The Software of the Soul -- or, Is the Soul Software?

An essay on sociobiology by Linus Walleij1

I would like to start this discussion by quoting a phrase from an interview made by the famous sociologist of science, Sherry Turkle. In interviewing Deborah, a 13 year old girl experiencing computers during adolescence, Deborah makes the following statement:2

You program yourself how to be. In sixth grade I got really upset, and started drinking and smoking. I don't even know why I did it. (...) Then I started to make rules. (...) Don't eat candy for lunch. If you're angry, hold it in and scream after school. Or I make a rule for two days. Like I'm gonna really work, try hard, I'm gonna do good on my English tests.

The concept of the human being as a machine, analogous to the computer, requiring software to run, software possible to replace and restructure, has been a familiar idea for some decades. The idea seems somehow to arise by itself in students engaged in aswell engineering as social sciences and humanities. As we see here, it appears even in adolescent children experiencing computers. Actually, it appears in almost everybody experiencing computers for the first time.3

Skip forward a few pages and Turkle tells us about Carla, a fifth grader from a poor family. When asking the central question of her Piaget-inspired analysis, "Are computers alive?", Carla answers: "Well, I don't know if they are alive. They certainly are not completely alive, but I don't think it has to do with that they're programmed. We are all programmed."4

The aim of Turkle's analysis here is to show how the child can use the computer as a tool to make an image of herself. According to Turkle, the machine becomes a mirror, a "second self" (thus the title) -- a toy model of your own mind. The computers' minds are different, sure, but they are similar. Using Meadean terminology, we would say that the computer may ease the process of creating the generalized other.

I want to show you here that the computer has this terapheutic effects because it is modeled, consciously, subconsciously or by chance, after the modern human psyche. Not the other way around. In short -- I will focus in on the hardware / software distiction, trying to show you that the definition of the body as "hardware", and the soul as "software" parameters for the body, is a phenomena in contemporary modernity which sometimes appear in another context and vocabulary. This is not to say that this distinction came first, and that the computer is a result of that line of thinking. These different ideas coevolved; they may have inspired each other through culture -- or they may have arised as autonomous entities.

By this I mean that the computer science may have invented the hardware / software distinction, while inspired by similiar distinctions in other fields of culture (they may have done so unwittingly) or the distinction may have appeared in several spots simultaneously.

In order for us to know what we are actually discussing here, I will introduce these "similar mechanisms". I quote a passage from the Swedish life-style magazine of young women, Veckorevyn5, and we are once again experiencing Turkle's mirror:6

The body is the mirror of the soul, as we know. The I lives in the body. Emotions, yearning, thoughts, weakness and strength in the psyche gets expressing [sic] in your body. If one know that one can read both one own's body, and understand people better.7

This little statement followed by the 6 differnet "body-types" ranging from "girl-woman" to "the Diva" (with illustrations) may look innocent and cute at first, and the classes described are of course of "horoscope" type (applies to any personality). But at second thought, the uglier parts shine through: what about people suffering from MS, Parkinsons or Cancer? The hunchback of Notre Dame? Does that mean the soul is crippled likewise? The article tries to glorify, by avoiding the subject, a certain kind of racism: if it looks ugly, it has an ugly soul.

The idea is very extreme here: not only do we have a softare / hardware distinction, but the "software" -- the soul -- is the only thing that is alive. The body is mere screen for a running program. It is a one-way process. The body does not in any way control the soul.

The same way of thinking appears in a lot of contemporary feminist philosophy. All since Beauvoir said that you are not born woman, but become it, or even before her, there seems to have prevailed an idea of the gender inequality as a result of particular "software". I e: you have a "sex" -- a certain body, a hardware -- but all it's cultural expressions are "soft", and the software makes up your "gender" -- the social sex.

Freud also showed us how people "learn" basic sexuality through 5 distinct phases. We all know that homo sapiens is a social and cultural creature, and of course there exists some kind of "programming", "uploading"8 or "bootstrapping"9 in the human soul during maturation, if we use this terminology. But what are the proportions and interrelations of this duality?

