What use is the idea of soul? What is a soul like?

“If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, it’ll be hard to argue that people have or need a soul. So is the idea of a soul a redundant idea now that science has made us see it as a superstition or are we turning our backs on something important just because we can’t satisfy demands for precision and are we in fact making a category mistake?”

He then presents the two questions he will address which form this post’s title. He thinks he has an answer to the first but is less certain of what he can say about the second. One suggestion I found thought provoking was the idea that the soul is no so much an object of knowledge as it is a way of knowing objects or of knowing knowledge.

Like myself, Dr. McGilchrist approaches these questions naturalistically but argues that the idea of soul is useful and important for humans to grasp and I agree for similar reasons.

This excerpt is less than 25 minutes long but pretty condensed. I found I needed to stop it at several points to let it sink in.

To me, it offers an inroad into better understanding an important idea within Christianity. For Christians, it may suggest some ways of talking about the soul which may keep a non-believer from brushing it aside so hastily. (Good luck with that. I find that second part very hard to do with on-line atheists who’ve managed to leave behind their fundamentalist religion but are still stuck with a fundamentalist mind set.

I would relish the opportunity to discuss this more with anyone interested.


Hi Mark. I watched the video (thanks for posting it!) and you’re certainly right about how much Dr. McGilchrist packs into a 25 minute lecture. He gives us many excellent ways of talking about the soul, but, of course, is careful to point out that all our words and metaphors really fall short of expressing the soul.

I agree with pretty much everything he says and the rich quotes from philosophers and playwrights that he offers. I do feel the inner reality of the soul is so complex that single perspectives – that is, single authors, single quotes, single religious teachings – don’t have enough “eyes or ears” to capture the immensity of the topic. But when we blend together many different voices, as Dr. McGilchrist has done in his lecture, we start to have a sense of the multivalent richness of the soul.

You need a choir to express the soul, which, as Dr. McGilchrist says, is deeper and more transcendent than thinking or morality or emotions or imagination. The soul thinks, but isn’t just thought. The soul has a moral code, but isn’t just laws. The soul feels, but isn’t pure emotion.The soul imagines, dreams, hopes, inspires, but is also an embodiment of imagination. The soul is the whole self.

I thought of you, Mark, at about the 12:00 minute mark, when Dr. McGilchrist talks about instinct and intuition, and how we mustn’t cut out instinct and intuition from the notion of the soul “in order to make it [i.e. the soul] noble.” I couldn’t agree more.

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Soul is poetry. I know if I watch this I’ll only be disappointed. He can say absolutely nothing, no matter how deep, no matter how rhetorically cogent, how appealing, that is more than poetically, yearningly true. A generation and more ago then Dr. now Sir Jonathan Miller, a great British Jewish atheist Renaissance man, quoted somebody else as I recall, saying that to think that a bag of enzymes can think that it is a bag of enzymes is…

A soul is like us. A soul is each of us. We are souls. Nothing less. And nothing more. It’s a synonym for person.

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I was surprised but delighted by the number of times he quoted James Hillman since it was when I was reading Hillman that I first gained an appreciation for the word soul and found it an important (essential really) addition for my vocabulary. There isn’t even one citation from Hillman in Dr. McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary since they really are simpatico. I think both would agree that the effort to contain the soul in words is an exercise in tail chasing. It simply cannot be held up as an object by the rational mind.

So glad you watched and liked it too. I’m just awake and owe my wife some help preparing for a guest. But then I’ll be back and probably listen to record the Hillman quotes in particular.

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I don’t think so. I’d say his approach is poetic. He cites actual poets and writers mostly. I suspect what he has to say would be right up your alley. I’d say he approaches soul in a way that makes atheism beside the point, which is fine with me.

While in general I don’t like the word “soul” and prefer the word “spirit” particularly in understanding Christianity, I will certainly acknowledge that the word “soul” serves a useful purpose in our language.

