Tuesday, 18 September 2012

A Philosopher, an Economist, a Psychologist and a Physicist Walks into the Unknown - Four Takes on Souls and Soul Mates

With my background from the arts and particularly literature studies, I have been fascinated with the soul. Remember, this is what Faust sold to Mephistopheles or the devil in Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and Goethe's Faust. It is also what Dorian Gray pledges in order for Basil Hallward's picture of him to age and be marred instead of him in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Most religions recognise some sort of human spirit and many major philosophies as well. I follow neither, but I am curious about how the soul works if it exists. Is it, for instance, possible to sell one's soul, making a deal with the devil and what about soulmates? Do they exist or is it true what Emily Dickinson wrote, that "the soul selects her own society, then shuts the door"?

The reason I am writing about this now is that I recently came up with a plan. Atheists do not believe in a soul because it cannot be scientifically proven to exist. So, I figured taking inspiration from the Freakonomics podcast, what's to stop me from buying it off one of them and selling it on in a crossroads at midnight like blues guitarists like Robert Johnson claimed to have done? Imagine, I could get Faust's knowledge and pleasures of the world, Dorian Gray's eternal life and beauty and Johnson's guitar skills and not lose my own soul (if it exists)!

The plan proved trickier than I thought. I couldn't find any Atheists willing to sell their supposedly non-existent souls. I thought it would be like getting money for nothing for them, but no, they seemed reluctant to part with it.

Cue the philosopher and the economist:

The Philosopher and the Economist:
Michael Sandel and Stephen Dubner

Michael Sandel
Sandel: Well, it strikes me…The first thing that strikes me about it is that it’s a very old idea. It’s not new. Think of the indulgences of the medieval period. And it was after all the sale of indulgences, which is pretty close. Is there a difference between selling your soul and buying salvation? If you can buy a person’s soul, it’s pretty closely akin to buying salvation, which was, you remember that was the practice that was carried out in the Catholic Church at the time that Martin Luther rose up against indulgences, against the buying and selling of salvation.

In the above mentioned podcast, economy journalist Stephen Dubner co-author of the Freakonomics blog and books, talked to Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard University. The background was a case where someone had actually managed to buy another person's soul for $50.

Stephen Dubner
Dubner: [...] if I offered to buy your soul for fifty dollars what would you say? [...]Let’s say that I feel that you are not exercising it properly, that you are not taking seriously enough for my taste and my moral code the responsibility of this spiritual entity known as a soul, and I therefore am willing to pay dollars in order to better curate that soul because I do believe in the sanctity of the soul, and rather than see you not tend yours properly I’m willing to pay the price to take over that responsibility.

The two ponders this for a while. If it is possible to buy one soul, why not buy many? I could, for instance, buy a great amount of souls and sell them on to a religious church for a profit. As Sandel pointed out, medieval Christians bought abstract products like salvation. We buy the feeling of safety when we buy insurance and a feeling of self when we buy new clothes or other items. Dubner suggests that when a church converts followers of different faiths, they should pay a fee for each follower's soul.

Sandel: A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable tool. It’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence, and prosperity. It’s a tool that we use, that we put to our purposes. But as markets and market thinking come to inform all aspects of life, as everything becomes available for sale, we become a market society, which is a way of thinking and being, an unreflective way of thinking and being that just assumes that all the good things in life can in principle be up for sale. And that, I think diminishes a great many moral and civic goods that markets and market relations don’t honor, and that money can’t or shouldn’t buy.

So, the morality of buying and selling on a soul would be problematic. What, then, if I knew someone really lonely and wanted to give him or her a soulmate? Imagine I had bought a guy's soul and I found someone who I thought would go really well together with him. Could I make him fall in love?

Cue the psychologist:

The Psychologist
Jeremy Nicholson

Jeremy Nicholson, M.S.W., Ph.D, is a doctor of social and personality psychology who focuses on persuasion and dating and calls himself "The Attraction Doctor". He writes for Psychology Today:

Jeremy Nicholson
Nicholson: [...]according to a January 2011 Marist poll, 73% of Americans believe that they are destined to find their one, true, soul mate. The percentage is a bit higher for men (74%) than women (71%). The notion is also higher among younger individuals, with 79% of those under 45 believing in soul mates (as opposed to 69% of those over 45).

Nicholson refers to the researcher Knee, who found that people who believe in romantic destiny or soul mates almost never finds what they are looking for. They think they do, though, and for a while all is well.

Nicholson: In all relationships, however, disagreement, conflict, and incompatibility will arise. Ultimately, no one is perfect - or a perfect fit for a partner. It takes work, growth, and change to keep a relationship going and satisfying over time. When that happens, soul mate believers often become upset, disillusioned, and uncommitted.

