The Soul Made Practical

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I’m sure you’ve heard the rumor: modern science has proven that there is no such thing as the soul. The soul is an ancient concept that people believed in before we knew anything about the brain. But is the rumor true? In this article, I will briefly give a few of the reasons for why I believe that us having souls is not only possible, but necessary. My goal is to convey a few thoughts on a complex subject, in a clear and concise manner.

Keep in mind, I’m not making a religious claim in this article. I’m not using scripture, theology, or anything else here. The purpose of this paper is merely to explain why I think that believing in the soul is perfectly consistent with not only the way we view ourselves, but also the things that we can know about reality in a way that doesn’t presuppose the existence of a soul. If the existence of a soul is consistent with religious doctrine, then there is a point of agreement that can be shared by both the religious and the irreligious who find the following reasons compelling.

 

  1. Why we are not only our brains

 

*The existence of mental life*

 

Most people who believe that there are no such things as souls, typically hold to a view that the only things that exist are physical things that we can see, touch, or measure. Naturally, this excludes things such as God, angels, and of course, the soul. This way of viewing the world entails that our mental life (thoughts, sensations, etc,) is the same thing as physical events (such as neurons firing) that take effect in the brain. In other words, all of those things that go on in our consciousness like thoughts and sensations, are really just the same thing as physical events in the brain. This makes sense when we look at the scientific data that shows correlations from our brains that directly lead to our thoughts and sensations. That’s certainly one way to look at it, but that doesn’t seem quite right to me. In fact, I think we can prove that the view is indeed false.  

The flaw is best explained by invoking a law of logic that is called the Law of Identity. What the law basically claims is that everything is itself and not anything else. For example, if I am identical to the person who wrote this article, whatever that is true of the person who wrote this article, is also true of me. Therefore there cannot be something that is true of the person who wrote this article, that is not true of me. If there is something that is true of the person that wrote the article that is not true if me, that means that I am not the same person as the person who wrote this article. By way of necessity, I can’t be. Pretty commonsense type stuff right?

So how does this apply to the soul? Well, it directly comes in conflict with the claim that our mental life is identical to our physical life. If we keep in mind the law of identity, we can think of several ways that they are not, and cannot be, the same thing:
1) All physical things can be described by using physical language, such as location, size, shape, color, and so on. But the content of our mental life cannot be described with physical language or by giving physical descriptions. What would be the size of a thought regarding the fabric of the cosmos, in comparison to the thought “today is Saturday”? It seems that any potential answer given to this question will be misleading. Let me explain. Let’s take my thought I’m having right now about the fabric of the cosmos. What color is the thought? Where is it located? If it’s located in my brain and is purely physical, why wouldn’t anyone and everyone be capable of seeing it’s contents by merely looking inside of my brain? As you are probably aware, it doesn’t even make sense to try and see the actual content of a complex thought by looking for it. Therefore the content of my thought is not physical.

2) Propositional thought content can be described as true or false. Thoughts are also “about” something. But it doesn’t make any sense to say that something that is purely physical is true or false or “about” anything.
3) There is a personal experience in our mental life that can not be found by studying our physical life. Physical things are open to be observed by a third party, but mental things can only be known by first person experience. For example, I, and I alone, know *exactly* what it is like to be me. No one else has this knowledge, nor could they. Consider the following scenario: let’s say that I was out on a walk yesterday and was adducted by aliens. They abducted me for research and studied every single physical process of my brain. No matter how many physical facts they gathered, they would never be able to know what it is like to “be” me. They may have been able to cut open my head and see my C-fibers firing (which happens when we experience pain) but they wouldn’t have been able to tell what my experience of the pain was like by merely looking at the physical structure of my brain. In other words, if the aliens were able to describe every physical process in my brain that came from or lead to an experience (no matter how complete), their description would necessarily leave out the essence of all personal experience. And without that, there would be no mental experience at all. 

