James Brown, The Godfather of…Ummm…Something: An Essay on the Soul

The soul is one of many concepts that humans use liberally without definition or understanding. More emotional than logical, “soul,” in its many incarnations, is part of the common parlance of daily life. A good person is a “good soul.” We speak of the “souls in heaven.” We pity the “damned souls in hell.” We look for our “soul mate.” And, of course, there’s James Brown “the Godfather of Soul.”

With this many incarnations it seems as if a definition of soul is nearly impossible. The term is used with an unapologetic flippancy. But, such difficulty with nebulous definition is expected with terms that produce emotional outbursts before intellectual substance. If the term soul is anything, it is undoubtedly tied with very powerful connections to evocative subjects – God, the afterlife and who we are. However, there is a common use of “soul” that is moderately definable and is also the primary source from which terms such as “soul music” derives. This use has much in common with the classic philosophical problem of the self – the issue about who we are and what creates a persistent identity over time.

The soul is often regarded as the essence of the self ‚Äì the unchanging kernel of your personal identity. This idea also seems to be the jumping-off point for the descriptive use of soul, al?† James Brown, which carries the connotation of authentic artistic expression down to the core of the self ‚Äì ‚Äúkeeping it real‚Äù if you will. But if the soul is what is ‚Äúessentially you,‚Äù then many questions arise that philosophers have been asking for centuries.

Locke’s distinction between essential and accidental properties becomes central to questions of identity. In Locke’s view, a view that has been more or less supported in philosophical history and certainly in “common sense,” objects are composed of two types of qualities; accidental and essential. Which qualities are essential and which are accidental has been the subject of many debates, but Locke’s distinction has held true. Essential qualities are those that things need to continue being what they are. If those qualities changed they would become something fundamentally different, to be called by a new name. A moth and a caterpillar may have a historical and causal relationship but too many essential properties have changed; thus the new names. However, removing a leg from the caterpillar or a wing from the moth would not necessitate a new name. Thus, those properties Locke termed accidental; the properties that can be changed without changing the essence of the thing. You can change your clothes, hairstyle, job and weight without anyone challenging whether or not you are still you.

However, if you have ever had a once good friend turn into an entirely different person – possibly through drug addiction, a switch of political allegiances, or being “born-again” into a religion – then you have probably dealt with the issues of essential and accidental properties even if you didn’t know the terminology for these intuitive ideas. The concept of the soul, rooted in an idea of the essential self, finds incredible problems when analyzed through these helpful Lockean concepts.

Any belief in an afterlife, past lives, pre-lives, cosmic projection, karmic rebirth, etc. requires a belief that living ‚Äì that is, being alive ‚Äì is an accidental property to the self. The same can be said about corporealness ‚Äì the condition of being inexorably tied to a physical body ‚Äì is likewise seen as non-essential to who you are as the shoes you’re wearing. In fact, some people claim to be able to slough off their bodies like shoes after a long day’s work and then go cruising through the cosmos.

All of these ideas are predicated on what has been called the “ghost in the machine” theory. This is the idea that we occupy our bodies, driving them around like pilots in an airplane, as opposed to being our bodies. We say “I have a brain,” rather than saying “I am a brain” – while leaving the evanescence behind the term “I” to be filled in by concepts such as “the soul.” We seem to intuit this observation, possibly because our bodies endure so much change and ruination that, for the most part, doesn’t affect our minds. We can watch our hand get smashed and broken by a hammer and, although we yelp in pain, we realize that the hammer didn’t touch our essential self. Consequently, we tend to view our bodies as cars we drive that were once new and flashy but are now enduring the inevitable pull of time. And many of us view the universe as convenient as our local Ford dealer, allowing us the amazing option of getting out of our car and exchanging it for a brand new one – with better options, of course – and an incredibly friendly and knowledgeable salesperson who will make sure we find the perfect one for us.

