The Soul in the Postmodern Era

Posted on Jan 23, 2011

We live in curious times. With the progress that has come to symbolize western capitalism—from the 6 month product release cycle of electronics to the pervasive starburst containing the words NEW! and IMPROVED!—the most important things are principles we have always held dear, or rather things we look to for their permanence and lasting qualities. Values, instead of being invented have been honed and refined. Look to the bible for examples of evolving morality. There are those that claim it has an unchanging nature, but look to Deuteronomy for rules on how to treat your slaves and you’ll find it differs radically from the majority of governments today. One of the best examples of a western moral innovation is the importance of diversity, at least in principle. Perhaps tolerance has supplanted modesty in the paragon of values.
I’m thankful we live in country—and if you do you should be, too—where people of all faiths and creeds can coexist, for the most part peaceably. I suppose it’s finding common ground.
The great balancing act we as humans do every day consists of incorporating the new but still holding on to the old or what we view as enduring (and I’m not talking about iPhone battery life.) In the face of new science and our ever changing perspective of our place in the universe how do we define things like what it is to be human? For a while I struggled with certain principles that I had always held dear in the face of my newfound atheism.
For the first time I felt comfortable with my belief system, and proud of the fact that I had come across it on my own. I’m a huge fan of science and reason, and am glad I live in a time where we have the tools to turn magic into explainable, observable, and repeatable phenomena.
There are, however, some things outside the realm of science. Science deals with empiricism. That is its purview. The fact that it doesn’t have an explanation for everything is no failing of science, just as your average Volkswagen makes a pretty poor omelet. Concepts like ‘good’ cannot be measured, they’re subjective but still part of the human experience.
I believe that the human experience is made up of two parts. Pretty simple, I know, to attempt to boil down humanity into two simple ingredients but it deals with different kinds of experience. The mind experiences the world around us and makes logical sense of it. It helps us calculate the concrete details of our lives. So what is the soul? We cannot measure it, but it still exists. The same way we know that good exists.
The soul is the lens through which we interpret our world, but it is also a world into itself. Every time you see a piece of art, you internalize your sensory experience and make a value judgement. Even formalists interpret art. Art is never pure form, otherwise is has no meaning to us. We add things to the art based on our past and point of view, we call to mind past episodes and experiences, thus invoking feelings of sentimentality, nostalgia, distaste, etc.
We don’t understand the world except through this lens, there can be no pure sensory experience with humans. A dog can eat something (that you told him not to. Your shoe lets say) but has no knowledge that it’s eating. All it can perceive is sensory input. Our skill as human beings is that we, without intent, think about our experiences as we experience them. Experience. If you take a moment to think of the colossal feat of evolution to enable you to say “Man, this is a great burger. It’s a shame I can’t have one like this every day.”
The preceding sentence requires language, recognition of a thing called a burger, knowledge that there are other distinct burgers that are not this exact one, realize the health and financial ramifications of buying and consuming said burger every day, recognition of your ability to do so, the presence of a choice, knowledge of food, and so many others. The amount of prerequisites to actually experience something is staggering.
This world that we create, the soul, is not corporeal, not physically real, it’s within. Because of that, I think, there’s a need to create things without. Your mind and soul work together to reconcile the differences between the real and percieved, and by doing so create a reverse effect. Your world view, your wants and desires need to be made real to satisfy your soul’s need for reconciliation. In creating things, whether it be art, politics, a business venture, travel, architecture, its’ an expression of the soul to complete the reality/perception circle.
This impulse within us is a combination our dreams, wants, desires, plans, taste, likes and dislikes, but it is also more than the sum of its parts. This to me is the soul and it also explains in part the creative impulse. The soul combined with the mind make a whole person, and only by developing both can we become complete.