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What on Earth Happened to the Soul?

Updated on July 8, 2017
John Paul Quester profile image

Paul is a mostly retired academic; he holds advanced degrees in philosophy and psychology.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed the pineal gland to be the principal seat of the soul
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed the pineal gland to be the principal seat of the soul | Source

On The Hard Problem of Consciousness

David Chalmers (2003), a leading researcher in the field of consciousness studies, identified six basic views—which can be further differentiated into specific versions of the basic idea—about nature and origin of conscious experience (as consisting of self-awareness, perceptions, bodily sensations, mental imagery, emotions, thoughts, etc.).

Most readers willing to brave this intellectual jungle would likely find themselves disoriented and bewildered before long; so was yours truly. Nearly though not terminally exhausted, I sought refuge in what appeared to be easier to negotiate grounds, tilled by psychologist Susan Blakemore. Her Conversations on Consciousness (2006) resulted from a series of interviews with prominent researchers in the field of consciousness studies, an area which includes practitioners of physics, philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, the neural sciences, AI, and the humanities.

The object of Blakemore's efforts was to outline the dominant view on the nature of consciousness and of its relation to the brain by presenting these thinkers' views in a more intuitive and informal way than is the case in their often convoluted and stilted academic writings.

Alas, her valiant attempt ended in disappointment. Remarks such as these abound in her book: 'No one has an answer to this question', which is worthwhile asking anyway 'if only for the depth of confusion it reveals'. This exercise enabled her to further her grasp of the complexities of the various theories; but her own answer to the question 'Do I now understand consciousness?' was: 'As for consciousness itself—if there is such a thing—I am afraid not'. Incidentally, the philosophically naive reader may be puzzled by the fact that anyone could doubt the very existence of conscious experiences: but there are many savants who do, possibly including Blakemore herself.

Blakemore—whom I think regards herself as some sort of materialist—noticed to her disappointment that despite the best efforts on the part of several of his interlocutors, 'dualities of various kind [kept] popping out'. However, she notes, pretty much the only area of agreement among these scholars was that 'classical dualism does not work; mind and body—brain and consciousness—cannot be different substances'.

Being a bit of a contrarian, my interest was picked. What is it that these researchers tend to contemptuously set aside as unworthy of serious examination in our day? In the simplest terms: the age old distinction between body and soul.

The juxtaposition between the views held by this tiny if influential minority of mostly Western thinkers and the views of humanity at large is truly wondrous.

Developmental psychologists have established that children are dualists, since they distinguish fundamentally between mental states and physical objects; they also seem to think that following death the body is eventually destroyed, but certain psychological traits continue on.

The notion that humans consist of two 'substances': a material body and an immaterial part (the soul) that is connected with, but essentially different from, the body: this notion is, according to cultural anthropologists, shared by the near totality of human cultures, and constitutes one of their 'common denominators'.

As for Western civilization, its two pillars: the Greco-Roman and Judean-Christian cultures, both embraced versions of substance dualism. Some of the greatest representatives of this tradition: religious thinkers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and philosophers and scientists like Plato, Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Kant, Pascal, and many others, all promoted dualistic views. Within the field of neuroscience, groundbreaking researchers including Sherrington, Penfield, and Eccles were explicitly substance-dualists.

A compelling illustration of the contrast which opposes the current philosophical and scientific outlook to the consensus gentium is that for many scientifically inclined people the very fact that a view is universally held is a strong indication that it is most likely wrong: after all, the argument goes, most people for the longest time - and long after some scientists had rejected such views - believed that the earth was flat, or that the sun rotates around the earth: and it is precisely by moving beyond the uncritically accepted data of sensory experience, and old prejudices, that true knowledge progresses.

To summarize: at present no scientific or philosophical consensus exists about the nature of consciousness and of its relationship to the brain; the only exception appears to be the nearly universal rejection of substance dualism: the hypothesis that conscious experience results from the activities of the 'soul': an immaterial substance not reducible to physical constituents yet somehow interacting with the brain and its body.

James Clerk Waxwell (1831-1879)
James Clerk Waxwell (1831-1879)

Is Substance Dualism Unscientific?

Now then: is it indeed the case that this idea possesses no rational and scientific legitimacy, being incompatible with all we know about the nature of reality?

The term 'soul' acquired over the centuries strong religious connotations in the West. However, no faith-based view of the soul per se is under examination here. In this context, the term 'soul' is interchangeable with 'consciousness' as an immaterial entity not reducible to physical matter or any of its properties; and it is logically (though not historically) independent from theological characterizations.

