The Soul
Incorporeal Essence of a Person or Living Thing or Object

The Soul
Incorporeal Essence of a Person or Living Thing or Object

Many philosophies and religions say that a soul is the part of a living human being which is supernatural and lives after death. It cannot be discovered by science, because it cannot be tested in any controlled way.

Many different opinions exist as to what happens to personal experience after death. Most atheists say that there is no such thing as a soul, and that the body is the only part of a person.

A soul – in certain spiritual, philosophical, and psychological traditions – is the incorporeal essence of a person or living thing or object.

Many philosophical and spiritual systems teach that humans have souls, and others teach that all living things and even inanimate objects (such as rivers) have souls.

The latter belief is commonly called animism.

Soul sometimes functions as a synonym for spirit, mind or self. In 1907 Dr Duncan MacDougall made weight measurements of patients as they died.

He claimed that there was weight loss of varying amounts at the time of death. His results have never been reproduced, and are generally regarded either as meaningless or considered to have had little if any scientific merit.

The 2003 film 21 Grams takes its title from the approximate weight loss measured in one of MacDougall's tests.

Science and medicine seek naturalistic accounts of the observable natural world. This stance is known as methodological naturalism.

"A sensible man will remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways - by a change from light to darkness or from darkness to light; and he will recognize that the same thing happens to the soul."  –– Plato

Methodological Naturalism

This is a different kind of naturalism. It is concerned not with claims about what exists but with methods of learning what is nature.

It is strictly the idea that all scientific endeavors — all hypotheses and events — are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. The genesis of nature, e.g., by an act of God, is not addressed.

This second sense of naturalism seeks only to provide a framework within which to conduct the scientific study of the laws of nature.

Methodological naturalism is a way of acquiring knowledge. It is a distinct system of thought concerned with a cognitive approach to reality, and is thus a philosophy of knowledge.

Studies by sociologist Elaine Ecklund suggest that religious scientists do in fact apply methodological naturalism. They report that their religious beliefs affect the way they think about the implications, often moral, of their work, but not the way they practice science.

"Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena.... While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science."

Methodological naturalism is thus "a self-imposed convention of science." It is a "ground rule" that "requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify."

In many animistic world views found in hunter-gatherer cultures, the human being is often regarded as on a roughly equal footing with other animals, plants, and natural forces.

Therefore, it is morally imperative to treat these agents with respect. In this world view, humans are considered a part of nature, rather than superior to, or separate from it.


Animism is from the Latin word: 'anima' which means "soul, life". Animism refers to the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings, or at least embody some kind of life-principle.

Animism encompasses the beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) worlds, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment.

Animism may further attribute souls to abstract concepts such as words, true names, or metaphors in mythology.

Animism is particularly widely found in the religions of indigenous peoples, including Shinto, and some forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, Pantheism, Christianity and Neopaganism.

Throughout European history, philosophers such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, among others, contemplated the possibility that souls exist in animals, plants, and people.

Most animistic belief systems hold that the spirit survives physical death. In some systems, the spirit is believed to pass to an easier world of abundant game or ever-ripe crops, while in other systems, the spirit remains on earth as a ghost, often malignant.

Still other systems combine these two beliefs, holding that the soul must journey to the spirit world without becoming lost and thus wandering as a ghost. Funeral, mourning rituals, and ancestor worship performed by those surviving the deceased are often considered necessary for the successful completion of this journey.

From the belief in the survival of the dead arose the practice of offering food, lighting fires, etc., at the grave, at first, maybe, as an act of friendship or filial piety, later as an act of ancestor worship. The simple offering of food or shedding of blood at the grave develops into an elaborate system of sacrifice.

Even where ancestor worship is not found, the desire to provide the dead with comforts in the future life may lead to the sacrifice of wives, slaves, animals, and so on, to the breaking or burning of objects at the grave or to the provision of the ferryman's toll: a coin put in the mouth of the corpse to pay the traveling expenses of the soul.

But all is not finished with the passage of the soul to the land of the dead. The soul may return to avenge its death by helping to discover the murderer, or to wreak vengeance for itself. There is a widespread belief that those who die a violent death become malignant spirits and endanger the lives of those who come near the haunted spot.

The practice of head shrinking among Jivaroan and Urarina peoples derives from an animistic belief that if the spirits of one's mortal enemies (i.e., the nemesis of one's being) are not trapped within the head, they can escape slain bodies. After the spirit transmigrates to another body, they can take the form of a predatory animal and even exact revenge.

