Writing about the universe filling its void with energy and my doing the same, am I indulging in a cute anthropomorphic attempt at poetry?  And does it matter to your life today, these philosophies of whether the universe has a soul.

Whether philosophy matters is a subject of talk shows.  Most of us fear our kids will become philo majors and end up using their ivy league diplomas to sell shoes and work in fast food.  Philosophers will tell you it was philosophy that first realized the existence of atoms – an idea absconded with by chemistry, along with the idea of a gas, and by the way the idea of flotation in fluids.  A lot of physics is really philosophy, when you get to extrapolating back to the beginning of the universe and the question of parallel universes and a cyclic re-collapse and big bang.  Even arguing about whether human space is worth doing given its huge cost, its risks and its absence of science return, versus robotic exploration, is at its essence philosophical.  Is exploration exploration if the explorers are humans remotely controlling rovers on Mars.  Have “we” landed on mars already?

To kill an animal, but feel it is wrong to kill a human, you have to have a special philosophy that animals can be killed if humans (or other animals) want to, but humans can not be killed by humans nor by animals.   And why that would be considered correct and acceptable behavior – sanctioned killing of anything non-human, is philosophical.  It is a belief that animals, like the universe, like the earth, lack a soul.

We as a culture have decided, have codified in the Bible, that only humans have souls, experience love, loss, joy, sorrow, create art in all its forms, invent things, strive to improve ourselves.  After millions of years of evolution flies are still getting trapped in spider webs, but we people feel to have improved our lot.  Scientists can tell you that these emotions emanate from a thinking mechanism that is highly complex that you are not going to find in a glass of water.  But if you don’t think a glass of water is complex, how about the whole universe, which includes us – isn’t it by definition much more complex than us?  If complexity is the measure, a deer or a bear is just not complex enough?  They do some pretty amazing things those animals, like living without clothing or shelter through a rhode island winter on the food they can find, including reproducing themselves, winter, spring, summer and fall, brutal as the weather may be.  Just how do they do that, these not quite complex enough animals?  Instinct is our one word dismissal.

Ergo we are special and being special give ourselves the right to exploit everything else, and strip it of the soul.  Historically people have done this to other people – to Jews, to Blacks, to Serbs, to women, to the old, to the disabled.  But we now consider that wrong.  The line is officially drawn at our species.  Each member of which has the right to live, at least formally though we not do much to ensure that possibility is realized, whereas the earth and its other inhabitants are only justifiably preserved if we need them for our survival or pleasure.   Is it impossible our current state of enlightenment will never change?  It changed so much in the last 50 years.  A billion years from now that line will still be drawn around humans – but what will that mean in a billion years – we will have evolved, and so will the bears and the deer and the birds.  Who will be inside the line, who outside?

At least as a thought experiment (thank you Einsten for that degree of freedom) it’s worth imagining the crazy idea that in fact everything has a soul, or is a member of a system that has a soul.  OK, you might argue a pebble on the beach does not have a soul, and I’m with you on that one, but if you look at it as a component of the beach, which is a component of the sea-land interface, which is a critical element of the ocean, which accounts for a huge part of the earth’s surface area and biomass and without which the rest of us would not be here, what about that system?

What about the moods of the sea, the patterns of the clouds reflected in a salt pond at dawn in pink and grey and orange, what about the singing of birds on a background of waves reaching the pebbles and sand, what about the clarity of the air on a mountaintop above the clouds, the sad look in your dog’s eyes when she realizes you are leaving for work and faces a day alone in the house, even if you let her sleep on your nice new sofa?

Nature doesn’t create art, you can say staring up at the milky way, at the tiny crescent of the moon following the sun to the horizon on a juicy summer evening through a red atmosphere dripping with water showing off all three of its phases?  Native Americans believed the earth was their mother, giving them all they needed to survive, space, nourishment, warmth, shelter, and the animals and the trees were all parts of that great soul.  They would not harm one bit of her.  We don’t believe that, nor the similar beliefs of the Shinto, now similarly out of fashion in Japan, nor the aborigine, marginalized in Australia and living on their reservations.

Scientists mostly don’t believe in UFOs, and if they do, they are marginalized like the aborigine.  What about Einstein?  What about the speed of light?  If they are so smart, why are they not talking with us – why are they sneaking around our solar system?   Scientists have a science to explain why UFO believers are wrong and not scientists and humans have a philosophy of the soul to marginalize every other element of the entire universe.  Neat.  But right?

I have a philosophical belief that to paraphrase Arthur Clarke, when techies say something is possible, they are usually right, but when they say something is impossible, usually wrong.  He was told that geosynchronous communications satellites were impossible about 25 years before they were in common use carrying our television and radio broadcasts and our phone conversations all around the globe instantly.  Nobody called him back and said “hey guy, sorry about that”.

