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Whenever I peruse a dictionary, I am struck by the amazing number of words which refer to nothing at all in the real world. Many of the words are obviously fabulous: leprechaun, unicorn, gremlin, Philosopher's Stone, Zeus, elf, Fountain of Youth, ghost, etc. Others, though referring equally to non-existent things, are less obviously fabulous: The Mean Sun, The Average Citizen, vital force, spirit, soul, and - in at least some of its accepted meanings - mind.
Why the human species has invented so many words which refer to nothing in reality is a most interesting question for scientific investigation, and probably would require a complete book to elucidate properly. In this article I shall only attempt to deal with a few such words, specifically, the words spirit, soul, and mind.
It is a striking fact that nearly all languages of the world, extinct as well as extant, have — or have had — words which could be rendered as 'spirit' or 'soul' in English, At first glance, it would seem that this is a good argument in favor of the real existence of souls and spirits. For, would it not be improbable that so many different peoples and languages could be mistaken? If many different unrelated languages have independently invented words for soul, is that not a good reason to believe they did so because there really is such a thing?
I think not. The first clue to the solution of this puzzle comes from etymology, the study of word origins.
While the origin of the English word soul is obscure, the word almost certainly had its origin in a word which meant 'breath' or 'wind' or 'air', or something like that. The word spirit — generally a synonym for soul — comes from the Latin spiritus, and clearly meant 'breath' originally. Spiritual and respiratory both derive from the same root!
Moreover, if we check in the Greek and Hebrew bibles to see which words are translated as 'soul', etc., in the King James Version, we will find many whose literal meaning is 'breath' or 'wind'. For example, the Hebrew word neshamah (literally meaning 'breath') is twice rendered as 'spirit', once as 'soul'. The Hebrew-Aramaic word ruach (lit., 'wind') is rendered 240 times as 'spirit', six times as 'mind.' The word nephesh (lit., 'breath') is rendered 'soul' 428 times) 'mind' 15 times, 'ghost' twice, and 'life' 119 times. Turning to the Greek Bible, we find pneuma (lit., 'breath') rendered as 'ghost' 91 times (including the rendering 'Holy Ghost'), 292 times as 'spirit'. The reader will recognize the same root in the word pneumonia, a word referring to a disease of the organs of breath. And finally, in this somewhat pedantic parade of words, we may note the important word psyche. As expected, its literal meaning is 'breath.' As we might have guessed, it is rendered as 'soul' 58 times, 'mind' three times, and life' 40 times.
The fact that nearly all words now meaning 'soul', 'spirit', 'life', etc., trace their origins to words meaning 'breath' or 'wind' leads me to conclude that the derived meanings were an outgrowth of the inability of primitive people to solve a basic biological puzzle, namely, what constitutes the difference between a live body and a dead one?
To the ancient authors of the Bible — men who still thought they were living on a flat earth beneath a solid sky (firmament) — the solution seemed deceptively simple: living things breathe, dead things do not. At first, only animals (from Latin anima, meaning 'breath' or 'breeze' originally) were considered fully alive. The case of plants was viewed with confusion for a long time. Some authorities considered them live, others did not. The ancients did not realize that 'souls' were really only a gaseous mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, contaminated with varying amounts of water vapor, carbon dioxide, noble gases, and — depending upon what one ate and whether or not one brushed after every meal — varying amounts of aromatic substances!
In the Genesis Creation Myth, the animating power of breath is clearly depicted. God, after having molded Adam from the dust, has to breathe into him the breath of life in order for him to become a living soul. Breath is life.
The manner in which breath became equated with life is not difficult to discern. A person newly dead, say, of a heart attack, anatomically is not much different from what he was like before he died. He still has five fingers per hand, a tongue in his mouth, a brain in his head, and a heart in his breast. The ancients, unconscious of the microcosmic fever of chemical marriages and divorces that we call metabolism, could see only one obvious difference: the lack of breath of the dead.
When a man expired (lit., 'breathed out'), his spirit (lit., 'breath') left his body, and he died. When a man sneezed, his spirit was forcefully ejected from his body, and one had to say "God bless you" or make a magical gesture, such as the sign of the cross, very quickly, before evil spirits could come to take over the momentarily spiritually vacant carcass. Demonic "possession" was the result, quite simply, of inhaling one or more of the evil breaths thought to hover in the air around us. For early Christians, the Devil's breath was everywhere.
