Refuting Arguments Against the Soul

I’m convinced that human beings have a soul, we are immaterial persons that also have physical bodies. This is not blind faith or just based on wishful thinking, hoping the Bible is correct (the Bible says we have souls). Strong philosophical, extra-biblical arguments exist that point to the existence of the soul.

Many have argued against the soul. Daniel Dennett and John Searle have written about their interesting anti-soul ideas. Dennett says, “the various phenomena that compose … consciousness … are all physical effects of the brain.”[1]

A friend of mine recently presented some of their anti-soul arguments to me:

1 – There’s an area in the brain that handles language. If that is damaged, you won’t be able to speak or write, but you will be able to do everything else you normally do.

2 – Multi-lingual people who suffer brain damage in particular brain regions lose only particular language capability.

3 – Therefore, the fact that we have particular language brain regions, suggests the brain is hardware and I am just “software” running on the brain’s hardware. In other words, I am my brain and I don’t have a soul.

 

I think there’s a lot going on here in this argument. I always love learning about the capabilities of the human brain. Scientific studies of the Broca area of the brain show that it handles language, but also apparently does math problems and stores information in short term memory.[2] The brain is a wonderful and complex organ and learning more about it is vital for the job of medicine.

But –  it has absolutely no bearing at all on whether I have a soul. I think this fascinating argument is irrelevant to this question. Why do I say that?

 

Well – I don’t think you can prove the existence of the soul using the scientific method. But this does no harm to my proposition that you have a soul. Why? Because a scientific explanation is not the only rational explanation that exists! John Lennox points to a boiling kettle and asks, why is it boiling? The “heat energy from the gas flame is being conducted through the copper base of the kettle and is agitating the molecules of the water … the water is boiling. Or, I may say [it is] boiling because I would like a cup of tea.”[3] Both are valid explanations. Once is scientific, the other is not. It is an explanation involving an agent. Arguments for the soul are usually agent arguments.

 

Problems With Anti-Soul Arguments

My friends argument about language centres of the brain disproving the soul has some problems.

1 – Neuroscience itself requires certain starting points that cannot be proven by science. Things like:

  • Math exists and allows us to predict what happens in the world.
  • The world exists in reality, it is not a concept inside the scientific researchers head, it exists independently of my mind and it behaves predictably.
  • The laws of logic.
  • I can think about these ideas, engage in introspection, and formulate ideas about how to do scientific experiments.
  • My mind is capable of thinking rationally.

The question is – who is forming this argument? And how are they doing it? Answer – with a mind. So, that fact that I cannot prove or disprove the soul using science is irrelevant. Science requires someone with a soul to get started, not the other way round.

2 – Whether I can communicate or not does not change the fact that I am a human being, an agent with a will who communicates. Imaging someone who is born without the physical ability to speak or write. There is still a thinking person inside that body who is able to communicate by other means. I may lose a capability (speaking or writing German) but that does not mean I lose the ability to think, rationalise, form and propose arguments. It probably means that I can’t communicate using a human language.

3 – The brain’s language centres tell us nothing about the mind/body problem, or whether we have a soul. In fact, I think we could interpret these Broca language centre discoveries in at least three empirically equivalent ways:

3a – The use of brain language centres is equivalent to personal agent communication. (I have no soul)

3b – Personal agent communication is a mental property that occurs when the brain areas are used. (I have no soul)

3c – Personal agent communication is an irreducible mental property of the soul and has a physical expression by means of the language centres of the brain. (I have a soul)

 

So – going back to my friend’s original argument, his conclusion simply does not follow because he requires us to interpret the data in only one of these three ways, but there appears to be no good reason for doing this. Other than – perhaps – he may have a bias against the existence of an immaterial soul? However – there are many very good reasons for supposing that we do have a soul.

Putting it another way, I’m an immaterial soul with a will.[4] My ability to communicate relates to an act of will in my soul. The mechanics of speaking/writing/communicating requires a functioning brain. If there’s a brain problem, then my soul decides to express concepts, but my brain restricts my ability to do so. Perhaps (if I am bi-lingual) I can only speak German, and not English.

