“The soul of man is – objectively considered – essentially similar to that of all other vertebrates; it is the physiological action or function of the brain.” – Ernst Heinrich Haekel,  The Wonders of Life.


After careful consideration of the proofs and warrants for belief in the soul, it appears we are at a dead end; it is simply a matter of faith or opinion. Perhaps we should back up and sort out those components of ourselves that suggested the possibility of a soul in the first place and see if they can be recast them for our purposes.

The ‘immaterial’ structure of humans appears – in rough order of increasing depth: (1) being or actuality, (2) vitality or life force, (3) consciousness, (4) mind, (5) will, (6) personality, (7) identity, and (8) self. All of these deserve some explication.

Starting with ‘being,’ we can review the teachings of Aristotle – to wit, the distinction between potentiality and actuality. In theory, there could exist any number of additional persons simply by further procreation. Those humans never conceived have potentiality, but only those born achieve actuality or being. Whatever concept we substitute for the soul will involve actuality.

Next is the characteristic of ‘life’ where I will draw on the writing of Henri Bergson.1,2  In his non-dualist system, both matter and life derive from a primal substance. Non-living things are more static, do not grow, lack memory, and do not endure in the same was as living things and especially conscious life. Life contains a dynamic element, accumulates a history, and is purposeful and creative. It contains an integrating force moving in a definite direction – a kind of cosmic vitalism or principle he calls the elan vital. Berson proposes that this force is trying to free itself from the domination of matter and achieve consciousness. Through experiment (trial and error?) the elan vital has found the storage and explosive release of energy possible by animals leads to freedom, and the greatest freedom is possible in vertebrates – culminating in man. Intelligence allows manipulation of matter, but is itself composed of static concepts. When intelligence is blended with instinct the result is intuition which is more fluid and allows knowledge of Kant’s thing-in-itself. Humans have this intuition in a limited form best seen in artists. In moments of intense joy or sadness, man connects intuitively with his inner self briefly and directly. Perhaps the elan vital  manifest in man is mirrored by a dynamic element in an alternate model of the soul  .

1Bergson, Henri, Creative Evolution, Random House, Inc. New York, 1944.

2 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publishers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 477-485.

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Thought experiments are another warrant for belief in a soul. One need merely imagine oneself in a different body or disembodied; would you still be you?  Consider if you were to awaken tomorrow in the year 1776, in a different country, or in the body of a celebrity. You would still likely believe yourself to be the same person you have ever been; rather something would seem to be terribly wrong with your body or the world. This is the story of Franz Kafka’s short story, The Metamorphosis, where the protagonist wakes up to find himself in the body of a giant cockroach, but still clearly believes himself to be the same person. What if you awoke tomorrow without a body and the world had disappeared, would you still be you? Descartes argues that the soul is more easily known than anything else, that is, you cannot doubt you have a mind, but you can doubt you have a body.1 Some conclude that thought experiments of this type suggest the body is analogous to clothing, and the soul (or mind) can logically be independent of the physical world.

Another suggestion of the soul is retrieval of experiences from prior lives. Dr. Brian Weiss in his book Many Lives, Many Masters, makes an intriguing case for belief in past-life experiences. While working as a traditional psychotherapist of  emotional disorders, a patient under hypnosis retrieved memories of a trauma that predated her childhood, He was skeptical but later became convinced when he was able to confirm her story with public records. He subsequently ‘regressed’ thousands of persons and claims many prior life stories could be corroborated and that often ailments responded to confronting those past-life traumas. He also claims to have received messages from ‘Masters’ or ‘super-evolved, non-physical souls’ through his subjects.2  Of course his work comes under criticism for its absence of scientific rigor and lack of peer review. As in all subjective demonstrations, there remains substantial room for skepticism.

Perhaps a final justification for belief in the soul is the fear of death and requirement of a soul to make reasonable the hope of an afterlife. We will be discussing this in our next major section, but as philosophers we must keep the horse in front of the cart, that is, we must justify the soul as a precondition to the possibility of an afterlife rather than vice versa.

In conclusion, there are multiple subjective warrants for belief in a soul, but none is convincing and even the sum total of all fails to merit the status of proof. Of course you may decide that even the weak arguments and subjective warrants for the soul or your personal faith justify belief in it. For the rest of us, perhaps alternative conceptions of the soul offer an opportunity to understand the discordance between the belief or hope in a soul and the lack of convincing support for it. We will take that up in our next blog.


