Apollo 13, early course corrections and the soul

| October 23, 2006 | 6 Replies

Erika Price’s article about the soul, “Soul Searching,” intrigued me.  I’ve always assumed that people believed in the soul because they were terrified at the thought of being permanently deprived of the companionship of those they love.

I think, though, that there is a often-unnoticed prerequisite to believing in souls.  One first needs to make an intellectual move that is so commonplace and subtle that it is easily missed.  This early profound move, that of presuming that the soul is a thing, is a critical move with profound ramifications.

Subtle early changes often play out profoundly in the long run.  Consider, for instance, the sensitive dependence on initial conditions within chaotic systems popularly known as the butterfly effect. Small variations of the initial condition of a dynamical system may produce large variations in the long-term behavior of the system. 

Here’s another example of a subtle early adjustment paying off in a big way.  In 1970, when it was still 321,860 km from earth, the Apollo 13 spacecraft was damaged by an explosion, causing the Service Module to lose its oxygen and electrical power.  The astronauts were required to carefully fire the engines briefly and manually to correct their course to achieve a re-entry angle of 6.49 degrees. That short burst of the engine thus effected a tiny course correction that was a matter of life and death by the time Apollo 13 hit Earth’s atmosphere. 

We also make subtle language moves that eventually make huge differences in how we understand and interact with the world. 

In their classic book on philosophy/linguistics, Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson described the use of “ontological metaphors,” the (usually unconscious) technique we use to understand unwieldy processes as though they were “objects.” To the extent that we are able to understand our experiences as objects and substances, we can identify and use these aspects of our experience as “discrete entities or substances of the uniform kind.”  Lakoff and Johnson give many examples of ontological metaphors, including the human mind, sometimes seen as a mechanical machine (“I’m a little rusty”), and the quantification of emotions (“There is much hatred.”).

Here’s another example Lakoff and Johnson presented in detail.  The experience of rising prices “can be metaphorically viewed as an entity via the noun inflation.  This approach to conceptualizing inflation gives us an intuitive way to refer to the experience.” Once we identify inflation as a thing, all of the following statements make sense (These Are Examples from Metaphors We Live By):

  • Inflation is lowering our standard of living.
  • We need to combat inflation.
  • Inflation is backing us into a corner.
  • Buying land is the best way of dealing with inflation.

Again, why do we conceptualize the process by which prices rise as an object we call “inflation”? Lakoff and Johnson provide this response:

Viewing inflation as an entity allows us to refer to it, quantify it, identify a particular aspect of it, see it as a cause, act with respect to it, and perhaps even believe that we understand it.  Ontological metaphors like this are necessary for even attempting to deal rationally with our experiences.

(Page 26).  How we conceptualize the world determines our options for interacting with the world.  If inflation (or the soul) is understood to be an object, we have less trouble dealing with “it.” We can think of a soul without seeing it as a thing, but it is much more difficult.

Erika consulted many people and websites as part of her article.  “What is the soul,” she asked over and over.  Each of her sources considered the soul to be an “it.”  A “thing.”  As soon as one buys into the soul as an “it,” however, the soul can be understood to have characteristics much like the characteristics of other common objects.  When we perceive of a soul as an “it,” we have also pre-convinced ourselves of its very existence.  After all, things presumptively exist.

Without a soul, we only have moving bodies, bodies which walk talk, poop and eventually die. When we turn bodily animation into an “it,” we have given ourselves a way to  intellectually and imaginatively grasp it.  When a process becomes a thing, we can understand it in terms of our senses and our spatial-motor capacities.   When a soul becomes a thing,

  • We can talk about it;
  • The soul can have a location, including a location separate from bodies, though typically associated with a particular body [On the other hand, when the soul is a thing that is separate we need to try to connect it to the body with which it is associated (Descartes did this using the pineal gland)];
  • We can sell it;
  • We can nurture it;
  • The soul has a separate and distinct origin from the body;
  • The soul can even live on after the body dies.

Try to do any of this with a body that simply moves, without conceiving of body animation into an it

What is the soul, then? Is it really a thing?  Yes and no.  The soul is based on an ontological metaphor with which we perceive the animation of the human body to be a thing, thereby allowing us to feel as though we understand it better. 

