Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What is a soul

Came across this today. In Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's The Book of Words, he creatively redefines common Hebrew religious words, in an attempt to better explain them. For example, he renders mitzvah, usually translated as "commandment," instead as "response." It's brilliant (check it out sometime). But, I don't think I've ever seen his definition of neshama before. Rather than the usual "soul," he translates it as "self." Make sure that whenever you read "self," you're also reading "soul":

You are (like everyone else who is not crazy) a barely coherent hodgepodge of contradictory thoughts, feelings and deeds. What keeps you "together" is an imaginary center called a "self." The parts may not organize themselves gracefully, but their totality is literally "you." Without a "self" you would literally disintegrate.

We speak about our self as if it were real even though it possesses neither substance nor location. It is precisely the same way with God. God is the self of the universe. To say, "There is a God," is to say that creation has some inner coherence and integrity that can make sense. In the same way, our alienation is self-estrangement and estrangement from God."

The argument over "is there a soul" in the public sphere usually comes down to religious people, who believe that there is a magic force in us - the proverbial "ghost in the machine" - against the scientists who don't believe in anything which can't be measured. Exactly like the debate about whether or not their is a God. There is, however, a middle way. A soul doesn't have to be a mystical energy field which somehow escapes detection. And we don't have to be nothing but fleshy robots, doing nothing but processing inputs into outputs. We can believe in a soul, and a God, without thinking that they are things.

Let me ask you this? Does a music CD contain data, or does it contain music? The answer, of course, is that it contains both, depending on how you look at it. The data comes together to form the music. The parts of me come together to form my soul. The Universe comes together to form God.

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