Thursday, 7 July 2016

Souls And Belief

Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword (London, 1977), Chapter XVIII, p. 123.

Freda refers to elves and trolls as "...two soulless tribes..."

If "soul" means self-conscious/intelligent, then elves and trolls have souls whereas, if it means an immortal immaterial intelligence, then I believe that human beings are soulless. Indeed, the Buddha taught anatta, "no soul." However, The Broken Sword is a fantasy that assumes the truth of certain medieval beliefs.

Freda also thinks:

"...surely God would not withhold belief from a man like this."

I think that beliefs should be based on evidence and reason. From evidence, e.g., that ships sink beneath the horizon, we reason that the earth is not flat and believe that it is round. Sometimes belief is strong enough to count as knowledge although there is no clear dividing line. Knowledge is a matter not of inner certainty but of conclusive evidence and irrefutable reasoning. I know that there is no highest prime number because the proof is mathematically certain.

Some Christians think that belief is based on choice and that unbelievers are condemned for making the wrong choice. Another strand in theistic religion holds that belief is entirely bestowed by God. See here. In Biblical terminology, the heart was the organ of understanding. Thus, the hard-hearted were not the uncompassionate but those who lacked understanding. God hardened the Pharaoh's heart, i.e., prevented him from understanding, so that He would be able to demonstrate his power by sending the plagues. Thus, in Calvinist predestinationism, God alone determines who believes and is saved and also who disbelieves and is damned. In fact, I think that Calvinists go further and say that some may believe yet still be damned. But, in any case, they hold that whether we believe or not is entirely determined by God. Freda seems to hold this view.

Addendum: See A Peculiar Question.


  1. Kaor, Paul!

    Your comments about the soul differs from what is the Catholic belief and teaching. As Fr. John Hardon, SJ, said on pages 412-13 of his POCKET CATHOLIC DICTIONARY (Image/Doubleday: 1980, 1985): "SOUL. The spiritual, immortal part in human beings that survives their bodies. Though a substance in itself, the soul is naturally ordained toward a body; separated, it is an "incomplete" substance. The soul has no parts, it is therefore simple, but it is not without accidents. The faculties are its proper accidents. Every experience adds to its accidental form. It is individually created for each person by God and infused into the body at the time of human insemination. It is moreover created in respect to the body it will inform, so that the substance of bodily features and of mental characteristics insofar as they depend on organic functions is safeguarded. As a simple and spiritual substance, the soul cannot die. Yet it is not the total human nature, since a human person is composed of body animated by the soul. In philosophy, animals and plants are also said to have souls, which operate as sensitive and vegetative principles of life. Unlike the human spirit, these souls are perishable. The rational soul contains all the powers of the two other souls and is the origin of the sensitive and vegetative functions in the human being."

    As a result I have to conclude that elves and trolls, despite the common belief to the contrary in THE BROKEN SWORD, do have immortal souls. Because they too are rational beings.


    1. Sean,
      I agree that IF Catholic teaching is true and IF elves and trolls are rational beings, THEN they have souls. I said this about the mermen in some previous post.
      I now think that:
      a human being is a psychophysical organism;
      organismic sensitivity to environmental alterations quantitatively increased until it was qualitatively transformed into conscious sensation;
      cooperative action on and manipulation of the environment led to thinking about it;
      consciousness and thought are functions of the brain and will end with it;
      I will be very surprised if they don't!

    2. Kaor, Paul!

      And I DO believe the Catholic teaching about the soul is true. And while I think I understand your argument, as summarized above, I believe the Aristotelian/Scholastic arguments makes more sense. Mortimer Adler went into far more detail about the human being or soul in his book THE DIFFERENCE OF MAN AND THE DIFFERENCE IT MAKES than Fr. Hardon could do in a brief dictionary entry.

      I really do think you will be surprised, along with the elves and trolls, to discover the soul survives death.


    3. Sean,
      Whereas you will not be surprised if there is no hereafter. This is the logical oddity about this question.

    4. Sean,
      Scientists account for plant and animal life without referring to souls. Life began because there was (i) an energy source, (ii) complex chemistry and (iii) enough time for complex molecules to change randomly until one became self-replicating. Then, natural selection favored multicellular organisms which became increasingly sensitive until some became conscious.

    5. Kaor, Paul!

      Correct, I cannot be surprised to find out, if that idea is true, that there is no afterlife. Because if there is nothing after death I won't KNOW it.

      And while I agree the argument you outline makes sense when understood as telling us HOW life arose, it does not tell us what is the inner ESSENCE or "why" of life.

      Even in Poul Anderson's "The Little Monster" we see even the most primitive men groping for understanding and transcendence.


    6. Sean,
      I think the essence is energy which expresses itself in many forms. Understanding and transcendence, yes. But I do not think that the transcendent can be a person.

    7. Kaor, Paul!

      Alas, I have to fundamentally disagree with you. Because if God exists, that alone proves the Infinitely Transcendent Other IS a Person.


    8. Sean,
      I agree that "...if..."