The following transcription came from a speech that formed part of a series of six public events within RSA Social Brain Centre's project: Spirituality, Tools of the Mind, and the Social Brain. The final report of this project, outlined here will be published later this month.
What Happened to the Soul?
Iain McGilchrist, RSA, 31 March 2014
There was a piece in the papers not very long ago by a quite well known team in America who do neuroimaging and they're particularly interested in moral values. And they found that by suppressing activity in the right temporoparietal region they caused a failure to understand the nature of moral judgements.
Well, this wasn’t a surprise to me, anyone who knows my book would suggest that that was probably going to happen. They set up a scenario of Grace, hoping to put sugar in her friend’s coffee but actually by mistake putting poison in, and her friend died. In the other scenario Grace intended to poison her friend but put sugar in and the friend lived. In the normal state we probably think it was worse to intend to poison; but the good old left hemisphere on its own thought, in what is basically an autistic way, that the outcome was the important measure.
Well, that's all very interesting. But then these neuroscientists, and I won't mention their names to spare them their blushes here, finished up by saying, “If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, it’ll be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.” Well, I hope you can see that there might be a category mistake in there; everything that goes through human experience has its brain correlates, but of course it doesn’t mean that that's all there is to it.
So is the concept of the soul a redundant idea now that science has made us see it as a superstition, or are we actually turning our backs on something very important, simply because we can't satisfy demands for precision and proof; and in fact are we making a category mistake?
So I'm going to ask today two questions. What use is the soul as an idea? And I think I have an answer to that. I think it has a use. And I'm also going to ask if so what might the soul be like? And about that I'm afraid I am less certain, but I'm going to have a go.
I expect a lot of us would sympathise with the soldier of Marlborough’s before the battle of Blenheim who was reportedly heard praying, “Oh God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.” And nowadays it’s become a kind of embarrassment to talk about the soul; and yet until now it has been central to most cultures. The word has disappeared. And language is an aspect of reality. If it’s true, as Wittgenstein said, that philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by language, making something disappear by language could bewitch us into thinking it didn’t exist.
Nowadays it’s become a kind of embarrassment to talk about the soul; and yet until now it has been central to most cultures.
So let’s think in simple terms, can this word be substituted? Well, it seems to me to place the person in the widest context, the context outside the confines of immediate time and space, and even to involve an idea of destiny. So, for example, Othello’s great lines, “It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul, let me not name it to you, ye chaste stars, it is the cause.” It will be difficult to replace that with, “It is the cause, it is the cause, my mind, my brain, my emotions, my will, my what?” Equally that famous poem of W.E. Henley’s Invictus, “I am the captain of my soul.” I am the captain of my mind, my brain, my emotions, my what?
It seems that the concept has a meaning, which we can't exactly say what it is, but it, as I say, sets the human being in a broad context, not the narrow context of where we're encountering the person. And it seems to have this idea of a destiny. And so one gets the idea of Keats’ that the world is a vale of soul-making. What did he mean? He didn’t mean that we grow up intellectually. He didn’t mean that we got better at being moral citizens. He didn’t mean that something happened to our heart exactly, although it could have involved bits of all of those. He meant something bigger and deeper.
So is our sense of the spiritual something like our moral sense? Well, it certainly has something of that in it, but it goes beyond it, doesn’t it? There's a rather marvellous moment in a play of Iris Murdoch’s called Above the Gods, where a character says, “In a way goodness and truth seem to come out of the depths of the soul, and when we really know something we feel that we've always known it. Yet also it’s terribly distant, farther than any star. We’re sort of stretched out. It’s like beyond the world, not in the clouds or in heaven, but a light that shows the world, this world, as it really is.”
I'll come back to those words. But they put me in mind – she was a Platonist – of Plato’s speaking of philosophy in the Seventh Letter. He says, “For philosophy doesn’t admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter, and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one’s soul, by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.” So thinking and moral reasoning are part of it; but what both those passages seem to suggest to me is that there is something deeper, more transcendent, over which we have less power, that comes to us.
