Does the Soul Exist? Conundrums, Questions, and Quandaries
Does the Soul Exist?
Why is a Belief in the Soul So Prevalent?
A belief in some kind of soul (or souls) exists in almost every culture from ancient times to modern day. Prior to the scientific age, people tried to explain the existence of living things by positing that they were animated by souls. The soul is an immaterial entity that at different times and places was thought to inhabit different parts of the body, e.g., the gut, the heart, the brain.
If you look up soul in the dictionary, you’ll find the first definition is: an immaterial spiritual something that imbues humans with intellect, conscience, and emotion.
The soul is thought to be the entity that gives us self-awareness, the ability to think and feel emotions, the ability to have memories, and a conscience to control our behavior. The belief is, as I understand it, that without a soul, we would be like zombies without the ability to think or feel.
It feels counter-intuitive to us to say there is no soul. However, modern biological, neurological, and cognitive science answer the questions of consciousness much better than the concept of a soul.
How Does Science Explain the Soul?
The word “soul” is a word used to describe an abstraction. It is essentially no more than a metaphor.
Brain activity gives us consciousness, an awareness of our own existence, the feeling of having a mind. However, the mind, and therefore the soul, cannot exist without a brain. It is purely natural processes in the brain that give us a sense of self.
The belief in a separate entity that inhabits the body is called “dualism” because it posits that each of us is really two entities—a body and a soul. The mind creates the illusion of an entity within us that produces our thoughts and emotions, and even our moral character.
People who accept the scientific view are called materialists because they reject the idea of an immaterial soul. They argue that there is only matter, and therefore no entities that are immaterial can exist.
What are the Conundrums Posed by a Belief in a Soul?
I wrote an article, What is the Soul: From Anima to Abstraction, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the soul hypothesis presents more conundrums, questions, and quandaries than answers.
“It’s a puzzlement,” as the king said in the movie “Anna and the King of Siam.” Here are some of my questions
An Immaterial Soul?
1. The Conundrum of Immateriality
Everything in the universe is made up of matter. Matter is a material thing. By definition, an immaterial thing is not made up of matter, and consequently does not exist.
Yes, love exists and love is immaterial. However, love is known to be an emotion. It is not a “thing” in the way the soul is said to be a thing. How can something that is immaterial exert a force on a material thing like a person?
I’ve often seen “quantum mechanics” brought in to explain the existence of the soul. The problem is that almost no quantum physicists believe in the existence of the soul. There are no mathematical proofs for the soul. I have found that people throw around the term “quantum mechanics” when they have no explanation for something. So please, let’s avoid pseudo-scientific explanations that have no basis in actual science.
2. The Conundundrum of Ensoulment
Most people who believe in a soul believe that the soul is given to us by God. That begs the question of how the soul gets in the body and where it resides within the body.
Moreover, there is a lot of disagreement about when the soul enters the body. Does ensoulment occur as soon as a sperm penetrates an egg, when an embryo begins to form, when brain activity begins in utero, or at birth? Interestingly, the Catholic Church takes no position on this.
I think the time of ensoulment is important to the abortion debate. Since the soul is thought to be required for personhood, before getting a soul the human-to-be is just some protoplasm. Is it thus permissible to remove this protoplasm from a woman’s body?
However, I have heard the argument that removing this protoplasm before ensoulment is even worse than doing it afterwards. Their reasoning is that the soul is eternal so thus the embryo or fetus survives as a soul, but without a soul, nothing will survive the abortion..
We all know spontaneous abortions occur in various stages of a pregnancy. If ensoulment occurs prior to a live birth, do some souls just “give up the ghost” and decide not to be born?
Do Dogs Have Souls?
3. The Conundrum of Animal Souls
For the most part, the three Abrahamic religions teach that only humans have souls. There was a “special creation” event for humans, and souls were given only to humans.
However, many people want to believe that animals have souls. It is obvious to dog owners that their dogs have feelings—for instance, love. Animals that live in packs or herds surely appear to have feelings for the members of their group. There have even been experiments that show that primates have a sense of fairness. In one experiment, chimps refused to accept a reward of food if they observed that the chimp in the next cage was not given the same reward for the same effort.