 

Arguments for the Soul:

What are the arguments for a soul? Here are some:

  • If I’m a brain (physical) then I am determined. Either by chemistry, physics, or the algorithm that drives the behaviour of my “software.” Because I have no free will, moral responsibility and punishment is pointless. Physicalism (I have no soul) makes no sense of the world and how humans live.
  • My brain is physically changing all the time (losing cells, adding new cells). However, I am a personal agent who does not change over time. So, I am not my brain. I have a soul.
  • I am capable of introspection, and as I think deeply, I realise I am a simple centre of consciousness, I am a self that is distinct from my physical body. I have a soul.

There are many philosophical arguments like these that ground the vital starting points that scientists begin with when studying the function of brains with their minds, or souls. C S Lewis put it this way:

“[mind is] something more than cerebral biochemistry … the Naturalists have been … thinking [but not noticed] they were thinking. The moment one [realises this] … one’s own thinking cannot be merely a natural event.”[5]

I think the wider evidence suggests people have BOTH a brain that is physical with physical properties, and a mind or soul that is a mental substance that has mental properties.[6] They exist together and support each other. When one is affected, the other is also affected.

I think (in my mind, or soul), that human beings have a brain and a soul and these are two distinct but mutually supportive things that make me human.

[1] Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, (New York: Back Bay Books, 1991), 16.

[2] Brain’s Language Centre Has Multiple Roles, MIT News, accessed 29th July 2019, http://news.mit.edu/2012/brocas-area-multiple-roles-1016.

[3] John Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything, (The Good Book Company, 2019), kindle edition, loc 377.

[4]J P Moreland, The Soul How We Know Its Real and Why It Matters, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014),  138.

[5] C. S. Lewis, Miracles A Preliminary Study, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1977), 41, 42.

[6] Moreland, 199.

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Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

25 thoughts on “Refuting Arguments Against the Soul”

  1. “If I’m a brain (physical) then I am determined. Either by chemistry, physics, or the algorithm that drives the behaviour of my “software.” Because I have no free will, moral responsibility and punishment is pointless. Physicalism (I have no soul) makes no sense of the world and how humans live.
    My brain is physically changing all the time (losing cells, adding new cells). However, I am a personal agent who does not change over time. So, I am not my brain. I have a soul.
    I am capable of introspection, and as I think deeply, I realise I am a simple centre of consciousness, I am a self that is distinct from my physical body. I have a soul.”

    You make a lot of baseless assumptions here. As we know in reality, punishment does alter behavior so it is not pointless. We are the result of a chemical stew, but we do have free will to the point we cannot know and consciously remember everything that influences us. It is indeed only an apparent free will but we act like we have it and our decisions are made by it and we can change our minds, no magic needed.

    The brain is an electrochemical organ, and if we get it damage, we do not think like we did before. If there is a free floating soul, and it interacts with this electrochemistry, then we should be able to find evidence of it outside of the brain since it is working on regular physics. The problem with your claims is that doesn’t happen.

    Humans do change over time. The person I was ten years ago isn’t the same person I am now. I was terribly shy once and I am not now.

    The capabilty for introspection has no evidence to be required to have a separate soul. That is a baseless assumption on your part, supported by nothing but your need to beleive in a separate soul.

    All you have is a god of the gaps argument. Science can’t explain all things *yet*. It may never but that is not the way to bet. We have ceased believing in all sorts of theistic and supernatural nonsense. No magical healing, etc can be shown to happen. No amputees suddenly getting their limbs back, only baseless claims from believers.

    1. If we are determined, then why might a judicial system be useful? Why punish someone who can do no other? To protect society. Well – why do that? Who decides what is good since we are all determined?

      Yes – brain affects how the soul expresses itself. It’s both and…not just brain and not just soul.

      Are you the same person who attended elementary school all those years…and experiences ago?

      1. No, people do change over time. We develop through ageing, experience, teaching and introspection. People live through phases in their lives and will readily explain how they’ve changed over the years. That’s no imposter.

      2. Is it you … the same you who developed through ageing, experience, teaching and introspection? Can you say “I have changed?” Interesting- then it’s still you.

      3. This comment thread is going round in circles, none of it gets us closer or further away from the concept of a soul

      4. It’s sure tough trying to avoid the self evident. For example, is there anything you are worried about in the future? The dentist perhaps? How odd you would be worried about this if it’s not “you” who will experience the future event because you have experienced change between now and then?

      5. Don’t you think a diseased brain would impede the mind’s ability to interact with the world via the brain? It doesn’t mean mind and brain are the same things at all…

      6. Might be easier to accept if there were reasons to think the mind is a separate entity. Do you think the brain is an interface between the body and mind? Where are memories stored in your view?