So is it to do with emotion? That's another possible idea because, after all, we say ‘soulful’, often meaning with emotion, and I think that might be right. But there's a kind of realm in which we can respond to art, I'm thinking particularly of music, for which the word ‘emotion’ is wrong. (Music plays.) This is the Kyrie Le Roy, by the 16th century John Taverner, and it strikes me, and has always struck me, that we don’t have words for the way in which that works. It is intellectually pleasing; it is, I suppose, emotionally something; but it is above all spiritually whatever it is. There just seems to me no two ways about it.
There's a kind of realm in which we can respond to art, I'm thinking particularly of music, for which the word ‘emotion’ is wrong.
Now one thinks of phrases … the psalmist says, “Why art thou cast down, o my soul? And why art thou so disquieted within me?” You could say ‘somebody is unhappy’; you could say this is sadness, and in a way that's right, depending on what we mean. But if you think of this as the words of a soldier encountering the realities of the life of combat, or a refugee fleeing from such a world, or just a bereaved ‘soul’ (as we say), it seems to me that it’s more than that.
And perhaps also the case of depression is not really one of sadness. Is it perhaps a soul sickness? Psychiatrists, after all the word means ‘soul doctors’; and in German there was the idea that doctors were ministering to die Seele, which is a hard thing to define. But that's the point: we need a word that's hard to define, because, if we define it, we’ll probably miss the point altogether.
But that's the point: we need a word that's hard to define, because, if we define it, we’ll probably miss the point altogether.
Well, let’s get a little bit less defined. It could be sort of ‘imagination’, something like that. And indeed again it often involves imagination, but it surely is other than that, and goes beyond it; and there's plenty of imagination which is not in the service of the soul at all. In a book called Logos of the Soul by a follower of Jung, called Christou, talking about Jung’s idea of the soul, he comments, “A person who spent his life in a cell may have enriched and deepened his soul, and this wouldn’t mean moreover that he spent his time accumulating fantasies or writing learned treatises”. It’s not intellectual, or imaginative in the sense of ‘fantasy’. But it’s probably more imaginative in the way that Wordsworth used the idea: “ …and become a living soul.” There are overlaps there.
Well, OK, it’s not any of those things precisely – but could it be a something that stands over against our embodied existence? Well, I think there's two things wrong with that. One is that it’s not a thing, and the other is that it’s not over against our embodied existence. Like matter, according to Whitehead and Bergson the soul seems to me to be process, more process than a thing. We come back to the phrase, ‘a vale of soul-making’. Perhaps not all souls are equal. Perhaps we have to grow our souls. Perhaps souls can be so thwarted that they’re almost extinguished.
And many people who have talked about the soul have used imagery of fire or water, which are things that are more like energy processes. For example, Eckhart’s funkelein, the little spark, the scintilla animae, the soul spark, which comes from, corresponds to, and reaches out again to, the divine. A potentiality, in other words – something in the process of happening, a latent function that needs to be nourished, to grow and expand. Nowadays it’s not popular to say that there is a value to suffering; and I'm certainly not suggesting that suffering is ever anything that anyone should, or would want to, invite into their life. But it is part of the experience of suffering, sometimes, that it does deepen one’s sense of what it means to be alive.
A poet that I like very much, Henry Vaughan, had a collection of poems in fact called the Silex Scintillans which means ‘the sparking flint’, the flint from which the spark comes. And, of course, the spark arises when the flint’s struck, it comes from the heart, and is the spark that is involved in, and nourished by, suffering. Then I think of that phrase of Wordsworth’s, after his brother was drowned in the wreck of the Abergavenny, I think it was, “A deep distress hath humanised my soul.” Again, thinking of water, one would think of the tao, the flow of life, which is not far from a kind of ‘world soul’, really, and the flow that is in Heraclitus, where everything is flow, at the heart. Of course in Heraclitus you get imagery both of flow and of fire – Heraclitus has everything!
And I remember also a wonderful film (I thought it would be too complicated to show you a clip of that tonight). I'm very fond of a number of films by Andrei Tarkovsky. One of them I'm thinking of is Solaris. If you think you've seen Solaris because you saw a terrible American film made in the 1990s [actually 2001] you haven't: you need to see the Russian film made in, I think, 1974 [actually 1972].
