(Part of the 'Asatru for Atheists' series)
Now, this word and its derivatives get a lot of use in our line of business. There are all kinds of spirits floating about in this 'New Age'; spirits of trees, rocks, of the Earth itself. Spirits of people both dead and alive; holy spirits and evil spirits; team spirits and the spirit of superstition and gullibility. Then of course we have the adjective 'spiritual' - nobody seemingly wants to admit that they are not spiritual, the implied default being some kind of dull 'materialism' (which itself has come to mean several different things).
However, ask exactly what all this means and the dissembling begins, often with vague arm-waving descriptions of 'higher' things, unseen dimensions, vague intuitions, and that catchall, 'God', which lodges the definition with the unprovable. So, taking the noun first, and seeing what the dictionary says concerning the religious aspects we can distil two relevant definitions. These are the 'essential nature, vital principle or animating force', and 'incorporeal consciousness'.
These are usually considered connected aspects of 'spiritual reality' as viewed by many people. For example, the simplistic notion of a 'soul' is considered to be the essential essence of a person that survives the death of the body and persists in some incorporeal state. However, such a connection need not be so and for the purposes of this analysis will not be assumed. In order to simplify further I am going to refer to an inanimate object (a sword) rather than the more complex case of a Human Being.
Spirit as Inner Essence
We begin by first examining the former definition. What, in a rational, scientific, consensus reality sense, is a 'spirit' when used as a synonym for 'inner essence'?
A spirit actually consists of a number of components. Let us take, for example, the spirit of a sword and examine what it is in terms of information. Obviously, it is a sword - but what is a sword, and how do we recognise such a thing? In our minds we generally have a list of possibilities, each characterised by a cluster of properties, which we compare to what we are looking at. For example, a sword is solid, can be large or small, is long and sharp (but not inevitably so), is usually made of metal, may have one or two sharpened edges, may be pointed etc. These things are, in essence, the 'spirit' of the generic sword.
That objects have spirits consisting of the characteristics that define them is a notion first expounded upon in detail by Plato, several thousand years ago. He posited a 'Platonic Realm' of 'Ideal Forms' of which our world was only an imperfect shadow. The notion of Platonic perfection is still present today in branches of modern physics - some highly speculative. I limit myself here to discussing the notion of 'spirit' in the context of information theory of contemporary science, but will return to it later.
We now know the 'spirit of sword'. It is not much of a leap to extend the idea to encompass type and individuality, i.e. to imagine that a particular sword type might have a more highly defined spirit. In the case of a Viking sword, the attributes of 'sword' become more specific; namely its steel, its unique shape of blade, guard, pommel and decoration. One can further refine all this to the point where a particular Viking sword is recognised.
These are the material attributes of the 'sword spirit'. However, there are three more components or aspects that contribute to its spirit that have nothing to do directly with the sword itself - they lie in the eye of the beholder, or more accurately, the mind.
The first aspect applies to all swords. It is the archetype that 'sword' invokes - the images conjured up in the mind by the word and its associations. Clearly these are cultural artefacts, but in general a sword is recognised as primarily a weapon - not a tool. A sword is meant to maim and kill, and is intimately associated with warfare and death. However it is also associated with law and justice which it often symbolises.
The second aspect is the history of the sword itself, if known. For example, it may be a new sword, or it may have a detailed history attached to it if it is old. It may be cheap, or incredibly valuable. It may actually have been used in battle, or on ceremonial occasions. The owner(s) may have left their mark on it either literally in terms of decoration, or figuratively in terms of wear. These factors affect the way one sees it, and 'feels' it metaphorically.
Finally, there is the interaction in use between the sword and mind/body. This includes the physical effects of weight distribution and grip, which is a very individual thing dependent on ones size and strength. Then there is the psychological effect of holding what may be a dangerous weapon. A 'live' blade where even a light touch to flesh will cut deeply has a very different spirit to a blunt training sword.
All these aspects interact in a manner unique to an individual to create the spirit of a particular sword. To summarise, the spirit of an object is a composite entity. The first component is essentially 'what it is' using a definition that is relatively unchanging - atemporal. The second component is the collection of properties that differentiate it from others of its kind and which may vary in time. Then there is the history and especially the knowledge of its history and its psychological associations. This is most definitely rooted in time. Finally we have the ongoing interaction between a person and the item in question.
Although examined at greater length in another essay concerning the nature of 'the soul' we can extend this analysis to a person, in which case we find:
A Human Being - a definition that is almost
In short, the spirit of a person is a combination of Nature, Nurture, Will and Interaction. Note that it differs from an inanimate object only in terms of self-motivational aspects i.e. 'the Will'.
Spirit as Incorporeal Consciousness
In many ways this is both the easiest and most difficult definition of 'spirit' to cover. One could simply state that no reliable scientific evidence exists of anything resembling consciousness not connected with matter and leave it at that. Most scientists generally believe that consciousness is an 'emergent phenomenon' of certain types of computing systems - ones complex enough to model themselves as well as their environment.
However, there is a major problem with this view that has still not been overcome. It is that nobody has successfully defined consciousness at all! The above belief is an assumption, and one that is challenged by a minority of the physics community. The most notable exponent of this minority view is Roger Penrose in his book 'Shadows of the Mind'. He believes that consciousness is derived from deep properties of a yet-to-be created theory linking Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity.
