On the morning news today, I learned that the Pope is to answer questions that will be put to him by the public over the Easter holiday. It seems that one of the questions that has been selected is to be asked by a mum who’s son is, at present, in a coma. The question is: where is my son’s soul? It is a good question for us to contemplate. Let’s firstly deal with the matter of what is meant by the word ‘soul’. Some people may prefer the term ‘spirit’ to express the same idea. However, many people, religious or otherwise, are convinced that some part of what we essentially ‘are’ survives death. For our purposes, we can think of the word ‘soul’ as referring to that entity.
Before we go any further, we should recognise that there are those who would argue that there is no soul at all and that the only part of us that exists is physical. They would argue that the mind is what the brain does; using a computer analogy, that it is the program that the wetware runs. They would propose that when the body dies, the brain dies and the mind ceases to exist. For such people, because nothing survives death, there simply is no soul, or spirit if you prefer.
For others, the dead still exist somewhere, perhaps in another dimension of reality or possibly even in a different reality. Personally, I don’t see why that idea should sound so unbelievable to some people. I remember, on one occasion, someone talking about the subject of reincarnation – something I had completely discounted as a possibility – and, what I consider to be a very strong point emerged. She said that if she eventually found herself waking up in another lifetime, she would find it no more remarkable than having first turned up in the present one.
The belief in an afterlife might simply be a quite natural hope of the human condition and, I think, that’s how many non-religious people view the suggestion. As it is sometimes put: pie in the sky when you die, by and by. For those who do believe, there appears to be plenty of evidence, but personally, I think you can produce evidence for absolutely anything that you believe in. Whatever so-called evidence can be produced – near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, religious experiences, spirits, ghosts etc – is usually very shaky and generally divides people, in terms of their opinions.
The fact is that you either believe or you don’t. Personally, I think that whatever your own beliefs on the matter, we should recognise that we just don’t know for sure. Even those religious stalwarts who tell us that they ‘know that they know’; they also don’t really know. Yes, they are convinced, but they don’t really know; that is a different matter. Similarly, those strong atheists who are convinced that existence can only be explained in scientific terms also don’t know. Again, they may be convinced, but they don’t really know.
When we champion the case, one way or another, we are exercising faith. Faith is, according to the Bible, ‘the substance of things hoped for’ and it is a definition I particularly like. According to Christianity, it is necessary to believe, in order to be saved. If Christians were to properly digest that fact, perhaps it might liberate them from feeling the necessity to convince other people that they ‘know that they know’. Similarly, people like Richard Dawkins, who want to tell the world that science has disproved the existence of God also need to take a reality check. Whatever such people think, this is also not true.
What the nature of reality is and whether or not we survive death are some of the big questions that I believe we are here to contemplate. When we come to accept that the evidence really is inconclusive, we must also accept that it is impossible to make a logical judgement on the matter. That leaves intuition as the only real tool for making a decision; that’s why, I think, that many religions talk about the heart because the language of the heart is, essentially, the language of intuition. It is all well and good for us to come to our own decision on the matter, but we should also understand that such a decision cannot be based upon the inconclusive evidence, it is not based on anything logical at all; it is based on intuition.
When we come to the place where we realise that any ‘knowing’ about the matter, on our part, is an intuitive knowing, not a logical ‘knowing’, then we can understand what is meant by faith. Both religious individuals and atheists exercise the same depth of faith and, in both cases, the evidence begins to look compelling after an intuitive decision is made. This is the mental trap from which we need to escape in order to be able to give others proper respect for their opinions and beliefs. I think that this is the biggest challenge we face in the modern world.
So where is the soul of the person in the coma? It cannot be a matter of opinion, of course. There is a truth somewhere, even if we cannot all be agreed on the matter. The only real answer is that we cannot know because we cannot even determine whether or not the soul exists. Of course, this is the reason that the person will be asking the Pope: if we cannot know, then who can? The answer, for the religious, is that God knows and therefore the only way to find out is through revelation.
We can expect that the Pope will be very well-versed in the Bible, of course, but personally I don’t think he is entitled to any kind of special access to revelation. In other words, for those religious people who believe in the possibility, I think an answer can come from personal revelation or, to use a phrase that might be more palatable for those with a less religious outlook, the process of introspection. I think, most importantly, when we find our own answer to the question, we must understand that we may not agree with others, but they are, most certainly, entitled to their own opinion.