SOU series examines 'Being Human'

Although our evidence is entirely intuitive, scriptural or wishful — with no science to back it up — most of us believe we have a soul that is somehow the source of our identity and goes on after death.

Philosophy Professor Mitchell Frangadakis of Southern Oregon University will explore "Search for the Soul: the Quest for Human Essence" during a free public talk at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 14, in the Meese Auditorium on the SOU campus.

The soul has a lot of overlap with what we call the mind, he says, but we humans generally consider that only our species have souls, which has something to do with the fact that we know we have souls and other creatures don't have that level of self-awareness.

The concept of an immortal and personal soul has a long history, and speculations about it can be traced to the earliest civilization in Sumer (now in Iraq).

The belief took root in Egyptian civilization and was picked up by Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to early Christian leaders, said Frangadakis. It wasn't part of earliest Christian theology.

"The pre-Socratics and Socrates examined many possibilities of the soul, including that it did not exist," he said. "Socrates said the soul was immortal, and that idea was picked up by early church fathers."

The lecture, part of SOU's "Being Human" series, will trace the soul's journey with three saints, Aquinas, Anselm and Augustine. He will explain Descartes, known for the phrase, "I think, therefore I am," indicating that the soul had become the mind or "the quality of subjective experience" and created a mind-body dualism.

The existentialism of the 20th century, Frangadakis explains, gets rid of the whole problem, proclaiming "there is no soul or essence; it's self-created in an ongoing process by the individual. There is no soul endowed to us by a supreme being. It's not there."

Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, "We're condemned to be free" and "existence precedes essence," meaning we aren't born with an essence or soul, according to Frangadakis. "In the past, essence preceded existence. With this, we make our own essence."

Resonating with existentialism in modern philosophy is functionalism, which, he says, views "mind" and "brain" as identical — "there is no mind-body dualism; it's all just neuro-physical functioning. They eliminate soul and mind."

Functionalism, he said, means "the brain is what's happening, and you can call it soul or mind if you want. You can add any poetic meaning you choose, but they (functionalists) call that folk psychology."

Extrapolating into AI — or artificial intelligence — Frangadakis says Watson, the IBM supercomputer, may have beat the Jeopardy game show champions and won big money, but it doesn't know it.

"When we humans know something, it's our mind that tells us," he says, noting that Watson has no "essence" (soul), which takes us back to the search for the soul — and ironically, the ancient Greek word for soul is "psyche."

For himself, Frangadakis says he's not inclined to see the human soul as something that "flies off at death." He leans more toward the Hindu belief of "atman," knowledge of the personal soul as part of "brahman," the universal soul, which can be visualized as a cup of water dipped out of the ocean and seemingly separate but, at death, again becomes one with it.

Today, there's a "basic split" in religions and philosophies, with the West believing more in a personal soul and identity, he says, while the East tends toward the non-dualistic oneness found in Hindu and Buddhism, though those faiths make room for an individual soul that reincarnates to work through karma until achieving "liberation" in oneness.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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