Exclusive to STR
August 13, 2007
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What is the soul?
The soul is not a supernatural construct. I see the soul as one's personality, including deeper levels that are typically beyond conscious awareness. The soul is embodied within us as software, running on the hardware of our brains and bodies.
That last is difficult for some to accept, but we have to be some type of thing, and the type of thing we are is software.
This does not negate or diminish characteristics that make us human, such as compassion, love, wonder, or deep feeling generally, any more than other knowledge about ourselves diminishes us. Knowing that we are software merely provides another level of understanding about human nature. Given the present dire circumstances  of the human condition, we need all the understanding we can get.
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Science fiction and science itself both tell us that we are software entities. A half-century ago, SF writers and a few scientists were talking about the possibility of someday downloading human personalities into computers. This understanding of the soul as software (or, if you prefer, as an ongoing result of the running of software) is more entrenched and even better supported today.
It doesn't take modern science to see that the soul, the inner person, the personality -- call it what you will -- is a process of some kind running on the hardware of the brain and body. Software is what makes that process possible. The soul comes into being as a process enabled and guided by software, with:
- stored information (memory, including less personal and more ancient memory such as instinct and DNA)
- instructions for action based upon
the stored information of various kinds, and upon
- real-time input from sensations and perceptions, and upon
- processing of that information (abstract thought and lower-level processing).
To use a modern and simplified analogy, you -- as a person, meaning as both a body and a soul -- are the MP3 Player, the MP3 music files, and the programs that handle and play the music files.
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Regardless of the platform, programming language, and other variables involved, stored and retrievable information, including stored data and/or instructions for various actions, is the essence of software. Examples of software in this broad sense include music on an analog 33 rpm record; the same music digitally encoded on a CD or DVD ; the word processing program I am writing this with; and the data file I am creating with the word processor. Even a printed book with paper pages is a form of software. Neither the form of storage nor the language used for encoding defines something as software -- at least in the sense I am using the term here. More limited definitions  are common, however.
Note that the purpose of software is ultimately to create an action or an experience; neither software itself nor the hardware it runs on is the essence of what is wanted. Software, as opposed to its physical manifestation on (say) a hard drive, has no location in space and cannot be seen, touched, heard, or otherwise detected directly; like the mental image of a flower, software is in essence conceptual, not physical. The ineffable nature of software is tellingly similar to the nature of consciousness or the soul -- difficult to describe or define because, once again, both consciousness and the soul are merely specific effects of the software within a living creature such as a human being -- or perhaps, at some point, within a machine.
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Little is yet known about the software involved in creating the soul, and clearly this software, including the software utilized by DNA , is different in many ways from the software running on a modern digital computer. We continue finding new surprises even about DNA ; for one example, "junk DNA" probably isn't . Yet at least with DNA, we have the language available and to some extent have already decoded it.
We seem far less advanced in our understanding of the software that operates consciousness , especially given that the system must incorporate several levels of software, from DNA on up, utilizing different languages and different methods of data storage and manipulation (chemical, electrical, and probably others, including perhaps quantum-mechanical  and holographic ). This complexity will, I believe, make "downloading a personality" into a computer or creating human-equivalent artificial intelligence more difficult than some think it will be, and I am concerned that elements necessary for emotional health will go missing in attempts to create such virtual humans.
In real humans, integration between the soul and the body is extremely tight. For one example, "gut feelings " can include important elements of our consciousness; nerve cells in the gut actually contain most of the serotonin in the body and cells in the gut use serotonin receptors no different from those in the brain. Serotonin  is a hugely important neurotransmitter involved in our sense of well-being and in other psychological states, including anger and mood generally. Modeling a virtual personality in ways that miss such contributions from the body outside the brain would create something less human-like than it might be, and perhaps actually inhuman.
Feelings are the guideposts to appropriate behavior  in humans and in the animal kingdom generally. Without healthy access to feeling, people can behave in shockingly horrible ways, as history and current events show only too well. How will hyper-intelligent and perhaps conscious machines without human feeling behave? It appears that we will know soon enough, for better or worse.
