Definition of "Soul" from Britannica:

Soul, in religion and philosophy, the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being, that which confers individuality and humanity, often considered to be synonymous with the mind or the self.

As a comparison, think of Plato and Socrates: they believed the soul to be immortal and immutable. Aristotle believed in only a part of the soul, the nous, to be as such.

I know that Epicurus believed the soul to die alongside the body, instead.

My question is: is there a well argued metaphysics, in any culture, that assumes the soul (as defined above) to be:

  • mutable upon life experience
  • not, or not necessarily, immortal
  • What is your working definition of "soul"? – user2953 Feb 17 '16 at 9:39
  • That is left to the actual theory to define, however I understand it's a very vague term. I used "soul", however, instead of "mind" so I assumed it to have some internal characteristics that are otherwordly. But what these differences are, if any, I cannot actually tell (hence my want for writings of better thinkers than me). I personally visualise it as a sort of metaphysical signature of the mind (and maybe body, too) - the mind would be part of "this" world, the soul not. They might be linked, or not, in a view such as this. – Fabio Feb 17 '16 at 9:43
  • Look into the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians. They believed as much. – Swami Vishwananda Feb 17 '16 at 9:57
  • Uhm, I'm not sure it fits. First, as far as I know there is no logical reasoning in the Egyptians' beliefs, just.. belief. But I could be wrong here. Then, I can't see any reference to the mutability AND otherwordly existence of a "soul". Were the soul mutable, it would get damaged or would disappear after death, which is definitely something they did NOT believe in. – Fabio Feb 17 '16 at 10:09
  • Some philosophies like Plessner's argued that it lies in the very being of humans as humans (as a category, not a species!) that they need to express themselves and he offers metaphysical reasons based on the findings of empirical sciences for that. Do not know if that's the direction you're looking for. – Philip Klöcking Feb 17 '16 at 12:10

I am not sure that "soul" is very well defined across cultures. But it seems to me that, as James Kingsbery observes, interpretations of Christianity could fit your query, as might modern folk psychology.

The soul in much Christian and Neoplatonist doctrine is "simple substance" in that it is continuous and indivisible. Yet outside of Calvinist predetermination is it clearly "mutable," in that it registers the imprint of our actions. And in some Augustinian interpretations, I believe, the defiled soul is not so much eternally damned, as simply lost to divine life, thus in a sense rendered finally "mortal."

In Plato's "Myth of Er" at the end of the Republic, not only are "souls" mutable, they are recycled through a kind of plastics factory of mortal destinies. But I would hesitate to say that souls for the Greeks are eternal. As far as I know, that is not entirely clear and consistent. They did not seem to hold ideas of "linear infinity" in our mathematical or Christian sense. It is more as if "soul stuff" gets melted down into the blanks of entirely new persons.

Meanwhile, many people in our modern secular age believe death ends it all, yet do adhere to belief in a psyche, an object of "psychology," that is treated as a mutable but continuous identity or "simple" substance, even as its parts are regularly replaced. I'm not sure how else one would define a "mortal" or finite "soul."

Finally, there are many instances in myth in which a "soul" is actively rendered finite, as it is "released" from the confines of its perpetuation, as with the Buddha, Dracula, and various other unearthly Wanderers.

  • 1
    Although all answers have been insightful, I find this to be the most complete and useful for further research. Thanks Nelson! – Fabio Feb 18 '16 at 12:40

The issue this question grapples with is that "the soul" is a phrase, consisting of two English words, not actually a concept. It must be interpreted into a concept before it can have any meaning. If there is any variance in the interpretation, the resulting philosophy may differ. In some phrasings, such as those common in science, the effect of the variance can be reduced arbitrarily small. In mathematical terms, one might say the limit of the effect of the difference can approach zero. However, when dealing with the ultimate essence of what we are, it has been much more difficult to clarify meanings in a way such that the limit of the effects of different interpretations approaches zero. Such a question is one of the foundations of philosophy.

Thus, we have to consider that there may be many highly related philosophical concepts coagulated around eachother which all get referred to as soul/mind/essence/conciousness/shen/lifeblood/inner-self/heart and who knows what other words, and all are ever so slightly different, sometimes with radically different effects. Part of the fun of philosophy is in the effort to work in such environments.

Taking the words from your question and your comments, I may suggest the Daoist philosophy as an interesting direction to look for an answer to your question. In Daoism, everythign is part of the Dao, and constantly flowing. The highest ideal in Daoism is to reduce the borders between you and the environment to nothing, and become one with the Dao once more. In Western thinking, this could be thought of as attuning your soul to the universe, and you are expected to keep your soul "mutating" at all times, because it must flow or it goes stale.

I encourage exploration. I won't claim "Daoism's metaphysics has a mutable soul," because that would be putting words in their mouth. They have exactly what they have, no more, no less. However, I have a hunch that what they have may be either what you are looking for, or at least provide you another point of reference from which to catapault yourself into new questions.


One example of a philosophical work where this is mentioned is CS Lewis's Mere Christianity. Toward the end of Chapter 7, he says:

What really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature.

He discusses this in the context about how behavior shapes the soul, and how Christian beliefs in the after-life matter for morality - precisely because (Lewis says) we have mutable souls.

  • Cool, I did not know that. Is this not counterposed to essentially all Christian theologies out there? – Fabio Feb 18 '16 at 8:17
  • I think the short answer is that while Christians believe the soul is immortal, there is disagreement about other details about souls, and is in any case not generally a central tenet. For a more detailed exposition, see newadvent.org/cathen/14153a.htm – James Kingsbery Feb 18 '16 at 12:16

In so far as Buddhists believe in a soul, then their concept of soul is of a mutable soul, which is really nothing more than the amalgamation of past life experience. This is in contrast with western religions which believe in the soul as some sort of central locus of identity. See this question in the Buddhism SE for more details, and also the concept of Skandhas.

If you are willing to consider modern non-immortal souls, and per the second part of the definition you provide "often considered to be synonymous with the mind", then one can consider the computational theory of the mind, which sees the brain as a computer, and the mind as software running on this computer. This implies, almost trivially, that the soul is mutable, since it can simply be upgraded or improved the way any computer program can be so modified. One could argue that this applies not just to CTM but to functionalism in general.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.