God’s Fingernail, part three

The Soul Catch: what are we made of?

This is the third part of my series God’s Fingernail, which digs into this scraping urge I feel to map out some obscure parts of existence I can’t seem to get out of my head. This chapter is about the existence of souls, and their construction. You can read part one here, and part two here.

Earlier in this series we’ve thought about why we exist the way we do, and if there’s perhaps a reason why we sometimes might feel lost without apparent reason. We’ve looked into the beginning of our existence, of how chaos and creation might coexist in the universe and therefore in us as well.

Now, we’ll look into the red line that might tie the present us together with all other living beings throughout history, back to the beginning: our souls. We’ll speak of souls as an energy that resides within every living being, and the energy somewhat defines the character of said being.

The belief in the existence of souls, or something very like, has exuded throughout human history. Italian Dominican friar and Catholic priest St Thomas Aquinas describes the “intellectual soul” as opposed to the strictly “vegetative” and “animal” souls of living but nonthinking being as following:

The intellect has an operation in which the body has no share, as has been shown, from which it is clear that it can act on its own initiative. Therefore, it is a substance subsisting in its own being.

Much like the ancient Egyptians, St Thomas Aquinas considered the soul to be a substance on its own, even though it resides within another substance. Proposing that it cannot is called “soft dualism” (a term coined by philosopher Richard Swinburne); immortality would not be a necessity of the soul despite its subconscious independence from its host.

Consciousness and the soul

The mind is essentially intentional. There is no ‘problem of knowledge’ or ‘problem of the external world’, there is no problem about how we get to ‘extramental’ reality, because the mind should never be separated from reality from the beginning. Mind and being are moments to each other; they are not pieces that can be segmented out of the whole to which they belong.
/ Robert Sokolowski

Whether the soul is part of the body or not, one can wonder how much of the soul makes up the conscious self. Can the body, if completely material, form an identity and a thinking entity simply with biological functions?

Self-aware consciousness is a quality few species in addition to humans have. It’s the ability to rather objectively be aware of having a conscious mind, for example simply knowing that you, the self, are awake when you’re awake. Different stimuli bringing out different memories which respond both consciously and subconsciously. Now, this makes me wonder: can cells and magnetism do the same, but on a micro-level? (And is this gut-feeling disguised?)

The beginning and end of the soul

Armstrong and others point out that if the origin of the soul is postulated by dualism in the continuum of biological evolution, it is difficult to identify the source of such a dramatic leap in the progress of evolution, difficult also to locate a moment when this leap took place given the data available about the rise of species.
Richard J. Bernier

An alluring thought would be following the ancient Egyptian’s predilection for logic. In their myths there is no such thing as a clear creation of man, unlike in Christian mythology. The Egyptians saw no dividing line between gods and men; they believed that once a creation came into being it could freely evolve, whether it would become a god, demigod, spirit or man. This notion is practically Darwinian, but the very first beginning of the soul would still remain unveiled.

As we already know, depending on the particular view a soul can be seen as more of a substance or something more abstract, as part of a body, or simply inhabiting it. Physics teaches us that nothing disappears, but simply changes form; if the soul is not bound by the body it inhabited, what happens after death? Can it be split into smaller pieces, despite its form, or is its mass definite so it continues as a whole? Is it floating around, or has it a defined path? Can one soul imprint on others?

The most severe cases of retardation or advanced irreversible progressive dementia (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease) only hinder the expression of the invisible soul, which in fact still exists in all its eternal value under the veneer of confusion. Therefore (so the argument would go) caregivers need never think that their loved one is no longer present, that they have before them only a ‘shell’ or ‘husk’ or ‘half-empty’ glass. Indeed the glass is still full because the soul is still there, even if camouflaged by neurological devastation.
Stephen Post

The picture is called “The Mystery of the Human Mind” or “The Philosophical Brain”. It’s the artwork of hermetic artist Robert Fludd (1574-1637). Here he tried illustrating the way in which “the celestial world enters into the cranium”.

Source for image

The man’s face is divided into three “worlds”: the forehead, being the divine; the nose and eyes form a triangle with the forehead and the mouth make the physical world; the material world is the inverted triangle based on the jaw and the chin. The picture illustrates Fludd’s impression of how celestial forces impact the brain and its functions.

It’s based on microcosm (op. macrocosm), the Greek Neo-Platonic schema of seeing patterns reproduced in all levels of the cosmos. The concept has been adopted by sociology, and despite the social construction behind the science, repetition and symmetry is found throughout history and science.

It’s an aspect I’ve tried to emphasize: that even though it may seem unlikely, repetition and patterns may occur throughout our existence; from the structure of our cells to the movements of the celestial bodies, to the parallels of mythical figures and events supposedly creating, forming and upholding the universe as we know it.