They then break off the relationship and goes on in search for the next, "real" soul mate. In other words, I wouldn't have much luck pairing them up, at least based on the idea of soul mates. This idea is beginning to look more and more like a fallacy. Maybe the Atheists are right and the soul doesn't exist, or perhaps souls just don't match.

Nicholson: People who believe in romantic growth primarily look for someone who will work and grow with them, resolving conflicts as they arise. [...]they are motivated to solve them and stay committed to their partner. As a result, their relationships tend to be longer and more satisfying over time. Rather than rejecting a partner for minor disagreements, they work together, evolve, and grow a satisfying relationship. In the end, it is a bit of a cruel joke. A belief in soul mates may prevent individuals from finding the very relationships they think they are destined to have.
In any case, what is the likelyhood of finding two souls to match? Are the soul mate fans really doomed?

Cue the physicist:

The Physicist
Randall Munroe

Looking for a soul mate
Munroe: For starters, is your soul mate even still alive? A hundred billion or so humans have ever lived, but only seven billion are alive now (which gives the human condition a 93% mortality rate). If we’re all paired up at random, 90% of our soul mates are long dead.

Randall Munroe is an introvert physics graduate from CNU who used to work for NASA. He figures that in addition to most of your soul mates being dead, many of them aren't born yet, not of your sexual preferance or in your target age group. Munroe calculates that that leaves you with around half a billion potential matches. Then, of course, you will have to meet.

Munroe: Let’s suppose you lock eyes with an average of a few dozen new strangers each day. (I’m pretty introverted, so for me that’s definitely a generous estimate.) If 10% of them are close to your age, that’s around 50,000 people in a lifetime. Given that you have 500,000,000 potential soul mates, it means you’ll only find true love in one lifetime out of ten thousand.

 So, you will need a lot of time to find the soul mate. In addition, they will need a lot of time to find you. Therefore, if you believe in soul mates, the chance of finding yours before you die is 1: (10.000*10.000) or ONE IN 100 MILLION! 

What to do with insubstantial property?

This means that if I bought a soul, assuming it exists and assunimg has a mate, I would have to try to pair it with a hundred million times more souls that I would ever meet in a lifetime. It seems that the idea of a soul mate is fundamentally flawed, unhealthy and should be buried. No use in buying a number of souls and setting up a dating agency. In the end, it turns out that Wilde and Goethe were right. It seems it's only the good and bad forces of religion and their representatives here on Earth who would find any value in a soul. If I ever get a few to spare, it seems I would be best off selling or donating them on to whichever I find most deserving.

Rembrandt's Faust having a bad idea

The danger is that if there should happen to be an afterlife and I would get there after I die, I would be saddled with whatever souls I couldn't sell off for all eternity. 

Alternatively, if reincarnation is the thing....

I might get merged!

Cue dramatic suspense music.

What do you think? 

Do you believe in souls and soul mates and do you think belief is a central element here? If souls do exist, should we have moral qualms in buying and selling them like Sandel suggests? Also, soul mates aside, both the psychologist and physician are fairly dismissive of short, frequent relationships. Are they right in being so? 

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome!

Sources: 1, 2, 3, images as given


  1. Gøy lesning, og godt skrevet! Jeg tror nok litt mer i retning av fysikeren her, altså at det er enormt mange potensielle soulmates, men at det er vanskelig å treffe dem av statistiske årsaker. Jeg er nok av de som tror at "romantic growth" er en viktig ting. Når det er sagt, er jeg glad for at jeg har muligheten til å velge partner selv, ut fra tiltrekning, i stedet for at mamma og pappa skulle valgt en til meg. En komboløsning der, altså. Men til syvende og sist må man jo legge en god del arbeid i det for å få beholde soulmaten sin gjennom livet. Det tror jeg de fleste gamle ektepar kan skrive under på.

    Ikke verst at jeg faktisk leste hele innlegget denne gangen, da! Bra jobba, kiz ;)

    1. How nice! That certainly boosted my "average time spent on site" statistic!

      Yes, it's seldom very clear cut. Where is for instance the distinction between identity and soul? Both are what is considered to be specific to one person but an identity can be a part of something bigger. You can identify yourself as part of a couple. Soul, on the other hand is a tad more airy and probably less constructive.

      So if you look at a couple as two people sharing an identity, I think that is much more versatile than the whole soul mate thing. Identity can be mapped, taken apart and rebuilt - leaving room for that "romantic growth". This approach also explains why arranged marriages are not optimal. You need that bit of shared identity to start with.

      Say you meet while dancing, singing or performing any sort of art. In that case, the identity you share in the onset is that of someone practicing that art. Nothing much to do with soul, but something to develop and pretty sweet nonetheless!