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In modern times it is common to think the soul is a religious belief. Even though the original arguments for the soul were not religious (e.g. Plato and Aristotle, and more recently Descartes, Leibniz, and even more recently Thomas Nagel), we still think the scientific revolution somehow made the soul an incoherent idea.

Based on discussions, it seems there are a couple of key elements that make the soul outdated. First, we can pinpoint certain ways in which the brain influences how we think, feel, and perceive, and we can even read rudimentary thoughts from the brain. It is certainly the case that the brain is tied to mind states in some form or fashion.

Second, computers provide a compelling and mathematically precise model for how minds can be generated from brains. We have been able to replace many disciplines with computers which were thought restricted to human capabilities. Even much of our popular music today is largely computer-generated.

If this trend continues, then we could replace humans entirely with computers. If a computer is indistinguishable from a human, then even if such a thing as a soul does exist, a computationally simulated soul is good enough for most folks (see Tupac hologram).

Finally, disciplines that were considered primarily concerned with the soul, such as religion and the humanities, are becoming more and more irrelevant and counter to our modern way of life. Instead, we try to explain everything with science. If the soul isn't needed to understand our everyday lives, what does it matter?

Yet, given all these scientific, technical and social forces that are pushing the soul into irrelevance, they still do not amount to a secular disproof of the soul, insofar as we can talk of proofs and disproofs of such ideas.

So, is it possible to adapt the old-fashioned secular arguments for the soul to our modern times? Namely, that a non-material entity exerts top-down control on our bodies and cannot be explained scientifically.

Is there a modern, secular argument for the soul?

NOTE: By "secular" I mean evidence and lines of argument that are free from dependence on religious sources of authority, e.g. a scripture, a tradition, a teacher, etc. As I mentioned in a comment below, Plato's argument for the soul in Phaedo is secular because he does not rely on a religious authority.

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  • These are the closest questions I could find: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/721/…, philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/2903/…
    – yters
    Jun 12, 2014 at 1:03
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    Just a comment: "we could replace humans entirely with computers"... that's not so straightforward, and it is indeed a great area of debate (is the human brain computable?) Jun 12, 2014 at 12:26
  • Here is proof of the existence of the soul: youtube.com/watch?v=zqNTltOGh5c . Jun 12, 2014 at 13:41
  • As rubbish as I think much contemporary popular music is, it's not 'computer generated' in the sense you mean. The computers are used as tools and instruments, they still require a human to operate them in order to put together a piece of 'music'. There are computer programs that can produce music autonomously but pop music is not made this way.
    – Anentropic
    Jun 12, 2014 at 14:27
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    Regrettably, computers do not provide 'a compelling and mathematically precise model for how minds can be generated from brains'. Odd as it may seem, it has not been demonstrarted that brains are not generated by minds. .
    – user20253
    Apr 28, 2020 at 12:56

8 Answers 8

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I would think the modern version of the argument is the Aristotelian version of the argument.

Looking at your question, your first point seems to narrow the definition of soul in a way that is not necessary. There's no requirement in the definition of soul that it be untied to body/brain in its operation. What matters is that it would be distinct. That describes the soul for Descartes, but it doesn't describe it for Aristotle. To put it simply, there's no requirement that soul not operate on real physical hardware. Though proving that it does would undermine significantly Cartesian and Platonic understandings of the soul.

Your second point does matter more, but it is not necessarily identical to a proof against soul or mind. Again, the question is whether soul needs to be inexplicable and unreproduceable. Several non-religious people think that if you can produce something that has the same process as soul, then you've created something with a soul. And if you haven't accomplished the process, you haven't created soul. This is the gist of the view held by John Searle in his "Chinese Room Experiment."

Regarding your final point, I don't at all agree that the humanities are becoming less and less relevant. I would dispute that in two directions. First, I would wonder when they were ever relevant in some more significant way on a world scale. Second, I would suggest that the problems we face in our world need humanities approaches more than ever. If our lives are reducible to stock problems, then the problem is not that we have made humanities irrelevant but that we've reduced ourselves to irrelevance. If you want to skip that, then I would just say the evidence is not nearly so one-sided on this point.

