The Rise and Fall of the Supernatural
Various theories as to the nature of the soul have claimed to be reconcilable with the tenet of immortality, but it is a sure instinct that leads us to suspect every attack on the substantiality or spirituality of the soul as an assault on the belief in existence after death. The soul may be defined as the ultimate internal principle by which we think, feel, and will, and by which our bodies are animated.
The Problem of Death
The greatest puzzle of human life is the problem of death. Why is it that human beings live animated lives which end, frequently suddenly, in inert death and decay?
One answer, of great antiquity, was that the human body, in life, possessed some sort of animating spirit or life force. And it was upon the departure from the body of this animating spirit or soul that brought the onset of death. People died when they 'gave up the ghost' of this vitalizing spirit. This soul was entirely invisible, and devoid of mass or physical substance. And because the soul was the actualisation of the life force, it was itself immortal.
With this idea of an immortal soul, there grew up an accompanying idea of an invisible, supernatural world inhabited by the invisible immortal souls of the dead, who lived on indefinitely in an afterlife, or who were rewarded or punished according to their conduct in life, and who perhaps returned from time to time to animate new bodies, and thus be born again. Thus there slowly emerged an increasingly complex idea of a supernatural world, existing in parallel with the natural world, inhabited by gods, demons, spirits, angels, and shades.
Furthermore, since the soul's residence in a human body lasted a few brief decades, but its afterlife in the supernatural world lasted indefinitely, it followed that the condition of the soul during the perpetuity of its afterlife was of far greater importance than its brief interlude incarnated in flesh. Natural human life, lived from birth to death, was merely a brief prelude to a subsequent eternal spiritual life. And, if so, the most important task in anyone's natural life was to prepare themselves for death and its afterlife.
The ancient Egyptians perhaps developed this idea to its fullest extent, in that the dead were very frequently equipped with all the necessities for their afterlife, and provided with food, drink, clothes, furniture, and everything they might possibly need in the hereafter. In death, the heart of the dead person would be weighed against a feather, and if it weighed more, the dead would be torn apart by a mythical beast which was a combination of various natural predators.
The idea of a spiritual afterlife continued in Christianity, with the slight variation that the dead would not only be judged after death, but would be consigned either to an endless heavenly paradise or to an endless infernal hell. And the prospect of the latter rendered it all the more important that an individual conduct himself in life with the most perfect rectitude, for fear of eternal damnation in their afterlife.
The supernatural world of this afterlife was essentially timeless and eternal. The corrupt and depraved natural world, by contrast, was time-bound, temporal, and secular. Human beings lived brief natural lives, measured in years, or perhaps only minutes.
In this Christian vision, each natural human life was lived briefly in a small antechamber to an infinitely vaster supernatural world, and was a period of examination and trial. The natural world itself was of no interest, being made up of gross and corrupt and inert dead matter. And natural human life was one in which the soul endured the torments of fleshly existence - of hunger, thirst, desire, pain, toil, sorrow, and suffering - before merciful release into eternal life. It was a vale of tears to be passed through, looking neither right nor left, under the guidance of the church from cradle to grave.
Indeed, if natural human life was lived miserably in a small antechamber to the vast cathedral of the supernatural world, it was perhaps not unreasonable to suppose that one day that antechamber would become entirely absorbed into the supernatural world, and the natural world would come to an end. Indeed, the incarnation of God on earth might have been seen as heralding exactly such an impending invasion, as the saints came marching in.
And for those whose short lives were indeed ones of toil, sorrow, grief, hunger and thirst, the prospect of an eternal afterlife of rest must have appeared before them as a wonderful consolation for their present sufferings.
The Natural Philosophers
But for those whose lives were long and leisured, their natural lives presented a wealth of pleasures. Of food, drink, sex, games, art, music, literature and so on. For such people life was far from being a vale of tears to be passed through as rapidly as possible. It was instead something to saunter through slowly, to savour and enjoy. And while they might also seek to enjoy a prosperous and pleasant afterlife, they also sought to enjoy a prosperous and pleasant life in the present natural world.
Instead of hurrying through their lives, with eyes averted from its seductive temptations, such individuals would take a growing interest in the natural world, its geography, its topology, its plant and animal life, and indeed its entire rich diversity.
