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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Soul Searching

"A blow to the head will confuse a man's thinking, a blow to the foot has no such effect, this cannot be the result of an immaterial soul. "
- Heraclitus of Ephesus
pre-Socratic Greek philosopher
535 - 475 BCE

"Whatever that be, which thinks, which understands, which wills, which acts, it is something celestial and divine; and, upon that account, must necessarily be eternal. "
- Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero)
Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer and orator, politicl theorist & constitutionalist, linguist & translator,
106 BC - 43 BC

"For it is unknown what is the real nature of the soul, whether it be born with the bodily frame or be infused at the moment of birth, whether it perishes along with us, when death separates the soul and body, or whether it visits the shades of Pluto and bottomless pits, or enters by divine appointment into other animals."
De Rerum Natura (I, 113)

- Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus),
Roman poet and philosopher
99 BC - 55 BC

"The soul, which is spirit, can not dwell in dust; it is carried along to dwell in the blood." [Lat., Anima certe, quia spiritus, in sicco habitare non potest; ideo in sanguine fertur habitare.]Decretum (IX, 32, 2)
- Saint Aurelius Augustine (Augustine of Hippo),
philosopher and theologian, early latin church founder and saint
354 -430

"Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. "
"I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am."
- Rene Des Cartes
French philosopher, mathmetician, and physicist
1596 - 1650

"But whither went his soul, let such relate
Who search the secrets of the future state:
Divines can say but what themselves believe;
Strong proofs they have, but not demonstrative:
For, were all plain, then all sides must agree,
And faith itself be lost in certainty.
To live uprightly then is sure the best,
To save ourselves, and not to damn the rest."
- John Dryden
Poet Laureate, play write, literary critic, translator,
member of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement
of Natural Knowledge (aka 'the Royal Society')
1631 - 1700

"One certainly has a soul; but how it came to allow itself to be enclosed in a body is more than I can imagine. I only know if once mine gets out, I'll have a bit of a tussle before I let it get in again to that of any other. "
~Lord Byron, poet and member of the Royal Society
1788 - 1824

e·pis·te·mol·o·gy (ĭ-pĭs'tə-mŏl'ə-jē)n. The branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity.
[Greek epistēmē, knowledge (from epistasthai, epistē-, to understand : epi-, epi- + histasthai, middle voice of histanai, to place, determine; see stā- in Indo-European roots) + -logy.]e·pis'te·mo·log'i·cal (-mə-lŏj'ĭ-kəl) adj., e·pis'te·mo·log'i·cal·ly adv., e·pis'te·mol'o·gist n.The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language

In the great debates over health care reform specifically, and more widely on the subject of abortion, the argument returns to the premise that abortion is wrong because of the belief independent individual life begins at conception, including the presence of a soul. Representative of that is the greater than usual number of quotations, including the definition and origins of 'epistemology', because of its relevance to my examination of the topic. I had many more, including Plato and Aristotle, Einstein and Jung, and a variety of theologians, which I pruned to the current several here.

I have read widely on the subject of our human soul and spirituality, and listened to many different voices pontificating ther dogma on the subject in the course of satisfying my own curiosity. The identification of a special essence, a special quality, that we generally term a soul exists across a wide range of cultures, around the world and across the span of our history. The identification of what we call 'soul' exists in the religious beliefs of the most primitive of cultures across the spectrum to the most sophisticated societies, as we define them by technology and science, literacy, political development, affluence, and a plethora of other criteria (take your pick).
All of which strongly suggests the existence of something we as humanity define, more or less, as our souls. This breadth of recognition might suggest some sort of consensus, some unanimity of understanding, a clarity and agreement on definition, right?

Not even close; as always, there are details rampant with devils, lots and lots of little devils.

There is no consensus across history or across the geography of our planet on any single specific aspect of that essence we name souls. We don't agree on what it is; we don't agree on when it is inside of us; we don't agree on the origins. We don't even fully agree on whether or not the soul is immortal or eternal; some believe that the soul can die, others that it grows as the body grows, with experience. We don't agree on how, where, and from whom our souls derive. We don't agree on who or what possesses a soul.

