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 laws 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 other hand 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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“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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