I take it that the secular disproof of the soul would hinge on whether we mean by soul "mind", "eternal part of the self", or "ordering form", "thinking part of the self", or something else and whether we believe it must be detached from body and inexplicable by body.

I would say modern science has a pretty strong defeater for most inexplicable in bodily terms accounts, but the ardent supporter can still hold fast to them. I don't see modern science as damning the Aristotelian account very effectively, because it does not assert that the form is magically unrelated to body. Instead, it asserts that form organizes body, soul organizes body life-wise, and rational soul organizes brain mind-wise into a system that can think and that sustains its existence as the sort of being that thinks. (For a relatively easy version to understand, I would suggest Anthony Kenny).

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    Well, the problem here is that if the soul is a process, then it can be replicated with a computer. In which case my points stand - that modernity has shown while the soul may be a psychologically useful concept, it is an approximation of a computational reality. As such, the soul would not exist in reality. For the soul to exist, it must be something that could not, even in principle, be replicated with a computer program. How would Aristotle differentiate a soul from a program?
    – yters
    Jun 12, 2014 at 22:44
  • @yters By process, Aristotle means an organizing process that unifies and sustains the thing, so it couldn't be mere software running on hardware. It would also need to be a maintenance program that can regenerate the thing into what it is (which is reminding me of terminator). Not seeing how this makes it "an approximation of a computational reality." For Aristotle, soul is what makes it so that my matter stays organized human-wise and that makes it so that I can engage in acts of thought.
    – virmaior
    Jun 12, 2014 at 23:51
  • To give an analogy, OS X and Windows computers just fail if something goes wrong with the hardware (like when I pull out the MD-VGA adapter when it's sleeping). A soul also manages the hardware -- it does not merely run on top of it like a program. Thus, if I put too much alcohol into my body, I don't segfault in the same way.
    – virmaior
    Jun 12, 2014 at 23:52
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    I will try to make the distinction more clearly. On the Aristotelian picture, a thing has a soul if it organizes itself. As in, if it contains within itself, a system that organizes itself. We grow from fertilized egg all the way to adult human being according to an internal maintenance pattern. When we get injured, our healing process when it can restores us to what we are. Self-maintaining computers emulate this but computers fit more under the category of artifact which in this vocabulary means something built that cannot do that.
    – virmaior
    Jun 13, 2014 at 0:56
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    To repeat what I was saying earlier, soul is not merely process but organizing process that sustains the thing as what it is. The electrical circuits passing through a computer are a processing running on hardware that is not self-maintaining at a fundamental level. For Aristotle, plants have souls as do animals as do humans. Because each has a type of existence organized and maintained under a certain kind.
    – virmaior
    Jun 13, 2014 at 0:57
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Secularism, at least in my reading is a neutral point between competing interpretations of Christianity. Its historically located in Europe and arose after the wars of Religion in the 16th Century. In this reading its not a positive force - that its doesn't promulgate positive doctrines on belief, but attitudes towards toleration.

There is also another line of thought that argues that secularism aligns itself with modernity which positively disavows traditional religion in its myriad forms and is a positive force in itself. It even has its own art movement - Futurism which exulted in technology - the steam engine & the aeroplane. One might usefully compare this with the carvaka materialist movement in Indian antiquity which pursued a similar thought against the religous authority of the Vedas.

It is within secularism here, or athiestic modernity (there are theistic kinds however) that one cannot speak of the soul: the soul being a concept of the Abrahamic religions.

The idea of a soul is conceived with our understanding of interiority, or of subjectivity; this was famously enunciated in Ibn Tufails The Floating Man, and what motivated Descartes famous axiom of subjectivity, the rock upon which he fixed his theory of knowledge - the cogito: I think therefore I am. Though this is spelt out as a syllogism, in Ibn Tufails conception it is simplyone thought: I am; not in its external aspects but in its internal ones.