If dogs have souls, if primates and other mammals have souls, then why not ants? Why not amoebas? Where would the line be drawn?
If animals have souls, are they the same kind of souls found in humans? Animals seem to be less capable than humans with respect to emotions and self-awareness so their souls must be different. Does every type of animal have a different type of soul?
If animals have no soul, how can we explain their obvious ability to think in a limited way (compared to humans) and to feel emotion? Is it all instinct?
Evolution and the Soul
4. The Conundrum of Evolution
At what point in evolution did souls begin? If animals don’t have souls (as most religions teach), there had to be a demarcation in the evolutionary line when living things began to have souls.
Did Neanderthals have souls or is only homo-sapiens capable of love and intellect?
5. The Conundrum of Individuality
If souls make us the person that we are, it seems there must be millions of different kinds of souls because there are millions of different kinds of people.
Are some people “good” people because they got a “good” soul and others are “bad” people because they got a "bad" soul?
Do some people have a talent, for instance, for music or art, because they got a talented soul?
If some people have a penchant for philosophy or poetry, is it because God gave them an intellectual soul?
It seems to me that the soul has nothing to do with these traits—it is all a matter of genetics and environment.
Who gets each kind of soul? Is it random or does God specifically choose the the type of soul each person will get?
Why can brain damage, brain surgery, and pharmaceuticals change our personality, for instance, turning a mild-mannered person belligerent and vice versa? How could an immaterial soul that controls personality be affected by changes to the brain or body?
6.The Conundrum of Free Will
If the soul controls feeling, thought, and action, how could there be free will? It seems to me that dualism suggests that there is no free will, yet it is the dualists who believe in free will and the materialists who are more likely to argue that we do not have free will. (The issue of free will brings up many more conundrums, but I don’t have the space to get into them here. I’ll just briefly mention how free will relates to the soul concept.)
The dualists say that our soul gives us the ability to freely choose to be moral or immoral. Is the soul then like a blank slate, a tabula rosa, constantly changed and shaped by our experiences? Is the soul like the picture of Dorian Grey, constantly changing based on our choices?
Or as I suggested before, do some people just get souls prone to bad behavior. If people do bad things because God gave them a bad soul, is it fair to punish them for their bad behavior?
7. The Conundrum of Near-Death Experiences
A person is considered dead when the brain stops functioning, even if the heart is still beating. So when does the soul leave the body--at the cessation of mental activity or at cessation of all bodily activity (heart and brain)? If there is no mind (no mental ability, no emotion, etc—all the things that the soul supposedly imparts to humans), then is there still a soul present even if the heart is beating due to the action of a machine.
There are some people who claim to have “died,” and they say they felt their soul leave their body. Of course, they didn’t actually die—no one survives death—instead they had a near-death-experience. If their soul left their body, did their soul “jump the gun,” taking off before the person was actually dead? Or if you believe that the person was actually dead and the soul had left, why did the soul change its mind and reenter the body bringing the person back to life?
Does the Soul Belong in the Realm of Metaphor and Poetry?
The first definition of soul in the dictionary says that soul is an immaterial substance that is like a little man sitting in a control tower making us think feel and act. However, there are subsequent definitions that talk about the soul as a metaphor. We use the word “soul” as a metaphor all the time when we say things such as, “soul food,” “the King of Soul,” “soul mate,” and “he’s a lost soul.”
There is a great deal of interest in the soul. When I searched “soul” in google, I got about 809,000,000 results. A lot of people are writing and talking about “soul” in its religious and metaphorical contexts.
The concept of a soul in the religious sense leads to so many conundrums. It is so much simpler to accept that our brains invent the soul, and the soul is no more than a metaphor for a feeling--the sense of self that we feel. It is a word best left for
Please Give Your Opinion about the Soul
Does the soul exist?
For Further Reading
This is the book that got me thinking about the soul in a deep way. Julien Musolino, a cognitive scientist, writes in an easy to understand style, but his analysis is all inclusive, giving the pros and cons about the soul hypothesis. He gives the history of soul beliefs, and explains the latest science that makes it clear, as you can guess based on the title of the book, that the soul does not exist.
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Catherine Giordano