Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 29, 2011

What Is the Soul?

By N.S. Palmer

A friend asked, “what is the soul?”

It’s a worthwhile question. My answer is that you can’t have a mundane answer to a question about a reality that is wholly or partly transcendent. It’s the same reason that no one can come up with a conclusive proof for the existence or non-existence of God.

We know that some things are mental and others are physical, but we can’t define the terms very well and we aren’t sure how they are related to each other. Materialist attempts to reduce everything to physical phenomena tend to be just as tautological and arbitrary as early 20th-century idealist attempts to reduce everything to phenomena of consciousness.

G.E. Moore pointed out that however we explain reality, “mental” and “physical” are categories that we use to organize our experience. In a discussion with an idealist (a person who thinks that only consciousness is real and that physical objects don’t exist), Moore once held up his right hand, pointed to it, and said “This is a physical object.”

Many people have regarded that argument as simpler than it really was. Moore, who was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, did not believe that he could refute a metaphysical theory simply by holding up his hand. No, his point was twofold, and much more interesting.

First, regardless of their metaphysical views, people deal with physical objects all the time. No matter how we explain the nature of physical objects, they are part of our daily lives. “Physical object” is the name we give to certain types of phenomena. Talk to an idealist on the street, outside of a philosophy seminar, and ask “What’s the difference between a rock and a mathematical theorem?” The answer will be that one is a physical object and the other is an idea.

Second, Moore was making an epistemological point. Idealism is a theory about the nature of reality, and it denies the existence of physical objects.* This part of his argument was simplicity itself: “Which is more certain: that idealism is true, or that my hand exists and it’s a physical object?”

The same applies to materialist arguments that the soul does not exist. Neuroscientists often breathlessly announce that changes in mental states can be caused by changes in the brain and vice versa. They act as if it were a new insight provided by modern science. But the correlation between mental states and brain states was old news when Plato and Aristotle were alive. Back then, it didn’t prove that mind was reducible to brain activity, and it still doesn’t.

So, which is more certain: that materialism is true, or that you are conscious and reading this sentence?

What the question about the soul really amounts to is not, “Do I exist as something distinct from the physical aspects of my body,” but:

“Do I exist as something independent of the physical aspects of my body, and which will continue to exist when my body dies?”

The answer to the first question is obviously “yes,” for as Descartes observed, “cogito ergo sum.” The answer to the second question is unknown and probably cannot be known in terms of this frame of reference.

As St. Augustine said, “In this world, we live by faith, not by sight.”
*Meaning, as objects that can exist independently of consciousness.

Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. Being around and reading the work of a lot of Biology, I appreciate this post. I find it immensely frustrating to see the hardline refutation of many scientists of the “soul.” Whether the soul is some strange theological concept or simply a synchronous electromagnetic wave does not detract from its personal, cultural, and practical existence.

    Which too few seem to realize. It is also frustrating because, were theologians and some scientists to at least meet on common ground here, perhaps focus might shift from “disproving the soul” (a ridiculous query) to determining the credence of that second question you mentioned.

    • Absolutely right, JKK. We spend far too much time trying to “prove that we’re right” about questions that can’t be proven one way or the other.

      On the other hand, many biologists and other physical scientists also agree with you. They’re just not as vocal as the zealots on both sides of the issue.

  2. Nicely done. I’ve often felt that there is a part of me that exists separate from my body; I imagine my experience is common. But does that part live forever? The Bible says so; I choose to believe it, but I lack other evidence.

    • Thanks, Jim!

      Pascal’s Wager isn’t entirely disreputable. If we survive physical death, then we’ll find out eventually. If we don’t survive physical death, then we’ll never know it.

      If it makes us happy to think that we do, and the evidence is equivocal, then why not be happy?

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