What is a soul being

Does man really have a soul?

Ernst Waelti was about to fall asleep when he felt his body freeze. He tried to move his hands, but couldn't. As much as he tried to flex a finger, no muscle obeyed. He couldn't even open his eyes. Fear overcame him. Was he just now fully aware how his organism gave up work? What was waiting for him?

Perhaps the cold of the corpses would soon penetrate the fingertips and toes, gradually creeping up the limbs, covering the whole body.

While he was still pondering such thoughts, Waelti observed how something actually changed in his body: his hands doubled. There were his old, still stiff hands. But now there seemed to be a second pair of hands in them, which began to move. What's more, he could pull the new hands out of the old ones! As if breaking free of gloves, the new hands peeled off the fingertips and slipped out of the motionless cover. And as if they were dragging larger and larger parts of his body, Waelti felt how a second pair of arms was now separating from the frozen limbs. Then the torso followed, and finally the legs. His whole body had doubled. And suddenly the new body slipped out through an opening in Waelti's old skull.

He was weightless now. Delighted, he pushed himself off and flew up to the ceiling. For a while he hovered over the bed. The other body lay beneath him, still paralyzed. Then he was seized with fear that he might lose his old body. Waelti fell back into his former body.

The next morning he woke up in a euphoric mood. Waelti later reported that on that summer night in 1979 a gap to the immeasurable opened up for him: "A vehicle was ready for me to go out into the unknown lake of the soul." Soon he left his physical body again, and with each exit became he braver. Waelti floated over the roofs and through walls. With the double body he learned to hear, to feel, and to see light appearances.

Doubters may consider Waelti's experiences to be fantastic, but the Swiss are anything but an esoteric weirdo. He described his experiences with the meticulousness of a natural scientist; Waelti is a biochemist at Basel University. And with the same spirit of research with which he examined viruses in the laboratory, he now also examined his own nature and recorded what he experienced with his doppelganger.

The unique collection of his reports is much more than a curiosity because every tenth person wants to have had out-of-body experiences at some point. Most describe an exit when they lay quietly in bed like Waelti. This is an age-old idea that appears similarly in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: Ba, a winged soul being, hovers over a body lying motionless. Strikingly often, women and men who were close to death and then returned to the living say that they had looked at themselves from the outside for a while. Anyone who has had such an experience can hardly assume that everything that defines them should be matter. Hasn't he himself experienced how the spirit can break all the fetters that the laws of nature put on the body?

Not least, such experiences have made people at all times firmly believe that we are much more - or something completely different - than just a mortal body. But what? More than half of Germans are convinced that they have an immortal soul living in them: a non-material something that makes up the very core of the person. It could be the source of our perceptions, memories and longings - and death could overcome them. When the heart and brain stop working, the soul could leave its prison in the body and begin a life of its own - as happened to Waelti with his doppelganger.

The rapid advances in brain research have cast doubt on this hope. Neurobiologists consider the soul to be a mirage. They see our brain as an infinitely complex machine. Accordingly, all of our feeling, experiencing and thinking is the result of physical processes in the head. In the not too distant future, it will be possible to completely decipher these mechanisms, argue many scientists: Then the soul would finally be exposed as an illusion.

But we are reluctant to believe in the sober message of the researchers. And what makes so many people cling to the idea of ​​a soul is by no means just the fear of death - or even the mystery of out-of-body experiences. The real difficulty lies deeper: We don't feel at all like the sophisticated automatons that the researchers describe us as. Even the most everyday experiences are enough to keep us puzzled. I see a red light. Brain research explains this perception through the movement of molecules in the head, which is triggered by the incidence of light of a certain wavelength. But isn't my color perception something completely different?

And who does not know this difficult to describe state when we immerse ourselves in music, look at the stars in the night sky or feel so close to a person that "mine" and "your" are unimportant? Space and time then seem to no longer count, your own body is as if obliterated. And yet we feel ourselves more intensely than usual in such moments. The perception becomes too sharp. The feeling of an unshakeable security about one's own existence arises: I am there, that much is certain. It seems more than strange that this deep spiritual experience should emanate from a body that currently seems so unimportant to me.

That is why the idea of ​​a soul is so seductive. Even if we wanted to, we could hardly defend ourselves against them. It is not even clear what exactly we mean by this term. It has almost as many meanings as philosophers in search of the innermost essence of man have made. They all resonate when we talk about the "soul".

