What is a soul?
Does a soul have the same thoughts and feelings when outside the body?
What purpose does a brain serve if a soul can exist and feel without it?
If a soul does not carry our memories, then what is a soul since it is our memories that make us up?
Defining the soul is complicated for the same reason the question defining the heart is complicated. The heart is both something literal and something used figuratively in language and to define one meaning seems to diminish the poetry of the other.
Very simply, the idea of a soul is that there is something beyond the physical body which makes up the True Self. The reason this definition is so vague is that beyond that definition no two people agree on what the capabilities and limits on the soul are. This naturally leads one to question even this definition. The more fundamental question becomes, “Where does consciousness come from?” and any answer you come to from that question will almost unavoidably include the brain. This is not a problem if we choose to define the soul as “The collected portions of the brain devoted to personality and conscious thought.” That definition is a good jumping off point for some practical research into the nature of what a philosopher might recognize as the soul. However, if we decide at the outset that the soul is something that only ephemerally exists in the physical world, but does not belong here, we have neutered ourselves of the ability to ask practical questions about what the soul is and how it works.
We can imagine an individual born with a severed brain stem and damage to other sensory nerves, in effect, a man with no senses, no touch, no language. If this man had a brain, disconnected from the world but just as capable of thought as yours or mine, what manner of thoughts would he have? Without language, image, memory, what is personality? What is thought? This is not to say that this person is less worthy of life, only to say that whatever the soul is made of, to separate it from the physical world is not something beautiful, but horrifying.
More to the point, one of the things we have learned from a century of using anesthetics in medical procedures is that in inventing them we stumbled upon a state of being we previously could not have imagined. When a patient is put under, they are not merely sleeping. Their senses are still sending signals, but it is as if the wires have been cut. Even the brain’s communication with itself ceases. Anesthesia does not produce sleep, but a ceasing of the self. After surgery, there is no memory, no fading dream, only a slow return of consciousness. If there were a soul that existed beyond the limits of the physical brain, surely there would be some memory, or at least sensation of the soul’s experience while the body was under anesthesia.
The idea of an eternal, immutable, metaphysical soul is unfortunately likely to be a bit of a wish fulfilling fantasy invented to comfort the bereaved and ease the fear of those close to death. However, the fact that the soul may not exist in a practical sense does not diminish its usefulness in a poetic sense. The soul, the spirit, the heart or mind; these represent our highest ideal of the self. This is why even ideological atheists will often identify themselves as “Not religious, but spiritual,” There is probably a more precise way to speak of this mindset, but none of them have the same poetry. When we say someone has an old soul or no soul or sings with soul we are not talking about actual measures of how much of some immutable connection to the supernatural they possess. We are talking about their connectedness to the consequential rather than the ephemeral. This is the space all of us wish we could occupy. Most of us know the things that really matter. We wish we weren’t so petty: that we spent more time with our families and had the financial freedom to leave a job we hate and find our true calling. We want health, contentment, peace. These qualities are so rare that when we see someone who has them we assume there must be something supernatural about them. But if you talk to these people, no matter what their worldview is, you find that it isn’t coincidence, it’s the result of effort. Creating meaningful life isn’t about which story you tell yourself, or even how strongly you believe it. It’s about the actions you take towards that ideal. If friendship is meaningful to you, spend more time with friends. If wealth is important to you, make a plan for your money, and stick to it. The people who we perceive as spiritual are simply people who put their effort into pursuing inner peace and prioritized that over anything that was a distraction to that goal. This poetic vision of the soul is something beyond any literal definition: it is the part of ourselves that knows what we really need out of life and causes us joy when we finally pursue those things.