What are the key criticisms of this notion as unscientific?

Some philosophers object to the notion of an immaterial soul endowed with the capability to influence events in a physical object — as when for instance I make a conscious choice to raise my hand — because it contravenes the fundamental principle of the 'causal closure' of the physical world.

This principle maintains that all physical events must have physical antecedents as causes. A methodological corollary of this position is that the causal chain that links physical events is all that is needed to account satisfactorily for any such event. The very notion of a non-physical event intervening in the chain of physical causation therefore violates this basic methodological principle, upon which all science is supposedly based.

The problem with this position is that it is no more than an a priori assumption meant to direct scientific research by instructing its practitioners to seek certain kinds of causes, and to exclude others. However, there is nothing in it that can compels its adoption on the part of anyone who has not already subscribed to a strictly physicalistic view of reality. Furthermore, Stewart Goetz (2011) among others has shown that the notion of mental causation of physical events occurring in the brain is not in principle incompatible with a scientific understanding of brain activity in its relation to mental activity.

Closely related to causal closure's is the argument that admitting that the soul can influence the body by affecting the brain entails the violation of fundamental laws of physical science, most notably the law of the conservation of energy. Philosophical luminaries of a materialistic bent including Daniel Dennett (1991) have argued that this supposed fact alone constitutes the 'inescapable and fatal flaw with dualism'; Jerry Fodor and Owen Flanaghan have made comments along similar lines.

Why should this be the case?

This conservation law was stated by a great scientist, Clerk Maxwell, as follows: "The total energy of any body or system of bodies is a quantity which can neither be increased nor diminished by any mutual action of these bodies, though it may be transformed into any other forms of which energy is susceptible)." (1872).

Let us say I make a conscious choice to raise my arm. Even if such a choice is made by my immaterial mind, it must still lead to the expenditure of energy: to generate the firing of neurons in my brain, to power the transmission of electrical impulses along the nerves to the muscle of my arm to effect their contraction, etc. This chain of energy-consuming events is by assumption not caused by previous physical processes; yet the total amount of energy in the system has somehow increased. But this violates the conservation law. Moreover: given that the soul is immaterial, it does not possess energy, mass, or other physical qualities. Whence, then, does this new energy come from? It follows, therefore, that such a form of interaction must be excluded.

Or must it?

As an answer to this question, Averill and Keating (1981) have suggested that the mind might act by influencing, not the total quantity of energy, but its distribution, hence in compliance with the conservation law.

Others noted that the law is deemed to apply to causally isolated systems. Therefore, by arguing that the human body is not such a system, the law becomes irrelevant.

Robin Collins (2011) notes that when addressing this question, the interaction between immaterial and material objects (the soul and the brain) is assumed to be similar to the interaction between physical objects. And, since the interaction between physical objects obeys the law of conservation, the interaction between physical and non physical things must also do so. Hence the problems described above.

However, as Collins points out, given the assumed substantial difference between soul and body, the idea that the interaction between bodies should serve as a model for the interaction between soul and body is entirely challengeable.

Regardless, the objection based upon the law of conservation argues that i) it applies to every physical interaction, and that ii) all causal interactions must involve an exchange of energy. Now, it turns out, as cogently argued by Collins, that i) is not true for the case of general relativity, and ii) is false in the case of quantum mechanics. These two theories jointly subtend to most of modern physics.

It thus appears that this 'fatal' objection to substance dualism, supposedly based upon hard physical science, may in fact reflect a fatal lack of scientific sophistication among the philosophers who appeal to it and regard it as the most decisive argument against substance dualism. As Collins notes, if they took the trouble to assess the place the law of conservation occupies in today's physics, it would become clear to them that ' the formulation required by the objection to dualism has not been a principle in our best physical theories for the last 100 years.' (Collins, 2011, p. 124)

The previous arguments suggest that the hypothesis of a generic version of substance dualism is not scientifically invalidated by the objections raised against it.

Some thinkers claim that such an hypothesis actually plays an important role in helping us make sense of conceptual difficulties arising in the physical interpretation of the formalism of quantum mechanics, including the so called measurement problem. A distinguished quantum physicist, Henry Strapp (2011), has similarly argued that 'contemporary physical theory allows, and its orthodox von Neuman form entails, an interactive dualism that is fully in accord with all the law of physics.'

