By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 21, 2015
If your soul was drawn to this essay because of the word “sex” then you need to be asking yourself why. By the way, this is no prurient clickbait come on. This is a philosophical exploration of why the soul is influenced by sexual chemistry. And full disclosure, I’m an atheist, so you might find it a bit discombobulating to hear me use the word soul. I could have called this essay “Sex and The Observer” but that could create all kinds of kinky misunderstandings. And I could have labeled this discussion, “Sex and The Self-Awareness,” but that’s kind of clunky and maybe onanistic. I happen to like the word soul, and I’m willing to accept that some folks believe they have an immortal soul. Since I’m an atheist, I believe my soul expires with the body.
Now, to the point. When you yearn for physical contact with another person, is that your soul or your body doing the yearning? In other words, is horniness inside your soul, or outside? Many readers are going to think this is a silly, pointless question. But if you know this history of the concept of the soul, it’s a fair question. Just study Plato and Aristotle, or St. Augustine or St. Aquinas, to see what I mean. Christians fervently believe they have a soul. Most don’t spend much time contemplating it—they just believe if they say the magic words, “I believe in Jesus” their souls get a free pass to heaven to hang out with friends and family for eternity. The main selling point to Christianity and Islam, is we have a soul that won’t die, but I doubt if even one percent of those populations ever contemplated the nature of the soul. They might be disappointed. In fact, when most people study the soul, they quickly get bored. The philosophy and theology behind the concept is deep and tedious, and often borders on the effort of counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin.
To catch up on the 2,500 year discussion of the soul, I recommend reading A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, and The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self by Raymond Martin and John Barresi.
If you’ve ever studied meditation, then you’ve come across the concept of the observer. If you’ve ever studied artificial intelligence or brain science, then you’re familiar with the concept of self-awareness. It’s just easier to call it the soul. (My atheist friends cringe when I do this.) Once you understand why philosophers have been examining the concept for the last several thousand years, then this essay will make more sense. Or you can just practice meditation, and sooner or later you’ll notice that you can watch your thoughts. Then you can ask questions like: “Is the observer, my soul, the self-awareness that lives in this body, writing this essay, or my thinking mind?” This implies dualism, which is a black-hole of a topic. Modern thinkers see humans as a whole, with completely integrated parts. But if you meditate on your wholeness you’ll notice it has parts. The act of observing gives the illusions that the observer is separate from the observed.
Sexuality feels like part of the whole because people mostly think “I want to get laid.” But contemplate this thought problem: “If I die, will I still get horny in heaven?” I keep bringing up heaven and the afterlife, even though I don’t believe in them, because conceptually it helps to analyze the problem. In ancient times Christians believed they would be reunited with their bodies before they went to heaven. That’s why they wanted to be buried properly. Modern believers know the body deteriorates, and even allow for cremation. This allowed people to believe the soul leaves the body upon death. There is a subset of Christians who are concerned with abortion, who believe the soul is created at conception. And there are other believers who believe the soul exists before birth. The ancient Greeks thought the soul animated bodies. They observed when people died, their bodies became inert, and assumed whatever mechanism that animated those bodies had departed. This little bit of logic probably got the whole ball of wax rolling.
I take a totally different view of the soul. Brain and computer scientists want to discover what creates self-awareness. They assume it’s a bio-chemical process that can be replicated in silicon. In both the spiritual or materialistic sense, the soul is the driver of the body, whether it’s a human body, or a future robot body. Like I said, if you meditate, you can get to a place where you feel like you’re a passenger in the body, and you can watch it be driven around. Are you the driver, or something else? Strangely, the observer can only observe. A vast unconscious mind does most of the work.
One of the things the body likes to do is have sex. The question I’m asking is: “Does the soul desire sex or does desire originate in the body?” Many people will think this is a silly question. But if you are plagued by tormenting horniness or depressed because you can land Mr. Right, it might not. You might want to study Buddhism. If you’re unhappy because you’re not getting laid, is that the observer, or the body?
I think the soul is what’s created in our complex brain that allows us to be self-aware and conscious of reality. I think animals have this feature to a lesser degree, but they lack language, or the thinker. I believe our souls can evolve, become more complex, and more aware. I believe it’s possible to move further and further away from our animal nature. Currently, I think the observer/soul is different from the thinking mind because as we get older, or suffer disease or injury, it’s possible to damage the thinking mind, but the observer can still exist and even grow. Just read The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sack for evidence. However, the soul can be damaged, or diminished too.
Modern thinkers don’t like the concept of the soul. They don’t like dualism. But they accidently bring up this problem when they speculate about brain downloading. This is a mostly science fictional concept that real scientists are exploring. What if you could record whatever makes up a person before he/she dies and then write that to a clone body or robot body. I doubt this is possible, but a lot of people hope it will be. I’m not a dualist. Brain downloading is the secular version of rebirth and immortality. I find it a fascinating topic because it opens up the question: “What is a person?” I believe we could call this theoretical entity that we hope to transfer to another body, the soul. Religious people have been using the same concept for thousands of years, why not repurpose the word for modern times?
We know a person can lose a leg, arm, eye, etc. and still be the same person. What if they lose a whole body? I believe, like modern scientists, that who we are is an integrated whole, and we can’t separate soul from body. But I do think it’s possible to create new souls in computers—which is the goal of artificial intelligence.
By now, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get to the juicy sex discussion. Science is learning more about gender identification and sexual preference every day. Studies with transgender children only emphasize how deep gender identification goes into our programming. We’ve also come to accept that sexual desire comes from a deep genetic level and not layered on cultural conditioning. So, does the soul have gender? Does it have a sexual preference? Or is that the body? For those who don’t separate soul and body, this is no problem. But if you plan on residing in heaven or hope to reincarnate in a robot body, it might. I think it’s also an interesting question for meditation. Is the observer, the mechanism that is self-aware and watches reality, an observer of gender and sex, or a participant?
Ultimately, this is a theoretical discussion. It has no answer, at least until science can recreate consciousness and self-awareness in the laboratory. Yet, it’s a great philosophy exploration in the vein of “Know thyself.” It’s also very important to asceticism. The world has a long history of people who seek to avoid suffering, and maybe gain enlightenment, from detaching themselves from the physical desires of the body.
Spiritual believers feel we are a soul that is visiting physical reality to inhabit a body for a limited time. Materialists believe we are accidental self-aware beings that have evolved inside biological creatures through brain complexity. Spiritual people believe the body corrupts the soul. I wonder if the body dominates the soul and if its possible for the soul to dominate the body. Why are some people are civilized and other people little better than savvy animals? Is that a choice? Is it cultural conditioning? Is it genetics? Is it a matter of seeing your soul separate from your body?