1 Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 page 794.

2Weiss, Brian, Many Lives, Many Masters, 1988. ISBN 0-671-65786-0.

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“I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” – William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Speech (1950)

If the argument for the soul is so unconvincing, one wonders why anyone believes in it. The likely answer is that belief in the soul is based on personal experiences, empirical justifications, or tenets of religious faith.

A list of the subjective, yet mostly empirical justifications include:

     1.   The innocent awareness of the newborn child

     2.   Spiritual and mystical experiences

     3.   Contact with disembodied spirits

     4.   Near-death experiences

     5.   Thought experiments

     6.   Prior life accounts

I will take these in turn.

Anyone who spends focused time with a newborn is impressed with his or her raw awareness. Behind those eyes is something vital, pure, and sacred. We sense a knowing or a being without the veneer of pretense, opinion, or expectation. This apparent inner substance or self seems to outshine the undeveloped intelligence and suggests to some the child is ensouled. This is by no means proof of a soul, but it is a powerful reminder of the depth of the human being and its ‘supernatural’ quality.

We addressed spiritual and mystical experiences in a prior section (Subjective Belief in God, February 22, 2019), mainly from the standpoint of the evidence they offer for a divine being. But in fact they are also potent evidence, at least to the one experiencing them, of a transcendental aspect of one’s own existence that involves connecting the inner self with something greater or with ‘the One’. This transcendental aspect is often understood as a human soul.

Another possible justification for belief in the soul is supposed contact with a deceased person. For myself, the most powerful episode occurred shortly after the death of my father. One evening I had an inexplicable sense that he was in my midst, not as a physical sensation or vision, but nonetheless so real that I found myself wandering inside and outside my house trying to establish if he was there. I suspect these experiences are better explained in scientific or psychological terms, and they are in any case not proof of a soul, but the presumption of disembodied spirits would logically entail the existence of the soul.

Near-death experiences are another subjective warrant for non-material existence. There appears to be a consistent description of what happens at death by those revived from nearly fatal circumstances – being lifted over one’s body, travel through a tunnel followed by a bright light, reconnection to deceased relatives or friends, and a profound sense of peacefulness. These reports invite the hope that some part of the person endures after physical death, presumably the soul. However scientists suspect that chemical changes in the hypoxic brain are a better explanation.

(continued next post)

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Richard Taylor in his introductory text on metaphysics appears to agree.2 He says that Materialists would like to maintain that psychological states such as believing or feeling are simply physical states, but “this is a vain hope.” Nonetheless any difficulties suggested  by personal or psychological predicates would apply equally to a soul as to a body. The difficulty is seeing how anything at all can deliberate, choose, repent, think, and so on. The addition of the soul simply introduces problems of connection between the two.

Taylor concedes that everyone feels somewhat that “a person cannot be a mere body,” but it is difficult or impossible to delineate what needs to be added that is not a person already. If the additional ‘thing’ is simply defined as what makes the difference between a body and a person, this begs the question, or as he says “this is about as good a way as one could find for indicating that he has no idea what he is talking about.”

David Kyle Johnson, in his lecture Do Souls Make Us Free,3 adds some scientific concerns. If the soul is postulated to cause human behavior it violates fundamental lows of science such as the law of conservation of energy and conservation of momentum. It also “violates the ‘causal closure of the physical’ which states that physical events that do have causes only have physical causes.”

Our conclusion appears to be that the long philosophical search for proof of the soul fails. On the otherhand scientific research appears to be making considerable inroads into explaining those attributes of human experience and behavior that traditionally have been ascribed to the soul. We need not abandon the theory of the soul as there is no proof that it does not or cannot exist, but we do need to seek another rationale or revise our understanding of the soul in order to remain philosophically consistent. We will begin that process in the next blog by looking at subjective warrants for belief in the soul.


1Kagan, Shelly, YaleCourses: Philosophy of Death. Lectures 3-5. YouTube.

2Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1974. ISBN 0-13-578468-9, pages 30-35.

3Johnson, David Kyle, The Big Questions of Philosophy. The Great Courses. Lecture 17.

