Soul vs. Spirit and the Duality of Consciousness

I once read a very interesting book entitled The Lost Secret of Death: Our Divided Souls and the Afterlife, by Peter Novak. The thesis was that in ancient times, people made a distinction between soul and spirit, but that in modern times we have forgotten the difference. In a nutshell, spirit is a sort of spark or particle of consciousness or life, whereas soul is some sort of psychic capacitor which accumulates one’s thoughts and life experiences, good and bad. According to this system, human beings are made up of three things: a soul, a spirit, and a body.

Mr. Novak claims that if you do a careful reading of the Bible, you’ll find that this subtle distinction is maintained. He also listed many cultures which make the soul-vs-spirit distinction, which I summarize in the table below. I’ve also included in the table parallel distinctions that Mr. Novak makes between two types of ghosts and between two kinds of afterlife.

If I recall correctly, according to some ancient belief systems, if a person’s soul and spirit remained “attached” after death, then that person’s consciousness would survive death. Otherwise, that person’s consciousness would be lost forever. With special training (special prayers to the gods? meditation exercises? mastery of lucid dreaming?), one could increase the chances that one’s soul and spirit would remain attached after death, in which case one’s consciousness would survive in the afterlife.

A disembodied spirit without an associated soul results in a poltergeist; a disembodied soul without an associated spirit results in a haunt. I suppose that a spirit attached to a body without benefit of a soul may result in a Philosophical Zombie; perhaps a soul is required for qualia.

In the November 17, 2008 issue of the New York Times, an article appeared entitled Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul . In there, the Egyptian distinction between ba and ka is mentioned. So, Mr. Novak wasn’t making it up!

I have also read a book on lucid dreaming (a topic of great interest to me) entitled Stop Sleeping Through Your Dreams: A Guide to Awakening Consciousness During Dream Sleep, written by Charles McPhee (a Princeton alumnus), a.k.a. The Dream Doctor. Mr. McPhee writes:

“When I worked in sleep research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, I once asked sleep researcher Dr. Wallace Mendelson to define human consciousness for me. Much to my surprise, my existential question did not cause Dr. Mendelson to blink an eye. “Consciousness is easy,” he explained. “Consciousness is a duality. It is the seemingly paradoxical ability of being able to experience sensation and, at the same time, of being able to experience oneself experiencing that sensation.

“When Dr. Mendelson first gave me this definition of consciousness, I was unsure of what I had my hands on. Over the years, however, my appreciation of this definition has grown steadily. It is the best understanding of consciousness I have ever encountered.”

I must admit that I very much like Dr. Mendelson’s definition, too. Sometimes when people are talking about consciousness, I get the impression that they are really talking about one or the other of Dr. Mendelson’s two components of consciousness. I like the recursive aspect of the second component, that of “being able to experience oneself experiencing a sensation.” I believe that Douglas Hofstadter had a similar idea about the underlying etiology of consciousness.

I wonder whether Dr. Mendelson has written anything on consciousness. When I go to PubMed and do a search on

mendelson w [au] AND consciousness [tiab]

I find only this paper.

Another very interesting book that touches upon similar topics is Human Devolution: a Vedic alternative to Darwin’s theory, by Michael Cremo. Deliciously intriguing, and very… unorthodox, shall we say. See this paper to learn more about ancient Sanskrit metaphysical teachings on consciousness. Fascinating!

OK, here’s a table listing the words, ghosts, afterlives, and consciousness components as they relate to soul and spirit. I have added a few of my own ideas.