In Sufism, Islamic mysticism, the dominant idea of the soul is called nafs, means breath, animal life, soul, spirit, self, individual, substance and essence. It is often translated (and simplified) as “soul”, but the word has limited theological and metaphysical associations and does not represent the depth and breath and the psychological meaning of the concept of nafs.

Sufis believe there are different nafses. All living things, in addition to their mineral or inorganic sate, have nafs or several nafses, depending on their level of development in the circle of evolution. The difference in these nafses are recognized by their energies and functions.

There are vegetative nafs (nafs-i- nebāti), which are the most basic existing in all living things; nutrition, growth and reproduction are all manifestations of this nafs. The next stage of development is the animal nafs (nafs-i- haiwāni), which consists of two major forces: driving forces and the perceptual forces.

The driving force (qūwat-i- muharrika), quwā meaning forces, energies and powers, and muharrika meaning impulse, stimuli and that which induces action and movement. These are the sensual force (quwāt-i- shahwāni), a sexual or libidinous force, and the rage force, (qūwat-i- ghazabi), the force of rage, anger and aggression.

Nafs is perceived as a concrete entity; a totem beast, if you will. It’s the most truthful self, and therefore primal and untamed. The approach to this “animal within” is not to kill or destroy it, but to develop the ability of harnessing its energy for further psychospiritual growth.

To be aware of and harnessing the energies of this “animal within”, the traveller (i.e. the person wishing to find him/herself) will provide him-/herself with the psychological ability for moving further along the Path of Reality (every religion hosts a version of this, be it Heaven, Nirvana or Zen, amongst others). Through the experience of silence in meditation and transcending the boundaries of thought process and language, one can gradually experience the deepest level of unconscious forces of animal nafs within.

Sufis believe it’s an illusion to see human beings as different and separate from nature and the universe. It’s an illusion of distorted values, and preoccupation with having and possessing rather than with living and being, or as it’s called in Western terms, social construction. I’m proposing that it is possible to be aware of the presumed patterns of our cosmos, and to feel connected (or disconnected) to them.

Peace and love

Peace and unity with oneself and one’s nafses cannot be achieved without understanding two other factors; fanā and ishq.

Fanā means passing away, vanishing, annihilation and nothingness; can be translated as “freedom from the self” or “loss of self”. It’s funny, as a Western student familiar with Durkheim’s Suicide, “loss of self” sounds almost too dystopic because of the clang of anemia, but in the East “loss of self” means the utopia opposite. Fanā is, swiftly explained, a feeling of being light, as though all burdens of the world has been lifted, and a general feeling of oneness with all.

Freedom of the self means primarily a gradual quiescence of one’s wishes and desires. It’s not a feeling of lonely helplessness with no context. Fanā can only be achieved by (and emphasize on) total absorption in the task at hand much like complete flow. Maturity and freedom occur in human beings by returning to one’s origin.

… Everything in the world of existence has an end and a goal. The end is maturity and the goal is freedom. For example, fruit grows on the tree until it is ripe and then falls. The ripened fruit represents maturity and the fallen fruit freedom.

Forgetting our origin in nature is a tendency to avoid the sadness and anxieties of separation, which results in hijāb (veiling, concealing, and specifically, ignorance). According to Sufism, ignorance is by far the worst possible punishment, way worse than hell. One of the great early authors of Sufism, Ali al- Tirmidhí, wrote explicitly that “you wish to know God while your lower soul subsists in you; but your lower soul does not know itself, how should it know another?

Clearly, throughout history and beyond cultures, an idea of the benefits of deep self-knowledge has been preserved. Despite his flaws, Maslow’s inspiring epitome of being human is

… experiencing fully, vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption; […] letting one’s true self emerge rather than being enslaved by parental or societal expectations; honesty at a time of doubt; […] discovering one’s strengths, shortcomings, and pathological defense mechanisms, and finding effective ways of freeing the self from defensive postures, allowing oneself to experience […] the sacred, the eternal, the symbolic.

Personally, I believe that souls do exist, and that they remember an ocean of events our conscious selves will have great difficulty tapping into. This would mean that knowledge and experience from many years past reside within us, and perhaps the only way to access it is to adapt a mindful, deep connection to the very core of your being.

Without growing religious or diving into new age-methods of mindfulness, we’ll look further into this cosmic self-discovery in the conclusion. So far we’ve considered our place in the universe, and how we relate to it and everything it contains. We’ve taken a fleeting look at how our souls fit into all this, and how to perhaps learn to know yourself a little better.

In the conclusion, we’ll look into understanding the primal chaos we may be carrying in our DNA. We’ll think about how to better understand and accept said chaos, and hopefully tie it into the nice little bow I promised so long ago.

What do you think about all this? Do you believe in the existence of souls? Tell me in the comments below.

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