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“Either we have an immortal soul, or we have not. If we have not, we are beasts, the first and wisest of beasts it may be; but still beasts.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Again we find ourselves looking at whether something traditionally accepted as axiomatic can be proven by incontrovertible argument. Unlike the case of the existence of God, formal proofs of existence of the soul are wanting. In his lectures on the Philosophy of Death,1 Shelly Kagan has three very poignant lectures that address a general argument for the soul and its refutation in some detail. The reader will benefit greatly by watching those videos, but I will summarize the line of that debate in this blog.

In theory, since an immaterial soul cannot be confirmed by the senses, the argument for its existence must be based on an ‘inference to the best explanation.’ As humans appear to have characteristics unlike other material entities in the universe such as life, emotions, creativity, consciousness, and free will, there must be an explanation for them. Materialist explanations appear to be inadequate or incomplete, and even dedicated monists agree that science does not fully explain human experiences of love, imagination, self-awareness, deliberative choice, and so forth. The dualist asserts this gap may be closed by positing a human soul, in which case the question really is how good the soul is as an explanation of these features.

Kagan demonstrates that some human characteristic such as emotions and creativity appear to be duplicated by existing or fictional machines or computers and hence should be excluded. In theory since machines are programmed by humans, it is really human free will the dualist claims is beyond explanation. He rephrases this as a tentative proof of the soul:

1.  Humans have free will.

2.  Nothing subject to determinism has free will.

3.  All purely physical systems are subject to determinism. 

4.  Therefore humans are not purely physical systems.

Kagan denies this proof is philosophically sound as all three of the premises are debatable and it therefore fails to prove the necessity of a human soul. Moreover Kagan argues a theoretical soul also fails as an inference to the best explanation of exceptional human features because it does very little to elucidate them, particularly since believers in the soul can offer no details of how the soul works.

(continued next post)

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Hinduism embraces the doctrine of reincarnation (samsara) and therefore asserts  a part of man survives the death of the body and is reborn in another body. This inner self is most often referred to as a spirit rather than a soul, but the distinction appears trivial. In the Chandogya, the sage Uddalaka reveals to his son the spirit of the inner self, the Atman, is identical to the absolute spirit of the universe, the Brahman – when he reveals the ultimate truth of existence: “tat tvam asi” – “thou art that.”8

Buddha also accepts the doctrine of reincarnation, but nonetheless preaches the non-existence of a self or ego (anatta), which seems to be logically inconsistent. Schools of Buddhism have attempted to resolve the contradiction by substituting alternatives for the soul such as:

1.    Personhood (pudgala)

2.   Suchness (tathata)

3.   Seed-consciousness (alaya-vijnana)

4.   A stream of continuously flowing discrete elements of sensation, consciousness, feeling, activity, impulses, and bodily processes (dharmas)– which give rise to the impression of an enduring self.9

However, it is unclear exactly how these solve the inconsistency as each denies the existence of a permanent and unchanging substance that meets the criterion of a soul.

From this brief introduction, we get a taste of the variety of concepts of the soul in the world traditions. Besides some level of agreement  that the soul is immaterial and distinct from the body, it may be perceived as ideal or form, unique to humans or possessed by all living things, readily separable from or permanently united with the body, individual or participating in a universal spirit, and in the case of Buddhism – perhaps indefinable or even an illusion (although a necessary one).

So our task in addition to deciding on the rationality of belief in the soul is to  characterize it based on these and other propositions. Next we will take up arguments and other warrants for belief in the soul.


1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 6, page 329.

2Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 page 795

3Ibid., page 798

4 Ibid., page 796

5 Ibid., page 791

6 Ibid., page 798

7Catechism of the Catholic Church, Doubleday, New York, 1997. ISBN 0-385-50819-0, page 104.

8Koller, John M., Oriental Philosophies, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970. ISBN 684-13668-6, pages 96-102.

9 Ibid. pages 126-145.

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“The soul of man is divided into three parts, intelligence, reason, and passion. Intelligence and passion are possessed by other animals, but reason by man alone.” – Pythagoras


In our last post we designated the soul as the immaterial, indivisible nature of man separate from the body. The next step is to evaluate the most important traditions of thinking about the soul – classical and the religious conceptions.

