Murphy\’s Bye-Laws

Law #4: Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it. –H.D. Thoreau

My Soul Is a Black Hole

Posted by PintofStout on April 19, 2008

Language Origins

Language is a funny thing. Try thinking outside the bounds of language and one can find that thought, as well as communication, is limited by language. At the boundary of precise language there comes into play a new set of words that are blurry conglomerations of the even blurrier concepts on the other side of this boundary. These blurry concepts aren’t much more than feelings or hunches; one can feel pretty sure there is an “other” side of the boundary between the materialistic and the purely conceptual, but the things on this other side cannot be put to a form – at least not very easily.

The concept of a soul or a spirit is one such word that exists on the blurry conceptual side of this language boundary. Culture is perhaps the largest producer of these ambiguous words and the greatest influence on our individual conceptions around them. Our culture – itself a pretty conglomerated word – could consist of lots of factors from our personal tastes and the personal tastes of those around us to religious and social traditions. The culture of religion and religious teaching that has been ever-present in our history colors much of our language and the concepts behind ambiguous words.

The idea of a soul, especially, has its roots in religion. To a believer in these general religious concepts, the idea of a soul is akin to having an avatar for a person in the unseen spirit world where God, angels and demons dwell. This avatar is lifted to such great importance that the actual physical life of the holder of the avatar is held in less esteem. This avatar then becomes the ante in a high-stakes game of karmic poker. Behave poorly or outside the desired doctrine of a particular religion and that ante is lost forever.

Having rejected the common religious mythology of the soul, I am left with the phrase in the language, but now without an anchor.I hesitate to dismiss the term completely, though. (When first I rejected this…philosophy?…I was anxious to separate myself from all points of its doctrine – hostilely most of the time – but have become much more moderate since; the fear of accidental association gone, I suppose). I feel there is something the term can be describing that lies just beneath perception, something almost abstract. Like a black hole it is out of reach of our direct observation and can only be perceived indirectly from the things that may point to its existence.

Signs of Life

So what points to this abstract soul? If forced to try and articulate it, I’d say strong feelings, gut reactions, primal urges, and the overwhelming feeling of connectedness one can sometimes feels with their surroundings and other people. Mostly, it appears to be various psychological mechanisms that influence our actions and feelings behind the scenes. Stemming from all this we get our personalities, modes of thought, and lots of mystery. Psychological mechanisms are just one layer of this parfait. Psychology itself is just a description of the results of certain brain functions. The deep biological sources of those functions are somewhere one can look for the articulation of the soul.

Looking strictly to biology and cause and effect does little to placate the romantic portion of my personality, though. Saying that falling hopelessly in love is simply a chemical reaction just won’t due. Explaining the exhilarating feeling of standing on a high precipice and looking over miles of land below with psychology isn’t quite sufficient for my romantic whimsy. I’ll enlist the help of the talented Charles Bowden, whose books Blood Orchid and Blues For Cannibals have helped inspire this discussion, to illustrate this more articulately for me. From Blues for Cannibals:

“There is something beneath the style, concepts, and flutter of words. This something exists on the same plane as pain. And it is called pleasure. I am across from St. Mark’s in the East Village on a fall day. The sun is warm, the bistro doors are open, and here is a white plate of prosciutto, mozzarella, ripe tomato, foccacia, and a small bowl of olive oil with freshly torn basil leaves. The sidewalks pulse with people, and I taste the hog in the aged ham, feel the sun in the tomato, taste in the mild, tangy cheese the grass of some distant hillside. The grain lives in the bread as I dip and chew and dip again. The red of the tomato explodes on the plate. Everything I know or will ever learn is simply a twist on this plate of food. There is no concept on this plate, it is a plane from which the concepts come, and to which the concepts finally return.

I think Paul lived above the plate, analyzing it, or beneath the plate examining its molecular structure. And that I always want to eat the plate and not wonder why. I want to look deeply into the face and swallow the life but not fix or file the life. I live in flight from intellect and Paul lived in flight from what I am.


The salt and rose color and sharp taste of the prosciutto floods my mouth and I become a tongue flapping by the open door on the busy street. I don’t want to understand taste, I want to taste. I don’t want to understand art, ever. I want art to find that part of me beyond my thinking and understanding, to make me feel and by that feeling make me finally be. I want a world where everything is food, books are food, photographs are food, harbors are food, music is food, women are food. The night is food. The sunrise also.


