On Soul as Emergent and Eternal

Once I had a conversation with a friend of mine who teaches science and who is agnostic. We were talking about whether or not the soul was an emergent property that arises from our biology, or an eternal "substance" implanted in us by God. I tried to explicate that the soul was both-and, a sort of di-polar entity, in which both the Transcendent and the Empirical were necessary and sufficient causes.  The conversation about souls got me thinking about what exactly I meant. and didn't mean, by calling the "soul" an "emergent property" of complex systems. So, if you will indulge me, I would like to explain.

In trying to tease out what I meant, I think I would argue something like this...

Following Kant and Plato, I would argue for a kind of 2-dimension Reality which is interdependent. Kant calls it the "Phenomenal" and the "Noumenal". Yet, he posits a kind of absolute gulf between the two dimensions of reality, in which there is no genuine possibility of crossover or participation. Plato and Neo-platonists argue for a genuine participation between the two dimensions, but they seem to argue for two separate "substances": A formal, ideological, non-material kind of "stuff" versus an empirical, material "stuff".

I would want to avoid the dual-substance theory posited by many Platonists, while also avoiding the chasm in reality posited by Kant, while also recognizing that there is a genuine dialectic between temporal emergence, and the eternal principles behind it, that gives rise to this unfolding evolution.

I would say that all reality is made of the same "stuff" or "substance". So I would reject the idea that there is "good" spiritual stuff and "bad" material stuff. It's all the same type of stuff (and it's all "good"). But there is at least two dimensions to the "stuff" of reality: The Physical dimension and the Metaphysical dimension. The Physical is the "external" dimension that is objective, which is in constant change, flux, and development. The Metaphysical is the "inner" dimension of reality that is subjective, which supplies the eternal forms and structures upon which the physical flux and development happens. To use a bad computer metaphor: The Metaphysical is like the hardware that the changing programs of Physical reality runs on.

So there's a constant dialectic or participation between the eternal Metaphysical and the temporal Physical that leads to the evolution of the Universe and all its creatures. In fact, if Copenhagen Quantum theory is right, its not a "uni"-verse. It's a nearly infinitely diverse creative Multiverse.

Given the near-infinite diversity of such a Multiverse, it is inevitable that creatures of sufficient complexity would arise that would become aware of the metaphysical depth of the physical universe.

In fact, this is what I was getting at by calling the soul/self an "emergent property". We know that when systems get sufficiently complex and interconnected, they begin to manifest certain epiphenomena, or emergent properties, that make the system "more than the sum of its parts". The cognitive apparatus of our biological machine seems to be so complex and interconnected that it gives rise to a self- an emergent self- that is able to transcend and become conscious of both the body it inhabits, as well as the cosmos that it inhabits. This emergent-transcendent self manifests its transcendence by its ability to grasp wholly abstract ideas (say logic or math), to have genuine empathy for other life-forms, and to grasp beauty, grammatical language, etc.

I would further argue that once the "emergent self" is able to consciously participate in Metaphysical reality, that something eternal happens to the self. The dialectic between the changing self and timeless eternity creates a new type of being- a person. Persons have this odd dialectic of being self-transcendent yet being embodied; of being in time, but having a sense of eternity.

So my view is trying to avoid two problem views:

On one hand, it's not that the soul is a "substance" that God pours into meat-puppets. Rather, souls (or selves, or persons) are epiphenomena that arise out of being embodied creatures. Our biology has real effects on what type of persons we are. There are no ideal, disembodied, perfect souls that get dirty by being encased in bodies. This also means that there is no eternal "well of souls" that God draws out of to implant within us, nor are there ideal "masculine" and "feminine" souls.

The ramifications of this on current religious debates about gender and sexuality are great, since it implies that if there is a Mind behind Reality, who intends persons to be genuine expressions of the physical systems that gave rise to them, rather than "ideal souls" battling against a corrupt body. It means that artificial ideal typologies (such as male, female, straight, gay) must be deconstructed so that we can give each unique person the infinite value and worth that they deserve as persons made in God's image. Furthermore, this leaves open the real possibility that other physical beings may one day evolve sufficient complexity to be "souls" too (such as alien organisms on other planets, or very complex computers on this planet).

On the other hand, it's not that the soul is only physical, and destined to perish with the body. The interaction with the transcendent metaphysical dimension has changed this emergent property into something more, something different than being just physical. The memory of the self has been eternally imprinted on the nature of reality. Once a person becomes aware of themselves as a person- a distinct transcendent self- I don't believe that can be undone. That consciousness never ceases to exist, but is in a dialectic relationship with the eternal. Non-sentient systems (rocks, trees, lower life forms) never became aware of themselves or "remembered" themselves. Thus, the Metaphysical does not "remember" them. But, once a system becomes aware of itself, and "remembers" itself, it doesn't forget itself (cf. "every sentient being dreams, Hal" from 2010). And, as a result, the Metaphysical does not forget that self either. That person has become "inscribed" into the Metaphysical (cf. Isaiah 49.16  where God says "I have engraved you on the palms of my hands").

This does not preclude the conscious self from further developing and evolving. In fact, it seems to guarantee an eternity of progress as the self evolves. For instance, just look at how your own self has evolved, while remaining "you", over the course of life so far. Many, many things have changed, but there is also an enduring "me" that identifies as the "me" that has evolved from birth to childhood to adolescence to adulthood to now. And I can imagine that this evolution does not stop at death, but enters a new phase.

Drawing from the Christian tradition, especially that of the Eastern Fathers who held a much more organic idea of theology than the legalistic West, we could say that eternity is a kind of endless progress into the life of God. This is what the Cappadocian Fathers (who supplied much of the terminology used in the Nicene Creed) called "epektasis".

The emphasis on the eternal nature of souls (from the metaphysical side) along with the emergent nature of souls (from the physical side) allows for an always open possibility of growth: Of entering more deeply into God's life. Entering into God's life is precisely what is meant by "salvation". This is another way of saying that the door of salvation is always open from the Divine (or Metaphysical) side. God never closes the door, but invites all persons at all times.

This ultimate salvation does not preclude damnation (which is the painful refusal of the self to evolve or grow into God's life). But if a person becomes "stuck" in the hellish position of a selfish refusal to grow, there is always the possibility of healing and growth once the person decides to stop refusing and start growing. Thus, the self-chosen, painful exclusion that is often called "hell" in many religious traditions becomes an opportunity for healing and growth, rather than a final destination. This corresponds to the function of pain in our current physical life: Pain is a signal that something is wrong and needs to be healed. As it is in physical reality, so also in metaphysical reality.

The final goal of the "evolution of the soul" is only hinted at in the Christian tradition. It is called "the resurrection", and "the new creation", and "the body of Christ". It is talked of in individual terms, as the continuation of our own personal consciousness, even as it is spoken of in cosmic terms, as a constant awareness of God, creation, and each other. I think it points to the ultimate continuation of our selves as part of an even greater whole. Just as the physical machine of our bodies gives rise to the emergent property of an individual person, so also, it seems, the emergent property of a multiverse of persons will give rise to a "cosmic person".

After the full growth and evolution of our own personal consciousnesses, which begins in this life and continues on the other side of this life, it seems that God will resurrect us together as one Body in a new Creation. Nothing that is good, true, or beautiful from this reality will be lost, but it will be transposed into a higher key in the End (just as a good guitar tune is transposed into music for a full symphony).

And that is as far as the Christian tradition is able to take us.

I would actually hypothesize that this is not the End, but that there is further trans-cosmic growth and evolution that follows from this. But right now, I cannot even begin to imagine what that might look like. And neither can the Christian tradition, nor any other tradition I know of.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.