Plato classifies the soul within his Theory of the Forms – perfect or immutable ideas which are only inexactly represented by physical reality- for example a perfect circle or the concept of justice. He sees the human soul as the integration of three different elements – appetite (or impulse), reason, and thumos (spiritedness or the executive)1. In the Phaedo, Socrates asserts that the soul occupies the body and receives imperfect sensations from it, but is itself immortal and immutable. His argument is that as the soul knows the unchangeable and the eternal, it must be both.2 In fact, he argues “True philosophers are ever seeking to release the soul and hence always occupied in the practice of dying”3

Like Plato, Aristotle sees the soul as the ‘principle of life’ and identifies three types – vegetative (plant), sensitive (animal), and rational (man). He sees matter as potentiality and form as actuality, and the soul as the first grade of actuality of a natural body having life potentially in it. However, he believes the soul is inseparable from the body.4   

For Lucretius, the Roman Epicurean atomist, the soul is even more limited, in fact, simply the mind and “mind and soul are held in union one with the other, and form of themselves a single nature.”5

Religious conceptions vary in the connection between the body and soul, but both Eastern religions and Christianity logically require the soul to be self-subsisting to participate in reincarnation or in an afterlife. Thomas Aquinas feels the immortality of a rational soul is demonstrated by the special character of its intellectual powers. He also believes a thing’s mode of being is indicated by its mode of operation- and since the mind has an operation apart from the body, it must be incorporeal and subsistent.6 Although an adherent of Aristotle, he clearly disagrees with him on this particular point. The Catholic Church adopts principles from Aristotle and Aquinas: “Man though made of body and soul is a unity,” and “the unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body.”7

(continued next post)

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“As in this body the embodied soul passes through childhood, youth, and old age, in the same manner it goes from this one body to another; therefore the wise are never deluded regarding it.” – Bhagavad Gita

As so many words used in the common lexicon, the word ‘soul’ has an intuitive meaning for most readers. However in philosophy, we must clarify and agree on our terms to avoid misunderstanding and error. The unabridged Webster’s dictionary has 14 definitions, but the first two seem most useful for this site:

1.  The principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans regarded as a distinct entity separate from the body, and commonly held to be separable in existence from the body; the spiritual part of humans as distinct from the physical part.

2.   The spiritual part of humans regarded in its moral aspect, or as believe to survive death and be subject to happiness or misery in a life to come.1

Mortimer Adler, a 20th century philosopher, when defining soul emphasizes the word is “used with negative understanding – i.e. not physical and not material.”2   Dagobert Runes, another 20th century philosopher, includes in his dictionary the entry ‘soul-substance theory’ wherein there is a “unity of the individual mind constituted by a single, permanent, and indivisible substance.”As such I will intend by  the word ‘soul’ generally to refer to an immaterial, indivisible, nature of man separate from the body.

One of the main problems in asserting the  soul as separate or distinct from the body is how the two are conjoined, that is, how an immaterial soul can operate within or perhaps outside a physical body. This mirrors the metaphysical question of the nature of reality; with the the conception of dualism where material and immaterial parts coexist and co-operate versus monism where there is only physical reality. If the monists are correct, believers in the soul  are simply conflating the body’s emergent features, such as consciousness, as discrete from its physicality. Obviously those who deny dualism and the existence of God or His immaterial essence will also reject the idea of a human soul as defined above.

We will revisit this debate when we get to arguments for and against the existence of the soul, but first we will review the two basic conceptions of the soul which is the subject of the next blog.


1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 1822.

2Adler, Mortimer J., Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-684-80360-7, pages 180-182.

3 Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, page 296.

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” ‘Do not forget Sanches”‘replied Don Quixote. ‘that there are two kinds of beauty, one being of the soul and the other of the body. That of the soul is revealed through intelligence, modesty, right conduct, generosity,  and good breeding, all of which qualities may exist in an ugly man, and when one’s gaze is fixed upon beauty of this sort and not upon that of the body, love is usually born suddenly and violently.’ ”- Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote.

Following our quest to substantiate God’s existence, the logical next step is to turn our attention to the urgent question of the nature of man. The demonstration of the existence of God as the perpetual origin of the universe with material and immaterial attributes reverberates as the question of whether any individual part of the universe has similar characteristics. Within our immediate environment, man himself appears the most complex and advanced finite entity, and thus a reasonable possibility. This leads us to ask whether the presumptive characteristics of divine dualism and eternal existence apply to ourselves, although the premise of the question is not, from a philosophical standpoint, entirely sound.