It is sometimes claimed that whereas quantum mechanics applies to the level of the subatomic world, classical physics remains true when dealing with macro systems, such as the brain. But this is not so. There is no evidence that quantum mechanics fails beyond some threshold. The laws of quantum mechanism are valid and apply to every object that is constituted by other objects which obey its laws.

These observations resonate with my own general impression that whereas contemporary physics has dramatically altered its understanding of physical reality relative to the period dominated by classical physics, many social scientists, psychologists, biologists, and brain scientists still tend to ground their views in a physics which is largely obsolete.

Hydrocephalus seen on a CT scan of the brain. The black areas in the middle of the brain are abnormally large and filled with fluid
Hydrocephalus seen on a CT scan of the brain. The black areas in the middle of the brain are abnormally large and filled with fluid | Source

Empirical Challenges to a Materialistic View of Consciousnes

Materialistic versions of the mind-body problem which ultimately identify the mind with the brain suffer from profound conceptual difficulties - rigorously debated in a recent collection of essays (Koons and Bealer, 2010) - which cannot be discussed here. Serious challenges to this still dominant view also arise from empirical findings; a cursory and incomplete summary is given below.

The quest for the neural correlates of consciousness, as noted, has as yet to show any substantive progress.

The seemingly unassailable idea that the brain is the vault of the mind must meet nontrivial challenges. For instance, as reported by Van Lommel (2006), computer scientist Simon Berkovich has shown that, based on our current knowledge, our brain simply lacks the capacity to store a lifelong accumulation of long-term memories, thoughts, and emotions; and neurobiologist Herms Romjin similarly claims that anatomically as well as functionally the brain does not have enough capacity to store our memories. If this is indeed the case, 'where' are our memories?

Disconcerting anomalies seemingly question the most basic view of the brain's role in our mental life. To mention but one, an article in the prestigious journal 'Science' provocatively titled 'Is the Brain Really Necessary?' (1980) reported the case of a British university student of mathematics with an IQ of 126 (hence well above the average population IQ of 100), who was found, based upon the evidence of brain scans, to lack nearly 95% of brain tissue, most of his skull being filled with excess cerebrospinal fluid. His cortex - which is deemed to mediate all the higher mental functions in humans - was barely more than 1 mm in thickness as opposed to the typical 4.5 cm depth that characterized the normal brain. This is not an isolated case; about half of the people who suffer a similarly induced loss of brain tissue have IQs higher than 100.

Serious empirical challenges to the idea of consciousness as bound to, and strictly localized in, the brain come from research on extrasensory perception (or ESP, which includes telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis). This is, notoriously, a controversial area of study, although the skepticism with which hundreds of increasingly sophisticated laboratory studies have been met is often based more on blind dismissal and prejudice than on a rigorous assessment of their data.

Alan Turing, one of the most influential mathematicians of the 20th century (and the breaker of the 'Enigma' machine's code), in an important article (1950) which also touched upon the issue of extrasensory perception candidly exposed the heart of the matter: 'These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately, the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming. It is very difficult to rearrange one's ideas so as to fit these new facts in.'

Einstein wrote that cracking the atom is a lot easier than cracking pre-established opinions; Max Planck, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, made similar comments about the entrenched resistance of conspicuous parts of the scientific community to new ideas and findings. This is especially the case when dealing with liminal areas such as ESP. However, it is at least conceivable that parapsychology, whose scientific status has been acknowledged by the American Association for the Advancement of Science since 1969, will gain wider acceptance in the not too distant future. Recent surveys reveal that slightly more than half of natural scientists, when polled anonymously, are prepared in principle to accept the reality of ESP. Further progress in this direction would compel consciousness researchers to finally address the challenges posed by parapsychological findings. This would doubtless profoundly affect the debate about the nature of consciousness, not least by encouraging a more serious consideration of dualistic versions of the mind body problem.

The growing body of sound empirical evidence on certain aspects of the near-death experience similarly raises important questions about the absolute dependency of consciousness on a working brain.

It should be understood that I am not implying here that the role of the brain as the mediator of our cognitive life should be rejected: we are not going back to Aristotle, who thought that the heart was the organon of mentation (one of the reasons he gave, amusingly enough, was based upon his observation that beheaded chickens can continue to move about for a short while even after being decapitated!).

I am merely pointing out that our understanding of the brain, and therefore of the conscious experience that is associated with it, is far from mature, despite the conspicuous technological and empirical progress the neural sciences have made over the past several decades.

Accordingly, intellectual humility and theoretical openness should be the order of the day.


Is The Hard Problem Too Hard to Crack?