I think it’s one of the most moving and philosophically fascinating films ever made. And it shows somebody, through the imagination of someone that loves them, and through their being imagined by that person, and through their experience of suffering, actually growing a soul and coming to life. It’s a science fiction film: it’s both extremely eerie and extremely beautiful. So there you see a sort of resonance between the two characters, Kris and Khari, in that story, that brings this soul to life. And I think that's a good image of how we grow a soul, if we do grow a soul – in this resonant area.
But we need to have a sort of disposition – and perhaps that disposition is the soul. Perhaps the soul is a disposition towards life, a disposition that's both rapt and reflective, and makes a living process possible – that opens a space. And here James Hillman, another disciple, if you like, of Jung, says, I think putting it rather well: “The soul is less an object of knowledge than it is a way of knowing the object, a way of knowing knowledge itself.”
“The soul is less an object of knowledge than it is a way of knowing the object, a way of knowing knowledge itself.” - James Hillman
So it’s not really a thing. It’s more a disposition, a manner, an attitude, a way of being and a process, it seems to me. And it isn’t contrary to the body, although, in the past, it was conceived as the thing that was ‘left over’, as it were, when dying. The college at Oxford of which I'm lucky enough to be a Quondam Fellow is called All Souls. Actually its full name is All Souls of the Faithful Departed (in fact I think it’s of the Faithful Departed at the Battle of Agincourt), but there you have the idea of the soul as what’s left of people once they’ve died. And, of course, that is a very rich idea, and I'm not dismissing it; but it does rather lead to the idea that it’s something separate from the body. (Incidentally those who don’t like the college take great pleasure in pointing out that the French for ‘All Souls’ College’ is ‘Collège des Morts’.)
But once again Wittgenstein put his finger on it, when he said, “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” And the soul is intangible, perhaps, but it’s still embodied; and in every culture images of breath, force or motion, such as in Greek pneuma and psyche, ideas of breath; and the same ideas exist in Hebrew (which is not a language I know), where there are the words, I believe, ruach and nephesh, which are words for soul that are derived from the idea of breath. And of course that is the image of God making man, by breathing his soul into the clay, into the living clay.
And, without that, the soul becomes something rather nebulous. Without that embodied nature, it becomes terribly tenuous. And it reminds me of Hadrian’s description of his soul as animula vagula blandula, that poor little wavering, vague, smooth, little creature, that slips away – out of your mind. So it’s important to remember that the soul is embodied, and it’s deep also in instincts and intuitions, which is probably one of the ways whereby we contact it. And one shouldn’t try to cut those out of the idea of the soul, in order to make it noble.
There were in the Nazi era, as you know, great festivals of the burnings of books. And Freud’s books were among those that were consigned to the flames. And those who threw the books into the fire were enjoined to chant the following words, “In defiance of the soul-corroding glorification of instinctual life, and in the name of the nobility of the human soul, I commit to the flames the writings of Sigmund Freud.”
C. S. Pierce, a 19th century American philosopher, who was also a logician and a mathematician, and whom I very much admire, wrote in a lecture beautifully entitled ‘Detached ideas on vitally important topics’: ‘It is the instinct, the sentiments that make the substance of the soul; cognition is only its surface, its locus of contact with what is external to it’.
The eyes are, we say, the windows of the soul. We see somebody’s soul in their eyes. In portraiture, too, there is the sense of contact with the soul through the eyes, and we can't quite get away, can we, from this idea. And I don’t see why we should. Because it’s very deep in us, that something comes out of the eyes, not just goes into them. It’s present in almost every culture, and in every language.
it’s very deep in us, that something comes out of the eyes, not just goes into them. It’s present in almost every culture, and in every language.
What I quite like is the Hasidic idea of soul, in which there are two distinct souls. They remind me somewhat of a couple of hemispheres I once described. One is the animal soul, which is all about self-preservation and self-enhancement; and the other is the divine soul, which is driven by the desire to reconnect with its source. And our lives are the story of the interplay of these two souls. They’re not side by side, by the way, but they’re sort of nested, so that the divine soul is inside the animal soul, which is inside the body. They are ostensibly in conflict, but ultimately complementary. And at the core is the divine soul.