Einstein is still going to be The Man 100, 1,000, 10,000 years from now?  No loopholes in the speed of light thing?   I claim the least scientific people are those scientists who believe we now have it figured out.  How depressing.  Nobody is going to upset the Grand Order?  There is no use for young people except they can work in little microniches and figure out the energy balance of a cosmic jet or the lifetime of some exotic atom or particle, the thermal conductivity of helium-neon mixtures.  But nobody is ever going to change physics, UFOs are impossible, the world and its limits as we know them will never change.  After a few billion years, we have thought seriously about these things for a couple hundred years and now we can consider the case closed and everything worth knowing is known then.  That’s not comforting to me.  We used to think Newton had mechanics worked out… now we have lasers and semiconductors and curved space time and GPS satellites with clocks corrected for relativistic effects and Einstein, so we are done.

And philosophically we will never change our minds about whether that system which accompanies our world with clouds and waves and rain and plants and birds and the beauty of every day, which evolved everything including us, is not complex enough to have what we have, but instead is merely a sort of chemistry experiment in a large test tube,  unthinking, cold and soul less.   Soul can only be in humans, and much as a deer or a cow may suffer seeing its young child taken from it and killed, that is just the illusion of a soul because only humans are licensed to have them.  Please ignore that man behind the curtain, for I am the Wizard of Oz.

The end of life is the end, time is irreversible – even Einstein did not believe that.  He believed time was a dimension just like the other three, but we so far lacked the ability to traverse it freely at any speed in any direction.  Those lost to us are according to the cold sleek science of 2011 gone forever.  That idea is never going to change either?  The past is gone, the future is the future, all that exists is the present.  But the present is infinitely small.  It leaves very little room for those souls we claim we have.

Descartes advised hedging on the side of belief, since there’s little downside.  If we act  like all these things are soul less and abuse them for our ends, what if it turns out we were wrong.  We can claim we didn’t get the memo?   Our own courts say ignorance of the law is no defense.  Walking softly you risk the rest of humans thinking you an idiot, a pacifist, a child, naïve, burdensome.  The alternative is to act in ways most people will find acceptable.  And what got learned and discovered, what horizons were opened – the idea of the atom,the idea of a spherical earth, the idea of the earth orbiting the sun, the idea of evolution instead of creation, the idea of microorganisms, of extremophyles, geosynchronous satellites, microsatellites, cell phones, personal computers, accepting all the preconceptions and philosophies that ensure you won’t be exiled like the aborigine?

If enough of us become exiles, the exilers will one day find themselves the exiled.  That’s my philosophy.

3 Responses to “Souls”

  1. Bill Grabert Says:


  2. Rick Fleeter Says:

    When I wrote what I call the Nancy book I was unsatisfied by all the feel good hocus pocus, religious and spiritual, which is a part of the death and dying literature. Ugh! How nice it would be to believe all that stuff, but I still have trouble receiving energy from crystals either. My grandmother after she turned 100, I mean she certainly knew she wouldn’t be around too much longer, said the same -” I wish I believed all the pretty stories, but the reality is despite 100 years to think about it, I am afraid and I don’t want to die.”

    Which made me think – that’s the right starting point. Say the truth, don’t be afraid to say you are sad or scared, and look for what you can say about things, factually. And I came to the conclusion that we do not have a clue, and neither do the “experts”.

    And that is the beauty of it. There are so many possibilities, and probably reality is none of what we can think of. That is the nature of even simple things. So we just have to accept that like you can’t write a formula for Pi, but it still exists, we can’t understand death but it is something real and given no other choice, to be open to it.

    Similarly regarding the soul, I am tired of experts telling me what it is to be human and how we are different from everything else. Who delivered that memo to them? That scientists can claim such knowledge I find highly unprofessional. Being one myself, I try to stick with what I can know, and not go on TV claiming the earth is going to bake or freeze to death, or not, that a rock from Antarctica or a molecule found in the California desert proves there is life on Mars, or that animals do not have souls. The scientists I’ve read who work with animals seem certain they are just as, if not more, truthful and feeling, than we are.

    And I think those simple things – that admission that we just don’t know, the being open to possibilities, the awe of nature that maybe it is in fact bigger than us (as if that weren’t obvious!) – that much more of the universe is unknown to us than is known to us – is very positive. It makes me feel differently if not necessarily better about Nancy, it makes me more positive about the students I teach – that there is vast room for them to discover and change our point of view, and a little more generous about nature and every part of it, respectful of nature as I would be of other humans. I find that a good point of view, which is what philosophy is. It does not answer all the questions as so many religions claim, the catechism, the closed solution, but on the other hand, if you claim to have the answers, you must be kidding!

    – Rick

  3. Nando Says:

    Dear Dr. Fleeter,
    sono stato cosí contento di averla incontrata durante il viaggio su Delta 241 ieri tornando negli USA.
    Ho appena finito di leggere alcune sue righe riguardo
    ai comuni problemi esistenziali con cui ci confrontiamo ogni giorno.
    I suoi pensieri sono di grande interesse per me.
    Nando Di Meo

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