And not food for thought but food for what thought keeps seeking and cannot seem to find.”

The soul – my soul anyway – is best pointed to when cognition and thought, which is heavily influenced by the culture around us and social “norms,” are bypassed to reveal pure emotion. When we can just absorb sensations from outside of us and react to them purely without passing them through the filter of thought that attaches social stigmas and random evaluations of the sensations to alter and dampen the response. Perhaps these pure emotions reach back to some primordial memory and finds connectedness with the accoutrements of our existence, recognizing them like old playmates that have grown up and come to visit the old neighborhood.

What is it that can absorb unfiltered sights, smells, tastes and react with a concentrated emotion that can be physically felt in the tissues of one’s body? That is the soul to me. I can’t observe it directly, but I can feel its existence when I am possessed of it. When my brain cedes control to it, I feel it and swim in it and ride it and let it carry me with the unimagined strength of a crashing, salty wave. A wave, yet still a small ripple in the whole unfathomable body.


19 Responses to “My Soul Is a Black Hole”

  1. Presto posted a link to his contribution here.

  2. Pagan said

    Excellent, PintofStout.
    I tend to go in the other direction and believe that soul IS the mind.

    I think that SOUL = spirit = awareness = life.

    Life, in this sense, is more than heart, lungs and brain. In man, it is that spark that gives us the mind to function as a human, to make us aware, to think, and to reason. (In as much as a dog functions as a canine, a cow functions as a bovine, etc., they also have “soul” to the extent their brain acts in accord with their being.) When life goes out of us, we no longer have a “spirit”, a “soul”, an awareness of what’s happening or of what happened to us. We no longer exist in any fashion.

    I believe that humans have “invented” the Soul, a ‘spiritual’ being in each of us that can’t be touched, seen, or felt; it is the ethereal life hereafter, and we persist in believing in it in almost every society because 1) we are unable to comprehend a non-entity (which is death), and 2) being afraid of death from the beginning of time, we don’t wish to believe that we or others can become a non-entity.

    *We have negated the ability to non-exist by the expedient of substituting the ‘soul’.*

    I realize that to some – perhaps many – this sounds objectively cold and detached, but I’m convinced that this explanation is so.

    However when we seek a “spiritual” life for ourselves, we are seeking answers to the questions of the universe: what we are, where we come from, our purpose in life. This is a legitimate search, but the answers can only apply to each of us because we cannot find answers in the lives, hearts, minds or goals of another person.

    This individuality of each man is a threat to those who are afraid to be alone, those who cannot or will not take responsibility for themselves, and so he/she searches for answers in religion, philosophy, social structure, or through the minds and beliefs of other individuals. This in turn forces him to follow others rather than think for himself, for the minute he leaves that Other, he has only himself to rely on.

    I think emotions are reactions to the knowledge we carry around with us, whether that knowledge is actual or perceived. They are legitimate as long as the knowledge is legitimate. Emotions should never be underrated or ignored, but they should be understood as one means of determining if we are “right” in our interpretation of reality/knowledge.

  3. theshadeaux said

    Aristotle –in _On The Soul_ (De Anima)–defines the soul as “the first grade of actuality of a natural body having life potentially in it.”

    According to this view (which I tend to accept for the most part), the soul is the life principle of the body; it is the essential “whatness” of a living thing (which in the case of man is linked to the power of rational thought since man is by nature capable of such).

    The soul is the totality (essence) of a living body, and it is the _purpose_ for which that body exists. The soul is a _function_ of the body. Specifically, it’s the body’s ultimate or total function.

    And in this view the mind is an aspect of the soul; the part of it that knows and thinks.

    This of course is a classical and teleological(though not religious) view of man’s nature. In contrast, the existentialists tell us that _existence_ precedes essence, and therefore man has no essential nature or absolute purpose. For example, the person I am today is not “fixed” (in function, purpose etc.) and I could arbitrarily decide to change everything about my life tomorrow if I chose.

    If this view is true and individuals have no absolute purpose, then what we deem the soul quite likely is merely chemical reactions in conjunction with the specific set of experiences each of us has had.

  4. Sunni said

    I haven’t time to do more than skim your entry, but doing so has stimulated some thought in me. Here is my answer.

  5. All of these answers have been a joy to read. And turnout was better than I expected!

    I find humor to be a something stemming from soul, so I’m only slightly disappointed that no one has mentioned the Godfather, James Brown (kiss myself, heeeey). Seriously, though.