The Christian tradition is contradictory. The roots of early Judaism posited that animals, at least some animals, had souls, as do other religious and spiritual traditions. In Islam, the belief is that the soul enters the body of a fetus in utero after 40 days. Not 90 or 180 days, not 30 minutes, and not at conception; they are quite definite on the 40 day figure. But then, in the Islamic faith, not only humans have souls either. Djinn and angels also have souls in that faith's traditions. In the Druidic tradition, and in many other traditions (the many irreverent verses of "Give me that old time religion" are playing in my head) so do some trees and other inanimate objects.

Ethnocentrically, most of the people I know (but not all by any stretch) would argue for accepting only the more conventional and recent Judeo-Christian notions of souls. So.....that simplifies the concept entirely right? Hardly. Not only is there no consensus, if you ask the question not when is the soul first present, but rather when was the soul first present in the earliest human body, it presents an entirely different range of questions to be answered.

Recently I re-read a book I found very influential, "Guns Germs and Steel" by Jarod Diamond, a book about the comparative development of different societies, the how and why some developed greater technology and sophistication and others did not. Diamond covers the migrations of populations from Africa into the other continents on our planet, and briefly addresses the progression of what we know about Australopithecus Africans, through homo erectus, homo habilus, and homo sapiens. He addresses the development of and competition between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon "man". So........who had souls? Did the Australopithecus, Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon? If you reject the science of evolution in favor of creationism, were the individuals whose remains we have discovered not at the very least been created by God as well, and therefore have souls too? Were they human enough?

I remember I was in elementary school the first time I saw the images of the Lascaux cave paintings; I thought they were beautiful. There are theories which equate the earliest origins of cave paintings and figural art, like the Willendorf 'venus' and the Hohle Fels 'venus', and the various cave paintings around the world, as indicative that our progenitors had developed the beginnings of religion and abstract concepts. The artistic figures were contemporaneous with the earliest formal burial customs (that we know of) which suggest belief in an after life, the beginnings of faith in something greater than ourselves. While there is not complete agreement in the significance of these paintings and sculptures, the overwhelming majority of the sculptures are female, and appear pregnant (although all of the figures, male, female, child, and animal from this period are included in the term 'venus'). There is a large segment of the experts who believe that the figures are indicative of a belief in one or more deites, especially some sort of fecund earth godess from whom life originates, and in belief that we are in the same general form as our deities.

In analyzing the progress of our species, who won, and who lost disappearing into history, Diamond further pursues the pressures and influences which resulted in our cultural and technological differences. He compares factors such as the difference in spacing the birth of children between nomadic peoples and settled/ sedentary societies, including the practices of contraception and abstinence, abortion and infanticide, and even castration of a percentage of male infants, as necessary to their survival as individuals, and as a group, because their way of life could not support or move more than limited numbers of people.

Someone, on another blog not so long ago accused me of "loving baby killing". The truth about me is far from that, and yet it was posited to me that the individual who made that statement was 'highly principled', the implication I took from that was that if I disagreed I must be less principled. I do not assume from the actions taken out of necessity for survival these earlier groups of people, who some would no doubt dismissively term 'dirt worshipping heathen', were enthusiastic about their options - that they loved killing babies, or that they were immoral or unprincipled.

Understanding and taking control of our reproduction is an important part of what differentiates human society from animals. The use of abortifacients is common to the earliest human medical knowledge, everywhere on the planet, at every time in human history. The ideology that abstinence will be practiced sufficiently that no other form of controlling reproduction is needed, is folly; it denies our history, it denies who we are, it denies the importance of the urge to reproduce that is inherent t0 human survival. I have pursued a certain interest in these materia medica used in humans and other species, as part of a larger interest in the area of reproductive science. They are found on every continent except Antarctica.

But it is not only a study of theology, history, literature, philosophy, art, archeology, anthropology, the history of medicines (primarily but not exclusively botanicals) that informed my thoughts on this subject. Besides the time spent in performing castrations and semen collection, and various efforts helping other species bring new life into the world, I've spent a good few hours in front of microscopes. I find semen fascinating; I have counted sperm in samples and evaluated it for the three "M"s - morphology, motility, and morbidity. I have differentiated mature sperm from immature (the immature have larger heads in relation to the tails). It never fails to inspire in me a sense of awe at the vigor and vitality of the stuff.

