Your Space Suit (Chapter Two, section three)
The author draws an analogy between an astronaut’s spacesuit and the physical body. He states that the body is necessary for the soul to function in the physical world, much as a spacesuit is necessary for the astronaut to function in space. As I’ve discussed before, that we perceive ourselves as a disembodied conscious driving our bodies around is merely a quirk of our experience, and fMRI studies are providing increasingly detailed data on how our experiences are produced by our brains. Here the author is codifying that quirk of experience in a theological theory to explain the purpose of our physical body and its relationship to the soul. Interestingly, he doesn’t explain how the metaphysical soul interacts with the physical body. How, exactly, does the non-physical soul get the proper neurons in the physical brain to fire in order to wiggle it's body’s fingers?
Amusingly, the author speculates that if “an alien passing by in his spaceship” saw a human astronaut, he would assume that the suit was the actual creature he was observing, rather than the person inside. Unless that alien was made of far sturdier stuff than we are and was able to survive in the vaccum of space in nothing but its skin, any sentient being with technology advanced enough to build a spaceship would have to know that what he was looking at was a protective suit. Of course this doesn’t affect the author’s point about the real person being the soul inside the body, but as a science fiction fan I found it funny.
At this point it’s impossible for me to say whether he is right or wrong. We’ve moved passed discussing whether or not the soul actually exists. Assuming that it does, the description of the soul as “wearing” the body fits with what we experience. Not that that really matters, because once we’re assuming something that hasn’t been shown to be true and discussing aspects of it that are not testable, everyone’s theory is equally valid. It’s like assuming that dryads exist, and then discussing their relationship to trees’ growth. No one has ever seen a dryad, and there is no way of determining their effect on trees. It’s magic.
The author continues with another alien analogy. This one is about a creature who must have come from a colder planet than Earth, because he parks his spaceship on a frozen lake and wanders off for a month. When he comes back the ice has thawed and his ship is gone. The ice is analogous to the body which “is certain to “disintegrate” at the end of life.” Therefore, the author says, focusing our lives on our bodies is foolish.
This is only true if there is something else. If our bodies are all we have, then what else should we focus on? I am not advocating an irresponsible hedonistic lifestyle, but if we can responsibly indulge ourselves in physical pleasures, why shouldn’t we? In fact, one can argue that, absent the existence of an immortal soul, physical pleasures (including such ethereal forms of pleasure as happiness, satisfaction, sense of accomplishment, etc.) are the only thing of real value.
He then quotes psychologist Dr. Judith Mishell, who like him assumes the existence of the soul and that all positive human traits are to be attributed to it. She uses the analogy of a horse and rider, and explains that the rider must be in control, encouraging and caring for the horse, being considerate of its needs, but never allowing the horse to do as it pleases. Again, assuming that there is a soul, this seems good advice. If the soul is indeed the seat of all virtues, of all higher aspirations, then it is only right that it should be the rider and in control of the body.
But one could tell the same story without referencing a metaphysical soul. Using Freud’s theory of the subconscious, we could say that the Superego should be the rider and maintain tight control over the Id (and Ego) while being sensitive to its needs.
To move even further away from the metaphysical, we could say that the executive functions of the brain, the areas that produce rational thought and weigh pros and cons, should be the rider and maintain control over the emotions and instinctual urges.
Treating the soul as the person inside the body feels right intuitively, and that is why the description of it as wearing the body as suit, or of it controlling the body like a rider on a horse, is so compelling. But we must remember that our intuition is a quick and dirty system for dealing with the deluge of information with which the world inundates us, is highly dependant on past expirience, and in areas in which we are not experts is often wrong. We must refrain from attributing to the soul that which is accounted for by the physical brain (or attributing to the soul that which we don’t yet fully understand simply because of our lack of knowledge). And we must remember that when discussing metaphysical entities which no one has ever seen and which have no measurable effects, all theories about those effects and about the entity’s relationship to the physical world are equally magical.