20 May, 2008

What, When You Get Right Down to It, Is a Soul?

'Tis the witching hour. And I'm going to think out loud here, as input would be most welcome.

One of the things I'm always cognizant of when I'm world-building is influences. I was, alas, raised in a culture that's heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian ideas, and while I appreciate some of same, I don't want knee-jerk assumptions creeping into my fiction. I read far too much stuff wherein the author just plucked the low-hanging fruit and didn't think outside of the culture they're immersed in. You'll see some poorly-incorporated elements from "exotic" cultures thrown in any-old-how, just for the sake of appearing different. But when you pick at the surface, you realize it's all gilt.

The more I scratch at my writing, the more gilt I find. It would be nice if I could just scrape it off and rebuild from the bottom-up, but we're talking core concepts. I won't be telling the stories I want to tell if I remove all the gilt. So the problem becomes, how do I turn it solid gold?

Take souls, for example.

The major concept in my series, the foundation upon which the rest of the edifice is built, is the Ahc'ton K'san Torveneh: Souls Who Travel. For years, I just took it for granted that these folks were unique souls who get reborn over and over in service to their people.

But that's mere gilt. That's assuming a soul. Even with the little bit of gloss a physicist friend added - the concept of the soul as an other-dimensional entity with a propensity for attaching itself to biological forms in this dimension - it's still just gilt. I never really questioned it before now, but having embraced my atheism and hanging about with science buffs and proud atheists, I'm certainly questioning it now.

And the question is fascinating. What, in fact, do Atheseans mean when they refer to a "soul"?

I can tell you straight up they don't mean anything religious. The soul isn't something as solid as a body, and you can't extract a soul from a body and study it (that I know of - who knows what these buggers will get up to as I explore this question?). But it has a physical reality. It has nothing to do with religion, any more than electricity does. Because it's so hard to grasp, directly perceive, it's easy to put it down to something spiritual, but it's a really real thing with an objective existence.

The Ahc'ton are special because their souls are reborn with identity intact. That's the whole point of being Ahc'ton: to remember who you were, carry all of the accumulated knowledge of lifetimes with you and put it to good use in new lives among alien species. No other souls travel this way. The soul as a distinct identity ceases to exist once a person dies. If we're talking an other-dimensional entity, it basically loses the "I" it became when it was attached to the physical body. There's no eternal life, no consciousness beyond death - except for the Ahc'ton.

So that's the challenge of the week. I have to go beyond my assumptions, peel off the gilt, and really get into the meat of this thing. If the soul is not something religious or spiritual, what is it? Why does it have this propensity for attaching to a brain? How did the Ahc'ton's souls end up being discrete entitities with an identity they've carried for millennia, when everybody else's soul goes back to being an undifferentiated something?

It would be so much easier if I could just take the religious view and be done with it, but it's so much more fun to struggle with the concept of something material, objective, and so far beyond our current science that it just looks like a miracle.

There ye go. Speculate at will, my wise and wonderful darlings.


Anonymous said...

In Frank Herbert's series 'Dune' he handled that concept several different ways. By 'Other Memories' shared and by cloning gholas.

Maybe you need to create the Ahc'ton soul as an identity that chose to use physical forms over and over again. Maybe to the Soul, it's the body that is controversial. Does the body live on after the Soul dies or is each body new and separate? When each individual Soul decides it's time to incorporate with a body, do those that do consider other bodies without Souls to be empty? Are they in fact visible at all, or simply as a tree would be to us. Visible as a living thing, but without knowledge?

I have also stated that true fiction doesn't exist, but it must be based in out reality.

John Pieret said...

In his book, Freedom Evolves, Dan Dennett speaks about our present "self" negotiating with our future self, through moral laws and such, to restrain our future self from being short-sighted and taking what is, to our then-self, short-term gains. Of course, to Dennett, the "self" is just a suite of interacting mental abilities with no real existence over time. Maybe the Ahc'ton K'san Torveneh have managed to maintain those mental aspects through technological or biological means, over time and across different material substrates. Such a "self" would be well described as a soul.

RBH said...

OK, lemme think out loud about this.

1. The Souls Who Travel are embodied but are not themselves physical objects/entities. So they're apparently patterns imposed on physical bodies/brains. A long time ago I had an interview for a job applying artificial neural net technology in a particular industry. One of the guys I interviewed with -- the resident genius, in fact, responsible for most of the company's success, and a certifiable loon -- asked with a perfectly straight face whether the human brain ought not be better considered as some sort of information receiver, doing no thinking on its own but merely receiving signals from something doing the actual thinking somewhere else. I blinked, paused, and then said, "Well yeah, I suppose so but I don't know how one could tell since the activity of the brain sure looks like the thinking is going on in there." I got the job, and tiptoed around carefully for a while.

2. If the Souls Who Travel reproduce (copy/transfer from host to host), then there's at least an opportunity for evolution to occur. All that evolution requires is a population of reproducing entities with heritable variation in an environment in which some resource (host bodies?) is bounded and where the entities reproduce at greater than replacement rate. So given some minimal initial telepathic/consciousness transfer technology/capability (mutant mirror neurons?), the Souls Who Travel could have evolved from meat critters.

3. Even us meat critters preserve our identities through massive changes in the physical substrate. Somewhere I recently read that not one atom in my body right now was in it 50 years ago. There's been more than one complete turnover of the physical constituents of my body during my life, but my (perception of) self is continuous through that transfer of matter. (Well, there are some gaps in that perception of self -- I was out and about during the 1960s, and you know what they say: Anyone who can remember the '60s wasn't really there.)