Whereas we can simulate many aspects of conscious behaviour by computers crucially we lack a theory of interiority or subjectivity; though we can explain the colour red, say; we cannot explain the qualia of red. A theory of simulation is neccessary to disentangle what in future will appear to be a world of simulations - virtual reality. One doesn't for example confuse a film of a tornado with being in one yourself (or being a tornado as such).

Modern science is fixed on material considerations - in Spinozas dichotomy extension rather than thought. Thus we measure and by this we construct empirical theories of the world. Science essentially ignores subjectivity; this is as true of consciousness studies as it is of physics.

However, Spinoza constucted a theory of mind and matter; one could say of soul and matter that is seen as rationalist - that is based on deductive reasoning; there are a myriad of modern forms that take of from here. One line is pan-psychism: there are English philosophers like Timothy Sprigge or the Australian philosopher Freya Mathews. In the Islamic tradtion there were philosophers called Falsafa who attempted the rational construction of something similar (it was Al-Ghazalis decisive intervention that turned Islamic Philosophy away from this).

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  • This is good background, but I cannot mark it as an answer since it is neither an argument for the soul, nor a demonstration that such an argument is futile.
    – yters
    Jun 12, 2014 at 2:18
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    Well the situation is confused; as this question is: The soul is an Abrahamic notion, yet you're asking to explain it on the basis of materialism which explicitly denies there is no such thing. I'm pointing out why people do not think why materialism is a sufficient answer; and how people have handled subjectivity & the mental within it. Jun 12, 2014 at 2:27
  • It's a Grecian notion too...it contains subjectivity, mentality, and the like, but the concept of the soul is that there is a non-material entity which exerts top down control on the material body. And while materialism is a secular concept, secularism is not identical to materialism. Secularism merely means ideas that are without reference to religious sources of authority. So, for example, Plato's argument for the soul in Phaedo would be a secular argument.
    – yters
    Jun 12, 2014 at 2:32
  • @yters: I'd suggest that it has certain resemblences but that they don't specifically use the word soul. I'd say that is Rationalism rather than secularism which is orientated towards goverance and its institutions. Platos ideas have been subjected to a great-deal of differing interpretations. Some of his ideas are found in Christianity and Neo-platonism. I'm not sure that its possible to call him a rationalist as say some moerns are. I suppose in contemporary European debates one uses the notion of the 'subject'; but its difficult to be sure - I'm no expert. Jun 12, 2014 at 2:51
  • Well, if you have a better way to ask the question, I'm game :)
    – yters
    Jun 12, 2014 at 2:53
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How important is it to you that this argument be realist? If not so much, one course of reasoning is to simply go about as if the soul, as reported by our common sense intuition, is real.

Assuming the existence of the soul simplifies a lot of our interactions with other people, and it may even provide a sense of purpose and meaning that is difficult to attain without. Some psychologists have argued that the "soul illusion" (or "self illusion") is an important factor in our happiness, so who, besides obsessive philosophers, cares if there is no basis for it in reality?

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  • This is a good point, that a concept may be very psychologically useful. However, I'm concerned about the truth of the matter here. Since usefulness does not necessarily entail, though it may strongly suggest, truth it is not quite what I am looking for. However, you may be able to transition this observation to an argument for the soul's existence.
    – yters
    Jun 12, 2014 at 22:41
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From a personal non-religious perspective, I think of my "soul" as representing my personal collection of things that are "valuable" to my individual conscious experience. I can say my "soul" has existence in the same way as qualia have, like my experience of seeing "red" or "blue". I definitely experience them, but there's no scientific test for the existence of "redness" or "blueness", because they have no detectable physical manifestation or effect.

I think of consciousness and sensations as a complex of processes rather than a physical objects - like flames, they are continuous electro-chemical activities. A flame appears to have separate existence and continuity, but it can be stopped and restarted. Where does a flame go when it is extinguished?

