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Do we have an immaterial soul?

The belief in an immaterial soul requires that central aspects of a person, such as consciousness, memories, and personality, are not contingent upon our physical bodies. The concept was first formalized in western philosophy by Rene Descartes in the 17th century, who proposed that our soul interacts with our body via the pineal gland in the brain. That theory has since been rejected by mainstream science.

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Experts and Influencers

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Experts In Philosophy

René Descartes    Father of Western Philosophy
These men will be composed, as we are, of a soul and a body. First I must describe the body on its own; then the soul, again on its own; and finally I must show how these two natures would have to be joined and united in order to constitute men who resemble us.
01 Jan 1629    Source

William Dembski    Intelligent Design Theorist
For me the chief difficulty with semi-materialism is that from God's perspective it trivializes man. Because of its supervenient anthropology, semi-materialism gives us a man whose soul and spirit are not only inseparable from the body, but actually derived from the body.
01 Jan 1996    Source

Experts In Religion

The Catholic Church    Largest Christian Church
The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not "produced" by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.
01 Jan 1992    Source

Experts In Science

Richard Dawkins    Evolutionary Biologist, Writer, Atheism Activist
...The theory that there is something non-material about life, some non-physical vital principle [...] according to which a body has to be animated by some anima [or] vitalized by a vital force. Energized by some mysterious energy. Spiritualized by some mysterious spirit. Made conscious by some mysterious thing or substance called consciousness. In [this] sense of [a soul] science has either killed the soul or is in the process of doing so [but] science [is absolutely not] killing soulfulness...
10 Feb 1999    Source

Susan Blackmore    Psychology Lecturer, Former Parapsychologist
Imagine a world in which each of us has a special inner core - a ‘real self’ - that makes us who we are, that can think and move independently of our coarse physical body, and that ultimately survives death, giving meaning to our otherwise short and pointless lives. This is (roughly speaking) how most people think the world is. It is how I used to think -and even hope - that the world is. I devoted 25 years of my life to trying to find out whether it is. Now I have given up.
01 Jan 2001    Source

Paul Z. Myers    Biology Professor
We [atheists] don't believe in souls. Now that's a heresy, and should be even more distressing to people than our denial of gods. There is no immortal, constant part of any of us that will survive after death — our minds are the product of a material brain. We are literally soulless machines made of meat, honed by millions of years of ruthless, pitiless evolution. And so is everyone else.
11 Apr 2010    Source

Experts In Philosophy

Ayn Rand    Philosopher, Novelist
The New Intellectual [will discard] the soul-body dichotomy. He will discard its irrational conflicts and contradictions, such as: mind versus heart, thought versus action, reality versus desire, the practical versus the moral. He will be an integrated man, that is: a thinker who is a man of action.
01 Dec 1963    Source

Daniel Dennett    Philosophy Professor
There is no privileged center, no soul, no place where it all comes together—aside from the brain itself. ... I have come to realize over the years that the hidden agenda for most people concerned about consciousness and the brain (and evolution, and artificial intelligence) is a worry that unless there is a bit of us that is somehow different, and mysteriously insulated from the material world, we can’t have free will—and then life will have no meaning.
18 Aug 2008    Source

Experts In Atheism

Frank Zindler    Biology Professor, Atheist
The discovery that humans, like chickens, had eggs, and that it was eggs fertilized by spermatozoa that developed into fetuses led to the notion that “life” began at conception (fertilization). ... In 1869 Pope Pius X reversed his church’s long-held view that the soul arrives in the fifth month of pregnancy and declared instead that the mystical woozit made its appearance at the moment of conception [whereby] Only god can make a soul, and only fertilized eggs can receive them.
22 Aug 2010    Source

Experts In Law

Thomas Jefferson    3rd United States President
To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise [...]. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But a heresy it certainly is. Jesus told us indeed that 'God is a spirit,' but he has not defined what a spirit is, nor said that it is not matter.
15 Aug 1820    Source


Add Your TakeOnIt (click to expand, no login required)
0 Points      Ricardo      29 Sep 2016      Stance on Question: Disagree
Bible clearly says that Adam BECAME a soul, not RECEIVED a soul (Gen 2:7). Bible also says that when we die we return to dust. Therefore, SOUL in a Biblical point of view, is MATERIAL, because its what we are.

Our personality its stored in the brain, and in death we cannot feel or do anything (Ecl 9: 4,5, 10).

By the way, spirit and soul in the Bible are not the same concepts. Soul means what we are, our personality included. Spirit means the impersonal energy that keeps us alive, that returns to the creator in the moment of death (Job 34:14, 15).