Definition of soul (Entry 1 of 2)
1: the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life
2a: the spiritual principle embodied in human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe
bcapitalized, Christian Science : GOD sense 1b
3: a person’s total self
4a: an active or essential part
b: a moving spirit : LEADER
5a: the moral and emotional nature of human beings
b: the quality that arouses emotion and sentiment
c: spiritual or moral force : FERVOR
not a soul in sight
she is the soul of integrity
8a: a strong positive feeling (as of intense sensitivity and emotional fervor) conveyed especially by African American performers
b: cultural consciousness and pride among people of African heritage

But then I would be discarding some of this, particularly number 1 as something which simply does not exist. I do not believe we are animated by something non-physical. However to boil the rest of it down to an essence… the most important part of us which makes us a human person worthy of respect and regard. So we say that some people have become a soul-less monster or that someone or something is the soul of particular good activity because it provides the inspiration and humanity of that activity. This may not be some nonphysical animating entity but a collection of various other things like an empathy for other human beings, but the word serves a purpose.

That’s a recommendation MarkD, thanks.

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He’s right on Solaris! And Wittgenstein, twice. It is embodied. Very good.

Mitchell, it is interesting following on listening again to the video that you reveal a preference for the word spirit over the word soul. Before I read Hillman I would have said the same. But in one of his books he specifically contrasted the two. He said something like the quest for spirit being about the quest for the mountain tops where all can be seen below. It is about mastery and domination, putting oneself above the fray. But dark, thickly grown low places is where you’ll find our embodied souls. The vale of the soul. Here is where you go to be with your soul, the mountain top is where you can hold it and every other thing up at a safe arm’s distance for inspection. No risk involved but also no actual contact. One can keep their vision free of feeling and emotions on the mountain top, no worry of being pulled down into you know not what.

But as McGilchrist says between 17:50 and 18:53, when you’re dealing with topics which cannot be reduced to a concept making things more explicit doesn’t actually make them easier to understand but rather runs the risk of missing what you set out to understand altogether. I’m no good at transcription but I wonder if you had a reaction to that segment?

I think you really like to keep things on an intellectual level so this has got to be at least a little uncomfortable for you to listen to. But thanks for giving it a chance. I feel like I started much more inclined toward the intellectual and spiritual, and so I have a lot of empathy for your POV. But fortunately I found the mountain top too isolated and the intellectual separated from depth of feeling untenable so I’ve been forced to grow some soul in that direction. (No regrets yet.)

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Well between you and Iain what choice do I have but make watching Solaris my homework?

None! I’ve only seen it three times. Not enough!

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But some choices I make move me more inline with soul and some further away. I would be over reaching to claim to be synonymous with my soul.

Okay almost time for the guest to arrive. Got to run now.


Genius! Where can I send your medal?

It depends what it is made of. :slightly_smiling_face:

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And nowadays it’s become a kind of embarrassment to talk about the soul; and yet until now it has been central to most cultures. The word has disappeared. And language is an aspect of reality. If it’s true, as Wittgenstein said, that philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by language, making something disappear by language could bewitch us into thinking it didn’t exist.

I liked this turn of phrase as it answers some of my atheist critics who think I’m soft as well as daft. Unfortunately most of them have little enough regard for Wittgenstein either, viewing his work along with the rest of philosophy as pertinent to those seeking work in the fast food industry … on the frontline. Looks like I can’t cite a subtle work to make a subtle point to someone who will only see black and white.

Sorry about the lenght but I had to cover the issues. I hate incomplete work.

I watched the video and found it poetic and some things quite cogent from a scientific point of view. When he talked about knowing. It reminded me of Peierls view of Quantum:

" The moment at which you can throw away one possibility and keep only the other is when you finally become conscious of the fact that the experiment has given one result … You see, the quantum mechanical description is in terms of knowledge, and knowledge requires somebody who knows. " Rudolf Peierls, in P. C. W. Davies and Julian Brown, The Ghost in the Atom, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) p.74

We know something to be true in a way that, to paraphrase what Klax said, a bag of transisters can’t. Because of the things below, I must disagree with your statement that the soul can not be held up as an object by the rational mind. It can. Consider Searles Chinese room, if I recall correctly you knew Searles? or was it someone else?