The thinkers in ancient Greece were already entangled in contradictions. They used the word "psyche", which simply means "breath" in ancient Greek. According to them, the soul was the breath of life not only of man but of all creatures. Thales, one of the first natural philosophers, even thought magnets and amber had a soul - after all, electrical forces made them move like living beings. Plato, on the other hand, propagated the soul as a guarantee of immortality. He reported how his teacher, Socrates, happily drank the hemlock cup because he was convinced that the poison could not harm the core of his person. Because the soul is temporarily and reluctantly locked in the body.

Not even the great religions can agree what the soul is - and whether it even exists. Hindus, for example, who burn their dead on the banks of the Ganges, see the matter similar to the philosopher Plato: They want to free the soul from the body in order to facilitate rebirth. Buddhists also believe in reincarnation, but deny the existence of a soul. In their opinion, only a changeable collection of spiritual properties slips into a new body, which nothing holds together in the long term.

The idea of ​​eternal life was alien to Judaism for most of its history. It was only when the rabbis came into contact with Greek philosophy in the era around the birth of Christ that some of them spoke of immortality. It was in this spiritual environment that Christianity finally emerged. Although it represents the existence of an immortal soul, it indirectly casts doubt on its meaning: the soul does exist, but it cannot separate from the body. Man is a unity of both; after Jesus' resurrection the tomb was empty. So the early Christians hoped that their bodies would also be resurrected on Judgment Day. Today's theology, however, sees the resurrection from death more as a process. This already begins in earthly life and is completed when we die. For then man would attain unity with Christ in body and soul - eternal life.

The explanations of the philosophers and priests have made critical minds impatient. Among them was the Staufer Emperor Friedrich II, who was one of the most courageous of medieval researchers. In order to finally clarify the question of the soul, he allegedly had a prisoner locked up in a barrel and starved to death. With the cruel experiment he wanted to find out whether the soul would escape through a hole in the barrel after the death of the poor man. Almost seven centuries later, the American doctor Duncan MacDougall had a similar goal: he had obtained a greengrocer's beam scale and used it to weigh a dying patient with tuberculosis. When death occurred, the body was three quarters of an ounce lighter, MacDougall wrote in American Medicine. So that's exactly how much the soul weighs. As a cross-check, dying dogs had to spend their last minutes on the scales. When they died, the bar did not move in the slightest, the triumphant researcher explained in 1907. This proves that humans have souls and dogs do not.

Recently, however, research has made progress. At least one argument of the believers in souls could forever refute them: There are no psychic processes without something happening in the brain at the same time. Scientists can now literally watch people think and feel by using computed tomography to measure the activity of the various regions in the brain. And no matter what we perceive, think about or feel - the mental activity can always be read from the work of the gray cells.

Conversely, one can generate inner experience if one only stimulates the right brain centers. Doctors sometimes implant electrodes in the brains of epileptics to alleviate their suffering. When the Californian neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried passed a weak current into the head of such a patient a few years ago, the young woman suddenly began to laugh and couldn't stop. When asked what was so funny, she replied: “You doctors! You're just as weird as you stand there. ”She couldn't imagine that the electrode in her brain alone had triggered her amusement.

Even out-of-body experiences such as those Ernst Waelti made can arise in this way. The neurologist Olaf Blanke in Lausanne also succeeded in doing this with an epileptic. When he irritated a spot on the patient's right parietal lobe, she reported that she had floated to the ceiling as a double of herself. From there she looked down at her other body. Obviously, you don't need a soul to explain out-of-body experiences. Rather, rare disorders of the brain functions create the feeling that your own body is doubling. And because we cannot perceive what is going on in our brains, when it comes to an out-of-body experience like the patient made laughing by electrical stimulation, it does not occur to them to suspect the cause in their own minds.

Brain research robs us of another illusion: there is nothing to suggest that something like this could exist as an innermost core of the person. If there were such a center, the brain would have to be organized in a manner similar to that of the troops in an army. There should be a commander-in-chief somewhere with all the wires coming together. But the brain works very differently, as neurobiologists know today. Its parts do not work together like soldiers, but rather like the players of a well-trained football team: everyone takes on a role, everyone coordinates their own actions with the others, so there is no need for a central command. And like a good team, the brain is constantly reorganizing itself. Nobody would say FC Bayern be Mark van Bommel, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose. It seems equally nonsensical to see any part of a person for who they are. The whole thing is more than the sum of its parts.

No psyche without a body, no innermost core of our being: Science has so thoroughly undermined the familiar notion of the soul that the term itself seems superfluous to it. Because everything that research can observe can be explained without speaking of a soul. And so immortality also becomes a pure question of faith. Of course, nobody can know what happens to their inner life after death. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the personality outlives the body, even the slightest verifiable evidence.