    Pagan, I feel where you’re coming from and, depending on my mood, I can go that way too. I often reflect with amazement at the capabilities of a brain, and beyond that a mind. It would be the seat of the soul and of the romanticized heart. It is the thing that allows the awareness that sparks pure emotion or allows us to create and observe beauty. Similar to what we talked about in Sunni’s comment thread on a successful life, when one clears away the flotsam of imposed thought, through meditation or whatever, that focused thought and uninterrupted feeling is what I was reaching for in my post.

  6. jeremy6d said

    I really enjoyed reading your post, PoS. The sublime is something we who focus on politics all too often ignore, when it is truly what makes life worth living freely.

    I’m not an atheist – well, that’s only to say that I think there is an intelligence that pervades the universe. My reasons for coming to this conclusion are based on the evidence of my experience. I’m surely mistaken about a lot of my approach to these matters, but I feel I have a model that works for me. I wouldn’t expect others to adopt this model on my say-so alone, just as I wouldn’t adopt the materialist model because some scientist says so. We all do the best we can, and our primary allegiance is to our own senses of truth.

    I see a human experience breaking down into three interconnected but distinct parts: body, mind, and spirit (soul). To me, the spirit is almost the observer of what our minds and bodies do. It is a great well of distillation of all experience. It is like the soil into which all of our thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears seep. And out of this well comes inputs to the mind, just like the body has inputs from the physical world and the mind.

    To me, the greatest wonder of the soul is the very FACT that it’s a mystery. I think that’s what Bowden captures so eloquently: there is an immediacy, a presence that the soul conveys that backs up our sense of identity. And I’d also suggest that most religions don’t really talk about what the soul is, either – they have their myths, sure, but they either don’t explain the kinds of feelings you’re talking about, or they stumble towards the kind of fuzzy definition you’ve laid out.

    I find that whenever I embrace this mystery and try to open myself up to this deep, deep well of potential, I am always rewarded. If what you’re after in life is not necessarily pleasure or comfort but richness and fullness, the soulful life is the only one to live, let alone examine.

    Again, thanks for the great post!

  7. Galatea said

    I think my soul is the thoughts and mental patterns that make up me as an individual. Part of what makes up the soul, in my opinion, is the ability to share and compare my concept of self with others. Even babies have moods that originate within themselves and are more than a simple result of needs fulfilled. These moods influence others around them.

    I don’t think it is possible to experience the unfiltered sights, sounds, and tastes as descibed in the original post.I realize that I am very much a product of my cultural environment. The things I see are decoded in my brain based on my existing knowledge, sounds are filtered by my existing tastes, even my concept of food is greatly shaped by my culture. I am too much of an intellectual to feel that art goes “flat” when analyzed. Good art, like other good ephemeral experiences, should grow richer with contemplation.

  8. Ed said

    great thoughts!! For me the soul is a tangible thing. I can physically feel my soul move. In dreams, In some waking moments, it is not a matter of faith or belief it is science. I know I have a soul because I can feel it move separate from my physical body sometimes…

  9. I don’t think it is possible to experience the unfiltered sights, sounds, and tastes as descibed in the original post.I realize that I am very much a product of my cultural environment. The things I see are decoded in my brain based on my existing knowledge, sounds are filtered by my existing tastes, even my concept of food is greatly shaped by my culture. I am too much of an intellectual to feel that art goes “flat” when analyzed. Good art, like other good ephemeral experiences, should grow richer with contemplation.

    I think you may have been taking my comments about unfiltered senses a little too literally, Galatea. I was referring to filters that are overtly and overly cognitive, like trying to be conscious of how one should feel about a certain sensation. For instance, one is supposed to feel overwhelmingly patriotic at the sight of the flag. If one is thinking they should feel this way and this thinking affects how they perceive the flag, then it is a filter. As products of our culture, these changes may come more subtly. They are encoded in the brain and happen without thinking about them, which is just essentially unfiltered.

    Even with art there will be an initial reaction and emotion drawn from it. By contemplating it further, deeper feeling may be revealed, but studying it in order to categorize the style and school, I feel, would do very little to add soul to the art. Perhaps by contemplating the artist’s mood and emotion when the piece is created, one can share that piece of the artists soul and enrich their own.

    Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to the question posed. I was honestly surprised by the proportion of mind and physical brain-type responses. I also hoping for some perspective from a more traditional religious viewpoint to contrast with the other views. The kick-off seems to have went quite well, but the window of opportunity to comment is by no means closed.

    Thanks to everyone who did leave a piece of themselves here in thoughtful comment. I appreciate the thoughts and have been enriched by every one. Thanks.

  10. God said

    It sure is.

  11. B.W. said

    I’m a little late to the party, but here are some thoughts.

  12. Here is a beautiful comment that came via email from Ella:

    I just got done reading through the posts that were left regarding the matter … and opinion … of a “soul” and it’s “being”. Wether or not any were able to sum up … with any certainty … the existence of a soul … isn’t important … but what is important … is that in each entry there was a seed of truth to be found … a moment when they had gotten so close to the beauty of what they each so divinely posses … what we all posses … that this small side street you took them on … was well worth your efforts : )

    Being “Divine” has nothing to do with religion … it has nothing to do with being good or bad … in fact .. it is found equally in the most wretched of beings … as it is in the most lovely … it is simply the condition of “being”. Divine is just a small, glimmering, individual piece of “origin” … and all things have that kind of divine within. All things.

    The soul … it is wonderfully divine … yet it has little to do with form or intelligence … it has everything to do with presence … and everything has presence. It transcends ego and reasoning … it isn’t something that is learned through structured teaching. Divinity is something that for humans ( for lack of a better word ) .. is discovered .. but for all other beings … it is already known. A mountain needs no explanation … a flower needs no reason … but they have a presence that is so divine that no living thing is able to look away from them. For one who is aware of their own divinity … that presence is so appreciated that they’ll allow it to become part of who they are … they’ll write about it … they’ll paint it … take pictures … whatever they need to do to express how grateful they were for the opportunity to have glimpsed its being … yet for the being that is ruled by ego … that mountain … that flower … they were just momentary distractions.

    I’m not certain .. that what I know about the soul … is that “something” that you’re looking for? Everyone is in a different stage of discovery .. a different awareness .. but I will say this one thing that I know for certain … the “soul” does exist … and when the body decays and withers … and death is absolute … the soul does return to its origin. I actually saw this … with my own eyes … it wasn’t an illusion … an illusion is something that has to first be conceived in our minds before it has any reference … and since there is no reference that I’ve ever, ever been exposed to … I know … without question … that it was indeed real … and that it had a beauty that was beyond anything I should have been witness to. So .. if your ever curious … or .. if you’d like me to share more … I will … but for now … I’ll leave it with you : )

    I appreciate that you included me in this little side street of yours. And by the way … you are so much more aware of your own soul than you know. Finding your own origin takes a long, long battle with ego … it’s the only way to get there/here. See … while the soul has little to do with our physical form … it is a partnership that is essential … how oddly divine is that : )

  13. Dualism died a long time ago. Progress in neuroscience supports a materialist worldview more and more.
    This should not dishearten us. The fact that the universe has evolved a tiny mammal [me], on a pinpoint rock in the vast inky void, and that this mammal has become aware of itself and able to contemplate it’s origins is a wonderous event. I am the universe considering itself.
    I’ll be going back soon ; back to the night, to the shimmering corona. In the meantime I commune, speaking the language of the stars. Music. My dialect maybe jazz, but I sure play with soul.

  14. ed42 said

    Members of the LDS faith believe that we are God’s (spiritual) children – that he is our literal (spiritual) father. That there came a time in our pre-earth existence that we could not progress/learn further because we didn’t have bodies, so God created the earth and housed our spirits (starting with Adam and Eve) in bodies so that we could experience the “good and the evil” – “Men are that they may have joy”. They also believe that after death our spirits and ‘perfected’ physical bodies will (eventually) be permanently joined (resurrection for all) and that we will live as close to God as our consciences can tolerate.

    In the LDS sense the spirit tries to become/remain connected to God, while the body is animalistic in nature. Our spirits are on earth, clothed in physical bodies, to be tested as to whether we can overcome the “natural man”. We occasionally connect to God (or his essence in his creation – the mountain – the flower) and feel the ‘divine’. We can increase the number and depth of these experiences as we turn away from the animal and embrace the love (thy neighbor).

  15. Mantecanaut,
    Your comment was quite beautiful, as is the writing on your site. Thanks for sharing it here.

    So are you using “spirit” interchangeably with “soul”? It sounds like you are saying that the spirit is a piece of God, as a child is a piece of its parents. But have you thought of what that spirit actually is? Your comment sounded 100% theological and used these terms rhetorically without the thought that dives below the words to find the objects or expressions represented by the words.