I have to add in, of course, that the computer terminology used here seems to imply som kind of one-way process. Of course people are not like that, but rather counter-acting agents. However, many of the examples here are based on the problematic situation in which this two-way process becomes one-way, i e the human "software" starts to control the "hardware" -- an original dialectic process turned into brain washing.

Is there a reason to search for these patterns in contemporary thought, does it explain anything, or is it just a game of words?

I will try to convince you that the software / hardware perspective, plus the hypothesis that the flow in this duality is changing into more and more of a one-way process (the software creates the hardware -- just like the article in Veckorevyn said) actually adds a lot of understanding to aleast two different phenomena: anorexia / bulimia, and the definition of brain-death. The following sections are short, as I had no time or resources to research and dig into the background of each phenomena.


Anorexia and Bulimia

I must admit that my knowledge of these two syndromes is limited. However I believe I have understood atleast the most important mechanisms causing people (young women in particular) to starve themselves or eat compulsively.

According to my view, these syndromes appear as an expression of control -- control of the own body. The anorectic that starves shows herself that she can atleast control what goes into her physical body. I have written elsewhere, that people seem to have two freedoms they believe to be absolutely untouchable: the right to her own thoughts, and the right to control her own body. This is the minimal "privacy" you could possibly imagine. You might speculate, that these two basic freedoms are dialectically coupled: if you infringe on the freedom of one of these spheres, the own mind (the "software") or the own body (the "hardware"), you add in control from the outside, that is, you might expect a reaction of greater self-control in the other.

If the mind is controlled from the outside, by too high expectations from the environment,10 by earlier traumatic incidents which refuse to leave your mind, or likewise, a reaction might appear in trying to seize control of the other freedom: the own body. To write in other terms: if the "software" is controlled, "programmed" by some exogenous factor, the human might react by trying to control the hardware.

It has been pointed out11 that the abuse of anabolic steroids among in particluar young men has a similar syndrome structure as the anorexia / bulimia syndrome. A similar function could also be underlying some of the desire to undergo plastic surgery in order to feel that you control your own "hardware", that you can "upgrade" or simply alter it as you please. Maybe even the decision to physically change one's sex12 can be a result of this kind of process. This kind of dreams of bodily interchangeability also appears in some far-out extropian13 daydreams. We turn to the next section.


The japaneese manga-movie Ghost in a Shell, 14 make the same hardware / software distinction we find here. If all of your body, even the brain, is replaced by transplants and mechanical proteses, is there still a soul inside it? Is it isomorph to the original physical body? The theme appears in a lot of modern science fiction ranging from Philip K Dick and his androids to William Gibson.

The definition applied in modern countries of "Brain Death" is symptomatic -- it tells us something about how the idea of the body / soul relationship has changed: in some views of our modern society the soul lives not even in the body, but in the brain. The organ which houses the ability to communicate and store information also stores the soul. Thus we believe the soul is a piece of information, a computer program which could, using the correct measures, be "uploaded" into another body, or maybe even a computer: a "construct".

The idea is not new, not even modern. God blew life into the clay-made man, and in Jewish mythology rabbi Löw in Prague makes a pseudo-human out of clay -- Golem -- which he gives life by putting a parchment inscribed by God's name into it's mouth. When the parchment is removed, the Golem falls apart. This is about as close to the concept of "software of the soul" you could possibly get in the 19th century.

However the human body does not fall apart when the brain dies, which makes it come in handy as a spare-parts supply, parts as unpersonal and replacable as expansion cards in a PC. The message is clear: guys like you do grow on trees -- but your mind is unique. Thus the mind is the only part of you worth preserving. Or?

