What is the soul?

(Randy) #21

Sorry. I think it was supposed to be “gut” feelings–and Mark Lowery is a Christian humorist with the Gaithers who was musing that if he was an ancient Israelite who tried to say to his girlfriend that he loved her in his heart, he would say that she moved his bowels–so, “you move me, Baby.” I guess I was erroneously conflating the Egyptian ambivalence with the Israelite “bowels of compassion” view about intestines. Sorry. that fell flat. I was wrong. I’ll work on a better pun later. :slight_smile:

Good night.

(George Brooks) #22

I don’t think you should claim error… an Egyptian probably would have laughed pretty hard.

But not being a Good Egyptian… I didn’t have access to those associations…

(GJDS) #23

The soul as I understand the Christian faith, is the totality of each person as know by God. In this context, just as God wills that all should be offered salvation, all humans are souls before God. The actualisation of souls is typified by the resurrection of Christ. Thus all who accept salvation will share in the resurrection. Until then, we are all subject to death, as our natural course in this life.

(John Dalton) #24

I got it! I know an Egyptian if that maybe matters.


If we are talking about a more popular concept of a soul (I.E. like we see being represented in movies, as a literal ethereal body identical to the living person), then you are right. But if what we are discussing is “is there something “more” to consciousness other than the physical?”, then the hard problem of consciousness kicks in.


There is the duplication problem. If the configuration of the atoms in your brain is all there is to your consciousness, then why conciousness is attached to a single perspective? If I vaporized you and then recreated the exact same pattern with other atoms would your consciousness be restored? But I do agree that my concept of a soul is probably very different from George’s, as I give much more credit to the brain. The thing is, I believe there is a “oneness” quality to ou consciousness that seems to be just logically impossible to attribute to the brain. That could be considered personal incredulity to some degree, but when we have a huge paradox, that usually means we don’t have the right answer yet, and the “conciousness is entirely physical” hypothesis generates tons of them.

(Randy) #27

Can you walk like an Egyptian, too :)?
Thanks for the accommodation :slight_smile:

(John Dalton) #28

What we’re really discussing though is "does consciousness depend on the physical, and if not does that imply that people have “souls”. Maybe that’s similar, but still a little different. Do you think a soul could equate to a strict interpretation of consciousness, divorced of personality etc.? If God could have imparted (strict) consciousness to us or not seems like a somewhat different question than if a soul exists.

(Mark D.) #29

I wonder if you could say more about this “oneness” quality you attribute to consciousness.

Also I think saying consciousness emerges from the physical is very far from saying it is entirely physical. Life too is physical with the physiological emerging from the chemical. But that isn’t to say that life is entirely simple chemistry. In the case of consciousness what we call our inner, subjective experience is in some sense the best exemplar of something that is the counter part of the objective, out-there physical world.

Cognition is present in some form or other in nearly all life forms. It is supported by brains for many of them. I think consciousness is essentially the first person, perspective of self aware cognition.

Please bear with me for posting this in such a rough form but I do need to get ready to go to the Y for a class in one hour now. Maybe I can set it straight later.


Substance dualism imply souls, and it is one of the candidate explanations for consciousness. Granted, it is not the more accepted one, and there are other candidates like emergence, dual aspect monism, panpsyhcism, etc. But it is still relevant to the discussion.


We experience the world in a first person perspective. If I was in a room with 100 exact atom-by-atom copies of myself, I would still be seing the room through my eyes, not theirs. To outside observers, there would be absolutely no difference between the 101 “mes” in the room, but through my own perspective, there would only be one, no matter how many identical brain processes were occurring.

As a biochemister, I do in fact believe that life is all chemistry. It is just that describing the precise movements of every single atom, electron, etc to describe something like a cell secreting insulin is already incredibly complex (although some people do have some interesting works modeling those things), so it would be just too absurdly complex for our human brains to model the entire physiology of the body in those terms, so we simplify things by describing them with other terms. Biology is basically just that, and the same goes for chemistry in relation to physics. In that sense, consciousness would be entirely physical if it emerged from the physical.

Yeah, but cognition does not explain consciousness, we could be philosophical zombies.

(Mitchell W McKain) #32

I am not a big fan of the word “soul,” the meaning of which is ambigious at best. I prefer the word “spirit” which Paul does a good job of explaining in 1 Cor 15. It describes an existence which is not a part of the space-time mathematical laws of the universe and is thus imperishable, more powerful (not limited by the laws of nature) and not made of the same of the same stuff (molecules, atoms, and particles). Paul also says that the spirit comes after the physical, and I believe the spirit is the creation of the free-will choices of all living things.