So they’re not the same as, the soul is not the same as, the body. But it’s not opposed to it either. And we need to go to people like Goethe and Blake to be able to understand that opposites don’t have to eliminate one another. In particular I like very much Goethe’s idea that we find the infinite, not by turning our backs on the finite, but through the finite, we find the general, not by turning our backs on the particular, but through the particular; and that these are false dichotomies. In fact in the Hasidic tradition the nature of sephirot, which is essentially the created world, is the synthesis of everything and its opposite. For if they didn’t possess the power of synthesis, there would be no energy in anything. This is rather like the idea in Heraclitus of harmonie, two poles that are held in tension, and out of which the richness of existence arises.
So, somehow, the soul is something there that is in the world, but not in the world; that is in contact with something other, but is also immanent here in the world. And I like that, because the idea of creation is to create relationship, and I think the divine creation was essentially about relationship. And so this otherness needs to be accessible. The divine needs to be both transcendent and immanent at the same time.
the idea of creation is to create relationship, and I think the divine creation was essentially about relationship. And so this otherness needs to be accessible. The divine needs to be both transcendent and immanent at the same time.
I come back to that phrase in Iris Murdoch, “A light that shows this world as it really is.” The soul is what makes the world authentic. It’s what is really in touch with experience. So, she also says, it’s terribly distant, farther than any star, we are sort of stretched out. So it has that element of otherness – but it’s brought together. And so it’s indefinable, but not remote. And, in Teilhard de Chardin’s way of thinking, we might say we are ‘steeped’ in soul. He has this wonderful expression: ‘by means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagine it as distant and inaccessible, whereas, in fact, we live steeped in its burning layers.’
So how do we contact this thing that is other? Well, we need to make an effort. We need to put ourselves in the disposition to understand it. We're not going to understand it at all if we stand there, resistant to the idea, and waiting for it to sort of turn up as something credible to us. And I'm reminded here of a joke which a Jewish friend told me about a rabbi who is very poor, but very spiritual, and his life would be very much more comfortable if he had some money, and he prays to God: “Please let me win the lottery.” And his prayer never seems to be answered. “Please let me win the lottery”; never is it answered. One day he is at prayer, and God says to him, “Look, Samuel, meet me halfway – buy a ticket.”
And I feel there's a deep spiritual truth in that, that we only get there if we are prepared to ‘buy a ticket’.
So often we can say what it isn’t. Hillman, in a work called Suicide and the Soul, says: “The soul is a deliberately ambiguous concept, resisting all definition, in the same manner as do all ultimate symbols which provide the root metaphors for the systems of human thought.” And indeed mind, matter, nature, gravity, time, energy and God, all fall into this category. We can't really say what they are at all.
“The soul is a deliberately ambiguous concept, resisting all definition, in the same manner as do all ultimate symbols which provide the root metaphors for the systems of human thought.” - James Hillman
So spirituality is often about not knowing, because knowing means you've got it wrong. It can't be defined. It’s not a concept, it’s a symbol, not wholly of our making. Rabindranath Tagore talks about the ways in which one can understand; and he says, in a rather wonderful image, that again goes back to water: “The small wisdom is like water in a glass: clear, transparent, pure. The great wisdom is like the water in the sea: dark, mysterious, impenetrable.” So, as Jung says, there may be a danger of wanting to understand the meaning, and, by doing so, overvaluing the content, which is subjected to a sort of intellectual analysis, and interpretation, so that the essentially symbolic character can no longer do its work – it’s lost. And what goes missing is – meaning, and value for the subject.
So there's a danger, in my terms, of the left hemisphere having to collapse things too quickly into something familiar, ‘what is it precisely?’, leaving, therefore, no place for the intuited and the implicit, through which alone all great ideas in art, in religion, and in our lives are communicated. Making things more explicit doesn’t actually make them easier to understand: it means we understand something other than what it is we are seeking to know.
“The small wisdom is like water in a glass: clear, transparent, pure. The great wisdom is like the water in the sea: dark, mysterious, impenetrable.” - Rabindranath Tagore
And in ritual we see embodied metaphor. Sometimes things can speak very loud to us through rituals, through a mythos (which is not a fiction, but is just another kind of truth from logos that one arrives at by sequential reasoning). Metaphor is a way to deal with the apophatic. They say, ‘He who knows, doesn’t tell, and he who tells, doesn’t know’.
