What is the soul?

What in your opinion ‘is’ the soul? Is it a Platonic soul which is separated from the body, or is it an Aristotelian soul, which is basically another word for the purpose or function of an object? Or is it something else? Is the soul merely our connection to God, or does the soul contain reason, consciousness and other cognitive faculties? Are only humans the ones with souls?

I used to be an Aristotelian, and though I am still a Virtue Ethicist, I reject Aristotle’s strict teleology, and believe that there is indeed evidence that consciousness can be separated from the body, hence people with almost no brain often turn out fine.

What do you think?

It seems like there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. Even relatively mild brain injuries can have serious effects on consciousness, and we know about the impact on consciousness of the many lobotomies that were performed in the 20th century. There are other theories to explain relative survival of consciousness in some serious cases

My sense of what a soul is does not come from the bible. For me it is simply who one genuinely is in the core of their being, the essence of ones true identity. I don’t think that is immortal however.

I think George MacDonald said, “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul.” I generally agree with this.

I think of a soul as the sum of a person’s immaterial existence rather than a constituent part of that existence. In other words, one’s being minus his or her physical body. As souls, we perceive, reason, feel, imagine, hope, grieve, and carry out other immaterial activities as well as those that require the body. The soul can exist apart from the body but I don’t think the body can exist apart from the soul. I think of many higher animals as “soulish,” which is in some sense analogous to the souls of humans. I believe that the soul is immortal for human beings created in God’s image.


Works for me.

Pretty similar here except that I’d specify that a soul emerges from a person’s total mind/body being, just as does every other aspect of cognition.

I suppose you could say that is sort of what happens in sleep. There is immaterial or psychic activity happening (albeit very much dependent upon the necessary physical correlates), but the agency of the dreamer does not involve use of the body in the usual way. But I think it is way too early to suggest that a soul may literally exist apart from the body/mind of the person from which it emerges. I’m unaware of any studies to that effect, and I hope we are both skeptical of NDE’s.

And I don’t.

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Doesn’t the link you provide to the story about the man with major brain damage indicate that the soul can also operate quite well despite considerable trauma to the gray matter?

This interview has some really cool points about that matter:

Even though Galen is defending panpsychism in the video, the arguments he uses are the main reason why I believe in some degree of dualism (that is, that the soul is an actual separate entity from the brain), he even discusses that he agrees that dualism is less absurd than radical emergence in his opinion (which I agree). Since radical emergence seems so implausible to me, I favor dualism. I do think, though, that the “soul” probably uses the physical structure of the brain as some kind of “storage” space, in which our memories and most likely even our personalities are stored, which is why even though I do believe that our consciousness at its more fundamental level probably survives death, if there are no additional mechanisms or divine action, it is very unlikely that we would retain our memories or personality (which of course opens the philosophical discussion of whether that thing that remains could still be called “you”). The christian view of the bodily resurrection is one possible mechanism (that requires divine action, of course), in which attaching that “thing” to a identical brain would restore “you”, but then again, that does require belief in divine action, and therefore it is not a really compelling argument if you are an atheist. I do still mantain, though, that even in a physicalist or atheist worldview, it is still plausible (more plausible actually in my opinion) to believe that something of our identity survives death.

EDIT: That is actually why I don’t buy much of NDE’s, even if your soul experienced all sorts of weird things while out of your body, if it returned to your body, with your brain with your memories, you would not remember anything. Unless the “disembodied” memory is somehow transfered to the brain, but what would be the mechanism for that? It may exist, but it is not something I would buy without very good evidence. @MarkD

I am inclined to think the flesh of the brain is designed to CHANNEL our biological selves to our theological selves… our soul.


Aren’t you conflating consciousness with personality and behavior? It can also be referenced as subjective first person experience.

I’m a Christian, so I have faith that there is a soul–but I don’t know what that is. It seems to me that so many material things impair our consciousness and moral decision making ability that I don’t know if there is anything immaterial, separable from our chemical components, at all.

CS Lewis put it that Ramandu, the “star” in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader who appeared as a man, answered Eustace’ protest that “in our world, stars are great, flaming balls of gas,” “Even in your world, that is only what they are made of, not what they are.” (or something to that effect). The implication is that the identity is greater than the sum of its parts.

Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, said that we really only find ourselves when we run up against God’s law. Richard Mouw - Confessions of an Evangelical Pietist (Interview 1/3) - YouTube. I think @markd’ s impression is that we find our morality and God likeness in our relationship with others (which for many implies a moral relationship with a Lawgiver).

So does the soul constitute not just the chemicals of which we are made, but also how our sum total relates to the system around us, including our fellow creatures and God?

If that’s the case, like the Sadducees, I think from my perspective, even if I do not continue to exist beyond death, it’s enough to have existed with God and other creatures (my family and the rest of the world) giving definition. But the idea of God’s existence makes me think that there is an eternity available. And, I’m willing to believe that that exists beyond what I can analyze.

And there’s another angle to this–a life beyond the grave gives possibility to the finality of justice, which we never will get (or give) in this life.

Edit–I guess that makes this a possibly Aristotelian view, but with God in mind; so that kind of broadens it. Interesting!


I’ve got to say that really seems unlikely to me. Every creature has some kind of cognitive capacity. Would we expect that each one of them channels a signal from somewhere else? That would just seem like such an unnecessary step. If on board wiring is good enough for coelenterates to know when to move toward or away from the light, why would it ever become necessary as cognition becomes more multi-faceted for any creature to receive a signal from elsewhere? But I don’t have a great argument for why anyone should agree with me, pretty much all I have is my incredulity toward what would seem to me to be quite the Rube Goldberg arrangement.

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I think cognitive capacity is something a neural organ is quite suited to provide.

That which is the soul is almost certainly locatable OUTSIDE the brain. The brain certainly intermediates.

But what is the core of the psyche, the soul, is not likely a biological output!

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Perhaps, but at the same time it describes some theories as to how consciousness could proceed on its own in a brain damaged over time. By the way there’s almost an aside at the end (which probably should have been given more prominence) that the man’s brain matter may have been compressed to some degree rather than degraded.

I don’t see how you can separate those things from consciousness if we’re talking about souls.

Any support for that assertion? I conceded that incredulity is all I have to offer as to why I reject the brain-as-receiver theory. Are you saying it’s the same for you in reverse?


The soul is a religious idea, yes. If you think God delivers souls… it more or less means ot exists WITHOUT the benefit of a brain.

The brain becomes a vessel? Or a pipeline?

The Pharisaic view of resurrection is that you need a body to be resurrected. But the Essenes believed in post-death migration of the Soul. Obviously the brain must fill a different roll for the Essenes… even if they didnt know exactly what the brain was.

The Egyptians thought the brain was worthless… it was discarded. But the intestines were preserved!


But if you want SCIENCE mixed with your soul… i dont think theres much to offer in that regard.

I have a gut feeling that something is wrong with that. I think that Mark Lowery said, instead of you break my heart, “you moooove me, baby!”

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I don’t understand the point you are making. According to the Egyptians, the brain was considered the slimy organ that made spit, post-nasal drip and reproductive fluids. The heart and the liver were the seats of the mind and/or soul.

It was a pun. Sorry for the low quality.

Oh I’m sure it was of the highest quality punnage … I just don’t get it.