But is that really the last word about the soul? As great as science has achieved great success, it still has a blind spot. And it is to him that it owes its triumphs: Scientists only deal with things that can be agreed on. But there are questions about which communication is fundamentally impossible, and which everyone has already asked themselves: For example, do other people see the blue of the sky just like me? To find out, I would have to be able to slip into her skin.

Science has nothing to say on such questions because it always takes the view from outside. Research wants to be objective; it collects data and derives theories from it. It can only do this by withdrawing to the standpoint of the uninvolved observer. Our inner, very private experience, however, remains closed to her. And there is a huge gap between the two. Anyone who remembers their first love or witnessed the birth of a child knows how big it is: We cannot explain such experiences to anyone who has not had them themselves. There are no words to aptly describe the glow of the whole world that lovers experience. Everything we can say, at best, brings the conversation partner's own memory to life. But if the other has not already experienced something similar in his life, he remains as perplexed as a blind man who is raved about by a sunset.

Even if science is still far from understanding our brain down to the last corner, it may one day succeed in doing so. But will a full scientific explanation ever capture how we feel? Even if a future neuroscientist obtains all the data about a lover's brain, she would not be able to use her measurements to find out what it is like to fall in love. She would only find out if she lost her heart to someone herself.

Because knowledge cannot replace experience. Even before our apparently simplest experiences, the uninvolved outsider has to capitulate. David Hume, a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, put the difficulty in a nutshell as early as the early 18th century: “To get an idea of ​​the pineapple, you have to taste it.” It is thanks to me that I perceive the sweetness and the delicate acidity of the fruit I of course the taste and smell receptors on the tongue and in the nose; They are linked to the taste nucleus in the back of the brain with nerve tracts and through this intermediate station trigger the activity of tens of thousands of gray cells in the diencephalon and in the frontal lobe of the cerebrum. But how does the experience of a taste arise from this purely physical process? How do electrical currents and chemical messengers evoke inner images and feelings? This is the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness research. Neuroscientists and philosophers have been wrestling with him for decades. They were no closer to the solution.

On the contrary: the more data you collect about the work of the brain, the more pressing the question of where all of our inner experience actually comes from - and why we have it. And the riddle has a sequel. Because even if I understood what the firing of neurons turns into the taste of pineapple or the joys of love, it still remains to be seen why these sensations are my own. Because if you feel an inner life, you don't have to have an ego for a long time. Infants, for example, can express their emotions very loudly, but they still have no idea who they are. So where does my very personal view of the world come from?

It is difficult to imagine a life in which we have more conscious experience, but without an ego to make it. And yet, surprisingly often, people get into such a state. After long practice of meditation or in a particularly dramatic way in the case of epileptic seizures, the first-person perspective can completely dissolve. The patients then continue to perceive what is going on around them and within them, but lose all sense of themselves - as if they had a mind without an owner. Similar changes lead to out-of-body experience. Usually we combine self-awareness with awareness of our own body; but here one splits off from the other.This is precisely why exceptional states of consciousness are so valuable, argues the philosopher Thomas Metzinger in his book “The Ego Tunnel”: They allow us to look at the mechanisms with which the brain develops a feeling for one's own identity.

However, such research also has its limits. Because what applies to the sky blue and the pineapple taste applies even more to the sense of self: For science, everything that defines me is a multitude of processes in my head, in my body and in my surroundings. But for me it is infinitely more: the personal experience of what it feels like to be Stefan Klein. No one else will ever find out what that means. And because I am constantly changing, our experience of ourselves yesterday or a year ago was also different from today.

Perhaps the word “soul” is simply a short description for this “more”: our ability to experience an inner life that always takes place in the present. There is no experience, no personality without a brain. But precisely because of this there does not have to be a contradiction between body and soul - both are rather two sides of the same coin. Whether an event in my head appears to me as physical or mental depends only on which point of view I choose. I can understand a feeling, an image or an idea as the creation of the brain as long as I look at myself through the eyes of an uninvolved third party. If, on the other hand, I experience the same happening from my inner perspective, then I perceive it to be psychological. Both are true.

For a long time people assumed that the soul was some kind of thing that resides in them and never changes. Today we know that reality is far more fascinating - what we encounter as soul is more of a process. The soul is not there, it is constantly arising. It may not guarantee us immortality; but for this we encounter our own being alive in it. There is an enormous liberation in this realization: we do not have to wait for death to experience what Christianity describes with the story of the resurrection. Rather, the miracle that matter turns into a spiritual experience takes place in every moment. We can experience it constantly in front of our inner eye. Now. Here.

Published in: Stern February 17, 2011