Almost from the moment that modern humans appeared on the scene tens of thousands of years ago, they seem to have possessed a vague notion that they were more than the physical

bodies that were born of women, grew and aged, eventually ceased to move and breathe, and finally disintegrated into a small pile of dusty bones. At some point in their development, people in almost every culture have imagined invisible spirits acting as agents for events around them, including the animation of living things such as themselves. Such thinking was perfectly reasonable during the childhood of humanity. One moment a person is talking and walking around and in another moment he is forever silent and immobile.


Whatever animated the person was suddenly absent. Furthermore, a dead person still seemed to live on in thoughts and dreams—a ghostly spirit surviving death.

A widespread ancient belief held that the heart is the center of being and intelligence. This idea carries metaphorically down to today, as when we say someone has a “good heart” or talk about some act “coming from the heart.” When Egyptian priests prepared

the dead for their afterlife, they disposed of the brain but kept the heart within the body.

Early Greek philosophers, such as Empedocles (d. 490 BCE), attributed thinking and feeling to an immortal soul that resides around the heart but leaves the body after death.

The brain was not regarded as an important organ in ancient times, although Alcmaeon (c. 500) declared, “All senses are connected to the brain.” Still, like other ancient Greeks, he viewed the body as containing channels for spirits (pneumata) that were composed of air—one of the four elements of the cosmos that included fire, earth, and water. Plato (c. 347 BCE) placed a “vegetative soul” in the gut, a “vital soul” in the heart, and an

immortal soul in the head. His most famous student, Aristotle (d. 322 BCE), restored the immortal soul to the heart. Whatever its location, in the common view the soul was a conduit for spirits— the force that gave a body life and thought.

The association of spirit with air is embedded in a number of ancient languages: the Hebrew ruah (“wind” or “breath”) and nefesh, also associated with breathing; the Greek psychein (“to breathe”), which is related to the word psyche for “soul”; and the Latin words anima (“air,” “breath,” or “life”) and spiritus, which also refers to breathing.2 The soul was seen as departing the body in the dying last breath.

In Hawaii, native shamans attempted to breathe life back into a dead body by shouting “ha!” Western doctors were seen not to do this and so were said to be “ha-ole”—without ha. In today’s diverse population in Hawaii, Caucasians are commonly called haoles.

In the Old Testament, the soul is life itself, breathed into the body by God. While traditional Judaism does not regard death as the end of human existence, it has no dogma of an afterlife, and a range of opinions can be found among Jewish scholars. Christianity,

on the other hand, made human immortality its foundational principle, the doctrine probably most responsible for the long success of that faith. The power of Islam can also be attributed to the promise of an afterlife, with dark-eyed maidens providing

eternal pleasure (for men, anyway).

Following the teaching of the Greek physician Galen (d. 201), early church fathers located the immortal soul in the empty spaces of the head. However, Christendom lost touch with Greek philosophy after the fall of Rome in 476 until the ancient writings were

recovered in the twelfth century, mostly from Islamic sources.

Christians did not take well to the teachings of the Greek atomists, who challenged the whole notion of an immortal soul.

Epicurus (d. 270 BCE) taught that the soul was made of matter, like everything else. The soul atoms were concentrated in the chest and took life with them when a body died. In De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), the Roman poet Lucretius (d. 55 BCE) wrote, “Death is therefore nothing to us and does not concern us at all, since it appears that the substance of the soul is perishable.

When the separation of body and soul, whose union is the essence of our being, is consummated, it is clear that absolutely nothing will be able to reach us and awaken our sensibility, not even if earth mixes with sea and seas with heaven.”

Most laypeople today take for granted a separateness or “duality” of soul and body, of     spirit and matter. However, this distinction was not made clear-cut until the seventeenth century, when Rene Descartes (d. 1650) found a way to reconcile atoms and soul. This was the age when machines were coming into common use. Descartes was a contemporary of Galileo Galilei (d.1642), two generations ahead of Isaac Newton (d. 1727).

The French thinker developed many of the mathematical methods such as representing curves by equations and the Cartesian coordinate system that would receive wide application in the new science of mechanics that was elaborated by Newton.

Descartes argued that animals, including humans, were intricate, material machines—designed by God, of course (he was terrified of the Inquisition). However, he argued that humans possess an additional ingredient that is not composed of the basic particles of matter: an immaterial soul. The soul did everything that machines were presumably not capable of doing: thinking, consciousness, will, abstraction, doubt, and understanding.

Descartes speculated that the pineal gland of the brain marked the place where the soul and the brain interacted.

Descartes was also a contemporary of Thomas Hobbes (d.1679), who agreed with him on the machinelike nature of the human body but viewed the notion of an additional, immaterial soul as a delusion. Hobbes even went further in proposing that

society itself could be understood as a clockwork mechanism and, in his most famous work, Leviathan, first published in 1652, he attempted to deduce the optimum political structure.

 He determined it to be dictatorship, by a king or otherwise. At this significant turning point in history, empirical science in Europe was beginning to raise doubts about the blind obedience to authority that had stifled progress for centuries.

Copernicus and Galileo had based their new cosmology, which challenged the teachings of Aristotle, on empirical data—setting the stage for the Newtonian revolution. But, even before that happened,      a brave new breed of empiricists was taking a closer look at the bodies of humans and animals.


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