You are sitting in a room with a book of rules for responding to various sequences of Chinese symbols. You don’t know Chinese. Searles then points out, in relation to artificial intelligence:

I get small bunches of Chinese symbols passed to me (questions in Chinese), and I look up in a rule book (the program) what I am supposed to do. I perform certain operations on the symbols in accordance with the rules (that is, I carry out the steps in the program) and give back small bunches of symbols (answers to the questions) to those outside the room. I am the computer implementing a program for answering questions in Chinese, but all the same I do not understand a word of Chinese. And this is the point: if I do not understand Chinese solely on the basis of implementing a computer program for understanding Chinese, then neither does any other digital computer solely on that basis, because no digital computer has anything I do not have.” John R. Searles, “Consciousness as a Biological Problem,” in John R. Searles, The Mystery of Consciousness, (New York: A New York Review Book, 1997), p.11

The difference between the bag of transistors and the bag of enzymes is that when I learned Chinese, I have the qualia, the internal experience of KNOWING Chinese. When I didn’t know Chinese, or when I am trying to learn a new subject in Chinese, I have to use the dictionary all the time. Knowing Chinese allows me to know the meaning of the sentence. It is the qualia, that science can’t explain. It is called the hard problem

And this is our central quandary. Either we believe in a nonmaterial soul that lives outside the laws of physics, which amounts to a nonscientific belief in magic, or we reject that idea, in which case the eternally beckoning question “”'hat could ever make a mere physical pattern be me?" - the question that philosopher David Chalmers has seductively and successfully nicknamed “The Hard Problem” - seems just as far from having an answer today (or, for that matter, at any time in the future) as it was many centuries ago.” Douglas Hofstadter, I am a Strange Loop, (New York: Basic Books, 2007), p.360-361

Given the pejorative used in his consensus view of the non-existence of the soul, and knowing that one doesn’t look for what one doesn’t believe exists, it is no surprise that Hofstadter calls the soul magic and decides in his book that the soul doesn’t exist. Materialism, after all IS the consensus view of both Christians and atheists today.

Why do we experience consciousness at all? Nothing in any objective scientific theory of physics or information accounts for the subjective qualities of our otherwise empirically measurable experiences. In the integrated information theory proposed by Giullo Tononi, consciousness is what information feels like when it reaches a certain level of sophistication, But the fact of that feeling has no underpinning. That is the hard problem.” Guy Inchbald, New Scientist, July 13, 2019, p. 24

Calling consciousness an epiphenomenon of the brain is not an explanation. It is like doctors calling my narrowed spinal column of a few weeks ago, a ‘stenosis’ which in Greek means narrow. lol. Epiphenomenon, like stenosis sounds so ‘scientific’ as if it is an explanation.

Searles writes:
Even for a system of whose qualia I have near-perfect knowledge, myself for example, the problem of qualia is serious. It is this: How is it possible for physical, objective, quantitatively describable neuron firings to cause qualitative, private, subjective experiences? How, to put it naively, does the brain get us over the hump from electrochemistry to feeling? That is the hard part of the mind-body problem that is left over after we see that consciousness must be caused by brain processes and is itself a feature of the brain.” John R. Searles, “Francis Crick, the Binding Problem, and the Hypothesis of Forty Hertz,” in John R. Searles, The Mystery of Consciousness, (New York: A New York Review Book, 1997), p. 28

Our consciousness is subjective, but science is objective. So I think it is a mistake to think the soul can’t be held up by the rational mind. Especially if one looks at quantum mechanics.

Physics is supposed to be out there, separate from human consciousness or the human observer. It is supposed to be objective and never involve the subjective. But quantum requires the subjective to be involved as the observer. The subjective observer says what happens in quantum experiments. I have used this before but as you re-read it ask how can the subjective observer determine what happened 2 billion years ago?

Theoretical physicist John Wheeler further elucidates the role of the observer with what are called “delayed-choice” thought experiments. (See Fig. 2.)

" Wheeler noted that it is possible to devise a double slit experiment at the cosmic level using light coming from quasars and a galaxy which operates as a gravitational lens on the way to Earth, bending the light inwardly as it passes by massive objects (as predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity). This light would generate an interference pattern showing that light has travelled as waves. But if a measurement would be performed before the screen on which the interference pattern takes form, the pattern would dissolve and the photons would change from waves into particles. In other words, our choice on how to measure the light coming from a quasar influences the nature of the light emitted 10 billion years ago. According to Wheeler, this experiment would show that ‘retrocausal effects operate at the quantum level. " 13

The light’s passage by the massive light-bending galaxy occurred long before there were any people or multicellular life on earth. Yet our decision today determines what happened to that light 2 billion years ago. To paraphrase Weinberg and Wigner, “Human beings are in the cookie jar at the beginning of the laws of QM.” Matter is obeying consciousness. Matter, at its most fundamental level, is NOT master of consciousness; consciousness is master of the matter! https://themigrantmind.blogspot.com/2019/05/quantum-soul.html

Steven Weinberg, a hard-core atheist, admitted that quantum can not be formulated in a way that avoids consciousness. I will take his and Wigner’s view as authoritative, although I too have gone through as many interpretations of quantum as I can find and in every one of them I know how consciousness becomes involved, even in those that claim to avoid the problem.