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There are dozens of excellent books on consciousness from widely differing perspectives. For those interested in the topic, starting points I can suggest include Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind  (mostly for its startling discussion of the many things we can do without bringing consciousness to bear, such as driving a car while daydreaming, and for the idea that consciousness itself, or at least one's style of consciousness, may be learned rather than innate), Daniel C. Dennett's classic Consciousness Explained , and Douglas Hofstadter's recent I Am a Strange Loop .
I find Dennett and Hofstadter too quick to deny consciousness to non-human animals (although both seem maddeningly vague and even contradictory on this topic). In particular, I believe they largely mistake "thinking" for "consciousness;" Hofstadter's Strange Loop includes a chapter actually titled "Consciousness = Thinking."
Nicholas Humphrey, in A History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness , describes a model of consciousness that is in some ways similar to Hofstadter's reverberating loops but grounded in the notion that other animals are conscious.
I believe the triune brain theory , described by Paul MacLean in the early 1950s and expanded upon 20 years later by psychologist Arthur Janov and neurologist E. Michael Holden, is a good tool for understanding the evolutionary underpinnings and the characteristics of different levels of consciousness, from the ancient reptilian brain to the limbic system as expanded in mammals, to the neocortex, which has become bizarrely oversized in humans. Each of these brain systems has its own style of consciousness; in humans, all three are present and (in an emotionally healthy person) smoothly communicate with each other. For a fuller description, as well as for an excellent discussion of how emotional and physical trauma create neurosis, see Arthur Janov's The Biology of Love . [Added January 2 2010: I've recently been reading some of Gerald Edelman's work , and it is by far the most persuasive theory of how the physical brain creates conscious experience; Edelman, like Janov, Holden, and MacLean, sees lower-level consciousness as something definite and real -- and active in dogs and cats and other lower animals -- although he does not distinguish between "first line" and "second line" levels in what he terms "primary consciousness." Edelman is a rigorous read, but recommended for anyone interested in the topic of how matter can create conscious experience].
One further note on the physical underpinnings of consciousness: even tiny physical structures in the brain can create sweeping changes in the form and reach of consciousness. Spindle cells  -- which so far have been found only in humans, some species of whales, and in tiny numbers in a few other primate species -- are among the clearest example of this, although the effects of spindle cells on consciousness are far from clear. For example, spindle cells are sometimes said to allow us to feel love and emotional suffering, which seems a dramatic overstatement given that dogs and other animals so clearly express love and emotional suffering. To assume these animals do not also feel love or suffering is to make a needless and unsupported leap into human chauvinism. Spindle cells may contribute to the complexity and texture of human love and suffering, but that is no reason to deny the reality and intensity of such feeling in other animals. An appreciation for music, on the other hand, may be one of the gifts that spindle cells confer upon us, and on the few other animals that have them. This is my own conjecture, but given that these very long cells move information rapidly between distant areas of the brain, and that they tap into emotional centers in the brain, it seems reasonable. To the best of my knowledge, no animals without spindle cells seem to appreciate music in the way humans do.
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If the soul is software, then our needs for love and freedom are what programmers would call hard-coded into the system. That is, the programming for those needs is built into the hardware (this is often called firmware) in a manner that cannot be changed.
People can learn to deny their needs for love and for freedom, just as they can learn to deny most other needs (even for something as basic as food; consider the anorexic). But denying needs is not the same as not having them: Our needs for love and freedom are real and unchanging, no matter how strongly we deny them. These needs are fundamental to the human condition.
The connected human duality of love and freedom cannot be denied without consequence, and we see those consequences all around us. The good news is that this truth has not been lost, and cannot be lost, for it is engraved within us.
The soul is software; software is information. The most important information about the human condition is that love and freedom together are the environment every person is born for.
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Robert Klassen's STR column this past Friday, Taboo , sparked thoughts for a column of my own on the topic of the soul. Portions of this column appeared previously in my Dogs and Love, Part I .