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Magical Thinking

Peace of Mind from a New Scientific Explanation of Our Souls

You're something different from nothing but chemistry. What?

These days when you ask people what they believe about the big picture, you get two kinds of answers. Some people have a proud answer ready to go. Others hem and haw. They trust science but they want to say there’s something more. They won’t call it God. They’re done with the bearded guy. So they mumble something about a higher power or life force. Of course, they don’t mean a voltage or pressure. It’s something else, they don’t know what.

Many of us are bailing on the supernatural but what we're left with is not entirely satisfying. Natural science is missing the most obvious, relevant, meaningful feature of them all – the soul or spirit that we know must be there.

Now, some folks are fine with no soul. To them, science proves that the soul is a figment. Get over yourself. You’re just mechanical matter abiding by physical laws like everything else.

A small group of researchers, while agreeing that the living never defy physical law, recognizes that living beings are different. Call the difference soul, agency, the struggle for existence – whatever you call it, it’s real ­– something different from nothing but chemistry. It’s there even in the earliest, simplest living beings. It’s there in us humans. Science ought to be able to explain it. It’s not some magic supernatural thing added to chemistry, nor is it just any old chemistry. So what is it?

The answer they’ve got is simple and intuitive. Inanimate things just exist until they peter out, fall apart, degenerate. Living things prevent themselves from degenerating. They’re systems that limit what happens. You are, at core a constraint or prevention – yes chemistry but not just any chemistry. Organisms are chemical systems that happen to prevent degeneration such that what remains is work to regenerate.

No wonder we’ve had so much trouble explaining souls. We’ve assumed they must be some supernatural add-on, and if not, then just a figment. Souls are not add-ons; they’re a subtraction of possibilities. Your soul is like your self-control, the way you prevent yourself from degenerating. When degenerating becomes unlikely, persistence becomes more likely – the birth of agency, life’s struggle for existence, the soul.

Your everyday life is all about that. To keep going, you do what you need to do by preventing yourself from dithering. When you die, that self-control is gone and your chemistry dithers uncontrolled, though perhaps not before you’ve passed on self-control to offspring, life thereby continuing as it has for billions of years.

Souls emerge as a change in likeliness, degeneration becoming less likely, persistence thus becoming more likely. Likeliness is not certainty. We're all guessing how to persist. We humans guess emotionally and consciously, but even a plant’s adaptations are guesses about how to prevent degeneration thereby making regeneration more likely.

Life is inherently iffy.

The guesswork evolves. Your selfhood, agency, self-control or soul is highly evolved into emotional, conscious guesswork – educated guesses but still guesswork – guesses at what work will keep you going.

The good news is you’ve got a soul that science can explain. The bad news is that your soul is not eternal or infallible. The origin of souls is the origin of chemistry that guesses how to struggle for its persistence. For some people, this bad news is a deal breaker, not likable enough, however likely it might be.

Now I’m one of the researchers behind this approach. Our explanation is what I believe about my own soul. To me, it’s better than any explanation I’ve researched and I’ve researched a lot, spiritual and scientific.

It denies me some of the advantages of other beliefs – no infallible god or life force directing me to my infallible fate; no infallible rules to guarantee that it’s a good fate.

But here's the thing about switching beliefs – at first you can’t imagine doing without the advantages of your old beliefs. Only when you’ve switched do you start to recognize the costs of your old beliefs.

For me, the advantages of my beliefs are overwhelming, a deal-maker, not a deal-breaker. It’s much more satisfying than mainstream science’s bogus attempts to explain away souls and more satisfying than spirituality’s reliance on supernatural magic to explain them.

I take two main bittersweet points from my beliefs:

One is fallibilism. I can relax into the reality that I’m just guessing. I no longer beat myself up for guessing wrong, though I still try mightily to avoid it. Life has always been guesswork. I can live with that. Indeed, I've never lived more contentedly.

Of course, human guesswork is different. We use symbols – chiefly language – which makes the guesswork more precise and imprecise. Symbols are the source of our visionary human foresight and engineering and they're the source of our delusions, our capacity to detach from reality. Language makes us both less and more fallible than other organisms. It’s what makes human life so complicated.

The other bittersweetness helps me cope with a world in decline. In the next few decades, I’m guessing, we’ll experience three cosmic wedgies: First, we’ll have a truly scientific explanation for the origin and nature of souls, the something different we are from nothing but chemistry.

Second, we’ll have discovered extraterrestrial life. And third – the hardest – life as we know and love it here on earth will be in decline. The human, symbol-driven morass will go out of control.

Though I work hard to prevent our failure, I take comfort from this trinity of cosmic wedgies.

We’ll know how life emerges, we'll know that it goes on, if not here, then somewhere in the universe. We’ll have used our symbolic intelligence to figure out how intelligent life emerges and how it becomes perilous.

I’m guessing that symbolic species like us have evolved millions of times in the universe already and have dealt with the same symbol-driven complexities that we have. Some may have thrived; many will have failed.

The problems we face would be the problems faced by intelligent, symbolic species anywhere, adaptive guesswork under the accelerating, careening influence of symbolic competence.

In the beginning wasn’t the word, but maybe, in the end, was the word – millions of times already in the universe. Language is a precarious adaptation.

I’m guessing that climate change and climate denial have happened millions of times in the universe – engineering that harvests all the fossil fuels left by organisms evolving toward language, and then language – slippery stuff employed to deny the consequences of consuming all of those fossil fuels at once as we have.

Life was always going to go on after my death anyway. Good of science to explain how life emerges and to take another crack at surmounting the crises that symbol species breed. Maybe before we fail, we can learn something about how to bring out the best and not the worst of a symbolic capacity and put it on a Post-it note somewhere in the universe for other budding intelligent, languaged souls to find – a leg up in their own crack at the symbolic species challenge.

And the best of a symbolic species? My guess is it’s getting over our yearning for infallibility, admitting that we can’t help but be fallible.

Our collapse will have resulted from people panicking, dissociating, pretending that they’re gods, eternally infallible the way authoritarian cults always do. Pretending to be infallible would be a natural figment of any intelligent life form’s symbol-infested imaginations anywhere in the universe.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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