Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that with pure reason, that is, reason used in science which is limited, we cannot know God, self, and things as they really are beyond their appearances. So it is absurd to first reduce the soul to a material phenomenon and then try weight it. This is called “reductionism” in philosophy which was geared to solve the Cartesian dualism. The French philosopher Descartes (1596-1650) believed mind and body were two different substances. Those thinkers who came after them made an attempt to either reduce everything to mind or body. Well, now you understand why Stephen and other philosophers like him are trying to solve the puzzle by just appealing to the Austrian philosopher, Wittgenstein’s approach to the problem the “universals” of Plato. Plato maintained that there was a common essential definition for soul. Wittgenstein argued, on the other hand, that this is only a family resemblance of meanings as we mentioned before. After all, he was not the only thinker who was deeply influenced by Kant’s philosophy. Thus, we can do away with the reality of the soul by just turning it into an emotive way of expressing our feelings about certain issues in our life.

The same “reason” Kant talks of its limit, also generates contradictions. If this were the case, then it should also tell us that there is an unlimited one too. Only the unlimited can help us to know the limit of reason. The unlimited goes beyond the limited reason in order to show soul’s “referent” is in reality nothing. When we say there is no real referent for the word “soul”, we mean it does not refer or represent anything. This very nothingness is the essence of the soul. Names limit the reality they refer to. The soul which is invisible as well as immaterial obviously is not limited. That is exactly why only an unlimited reason can deal with the soul. In fact the soul is not an object to be studied by us the subjects. The soul is itself the subject and we’re the objects. The soul is my true Self with capital ‘S’ or “atman” in Hinduism. If someone like Lord Buddha rejected “atman” and spoke of “anatman” he must have refuted the unchanging reality we create for ourselves. The reality of “atman” is uncreated. We cannot even use the copula “is” for that reality. Because if we did, then there would not be any difference between that and anything else which has to given “is” in order to be. Therefore, speaking of its existence is totally irrelevant.

Stephen continues by saying that it does not matter whether you believe the soul exists or not for it is still meaningful. This expressive folk language is useful and cannot be replaced by a scientific one. Philosophers like Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Kenneth Burke argued that language is originally expressive, rhetorical, dramatic. They are only derivatively descriptive, scientific, and explanatory. If this is true, then soul talk can also include that primordial language.

Wittgenstein’s concentration on ordinary language tells us where we can preserve intelligent soul talk and yet avoid common category mistakes. Our tendencies towards reifying a concept like “soul” is a great mistake. Turning or converting the soul into a concrete matter is but a reduction to bridge the gap between mind and body which , to put it mildly, is absurd.

Perhaps you would like to suggest that we did not have to distinguish the two in the first place. Let us not forget that we don’t use the word “separation” or “split” on purpose. We distinguish in our mind because “mind” is a divider. The real word is different from what takes place in our mind. It is possible that in the real world there is only one reality not two. However, the question remains as to why we need to distinguish, let alone separate. If this is the case, that is, the distinction between soul and the body, then it has to correspond to one reality which is absurd. Nevertheless, if there is nothing out there as “soul”, then to distinguish or split the two mentally also becomes absurd. Threfore, Stephen suggest, we can “debug” soul talk all together. When we debug our computer software, we eliminate the mistake in it. Once we detach it from its unwarranted metaphysical history, then we can see how our ordinary language functions. We say, for instance, “This singer has soul” or “That nature hike has helped my soul”.

However, our inclination to convert this soul talk to metaphysics (beyond physics) is very strong. Some believers in God, insists on proving that He or She or It exists. If this is the case, then what is the difference between my existence or the existence of anything else for that matter and God’s existence? What is “God”anyway except a “title”. Names limit whether they are titles or actual names .I have only an idea of what God is and I reify it in order to be proven, I have turned a concept into a concrete fact. Is God a thing? If it is not, then it is no-thing. It is invisible as well as immaterial. And If the Ultimate Reality is the giver of being, how can it be? In other words, how can we use the copula “is” for that Reality? Now you realize why Buddha argued that this concept of “God” just does not correspond to a reality outside our mind.
Wittgenstein believed that sometimes “Language goes on holiday,” and that we have to persuade it by pleading to go back to its useful, functional meaning. Just as we don’t hear a smell even though we Persians often times speak like that or we don’t taste knowledge but we talk of sapiental knowledge (“sapi” means taste in Latin), we too literally don’t live after death,” or possess a “soul mate”.
These are wonderful metaphysical uses of language. But they must not be confused with literal descriptive uses of language. For example, when I say, “My soul will go on,” what I’m probably saying is, “I hope I live more.” The real problem with some religious and New Age soul talk is that it carries out the soul concept from the territory of subjective expression to the territory of objective fact, in which there is no empirical evidence to support this claim. This is really what we mean by category mistake.
After the death of a loved one a minister consoles the parents by saying that you’ll see your son again. He assures them that their son’s soul is in a much better place. When we professors hear this language, we’ll take it as a description of reality. Our first and immediate reaction is: “How does he know where the dead go or whether or not they are in a better place?” Why do these ministers play God, if there is any at all, while they are as human as anybody else? Why do they speak on behalf of God as if they are His spokesmen? However, if we listen to it as emotive hope, then perhaps we will not be so frustrated.
Even though I always try not to speak for everyone, I still feel we all like to use this emotive language in our everyday life regardless of all the metaphysical problems that come with it. The language used by the minister seems to convey the message that there are deep emotions and strong bonds that even death cannot do put an end to them. No matter what we think of the essence and the whatness of the soul, this is a beautiful sentiment.
I could not agree more with professor Asma on this matter. However, this emotive language does not seem to be very popular among Buddhists people. In a non-theistic Religion like Buddhism the concept of a permanent soul is completely absent. According to Buddha, “self” consist of five aggregates: “body, feelings, perception, disposition, and consciousness”. All these are in constant process of change and becoming.

