6- Abstract nature of the soul

6- Abstract nature of the soul


To prove the perpetuity of the soul of man and life after death we can reason through various justifications and one of them is through abstraction of human soul. The abstract nature of human self is a difficult philosophical problem. This important matter is studied in detail in books of philosophy like: Asfar, Risala Tasawwur wa Tasdeeq and other books of Mulla Sadra as well as in the commentary on Zaadul Musafir and Isharaat of Abu Ali Sina and Sharh Manzuma of Mulla Hadi Sabzawari. In this brief writing, we cannot explain this matter in detail, but we shall discuss some evidences of the same. Before the actual discussion, it is necessary to mention some points in brief:
Meaning of Abstractness

Existent beings are of two types: material and abstract. Material beings are as follows: non-living things like stone, dust, different kinds of minerals, metals, chemicals, pigments, water etc; in this category are included gases, energy and even rays of light are considered material things and in the same way, plants and animals also fall into this category as they are also supposed to have souls called animal soul. Material things possess the following qualities: quantity, space, time, movement, change, remoteness and proximity, survival and decay. Such factors are the signs of the material existing beings. Material matters can be perceived through one of the senses or their presence can be discovered through experimentation. The second type is the abstract things: like God; angels are supernatural beings and they do not possess qualities of material beings like place, time, quantity, movement, change, survival and decay. To be abstract is to mean lacking in material qualities.
Definition of the self

Some existing things have souls like the different plants, which possess vegetative souls. Living things like animals are in possession of animal spirits and human beings possess human souls. With regard to plants, it is said: even though their bodies are composed of various elements like water, air, minerals, chemicals, energy, different metals, compounds etc. and they do not possess a soul. But with regard to the fact that this new compound possesses new qualities like: nutrition, maturity and birth etc. thus it would be said: the source of these effects is the vegetative soul, which came into being through compounding of these elements. Especially with regard to animals it can also be said: Although their body is composed of various elements like: water, air, matter, chemicals, energy, various metals etc, but since in this combination new qualities like perception, voluntary movement have come into existence, it is said that the origin of these new qualities lies in the animal soul.

Especially man also can be said to have the same qualities, since he possesses the qualities of self-awareness, perception and senses, memory: hence it can be said: the origin of these new qualities is the human soul.

Through these explanations we realize the reality of the soul. Here we consider it necessary to mention that man is multi-dimensional. On one side his body is a compound of different natural elements and the effect of each of them is present in him. On the other hand, he is a named body, capable of nutrition, maturity and reproduction and he also possesses a vegetative soul. On the other hand, he is an animal possessing an animal soul and having animal instincts.

Finally, a man is a conscious human soul possessing distinctive qualities. It is said that although the vegetative, animal and human souls have come together in man, each of them is having a separate identity and are considered to be the various stages of his existence. The organizing human body is the single human soul, which performs different actions in different stages. The soul and intellect of man is the controller of the human body, and it should control different actions of the vegetative and animal soul in different stages and should persuade them according to actual exigencies.


Evidences of the abstractness of the soul


Among the distinctive qualities of man, which makes him superior to all creatures is the quality of knowledge. Knowledge means awareness, understanding and cognition. Every conscience can understand that some things possess awareness. Evidence of this is not needful of reasoning. Sadruddin Shirazi says: Knowledge can be defined as the presence of form of existing things in view of intellect. Knowledge by nature is determined and revealed and know-how is revealed through knowledge.[8]

With regard to knowledge, it is necessary to know that one should be in the presence of the scholar. This presence is only possible when the knower and the known thing is material. Since if both or one of them is material, they would be unseen by the other and not possible to be exposed or become present. Hence to prove the abstract nature of the soul of man, it is necessary to undertake a deep study about the kinds of knowledges and their kinds.

In books of philosophy, knowledge is divided into two types: present and obtainable. Sadruddin Shirazi has written in this regard that knowledge with the present reality; sometimes the existence of his knowledge is the very same knowledge seen by him, like the knowledge of abstract with his own being and like knowledge of self with regard to his own self and qualities depending on the self and his own actions and spiritual phenomena.

Such knowledges are named as innate knowledges. Also sometimes the presence of knowledge is without the presence of identical existence like our knowledge of things, which are beyond our being and perceptive powers; like earth, man and horse etc. which are named as acquired and affective knowledges.[9] We shall explain both of them here in more detail:

Innate Knowledge

As mentioned previously, knowledge of the self is itself innate knowledge; that is the self of man possesses an awareness and understanding of its own being. He considers himself to be an individual and a separate being and keeps this in mind always and is never ignorant of it. He can forget everything; but he never forgets his ego. He considers himself to be an individual possessing a separate self throughout his brief lifespan. This ‘I’ through the passage of time and changes of times does not undergo any change even though all these factors have profound effect on his body etc. This ‘I’ is not hands, feet, eyes, ears, tongue, brain or heart etc. On the contrary, all of them are connected with him. Although according to testimony of intellectuals all parts of body are in constant change throughout the life, and they are changed tens of times, this ‘I’ is always stable and permanent, with the supposition that even though he may lose or change his organs and limbs, he can never be divested of his identity and it would be same as it was before. Therefore, it must be remembered that the ego of man, which we refer to as ‘I’ is not material and changeable; on the contrary it is an abstract thing. Since the abstract is from the material and effects of matter, it is always exposed to itself, and it is having innate knowledge about itself; that is the personality and reality of its self is determined and known to itself and is not unseen from it. In other words, knowledge, the knower and the known are one and the same.