      7. Yes to the interface question. Most substance dualists are interactionists between mind and brain. The brain does some functions, and then shares data with the mind. Wilder Pennfield, in his direct stimulation experiments showed that detailed memories could be called up by electrical stimulation of the brain, which shows that those memories were somehow either encoded, or triggered by, that section of the brain. Yet his experiments did not cause him to reject dualism, but rather convinced him of dualism.

      8. Because, unless mentally ill or physically ill, people can do other things.

        And we can determine who decides what is good by the harm done and what makes civilization work.

        IF there is no brain, then there is no human. Your claims of a soul should be able to be proven if this soul interacts with reality e.g. the brain. So where is it?

        You claimed that there has to be a soul so you are the same person. I said that i am not the same person. Which are you arguing for, a soul that is static or not?

  2. Why should civilisation “work” and what does this even mean if we are all determined? Maybe you mean – how YOU think it should work? A will to power…

    The fact you have a mind…and can freely think…gives people pause. Well…most people!

    If you aren’t the same person…who has grown up (you must be the same person to grow up)…you must be an imposter. See my earlier comment 😉

    1. Yes I’m aware of the historical discussion about sameness over time. No I don’t know why your question about electrons is relevant given the subject of this blog.

      1. You do skim over a huge expanse in your post, without alighting on too many solid definitions.
        What interests me is your take on the interaction problem, and specifically, what constitutes physicality, identity and supernatural status.
        I am interested in what people think about these things, and your post appears to turn on a particular take on the issues above.
        That’s what I’m getting at with my question.

      2. Sure. I’m responding to the claims of the physicalist and showing why those claims don’t work.

        I’d recommend “The Soul” by J P Moreland for a more thorough discussion of the themes in my short blog.

      3. Yes, but I am interested in the positive argument that you are making for substance dualism.
        I am interested in what you think, unless you wish to thoroughly defer to Moreland.

      4. @keithnoback I’m very happy to talk about what I think Keith. I thought you were asking for help understanding substance dualism.
        Yes – the positive argument for substance dualism only appears at the end of this blog – and much much more could be said. But from studying these issues, it seems to me that substance dualism better explains human experience. And – as long as we don’t require Naturalism as our wview starting point – this makes sense and points to a likely existence of the soul.

        If we do require Naturalism – then this stops becoming a soul discussion and it becomes a worldview discussion, I think.

        So I’d ask you – what is your wview and where do you stand on the mind/body problem?

  3. @keithnoback I’m very happy to talk about what I think Keith. I thought you were asking for help understanding substance dualism.

    Yes – the positive argument for substance dualism only appears at the end of this blog – and much much more could be said. But from studying these issues, it seems to me that substance dualism better explains human experience. And – as long as we don’t require Naturalism as our wview starting point – this makes sense and points to a likely existence of the soul.

    If we do require Naturalism – then this stops becoming a soul discussion and it becomes a worldview discussion, I think.

    So I’d ask you – what is your wview and where do you stand on the mind/body problem?

    1. I think consciousness comes with intentionality – consciousness is always consciousness ‘of’. Intentionality comes with identity and orientation, which are the basics of physicality. So I am a monist on that account.
      Lennox argues for the same state of affairs (I assume inadvertently, since it eventually undermines platonism, of which I hear he is a big fan) with his boiling kettle example. The psychological entities serve as explanatory causes in just the same way as the vibrating water molecules.
      By extension (get it?) I must agree with Chalmers when he says that he does not know what someone might mean when they say “separate substance”. Do you?

      1. Hmmm – I don’t follow your understanding of intentionality. How can the ability to have thoughts and sensory awareness…be a physical property of the brain? I think that’s what you are saying. Surely these are mental properties, not physical ones. Searle is a property dualist…he would be in line with you I guess.

        We can open a person’s skull and observe and measure the brain in there. But it seems to me the physical measurements we make…tell us a lot about physical properties, but nothing about the mental properties…the inner life of that person and their practice of inner reflection and… intentionality.

  4. I think Searle might be quite surprised by that news! 🙂
    I see this is going to be a long journey. I have a few posts on the general subject matter, “Curse You Peter Higgs’ for example.
    Have a look if you are ever bored; it will probably make your boredom seem less boring.
    Cheers!

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