On the Idea of Spirit
Anil Mitra © May 2018—May 2018
What is spirit? The connotations include that a spirit is supernatural and non-physical but not exclusively so. Spirit overlaps with soul as the eternal essence of a being and the divine. Examples are ghosts, angels, and fairies.
But that does not tell us what spirit is. To address the question, consider how the notion of spirit might arise.
Our senses inform us of an immediate world in which there are ordinary and visible causes such as force and will. Human issues that loom over the material world include the source of consciousness and will and the fact of human finitude, especially death. We may be concerned for the continuity of consciousness—or not—beyond death. Also, some causes are not visible. What causes plants to grow from seeds (we know the cause from biology and chemistry but this is recent); or animals from sex.
Thus the idea of a ‘force’ or ‘entity’ over and above the material body arises; it ‘animates’ and explains—or suffices for explanation—because it is eternal.
Thus spirit has the characteristic of a substance which is found sufficiently explanatory by some persons as well as philosophers that it provides a final answer. But others do not accept this answer. If the material aspect of the world needs explanation, why should essence or spirit or substance not need explanation?
‘Logically’ speaking—i.e. in the sense that a true explanation should not have a contingent premise—the idea of spirit is a stop gap response to the question of understanding.
From the perfect metaphysics of course we have an ultimate explanation that takes no state as given and that requires no substance.
But let us analyze a little further.
What is matter? The first notion is that it is what is tangible and sensed. It is later that we are informed from science—physics—of the nature of matter-energy. But such explanations are ultimately contingent and incomplete (unless the physics is the metaphysics). Clearly then we should not expect physics to provide final explanations. Spirit, then, may indeed be physical (if physics were complete).
However, from our metaphysics we know that this is not needed (even though it might be informative and useful).
The concept of Being is sufficiently potent that it provides necessary explanation. Within the context of that explanation we do, of course, experience ourselves and the world as limited / contingent and thus a psychological or more detailed material need for ‘spirit’ is not entirely eliminated but what we learn from the metaphysics is that such explanation is not fundamental.
What we find is that there is no need for a special concept of ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ over and above Being.
We have the self (Atman) and the ultimate real (Brahman). The latter is Being with identity; it is limitless with regard to variety, peak, dissolution, and extension; its changes are endless and eternal. And Atman is finally identical to Brahman.
Of course there are details to work out; and ultimately to experience in eternity; but these may be done in the context of reason and eternity. It is not necessary to invoke further mystery or to invoke spirit.
There is no ontological need for the concept of spirit over and above that of Being.