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


Shanghai Express (1932)

This past Christmas vacation, I saw The Shanghai Express in Basel; I believe the date was 12/31/08. I found the movie very interesting.

Spoiler alert: I discuss the movie below.

The movie is set on the Shanghai Express, a train going from Beijing to Shanghai. Early in the movie, we’re introduced to three other passengers (among others) on the train:

  • Shanghai Lily, played by Marlene Dietrich, a notorious courtesan.
  • Captain Harvey, Lily’s estranged old flame, whom she still secretly loves. Five years ago, Lily tried to make him jealous with some ill-conceived scheme, but her ploy backfired and he no longer trusts her.
  • Reverend Mr. Carmichael, a theologian who takes an immediate dislike to Shanghai Lily and her travelling companion Hui Fei, because they’re women of ill-repute.

There are the beginnings of a rapprochement between Lily and Harvey.
But this is derailed (pun intended) when a rebel warlord “Chang” hijacks the train. He makes a “bargain” with Lily: she must agree to become his mistress, otherwise he will burn out the eyes of Captain Harvey with a hot iron. Lily agrees to the arrangement. It is a secret: nobody else knows why she agrees to it.

Chang is ultimately dispatched, stabbed in the back by Hui Fei. But Captain Harvey now regards Lily with renewed distrust, because although he knows she had agreed to become Chang’s mistress, he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t realize that his eyesight was at stake!

Mr. Carmichael pays Lily a visit, and insists that she tell him why she had agreed to become Chang’s mistress. Lily reveals her secret to Carmichael, on the condition that he tell no one else, especially not Harvey. Carmichael is moved by Lily’s self-sacrifice, and now wants to know why she doesn’t reveal her secret to Harvey. It seems like the obvious thing to do. If only Harvey knew Lily’s secret, then he would forgive her, and everybody would be happy!

But Lily has a very good reason for her secrecy. She tells Carmichael that she wanted Harvey to love her on faith; if he were to reconcile with her based only on knowledge instead, then his love wouldn’t really be worthwhile. Lily wants Harvey’s trust. Carmichael, formerly Lily’s adversary, now becomes her ally; and he makes a very interesting comparison to religious belief, saying the following memorable line:

Love without faith, like religion without faith, doesn’t amount to very much.

The analogy in religious belief is this. If God really exists, then why doesn’t he work some amazing miracle to demonstrate his existence to the world, thereby settling the matter? Why not move the stars in the sky so that they spell “HELLO WORLD! FROM, GOD LOL”? I think Carmichael would say it’s because God wants faith, not knowledge.

Note that the mainstream version of Christianity that we’re familiar with emphasizes belief rather than knowledge. But there was once a rival variant (Carmichael would call it a heresy) called Gnosticism, in which knowledge rather than faith was key (gnosis = knowledge). With Gnosticism, you can have salvation only if you know certain secrets. But only specially chosen people have access to this secret knowledge, which is passed down from initiate to initiate, like a secret society. I think that this has a strong New Age flavor!

If Carmichael had been a Gnostic mystic rather than a mainstream Christian theologian, he might instead have said:

Love without faith, like religion without knowledge, doesn’t amount to very much.

The knowledge vs. faith theme seems strongly related to the old question of reconciling science and religion. A very interesting book I read recently (highly recommended), written by a physicist at the University of Delaware (and who went to graduate school at Princeton), poses the question as materialism versus faith, rather than science versus faith.

As an aside, Shanghai Lily’s real name was Magdalen. This is very most likely a reference to Mary Magdaelene, who’s traditionally considered to be a woman of ill-repute (although according to the Wikipedia entry she’s never actually called a prostitute or adulteress in the New Testament), and who became one of the first Christians. A fallen woman who redeems herself. The parallel to Shanghai Lily seems convincing.

A Tiger in Harvard-land

Princetonians who have spent time in Bean Town might find this amusing.

Published in: on 19 December 2008 at 8:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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