So, if the afterlife is a car dealership and God is a polyester-clad salesman constantly asking, “what can I do to put you in a car today?” and throwing in the undercoating for free, who are we? Well, we’re the thing that doesn’t change. The driver of the car. The soul. But this view suffers from an insurmountable logical and rational vacuity. Try seriously answering the question “who are you essentially?” and you will start to feel the problems with the concept of a soul. Seemingly this question demands an answer rooted in your qualities. Since it is your qualities that differentiate you from everyone else the same must be true of your soul – unless we want to believe that souls are simply mass-produced transcendental effluvia; not unlike the millions of identical Thomas Kincaid paintings in American homes. You may be musical and poetically minded. In fact, these qualities may be the first qualities any of your friends cite to describe you and the first you use to describe yourself. Does this mean that your soul is musical and poetic?

Possibly. But a nagging sense of triviality begins to tug at the issue. Such worldly and mundane qualities are usually not assigned to souls. We do not think our souls are good soccer players, have excellent fashion, and get hung-over easily on tequila. Instead we describe people as a “good soul” or a “kind soul” and find solace in the safe confines of vagueness. But such ambiguities only create more problems; problems with moral inevitabilities.

Actions are good because they could be otherwise. Giving a homeless man twenty dollars is a good action because you could have not given the money. This is intuitive morality. If I told you that the majority of celebrities that are seen on T.V. doing public service announcements, i.e. “The More You Know,” are doing so to complete court-mandated community service requirements (which they are) your view of their “goodness” would immediately change towards the negative. The same should occur if I told you that Mother Theresa helped millions of poor people because she was essentially a “good soul” – that she couldn’t be otherwise. On the contrary, she is a “good soul” – in the evaluative, not the metaphysical sense – because she helped millions of poor that she didn’t have to help. The traditional view of the soul reverses the flow of morality: Mother Theresa helping the poor because she is a “good soul” vs. Mother Theresa being a “good soul” because she helped the poor. Someone is good because of what they actually do in the face of choices with possible alternatives, not because of what they are. Furthermore, with choices those “essential” moral qualities can always change. As my Father once said of integrity, another possible essential quality that souls may have; “it takes years to build and seconds to destroy.”

Similar problems exist with other qualities souls may have; i.e. musical, intellectual, social etc. Leaving biological predilections aside for a moment, these more general qualities that souls may have are themselves rooted in history and choice. Someone may be musical because their mother forced them to take piano lessons, or social because they grew up in a large family. Also, on the negative side, someone may have been seriously abused by their parents and now deal with a plethora of debilitating psychoses. I don’t think anyone would wish to describe a soul as “paranoid schizophrenic.” I, who would be described as an “intellectual soul” or “inquisitive soul” by my friends, can trace my inquisitiveness back to a choose-you-own-adventure book about Julius Caesar I read when I was six – a book that could have easily been out of stock at the store or have not existed in the first place.

But, historical contingencies are compounded with contingencies of choice. I continually choose, and have chosen, to put effort towards intellectual matters. But my choices can easily change, changing my soul with them. I can be “born-again,” enlightened, or simply revert back to a primal state simply through choices. But, it is debatable how much ability one has to radically alter one’s essential personality, one’s soul, on a whim. Sartre felt that man’s ultimate freedom lay in the fact that we are free to rewrite ourselves at any point – going from saint to sinner, jock to goth, teetotaler to lush with the ease of changing the channel. This type of radical change, while maybe not impossible, is certainly not easy. Although you may have the freedom to go on a killing spree tomorrow, you don’t have the ability to do so with cold, remorseless detachment – assuming you aren’t a psychopath. But whatever difficulties abound in being able to manipulate your persona like Karl Rove manipulates George W. Bush, they do not come from some kernel of unsubstantial permanence like “the soul.” Rather, their source is thoroughly corporeal. The studies of the physiological brain differences to be found in psychopaths, in addition to the myriad other breakthroughs in cognitive science, have shown that the yoke that keeps you walking in the cart path is not an eternal oxcart man – a “ghost in the machine” – but a collection of chemicals, pathways and electrical impulses. You are the machine. It’s not that you have a brain; it’s that you are a brain.

