Sunday, November 24, 2013


Hi all :)

Dan and I (and a few other friends) have been having some long discussions recently, trying to formulate some concrete beliefs about the fundamental nature of, well, everything. Big task, right? 
We realised that much of what we think is based on pure assumption. And because we have never seriously tried wrestling with competing (but potentially just as valid) theories, we default to the position of our upbringing. Maybe this is partly because its scary to our subconscious - challenging foundational beliefs has the potential to challenge our whole theological system at once.
Ultimately we want to have philosophically sound, realistic, and (most importantly) Scripturally faithful theological systems - which require philosophically sound, realistic, and Scripturally faithful beliefs about the fundamental nature of things.

I’m starting a series of blog posts about the understanding I am reaching through these discussions. The main purpose of these posts is for peer review - please let me know your thoughts!

Currently my focus has been on getting the philosophy right - this is because I believe all my arguments are Scripturally supported, but am not so certain about the philosophical validity. However, since the next step is to tailor my presentation of scriptural support, I would appreciate any scriptural challenges to my arguments.

Before we start discussing the nature of God (which is the basis for everything else!), I would like to define some common terms.

The Soul
Every being is formed from a set of intimately connected entities - e.g. body, mind, spirit, soul. These entities can be of two types - ontological (real ‘things’ as we traditionally think of them) and functional.
Functional entities are persistent phenomena whose essence includes a particular functional state. For example, your thoughts are not ‘things’, but are never-the-less specific entities. Their essence includes their functional state - i.e. being ‘thought of’ by you. If the function changes, they cease to exist as entities.
Functional entities can depend on functions which spring from the interplay between multiple ontological sources.

The ‘Soul’ described in the Bible (in both the Greek and Hebrew language) refers to conscious experience. God & Angels, Humans, and some ‘soulish’ animals all have a soul.
Conscious experience is a function, making the soul a ‘functional entity’ - hence it is not a ‘thing’ the same way that body and spirit are ‘things’. 
Instead it is the sum total of conscious experience - which results from the interplay between ontological entities such as body and/or spirit, and context

The experiences that make up the soul range from focusses consciousness to sub-conscious (and beyond). If consciousness fully ceases to exist, the soul also ceases to exist.
Experiences can be predictable (if you know enough about the soul and context in question), or potentially absolutely unpredictable and random. Many people deny the existence of such random elements to the soul (for philosophical, Scriptural, and secular evidence reasons).
Predictable experiences range from pure isolated sensation (extremely malleable, instantaneously, to external context) to more self-sustaining experiences.  

Pleasure is defined as ‘that which the soul is driven to continue experiencing’. By definition, then, all souls are fundamentally hedonistic.
The definition of pleasure may vary from soul to soul and may change over time.
ALL of the soul’s experiences are variably ‘pleasurable’, and its current state can be summed up in the total experience of (or lack of) pleasure. 

The Character
Hedonism drives the soul to do three things. Firstly, the soul is driven to preserve its current condition, resulting in self-sustaining elements which are resistant to moulding. 
Self-sustaining experiences are important to hedonism, because hedonism relies on accurate predictions about reality, based on limited information. Previous experiences, successes, and failures all help - either by being called directly to awareness to create a more complete perception of reality, or by having a persistent subconscious influence on the soul.
Self-sustaining experiences include reality perceptions (ranging from simple beliefs to biases in sensory interpretation), imaginations (including future/alternative realities and desires), the will, and emotions. The character’s reality perception also includes beliefs about its own capabilities in pursuing pleasure, leading to conscious and subconscious habits of expression.
Collectively these self-sustaining predictable experiences are known as the ‘character’ (also known in Scripture as the ‘heart’). They all exhibit a degree of resistance to change.

In addition to resisting change, hedonism drives the character to mould appropriately by experience.
Character moulding is important for the same reason as resistance - additional information is valid and useful in how to pursue pleasure, just as previous information was.
Moulding can range from changed habits of expression, changes beliefs or perceptual biases, to changed definitions of pleasure. 

Thus the character is non-random and predictable (it is based on hedonism and experiences), and is semi-malleable (persistent but malleable).

Free Agency
Finally, Hedonism drives the soul to free agency - the intrinsic drive of the soul to express its character. 
Expression is important to hedonism because pleasure perception happens through interaction with the context - ranging from simple sensation, to context manipulation, to building/seeking entirely new contexts.
Such behaviour is an expression of the soul’s current character - its ideas of pleasure, its ideas of how best to attain it. The better a character can express itself, the more pleasure is being attained.
Free agency thus produces the ‘will’, which is not ‘free’, but rather bound to free agency. And Free Agency is bound to the character, which is predictable, and resistant to moulding (to varying degrees).

There are multiple reasons Free Agency fails to produce maximal ultimate pleasure. 
The character’s idea of pleasure may be wrong or incomplete. And its ideas of how to best attain it in the current context - how to best express itself - may be wrong. 
Finally, the character’s perception may be wrong/incomplete - perception (including pleasure perception) is a mix of sensory input AND the character’s input (processing the senses, and providing its own beliefs about reality - both of which can combat pleasure). 