Is the soul literally an object?  No, but without the use of the ontological metaphor that makes bodily animation seem like a thing, we would have an impoverished and frustrated understanding of bodily animation, and no method of dealing with eternal separation when our loved ones die.  

For more on the use of conceptual metaphors as a basis for understanding the world, see here and here and here.

That’s my guess, Erika.

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Category: Education, Language, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Skblllzzzz says:

    In Dutch we say "de ziel van een kanon", which translates into "the soul of a gun". Does this exist in English?

    Anyways, the soul here is the part of the gun where the powder and ball go, but which is otherwise empty.

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    It begins perhaps with Genesis, when Yahweh breathes the "breath of life" into Adam and he wakes, fully conscious and capable of, we presume, cognition, language, and intellection. It is that magic something breathed into the clay that is the touchpoint of Judeochristian thinking about The Soul.

    The story is metaphor. A creation myth. Others have similar things, but they all seem to be attached to a kind of self-awareness absent from all other life. Some animals have souls in certain myth cycles, but not all, only those with human-like consciousness and a capacity for abstract thought.

    Mirror-gazing comes into its own as the intellect increases. A soul is the ultimate expression of solipsism. But what does that make it?

    An aesthetic experience. We talk of "soul music" "soul mates" "soul-searching". Some people are more "soulful" than others–how can that be if the soul is a quantifiable thing each of us gets? Some get bigger souls than others?

    Ovid called it "A god within each human breast."

    My take is, this is the name given to an emergent property of human interaction, whereby some of us, intentionally, affect others–artistically, emotionally, etc–and can be seen to personify a kind of goal. What goal?

    Perfectibility, empathy, understanding…

    That some express these things better than others prompts attempts to quantify, which humans do, each in their own way. The soul is a result, a consequence, a process. Of course, as such, it can't be "saved." Like breath–it comes and goes, does what it does, and then disappears. Trap it, put it in a box, and it's no longer breath. Just air. Stale, over time, and useless.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Is it more correct to say that someone "has" a soul or that someone *is* a soul? I favor the latter usage. Each of us is a soul, the essence of which is an inherent and emergent property of the vastly complex brain that each of us has. When the brain dies, so does the soul, because that's when we cease to be animated, cogent and self-aware….when we cease to manifest our unique personalities…when we cease to be a soul.

    For the soul to be something we "have" and for it to survive the death of the brain, there would need to be some process for extracting the state of each synapse inside the brain and preserving it. But even that would be insufficient, because merely storing the state of each synapse would yield a static mind — one in which learning (indeed, even awareness) would not occur, because learning requires synapses that can change their firing potential in response to new information. What would be such a storage medium in the absence of a brain? It would need to be equivalent in complexity and operation to our brain. Good luck finding one.

    We do not appear to be fully formed souls at birth, because our mental slate is still virtually blank; instead, we seem to become souls as we become self-aware and as we learn to express our individuality. In some minor ways, this occurs shortly after birth (e.g., we speak of "happy" babies or "fussy" babies), but mostly it seems to occur over the subsequent years.

    The notion that humans "are" souls, and do not "have" souls, implies that humans — all humans — die, and that we are neither resurrected after death nor reincarnated…which, when you compare them, are obviously equally absurd claims. Christians passionately argue that they will be resurrected after death yet, in their very next breath, will argue just as passionately that the Hindu belief in reincarnation is nonsense. Likewise, Hindus will argue the opposite. Both will ignore the silliness of arguing about an afterlife that no living person has ever witnessed and which, therefore, every living person is equally ignorant about.

    In my opinion, "soul" (or, equivalently, "spirit") is merely a word and a concept invented by the clergy (shaman, etc.) to provide a rhetorical vessel into which they pour their doctrine…something to embody their assertion of a supernatural eternal life.

  4. Erika Price says:

    Erich, this article reminds me of the last meaning for "soul" that I found, an early Greek root meaning "life breath" (which Jason just mentioned). Soul, then, means exactly what you say- the "it" that we ascribe to a process- life.

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