Ancient Christianity (?) Soul Spirit
Greece Psuche Thumos
Egypt Ba Ka
Israel Nephesh Ruwach
Persia Urvan Daena
Islam Ruh Nafs
India Jiva Atman
China Hun Po
Haiti Bon Ange Ti Bon Ange
Hawaii Uhane Unihipili
Dakota Indians Nagi Niya
Academic Fields of Study Arts and Humanities Science and Engineering
Peter Novak’s descriptions of soul and spirit Subjective, dependent, fertile, emotional, nonverbal, recessive,
passive, responsive, in possession and control of the memory. Emphasizes unity with the external.
Objective, independent, logical, verbal, dominant, active, possessing independent free will. Emphasizes distinction and separateness from the external.
Ghosts Haunts
(stereotypically, a ghost tied to a specific locale, moaning about his past life, and clanking chains like Marley’s Ghost)
(pure motive force, no emotional content, throwing things around)
Afterlife Eternal Bliss or Suffering
(Heaven and Hell; acyclic)
Reincarnation (cyclic)
Split Brain Right Brain Left Brain
Freud Unconscious Mind Conscious Mind
Dr. Wallace Mendelson’s definition of consciousness as a duality. Ability to experience sensation. Ability to experience oneself experiencing sensation.
Dungeons and Dragons Wisdom (clerics) Intelligence (magic users)

It was with great interest that I discovered that many psychic readings of Edgar Cayce (pronounced “kay-see”), “The Sleeping Prophet” (I wonder whether he experienced lucid dreams), have been gathered into a single book entitled Soul and Spirit. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to make much sense of the readings! They are raw and largely unedited (the editors didn’t want them to be colored by someone else’s interpretations), and are very challenging to read. You can try reading a sample here; maybe you’ll do better than me.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that there are three parts to the “soul”: reason, will, and desire. This isn’t quite the same as the spirit-soul-body triad, but I thought it was interesting enough to mention in this post.

Addendum (07/18/09): I just found a series of articles from 1913 entitled Spirit, Soul, and Flesh, by Ernest D. Burton, published in The American Journal of Theology. Here are the references (if you do not have a JSTOR account, these links may not work):

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: I. Am J Theol, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Oct., 1913), pp. 563-598.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: II. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan., 1914), pp. 59-80.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: III. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jul., 1914), pp. 395-414.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: III. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Oct., 1914), pp. 571-599 [yes, for some reason ‘III’ was repeated; this was probably an error]

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: IV. Am J Theol, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Jul., 1916), pp. 390-413.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: V. Am J Theol, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct., 1916), pp. 563-596


Akashic Records

For E.N.

The term Akashic Records refers to a sort of non-physical (metaphysical?) record of all human knowledge and experience; I guess that since it’s non-physical, some people now call it the Akashic Field, suggesting that it is all around us and permeates the very vacuum of space. It is a very New Age idea. One of America’s most famous psychics, Edgar Cayce (pronounced kay-see), the “Sleeping Prophet”, claimed to be accessing these records when he went into one of his trances. Although the idea of the Akashic Records may have pre-dated Cayce, I think (not 100% sure) he’s the one who introduced the notion to the public at large.

Dan SimmonsHyperion SF series had something like the Akashic Records. In the Hyperion universe, evil artificial intelligences have seduced the human race with the promise of immortality. But this denial of death comes at a cost: it is destroying the non-physical store of human knowledge and experience (if I recall correctly, Simmons doesn’t actually call it “the Akashic Records”, but that’s essentially what it is). Catholics might not like this series, since the RCC has been co opted by the evil artificial intelligences in the story; but I don’t think Mr. Simmons intended this to be an attack on the RCC. The Hyperion series has a lot of Christian allegory, complete with a half-human half-divine savior of the human race, the crucifixion of this savior, and redemption via her blood. It may also be a metaphor for the dangers of subordinating wisdom (human race) to science (evil artificial intelligences). (Reminds me of the very interesting distinction that Dungeons and Dragons makes between Intelligence and Wisdom.)

The topic of the Akashic Records makes me think of the fabled (very most likely fictional) Hall of Records, which is supposed to be a physical store of ancient knowledge buried beneath the Sphinx. Unfortunately, the entrance to the chamber containing the Records is lost, and is now waiting for some adventurous archaeologist to rediscover it. This could be the basis of an Indiana Jones movie. (And lost stores of knowledge reminds me of the Library of Alexandria!)