Of course, not all possession was necessarily evil. People could become "inspired" - that is, the breath of a god could take over their bodies to deliver words of wisdom or apocalyptic admonitions. Indeed, the origin of the Christian church itself was thought to have originated in an act of mass possession by the Holy Ghost ("Holy Breath" in the Greek text!). In Acts 4:31 we read that when the Apostles and others "had ended their prayer, the building where they were assembled rocked, and all were filled with the Holy Spirit [breath] and spoke the word of God with boldness." (Given the close association of words with breath - thought to be life itself — is it any wonder that religions of all kinds have always focused on the magical significance of words?)
Lest anyone still think the link between breath and the foundations of Christianity be doubtful, attention is drawn to the tale running through John 20:22. Jesus has come back to visit the Disciples to tell them that he is sending them out to forgive or not forgive the sins of the world. "Then he [Jesus] breathed on them, saying, 'Receive the Holy Spirit!' " Right from the beginning, Christianity was based upon warm breath — which in time became hot air.
Modern biologists, unlike the ancient makers of myths, know that all the phenomena of living systems can be reduced to physical and chemical terms. They have no evidence of any 'vital force' or mystical spirit — and no need to seek for such. They recognize the fully alive body and the newly dead body to be but two arbitrary points along a continuum of decreasing organization.
So much for spirit, soul, and ghost. Originally denoting breath or wind, they are words which have acquired a host of mystical connotations as prescientific people attempted to account for the difference between life and death. But what of the word mind? Does it refer to anything real? Or is it, too, a fabulous entity?
Unlike the analysis of spirit and soul, the analysis of mind is not at all simple. This is so largely through the grammatical accident that in all the European languages, ancient as well as modern, the word mind is a noun.
We tend to think of nouns as substantive: table, chair, and plumb-bob are all nouns, and all are substantial. There are many words, however, which though grammatically nouns, are not at all substantial. Words like beauty, truth, and velocity would be examples. Unfortunately, our thinking tends to be hedged around by the grammar and hidden assumptions of the language with which we think. And so it happens again and again that abstract nouns come to be thought of as representing things just as substantial as those represented by common nouns. And thus we have the basic confusion necessary to found philosophical systems such as Plato's — whose perfect triangularity exists in triangle-heaven, and so on.
Because mind was a noun, it was conceived to be a thing. Because it was thought to be a thing, it was thought to have existence apart from the brain. Because it has independent existence, it was thought capable of survival after the death of the body. And millions thought that to be good reason to invest millions in that greatest of all businesses, religion
Neurobiological studies show all these ideas to be quite worthless. Mind is a process, a dynamic relation, and not a thing. If we change the processes of the brain, we change the mind. The psychedelic drugs have taught us that fact, if nothing else. The history of western philosophy and religion, as well as science, would have been quite different if the word mind had developed as a verb instead of as a noun.
To wonder where the mind goes after the brain decays is as silly as asking where the 70-miles-per-hour have gone after a speeding auto has crashed into a tree. Just as the relative motion of an auto can be altered only within certain limits and still represent the process called "speeding," so too we can alter the functioning of the brain only so much before the process called "mind" or "thinking" becomes altered out of existence.
Now that scientists recognize mind as a process rather than a thing, they are making rapid advances in understanding the specific brain dynamics that correspond to the various subjective states collectively known as mind. Certain drugs are known, for example, that affect certain neural paths and centers in the brain to produce the psychic state known as euphoria. Others affect other circuits and produce depression or sleep. We can implant electrodes in the brain and cause the subject to "hear" bells and symphonies that aren't "there" at all. We can be made to "see" figures and lights without using our eyes at all, by stimulating the visual cortex at the back of the brain. We can cause to appear the emotions of rage, sexuality, sorrow, religious awe, etc., by altering the dynamic functions of the brain in appropriate ways. We are beginning to understand how neural circuits compete with each other to give us the illusion of "free will." Indeed, we are on the verge of being able to write equations relating the physicochemical states of the nervous system with the subjective, mental states described by psychologists and other mystics. In short, we are learning to study subjective states objectively.
Whether or not we shall be any more responsible in the application of this new knowledge than we were in the application of fire, dynamite, and atomic energy remains to be seen. Even the un-average person plays ill the part of Prometheus. Unless we, collectively the new Prometheus, judge wisely what to do with our new psychobiological powers, like Prometheus we may find ourselves chained to rocks, our vitals torn by eagles. Or worse.
© American Atheists