I am not opposing the concept of brain-death, rather challenging it. I believe that a single mind is as useless to preserve as a single body. The soul dwells not in the mind, nor the body, but in both. We will confront this definition again, and I refer to it as the "either / or" versus "both / and" conflict. It seems to me, though I can't prove it, that the modern15 view of the human identifies the soul with some kind of "software" in the brain, not as an integral part of the body. This is greedy reductionism! The brain-dead body is of no use to it's bearer because it can become a human only in interplay with a soul, a mind, a "software". This duo constitutes the soul. And please keep in mind that I am talking about soul here -- not intelligence. This is not a counter-argument to artificial intelligence, which I believe is perfectly possible. These are thrilling issues. However I have no space here to extend this discussion, and it would soon bring us off topic.

Genes and Memes

I haven't noted yet, but may tell you now, that all these subjects are of course dangerous. Much bitterness and hard feelings stems from the debate inbetween feminists (and marxists) and so-called "sociobiologists". This debate have polarized the positions here, and you easily get the impression of combatants in the discourse representing "extreme" views of which is most important in the society and it's patterns of behaviour in all decriptive levels: the "hardware" (the biology) or the "software" (the culture).

In this extreme view, feminsts claim that biology is unimportant and of secondary importance if you want to study human behaviour, while "sociobiologist" claim the reverse: biological differences induces behaviour patterns. The bitterness stems of course from the fact that biological differences are a bit trickier to alter than the cultural counterparts. You can talk about this for hours and hours, but I will not waste your time with that discussion here as it can easily be found elsewhere. What I want to do in this section is to help bring about a suiting terminology, using the concepts outlined above.

However you have probably already noted the diplomatic approach used hithereto: I consciously used examples which manifest themselves in a lot of feminist writings, notably in contemporary culture analysis.16 I will now turn 180 degrees and link the concepts I've developed here with orthodox neo-darwinian sociobiology.

Neo-darwinian evolutionary theory assumes that there exists two basic replicators in the life of planet earth: the genes which is the replicator building up any organism from simple micro organisms through plants to mammals and humans, and memes which is the basic cultural replicator, manifesting itself in the only mammal that has developed an ability to host such replicators through the language apparatus. Memes make up all of culture, including music, technology and handicrafts. You probably know genes before, but for newcomers the next three paragraphs will recapitulate in short what memes are.

The concept of the meme is not new -- Richard Dawkins coined the term in the 1976 popular biology volume The Selfish Gene, and others have developed it further; perhaps the most beatiful conceptualization has been made by Daniel Dennet.17 Douglas Hofstadter writes about recieving some chapters from a 1952 book by Pierre Auger already touching the subject,18 and some might recall a paper by William S Burroughs written in 1970 describing language as "a virus". 19 This idea has apparently been around for a while.

The archetypical meme is a chain letter or short verbal phrase screaming copy me!, and a threatening "hook" saying or else... E g the religious meme: "Belief X brings redemption, and it is your duty to bring redemption to every human on this planet.", or the Good Times meme: "X contains a dangerous virus, please avoid X and redistribute this message in order to warn others."

Not all memes are useless and scholastic however -- these are extreme examples -- true mental viruses actually. Mostly memes are gorgeous philosophical and / or practical ideas which actually enhance your ability to survive in this world, and your understanding of it aswell. Memes intermingle and interweave to become the structures of culture.

My proposal here is to treat the earlier mentioned "hardware" of the human as a product of the genes, an artifact of the genosphere, while the "software" should be considered a memospherical expression. Some may ask why I link these two concepts, and the answer is: why not? It helps underbuild the theory, gives the hardware / software of the soul a historical explanation -- it even begets the same conclusions: Dawkins find genes to be "selfish"20 -- only trying to replicate themselves -- and the same goes for memes with the noted viral qualities. Only in the interplay of genes and memes can you find an actual mind.21


Can you prove this "software / hardware" -- or "memosphere / genosphere" view of the human to actually exist in the actual common metaphysics of our time? Is there really such a view of the mind inside people around us all? We may feel that this idea sound intuitively correct for us, but what about the population as a whole? Is the connection inbetween the spheres turning one-way as I say? Can any of these phenomena be proved quantitatively?

