When my niece was standing over the little coffin over heard someone say, “He is with God now”…it is difficult to remember who said it… but I will never forget what Ariana said in response. It is what she said that gets many adults confused and frustrated.
Ariana asked, “If he is with God, how can he be in the coffin at the same time?” This leads us to what this post is about: The soul. If we have a soul, then the baby who died would be a two substance thing– It follows that this human person can logically be in both places, as his body can be in one place and his soul another. This is called substance dualism.
In an article in Time magazine, Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University wrote “Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.” He further asserts that the “dogma of an immortal soul, is “improvable.”
I, along with the vast majority of the human race,and in particular in the Christian intellectual tradition, believe we are souls, and there is indeed evidence for souls in the 21st century. The main hypothesis of my thesis was taken from a line often quoted by the literary character Sherlock Holmes:
That process’ [of finding things out], said I, ‘starts upon the supposition that when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. It may well be that several explanations remain, in which case one tries test after test until one or other of them has a convincing amount of support.”
It is my conviction that when one does look at the failed explanations of naturalism for the soul, will, after examining the evidence concede that there is indeed a soul in each of us.
If cognition and consciousness in general is a result of brain states, it is something novel—different than the brain. It is similar to the genie that rises from the lamp—or to give a more physical example, it is like the magnetism that rises from a magnet. Either way it is something completely different than that which it emerges from. This thing that emerges feels, suffers, doubts, questions and has qualia like experiences and fits the description that the ancients referred to as a soul. It is what is currently keeping cognitive scientists busy.
I am not claiming that the soul (the seat of our consciousness) will always be something outside of the physical sciences. I think the soul is just an “undiscovered country” that we still need time to fully comprehend. It took time to figure out the process of embryology, it took time to figure out molecular biology, and quantum physics we are still working on. In time I believe that soul will also be something we can study. But current naturalistic science not only does not have any room for it but does not even have the vocabulary to describe it. Naturalism cannot study this souish thing. But science does not need to be held captive by naturalism.
How can we understand given our current science, our intentional thoughts of our experiences of what it is like to jump in cold water or listen to Handle’s Messiah, or simply reflect on our own minds? It is very difficult, but I am not saying it is impossible. I am arguing against those who say that the soul cannot be investigated by science as much as I am arguing against those who claim there is no soul.
In arguing that the full realization of a human person is as an entity that is both an immaterial substance and a material substance, I do not hold, as Plato, Augustine and Descartes did, that the person is identical to the soul alone. I argue that all substances, material and immaterial, are natural parts of the world created together by an intelligent immaterial mind.
These substances need not be supernatural although they may be outside the reach of the hard sciences as we understand them today. I do not restrict one set of substances to the supernatural and one to the natural as Descartes did. I believe both can be utilized to understand nature and to ignore one or the other is to hinder our progress in the field of cognitive science and the philosophy of mind.
Now, what is the soul? We cannot be good thinkers if we do not define our terms! What did the great thinkers of the past say?
The great philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that the soul is “self-existent, that is, existent independently of and in complete distinction from the things which are its objects.” 
Anthony Quinton, former president of Trinity College, Oxford University wrote the soul is a “series of mental states connected by continuity of character and memory, is the essential constituent of personality. The soul, therefore, is not only logically distinct from any particular human body with which it is associated; it is also what a person is.”
Richard Swinburne, former Professor of Philosophy at Oxford wrote,
“It is a frequent criticism of substance dualism that dualists cannot say what souls are, or what makes the difference between one soul and another soul. . . . Souls are immaterial subjects of mental properties. They have sensations and thoughts, desires and beliefs and perform intentional actions. Souls are essential parts of human beings.”
And finally, the soul is, as Rene Descartes said, “a thing that doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies. . . , refuses; that imagines also, and perceives.”
I argue, in line with the majority of the Christian tradition, that the soul is a simple thing, the inner being of our personhood. It is the combination of properties co-instantiated together making up one’s psychological/spiritual attributes.
This along with our body makes us human persons.
See my other blog post on personhood here.
The soul has different properties. These include our imagination, desires, intentionality, qualia, self-awareness, unity of consciousness, etc. Note that these properties are not parts of the soul, the soul has no parts per se like a computer or any other thing in the universe, that is why the soul is a simple entity. Descartes specifically pointed this out: “As for the faculties of willing, of understanding, of sensory perception and so on, these cannot be termed parts of the mind, since it is one and the same mind that wills, and understands and has sensory perceptions.”
Soul is immaterial because its events are immaterial (thoughts, desires, intentions, images) it cannot be proven using material things like CAT scans or MRI scans. So the criteria for “proving” it would be different than the criteria for proving a microwave oven exists. I will be providing some ideas on how we can know why there is a soul in the next few posts.
For more detailed understanding of the soul I recommend the following books.
The Soul: How we know it is real and why it matters by J.P. Moreland, (Moody, 2014)
John Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, rev. ed., 2000)].
N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God[Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003], pp. 131-34, 190-206, 366-67, 424-26). (Thanks for JP. Moreland for these!)
Joel B. Green, Body, Soul and Human Life [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2008].
John Cooper, “The Bible and Dualism Once Again,” Philosophia Christi 9 (2007):
“The Current Body-Soul Debate: A Case for Holistic Dualism,”Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13 (2009)
“Exaggerated Rumors of Dualism’s Demise,” Philosophia Christi 11 (2009)
I close with this clip from an interview with one of my colleagues and intellectual mentors, JP. Moreland.
CCT: Just for fun, in 15 words or less, why do you think that the soul exists?
J.P. Moreland: I’m indivisible, possibly disembodied, a possessor of free will; my brain and body aren’t.
See more about J.P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology, is currently a Research Fellow with the Center for Christian Thought, for the 2012-2013 year on Neuroscience and the Soul. Click here for the .mp3 audio of his CCT lecture, “What Is the Soul and Is It Real?”
What do you think?