When I first had the opportunity to examine healthy semen under a microscope, observing the extent of the almost vibrating movement, I made the inadvertant comment that it was surprising that with all that motion observable under the microscope, it should tickle when you touch it. The response of the supervising professor was coffee expelled nasally; and another student observing that it did tend to explain why men seemed to scratch certain parts of their anatomy so often. (We were an all female group, otherwise we might have been more prudent in our observations, out of concern for making any male colleague uncomfortable.)

Nature is wasteful and redundant; it exists and thrives through excess. For every ova fertilized by a single spermatazoa, many millions fail. (I will skip expounding on capacitation and activation, on the presumption that not everyone shares my fascinaion.) An unknown and unknowable number of gametes - fertilised ova - fail to implant or otherwise fail to thrive. No count is kept of the women who only discover they were probably pregnant at some point only when their doctors happen to note the change to their cervix. No one can know how many more women are similarly affected by failures to implant or spontaneous abortion who do not have regular medical care that includes pelvic examination. That every failed embryo has a soul is to me incomprehensible; that every possible embryo equates to a fully developed human is even more unreasonable.

Beyond those failures of conception developing to term in vivo are those in vitro. Not only have we mastered the art and science of test tube babies, but we have cloned human embryos from human skin cells, and grown skin cells from foreskin. Those efforts are in pursute of creating pluripotent stem cells for research and therapeutic treatments. If we need more skin for skin grafts, we grow that from the circumcised foreskins of infants; about 4 acres of skin can be grown from a single foreskin (and like embryos, they can be frozen for storage).

The one constant for the development of any embryo to maturity, regardless of origin, is the requirement for it to be implanted in a woman in order to gestate. That fact suggests to me that women have a significance, an importance, that is greater in the consideration of reproduction than the value of any embryo, up until a sufficient cellular differentiation to survive independently. Further, I would argue that in the undifferentiated cellular state, as reflected in the first quotation from Heraclitus, that there is a lack of individuality as evidenced by a lack of neurological tissue - the lack of a brain, which seems an essential quality of being a human individual.

No embryos, of any species, have ever grown entirely in vitro. Do those embryos, those clumps of relatively few cells, largely undifferentiated, which are not implanted, which instead are frozen or discarded, all have fully equal souls to the rest of us, regardless of how the conception occurred? Some would say yes, many would say no. The reality is that people believe what they choose to believe; no one has proof, no one definitively KNOWS. The soul is the subject of belief, but it is not demonstrable, tangible, provable; it is at most a theoretical construct in which we decide to believe - myself included.

There are those in our society who would impose their beliefs on others. People who believe they know better than everyone else what is correct, who feel they need to enforce their beliefs on people who cannot be trusted to think for themselves, who cannot be allowed to believe differently. They demonize anyone who disagrees with them. They are willing to penalize them, sometimes to a draconian degree. They are willing to interfere with and disrupt the direction of people's entire lives, all the while congratulating themselves on their supposed moral superiority. Many of those same people are willing to enforce their views on all aspects of human sexuality on others, no matter how ignorant and uninformed by fact those views might be, or how fraught with unsupported assumptions.

They do not and cannot admit that someone could hold a different point of view that is valid or legitimate or moral based on different information or on different beliefs. This is the height of intolerance and hubris, and antithetical to the concept of separation of church and state, imposing a view that is both fundamentally religious and spiritual in nature, and specific to one or more religions at the expense of equal respect for other religious or moral beliefs, or the views of those who choose not to embrace any religion.