We are of course talking about expensive research here. Perhaps you could investigate it directly by putting together a questionnaire with general questions such as "which is most important for your personality, the body or the soul -- try to point out importance on a scale."22 , and distribute this among key groups, people of different age, anorectics and so forth, but the method appears much too uncertain and subjective to me.

A better approach is to find correlations with what I call "the manual". As you know every piece of software for a computer is accompanied by a piece of software23 for the human supposed to use it: a manual. In contemporary culture there are lots of "manuals" floating around: we call them life-style magazines and Veckorevyn mentioned above is a perfect example of such a manual -- it tells you how to utilize your own body using the new "software". Among men these can be found in eg certain sports magazines like Edge or in pornography and erotica. If you can find a correlation inbetween the sales curves of this type of magazines and certain patterns of behaviour predicted by the theory, such as the change in fashion, you can verify the memes (or software) to be in place.

You may argue against this method, that the magazines here are actually part of the memes, and thus an integral part of the "software". This factor is easily measured however, provided the needed statistics -- find a test group of illiterates or some other selected group that does not read those magazines and must thus be influenced only by their fellow humans.

There are additional problems to this analysis, but I am convinced that it can be done if you utilize suiting statistics. It would even do to falsify the theory if it's incorrect. A good question to ask, however, is if there is an even better terminology than this soup of "hardware / software" and "genosphere / memosphere" in which I believe that the human spirit, or soul, dwells. Unfortunately I have no answers here, so I advice you to take the baton24 and carry it further.

Linus Walleij
february 1997


  1. Though I study sociology as well as research policy at Lund University, I want to state explicitly here, that the contents herein have no connection to my university whatsoever. These are all my own ideas and the contents of this article has not passed through any "peer review" process. If you think that this essay looks "unscientific", then don't be surprised: it makes no claim of being, and explicitly is not a scientific article.
  2. Turkle 1984 The Second Self p.146
  3. With "experiencing computers" I mean experiencing the inner philosophy of the computer. Not simply using applications such as wordprocessors. The experience must incorporate the understanding of the computers' so called Von Neumann architecture.
  4. Ibid p.157-158
  5. Profound similarity to Vanity Fair
  6. Veckorevyn #4 23rd of January 1997 p.20 Sigridh Turedsson "Hitta din kroppstyp". My translation (including grammatic errors).
  7. The author of the article then goes on to popularize, or if I may say it myself, pervert the ideas of Reich and Freud, using Lowen and Kurtz as reference. Unfortunately I have not had the time to examine who this Lowen-Kurtz duo actually is.
  8. Uploading -- the process of transfering software into a computer from a distant location.
  9. Bootstrapping -- computer therm describing the process of a computer starting itself up after power-on. This is a miraculous process, comparable to lift yourself out of the mud by pulling the strap of your own boot.
  10. Too much integration in the Durkheimian sense. Anorexia and Bulimia can be viewed as actions of defaitism, using that terminology.
  11. Though I can't remember the source. Oh my.
  12. In the physical definition as opposed to "gender".
  13. Extropianism: offshoot of modern futurism mixed up with libertarianism and New Age.
  14. Ghost in a Shell, Polygram Video 1995.
  15. Or perhaps rather postmodern.
  16. E g Donna Haraway, to name just one prominent writer.
  17. Dennet 1995
  18. Darwin's Dangerous Idea, also a volume of popular biology.
  19. Hofstadter 1984 Metamagical Themas
  20. Burroughs 1970 The Electronic Revolution
  21. Using the game theory of Alan Turing and Oskar Morgenstern Dawkins showed that genes are mechanical and "selfish".
  22. Dawkins also states this in the last paragraph of the mentioned volume.
  23. People sharing my view would put the mark in the middle of the scale or not at all.
  24. A bunch of memes if you want to put it that way. It is tempting to start calling all ideas and information transfers memetical after first getting hold of the concept. But beware of the meme meme: a kid equipped with a hammer tend to make everything look like nails.
  25. The meme ... oh, I did it again!