Making things more explicit doesn’t actually make them easier to understand: it means we understand something other than what it is we are seeking to know.
So how are we to approach this? I'd like just to make some attempt before I close. One is to take the idea of depth, which I've mentioned once or twice. Again, hard to define, but I don’t feel too bad about this, because here is Isaiah Berlin on depth:
“The notion of depth is something with which philosophers seldom deal. Nevertheless it is one of the most important categories we use. Although I attempt to describe what profundity consists in, as soon as I speak, it becomes quite clear that no matter how long I speak, new chasms open. No matter what I say, I always have to leave three dots at the end. I am forced to use language which is, in principle, not only today, but forever, inadequate for its purpose. You have no formula that will by deduction lead you to all the vistas opened by profound sayings. In this way it is something like the sublime, except, instead of the sublime without, it is the sublime within. And these two things surely correspond to one another, which is why we feel our soul, as we say, expands in the sublime landscape, the vastness of the view speaks to us internally.”
And sometimes we encounter this also in more mundane aspects, if you like, of life, or, at least, more familiar aspects of life, such as our life of love, and through those that we love. In fact, in a secular age one of the ways in which we can really understand that there is something beyond, that we call the soul, may be through eros at its finest, at its greatest.
No matter what I say, I always have to leave three dots at the end - Isaiah Berlin
Jung, again interpreted by Hillman, says that this is what makes meaning possible, and deepens events into experience, deepens them into experiences; no longer just events, but experiences, which are communicated in love. And there was a very nice piece of neuropsychological research recently – well, it’s molecular genetic research, actually – by Frederickson Cole, which suggested that people who are happy, or call themselves happy, but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives, have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity. In other words they are stressed, although they report happiness. And it’s people who have connections, the ‘betweennesses’ in their life that give it meaning, that report being satisfied.
So, it’s something deep, but it’s also something very hard to bring into focus. It’s that which grounds, but is itself unseen, like the eye. The eye sees, but we don’t see the eye – it is the ground of our seeing. And the tension, again, which makes the world what it is, is an aspect of consciousness, not a function of it. The spiritual is often to be found in the places where we're not looking directly, but in the background, the ‘in-between’. Bonheoffer calls it a kind of cantus firmus, using an idea from polyphonic music: the melody, as it were, to which all the other melodies provide the counterpoint. And he makes the point that, if that element in our life, the spiritual, is kept going as the cantus firmus, we can depart as far as we like from it into the world, the actual world, the concrete world, the material, the fleshly, the emotional, the everyday – without losing anything.
So, finally, I'm talking very much about the soul in general. But what about each of our individual souls? How do we square the idea of soul as something generic and yet something particular? Well, it seems to me that the whole of creation is about the making of things particular out of things that are whole. And, in the Goethean way, they’re not necessarily opposed to one another. They may be aspects of one another.
Individualisation is part of creation, achieving an unfolding inter-complexity, that is not in the world soul idea. We need both quanta and qualia. We need particles as well as waves. We need individuals as well as flow. And the soul is that which seems to me not to be in any way opposed to material existence, but transcends it. It’s not separate from the material, in the way that a wave is not separate from the water; and yet the form, the force field, the thing that shapes it, the thing in which it’s instantiated, is something concrete and not concrete at the same time.
And the soul is that which seems to me not to be in any way opposed to material existence, but transcends it. It’s not separate from the material, in the way that a wave is not separate from the water
And I would see this as an aspect, really, if you asked me my opinion (and that's all I can give, because none of us has a privileged experience of this), I would say there's something in the idea of panentheism, the idea that there is multiplicity and unity without denying either, and without delimiting the concept of the divine, in the way that pantheism does.
So, to wrap up – a phrase of the American philosopher Eugene Gendlin, which I love: “We think more than we can say. We feel more than we can think. We live more than we can feel. And there's much else besides.” And perhaps the soul is what we mean when we reflect on that ‘much else besides’.
Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist and writer who practised in London, but now lives on the Isle of Skye, where he continues to write and make a living by lecturing.
He is committed to the idea that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context, that of the whole of our physical and spiritual existence, and of the wider human culture in which they arise – the culture which helps to mould, and in turn is moulded by, our minds and brains.