 

Many more examples could be given, but you get the gist. By way of the law of identity, our mental life is not, and cannot, be the same thing as our physical life.

 

*Interaction and correlation*

 

Now that we’ve established a separate identity between the physical and the mental, how do we explain the fact that science shows that our brains are linked our mental life? I think it is crucial that we understand that just because something may cause something else to happen, that does not mean that they are identical. This is true even if they are always found to be the cause of each other. For example, if a hammer smashing my finger causes me to cry out in pain, it would be crazy to think that the hammer and me crying in pain are the same thing! This truth remains even if this happens every single time my finger gets smashed.

This may seem like an exaggerated example, but it severs the point well. This point is very important to keep in mind because this means that claiming that our mental life is identical to the brain, cannot be shown to be true by pointing to correlations between the two. Instead, what would be needed to establish such a claim would have to be identity. However, as we just saw a moment ago, given identity, our mental life cannot be said to be the same thing as the physical workings of our brains. In sum, although they are often shown to correlate, they are in fact necessarily two different things.

 

Next I would like for us to turn our attention onto how these parts interact. Given the scientific evidence done on the brain, it has become evident that these parts appear to correlate. For example, our physical life can have an affect on our mental life; a hammer smashing my finger will cause me to experience pain and think about how much pain I am in. On the other hand, our mental life can also have an affect our physical life; worry and stress can cause sickness, premature aging, and so on. So it seems that the nonphysical aspect of our lives and our physical lives are correlated.

But what follows from this? That the mind (not our brains) is immaterial, therefore we must have souls? Maybe. But let’s not go that far just yet. Perhaps our mental life is just an extension of our physical life like a leaf from a branch. Although they are two different things, they are part of the same thing. In this way, our bodies are like a branch and our mental life is like a leaf; we are both mental and physical creatures.

Of course such a view isn’t problematic for the person that believes in the existence of the soul, however, this would lead to additional uncomfortable questions for those who believe that the foundations of reality are purely physical. According to this view, if we break down the universe all the way to its most basic properties, at it’s base, everything is only purely physical. There is nothing that is immaterial and there is no potential for the immaterial to enter into reality. Given a finite universe, in the beginning, everything was purely physical matter (most likely quarks or elementary particles) that has become arranged in different ways by natural means throughout the entire history of the universe.

For the person who believes this, such a view of reality would lead to some uncomfortable questions, such as when does all of this potential non-material mental stuff enter into the universe? On the face of things, it seems obvious that if you start with matter, rearrange it by strictly physical processes, then you can only end up with an increasingly different arrangement of matter. There doesn’t seem to be any room for the non-material stuff come in. Perhaps one could respond by claiming that the non-material stuff is a fundamental part of all of the physical stuff, and that is how the non-material stuff eventually was able to emerge out of the physical stuff. If so, this obviously conflicts with the claim that the foundations of reality are purely physical. If the immaterial stuff has always been there, then the foundation of reality could not have only been physical.

The other option is that the potential non-material stuff came into existence at a later point in our universe’s history. But then the immaterial stuff would have to had been “inserted from above” so to speak, implying the existence of an immaterial God or mind. This is a problem for such a person because anything that is immaterial, such as God, ought to be rejected by the person who believes that the the only things that exist are physical. Either way, the existence of immaterial life becomes an apparent issue for those who believe that the physical is all that there is. With that being said, I will refrain from expanding any more on this for we’ve already extended a little too far outside of the focus of the paper.

 

Let us return back now to the consideration that the mental life is just an extension of our brains. Does that mean our brains are the cause of our mental life? After all, just as the leaf is dependent on the branch to grow, perhaps our mental life is dependent on our material brains.

