what do you do with a scorpion? (or the nature of the soul)

I was surfing the net the other day and I came upon this story:

There was this Hindu who saw a scorpion floundering around in the water. He decided to save it by stretching out his finger, but the scorpion stung him. The man still tried to get the scorpion out of the water, but the scorpion stung him again.

A man nearby told him to stop saving the scorpion that kept stinging him.

But the Hindu said: “It is the nature of the scorpion to sting. It is my nature to love. Why should I give up my nature to love just because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting?”

Don’t give up loving.
Don’t give up your goodness.
Even if people around you sting.

When I read this I had to pause for a second. I have heard a version of this story before, but the lesson told to me was much different lesson. I had heard a version where a scorpion and a turtle were trying to cross a stream and the turtle gave the scorpion a lift on its back, only to be stung and to sink into the water. The turtle cried out ‘why have you stung me? Now we both shall die?” The scorpion answered, “it is my nature”.

The moral of the story told to me in church was that there are bad people out there and they cannot be trusted to do good. Even if a bad person (read: wicked, evil) does a good deed, it is an exception and not the rule. The essential character of the person is that of evil, regardless of what a person may or may not do.

This is problematic. What is the essence of which we refer to as having the quality of ‘good’ or ‘evil’? There is still a belief that there is a separation of mind and body, of mental and matter, ala Descartes. The problem with dualism is that one comes to the problem in how the two interact. How does one thing, which has absolutely no matter whatsoever (and other things such as extension) affect something that is entirely matter? While I am not a philosopher of the mind, my leanings are toward physicalism with a healthy dose of functionalism mixed in.

Yet there is another problem, for many will misunderstand ‘mental’ aspects with those belonging to a ‘soul’. What is this soul? Where does it exist? What is it made of? In this many people will assume that the soul is ‘what we think and feel’. When faced with brain damage or deterioration (such as Alzheimer’s) or obvious fallacies of the mind (forgetfulness, errors in thinking, etc…) a quick answer is that our soul is the essential essence of our humanness (whatever this might mean) and the errors in thinking are just our imperfect human frailties.

This, too, is unsatisfactory. Again, of what proof is there of anything resembling a soul? None. There is no proof of any sort of afterlife and I, for one, believe that Socrates’ famous argument for the existence of an afterlife was a grand gesture to appease his own fears when faced with drinking a special brew of hemlock.

But I digress. The problem is not in Pascal’s wager, that by being mistaken we will have still lived a noble life. The problem is that we place upon ourselves a notion of purity or perfection that simply does not exist. Or, and this is worse yet, we are to believe that our essential essence, our soul, bespeaks our deepest and truest identity, then what becomes of the person who is struggling with PTSD and aggression tendencies? Without knowing anything about the brain a person raised on the mythology of the soul and essential character takes stock of their self as dangerous and perpetuating harm and death. It is obvious to them, using this terribly flawed ideology, that they are a scorpion and thus their nature cannot be changed. On several instances I’ve had combat veterans, struggling with memories of their tour through war and their problem of reintegration into society, express that this dangerous animal is who they really are and hence are better off gone. That is, dead, where they can do no more harm.

Both versions of the story bespeak of a nature, and this goes with my last post, in that there are those who speak of humans as essentially good or essentially bad. Yet it is the first version that emphasizes love more than the second version. I never heard love in the version told to me in church. Yet what also stands out is that in the first version the person made a choice, knowing that the scorpion will likely sting him. In the turtle version there was blind faith and hope that things will be okay. Odd that the story that relied on blind faith and hope with the moral of not trusting bad people was told to me in a church that emphasizes blind faith and hope.

We have a choice. I do argue for the existence of free will, though I would argue that it is rarely seen to occur as we are owing so much of our choices and thoughts to habits and heuristics, influences and biases unknown to ourselves. We are blind. We are foolish. We are rash and contradictory and any person who says they are a rational being is more blind and foolish than any blithering idiot one might encounter on the street. Yet… with practice, with patient labor, one may begin to choose well in the myriad of situations that arise daily. In this practice begins to flower free will.


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