0 Points      MTC      23 Feb 2013      Stance on Question: Disagree
There is no evidence to suggest that a soul exists, so I disbelieve it for the same reason I disbelieve that there is an invisible dragon in my garage.

0 Points      divineadvancedhumanbeings      10 Nov 2011      General Comment
Are We Souls With A Body?
It is beneficial and in our best interest to understand and think of ourselves as "souls with a body" and not bodies with a soul. When we leave the earth and arrive out there, we are the same person out there that we were while here on earth. Nothing much has changed during that process with the exception; we are telepathic but this is just a computer facilitated form of communication. Telepathy is basically the same as verbalization and we get used to it very quickly once we arrive out there, Solamenta.

It is from much hard work in learning to see ourselves for who we truly are that we also, finally understand that our beliefs are the bane of mankind! Our primitive beliefs keep us from the truth. Truth can only be discovered by the exploration and hard work of the individual. However, when we leave the earth and for those whom have committed horrible crimes… particularly against the innocent, it is not a happy homecoming as they are met, by their victims and their families.

Read article in its entirety…

1 Point      Anonymous      10 Nov 2011      General Comment
Wow. That was like a transmission from Planet Woo Woo.

1 Point      pineconedegg      25 Mar 2011      Stance on Question: Disagree
While I cannot rule out the existence of a soul separate from material reality, the soul has no shred of evidence in its favour and must contend against everything we know about modern neuroscience.

1 Point      TZX      16 Feb 2011      Stance on Question: Disagree
The human experience is a pattern of fluctuations in the state of the physical reality. It is independent of matter in the same way a computer program is independent of electrons (and could be replicated, albeit inefficiently, with stones on sand, water in pipes or graphite on paper instead of electrons in semiconductors), but to claim it immaterial adds an unnecessary level of complexity that has no predictive power whatsoever.

0 Points      blacktrance      10 Feb 2011      Stance on Question: Disagree
We have a personal identity, but it is not a soul.

1 Point      aak      15 Aug 2010      General Comment
The word soul is that thing which every man refers to when he says "I". I agree it is immaterial and its immateriality refers to the fact that it is not material thing, it is neither divisible nor governed by time and space.

No doubt, I conceive in myself a concept which I refer to as "I"; and it is equally certain that every man has a similar conception about himself and it is a conception which we are never oblivious of - as long as we are alive and conscious. In short, it is not like our external limbs which we feel with our senses nor is it like our internal organs which we know by senses or experiment. Sometimes we become oblivious of one of the limbs or even the whole body. But we are never oblivious of "I" and this proves that "I" is other than the body and its parts.

One of the characteristics of matter is gradual change, dissolution and divisibility. If soul were body or part thereof, it would have been subject to change and division - but it is not so.

Also, this notion of "I" is simple and one; there is no plurality or parts therein, nor is there any extraneous ingredient mixed with it; it is an absolute one. Every man finds it in himself that he is he and not someone else. Therefore this notion or vision is a concept which subsists by itself and distinct; it is beyond the definition of matter and is not subject to its characteristics and properties, it is separate from matter; it has a connection with the body which makes it identifiable with the body - and it is the connection of management.

It is true that science, based on senses and perception and experiments, with all its minute, delicate and in-depth researches, has not come across a "soul". Also, it is correct that it has not found any phenomenon which irresistibly led one to the soul and its cause. But these two premises do not prove that there is not an immaterial soul. The natural sciences which discuss the laws of nature and properties of matter, are by definition limited to the researches concerning matter only, which is its main subject. The apparatus and chemicals, etc. which sciences use to conduct and complete their experiments, may throw light on matter and material affairs only. But by the same token, these, sciences and their tools, etc cannot pass any judgment - for or against - on metaphysical and immaterial concept and beings. Utmost that a natural science can say is that it did not find a soul. But not finding something is not non-existence of that thing. Besides, we do not expect them to find within their subject something beyond the limit of matter and physical nature.

Comments on the above are most welcome!


0 Points      Benja      15 Aug 2010      Stance on Question: Disagree
"sciences and their tools, etc cannot pass any judgment - for or against - on metaphysical and immaterial concept and beings."