This shows that in order to prove the self there is no need to reason from its actions and effects; because Decarates has reasoned from this way and said: “I think therefore I am”. On the contrary, before reasoning through thinking, one should be aware of oneself so that one is able to reason out ones action. If one has no awareness of his own self, one cannot reason through ones action, which is its effect.

We quote the statement of Abu Ali Sina to support and explain further the innate knowledge of man with regard to his self:[10]

He addresses himself: Imagine yourself in each of these four conditions:

First condition: In sanity and perfect physical health: In this condition you will find your self as a person about whom you are well aware; and you will not become unmindful of him in any way.

Second condition: While you are asleep: In this condition, your conscious senses are suspended and you do not feel your body or external things; but you are not unaware of your self, which you call as ‘I’. (If someone calls you, you wake up and reply to him).

Third condition: Intoxication (senselessness). In this condition your outward and inward perceptions are suspended and you don’t feel anything; but even in that condition your awareness about yourself is intact.

Fourth condition: Just suppose you are created all of a sudden with sanity and perfect physical health in a vaccum and you are not under any kind of pressure that you should be aware of your body. In this condition also, you would not be oblivious of your self; you would be aware of yourself.

Therefore, there is no doubt that man understands his self in every condition. In this way, we have one who understands and a thing which is understood. Now let us see what is understood and who has understood it?

In order to understand the two, the Shaykh employs the realization addressed to his self, and says: Ponder well whether you can perceive yourself with outward senses or through intellect and inward faculties? It is well known that outward and inward faculties have no role in this; since you were unaware of them in the mentioned supposition. Thus they are not the ones who perceive, on the contrary your intellect directly, and the body through senses, are the perceiving ones.

Now let us see what is the perceived (Mudrik)? What is that, which you call “I”?

Is it the apparent aspect of the body, which is visible to the eyes and which can be perceived through the sense of touch? Or with a little concentration you can understand that you are not organs and skin of the body, because you do not change with their change and transformation, on the contrary you are the same person as before. Moreover, as stated before, it is possible for you to become oblivious of them, but you can never become oblivious of your own self.

You are also not like internal organs as the heart, nerves and brain etc. because they cannot be perceived even with outward and inner senses and their proof is needful of anatomical dissection.

This clearly shows that you (the perceived one) are neither the outward nor inward organs of the body; on the contrary you are something, which cannot be perceived and which does not possess the signs of perceptible things.

At that moment the Shaykh mentions to himself the doubts and then replies to them. He says: Perhaps you may say: I prove my existence with my own action, which is the effect of itself (as Descartes has said: I think therefore I am). Then he replies that objection in two ways:

First reply: In such a supposition, you should pay attention to your act, so that you may be able to prove your self through it. Whereas it was stated before that without paying attention to anything, even your own action, you can perceive your self.

Second reply: If you want, you can prove your own self through presence of absolute action; but it is not right since presence of absolute action proves the undetermined doer and not a particular personality (self) and if you want to prove a particular act, which was committed by you, to reason out your existence; it is also incorrect. Because in this supposition it is necessary that you should identify your being as the cause of this act or at least consider it to be contemporary to it, so that you can prove your own being through it.

In that case, before reasoning you had awareness of your own being and reasoning through the act is meaningless. In any case, reasoning through presence of act to prove the doer is not valid reasoning.

The following important points can be derived from the statements of the Shaykh:

- Man is always, at every moment and in every condition, aware of his self.

- This perception is direct and without any medium.

- In this perception, the one who perceives and that which is perceived, are both not from material and perceptive things.

- In this perception, the knower and the known is one reality, and not more and that is the definition of the self of man.

- In this perception, the reality of the known is having presence and exposition for the knower of the reality; that is it is innate knowledge and not acquired through the mind.

- The self of man is a non-perceptible and non-material thing.

- Since it is abstract and free of matter and material effects, corruption has no access to it and it will be everlasting.


Acquired Knowledge


Now that we have learnt what innate knowledge is and that it consists of the presence of self, which is known to the knower. In this instance, the knower perceived the known directly and without any intermediary. Now let us see what acquired knowledge is. In this case, the knower becomes aware of a thing through external form and sense, which that thing has acquired. The thing known to a person in this case is in the beginning and by nature a mental form and when the mental form develops an aspect of exposure by external phenomenon, through this it perceives external phenomenon. Thus in acquired knowledge, a medium called form or sense is present between the knower and the known.

Mental forms can be of two kinds: Partial and general.