Buddha could not accept the Hindu philosophy of “atman”. This unchanging reality within us, called “atman” is like the ray of the sun. It is uncreated, immutable reality. For both Buddha and Heraclitus (536-470) B.C.E. we can never step into the same river twice. Perhaps they also believed “change” is the only reality that is constant. Otherwise none of them could have held on their positions. How can we define what “motion” is unless there is something stationary. To Heraclitus the world is ever living fire like the sun. The only thing constant is the orderliness of one thing following another or the “reason” or “destiny” of the world stays the same.(Runes, pp.124-5).

Parmenides (6th-5th century B.CE), came up with the conception of “Being” which is in opposition to the “Becoming” of Heraclitus. We really don’t know who came first or if they were contemporary. He argues that the very process of thinking demands that we should postulate or assume something which is. Whatever cannot be thought cannot be. We cannot have thought without being and vice versa. Thought is being and being is thought and both are identical. This “Being” occupies space. Imagine “Being” would be like a frozen ocean in which there is no movement at all. For him, non-being is empty space, thus cannot be. And if empty space or the “Void” could not be, nor could the plurality of individual things which would result in the movement of the “full” in the “void”. Parmenides, therefore, argued that there is only one “Being” in which there is no differentiation. This “Being “is one Reality that really is, whereas the particularity of individual things is phenomenon, better illusion. This “Being” which is homogeneous and immutable is the only Reality there is.(Runes, p.225).

In logic something comes out of something and nothing comes out of nothing. Something never comes out of nothing. Therefore, when one moves from A to B, at the point of B he is no longer at point A. Here A is non-being and B is being. This shows that at point B where I am now, I left a vacuum behind which is A or nothing. So Parmenides says that I have come out of nothing which is not acceptable logically. Consequently, there is no movement and everything is motionless.

If you noticed, Parmenides’ idea reminds us of what the Hindu philosophy of “Maya” is all about. In other words, the world is nothing but illusion. As you can tell, Buddha’s position is a lot closer to Heraclitus than Parmenides. In a word, Heraclitus to Parmenides is very much like Buddha to Hinduism. Heraclitus (Becoming), Parmenides (Being) are like Buddha (Becoming), Hinduism (Being). However, both Heraclitus and Buddha were challenged as far as their positions.

Cratylus of Athens was a Heraclitean and Plato’s first teacher. He believed that unlike what Heraclitus had maintained, we cannot step into the same river, not even once, because there is nothing to step into. In200 C.E, a Buddhist philosopher by the name of Nagarjuna came very close to what Cratylus had said about 700 years before him.
The logic of this argument is as follows, either something is or it is not. If it is, then what is, is. (Parmenides). But if it is not, then it is becoming. (Heraclitus).If it is becoming, it is nothing. (Cratylus and Nagajuna).Therefore, there is no river to step into to begin with. It is all illusion.
The soul talk becomes important in a culture where people believed in the reality of the soul at some point. When there is nothing to be called “soul”, then there is no necessity for Professor Stephen Asma to reveal that the soul has no referent.
Although Buddha believed in the rational inquiry into the soul matter, he still held that we need to experience this fact through meditation for ourselves. Intellectual endeavors are very scholarly and significant. However, we need to smell the perfume of reality in order to have certainly in our knowledge. Thus, we ought to have both disciplines to reach our goal.
When Buddha rejects the existence of a permanent soul or atman, he is refuting the reified reality by calling it an illusion. For him, even the permanent soul is “maya” simply because to define it we give it a name and then we reify it. In other words, we turn it into a concrete reality. We do the same thing when it comes to the personal God or gods. We make our own gods whether in our mind or outside of it. We, indeed, make idols and worship them. If God has created us in his image, we return the favor and create Him in ours. Buddha does not accept the existence of these gods who are in need of our help for their sustenance. A Reality which is both invisible and immaterial resists to become reified or concrete. That Reality is not even is. Because everything else is. Then what is the difference here? As a result of this intellectual inquiry, there is no need for the soul talk in Buddhism.
Logically either a thing is or is not. What is, is. This was the position of a pre-Socratic philosopher by the name of Parmenides.