But not only is the highly quantitative nature of life going to make a difference in the spiritual aspect of different living organisms (species and individuals), but I believe that living organism which is most alive on this planet by many orders of magnitude is the human mind, which I believe to be a physical living organism (self-organizing entity) in its own right. Thus the human spirit is far more alive and substantial, but since the human mind passes on its inheritance by communication then some of this may rub off on animals with whom we associate.

I am not a fan of most of Plato’s ideas which are strongly tied which Gnosticism. I am much more a fan of Aristotle but of course He definitely got some things (like gravity) completely wrong.

I am a virtue ethicist also – one of the things Aristotle got right. As for being an Aristotelian… I thought he was way ahead of his time with an organic philosophy which had a greater understanding of living things than other Greek philosophers. But I never accept any philosopher or theology without criticism.

I think consciousness is a property of life, but the question of whether the mind can be separated from the body is an interesting one. I certainly think they are conceptually distinct and thus separable in principle, but whether this can actually be done is another question entirely. The existence of the spirit is not the same thing. And the one thing the discoveries of science cannot support is the idea of a nonphysical puppet master operating the body. I would see the phenomenon you mention as having to do with the mind being more than simply a function of the brain, and more like something that lives in the brain. But you have it a little wrong. How much of the brain matter survives does have a considerable impact (studies show significant correlation there) – it is just that a lot of the abilities of the mind do seem to be somewhat transferable to different parts of the brain – possible anyway but not guaranteed.

P.S. and the posted article may simply indicate that it is the brain surface rather than interior which is the most important part.

(Mark D.) #33

That surprises me a little given what you said earlier about placing more importance on the brain. I guess you don’t think the soul plays any functional role in our physiology. Are thoughts also explained entirely by way of chemistry? I myself think thoughts, dreams and every other kind of mental activity is entirely made possible by chemistry.

(Mitchell W McKain) #34

Perhaps it is because I am a physicist that I believe life is more of a mathematical process – that is a process with a mathematical description which can occur in many different mediums of which chemistry is only one. To be more specific, we would use the mathematics of chaotic dynamics to describe a self-organizing process which has gained the capacity to learn and adapt (alter itself in response to the environment).

In particular I think life is possible in an electronic medium. And I don’t think it is the chemistry that makes something alive. Perhaps one day soon we will use the same biochemistry of life to design machines similar to viruses for a variety of tasks and I do not thing those should be described as being alive, while I do think that viruses should be described as alive at a very low level.

And for another example, I believe that the human mind is example of life in a different medium – using the abstract symbolism of human language rather than that of DNA – meme life rather than gene live.


What aspect of life you think can’t be explained by chemistry?


I believe a philosophical zombie, identical to any living being on the outside, would be 100% possible to explain by chemistry/physics, and there would be no mistery about it no matter how complex his congnitive processes were. It is the existence of subjective experience associated with these processes that surprises me and make me skeptical of a physicalist explanation.

(Mitchell W McKain) #37

Didn’t say that. Basically I am saying that I don’t think chemistry is necessary for the explanation of life not that it cannot explain life. And more importantly that life is not necessarily limited to the medium of chemical interactions. But then I already explained this and you ignored it, so I guess this is simply something you don’t want to hear.

It is in fact you who do not believe that chemistry is sufficient to explain life. At least that is the implication of your declaration of belief in a philosophical zombie – something physically and materially identical to a living being but not alive. I do not believe in philosophical zombies, for think that life most certainly is a physical phenomenon. Non-physical puppet masters are neither required nor consistent with scientific findings.

As a Christian, I do believe in a spiritual aspect to existence. But in my thinking it has a largely epiphenomenal relationship to living things. In other words, a living organism creates a spiritual entity with the free will choices it makes, but that spiritual entity does not control the organism. I don’t think the findings of science allow any other conclusion.


Sorry, I was not trying to accuse you of anything. It is just that I know physicists with some unorthodox metaphysical views about consciousness (like thinking that at matter is information being processed by a universal mind), so I just wanted to clarify if you were claiming something like that (I.E. saying that the explanation for life or consciousness is more fundamental than chemistry, and not emergent from it).

Philosophical zombies would be alive, at least as much as a plant or a microbe. Consciousness or even brains are not required for life. I also don’t think that they would spend all their time vegetating because they would have no consciousness to “move” them. Just that their physiological reactions and thoughts would not be accompanied by subject experience.