Ancient religions and philosophy seem to accept the twofold nature of man as axiomatic. The existence of the physical body appears undeniable, but when man compares himself to inanimate matter, the differences are so profound that an added essence commonly known as the ‘soul’ seems necessary. Alternately stated, we instantly categorize things coming into our purview as either inanimate or living, and this difference is best explained by attribution of a special characteristic – in Greek, psyche, and in Latin, anima – both meaning ‘soul.’

While the question of two facets of human existence might seem on first glance to be purely academic, the real importance for us is the implications  the concept of ‘soul’ has in two key areas: morality and mortality. While the arguments for the existence of a human soul are tenuous, the philosopher must clarify the issue in order, to optimally characterize these key domains in the pursuit of a meaningful life.

Our systematic approach will follow these steps:

1.   Definition of soul

2.  Traditional conceptions of the soul

3.  Arguments for and against the existence of a human soul.

4.  Subjective rationale for the soul

5.  Reinterpretation of the soul

6.  Synthesis

As in other subjects we have discussed, the reader may choose to skip this section if he already has fixed opinions, but time invested here will be rewarded with better understanding of later chapters. The existence or nonexistence of the soul and the specific conception one has will impact much of what follows.



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Davies talks through the philosophical issues starting with the traditional concern of societal disintegration after publicity of extraterrestrial life or intelligence, which seems unlikely. He postulates that statistically an alien civilization would be more advanced than ours given our reaching out beyond the solar system is only a recent capability. Conventional religious beliefs may be undermined or otherwise affected or humans might embrace the higher religion of a more advanced civilization or even see them as God-like. Some additional philosophical issues he raises include:

  1. Is the modern scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence analogous to the historical search for the supernatural?
  2. Did the alien life develop separately from ours, making life a predictable rather than miraculous or rare natural event or has life spread from a single origin (panspermia)?
  3. Does the confirmation of alien life or intelligence confirm the theories of self-organization and emergence whereby life and consciousness may be basic phenomena of complex or chaotic systems in the universe?
  4. What if the intelligence is artificial or machine made (AI as superior to natural intelligence)?
  5. What are the implications of sharing their advanced knowledge?
  6. Can advanced aliens be a conduit to the divine being?

Until the search for extraterrestrial life, especially intelligent life is successful, we are left with the lingering question first posed by Enrico Fermi – “Where is everybody?” If there are a multitude of advanced alien life forms, it seems reasonable to expect they would already have contacted or visited us, or even have preceded the arrival of humanity on Earth. Disallowing the dubious assertions of UFO theorists, the corollary is that supra-human intelligence does not fall within our current space-time corridor, or perhaps has chosen to remain hidden.

The late Charles Krauthammer wrote a poignant article, Let’s Put a Hopeful Face on the Cosmic Silence3, in December 2011. He saw our drive “to find our living, thinking counterpart in the universe …betrays a profound melancholy – a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence. That silence is maddening. Not just because it compounds our feelings of cosmic isolation. But because it makes no sense.”

This existential observation is followed by his recalling Carl Sagan’s concern that the explanation of the silence may be that advanced civilizations destroy themselves just when they develop the technology to reach out beyond their own stellar system; the silence then is “not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness, but a tragic story about our destiny.”

He then considers whether intelligence is fatal not only ultimately, but nearly instantly on a cosmic time scale. His solution is discipline which is the work of politics, the ordering of society to permit human flourishing while restraining Hobbesian instincts. He concludes, “The debased and mundane practice of politics… will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few – the only- who got it right.”

If Davies and Krauthammer are correct, then we anxiously await conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial life and intelligence. Such evidence will suggest answers to questions about the origin of life, the regularity of intelligent life forms, theories of emergence and self-organization, and possibly the workings of the divine. But perhaps most importantly it will serve as a precedent – confirming that intelligent beings can overcome the propensity to destroy themselves, and so offer space for optimism on the future of mankind.


1Shreeve, Jamie, Who’s Out There? , National Geographic, March 2019, Volume 235 No. 3, ISSN0027-9358, pages 42-75.

2Davies, Paul, Are We Alone. Basic Books, 1995. ISBN 0-465-00419-9.

3Krauthammer, Charles, Let’s put a hopeful face on the cosmic silence, Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky., December 30, 2011.

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