" Fundamentally, I have an ideal of what a physical theory should be. It should be something that doesn’t refer in any specific way to human beings. It should be something from which everything else–including anything you can say systematically about chemistry, or biology, or human affairs–can be derived. It shouldn’t have human beings at the beginning in the laws of nature. And yet, I don’t see any way of formulating quantum mechanics without an interpretative postulate that refers to what happens when people choose to measure one thing or another. " Steven Weinberg cited by Tim Folger, How Does the Quantum World Cross Over?, Scientific American, July 2018, p. 32

This has led me and others like Stephen M Barr and Euan Squires, to conclude that the soul is not subject to the laws of physics:

A careful analysis of the logical structure of quantum theory suggests that for quantum theory to make sense it has to posit the existence of observers who lie, at least in part, outside of the description provided by physics.” Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), p. 27-28

Elizabeth was eldest daughter of the “Winter-King” Frederick of Bohemia.

One problem, in particular, troubled her: she failed to comprehend in what way the thinking soul could possibly influence the body which was not thinking.

"Elizabeth’s problem remains as a basic difficulty with dualism. How can we understand the ‘connection’ between the mental substance and the physical body? It seems obvious that there has to be such a connection. In particular, it is surely reasonable to say that our conscious minds are affected by what happens in the physical world, i.e. by our sensual experiences.

"Returning to more reasonable ideas, we accept that the physical world has an effect upon the mental. Although it is perhaps hard to see how this might come about, it does not cause any major difficulties, essentially because we have no laws to describe the behaviour of the mental substance. However, it is natural to suppose that there is also an influence going the other way. We are conscious of the desire to do something and can translate that desire into the particular action. This again is how things appear to be. Thus the mental substance can affect the physical." Euan Squires Conscious Mind in the Physical World, (New York: Adam Hilger, 1990), p. 85-86

In this last, while we may not understand the connection, Squires answers Elizabeth’s problem. The mental thought that ‘I need milk’, can be translated by my mind into bodily action that drives me to the store in my car where I purchase milk.

But more than that, the human mind affects the behavior of quantum particles which are not inside the body, not necessarily near their body and it affects how the particles behaved in the past, not just in the here and now. What is the connection? I don’t know, but I know that the connection works both ways.

Speaking of the wavefunction of the universe in Quantum Cosmology (there is a wave function that describes everything in existence), Squires points out that it becomes clear that some observer totally external to the system must be considered, or, leave the measurement problem unsolved.

…because of quantum correlations it is true to say that the only wavefunction that can be claimed to exist as part of physical reality, and not just an approximation, is the wavefunction that contains everything, i.e., the wavefunction of the universe.
"An immediate concern in quantum cosmology is that there can be no question of having an outside observer, external to the system, which can be described by classical physics and hence can provide at least a pseudo-solution to the measurement problem. By construction, there is now nothing outside the system being considered, so the measurement problem cannot be avoided. I am not aware of any attempts that have been made to apply the explicit collapse mechanisms to quantum cosmology,and although some interesting results have been obtained using the Bohm model, this is only just beginning to be taken seriously, hence most quantum cosmologists use a version of the many-worlds interpretation, even if without admitting this fact!” Euan Squires, The Mystery of the Quantum World, 2nd ed., (Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1994), p. 142-143

Such a consciousness could only be God, or called a God, and he can’t be made of matter from our universe, so something non-physical must exist, be it a spiritual God or a spiritual soul. And thus, the rational mind can apprehend the existence if not the qualities of the soul.

One more item, I discussed this with a doctor I saw 2 weeks ago. there apparently is no site in the body which can be said to be the executive center of consciousness. we know where arousal takes place and we know what is active when we are aware, but no one site seems to be the control center, the ‘executive function’. She agreed that that was the case. We obviously have one or consciousness couldn’t exist. Does it exist outside our universe, outside the laws of physics?

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Thank you for your effort to share your insight into QM. I’m afraid most of it is opaque to me.