Well, if you believe in free will and that a person is responsible for making rational and moral decisions, you already disagree with this view. If everything were “bottom up” so to speak, our brains would be the origin of all of our thoughts. Our thoughts would be created from our brains. One way to picture this is to envision a hypothetical ladder that has your brain at the bottom rung running upwards, and the immaterial parts are on the top rung. Everything on the top rung would depend on (and stem from) the bottom rung. To get to the top you’ve got to start from the bottom. If all of our thoughts and sensations start with the the brain, everything that we think or believe is just simply a result of chemicals firing in our brains. Say, if those chemicals fire in a certain way, we believe X. If they fire a different way, we believe Y, and so on. It’s not that “you” are the cause of your complex thoughts and decisions, but rather “you” are only your brain, and it is the firing of chemicals in your brain that cause of those thoughts and decisions.

If this is what one believes, how could that person ever condemn anyone for doing something that they consider to be wrong? The condemned person didn’t have the choice to do right or wrong; in fact they didn’t have a choice at all. The person was merely riding the waves of the chemical reactions in the brain and it was not in their power to have done otherwise. So, what right would we have to condemn them? If you believe that people are truly response for their actions and decisions, you ought to reject the view that our thoughts are purely and only dependent on the physical workings of the brain.

It gets worse for the one who holds to this view. Even if it were really the case that free will were merely an illusion, one could never rationally affirm this to be the case because they themselves did not come to this realization by carefully weighting the evidence for and against free will, by giving it critical thought. They’ve had no choice in believing that there is no free will because the brain’s chemicals led them to believe they have no free will. They simply aren’t responsible for their beliefs, thoughts, or decisions.

The consequences go even further. They extend to all of your reasoning faculties. If you believe our material brains are responsible for all of our thoughts, you could never remain consistent by claiming how you’ve come to believe anything based off of rational reflection. Instead, your beliefs are just like the leaf growing from the branch. They are simply determined by the laws of physics and couldn’t have been any other way. The reasons you believe things are not rational or irrational, but rather non-rational or arational.

If this sounds like a casserole of crazy to you also, and you believe you are a rational person, than you’d ought to be highly skeptical of that view. But for many people, rejecting a soul seems to force them to accept such a conclusion that many wouldn’t come to accept otherwise. This isn’t based off of extremely compelling evidence that is strong enough to override our strong intuition, but rather an attempt to remain consistent with such a view of reality that excludes the soul. If we are to accept something that is at the height of counter intuitiveness, then we’d better have some good evidence that compels us to override our intuition.

Thankfully, neural-plasticity also shows the power that thought has over our brain. We can quite literally change the physical structure of our brain by simply choosing to change our thoughts. This is how habits, moods, learning, and many more things work. If we choose to focus on positive and happy things, our brains will eventually physically change to cater to this way of thinking, and in turn we will become happier people. This seems to not only counter the claim that we have no free will, but also can be taken as evidence for top down causation, rather than everything operating from the bottom up. The good news is that free will exists. The bad news is that you probably won’t be able to get out of your legal problems by pointing to brain science.

 

  1. Why we are not our brains

 

So far we have established that although the brain and our mental life can correlate and interact, they are by necessity, two different things. Therefore, the view that we are only our physical brains, is demonstrably false. We can now move from the claim that we are not only our brains, to the stronger claim, that we are not our brains at all. I’d like to address the notion of personhood and how it is something that cannot be grounded in our bodies or brains.

 

Consider a simple thought experiment. Let’s adopt the view that I am essentially just my body. If I got my arm sawed off, would I still be me or would I be only 4/5 of me? Or say I lost both of my arms and both of my legs and got a heart transplant and blood transfusions? Would I then only be a fraction of me? It seems evident that, none-the-less, I would still be the same person. That fact would remain despite any physical changes to my body, even if the functioning of my body became impaired. So, it becomes rather evident that who I am can not be reduced into parts of my body, and that would entail that my personhood is not defined by my physical body. If the body is not a necessary factor in determining who a person is, what about my brain? Is the brain necessary for establishing personhood? Let’s take our thought experiment a step further.

