There was an error, a mistaken presumption, made a long time ago. It was not a grave error at first, since it was simply speculation about the nature of life at the time. Unfortunately the knowledge that it was a guess and not a fact slowly became lost to us here in the West and it has been so enshrined in our religions and our culture that to correct it will require a massive adjustment.
First let me say that I am not a scholar in Plato. I will be referencing him here, and I want it known that I barely get what I am talking about - but I think the idea I am attributing to him is accurate, and of course as such must be attributed.
Roughly 2500 years ago, in a flowering of civilisation and thought, the ancient Greeks pondered many things, trying to understand the world around them. They played with ideas, they debated, they tried to figure out how knowledge of any kind could be obtained. It is thanks to their ideas that modern science has been able to determine so much about the physical world.
Unfortunately, I suppose, they didn't figure everything out for us. One of the ideas that has always been compelling to those who encounter it, is Plato's concept of the "forms." These are the abstract entities that underlie all real things - and especially are needed in order to understand "general" words in language, like the names of colors, words that do not simply "point" to anything corporeal. It was considered that these words really did "name" something, something with a special sort of existence, something which would exist even without the reality that provoked the invention of the word in the first place. It was thought that these essences were real.
This is all wonderful theory, and at that level is just one more example of our struggle to understand our world - we make guesses, elaborate on our hypotheses, make adjustments or discard them based on what we observe compared to what they would seem to predict we should observe. The trouble is that the idea caught on and there was no chance to correct the error.
The idea I speak of is that the soul is an immortal thing which preceded our life and will endure after our death. It is that there is a "form" which corresponds to our living sense of self, our ego, and as such it is eternal and immutable. This idea has been so deeply absorbed in Western civilisation that we have lost most of our ability to think of the world any other way.
It isn't true, it causes huge amounts of harm, and it should be dropped. The hypothesis was incorrect, and that fact should be added to our arsenal of knowledge about the world.
All right, I know that was a pretty strong assertion! I will try to tell you reasons why I think the concept of an eternal soul is an error - in two different ways.
The first is pretty philosophical - in the sense that philosophy is at its deepest the science of living, the attempt to ascertain how we should live in order to live best.
What have been the results of this idea being acted on for two millenia? As I look at Western history, it does not seem to me that we are in any kind of balance. The very fact that the results of science were used by a nation that considers itself to be Christian and is composed of a largely Christian population to incinerate hundreds of thousands of non combatants in a war is totally appalling. A thousand examples of the inhumanity of actions taken by those who believe in their eternal souls existence could be raised in a similar fashion. The other side of the coin is to examine the private and public lives that have resulted. Are we happier, more fulfilled for having this idea deep in our consciousness? I don't think so. It may not be the belief that causes the problems - but whatever it is, the belief has permitted it to arise and cause our fiendish actions and cannot be left without blame entirely.
The second is a bit more attitudinal on my part, at least as far as I will go into it here.
The idea that the ego surives death seems to me to be a bit absurd, since I consider the ego to be a characteristic of a human brain, not some "essence" which floats in some sort of ether and just happens to be associated with a particular body.
I look around me and I do not see human beings inhabited with souls as if they were each and every one of them stocked with one at birth - rather I see many lost people, with "something missing" deep inside. I see some with the glimmerings, and some with so much of this spiritual energy that it truly makes a mockery of those who think they have one as a birthright.
It is time to terminate the experiment before we do more harm. It is time to teach children (and ourselves) that a soul is a hard won asset that requires effort to grow and maintenance to keep. This teaching will allow the fulfillment of many more human beings, in my opinion, and there is a powerful and deep need in every human for this kind of growth and expression.
© Huw Powell