Anima is a beautiful word, but many prejudices weigh on it. It originates from the air, from the breath, from the wind. Airy and impalpable, linked to life and consciousness, once upon a time everyone knew they had one and believed it to be immortal.
With the passage of time and the accumulation of knowledge – especially those concerning neurobiology – things have changed; the soul has lost its poetry, it is no longer a gift from a god, it is not the sign of our divine kinship. Maybe it doesn’t even exist anymore. New visions, new anthropologies have relegated the soul and the hopes that she gave to the sphere of myth, fairy tales, religion, the residue of a naive time and incompatible with modernity (whatever is meant by modernity, a concept far from how simple).
We have already had the opportunity to talk about the soul in a previous article, Does the soul exist? presenting a book by Adin Steinsaltz in which the author does not pose the problem of the existence of the soul, which he takes for granted, but rather that of his care, and urges us not to make the serious mistake of neglecting it.
Now, the recent reissue of a book by Gianfranco Ravasi Brief history of the soul (the Assayer) allows us to return to the subject. For those who know the author, it goes without saying that it is a very cultured book, written with an elegant and flowing style that takes the reader, without any effort, on a path that spans many centuries and ranges from religion to philosophy, from literature to poetry and music.
It is a long journey, as Ravasi defines it, on the river of the history of the concept of soul that begins with the most ancient conceptions of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and Arabia. Where did the idea of the soul come from in ancient peoples? Ravasi identifies three elements: the confrontation between life and death; the experience of sleep and dreams; religious sentiment. The concept of soul was born as “the fruit of an intuition and a spiritual experience” which made its existence evident.
Each culture then attributed different characteristics to it. There are two “sources of the river of the soul” as far as the West is concerned, continues Ravasi. On the one hand, the world of classical Greece, of myths and of Platonic philosophy which consider the soul to be the best part of the human being, the immortal one, trapped by a body which prevents its freedom and the ascent to the empyrean to which it is destined. On the other hand, the world of the Bible in which the soul «does not flutter in the sky like an angelic butterfly but is intimately compact with the flesh of man so as to constitute a single living being. The biblical soul is rather the transcendent dimension of the person… It is the effective sign of our intimacy with God and therefore our capacity for eternity». The fact that in the first Greek translation of the Bible is mostly rendered with the term psyché the Hebrew nefesh which means properly life (but not only), makes Umberto Galimberti say that the concept of soul does not exist in the biblical world.
His observation doesn’t seem entirely convincing since nefesh is what theadam (the earthly) becomes after God has breathed life into it (Gen 2:7). Therefore it is not a matter of purely biological life, it is something that is transmitted by the breath of God. If it is not the soul, it is very similar to us. Then these two branches of the river of the soul, to continue Ravasi’s metaphor, merged together in the Christianity of the first centuries, with a certain prevalence of the Greek vision of a clear separation between body (negative) and soul (positive). We have paid a heavy price for the consequences of this idea until recently and, perhaps, many still fail to escape it entirely.
Ravasi loves triptychs, and structures his journey along three paths (religious soul, philosophical soul, poetic soul). He then observes the profile of the soul drawn by Christian theology, then goes on to outline the image of the soul that emerges from the complex reflection of Western philosophy and, finally, dwells on the “gaze cast on the mystery of the spirit by the intuition literary”. To conclude, he enters the «neuroscience laboratory to meet that neuronal man that some would like stripped of the soul” and reduced to the 100 billion neurons of the brain. A man who has become only “a stupendous cerebral machine”. The descent of the steps seems so complete that from the convinced pride of being the summit of creation, has led us to democratically think of ourselves as only animals among the others, to go down again (with a little concern) to discover that we are nothing but complex and wonderful machines…
One moment. Maybe we can not go down, or at least slow down the descent! Although it may seem paradoxical to some, it is precisely the advance of scientific knowledge that drives us to be cautious and not to draw hasty conclusions, because we are still far from knowing the reality of things, which is much more complex than we see it. In the world of Newtonian physics, that of large and massive objects such as we are, whoever believes in what he does not see may seem like a visionary; in the world of quantum physics (that of reality in its essence) it would be naive to believe only in the visible, in what our senses can perceive and is only an aspect of reality. Matter (therefore the world and us too) is essentially made up of waves, flows of information, relationships, interactions, clouds of possibilities. This is the true reality which then expresses itself in the forms knowable by our senses. Is Vito Mancuso right, perhaps, when he affirms that the spirit/matter dualism is outdated but that reality could be dual, that is, manifest itself in two forms, spirit and matter? Why not? The example of photons having a dual nature and manifesting themselves sometimes as waves, sometimes as particles can provide us with a good example of a dual nature. Maybe ours is too? Can we keep the hope of having a soul, a non-physical part, something of our own that a machine can never have?
Federico Faggin, an Italian naturalized American physicist who invented the computer microchip and the touch screen technology that we all use today, is absolutely convinced of this. For his inventions he is internationally recognized as an authority in the field of computers. It is said that Silicon Valley, where he has worked for several decades, would not be what it is without him. Faggin recently published a new book, Irreducible. Consciousness, life, the computer and our nature (Mondadori), in which he explains why no computer, for how long intelligent, can ever be like man. The difference lies, brutally put in two words, in the fact that the former will never be able to have a conscience, because it will always be a machine that receives the elements of which it is composed from whoever builds it; to give him a conscience we would need to clone ours and transfer it to the computer. But consciousness, which is the ability to be aware of existing and, at the same time, aware to know you existis a quantum phenomenon, argues Faggin, which cannot be cloned because it can only be known from within the systemnon-deterministic and non-predictable.
A machine, on the other hand, is a system that responds to classical, Newtonian physics. It can know many things, perhaps infinite things, and a quantum computer will be able to process data in an incomparably superior way to ours, but unlike us humans, it will never know that it knows. One day machines will be able to solve all problems, he says quoting Einstein, but none of them will ever be able to pose one. Consciousness and soul are words that express a very similar reality, to the point of being able to be used synonymously, as the philosopher Richard Swinburne chooses to do: «Consciousness… cannot be the property of a simple body, of a material object. It must be the property of something else connected with the body; and to that something else I will give the traditional name of soul» (R. Swinburne, Does God exist?). However, it is true that the use of the word ‘soul’ tends to arouse some bewilderment, as can be seen in the beautiful interview conducted by Giorgio Zanchini with Federico Faggin in the broadcast A world of books; Zanchini seems baffled and observes that the idea of conscience that Faggin presents «brings us back to an idea that seems similar to that of the old soul». To which he replies, chuckling a little: «Yes, it’s similar. Why should it be false because it’s an old idea?”
In the end, who knows, maybe science will save our souls!