My friend and colleague here, ToE, wrote a while back in the comment section to something else I'd written, a sentiment I've heard expressed by many others:" when a woman makes a choice to engage in sexual relations, she bears equal responsibility for making sure that she does not become pregnant, and if she does, then she became pregnant because she chose to become pregnant or chose to not take suitable precautions against it." With the greatest respect and friendship for my friend and colleague, and for those others who share the view expressed in his statement, this is an oversimplification for the many and various circumstances under which women have sex. Some of those circumstances are less voluntary than others; some pressures are powerfully subtle and insidious, and women often are not always in control of those decisions because of disparities between men and women.

I cherish, respect and value those men I have known who care deeply and protectively about women and about children, including those not yet born. That protective concern is one of those qualities most essential (imho) in differentiating men from those who are merely male. Likewise, I believe a concern for nurturing others is similarly an important quality in women. So clearly, while I may differ in my point of view, unlike those who are vehemently judgemental of those who differ, I do value those who are in disagreement with me.

But in conscience, I cannot disagree with them any less intensely, or agree to the disruption and alteration of peope's lives they would so blythely impose. It is a matter of integrity, and of the most profound morality, to acknowledge the difference between what we know and what we believe, and to respect that each and every one of us deserves to act according to our respective conscience. It is one of the most profound principles in the founding of this country.


  1. When in an earlier comment I noted that women have a choice to indulge in sexual relations, I was referring to consensual sex. Non-consensual sex is rape, and I was not and do not in any way condone such behaviour, nor is rape ever the fault of the woman.

    I also was, for the purpose of my discussion, limiting my comment to the society in the US. If a woman chooses to bow to some external pressure, (other than force which would reasonably constitute rape), again, that is a choice. The point I was making, and I thought at the time I made clearly, (but apparently not clearly enough) is that abortion as a means of birth control is morally and ethically indefensible in today's society.

  2. ToE wrote:" Non-consensual sex is rape, and I was not and do not in any way condone such behaviour, nor is rape ever the fault of the woman."

    With respect ToE, I am defining rape for purposes of the discussion here as sex which is coerced by some kind of fear of injury or death or other harm.

    There are many instances and more gray areas of pressure than what is encompassed by that more traditional and narrow definition of coercion. There are countless women who are pressured to engage in sex to which they agree while being far from really fully willing. (Which is not to suggest women do not also desire and enjoy sex - we do.)

    Esamples of what I mean: Women who are pressured by a spouse to have sex when they do not want to; women who give in to pressures from boyfriends to do so when they don't really want to do so. There are subtleties of emotional and psychological abuse that occur over longer periods of time that are not usually encompassed by the term rape. There are relationship dynamics which emphatically do not meet the standard of rape but which are still coercive.

    Is it rape when a woman who has no other resources consents to sex in a loveless marriage because of a sense of necessity? I doubt that many people would call that rape, but neither is it fully willing and consensual in the sense you describe.

    Women speak with each other in the absence of men differently than they speak to men or in mixed company. I do not know any woman - ANY woman - who has not at some time in her life faked an orgasm to please a partner or end sex more quickly;

    OR agreed to do something in the course of sex which she really would rather not have done;

    OR found herself in a sexual situation without her whole hearted wish to be in that situation.

    With the greatest respect for your views ToE, perhaps your definitions of the sexual dynamics between men and women is a bit simplistic.

    Do I agree that abortion is not an ideal option for primary contraception? Yes.

    Is it still an important and necessary option for women to have, at their discretion to use as is necessary and best for them? Emphatically yes.

  3. A woman who stays in a relationship because of fear or "gives in" to sex because of pressure from her boyfriend is consenting to sex. If you wish to assert that women are the intellectual and social equals of men,(and I in general agree with that concept), then when a woman "gives in" to sex, even though it may not be something she especially desires a the moment, it is consensual. She then is equally responsible for the consequences. Failure to take precautions and/or ensure that her partner takes precautions against unwanted pregnancies is a result of her and her partner's failure to take such precautions.

    Using abortion to dispose of the pregnancy like so much medical waste is (as I have stated before), morally and ethically impermissible. By doing so, the woman demeans herself but she demeans the entire idea that the woman is alone capable of bringing life into the world, (as you stated, a fertilized ovum MUST be implanted into the uterine wall of a woman). There are multiple options for dealing the the pregnancy, including placing the child for adoption. However, I have yet to see any justification from what you have written for the use of abortion as a means of post-intercourse birth control.

