There are no souls

My aunt died yesterday. Well, in fact she was my second cousin, once removed, but my mother’s family is very close and so, throughout my childhood, she and her family lived just tens of metres from us and I called her ‘aunt’. I hadn’t seen her in over a year, still I felt sad. I still feel sad as I write this knowing what her children must be going through. 

In one of those coincidences the vast universe creates, and which human beings find so uncanny, two days prior, as I walked along a beach in the Canary Islands, I heard a little boy ask his mother “Tengo un alma?” There was such an intensity to his question, I had to look it up. If I could go back in time, I’d say “No, my friend, you don’t have a soul, because a soul isn’t a noun. Oh, and neither are you.”

You see, I don’t believe in souls, but then I’m not one hundred percent certain I believe in cats. Let me explain.

Take the example of Spot. He lived in the same little street in North Wales where I grew up. At some point, we are forced to assume Mummy Spot became pregnant as a result of a night of unbridled passion with Daddy Spot. At this point, there was no Spot, just a couple of gametes, and then a zygote, which would eventually come to be Spot. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This zygote was still invisible to the naked eye and looked not even remotely like a cat. We all remember from high school biology that sex cells are created by meiosis, where normal body cells divide, leaving about half as much genetic material. These two ‘half cells’ combine, and life begins.

So as Spot first comes together as two bits of genetic material from his parents, he’s very very small. He has few atoms … of anything. Over the next two months, atoms and molecules will pass between the foetus and mother, more in one way than the other. Slowly, slowly, more atoms will arrange themselves into proteins, and fats, and bones, and much else. Spot the cat will begin to form.

It’s a linguistic convenience to describe this process as though there were an organising agent. We say that Spot is growing, though certainly he is not doing so through some force of will. The more scientifically minded of us might say that Spot’s DNA is guiding his development, is instructing the other atoms which molecules to form. This version of the story creates a problem of recursion; what agent gets the DNA to be the way it is, so that it can give these instructions?

Perhaps we talk so readily of souls, perhaps we describe processes as a function of will or agency so readily because we have the sense that we are not merely our physical bodies. It’s difficult to shake this sense that we are somehow more than bones and flesh. Perhaps it’s difficult to shake the idea because it’s true.

Over the course of Spot’s life, he took in food almost every day. Each day, he drank, and as some keen gardeners on our street would have told you, he let out waste. We talk casually of Spot eating to get energy from his food. We know that Spot breathed in order to stay alive. But this is only half the story. What we rarely acknowledge is that in doing these things, Spot was constantly exchanging bits of his physical make up for bits of the environment. If I were to point to Spot on his third and fifth birthdays and say “this is Spot,” I would in no way be pointing to the same collection of molecules. Many of the molecules which a year before had made up Spot would now be in the air, many miles away, some would be in the grass of his owner’s next door neighbour. Some might be forming an ant or caterpillar. The molecules now making up Spot might a year before have been doing all sorts of things. They might contain oxygen let out by an dwarf orange tree during a day Spot spent in his owner’s conservatory. Some of the chemicals now making Spot’s muscles were in a mouse just a few months prior. At no point was Spot a fixed set of chemicals or biological structures.

Have you ever seen a little whirlpool that forms in a stream or river? It can be caused when some little obstacle gets in the way of a smooth flow of water. The water come down the river, swirls around once, perhaps even a few times, and then continues its inevitable path downstream. Such little whirlpools can last days or longer. If you come back tomorrow, you might say, “oh look! That same little whirlpool!” But in what sense is it the same? It’s not the same water. What’s the same is not a noun but a verb. Some water is doing something similar in a similar place. So it is with Spot. In each case what’s the same is a recognisable pattern. In each case you are simply looking at something the universe is doing and saying, “I remember you.” What you recognise is not a thing, but a process. Not an object, but a happening.

Think back to when you were six years old. See if you can remember something that happened. A birthday perhaps. Some memorable event. You were there, right? You remember being there? You remember being you? Your body was a completely different size. Almost none of the atoms which today make you up, were in you back then. Nothing about your material, physical make up was significantly the same. And yet, you seem to have been you then and you’re you now. You’ve always been you, haven’t you?

Through social custom and linguistic convention we come to regard ourselves as a noun, a kind of thing. Such an understanding doesn’t agree very well with a scientific understanding of life and the cosmos. You are, in fact, like Spot, or like that whirlpool. What’s recognisably, stably you is not a physical entity but a process. A happening. You are something the universe is doing.

You now see, perhaps, why I say I don’t entirely believe in cats. Presented with the neighbourhood moggie I do not declare, “ceci n’est pas un chat!” There is a good deal of convenience to be had in saying, “this is a cat,” or indeed, “this is a specific cat named Spot.” But what I really see is the universe catting.

So much for cats. Why should we care about such a hair-splitting distinction? Ponder for a moment the import of the words soul and spirit. They are words the religious and semi-religious use to describe that aspect of us which goes on and on. Such a concept is necessary if you assume that a person is a noun. He stops breathing, we say that he is dead, and that’s the end. In our deepest feelings we know that somehow that’s not the end and so we come up with another noun, soul, though we have no evidence for its referent, to describe the ‘thing’ that goes on past death. What if such comforting but dubious ideas were unnecessary?

Spot died. I don’t remember how. He wasn’t my cat. But Spot’s whirlpool ripples on. Had Spot not lived, his descendants could not have been born. Numerous mice might have lived a little longer. Other creatures would have died at the paws of the mice Spot didn’t eat. It comes naturally to us to think in that temporal direction. Had Spot not lived, things that happened in his life would not have happened. The results of his actions would not have resulted. But Spot was also the necessary result of the configuration of the universe at the time of his life. A million million things had to happen for Spot to end up living the life he lived. Mummy Spot and Daddy Spot had to be born, and born into the midst of another species — we humans — who think that cats are acceptable pets. They had to be born near enough to one another to meet. They had to have sufficiently different genetic code that the resulting foetus didn’t have some perilous deformity. A human family, my neighbors, needed to express their interest in buying a cat. But once the universe had progressed to make these things happen, Spot was the inevitable result. Spot didn’t get to decide. The universe Spotted.

If it is so with a cat, how much more profound and complex the ripples of a human life? In the next month, you may say something to someone that changes their way of thinking. You have doubtless already changed the course of many lives. This may seem grand but it’s doubtless true. After you’re gone, the ripples in the universe that were you will continue in some way. The shape will be different, but the process will be unbroken nonetheless. You, the noun may seem to cease, but verb goes on.

My aunt may no longer be with us, her family will grieve, but the universe is forever altered by her life. Her children, her stories, even the sense of humor she encouraged in her friends, they all live on. 

If you understand this truth, there is no need to believe the comforting idea of a soul. You are not separate from the rest of the universe. You are simply something the universe is doing right now.

In the words J.K. Rowling has Dumbledore utter in The Prisoner of Azkaban:

“You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him. How else could you conjure that particular Patronus?”