    I appreciate that you took the time to write out the thought, but could you elaborate on what you mean when you say spirit or soul (are they interchangeable)?

  16. Bugaboo said

    Interestingly, I found Mantecanaut’s post to be just as theological as Ed42’s. Who is this “universe” that evolves things, considers itself, and presumably communes in the language of stars?

    Not to split hairs, but if someone wants to be a materialist, then they should think carefully about what that means. If you are a materialist and if your beliefs are true, then the universe did not evolve you, the universe does not contemplate itself, and the universe certainly does not commune with you in any way. If these are things that give you comfort when you believe them, then you should certainly be disheartened if materialism is finally proven.

    Just to be clear – I am not a materialist. I do believe in a God who created the universe with at least one specific end of creating humanity. I also am not a dualist in that I do not hold to the essentially gnostic idea that we are spirits trapped in flesh toiling to be set free one day.

    Unfortunately I can’t really explain much better than that. I would say that I am a Christian (and I am), but I know that that statement may bring a nearly instant judgement and dismissal of anything I have to say in a forum like this (and probably just did). I really wasn’t meaning to join in this conversation, but since this blog is seems to take intellectual honesty seriously, then I felt I had to say something when I read “atheists” essentially worshiping a non-corporeal “universe.” Sorry if I’m coming off as a jerk. It’s not intentional.

  17. @PintofStout …thank you for your kind words!

    @Bugaboo…My friend, your question:”Who is this “universe” that evolves things” demonstrates the common human habit of anthropomorphism. It’s natural, we’ve been doing it since man first tried to make sense of that glowing orb in the sky. It’s why the first gods, in all continents, were the sun and moon, earth and sea. And night. Our brains have evolved to become such marvelous pattern detectors that we seek to apply meaning and a framework to all that we experience. This pattern detection that once helped us spot the leopard in the shadows led us to other patterns, eventually to the patterns of our own existence. Through DNA we find that we share genetic heritage with all life on this planet, and like this planet our atoms were forged in the hearts of stars. There is no ‘person’ or entity involved here.
    Dualism is the idea that the mind exists independently of the brain. But damage the brain and you damage the mind. Indeed, out of body experiences and those of ‘oneness’ with the universe have been effected by stimulating certain parts of the brain. This is where religion is so attractive because it promises that personalities will be preserved. A little egotistical perhaps?
    Bottom line:there is far more wonder and beauty in understanding the universe than was dreamt of by our primitive ancestors who formed these understandably childish views of reality.
    [apologies:i’ve had to be very brief]

  18. Bugaboo,

    I think Mantecanaut referring to the universe evolving and contemplating was really referring to humans who may contemplate as part of the universe.

    My intention of this exercise was certainly not to call out any particular religion or argue over the existence of any god or gods. It was honestly intended to stimulate people to think of what lies behind the words “soul” or “spirit”. My comment toward Ed42 was simply trying to encourage him to do just that. If I wanted to continue to use the word soul or spirit (or for that matter, maybe even the personified “universe” ) in the same abstract form, I could have just as easily picked up a religious text and read the same thing. That wasn’t the point, though.

    I was actually hoping in a previous comment that more people would contribute from a traditional religious perspective in order that similarities could be seen. A personified “universe” in the language is nearly the “god” of language but without a plan, omnipotence (maybe, since it necessarily consists of everything), or intended purpose. Personification of the word “universe” is like a way of including a much larger sphere in our egocentricity; rather than just existing alongside everything else, humans are included in the everything else. But when dug deep enough into, many people who contend to share different beliefs really just put varying levels of thought into them and clothe them in different language.

    I can easily see a definition of God being made up of the sum of the parts of human existence – our feelings and personalities and intellect – garnished with nature and rolled into a whole with a single, somewhat abstract word. Many times I’ve heard Christians of various sorts explain God in such a way. Delving deeper and applying original thought (not simply an understanding of some official doctrine) can reveal the objects or thoughts behind our varying vocabularies.

    So, in any future comments please keep in mind that I was expecting personalized views of what the words in the language were referring to, not off-the-shelf uses of such language.

  19. Have you ever thought about writing an ebook or guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based upon on the same topics you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my audience would enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e mail.|

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