  4. ToE wrote:" If you wish to assert that women are the intellectual and social equals of men,(and I in general agree with that concept), then when a woman "gives in" to sex, even though it may not be something she especially desires a the moment, it is consensual."

    I disagree that is a situation that is consensual. Certainly it is not a situation which should result in the penalty of pregnancy for nine months, and the resulting child. While women are equal socialy and intellectually in the abstract, not all women are equal in reality in individual cases, or equally empowered.

    ToE further wrote:
    "She then is equally responsible for the consequences."

    I would also disagree with this contention. Women are DISproportionately responsible for pregnancies.

    ToE, you have yet to address the issue of knowledge versus belief in positing the existence of a soul at conception. If there is not a soul present - and I doubt you can PROVE there is, or demonstrate under what circumstances there is - then yes, I would argue that in the earliest stages - such as where an embryo can be frozen and thawed successfully, which we cannot do with a mature individual but we can do with 'mere' tissue samples - yes, it is appropriate to dispose of an embryo as not a person.

  5. Rape is defined (as I understand) as any sexual intercourse where the victim expressed a desire to NOT have the sexual contact progress.

    This includes sexual intercourse where a woman objects but is not physically coerced, such as a threat of harm or violence to themselves or someone they care about.

  6. sorry, I meant to say more...

    With respect to my two friends.

    Abortion as a method of birth control, if we are talking about aborting a viable (or near viable) fetus which has measurable brain activity, is morally wrong.

    Abortion of a 2 day old fetus, in my opinion, is not. It has no brain activity, and unless I think of God as a psychopath, it has no soul. Pregnancy occurs inadvertently with all to common frequency among people whom otherwise attempted to prevent pregnancy. Such circumstances are often thought of as the 'natural consequences' of sex, which in the absence of RU-486 and other similar intervention medicines, is true,

    But here's the thing, those medicines DO exist, and terminating a pregnancy very early on IS possible, in fact, it's assured if those medicines are used.

    As a society we need to consider our views in that light - we need to RECONSIDER whether we should think of sex as having 'consequences', because the term implies doing something wrong (or dirty etc..) when in fact, outside the obvious physical closeness, sharing of bodily fluids, and emotional assumptions which it very frequently imparts, there is NO LONGER any need for consequently assumption of birth should the female become pregnant.

    That's not ethical relativism either - people have been terminating (or attempting to) pregnancy for 10,000 years or more, but with little success which didn't grossly endanger the life of the mother. As a consequence, a - sex begat b. pregnancy (sometimes) which begat c. birth (often but not always). There was little ethical question, you got pregnant, you almost certainly were going to give birth in some fashion, either miscarriage, still birth, live birth which killed the mother or live birth which didn't. The church (not Christ) put parameters around conception - and we acquiesced. The questions at this point are:

    1. Do we concur life begins at conception? Clearly, the answer is no, there is not unanimous (or even close) agreement that it does.

    Then, if #1 is 'no' -

    2. Is sex wrong, such that resultant pregnancy carries a moral obligation to 'pay your dues' and carry a fetus to term?

    I, for one, say, no way, not on your life. If it is not a life, the mother has every right to do whatever they like without violating any ethical standard. They are treating a condition they do not prefer. It is FAR less costly and emotionally damaging to PREVENT the pregnancy in the first place, but if the woman decides in the first two weeks to thirty days she doesn't want to carry the pregnancy thru to term, she (in my opinion) is fully entitled to stop it, and there is no 'consequential' question at all.

  7. I've asked our colleague ToE to explain the position of the Roman Catholic church about prehistoric humans having souls. After my conversation with ToE (off blog) I happened to watch a recorded episode of last week's Colbert Report that included an interview with the vatican astronomer that touched on their official view of possible alien life, including sophisticated human-equivalent life. So....what was not clear, is does at least the RC consider it possible that other species than humans might also have souls?

    (Inquiring minds want to know!"

  8. This is a fairly extreme example of my point about consent not always being very willing, but yet short of rape.