The above discussion suggests that some of the objections to substance dualism are far from fatal to this position. Still, the idea of an immaterial mind different in kind from and interacting with the physical world remains egregiously problematic. We simply lack a well articulated and empirically grounded theory based upon such a notion (eminent mathematician Roger Penrose, physicist Henry Strapp, and others, have outlined interesting scientific hypotheses which differ from the classical version of dualism: but they are far from meeting the tremendous difficulties associated with all varieties of dualism).

In conclusion: the main thesis of this article was NOT to propose that substance dualism is likely the correct approach to this age old problem. For what is worth, I for one am not able to embrace it. Rather, I attempted to show that the near universal vituperation of this position based upon its supposed incompatibility with science is probably unwarranted.

Whereas the notion of an immaterial 'soul' remains strictly speculative, and subject to serious difficulties, this is no less the case for all other approaches to this problem, loud protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Accordingly, substance dualism should be granted the same level of theoretical regard than all other no less problematical views enjoy.

Some philosophers have argued that the mind-body problem is simply too hard for our limited cognitive potential, and may never be solved (see link to 'Is Human Understanding Fundamentally Limited?')

They could turn out to be right. Still, we should keep on trying, shouldn't we?


Averill E. W. And Keating (1981). Does interactionism violate a law of classical physics? Mind (90), 102-107.

Blakemore, S. (2006). Conversations on Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Collins, R. (2011)The energy of the soul. In The Soul Hypothesis (M. C. Baker and S. Goetz, Eds.). New York: Continuum International Publishing

Dennet, D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little Brown and Co.

Goetz, S. (2011). Making things happen: souls in action. In The Soul Hypothesis (M. C. Baker and S. Goetz, Eds.). New York: Continuum International Publishing.

Koons, R. C., and Bealer, G. (Eds). (2010). The Waning of Materialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lewin, R. (1980). Is your brain really necessary? Science, (210), 1232-1234

Strapp, H. (2011). Mindful universe: Quantum Mechanics And the Participating Observer. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Turing, M. A. (1950) Computing Machinery and Intelligence’, Mind, (59), 433-460.


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    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 12 days ago from Orlando Florida

      I find the sou to be no more than a metaphor for conscious. So what is consciousness? It is an illusion created by the brain. How is not yet known in all its particulars although science is working on it and like with all scientific problems, the answers will eventually be found.e , but it will be eventually known. An immortal soul has no scientific support. It makes no sense to say that since we don't completely understand something, it must be "magic."

    • AlexK2009 profile image

      AlexK2009 20 months ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Thanks Quester, I must have skimmed too fast. I shall now go away and let ideas incubate

    • John Paul Quester profile image

      Paul Quester 20 months ago from North America


      I did not wish to sound too 'academic' with detailed refs and all: I listed in brackets the titles of the main books or articles that were used, including Collins's.

      The idea that other's people consciousness can only be inferred, never established, since its contents are private and accessible only to its owner was used by the behaviorists among others to argue that therefore a non-introspection based, scientific psychology could only be based upon the intersubjectively observable data constituted by the environment and the organism's (human or otherwise) behavioral response to it, treating the organism's mind as a 'black box'.

      This hub was focused on substance dualism, therefore I made no mention of the idea of consciousness inherent in everything: a very old view (the notion of an 'anima mundi' or world-soul is one specific version of it) often referred to as 'panpsychism'. A recent book entitled Panpsychism in the West by David Skrbina (MIT Press 2007) offers a very detailed review of this notion from antiquity to the present.

    • AlexK2009 profile image

      AlexK2009 20 months ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      This is a great article.

      I wish you had listed your sources at the end, Especially Collins.

      I think that when Scientists doubt consciousness maybe they are saying we can never tell if other people are conscious.

      There was an interesting paper in Paranthropology magazine a while ago that discussed the brain as a filter for "Universal Consciousness". I wrote a hub about it but forget the details.

      I read somewhere of a physicist who believed consciousness was inherent in everything well before Chalmers took it up

    • John Paul Quester profile image

      Paul Quester 20 months ago from North America


      And thanks also for contributing yet another perspective on the subject

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 20 months ago from Australia

      Great Hub!

      If we look at Eastern views, the emphasis is often on a quite discernible consciousness that views the mental dialogue. That is, simple observations available to everyone shows that "something else" (our soul) is observing our internal chatter. Hence they say we are separate from just internal brain chatter and therefore of a higher and subtler sentience. Such easily available self evident truths assist all intellectually honest observers to examine the facts.