But yes I knew Searles from attending a graduate seminar he was giving as a senior. So I heard the Chinese room argument from the horse’s mouth and was convinced of its relevance immediately. All the old talk around the Turing test for the presence of consciousness was silly.

In the quote I pulled from the transcript which Dale shared, just above your post, I thought he makes a good argument for the importance of not dismissing “soul” for superficial reasons owing to assumptions about how neuroscience obviates the need for the word. As he goes on to say it is a category error since soul, to the degree we can speak of it as an object at all, is a phenomenal object of first person experience. Science doesn’t yet and -as I take it you agree- probably never will be a tool that can make such a determination.

Thanks for taking the time to respond. I hope you are feeling well and I hope very selfishly to enjoy hearing more of your thoughts on these kinds of things. As a non-Christian it has seemed to me that Christianity could do more to place some of its better insights into a broader cultural ‘market’. Rather than sell it as an all or nothing package, let each tenet have a go at impacting a broader audience. That reminds me of the speaker’s joke regarding meeting God half way by buying a ticket when he prays to win the lottery - something I’ve never done.

There is some truth to what you say but only SOME. And voicing my objection to what you say and the speaker in the video is not going to be an easy task because there are many dimensions to it. I guess I am even going to have to resort to a few metaphors. LOL

First of all, my principle objection to the soul idea is that it is tied to antiquated pre-science thinking of living things being animated by some non-physical stuff or thing. But science simply does not support this idea of there being any life stuff or animating thing – life is all about self-organizing processes. Nevertheless to the speaker’s starting question, “what use is the soul as an idea?” I have voiced a considerable affirmative. Just because the root idea from which it was derived must be abandoned as antiquated nonsense doesn’t mean that all the things which the idea has grown to encompass has no value.

What is my reaction to this imagery of contrasting the mountain tops where all can be seen to the dark thickly grown low places? Well I would compare it to the contrast between sobriety and a drunken stupor. To be sure, the state of sobriety insists on self-control while the drunken stupor lets go of it, but in doing so it dives into such muddle, morass, and irresponsibility that it often becomes more domineering and controlling of others. I may like the taste of a few alcoholic beverages but never liked the effect of alcohol – like I have told my son, greater stupidity is not a state to which I have ever aspired. In that context, this rhetoric about “no risk but no contact” sounds like a rather atrocious excuse for drug abuse which I think is absolute nonsense. There are plenty risks and contact in life without abandoning self-control in drunken stupors and tripping on drugs. Perhaps, my loner and intellectual inclinations have never left me so desperate for contact that I would shoot myself in head like that. To be sure it has made those few experiences I have had of love and the divine seem quite miraculous and life transforming, but I can only give thanks that these haven’t inspired such desperation for more.

Furthermore, talk of such things certainly does not make me uncomfortable because I have never indulged in the delusion that logic, reason, science, understanding, the mountain tops, and all that are the limits of reality. I know very well their limitations and that is the way the reality can be incorporated into an intellectual treatment by acknowledging those limitations. I think much of it is also captured by my contrast between the objective observation which is the essence of science and the subjective participation which is required by life. AND there are many ways in which the subjective, non-intellectual, mystic, or soulful aspects of life can be explored in poetry and art without trying to cut reason and self-control from from your brain by something like drugs.

Oh and that hassidic idea of animal soul and divine soul sounds a great deal like my own contrast between the genetic inheritance we have in common with the animals contrasted with the memetic inheritance I believe that we have from God.

I also see in the speakers talk about spirituality being more about not-knowing than knowing as pointing to some dangers of intellectualism in spiritual matters. This was a good point. With science we have a way of not only testing our ideas but of constantly leading us to more questions with an end result that we have more questions than we started with. But in spiritual matters, by comparison, it is too easy to box ourselves into thinking we have all the answers already. Thus the speaker suggests that we can find more truth in mythos than by making things intellectually explicit. Bravo! This is well said. I doubt this is going to make me drink any kool-aid, as it were, and thus it is likely to simply get filed in the limitations section of my thinking.

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That reminds me of @gbob’s lottery ticket analogy in his Turkish translator experience.


One day he is at prayer, and God says to him, “Look, Samuel, meet me halfway – buy a ticket.”

And I feel there’s a deep spiritual truth in that, that we only get there if we are prepared to ‘buy a ticket’.

Many aren’t, having bowed the knee to philosophical naturalism.

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