Before we begin, we should discuss one of the main things the Catholic Faith touches on: the soul. Since one can simply read the Catholic Encyclopedia's definition of the soul, I'm not going to concern myself too much with the definiton of the soul (besides, as Aristotle stated at the beginning of his De Anima, defining the notion of soul is one of the most difficult questions in the world, and one that philosophers and theologians have been struggling with for centuries). No, what I'm going to concern myself with here is how the conept of a soul developed in human culture.
For some time now, ever since I first heard of it in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I've been fascinated by the Epic of Gilgamesh. For those that don't know, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a Sumerian epic, that was first unearthed at the birth Assyriology (the study Sumer, Akkad, Bablyon, and associated cultures, like Assyria) in the 1880s and translated a number of years later. Most Catholics know it, if they know it at all, because it contains an intriguing analogue of Noah's Flood. It tells the tale of Gilgamesh the King of Uruk, a mighty city in ancient Sumer, and his wild, hairy, beat-like friend Enkidu. Together Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on a series of adventures, fighting demons, monsters, and all manner of strange creatures, including gods. In fact, Gilgamesh manages to anger one of Sumer's major goddesses, Ishtar, by refusing to marry her, and then insults her by speaking of her Black Widow-like behavior. As punishment, she has the other gods in the Sumerian Pantheon arrange for Enkidu's death. Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh is horrified and heart broken. He decides the best thing to do is to go out and find the secret of eternal life, from those lived "before the flood". It's an excellent story, and surely one of the most moving meditations on death the world has ever seen. What does this have to do with the soul? Simply this: that if we are to determine the beginnings of the soul concept, we should look back into the past, to the beginnings of humanity itself.
Now, let's do a mental exercise. Imagine it's ancient Sumer, or Egypt, take your pick. You're talking to your good buddy, Hotep, and then all of a sudden he falls down and doesn't get up. And he keeps on not getting up. Now, nothing has changed about Hotep. He weighs the same as before he died. Materially, he's exactly the same. Which would certainly get one to thinking that something immaterial had changed. Something that couldn't be seen, but no less real had changed. How do we know that it was real? Well, reality changed. Hotep was alive, talking and moving, eating and drinking, and now he's dead. The reality of Hotep changed. Therefore something in reality itself changed, and something that can change reality is real (I'm playing a little fast and loose with the term reality, by saying in can change, but what I mean is that the universe changes,since our poor friend Hotep is part of the universe). Now, if we say that the immaterial is not real, then we have no credible explanation for the death of Hotep. Poor guy, he had some much to look for ward to, he had just patched things up with Mrs. Hotep and was looking at a mud hut closer to the river, and now he's gone. Without a belief in the soul, there is no explanation for the difference between states. With the concept of the soul there ultimately isn't any difference between death and life. They're both the same thing, because materially there is no difference between the two. So, far from being a wishful fantasy, the belief in an immaterial soul is actually the most logical explanation for that fate that awaits us all, death.
Now keep in mind we haven't figured out anything about the nature of the soul yet, beyond that it is immaterial and in some sense separate from the body. The actual nature of the soul is something we'll be getting to in a later post. But I think this one has gone on quite long enough. I'll close with merely this last thought. Once we open ourselves up to the possibility of an immaterial, but real, soul, that leaves the door open for many other immaterial and real things to exist. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"