The Overflow, Backwash, Backlog, Logorrhea, Ad Hoc, Anyone-Can-Use, No-Word-Limit SPEAKEASY

December 2, 2007

Oliver Sacks and ‘Soul’ – a post for ROS

Filed under: Radio Open Source Conversations — Nick @ 9:26 pm

I’d prefer that Sacks himself weigh in on this soul question, but I’m hardly optimistic. Instead, or in the interim at least, here’s my layman’s conjecture.

Chris’s quote of Sacks seems to me to be using the metaphysical concept of ‘soul’ more metaphorically than literally:

Thus, in answer to questions about the existence and integrity of the Self in severe mental disease, I believe that though one can be “beside oneself” or “lose oneself” for years on end, the Self itself is still present, always present, intact, entire – however withdrawn or buried it may be. I think that all psychotic distortions and splinterings of the Self are relatively superficial, even though they may dominate the clinical picture. I think the ravages of physical and mental disease are both superficial; that there is something unfathomably deep beyond their reach; that this is the best and strongest and realest thing we have; and that once upon a time this was called the Soul. [my emphasis]

Yes, I could be mistaken (a chronic risk when trying to distinguish metaphoric intent from literal), but the way I read it, Sacks is offering a plain-English sketch of a neuro/psychological feature, an “emergent property”, perhaps, of human consciousness: the “self”, the sense of “I”-ness, the central-processing center of our brain/nerve/senses matrix, the executive-level indentity-reference-point (and Decider), if you will, common to most if not all humans.
I say “most if not all”, because I’m not as sure as Sacks seems to be that every human’s sense of self can survive any or all neuro/psychological abnormalities and/or traumas. For example, if we can’t communicate with the profoundly retarded, we can hardly be certain those persons have anything resembling our commonplace sense of personhood/identity/uniqueness. If a sense of ‘Self’ is absent (or too minuscule to measure), does that mean the ‘soul’ is absent too?

I doubt Sacks meant this. I guess instead he was using ‘soul’ as a common-concept/conventional-wisdom analogue to what he means by the ‘Self’, or as a kind of metaphor for it—but since ‘soul’, in its most common meanings, is putatively immortal, it can’t be an exact analogue, I expect—especially coming from a self-described atheist. I’m no less atheistic than Sacks; and, when it comes to ‘soul’, I’m completely agnostic: “without knowledge”. I’ve never understood what the noun ‘soul’ purports to name. Perhaps Sacks is equally agnostic on ‘soul’ – hence his inability to answer Chris’s question. (Inability differs substantially from unwillingness. And as for ‘squeamish’ I think ‘armadillo’ had it right by understanding it as ‘politeness’. I doubt Sacks would have treated a question about the link between ‘music and Samsara’ any differently.) Which brings me to this—

ghostofdali writes:

After all, one thing we’re sure of is that the “soul” is located in a different place from the brain. We can’t say it’s in the heart anymore, but it’s still around someplace.

I’d like to ask ghostofdali – and Chris too, and anyone else interested, ftm – for a definition or description of ‘soul’. If you’re certain this thing exists (albeit not necessarily where it resides within a human being) then you must have some sense of its properties or identifying characteristics. So please tell me: what, exactly, are its properties? Characteristics? Its telltale ‘footprints’, if you will? How would a soul-agnostic (like me, or perhaps Sacks) recognize it? What clues or evidence should an open-minded scientist (like Jonah Lehrer) look for if she wanted to discern it? Do all persons have one? Animals? If, heaven forbid, a future mischief-maker armed with the know-how and technology to clone a human-chimpanzee hybrid did so, would a soul inhabit (or emerge within) the poor, misbegotten being?

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