If Star Trek’s Data were to write about the soul, it might be this self-parodyingly soulless:
Soul talk is expressive in the same way as other nondescriptive utterances, like “oh my God” or “ouch” or “yuck” or (with head nodding to music) “Yeah, that’s funky.” There is no clear referent for those. They don’t seem to refer to or represent anything—they seem somehow pre-representational (or presentational). Soul talk, like other emotive talk, bears little relation to the goals of scientific language, and probably can’t be assessed with that language. Like other expressive forms, soul talk in ordinary folk language won’t have much theoretical interest, because it is rarely, if ever, trying to explain a phenomenon. In the same way that a poem is not trying to explain a phenomenon, soul talk is equally uninterested in induction, hypothesis, prediction, and corroboration. Instead, soul talk tries to express our hopes and aspirations (“I hope I see my family again in the afterlife”) or to identify inspiration (“This song really speaks to my soul”), or to express feelings deeper than friendship (“I’ve finally found my soul mate”), or to scare people into doing something (“Your soul will burn in hellfire”), and so on.
While the use of words like “soul,” is non-descriptive, not all non-descriptive utterances are merely “emotive.” As we saw in our discussion of Wittgenstein, logic is non-descriptive (and hence strictly speaking meaningless (or “senseless”). And as we’ll see in our upcoming discussion of Kant’s Prolegomena, while a word like “soul” corresponds to nothing empirical, it can say something significant about our meaning-making tendencies — even as these tendencies persist in trying to make everything concrete as “understanding is forced out of its sphere” of the empirical. Kant thinks of this as reason’s overweening tendency to try to find a final answer that goes beyond the chain of empirical causal conditions to an uber-answer that undergirds the chain itself. In this case, “soul” is an attempt to grapple with the sense that our consciousnesses seem to have a subjective unity: to posit a “substance” that underlies the motley stream of consciousness–in all its variety and even chaos. For Kant, this is an illegitimate attempt to treat something to which we only have reflective access as something like an empirical object: to reify it, hypostatize it. But while we do best to avoid metaphysical claims about substance, this does not mean we have to give up our interest in in the subjective unity that led to them; or to make the correlative mistake of supposing that this unity — and that consciousness generally — is an empirical object for science. It isn’t. The point is that consciousness remains a philosophical problem that is inaccessible to science. And the use of “soul” can be seen as involving not a metaphysical claim but an assertion of this problem: “soul” is a placeholder, an “x”, in an equation that has no solution.
For the author of this article, there is meaningfulness to “soul” language — but as “expressive folk language” to accompany aesthetic and ethical activity. He seems to have invented a new persuasion, Condescending Kantianism (Kantdescending? — apologies). The legitimate use of the word “soul” reflects not a profound problem for science and philosophy alike, but merely a playground toy for making such statements as “that singer has soul” (really, he says this). But really he seems to be unaware of Kant and is thinking of Wittgenstein’s related, simpler (and I think unfortunate) claim that metaphysical assertions merely amount to attempts to reify grammar.
Finally, the implication here that there is no genuine philosophical problem of consciousness reflected in the word “soul”–and that the domain of science has it covered–is merely other side of the same coin: both try to treat consciousness as an empirical object, and both try and replace an un-shakeable uncertainty with a form of faith one quasi-religious, the other quasi-scientific. Neither religion nor science need the category error.