This is dualism. The problem with this viewpoint, is that if you're able to talk about immaterial things, then the immaterial must be connected with the material. Your tongue waggling and the resulting airwaves, are after all, physical phenomena. The question then becomes, how does the immaterial interact with the material? Descartes famously suggested our soul interacted with our body via the pineal gland in our brain, but this has long since been refuted. The modern view is that it's a mistake to believe that there's two separate worlds interacting, but rather just one world. Therefore there can be no immaterial soul, because that would imply a separate world from the material world.

See also Can reductionist methods help explain consciousness?.

0 Points      Benja      26 Apr 2010      Stance on Question: Disagree
"We are literally soulless machines made of meat, honed by millions of years of ruthless, pitiless evolution."

Nature is both cruel and kind. If it wasn't for the random mechanism that causes horrible genetic mutations we'd never have breathtaking beauty. Myers, at least in this comment, seems to focus on the negative side of the equation of life. In addition, his use of language has nasty connotations. Whether it's "correct" for people to do so or not, people hear "soulless" as "heartless" and "not soulful". And referring to humans as meat...? The only time that language would have positive connotations would be if you were marketing to cannibals or death metal fans.

1 Point      Adam Atlas      05 Apr 2010      Stance on Question: Disagree
As far as consciousness and personal identity go, I suspect that the patterns are more important than the substance, but those patterns nevertheless run on an entirely biological substrate. There are no special rules for it.

1 Point      Packbat      30 Mar 2010      Stance on Question: Disagree
Trying to explain human behavior with a soul is rather like trying to explain chemical reactions with phlogiston - you can make up reasons why your theory fits any observation, but you can't predict any of them in advance. Worse, the things you would predict from such a theory, for example, ghosts and reincarnation, are fairly well refuted. Contrast with neuroscience, and you can see that there's no adequate argument for souls.

1 Point      JGWeissman      06 Mar 2010      Stance on Question: Disagree
To the extent that a person can be said to have soul, it is implemented by neurons and other physical structures.

The existence of ontologically basic mental things is a complex hypothesis with no supporting evidence.

-1 Point      m_hopwood      15 May 2009      Stance on Question: Agree
The fact that we have a soul is just a matter (no pun intended) of experience. Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas dealt with this philosophically way before Descartes, and did not rely on some magical material "anchor" for the soul.

Most of the arguments against this basic evidence actually assume the soul must be material, then, when they don't find it, they claim to have demonstrated the soul does not exist.

C.f. the pinneal gland bit; there need not be material "anchor" for an immaterial soul. This argument is a straw man.

A bit like when Russian astronauts left the Earth's atmosphere and didn't find God sitting up there waiting for them.

1 Point      Felix      22 Aug 2010      General Comment
Here's an excellent article about the "Soul". My take is that it's quite obvious that we have no soul. The same goes for the existence of any god, if there were one it would be obvious and everyone would know it. Faith is not required when there is knowledge, it's a poor, poor substitute.


0 Points      Benja      22 Aug 2010      General Comment
Nice link - interesting fact in that article: "In 1869 Pope Pius X reversed his church’s long-held view that the soul arrives in the fifth month of pregnancy and declared instead that the mystical woozit made its appearance at the moment of conception."

0 Points      Benja      15 May 2009      General Comment
Thanks for your thoughts.

I agree with you that the belief that we have a soul, as in have a sense of identity, awareness, sense of meaning etc., is a matter of experience. However, to say that we have an immaterial soul is saying something very different. It's saying that our soul - however you prefer to define it - isn't contingent upon our physical bodies. That's not a question you can settle by appealing to experience. It's a question whose answer depends on evidence and reasoning.

No doubt there's some arguments against the existence of an immaterial soul that beg the question, which assume that the soul must be material. But as you say, strawmen arguments are no good, so let's not use bad arguments for the opposing position as evidence to support our own position (the so called fallacy-fallacy). Tbe good arguments against the soul certainly don't assume that the soul must be material. Rather, they say that the soul, whether it be immaterial or material - must interact with the material world. If it wasn't the case, we couldn't even be talking about it - because parts of our body - such as our lips and tongue and fingertips - are able to communicate the message of the soul, as I'm doing right now (assuming I'm not a calculating machine ;)).

So we know that the soul does interact with the material world. The question then becomes: how? At this point we can speculate about how an immaterial soul interacts with a material body (presumably the link is in our brain), but this seems awfully 17th century thinking; a hangover from the days of Descartes' dualism. Surely the simpler explanation is that our brain is the substrate of our soul, rather than a mere transmitter/receiver to an immaterial world. And sure enough, when we look at the human brain, we don't find structures looking like radio parts, we find neural connections that hold memories; i.e. we find the underpinnings for our soul purely in the material world.