Scientific Study of the Soul

Much of the scientific study relating to the soul has involved investigating the soul as an object of human belief, or as a concept that shapes cognition and an understanding of the world, rather than as an entity in and of itself. When modern scientists speak of the soul outside of this cultural and psychological context, they generally treat soul as a poetic synonym for mind.

Francis Crick's book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, for example, has the subtitle, "The scientific search for the soul". Crick held the position that one can learn everything knowable about the human soul by studying the workings of the human brain.

Depending on one's belief regarding the relationship between the soul and the mind, then, the findings of neuroscience may be relevant to one's understanding of the soul.

René Descartes was a French philosopher and writer who spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He has been dubbed the 'Father of Modern Philosophy', and much subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied closely to this day.

Descartes in his Passions of the Soul and The Description of the Human Body suggested that the body works like a machine, that it has the material properties of extension and motion, and that it follows the laws of nature.

The mind (or soul), on the other hand, was described as a nonmaterial entity that lacks extension and motion, and does not follow the laws of nature. Descartes argued that only humans have minds, and that the mind interacts with the body at the pineal gland.

This form of dualism or duality proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence the otherwise rational mind, such as when people act out of passion. Most of the previous accounts of the relationship between mind and body had been uni-directional.


Dualism denotes a state of two parts. The term 'dualism' was originally coined to denote co-eternal binary opposition, a meaning that is preserved in metaphysical and philosophical duality discourse but has been diluted in general or common usages.

Dualism can refer to moral dualism, (e.g. the conflict between good and evil), mind-body or mind-matter dualism (e.g. Cartesian Dualism) or physical dualism (e.g. the Chinese Yin and Yang).

In philosophy of mind, dualism is any of a narrow variety of views about the relationship between mind and matter, which claims that mind and matter are two ontologically separate categories.

In particular, mind-body dualism claims that neither the mind nor matter can be reduced to each other in any way, and thus is opposed to materialism in general, and reductive materialism in particular.

Mind-body dualism can exist as substance dualism which claims that the mind and the body are composed of a distinct substance, and as property dualism which claims that there may not be a distinction in substance, but that mental and physical properties are still categorically distinct, and not reducible to each other.

This type of dualism is sometimes referred to as "mind and body" and stands in contrast to philosophical monism, which views mind and matter as being ultimately the same kind of thing.

In some cultures, people (or also other beings) are believed to have two (or more) kinds of soul. In several cases, one of these souls is associated with body functions (and is sometimes thought to disappear after death), and the other one is able to leave the body (for example, a shaman's free-soul may be held to be able to undertake a spirit journey).

The plethora of soul types may be even more complex.

The pineal is a small endocrine gland in the middle of the brain of humans and other vertebrates. It makes and releases the hormone named melatonin. The human pineal gland grows in size until about 1–2 years of age, remaining stable thereafter, although its weight increases gradually from puberty onwards.

René Descartes, who dedicated much time to the study of the pineal gland, called it the "seat of the soul." He believed that it was the point of connection between the intellect and the body.

The Pineal Gland

The pineal gland (also called the "third eye") is a small endocrine gland in the vertebrate brain. It produces the serotonin derivative melatonin, a hormone that affects the modulation of wake/sleep patterns and seasonal functions.

Its shape resembles a tiny pine cone (hence its name), and it is located near the centre of the brain, between the two hemispheres, tucked in a groove where the two rounded thalamic bodies join.

The secretory activity of the pineal gland is only relatively understood. Historically, its location deep in the brain suggested to philosophers that it possessed particular importance.

This combination led to its being a "mystery" gland with myth, superstition and occult theories surrounding its perceived functions.

René Descartes, who dedicated much time to the study of the pineal gland, called it the "seat of the soul." He believed that it was the point of connection between the intellect and the body.

Descartes attached significance to the gland because he believed it to be the only section of the brain which existed as a single part, rather than one half of a pair.

He argued that because a person can never have "more than one thought at a time", external stimuli must be united within the brain before being considered by the soul, and he considered the pineal gland to be situated in "the most suitable possible place for this purpose", located centrally in the brain and surrounded by branches of the carotid arteries.

Baruch de Spinoza criticized Descartes' viewpoint for neither following from self-evident premises nor being "clearly and distinctly perceived" (Descartes having previously asserted that he could not draw conclusions of this sort), and questioned what Descartes meant by talking of "the union of the mind and the body".

The notion of a "pineal-eye" is central to the philosophy of the French writer Georges Bataille, which is analyzed at length by literary scholar Denis Hollier in his study Against Architecture.