Science can’t distinguish between a philosophical zombie and a “normal” person, because there is no apparatus to measure subjective experience. We can measure its correlates at best. So it is expected that it is not required for scientific experiments, even in neuroscience. The orbit of Jupiter is not necessary to explain DNA replication, but it would be fallacious to claim that it somehow suggests that Jupiter does not exist or does not orbit around the sun. I don’t see why it would not be consistent, though.

Would it be fair to say that you defend emergentism them?

And why do you think science is inconsistent with dualism? Keep in mind that I do concede that storage of memories and at least a big part if not all of your personality is probably attributed to the brain (which is why a philosophical zombie would be completely indistinguishable from a normal human being from the outside).


To be more clear about my position. I believe the soul to be a expectator to a movie being played by the brain. How much control we have over what happens in the movie (if any), however, is something I’m completely agnostic about. The difference between my view and epiphenomenalism is just that I think the soul and the brain are separate entities, and therefore that the soul does not cease to exist when the brain does. That is why a complete copy of me would not be “me”, unless my soul was also attached to it.

(Mitchell W McKain) #40

No I do not believe matter is information being processed by a universal mind – and no, I do not believe the explanation for life or consciousness is more fundamental than chemistry. I spoke of a mathematical description of a physical process for life and I believe consciousness arises directly although quantitatively from that process. In any case, I go with the consensus in regards to physics and most of science for that matter.

For me life and consciousness are pretty much the same thing. So I do not believe in philosophical zombies because both life and consciousness are a matter of physical processes, and if these are identical then it has life and consciousness.

If science cannot distinguish a difference it is because there is no difference. We cannot measure the subjective experience directly but the subjective experience has measurable effects. I have no doubt we can design a machine which therefore has no conscious experience but only imitates what we do as a product of software design. But I believe a modified Turing test can detect the difference (the tester is allowed as much time as the designed had in making the imitation). And I think there are other ways in which science can detect the difference.

I didn’t say that non-physical puppet masters are not consistent with science BECAUSE they are not required for explanation. The connector was AND. It is not consistent with numerous scientific findings such as the way physical interference with the brain can alter every aspect of the human experience.

In philosophy, emergentism is the belief in emergence, particularly as it involves consciousness and the philosophy of mind, and as it contrasts (or not) with reductionism.

According to this Wikipedia definition, yes and no. I don’t think it just appears as a product of complexity. I think it is a direct quantitative product of the self-organizanizing life process – a process which is greatly faster and broader in scope in the case of the human mind, which as I explained, is something I believe to be a physical living organism in its own right, but in a different medium than the medium of biological life.

This approach has all the advantage of both physicalism in resolving the mind-body problem and with the effective dualism for explaining the dualistic nature of our experiences.

The problem with dualism is that is simply inferior to monism in the ability to explain things. This is shown in the repeated success of science in explaining so much: water, steam, and ice as three phases of a single molecular substance; hundreds of elements as combinations of the same particles; matter, heat, motion, light and sound as different forms of the same quantity, energy. Thus the monistic explanation of mind and body as two different living organisms in the same system of space-time mathematical laws, not only explains the inter-reaction between mind and body but also how they are different. They have a different set of needs/desires and a different means of passing on an inheritance to the next generation via human communication rather than DNA – meme life rather than gene life.

The nonphysical puppet master idea of the mind is inconsistent with the findings of science because every human experience is found to be dependent on operations in the brain – and this includes all the effects of subjective experience as much as anything else. It doesn’t mean that you cannot believe in a nonphysical entity being there, and in fact I do. It is just that it can be complained that it looks a great deal like Carl Sagan’s dragon in the garage.

However in the case of Carl Sagan’s dragon, we can say the reality of the dragon (God) is in the fact it is quite capable of biting you if it chooses to do so. The problem is if you claim the dragon will always bite you whenever you come near. And that is essentially what you are claiming when you make your non-physical entity something which operates the body like a puppet master.

Ah well in that case our views may be more similar than I first thought. I do not think the spirit is an emanation of the physical but rather a creation of the physical after which it has an independent existence. The point in saying the relationship was mostly epi-phenomenal was simply to say that nearly all the causality goes one way from the physical to the spiritual.

Oh and I did not say that a physical copy of me would be me. I simply said that I don’t believe in philosophical zombies. One reason is that I don’t think something physically identical would not be conscious. But I also don’t believe that ends can be separable from the means. In other words, the only way to get something exactly like me would be for it to be born and grow exactly as I have done during which it would create its own spirit.

I guess this means I don’t believe in Star Trek transporters either.