It’s easy for an atheist to dismiss the idea of “soul” when you assume that it means something like “ghost” or “spirit” or “translucent glowing thing like in the movies”. But what if it means something different?
There are a lot of concepts that are interconnected with the concept the the “soul”, and some of them quite naturally are more concrete or well-defined than others.
Usually a soul of a person is thought of as related to the identity of a person: a person’s soul is uniquely linked to that person’s mental and emotional self, so that when people imagine a person’s soul they think of it as preserving, containing, motivating, or otherwise being linked to the person’s will, thoughts, personality, memories, feelings, desires, and so on.
A soul is also very definitely a non-physical aspect of a person: anyone who talks about and believes in souls is very clear on this. You cannot point to a person’s soul on a chart of the body, and when the body no longer exists the soul can continue to exist despite the absence of the body.
The soul of a person is usually thought of as immortal. So this assumption goes beyond the previous point: not only is the soul non-physical, but it’s not as though something can come along and kill your body and then destroy your soul through some other process. The soul is literally an indestructible thing.
These three properties seem to be the most common and most strongly-associated traits of a “soul”. When you Google “definition of soul” and skim the first page of results, these are all of the terms and phrases that crop up the most often: immortal, separable from the body, feeling, thought, essence of a person, what makes you who you are.
However, when I think of a soul in this way—instead of as the translucent glowing thing that appears in movies—I rather begin to think that a great number of things have souls.
My computer has a soul.
My computer has a particular configuration of 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate, with a particular collection of software items installed and preference settings adjusted in a particular way. The combination of all of these things–the operating system, the installed software, the preference settings, and so on–forms a big pattern of information that is stored on my computer.
If you know the basics of how computers work, then you know what I mean. On the memory cards and on my hard drive, electrical signals are treated as 1’s and 0’s, and when I talk about “Microsoft Word” or “Firefox” or any other program, what I’m really referring to is a pattern of 1’s and 0’s that my computer can read and interact with in a certain way, in order to make the computer do the things that I want it to do.
My specific configuration of my entire computer (operating system, software, preferences, etc) is one massive big pattern of 1’s and 0’s.
That big pattern of 1’s and 0’s basically defines the identity of my computer. Not the “physical” identity, of course. But everything that determines how my computer acts, what it is able to do, what information it has in memory, what it is good at and what it is bad at… everything that a computer geek might think of as the “personality” of my computer… comes from the specific nature of that big pattern of 1’s and 0’s.
That big pattern of 1’s and 0’s is also non-physical. Sure, right now it happens to be embodied (or “instantiated” or “implemented”) as physical electrical charges on physical chip boards. But those specific physical electrons are not the pattern. What matters is the pattern, and that is just information. That is why you can turn you computer off and turn it back on again, and it still acts like the same computer. That is why you can back everything up, and load it on to another computer with similar-enough hardware, and you get “your computer” back in a different body.
The reason these things are possible with a computer is exactly because the thing that gives your computer all of the identifying traits of your computer is not physical: it’s merely a pattern. It is conceptual. It is information. As long as that same information can be implemented in a body, I mean “in a physical machine”, then that physical machine becomes the physical “body” of your computer. It has the same memory, the same abilities, the same behaviors: essentially, everything about its personality comes from the pattern of information.
Finally, that big pattern of 1’s and 0’s is immortal. Of course it is immortal! How could it not be? You cannot destroy a “pattern”, not the actual abstract concept of the pattern. That’s no more possible than destroying the concept of “an isosceles triangle”! You might be able to destroy a specific physical thing that is in the shape of an isosceles triangle: a piece of wood, an ink drawing, and so on. But you cannot destroy the concept of the pattern “isosceles triangle”.
The same thing is true with your computer. What defines the personality, the memories, the skills, the abilities, and the weaknesses of your computer–in short, what defines everything that gives your computer its unique identity–is a pattern of information. You could destroy the specific computer… but that pattern still exists in the abstract. It will always exist in the abstract.
Which means that all it takes to resurrect your computer is to get that pattern implemented (embodied, instantiated) on a specific physical machine.
Therefore, my computer has a non-material, immortal soul.
I also have a soul. It’s a little weird for me to talk about, since I’m an atheist. Most people who think about souls think of them as being inherently linked to God and heaven and glowing translucent things that appear in movies.
But even though my personality and self are not encoded in 1’s and 0’s, I still believe that they are fundamentally a pattern of information. In other words, there is a specific arrangement of connections between neurons, of production levels of chemicals in my body, and perhaps a billion other factors, that make me who I am. It is from that pattern that arises my will, my memories, my desires, my beliefs, my thoughts, and so on.
And if it is true that my identity arises from a particular pattern of information, then I have an immortal soul. Because even if you destroy my body, that pattern–in the abstract–cannot be destroyed.
That pattern, in the abstract, will continue to exist beyond my death. It will exist in the same way that the concept of the isosceles triangle will still exist even if we destroyed all of the actual physical isosceles triangles in the world.
Because information patterns cannot be destroyed.
Post Scriptum: For a good set of short science fiction novels that introduce looking at “soul” and spirituality in exactly this way, you should check out the Ware books by Rudy Rucker: Software (1982), Wetware (1988), Freeware (1997), and Realware (2000).