His essay discusses several basic views: Materialist reductionism - which says that everything about us can in principle be reduced to the workings of material particles like atoms and their constituents; Emergentism - which says that we are fundamentally material but that the material of which we are comprised is organized in such a way as to give rise to capacities and features which are fundamentally different. It's similar to how a gravitational field emerges from a material object like a star; and Aristotelianism - the view that the soul is the form, or essence, of the body. It's that which makes us a human being.
O'Connor himself adopts an emergent view:
To have a human soul, on this account, is to be an embodied creature having (in some measure) such personal capacities or the biological potential to develop such capacities.In other words, our soul is more like the capacities and potentialities we have by virtue of having the kinds of bodies we do. But O'Connor is a Christian so he wonders whether such a view is compatible with the traditions of the Christian faith:
Is this account congruent with religious understandings of the nature and destiny of human souls? In remarking briefly on this question, I will restrict myself to the understanding common to my own Christian belief and those of the other Abrahamic religions.My own view is that our soul is not a set of capacities or a substance that's contained within us, but rather that our soul is information or data. It's every true fact about us, what we look like at every instant of our lives, what we think at every instant, our hopes, idiosyncrasies, personality, who our ancestors were, everything that forms a complete, exhaustive description of us.
Reflective theological speculation concerning the soul down through the centuries has not been so nearly uniform as popularly thought, with many theologians emphasizing on scriptural, no less than philosophical-empirical, grounds the deeply embodied nature of human persons. (It is not for nothing that the ancient Christian creeds, e.g., look forward to the bodily resurrection of the dead.)
However, we might wonder whether a psychological, fully embodied account of the soul is consistent with the belief that all persons are deemed of ‘equal worth in the sight of God,’ given that some human persons exhibit these psychological capacities to a far lesser degree than others. By way of reply, I turn to the foundational Genesis text that states that all humans are divine ikons, image-bearers of God.
Plausibly, this not only describes our present distinctive capacities for rationality, for self- and God-awareness, for moral freedom, and for self-emptying love, it promises a future gift: the offer of friendship with God and an eventual, fuller realization of our human potential....
Of course, this promised destiny is predicated on the assumption that we will individually survive death. But how can this be, on an embodied view of the soul, given what death entails for the body? Note that in the Abrahamic religions, human persons are not naturally immortal. (Indeed, all of created reality is sustained in existence by God.) Survival of death would be a supernatural gift.
Just as the information with which we are familiar in our everyday lives must exist in some medium like a book or a hard drive so, too, must our souls exist somewhere, but it's not "in" us. Rather it's in the mind of God. We might think of God's mind as a vast database that contains a "file" on everyone who has ever existed. Since it exists in the mind of God the soul is potentially immortal.
When a person's body dies, it's conceivable that God uses the information in our "file" to instantiate us in another body in another level or aspect of reality.
Perhaps there are some whom, for whatever reason, God chooses not to instantiate so they cease to enjoy conscious existence. Perhaps there are some whose file God simply chooses to delete so they cease to exist altogether.
In any event, the proper place to look for the soul, on this view, would not be inside us but in the mind of God.