“The great mystery is not that we should have been thrown down here at random between the profusion of matter and that of the stars; it is that from our very prison we should draw, from our own selves, images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.” – Andre Malraux, La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate).

Deep within and increasingly elusive are three further intangible qualities of human beings: personality, identity, and self. There is much overlap in these, but what distinguishes them from the earlier characteristics is their roles in defining individuals.

Personality which Dagobert Runes defines as “the totality of mental traits characterizing an individual,”1 seems to be the most concrete and complex of these last three terms and has more psychological than philosophical meaning. It is also the most elastic of the intangible constituents of soul and loosely interchangeable with notions of external and internal self, for example Meister Eckhart’s inner man. Personality then is the fluid portion of the deconstructed soul.

Identity on the other had is more ontological in its meaning and so fixed – what makes a being or person the same at different times? The logician considers identity as x = x,  but this essentially never applies to existing things as at a material level, atomic and subatomic particles are constantly being removed and added, while animated beings by definition grow, change, and in the case of most animals gain and lose memories. The debates on the nature of identity are extended and complex and therefore beyond the limit of this short essay. Some philosophers deny identity at all (e.g. Hume). For our purposes, identity with respect to a human’s lifetime is best defined as physical and psychological spatiotemporal continuity. The usual theory of soul removes the physical requirement, but we will bracket that in our cataloguing of the soul.

At the very foundation of man is that quality called self – the subject side of soul – the me as opposed to the not-me in the words of William James.2 Ralph B. Winn defines it elegantly as the “metaphysical principle of unity underlying subjective experience.”3 Self is the central constituent of the soul, the sine qua non for both Eastern and Western religions and classical philosophers. But when the self is reflexively coupled to consciousness, the result self-consciousness instantiates the theory of soul. The difference for us is the choice not to treat the self as a substance per se.

This completes our deconstruction of the soul. In the next blog we will begin to reconstruct the catalogued constituents – being, vitality, consciousness, mind, will, personality, identity, and self – into a conceptual framework for thinking about the meaning of human existence.


1 Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p. 230.

2James, William, Principles of Psychology, The Great Ideas – Volume 53, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 page 196.

3 Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p. 288.

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“It is us he inhabits, not the underworld, not the stars in the sky. The spirit who lives in us makes those.”- Agrippa von Nettesheim, quoted by Arthur Schopenauer in The World as Will and Idea.1

We have previously seen that being or actuality, vitality or life, and consciousness and mind are key immaterial or transcendental constituents of man and to a lesser extent other entities in the universe. Now we take up the fourth component, will. First I should clarify that I am referring to the noun – as in the referent for the adjective willful – rather than the verb referring to volition (we will discuss free will in a later section).

Will has an extensive philosophical history. Plato considers will as one of the three fundamental parts of the human soul – the other two being reason and appetite – though he refers to it as spirit as in spiritedness. Aristotle sees will as the motivating force which turns thought into action. Descartes finds will to be more extensive than intellect. Kant defines will as “the faculty of desire in so far as its inner principle of determination as the ground of its liking or predilection lies in the reason of the subject.” Locke distinguishes thought as passive while will is active. Freud repositions will in his psychological model as the ego.2

This spirited, motivating force, more extensive than intellect, the faculty of desire, and the active element underlying the ego is most richly developed in the writings of Arthur Schopenauer. He sees will as striving, impulse, instinct, interest, desire, and emotion. He asserts that we can know Kant’s thing-in-itself for ourselves by searching inside where we find the experience of striving or will. Will for Schopenauer is blind and unintelligent; his description of it seems to me a visceral, unthinking self-preservation.3 He attributes this conception of will to all of reality and decides the entire world of phenomena is objectified will. The path Schopenauer takes eventually leads to the Platonic ideas, the Upanishads and  Buddhism, aesthetics, and the tragedy of life and its suffering; but for our purpose, the key point is the place his description of will fills in understanding what lies in the abyss of human existence.


1Schopenauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Idea, Orion Publishing Group, London, UK, 1995. ISBN 9778-0-4608-7505-9, page 27.

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 1071-1076.

3Parker, DeWitt H. (editor), Schopenauer Selections, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1928, Introduction, pages ix-xxxii.

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“The soul is only the thinking part of the body, and with the body it passes away. When death comes, the farce is over, therefore let us take our pleasure while we can.”- Julien Offray De La Mettrie, 1709-1751; French physician and philosopher.

The third traditional feature of a soul is consciousness, perhaps the greatest mystery of human existence. In his course on consciousness1, Daniel Robinson emphasizes consciousness as sui generis or unlike anything else and requiring science not yet available. It involves a difference between mere registering of an event as a machine can do and knowledge of it. It is a raw awareness and ability to experience, and in its most advanced form, reflexiveness or knowledge of the self. These unique characteristics within otherwise unconscious nature inherently lead us to consideration of a ‘soul.’ Mind adds to simple consciousness further features such as feelings, thoughts, memories, intentions, and so forth.

Robinson notes that typical philosophy of mind favors foundational explanations for the gap between the dynamics of the nervous system and the nature of consciousness – typically some form of causal law. In pure materialism, references to experienced phenomena or qualia (e.g.  the color “red”) are just states of the brain.  There are problems with this thesis, for example causation usually involves antecedent-consequent events to be of a similar type (e.g. billiard balls striking each other) which does not apply here. It is philosophically and scientifically difficult to see how mental activities lead to physical actions that realize mental purposes, and if mind states are just ‘states of the brain,’ mental acts do not seem to be physicalistically intelligible. People act for reasons not due to causes.

Alternatively if mental activities are ontologically identical to brain states, then relevant features should be interchangeable in linguistic use (Liebniz’s criterion). However as an example all of us know the mental state of ‘pain’, but most of us know very little of the physical basis for it, and regardless of  the brain state the neuroscientist pinpoints as ‘pain,’ we would still not deny the authoritative claim of a person to be experiencing pain in the absence of the correlating brain state.

Physicalists revert to modifications: (1) anomalous monism – how mental events and processes induce physical events precludes reduction to scientific terms, (2) supervenience theory – mental states arise from and depend on physical states just as a wood table supervenes on molecules and atoms (e.g. Donald Davidson), (3) proclamations that current physics and understanding of matter is too limited to explain consciousness (e.g. Roger Penrose), (4) default to quantum physics- the brain at the quantum level is an informational system where the mental and material merge (e.g. David Bohm). However Robinson seems to believe that all variations of monism are inadequate, and intuitively we all know mental life and consciousness are fundamentally different from physical states of the brain.

Each of us must reflect deeply on this difficult area of philosophy, but it seems to me the universal history of the bodily death of others as the end of demonstrable mental activity, the consistency of neuroscientific explanation of mind states, and my direct experience of the dependence of my mental life on my physical being (brain) invariably directs me to the monist school. Nonetheless, Robinson’s intuition of the lingering gap suggests an emergent quality of the brain as consciousness which we should incorporate into our revision of the soul.


1Daniel N. Robinson, Consciousness and Its Implications, Lectures 7-8. The Teaching Company, 2007

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“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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