In this work Hollier discusses how Bataille uses the concept of a "pineal-eye" as a reference to a blind-spot in Western rationality, and an organ of excess and delirium. This conceptual device is explicit in his surrealist texts, The Jesuve and The Pineal Eye.

Skeptics and the Soul

Skeptic Robert T. Carroll suggests that the concept of a non-substantial substance is an oxymoron, and that the scholarship done by philosophers and psychologists based on the assumption of a non-physical entity has not furthered scientific understanding of the working of the mind.

To extend the above hypothesis, one can argue that every kind of matter or energy exchange between a human biological system and its environment can be attributed to a series of complex physical and chemical transformations that occur inside the body and are largely controlled by the brain.

Hence many phenotypic, genotypic, behavioral and emotional characteristics or states of a human can be identified as bearing physio-chemical cause. For example, solar radiation carries electromagnetic energy that causes the accumulation of the pigment melanin in skin cells, which is perceived as tanning.

Although the human soul was sometimes symbolically or literally depicted in ancient cultures as a bird or other animal, it appears to have been widely held that the soul was an exact reproduction of the body in every feature, even down to clothing the person wore.

This is depicted in artwork from various ancient cultures, including such works as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which shows deceased people in the afterlife appearing much as they did before death, including the style of dress.

Neurochemicals (most famously endorphins) are responsible for what can be described as feelings of well being, love and pain.

Similarly, memory can be seen as an atomic reconstruction of an image in the brain at the expense of chemical energy intaken by food.

More social or long-term characteristics such as one's beliefs may be regarded as a combination of chemical concentrations and molecular arrangements, organized in a kind of chemical recipe formulated over the course of years or millennia.

An early precursor of this recipe is the primordial soup. Crudely put, the soul can be defined as chemical information exhibited on living matter.

However, a strict line of causality fails to explain certain aspects of the soul such as free will. This is probably due to the interrelation of free will and randomness.

In his book Consilience, E. O. Wilson took note that sociology has identified belief in a soul as one of the universal human cultural elements. Wilson suggested that biologists need to investigate how human genes predispose people to believe in a soul.

Daniel Dennett has championed the idea that the human survival strategy depends heavily on adoption of the intentional stance, a behavioral strategy that predicts the actions of others based on the expectation that they have a mind like one's own. Mirror neurons in brain regions such as Broca's area may facilitate this behavioral strategy.

The intentional stance, Dennett suggests, has proven so successful that people tend to apply it to all aspects of human experience, thus leading to animism and to other conceptualizations of soul.

The word-concept Soul has a secular and non-secular aspect. To integrate the two in a coherent statement Soul would be defined as: The interaction of mind, body and spirit reflecting through conscience the appropriateness of individual or collective behavior.

Through a connection to the Soul the mind apprehends abstractions implicit in spirit whether that be of transcendent derivation or temporal analysis.

The Mind–body problem

The mind-body problem is a philosophical problem arising in the fields of metaphysics and philosophy of mind.

Plato argued that, as the body is from the material world, the soul is from the world of ideas and is thus immortal.

He believed the soul was temporarily united with the body and would only be separated at death, when it would return to the world of Forms.

Since the soul does not exist in time and space, as the body does, it can access universal truths.

For Plato, ideas (or Forms) are the true reality, and are experienced by the soul. The body is for Plato empty in that it can not access the abstract reality of the world; it can only experience shadows. This is determined by Plato's essentially rationalistic epistemology.

The problem arises because of the fact that mental phenomena appear to be qualitatively and substantially different from the physical bodies on which they appear to depend. There are a few major theories on the resolution of the problem.

Dualism is the theory that mind and body are two distinct substances, and monism is the theory that mind and body are, in reality, just one substance. Monist materialists take the view that they are both matter, and monist idealists take the view that they are both in the mind.

Neutral monists take the view that both are reducible to a third, neutral substance. The problem was identified by René Descartes' in the sense known by the modern Western world, although the issue was also addressed by pre-Aristotelian philosophers and in Avicennian philosophy. A dualist view of reality may lead one to consider the corporeal as little valued and trivial.

The rejection of the mind-body dichotomy is found in French Structuralism, and is a position that generally characterized post-war French philosophy. The absence of an empirically identifiable meeting point between the non-physical mind and its physical extension has proven problematic to dualism and many modern philosophers of mind maintain that the mind is not something separate from the body.

These approaches have been particularly influential in the sciences, particularly in the fields of sociobiology, computer science, evolutionary psychology and the various neurosciences.