What does the soul look like?

Blake asked:

What do you believe the soul looks like?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In the early days of film photography, when the workings of a camera and the process of exposure and printing were still a mystery to many people, certain individuals gained notoriety in the Spiritualist world for taking photographs of ‘ectoplasm’.

Funnily enough, the ectoplasm photographed flowing out of the sitter’s head or body looked remarkably like crumpled white bed sheets.

According to the theory, ectoplasm isn’t the soul or spirit itself, but seems to have been conceived as a material which covers or drapes the soul, enabling it to become visible, or semi-visible.

We can smile at this, but I’m not going to venture an opinion on the ectoplasm theory. It might be true. One would need more that a photograph or two to provide convincing evidence. However, the real question is whether the idea of the soul as something you could, in principle, see by some means – a special camera perhaps, or specially designed glasses – makes coherent sense.

Descartes in the Meditations contemptuously dismisses the popular idea of the soul as a, ‘breath of wind, a vapour’, on strict logical grounds. A thinking substance can have none of the properties of extended substance. Extended substance has spatial position. Thinking substance experiences, perceives, thinks, wills etc. Defined as thinking substance, a soul can have neither extension nor spatial position. Nor does the theory of mind-body interaction require this. The locus of interaction (which Descartes hypothesized to be the pineal gland in the brain) is not, literally, the place where the human soul is located. It is merely the place where it ‘acts’, bringing about changes in the physical world, and being affected by physical changes.

Spiritualists don’t have to agree with this, of course. They can insist on the older notion of the soul or spirit as a quasi-physical entity, capable of passing through walls, but also, when the occasion requires it, having the power to tap a table.

Descartes’ response would be the same as his response to materialism as a theory of the soul. I can doubt whether there exists a spatial world without doubting my existence. If I have a soul body or ‘spirit’ located in space, then that would be another kind of ‘extended substance’. In which case, I must have two souls, my Cartesian non-located soul or thinking substance, and my soul body, the substance that gets draped with ectoplasm at seances.

Wittgenstein remarks somewhere that the human face is the best image of the human soul. This is actually in line with popular representations of the soul body or spirit. How would you recognize a loved one’s soul when you saw it unless you could see his/her face? The Cartesian soul, on the other hand, as pure thinking substance cannot have an appearance – or can it? Those who are religious believe that God can see one’s soul. If God can see my soul, surely He knows ‘what it looks like’?

The answer isn’t obscure or contrived: A virtuous soul looks virtuous. An evil soul looks evil. If there exists a God who is able to ‘see’ your soul, then he does so in a similar way to the way you see yourself when you introspect, only without all the concealing layers of self-deception. What does that look like? It’s something everyone does, even if we don’t always see through the lies. There is something it is like to introspect. But it doesn’t look like anything.


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