 

Let’s say that I underwent an operation in which a small portion of my brain was replaced with either a transplanted equivalent, or an artificial material of some sort that served as an adequate replacement for the small portion that was extracted. Would I still be the same person? Of course I would be. I can’t think of any reason to suggest otherwise. Now let’s say that I came back in a year and had another portion removed and replaced. What if I did this every year until my entire brain consisted of a new material than I had prior to the procedure? It seems that I would be the same person, despite my brain now consisting of an entirely new set of material. This shows that my material brain is not what is necessary for personhood. If the brain isn’t, then what is?

 

  1. Why we are fundamentally souls

 

Up until now we have argued that we do not only have physical life, but also a nonphysical mental life. We then argued that our mental and physical life interact and correlate with each other. Next I argued that we cannot be the same thing as our physical brains. Finally, I’d like to argue that since the mind, personhood, and identity cannot be grounded in anything physical, it follows that the soul MUST be necessary for these things to exist. In addition, I will explain why our essential nature is a soul.

 

With the previous section fresh in our minds, we will now turn our focus onto the nonphysical part of the person. It seems that if our personhood is not dependent upon our physical part, then could it be dependent upon our immaterial part? What exactly is this immaterial part? It seems to me that the non-physical part would be responsible for things such as feeling, understanding, having subjective experience, beliefs, desires, intentions, and so on. As you may recall from section 1, all of our mental life is private. It can’t be seen or known by third party inspection, whereas all of our physical life can be. You may infer that someone is in pain by their physical actions, but there would be no way to know how they feel. Such things could only be experientially known by the person.

Just as an essential part of a triangle is having three 60 degree angles, the essential parts of a person are not her brain or her body. This essential part just happens to be immaterial. As demonstrated in the last section, you can have all of your physical parts replaced and remain the same person. But such a thing wouldn’t apply to our immaterial parts. It seems to me to be quite rational in identifying these immaterial aspects as being grounded in a soul. The soul cannot be reduced into parts as the physical can. It provides a continuous nature of who we are as the body continually undergoes change.

It is also our ultimate selves. We do not say that we have a self, but rather we say that we are a self. The self, or “I”, is what experiences things such as pain, thought, and perception. Otherwise, what is pain, thought or perception, without a sufferer, a thinker, or a perceiver? If we can be us without the physical parts or with the changing of them, and the same is not true of our immaterial part, it follows that we are not physical beings at our foundation. Instead, we are fundamentally souls.

 

The implications behind our discussion seem rather obvious when applied to the consideration of life after death. It follows that because the I, or self, is not material, then destroying the physical would not destroy me.

Additionally, there is no doubt that people have had near death experiences. In these experiences, the person may have either been close to death, or dead and resuscitated, and afterwards have reported having their souls detach from their body. There is no debate about the experience. The only debate is how to interpret these experiences. Many naturalists would say that it is the results of the chemicals releasing as the brain is dying. However, based on the details of the stories, in many of these experiences, they are not so easy to dismiss. Many of these experiences took place when all brain function was shut down, and there was no brain activity taking place. There are stories of people who were born blind who have had a near death experience in which they claimed to have detached from their bodies and were able to see for the first time, while also able to describe what they saw. There are also stories of people being able to know details following their death that they would have no possible way of knowing unless they were indeed souls that were detached from their body. And what did we learn from the law of identity? That if it is even possible that we can detach from our bodies, then we cannot be the same thing as our bodies.

I’d like to add another quick consideration about the claim that the release of chemicals is the complete explanation for near death experiences. I think we should note that chemicals release when we do about anything, such as talking to a friend. But does that mean our experience of talking to a friend is entirely illusory? Of course not. So, even if it were the case that chemicals are released at the time people have experiences upon death, that in itself is not evidence that their experience is not something that is truly happening.

 

There is much, much more that could be said about the topic, for this is one of those topics that can be discussed forever. However, I hope I’ve at least given you something to think about.

Jon McCray

Jon McCray

Jon McCray specializes in cosmology in apologetics, and is currently pursuing a degree in philosophy.
Jon McCray

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