Up until the last two centuries, the vast majority of people (philosophers, theologians and laypersons) have believed in the existence of the soul. The legacy of this view stretches from philosophers such as Socrates and Plato (who both considered the soul as the essence of a person) to Aristotle (whose virtue ethics explained morality as the character development of the soul) to theologian Augustine (who held that the soul exists in every part of the body at the same time) to medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas (who developed the view of the soul as the entity that unifies, animates and makes human the body).[i] This “soul” is what gives our bodies life and is particular to each individual human. The soul is also our inner essence and is what could theoretically survive physical death to an afterlife.
For the modern enlightened thinker, the soul is just antiquated talk left over from our religious heritage that stipulated immaterial objects for things we did not understand. Even though this view (existence of the soul) has been the commonsense view across most cultures and religions, what we call the “soul” is now thought to be the brain (or unity of the brain and central nervous system). When we are stuck with a pin, we do not experience this feeling of pain in our soul, but instead it is just a series of physical events such as C-fibers firing (or electrical and chemical events) in our brain.[ii]
With the rise of empiricism (knowledge only comes by way of the five senses), the soul (as an immaterial substance) has become an unpopular view in philosophy. The main alternative to the existence of the soul is physicalism which claims that a human being is completely physical. This tendency has also influenced some Christians such as physicalist Nancey Murphy, who claims that, “science has provided a massive amount of evidence suggesting that we need not postulate the existence of an entity such as a soul or mind in order to explain life and consciousness.”[iii] On the other hand, philosopher Dallas Willard claims that accepting the existence of our soul as a substance is paramount to spiritual life.[iv]
Many questions surface regarding belief in the soul. Has science proven the soul does not exist? Is science the only place for knowledge or can other disciplines such as theology or philosophy contribute? Do the critiques against the soul hold up to analysis? I will argue that our culture has prematurely declared the death of the soul. First, I will define the different views of the soul, advocating a Thomistic substance dualism view (after philosopher Thomas Aquinas). Second, I will examine the theological knowledge from the Bible which clearly supports its existence. Third, I will provide a philosophical case for the soul using four independent arguments and also address the critiques against the soul’s existence. Fourth, I will expose the motivations (and methodology) that underlie this widespread rejection of the soul. Last, I will briefly explain why one’s view of what constitutes a person is important specifically from a Christian worldview, but more generally in its impact on ethics.
Belief in the existence of an immaterial essence called the soul is known as substance dualism. This view holds that the brain and soul are two distinct substances. The brain is a physical substance with physical properties and the soul (or mind) is a mental substance with mental properties. A substance is an entity that is particular, such as a dog or an acorn. A substance is also a continuant in that it remains the same thing through change which occurs by adding or losing properties. A property, on the other hand, does not change but is possessed by other things more basic. Examples include redness (being red), triangular and painfulness.[v] For substance dualism, the brain and the soul are different particulars with different properties, but can interact with each other – in fact can have causal relations with one another. Two main forms of dualism are Cartesian (after Rene Descartes) and Thomistic. On the Cartesian view, the mind is a substance externally related to the body (by a casual relation), and is what one thinks of in Hollywood’s depiction of the soul as an entity that could inhabit another body (or another animal for that matter). Although many of the arguments for the soul will work for either version, the view I take is the Thomistic one in which the soul is related to the body more intimately.[vi] Moreland and Rae describe this view of the soul as “a primitive (nonemergent) unity of parts, properties and capacities. The soul is diffused throughout the body and can enter into complex cause-effect interactions with that body. Our vast array of intellectual, emotional and volitional capacities differ from each other, and the soul is the primitive unity of this complex array of internal differentiations.”[vii]
Currently, the more popular view of the mind is physicalism (i.e. strict physicalism), which claims that the human being is completely physical; in that, it can be completely described by the language of physics and chemistry. For physicalism, there is just one physical substance (brain and central nervous system with a body) with physical properties possessed by that substance. On this view, when someone has a thought or experiences pain, these correspond to physical events such as certain electrical and chemical events in the brain.[viii] There are various views of the mind within physicalism (such as whether mental entities can be reduced strictly to the physical or if mental properties emerge from the physical), but due to space limitations I will restrict criticism to arguments that apply to all forms.
The physicalist view of the soul has been derived from the claim that scientific knowledge is exhaustive (scientism). This claim combined with naturalism (all that exists is physical matter and the laws that govern it) is what our culture has committed itself to and in so doing has excluded other avenues of knowledge. Scientism itself is self-refuting,[ix] but in adopting this view, other knowledge (such as theological or philosophical) is neglected. Moreland and Rae explain that “science is largely incompetent either to frame the correct questions or to provide answers. The hard sciences are at their best when they describe how physical systems work, but they are largely incompetent when settling questions about the nature of consciousness, intentionality, personal identity and agency, and related matters.”[x]
If God exists, then it shouldn’t surprise us that other immaterial entities also exist that have causal powers in the physical realm. In fact, the Bible clearly supports substance dualism. The Bible teaches that upon death we enter into an intermediate state while waiting for our resurrection body in the final state. The entity that is the person is obviously the immaterial component that can exist (at least temporarily) without a body. The Old Testament teaches that the conscious person without flesh and bone departs to God at death (Psalm 49:15) and that life after death exists in a place called Sheol where the dead are awake and aware of family (Job 3:13; Psalms 88:10-12; 115:17-18; Isaiah 38:18). The Old Testament also teaches the hope in the resurrection after death (Job 19:25-27; Psalms 73:26, Isaiah 26:14, 19; Daniel 12:2).
The New Testament is also consistent with this order starting with death. Jesus himself promised the thief on the cross that the same day he would be with him in paradise (Luke 23:42-43). This text and others affirm that Jesus understood that a person continued to exist after death. Paul insists that to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). Paul also looks forward to the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time (1 Thessalonians 5; 2 Corinthians 5). It is evident from this small sampling of the Scriptures, that some form of substance dualism is asserted or assumed.
(I’ll continue with philosophical arguments in my next blog)
[i] J.P. Moreland, What is the Soul? Recovering Human Personhood in a Scientific Age (Norcross, Georgia: Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, 2002), 28.
[ii] Ibid., 9.
[iii] Nancey Murphy, “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues,” in Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, Whatever Happened to the Soul? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 18.
[iv] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), 82.
[v] J.P. Moreland, What is the Soul? Recovering Human Personhood in a Scientific Age, 7-8.
[vi] J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 21.
[vii] Ibid., 69.
[viii] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations For a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 229-31.
[ix] It is difficult to provide a detailed argument, but if science itself is the only valid source for knowledge, then how do we obtain the knowledge that this is the case? Science itself cannot do this, thus scientism is self-refuting and cannot be true.
[x] J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul, 41.