The Social Soul

The Social Soul October 31, 2007

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchYesterday in my Religion and Science class we talked about what is meant by the ‘soul‘ and how it relates to other terminology such as ‘mind’ and ‘brain’. One of the students, Andrew Gillen, had some thoughts that were so interesting I just have to write them down and also share them. (That’s the great thing about blogs, of course – you can do both those things at once).

We were discussing some excerpts from the book Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (edited by Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy and H. Newton Malony; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998). More than one of the contributors to that volume mention that the Hebrew/Biblical idea of persons as souls is fundamentally relational. The soul has to do with the ability of persons to relate in a personal manner to themselves, to other human beings, and to God.

Andrew’s insight was to relate this to animals and human beings from a modern scientific perspective. When we bring an animal, such as a cat or dog, into our family, we “enable its soul” in two ways. First, we provide for its needs so that it does not have to spend all its time concerned to find food and in other ways provide for these basic necessities of existence. There has been research on the connection between human beings achieving the possibility of leisure time and significant cultural developments. Second, we relate to the animal in a personal way, and most of us have seen this elicit what appears to be reciprocal personal interaction from animals, to however limited an extent.

There also seem to be converse examples, of human children raised in the wild, without human socialization (or at least without normal or even adequate socialization) whose behavior is primarily ‘animal’. There are more legends than well-documented cases of such ‘feral children‘, but what is known is certainly significant.

In Andrew’s view, all living things have ‘souls’ to some extent (even plants). The question is whether they have the opportunity to develop and cultivate these facets of their existence or not. I would want to qualify that, in light of the evidence from psychological studies of feral children and clever animals (to allude to the study by Douglas Keith Candland, whose 1993 book by that title, published by Oxford University Press, is available online via Questia). What evidence there is suggests that, while nurture is clearly important, particularly in crucial early years, nature is also significant, as is obvious to anyone who compares how far humans have the potential to develop linguistic and social abilities compared with most other animals. John McCrone’s short piece “Feral Children” in The Lancet 2.2 (February 2003) 132 summarizes the situation nicely.

Our society is committed to the equality of, and providing equal opportunities for, adult human beings. Some also fight over the rights of those still in the womb. But the most neglected group are those in between, from birth onward. In those formative years, how one is treated, one’s social interactions, whether one is read to – so many factors determine whether one will enter adulthood on a level footing or with an unfair disadvantage. If we wish to have equality for adults, we must do more for our society’s children. We must provide opportunities for their cultivation – whether we call it their minds or their souls. It is not enough to give those who manage to graduate high school equal opportunity at college – we must find ways of providing all the forms of stimulation the very young need in their most crucial formative years – stimulation mental and musical, social and spiritual.

This is simply the advice found in the Tao Te Ching (Nowadays spelled Daodejing): “Take action before things get out of hand. The tallest tree begins as a tiny sprout”. If we do not take care of issues when they are small, we should not be surprised when we confront major ones later on. (This, by the way, was the original sense of the saying found immediately after the passage I quoted, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single foot step.”

The importance of these issues seems clearer now: it may be the soul of our nation is quite literally at stake.

For more information on this subject, there is a site dedicated to the topic which includes online text of journal articles as well as a chapter from a PhD thesis on the subject. There is reason to think that claims of humans “raised by wolves” essentially from birth are implausible, but even the instances of apparent ‘adoption’ at a later stage are interesting – which is why so much has been written on this subject over the past several centuries.

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  • Two things come to mind here:First, the dichotomy between nature and nurture is misleading. It is clear that there are certain genetic predispositions for personality and emergent patterns of behavior as shown in early childhood development research – especially from the project at Rutgers U. Robert Kegan has a very sophisticated way of look at cognitive evolution as a spiral between different emergences of self amidst the dialectic between subject and object. the environment conditions those aspects of self that are hard-wired to emerge in different ways. In this sense, the environment “holds” the self and is the context in which a self develops.Second, Simone Weil gives another kind of rather neo-Platonic version of the soul as that part of the human being that is able to receive the good. It is not the processes of the mind as so many Greek conceptions understood it, but that part of the self that is most intimately related to God. When one cannot receive the good based on whatever conditions, it results in affliction.I tend to see an extraordinary relationship between these two very different conceptions of the self and neither require the postulation of an immaterial soul to argue for the value of human being.

  • Also, that some traditions like the Tao Te Ching can speak of these truths without introducing “souls” into the mix is interesting.