And such people, as they began to bring together a growing body of knowledge about the natural world, became first natural philosophers, and then natural scientists for whom the study of nature was their consuming interest. For such people, the study of nature did not necessarily impinge upon their religious beliefs: while Isaac Newton was composing his gravitational and optical theories, he was equally engaged in determining, through study of the Book of Daniel, the date of the end of the world.
And in their examinations of the despised and transient natural world, these natural scientists did not, and indeed could not, invoke divine explanations of natural events. They were obliged to explain the natural world within its own gross and cloddish terms.
And as they began to explain more and more natural processes, constructing an ever more fundamental physics and chemistry, they became able to offer new explanations of what had previously been seen as supernatural events. They explained the motion of planets and comets, and the nature of thunder and lightening, the seasons of the year, and much more. And, almost with every advance of science, a little bit of the supernatural world was recaptured by the natural world.
The modern secular Western world is very much the product of this natural science. For a great many people, the idea of an 'act of God' is in some senses meaningless, and must be translated into an 'accident'. This secular society regularly looks for natural rather than supernatural explanations of phenomena. To the extent that supernatural religions survive in an increasingly naturalistic climate of opinion, it is probably because natural science has yet to provide a system of ethics and law to replace those of the principal supernatural religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam). And if natural science has yet to turn its attention to ethics, it may in part be because science was only tolerated by the church to the extent that it devoted itself entirely to the natural world, and stayed out of human life and human affairs.
And such has been the accelerating progress of science over the past few centuries, that almost everything in the natural world can be explained, to a greater or lesser degree, by natural science. And from being a small antechamber to a vast supernatural world, the natural world has itself expanded into a vast universe, and the supernatural world has accordingly dwindled into a residual back room, stuffed with gods and demons. And rather than the natural world coming to an end, it is looking much more likely that the supernatural world will come to an end, and be entirely absorbed into the natural world, the back room cleared of its gods and demons.
And indeed, modern life sciences do not regard living creatures as being animated by souls which depart at death, but instead as energised by the fuel they consume, in almost precisely they same way as cars are powered by gasoline. People die, rather like car engines die, when they run out of gas. There is no need to invoke the idea of an animating soul.
The explanation of death as the consequence of the loss of an animating soul is not irrational. When people die, it does indeed seem as if 'life goes out of them'. The idea appears in many cultures. But once the reality of this supernatural entity is accepted, it must bring into existence in its train an entire supernatural world populated by souls, spirits, gods, demons, and angels. And indeed, throughout human history, it would seem that it has regularly done so.
The idea of animating soul might be regarded as akin to the idea of a flat Earth around which the Sun and stars daily revolve. This is, after all, what appears to be the case on first examination, to most people, in most places, throughout human history. It is only on deeper enquiry that a rather more complex picture of the relation of the Earth and Sun and stars has been gradually assembled. Equally there are other ways of explaining death which do not entail a 'soul'.
The loss of the idea of soul will entail the loss of the entire supernatural world, of both Heaven and Hell, of both God and Devil, at least in their supernatural garments. But rather than vanishing entirely, these concepts will probably simply re-appear as extremes of natural conditions or entities.
It is claimed that the loss of the expectation of reward and punishment in an afterlife will inevitably lead to immorality in the natural life of humans. But in a time when religious fundamentalists regularly kill themselves and sometimes hundreds of other people, in expectation of reward in their afterlife, it must also be pointed out that the notion of an afterlife is equally subversive of moral conduct. What is perhaps urgently needed is an entirely natural system of ethics, in which the justifications for ethical conduct do not require the existence of either an immortal soul nor its accompanying supernatural world.
Idle Theory is an entirely naturalistic account of human life, in which humans are seen as part busy, part idle, and attempting to increase their idleness and freedom of action. In its ethics, good acts are seen as those which increase idleness, and bad acts are seen as those which decrease idleness. The good or evil that men do in their lives have effects upon subsequent generations of men. If there is any afterlife at all, it consists of the lives of those who come after us, as future generations of real men and women - and not imaginary phantoms in an imaginary supernatural world.
Author: Chris Davis
First created: December 2006