So, I would say that my "soul" and my "blue" are both dynamic patterns in the complex whirlpools of my conscious process, which will never emerge as physical objects or have any detectable physical effect. They are trapped right on that narrow boundary where the present meets the future and never leave a trail in the past. They are parts of a maelstrom of electro-chemical activity representing me, a conscious entity, that can't easily be probed without causing me to come to an abrupt halt.

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Quite unfortunate that I'm not that much of a reader. From what I can gather, the notion of a soul can be arrived at sans any religious baggage.

If memory serves, coming the believe in souls is quite simple actually. You start off with a person, they're talking to you, smiling, running, dancing and suddenly ... they're on the ground, motionless. The body is still there, but the person is not alive. Something must've been removed and it's not physical (the body's still there). That "something" that "was removed" and is "not physical" is what we call a soul. The topic of god(s) never comes up!!

P.S. Buddhism is an atheistic "religion" and it denies the existence of souls. If you have time, look up Jainism.

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If the universe were not the product of an intelligent Creator but only of some blind, irrational force, then no unified view of the universe would be possible, would it? Nothing that would qualify as wisdom could result from a study of something that was itself irrational, could it? Those who attempt to understand the universe or life itself, while endeavoring to leave God and his purpose out of account, meet with constant frustration. They misinterpret what they learn and misuse facts that they glean. Leaving out of account belief in God destroys the key to accurate knowledge and makes impossible any truly consistent framework of thought. With that said, the following is my answer.

“There is no dichotomy [division] of body and soul in the Old Testament. The Israelite saw things concretely, in their totality, and thus he considered men as persons and not as composites. The term nepeš [ne′phesh], though translated by our word soul, never means soul as distinct from the body or the individual person. . . . The term [psy·khe′] is the New Testament word corresponding with nepeš. It can mean the principle of life, life itself, or the living being.

“The Hebrew term for ‘soul’ (nefesh, that which breathes) was used by Moses . . . , signifying an ‘animated being’ and applicable equally to nonhuman beings. . . . New Testament usage of psychē (‘soul’) was comparable to nefesh.”

The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation and is accordingly nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture.

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  • How is this a modern secular argument for the soul?
    – virmaior
    Jun 13, 2014 at 4:12
  • Yet, if the Universe were the product of an intelligent Creator, we would expect it to be more intelligently done, wouldn't we? The idea that a supremely intelligent and loving Creator would inflict such enormous suffering and cruelty on his own ignorant and stupid creations for millennium upon millennium is utterly abhorrent. You may consider it "good", but it's not my sort of good. In fact I think it's bad. But then, I'm just a stupid, ignorant Human, and the good Creator will no doubt feel very sorry for having to fry me in Hell forever.
    – JohnRC
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:40
  • There is Tiamat - "primordial chaos", and there is "Ma'at" - " the divine world order". We can't learn anything in the first, but can in the second. Creating doesn't have to mean controlling everything. (so I am somewhat agreeing)
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 27, 2023 at 11:45
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Having thought about the matter of the soul enough, I've considered that if you take it that we live in a reality that is information-based, then the soul (if it exists) is information-based, too. I think the fact that Solomonoff induction exists is pretty good evidence that reality is information-based: Solomonoff induction works on the presumption that reality is information-based.

That's about as secular as you can get. I can't give you any sources, and I've not read about anyone covering this matter as I've thought about it. But I would not be surprised if someone considered the universe to be like one big computer with information it, thus being a big information system.

I can elaborate on my "secular" view of the soul.

Imagine an outline of a square with no filling in the square. That square might be elaborated in some informatic/mathematical way to be representative of the soul. At conception, there becomes a biological body inside the square: The informational aspects of the soul and body become intertwined in such a way that the actions of the body are transmitted to the soul for record-keeping purposes.