Another radical view is based around the notion of mathematics as being a foundation for the universe as we see it. The great philosophical problem concerning mathematics that remains unresolved is whether it is discovered or invented. Strong cases can be made for both positions, and both positions also have their weaknesses. Suffice to say that if mathematics is 'discovered' it strongly implies that the 'Platonic Realm' mentioned earlier is real (at least for mathematics) and is somehow located beyond the matter/energy/information that we think exclusively defines our reality. It also implies that we have an interaction with that realm in ways that are not understood (although Penrose has a number of speculations).
There is also something known as the 'All Universes Hypothesis' which posits that underlying reality is mathematical, and that all consistent mathematical schemes (an infinite number!) result in entire universes, most radically different from ours. That there is nothing but mathematics and our universe only exists because it is a schema complex enough to encompass consciousness.
Finally, an example of how mysterious consciousness can be, even ignoring the above, and considering it as merely a computation, I give you… 'Einstein's Brain'.
We begin with (a metaphorical) Einstein upon whom we are about to perform this interesting philosophical experiment. What we are going to do is gradually replace his brain cells with microcomputers that mimic them perfectly through a series of equations that are solved for input and output of each brain cell. Slowly, his brain is to be changed from an organic computer to one based on silicon circuitry.
The contemporary materialist view is that there would be no noticeable change in that his thoughts or behaviour. It is just the old software running on new hardware, and the hardware is not important. Now take it another step into absurdity, but a totally logical though impractical absurdity.
Let us run the software manually by writing down in a big book the equations for every cell and working through it by hand with a pencil. What we have is a program that is basically a very big series of mathematical statements, whose solutions are Einstein's mind and consciousness. If we ask the 'book brain' the question 'are you conscious' all we do is solve the equations and out pops the answer 'yes'. So where is consciousness in all this? Can a mere book be conscious once it is complex enough? Or is the act of solving the equations what generates mind?
It is this latter position which is the most common one, but what does 'solving the equation' actually mean? When is an equation solved? Is it only when we actually record the answer somewhere - if so, does 1+1=… have no solutions until it is written? If one answers that such a solution exists even if we do not know the answer, we are back to Platonic Realms again. The question that then arises is why do these mathematics have to be written anywhere at all in order to be a valid consciousness? If 'truth', at least to the extent of mathematical truth, lies 'out there' somehow external to our universe and yet interacting with it then all possible equations and their solutions somehow exist independent of either us or time and space. It means all possible consciousness' exist in the Platonic Realm, that this realm is a sea of (frozen?) consciousness eternally waiting to be incarnated into the world of matter.
Of course, this may or may not be so, but it does illustrate where a not very radical analysis of 'materialist' science is leading, and what questions have to be given serious thought. The other point of interest is that such a book represents a frozen consciousness with all of its potentialities, something that one might, in any other circumstances, call a soul.
On Being Spiritual
Strangely enough, a definition of 'spirit' is of
little help in trying to decide what someone means when they
refer to the word 'spiritual'. If we look in a dictionary we get:
Well, it seems to have something to do with Gods and spirits but it still doesn't really tell us much. In fact, start spouting the above to an atheist and the best you could hope for would be a polite smile. The worst would be a belly laugh, with some really tough questions concerning philosophy, psychology and neurology being somewhere in between.
Since I see myself as being on the atheistic side of Asatru perhaps I had better explain what I mean when I make the claim as to being spiritually inclined.
Let's take a step back and look at how the world was/is viewed by our Christian ancestors, since 'spiritual' is a word beloved by them and has clearly influenced its meanings. Simply stated, the world was seen as a duality that was reflected in the political power structure. The two aspects were the worlds Spiritual and Temporal. Let us examine the Temporal, its opposite, and see whether we can make some headway by a process of elimination. Again, from the dictionary definition:-
Clearly this particular word is far more obvious in meaning. Its key element is time, and the essence of time is change, usually decay. It is certainly something to which all material things eventually succumb. Even modern science would argue as much. So, one might expect its opposite to be atemporal, that is, existing outside of time, or unaffected by time.
And, of course, that is an implicit but crucial feature of the word 'Spiritual'. People who believe in souls and spirits generally do not expect them to age and die. Nor do they expect there to be time limits on the nature of the sacred. Christians certainly do not see their God as something likely to die of old age or even be subject to time at all. But what else can one claim is not subject to the ravages of time? What else, by this definition, might one consider Spiritual?
When I claim to be spiritual it's not a claim I make because I necessarily believe in spirits or souls, let alone a Christian style 'God'. It is a claim I make because I live by non-material Principles - that other great category of the timeless.
The distillation of the wisdom of the Havamal, what many Asatruar and Odinists call the Nine Noble Virtues are Courage, Truth, Honour, Loyalty, Discipline, Hospitality, Industriousness, Self-Reliance and Perseverance. There is no expiry date on these. They do not age, they do not decay. These are spiritual values in every sense of the word, no matter what ones beliefs are with regard to the Gods.
Living by timeless values is what qualifies one as being spiritual.
I hope I have made a case for the use of the words 'spirit' and 'spiritual' in a specific context that both captures the essence of what most religious people consider these words to mean, whilst not straying too far into the implausible. That as a result someone with a rational atheist worldview will not feel too uncomfortable when speaking in such terms, and hence not abandon a complex and meaningful lexicon to superstition and religious obscurantism.