This brings the biological point back to the fray. If there is one thing about me that certainly couldn’t have been otherwise it is that I was born to my parents. I unquestionably have inherent qualities because of this fact. Modern research in cognitive science is discovering more about how many of the essential qualities that make us individuals are rooted in biology. The short answer: a lot. (Just look at the Manning football family.) Furthermore, modern psychotropic drugs are becoming more and more effective at radically altering the personalities of millions of “souls” on Earth. For the individuals who need these drugs to function effectively the effect of biology upon who they are is quite clear to them and their friends. Often they are fundamentally different people when off of the drugs; going from being paranoid, angry, volatile and possibly violent to being friendly, well-adjusted, caring and docile with the simple pop of a pill. These people may find the problem of who they essentially are, what their soul is like, vexing. But, they certainly know who they want to be, and take the pills to be that person. But sometimes, if only sometimes, they may find themselves wondering if they will have their lithium in heaven.

So far, the points that have been raised here prove most damning – in my opinion downright fatal – to beliefs in past lives, pre-lives, and general cyclical karmic rebirth. These points produce the central question that should be asked of such believers; “when you say that you were a 17th century courtier in your past life or that you will come back to Earth as a pelican what the hell do you mean by that? Who are ‘you’ and why can ‘you’ be so easily moved between centuries, genders, classes, and families, not to mention species?” However, traditional Christian theology can still remain moderately intact, despite some of my previous points. Some theologians, i.e. John Hick, have taken the stance that one of this world’s main purposes is to supply humans with a forum for “soul-making.” Our job is to make our souls as best we are able so we can have a soul ready for the afterlife.

This view suffers from the same paralyzing biological objections. Very essential qualities of me, or anyone, – memory abilities, speed of problem solving, the ability to and speed at which one recalls information – are unquestionably biologically contingent. Sticking a pin in my brain, hitting my head, smoking too much pot, or – in one memorable Simpsons episode – shoving a crayon up my nose, can all make me a fundamentally different person.

In the end, it seems as if “the soul” must be a quality-less substance that simply animates life – a dark matter of physics for our existential questions. I am fine with this interpretation simply because it is so mundane. However, for the same reason, this interpretation is unacceptable for anyone who forms important beliefs around the concept of the soul. A quality-less qualifier is of little use for differentiating individuals or writing poetry about our true love. At every turn there are so many contingencies, biological and otherwise, that make up the qualities of any person’s “soul” that the judging of “souls” becomes an incredibly suspect activity. If the administration of psychotropic drugs, a lack of hellish poverty, or a non-abusive family life are the catalysts to my being a good person then the qualities of my soul are highly contingent. In short, if God is judging souls he better be grading on a curve; one so drastic that everyone should pass.

There is one last issue about God judging souls to be addressed. If this world is indeed for “soul-making” then the implication is that “souls” will be fixed in the afterlife. “Good souls” will be in heaven and will always be good. “Bad souls” will be watching Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond sing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” for eternity and will always be bad. Again the problem of moral values in the presence of inevitabilities returns, but this time with the added moral quandary that the God of eternal forgiveness is also the God of eternal damnation. No more chance to be “born-again” or to repent either for the good or bad. No more choices period. Your soul will finally be the unchanging kernel of The Self that so many have always wanted it to be.

One of the most important observations to understand about humans is that we are always in the process of becoming. We are not “souls” that drive our bodies around like cars on the freeway – or maybe, more aptly, the demolition derby. We are our bodies and we are our brains. However, rather than confining you to the doldrums of the mortal coil, this fact should release you into the freedom of the corporeal playground. Transcendental metaphysical concepts such as “the soul,” “fate,” and “karma” always produce the same conclusion; that freedom is traded for the static ideal, that “becoming” is traded for “became.”

We aren’t the drivers of the cars, we are the cars. When this idea is accepted it becomes much easier to enjoy the pleasures and freedoms of driving. The car can then be hopped-up and adorned as you see fit – ‘cause it’s the only one you’ll ever have. Hell, getting a new car just sells your freedom and your soul to the bank anyway.

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