Pixar’s new film Soul is light and approachable, despite weighty themes, a reviewer said at RogerEbert.com. The movie revolves around a jazz musician and teacher who finds himself fighting to get back to Earth after a near-fatal mishap robs him of his career breakthrough. It raises questions about the identity of oneself.
The latest Pixar film, Soul, tells the story of music teacher and jazz musician Joe Gardner—”a middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town,” according to the official Disney website. “But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before—a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks, and interests before they go to Earth.”
The reviewer for RogerEbert.com said, “Despite its weighty themes, the project has a light touch.” The humor and fun help balance the film’s central question which, going back to the Disney site, asks: “What is it that makes you … YOU?” It’s a philosophical question of personal identity that dates back centuries.
In the context of personal identity, the idea of the soul doesn’t hold much water, scientifically. In order to understand why, laying out the concept of a soul can help.
“The soul is you—a separable, non-material entity composed of a non-material substance that houses or contains your mentality,” said Dr. David K. Johnson, Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “It’s where your visual experiences are had and your emotions are felt; it houses your personality and makes your decisions based upon it.
“Although mental activity can float in and out of the soul—you have different experiences, memories, and personality over time—the substance of the soul supposedly remains the same.”
This “soul hypothesis,” relating our personal identities directly to the soul, fail in numerous areas, Dr. Johnson said. Perhaps the biggest problem is that if our personal identities were preserved by souls, the soul would be both necessary and sufficient to that personal identity.
“In other words, you couldn’t be the same person over time without having the same soul over time and having the same soul over time would be enough to make you the same person,” he said.
Dr. Johnson said that the soul is presumed to be a vessel containing your mentality, like a glass containing liquid. One popular idea about the sufficiency of the soul comes from the 17th-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. To explain this idea, Dr. Johnson asked us to pretend that the soul of a random man, Bob, is going to have its contents emptied, whereupon the soul will be transferred to the king of China and will be filled with the king’s mental contents. Bob’s soul will have none of its memories or personality, and instead, will be full of the king’s memories and personality.
For all intents and purposes, tomorrow, the king would have Bob’s soul. Does that make Bob the king of China, possessing all the rights and privileges of being a king?
“The person in the king’s body would not even have any of Bob’s memories or personality; he wouldn’t even know he ‘was’ Bob or ever had ‘been’ Bob,” Dr. Johnson said. “In fact, since he has all of the king’s mentality, he would think he always had been the king. So how would such a soul transfer make Bob the king of China?”
The idea that the soul is necessary for the survival of personal identity also crumbles. The easiest way to picture this is to consider any “body swap” movie like Freaky Friday, 18 Again, Like Father Like Son, and so on. The two characters’ mentalities and personalities switch. And if we were to replace those characters with the example of Bob and the king of China, would their mentalities and personalities switch?
“Consider a situation where two person’s souls are switched, but their mentality stays attached to the same body,” Dr. Johnson said. “Maybe, Bob’s soul goes to the king of China and takes on his mentality and the king of China’s soul goes to Bob and takes on his mentality. Would we say that Bob and the king had switched places? Certainly not.”
Not only would we have no idea what had happened, but neither would Bob or the king. Switching the souls, or containers, for their mentalities should make no difference at all.
“As it is often said, a difference that makes no difference is no difference at all,” Dr. Johnson said. “Thus, we see, again, that having the same soul is not necessary for the preservation of personal identity.”
Going back to the movie, Pixar’s Soul asks: “What is it that makes you … YOU?” Without getting too bogged down in philosophy, and without being preachy or judgmental, the film does suggest that finding one’s spark and enjoying the simple pleasures in life are worthy endeavors.
Dr. David Kyle Johnson contributed to this article. Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He earned a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma.