Don’t give up on the search for your soul

Unthinkable: The idea of a soul helps us to understand ‘what it is to be human’, says philosopher John Cottingham

For something no one has ever actually seen, the human soul gets a lot of attention. Someone with “no soul” is considered deficient somehow. Work can be “soul-destroying”, and WB Yeats believed the soul could “clap its hand and sing”. In the last week, the US and UK have been doing “soul-searching” about their policy on the coronavirus Covid-19.

Many scientists find this loose talk infuriating, especially the suggestion that an immaterial soul – immortal or otherwise – exists independently of the body. Where is this soul exactly?

Philosopher John Cottingham shies away from discussion of "ghostly" spirits but he believes there is merit in hanging on to the idea of the soul – not least, he argues, because it helps us to appreciate "what it is to be human".

In his latest book, In Search of the Soul (Princeton University Press), Cottingham develops this thesis by drawing on a lifetime of spiritual and philosophical reflection. A well-known defender of Descartes, who Cottingham believes has been crudely mischaracterised as a mind-body dualist, this week’s Unthinkable guest portrays soul-talk as necessary to keep teleology – the study of ultimate purpose – alive.


Holding on to the language of the soul is way of empowering us to acknowledge and foster deep human longings

If we give up on the soul, he suggests, we give up on the search for meaning.

Is the immaterial soul a necessary fiction – necessary, at least, for giving life a meaningful narrative?

“I think the notion of the ‘immaterial soul’ is problematic: I don’t think of the soul as an immaterial substance, or as some kind of spooky ‘ghost in the machine’.

“We need to reflect instead on the precious human attributes and activities that people have in mind when they invoke the term ‘soul’ – attributes of cognition, feeling and reflective awareness that may depend on the biological processes that underpin them, but which enable us to enter a world of meaning and value that transcends our biological nature.

“These are indeed necessary for a fully meaningful human life. What is more, the idea of the soul is linked to the notion of a core self – this ‘me’ that makes me what I am. I see no reason for calling this a fiction: each of us has a clear sense of him or herself as a subject of experience, a subject that endures, despite all the changes in our lives. Each of us seeks to foster the growth and flourishing of this self, and to shape the narrative of our lives into something worthwhile.”

You describe religious worship as a special kind of “care for the soul”. Is it possible for an atheist to care for the soul?

“Using the language of ‘soul’ points not just to the way we happen to be at present, but to the better selves we have it in our power to become. To be sure, an atheist can have these aspirations; the believer has no monopoly on the care of the soul. But in a religious context, talk of the soul is connected with the human longing for transcendence.

“In our perennial human longing for truth, beauty and goodness we yearn to align ourselves with something beyond ourselves, and in the transformative human experiences and practices we call ‘spiritual’ we glimpse something of transcendent value and importance that draws us forward.

“Holding on to the language of the soul is way of empowering us to acknowledge and foster these deep human longings that are an ineradicable part of our nature.”

Belief in the idea of the soul seems to have faded along with belief in the notion of ultimate purpose. Is there any way of rehabilitating teleology, or has Darwinism discredited it entirely?

“The idea that science has eliminated teleology is in my view highly misleading. It’s curious that many people discussing the modern scientific world view use words like ‘random’ and ‘accidental’, suggesting we are just an accidental blip on the face of the cosmos. But that can’t be quite right.

“It turns out that it is quite natural for galaxies to form. It is natural for some stars to explode into supernovas and to produce heavier elements. It is natural for planets to form, and most scientists say that, sooner or later, given the right conditions, life will emerge and then, given the Darwinian principles of selection, intelligence is likely to be favoured.

“All this doesn’t of course prove there is some ultimate cosmic purpose. But in any case there is one area where teleology is undoubtedly manifest, namely the biological realm, here on this planet. Animals have goals, and strive to achieve them, and, if we focus on our own particular species, human beings characteristically form intentions and plans, and seek to achieve certain ends. Human life can only be understood teleologically.

“The question then becomes not whether we are goal-directed beings – we obviously are – but whether there is a direction, among the many we might possibly take, that represents the objectively right way to go.

“There is an ancient question from the Gospels: ‘What does it profit a human being to gain the whole world and to lose his or her soul?’ The idea of the soul may seem problematic to many people today, but we all still grasp the underlying challenge posed by this question.

“We know how easy it is for what is good and true to slip out of our grasp, so that we find we have wasted the precious and all too short time that is available to us on some ultimately worthless goal. In this sense the notion of the soul, teleologically laden as it is, remains as relevant today as it has always been. So far from being discredited by Darwinian or any other branch of science, it speaks to something fundamental about what it is to be human.”