The soul as a natural phenomenon.

In my thinking, there is a distinction between the "natural world" and what we can call the "supernatural world".

"The supernatural refers to conscious magical, religious or unknown forces that cannot ordinarily be perceived except through their effects. This word is often used interchangeably with preternatural or paranormal. Unlike natural forces, these putative supernatural forces can not be shown to exist by the scientific method. Supernatural claims assert phenomena beyond the realm of current scientific understanding, which are often in direct conflict with current scientific theory." (source)

"Nature (also called the material world, the material universe, the natural world, and the natural universe) is all matter and energy, especially in its essential form. Nature is the subject of scientific study." (source)

I propose that some people categorize the soul as being part of the "supernatural world" in the sense that they believe that the soul cannot be studied or understood by the scientific method. In contrast, I suspect that there can be a science of the soul and that we can fully understand the soul as a natural phenomenon of the material world.

This is my starting point, but I feel that a mature "science of the soul" does not yet exist. In my view, the "science of the soul" is a protoscience, still in search of good methods and coherence. When astronomy began as a science, nobody had a very good idea of what a star is. It would have been silly at that time to try to state an exact definition of "star". Similarly, here at the start of science of the soul, we should not be in a rush to exactly define "soul". All we need are some starting points; after we have carefully studied the soul, we will then be able to construct a good definition of "soul".

So where do we start? In astronomy, people could look up into the sky and see stars. Astronomy started with the basic experience of seeing stars in the sky. Catalogs of stars were carefully developed. Tools were found that extend human senses and provide a better view of the stars than what our naked senses can provide. In a science of the soul, we start with the fact that most people believe they have a non-material, eternal soul. We should carefully catalog human soul concepts and study human experiences that lead people to their beliefs about the nature of the soul. We should seek tools that will allow us to better understand the nature of human beliefs about the soul.

I have been heavily influenced in my thinking by Francis Crick, Daniel Dennett and E. O. Wilson (see). All three of these "neurophilosophers" point towards study of the human brain for future progress in understanding the nature of consciousness, mind and soul. Three key topics that have been identified as worthy of further study are:

  • memes - memes are units of cultural inheritance. Many beliefs are memes that can be transmitted from one person to another. How do conceptulaizations of the soul get passed from generation to generation? Are human brains genetically predisposed to adopt certain types of soul concepts?
  • the intentional stance - Evolutionary psychologists have proposed that a fundamental component of the human organism is that we have a "theory of mind". We are genetically predisposed to interact with other people by making the assumption that other people have a mind that is like our own. We anticipate that other people will behave in a way that is similar to how we behave; we have special parts of the brain that force us to behave in this way. This innate tendency gives rise to what Dennett calls "the intentional stance"; we frequently interpret experienced phenomena as arising from a mind. In particular, it is natural for humans to imagine non-material minds in order to account for certain human experiences. Thus, belief in non-material souls is a natural outcome of how our brains are constructed. Belief in non-material conscious entities was facilitated by the fact that humans evolved under conditions of ignorance about how brains produce thought and consciousness.
  • consciousness - Consciousness has often been viewed as an enigmatic phenomenon that cannot be understood by science. In many cultures, consciousness is associated with the soul or the soul is defined as a conscious non-material entity. Francis Crick suggested that consciousness can be understood by conventional neuroscience and detailed analysis of brain function. An important part of our conscious experiences concerns our beliefs. E. O. Wilson and others have explicitly stated how we can study beliefs in terms of specific types of neuronal networks in our brains. Thus, it should now be possible to construct a detailed scientific understanding of how human beliefs about the nature of the soul arise naturally in human brains.

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