A Being’s Nature and Character Limits
A being’s nature is ALL aspects to it that are unchangeable. This includes whether the being has a body or spirit, and whether it is conscious (i.e. has a soul).
A being’s nature may directly fix or constrain the limits of various sensations, and which are more powerful in various ways (including potential to bring pleasure). It may also provide initial perceptual and expressive habits in the character, and provide innate resistance properties to malleability. 
These two things will lead to limits on how a character can or will mould.

A character with ONLY nature aspects is (by definition) not malleable. It is entirely defined by the expressions it has designed to perform. Free Agency will always seek pleasure this way regardless of its success.
On the other hand, any self-defining character (i.e. with NO nature aspects) defines its own hedonism. It can form itself so that it finds pleasure in whatever interactions are most abundant in the given context - resulting in maximal possible pleasure. Obviously this is dependent on knowing which interactions are most abundant, which comes by experience.
Characters with both natures AND malleable aspects to their characters will mould with experience. But there are additional constraints on the most abundant interactions possible (and which of this can be pleasurable), provided by their nature.

Imagination and Desire
The soul’s experience is not limited to present reality (perception), but also includes imagination about future realities (to varying degrees). Some beings can imagine multiple alternative realities (for the present or the future). 
Beings which can imagine future and/or alternative realities will have varying degrees of desire attached to each. The strength of desire is based on how well the character thinks it could be expressed (and thus gain pleasure) in the imagined reality. 

Free Agency can utilise this capability to aim for ultimate maximal pleasure at some point in the future - even if this means foregoing maximal pleasure in the present
Free Agency will always act in the way maximises character expression, and the character will mould itself toward expressions that it thinks have the best chance at maximal ultimate pleasure. Thus the will may frequently aim at less-desirable but more-realistic future realities.
The better a being can imagine future realities, the more accurate and long-ranged such predictions will be, and so the more successful and future-oriented Free Agency will be.

Emotions are an expression of dissonance between reality perceptions, and desires for alternative realities. 

This is where misunderstanding about happiness can occur - emotional happiness occurs when reality perceptions exceed our desires. But if desires do not match what would actually bring maximal expression & pleasure, emotional happiness can fall woefully short of maximal possible pleasure.


  1. The soul is not a thing like spirit and body. It is the experience of consciousness.
  2. The character is all those aspects of the soul which are predictable and self-sustaining. It includes perceptions, imaginations, the will, and emotions.
  3. The soul is hedonistic, which drives it to be semi-malleable, and to have Free agency.
  4. Free Agency is drive for the soul to express itself. Free Agency drives the will to express the character as much as it can, in an attempt to attain maximal ultimate pleasure.
  5. A being's nature may place constraints on how the character can mould.
  6. A being can have multiple desires, and the will does not necessarily aim for the most desirable reality if it seems unlikely. Emotions are expressions of dissonance between reality and those desires. As such happiness may not line up with pleasure perception.
The Series:
  1. The Soul (this post)
  2. God's Nature
  3. God's Nature - Obscured
  4. Human Nature
  5. More to come...


  1. Great write up Josh! It is really thorough and thus took me little while to get through it lol.

    Some points that I thought might add clarity to it:

    An important factor which you included a little of but I think needs its own heading, is the aspect of a being's 'nature'. Doing this might help to contrast what a character is.

    Not sure what you meant here "The existence of randomly fluctuating aspects to the soul may be possible - but obviously these are not part of the character or the senses."
    What random aspects are possible? Personally I don't see how any random aspect of anything could ever be possible.

    Also, a lot covered the perception side of a character but not so much about desire. It is bit confusing what the distinction is that you draw between desire and perception.

    I hope this is helpful!

    Cheers, Dan

  2. Cool thanks Dan :) Good suggestions. I've updated the post somewhat to try incorporated them...

  3. The article is much clearer, well done Josh! It will become clearer still, I would imagine, once you start placing these terms into contexts in your later instalments :)

  4. I enjoyed it. It is amazing how complex God actually made us. All the pieces that put us together. Each one with its own properties. The body and all its parts. The soul and what makes it up. And the spirit...the deepest of our essence. Can we ever understand what the spirit is on a total basis?

    Do you know what would look cool with this post? A chart that shows the connections you are trying to make. But I am a teacher so I am biased, but I would love to see a diagram with this.

  5. You're right Tim - a chart is a great idea... I'll see what I can cook up ;)

  6. Updated again, in preparation for an up-coming diagram...

  7. Anticipation.................

  8. OK OK - high pressure situation, this - making a diagram for a teacher :p Its the best I can do for now.

  9. Highly impressed! I am downloading the chart to my hard drive. I think you did a wonderful job. I have to give you a 99%. See, no one is perfect so you can not get a 100% but the grace of Christ will cover the difference.

  10. Yeah well done Josh! The flow chart compliments your write up!