And outside the square that is intertwined with the biological body is the environment of which the soul and body are attached to as a cybernetic system, such as to interact with reality. But everything is ultimately being information-based.

And, if you consider that the soul is information, then presume that while the biological being is living that acts (say, for instance, that sin actually exists if but negative acts in one's life can bring about "negative karma") get inscribed into the informational aspects of the soul, thus changing its information-based configuration.

Similar to this scene in The Matrix where Neo starts to see the code: enter image description here

Presuming heaven/hell exist, upon death of the body, the soul (as an informational aspect) gets transmitted throughout reality to one of those dimensions. You might question how a physical-like body could manifest with simply the soul being transmitted: I speculate that perhaps, upon conception, the informational aspects of the soul are changed such as to record what exists within it throughout time, thus if you could deduce the informational structure of the soul, then you could deduce/derive what the biological body would have been that was within the soul throughout various points in time. What leads me to such thinking is (presumptively) a scene from DC Comics cartoon DC Showcase "DEATH" part-4: @~2:53 Where the adult male artist turns into a little boy in the afterlife.

Perhaps by some mechanism, the body that existed can be deduced and brought forward to exist in heaven/hell in order for the individual to exist in body in that dimension.

I'm skeptical of the idea of the soul, however, because of its relation to mythology and modern science. For instance, how in the world is someone in the after-life going to manifest (while instilling memories and personhood) in body when that person underwent severe brain damage in older life? I have not solved that riddle. My guess is that it's based on some system of contract, whereby the person that is being manifested (if such were to occur) somehow agrees that his or her personhood has been established (or, at least, there has be some kind of standard).

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My answer is meant to propose the transcendental deduction of pure concepts of the intellect as an argument for the necessity of the psyche, and the psychoanalysis as the evidence's field for the experience of soul.

If you want to treat the topic from a contemporary point of view, you need to make some terminological distinctions.

There is a distinction between psyche, soul and mind.

Psyche is a principle, something like a law, or rather a code of laws: it is universal and not individual, unless you consider the Universe a single individual. We can indicate the psyche as a set of laws that regulate every movement. In this sense, the concept of "psychic" is identical to the Kantian concept of "transcendental" in its intension, even if the first concept is decidedly more extensive. There is one controversial and highly debatable special or privileged relation between psyche and human being: some hint of such a relationship could appear below in this answer.

The soul is better indicated by the Latin terminological binomial "anima/animus": it is a field of connection between the psyche and its individuations. To use Popper's terminology, the soul symbol is that autonomous entity which establishes the meeting point between world 2 and world 3, relative to the ontological region of the psychic. Please note that a psyche individuation is not an individual psyche, but a psyche's detection from a field of consciousness, or from a "point of view".

The mind, on the other hand, is the psychic field of subjectivity, or the psyche as individuated, i.e., depending on whether one leans towards idealism or naturalism, the psyche's individuation in a finite consciousness or the psyche's individuation in a physical body. It corresponds to Popper's "world 2".

The existence of the soul "per se" cannot be proved.

However, psychoanalysis has sufficiently demonstrated that it is not possible to think the mind without presupposing a soul, and since the psyche is a principle of movement, and the mind is a principle of knowledge, if movement and knowledge exist, then a soul exists.

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  • @LudwigV I am sorry for the mistake. I read the resources you provided, but I really cannot understand why my text does not really answer the question. My answer is meant to propose the transcendental deduction of pure concepts of the intellect as an argument for the necessity of the psyche, and the psychoanalysis as a the evidence's field for the experience of soul. I will delete it. Before I do it, can you explain? Aug 27, 2023 at 15:13
  • @Federico Porciello Why don't you just add what you said in this comment at the beginning of the text? That will explain how your answer relates to the question and the problem is solved. Actually, you would make things easier for the reader if you could also break up your text into paragraphs, dealing with one point at a time.
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    Aug 27, 2023 at 15:27
  • @LudwigV thank you very much. This is actually a good practice. Aug 27, 2023 at 17:27

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