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Society of Mind

4.3 the soul

And we thank Thee that darkness reminds us of light. —T.S. Eliot

A common concept of the soul is that the essence of a self lies in some spark of invisible light, a thing that cowers out of body, out of mind, and out of sight. But what might such a symbol mean? It carries a sense of anti-self-respect: that there is no significance in anyone's accomplishments.

People ask if machines can have souls. And I ask back whether souls can learn. It does not seem a fair exchange — if souls can live for endless time and yet not use that time to learn — to trade all change for changelessness. And that's exactly what we get with inborn souls that cannot grow: a destiny the same as death, an ending in a permanence incapable of any change and, hence, devoid of intellect.

Why try to frame the value of a Self in such a singularly frozen form? The art of a great painting is not in any one idea, nor in a multitude of separate tricks for placing all those pigment spots, but in the great network of relationships among its parts. Similarly, the agents, raw, that make our minds are by themselves as valueless as aimless, scattered daubs of paint. What counts is what we make of them.

We all know how an ugly husk can hide an unexpected gift, like a treasure buried in the dust or a graceless oyster bearing a pearl. But minds are just the opposite. We start as little embryos, which then build great and wondrous selves — whose merit lies entirely within their own coherency. The value of a human self lies not in some small, precious core, but in its vast, constructed crust.

What are those old and fierce beliefs in spirits, souls, and essences? They're all insinuations that we're helpless to improve ourselves. To look for our virtues in such thoughts seems just as wrongly aimed a search as seeking art in canvas cloths by scraping off the painter's works.