Partial forms are concepts which only denote a particular person and are not applicable to more than one person like the mental sense of Muhammad, Hasan, Husain, Fatima… etc. The sense of Muhammad that we have in our mind is only of one single person and it alone cannot imply a number of people. Partial mental forms can also be of two types:

A) Perceptions: The knowledge of man obtained through one of the apparent senses, like sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. When man through one of these five senses establishes contact with an external phenomenon; and after the action and reaction that comes into being between these two, he comes to know about that external phenomenon. This knowledge will last only as long as the contact is on. After it is off, the connection of awareness is also discontinued.

B) Memories: The contact that man retains through one of the senses with external phenomena leaves an imprint on his being, which remains even when the contact is discontinued. If this effect is from perceptible things, it would be stored in the faculty known as thought or memory. Whenever he likes, he may refer to the archives and recall that previous form and make use of it.

And if the mentioned effect is from partial meaning, it is stored in archives of the faculty called imagination. Like love or hatred perceived between two persons, or fear or attachment, especially which one develops with a person or thing. Such concepts are stored in the faculty of imagination and may be recalled at time of need.

General senses and forms: A general sense can be defined as a mental form, which describes a common aspect of numerous persons and it is applicable to each of them. Like the connotation of ‘human being’, which can be applied to each of them separately. It can be said: Muhammad is a human being, Ali is a human being, Hameed is a human being and Ashraf is a human being…and so on. And same is the case of terms like animal, substance, vegetation and their parts. Such types of general senses that in the external aspect have an external application are called primary rationalities. We have another general type, which are called philosophical rationalities. They are senses, which do not have an absolute outward implication; on the contrary, human mind through making an analogy between two external phenomena makes an abstraction of these senses. General sense of cause and effect is of this type; for example, we consider external fire as the cause of burning and burning cotton as its effect and we say: fire is the cause and burning cotton is the effect. But causation is not an additional quality of fire. It is not that externally we can have a fire and the quality of causation. On the contrary it is human intellect that can derive causality and effecitivity through comparison between fire and burning cotton. Causality in the outward is having reality, but it is the manner of existence of fire and not an added quality.

From this discussion it becomes clear that we have two kinds of general rationalities: primary rationalities and philosophical rationalities.

Now the question arises that through which medium are the generalities perceived and who is their perceiver?

Is it possible to perceive and recognize them through the five senses, brain and nerves?

In reply it is said: Since the absolute natures like man, animal, tree, stone do not have an external existence by the quality of generality, they cannot be perceived through the five senses. That which is present in the outward is the person of man and not the man generally. Implications of man, like: Hasan, Husain and…can be perceived through senses, but the absolute man does not exist with the quality of generality outwardly that he could be perceived through senses. Connotations produced in the mind from each individual person only describe this and can only implied as such (as an individual). In such a case we also have the connotation of man in our mind, which is common to all human beings and which can be applied to each of them separately. Therefore it can be said: The general perceptive man is not but the soul and intellect without the mediums of senses. It is intellect that perceives the quantum of commonality between persons of different natures and constructs the general human being along with the fact that the five senses have no interference in making sense. It should be said: An act is abstract and non-material. This proves that the doer of this act, the self, also be an abstract and non-material reality since it is not possible for a material doer to perform an abstract function. Therefore it should be said: Rising of absolute senses to the self of man is an originative rising and not transmigrative or reactionary.

Now another important question arises: what is the abode of memory and where are the forms and meanings stored? Does the brain or nerves play the role of archives?

Its reply is that since brain and nerves are material, they cannot serve as safe repositories of intellectual forms and connotations, because as intellectual have said, all the parts of the body, like brain and nerves, as a result of nutrition and growth are constantly changing and are being renewed. Physical parts of the body of man are completely changed a number of times during his lifetime. If the location of memory had been the brain and nerves, the forms and meanings stored in them would also be changed along with the change of these organs after a period of time. But such a thing does not happen, because a seventy – eighty-years-old person retains a major part of memories of dangers that have passed on him. He can recall the memory and recognize that they are the same dangers that passed on him. Such a thing is not compatible with materiality of memory! This can lead us to conclude that memory (imagination) is an abstract and non-material thing and in fact it is the intellect of man that in the stage of imagination perceives partial forms and meanings and retains them in the archives of his memory. This can also lead us to discover the abstractness and non-materiality of the self of man. Rising of the forms and meanings are matters, which are perceptible by the intellect of man also are originative rising and not transmigrative or reactionary.

So far we have learnt three reasonings from the reasoning of the abstractness of the soul:

1. Innate knowledge of the self with regard to itself.

2. Knowledge of the self with the generalities.

3. Knowledge of the self through forms and partial meanings stored in the memory.

More arguments are offered on the abstractness of the soul in books of philosophy, but we shall be content only with these.[11]


[8] Risala Tasawwur wa Tasdeeq, Pg. 307
[9] Risala Tasawwur wa Tasdeeq, Pg. 307
[10] Al-Isharaat wa Tanbihaat, Part 2
[11] Refer to Asfar, Vol. 2