01/04/2008 11:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The "Soul Hypothesis"

The current divisive atmosphere makes it appear that each of us must choose sides. In particular, a rash of books equating atheism and science poses the choice between rational materialism and organized religion -- God or Einstein, in effect, despite the fact that Einstein himself made room for God in his worldview. But why can't spirituality be aligned with reason? One doesn't have to blindly accept religious dogma to believe in the soul. Like any theory that needs proving, the soul is a hypothesis that can be tested. Such testing doesn't take place in a lab. Each person is a living example of the soul hypothesis, and throughout life we can use our own experience to prove whether the soul is valid and real.

On the face of it, atheism is a weak position in terms of science. It, too, is a hypothesis, but it lacks any system of proof, in large part because trying to prove that something doesn't exist is nearly impossible -- no matter how many logical reasons that are mounted against God, no actual experiment is ever advanced, no test group, no controls. Atheism leans heavily on rhetoric and dogmatic assertion, neither of which is science. But the ethos of science lends a cloak of credibility to spiritual debunking in general and prevents people from conducting their own experiments.

What would it be like to experimentally prove that the soul exists? Since by definition each of us is said to possess a soul, the question has personal relevance to everyone.

First, it seems best to clear one's mind of preconceived notions. Organized religions have not settled the existence of God or the soul. If they had, we would not be seeing so much conflict among faiths (or the bloody wars that result, with total unreason, in defense of unproven dogmas). It may be that a scholar, sage, or saint from the past has proven the existence of God, but they did so for themselves. Our task isn't to accept their answer second hand but to retrace the process that they followed.

The process is actually simple: Behave as if you have a soul. Do this for long enough time to gather evidence that your hypothetical soul does in fact correspond to reality as you experience it. We follow this process all the time in other aspects of life. As children we acted as if our parents loved us and wanted to protect us. Life then went on to inform us if our assumption was true. Besides love, qualities like trust, loyalty, and friendship are enmeshed in the same process, because it never ends. We act on these qualities as if they exist, but when we get evidence that they don't, our view of the situation must change. Friends stop behaving like friends, lovers lose interest and withdraw their love. If lovers and friends remain constant, we can truthfully say that they are proving themselves to be real. The soul must live up to the same standard of constancy.

In relation to the soul, the process is more subtle, however. Assuming that you have a soul is easy enough -- millions of people casually make that assumption. But we aren't so good at gathering evidence to see if our assumption is right or wrong. How is such evidence gathered and, to be more basic, what kind of evidence are we talking about?

(to be cont.)