A few years ago I came up with a (perhaps?) novel concept of a "soul" which, to me, seems very robust and meaningful. I have, however, no background in philosophy and would like to know what real philosophers think about this.

Usually people think of a soul as something "in addition" to their physical bodies which defines them and is "immortal" in some sense. If we think of a person as an individual this would be in contrast with our modern scientific understanding of physics and biology. Lifting this restriction of individualism, however, allows us to find a definition of a soul which is consistent with both, our scientific knowledge and our usual perception of a soul. This is how I would define it:

The soul of a being is the sum of all the consequences of its actions.

The consequences of our actions often happen outside our own bodies, so in this sense the soul is something beyond our physical bodies. It lives in everything we have influenced throughout our lifes. When a person dies, the things she did thoughout her life still continue to have consequences. Her soul is therefore "immortal", in this sense. There is no scientific dispute about the existence of beings, actions or reactions, so this definition fits nicely into a modern scientific world view.

Note, that this definition is not restricted to human beings. Anything that can take actions which have consequences in the real physical world would have a soul. This includes all other animals and even machines. The soul can therefore not be used as a distinguishing factor between humans and other beings, which may make some people uncomfortable because we like to feel special. I do not think, however, that this is a big deal as there are other properties which set us apart.

It may seem weird that with this definition a being's soul would "grow" over time. An infant has nearly no soul, as he has not have had a big impact on the world, yet. Over time, he grows up and develops his own mind, influencing more and more people and things around him. Part of growing up means to learn to anticipate the consequences of one's actions, so one can guide the development of one's soul in a concious, deliberate way.

I hope this question is not to vauge or opinion based. Please focus your answers on flaws in the internal logic of the definition I presented, or point out interesting consequences I have not discussed. I would also be interested if anything similar exists in the philosophical literature.

  • 1
    People who don't believe in souls are likely to respond this with "sure, why not?" (the implicit premise being it doesn't matter anyway) and go on with their lives, and treating the notion of soul as irrelevant. People who already believe in souls are likely to balk, because it renders the concept vacuous; or robs it of meaning. The image of the soul to believers is usually some kind of persistent consciousness, a sense of self (different religions treat this fact as a good thing or bad thing, variously). And then you have the "heat death" problem: entropy will eventually erase all souls
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 12:39
  • @DanBron: I like your comment about the heat death problem. Perhaps this will be the great battle: entropy vs. evolution; can we find a way to trick the laws of thermodynamics? Right now this seems to be impossible, but we have billions of years to figure it out. Also, there are already ideas around, such as "conformal cyclic cosmology" by R. Penrose.
    – JEM_Mosig
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 19:53

5 Answers 5


I've played with such compatablistic definitions of "soul" before. The biggest challenge you face is people just nodding their head and saying, "yeah, sure."

"Soul" is just a word. It's four letters. That's it. Nothing more. Period. And therein lies the problem. People assign that four lettered word a meaning. Christians, for instance, assign it a meaning to refer to the part of themselves which will go to heaven when they die. Buddhists may choose to assign it as the part which gets reincarnated after death. Musicians may call it the essence of what separates a great performance from a merely good one. The word has meany meanings.

When we talk about "soul" we are typically using the word as a symbol for one of these deeper meanings. Your definition of "soul" may meet the needs of how you view the world, but may not be useful to a religious individual who uses the word to refer to something very specific with specific properties.

So to really push your definition forward, you have to argue why it's a good enough definition to satisfy both your needs and that of your audience. If you can show how your soul is just another wording for what they already call a soul, then they will accept it easily. If there are stark contracts, then you will find you will need to call it something else until people can realize the value of your meaning. That doesn't mean it's wrong; it just means this is how language works.

Myself, I would challenge the definition along gestalt lines. Often we find the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts. In fact, I find a common thread among all definitions of "soul," from religion to music, in that when it comes to "soul," the whole is always different than the sum of its parts. For me to accept such a definition of "soul," I would have to work with you to deepen this from a summing concept into something greater. Then, maybe that greater way of looking at things would be sufficient that I would call it a "soul."

I'd also pay attention to the word "legacy." Legacy has meanings which are very close to the definition you are going after, so it is entirely possible that the concept you describe is actually "legacy" rather than "soul." (Although the idea that the two are one in the same is a fascinating possibility to explore)

  • I extrapolate from the Wikipedia article about "gestalt" that the difference between the whole and the sum of its parts comes from the fact that our brains create representations of the real world inside of them, and these representations will always make more sense to us than the raw sensory input. A change in your representation of the world may well be a consequence of my action of writing to you. Thus, each individual's "whole" is meant to be included in my definition's "sum". Does this make sense?
    – JEM_Mosig
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 20:21
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    That describes the sensory perception side of gestalt, The idea appears in other places as well. There are many cases where simple summation leaves one with a very flat feeling theory. For example, you quickly find yourself limited to only properties that obey superposition. It's not immediately evident that the properties which matter for a soul obey superposition at all. In fact, most people consider the soul's value to be well more than the sum of its parts.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 21:47
  • Perhaps "sum" does not really express what I mean. I have to think about a better term. Of course the consequences of one's actions do not simply "add up". Tiny actions can have a large impact and great efforts can have very little impact on reality. The value we assign to these consequences is again a different matter, as "value" is entirely subjective, which adds even more complexity.
    – JEM_Mosig
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 22:15
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    Words are tricky in philosophy, especially mathematical ones =) The next series of questions I'd ask would be how phrases like "soul searching" "open your soul" and "the eyes are windows to your soul" work in your system. Obviously not every phrase will work with every definition of the "soul," but these highlight the fact that many believe one interacts with the soul during their lifetime. It's not an external storage device storing consequences forever. Likewise, many believe you can "give your soul" to someone, which may be a tricky fit.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 22:25
  • I would indeed find it difficult to make "the eyes are windows to your soul" work. But the fact that we interact with our souls is very clear in my definition. We interact with other people's souls all the time by interacting with beings or with the things they changed earlier. Also, consequences evolve into new consequences and thereby have a kind of life by themselves. It is thus not quite as rigid as you say. Furthermore, you can "give your soul" to someone e.g. by focussing your actions on the well-being of that particular person.
    – JEM_Mosig
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 22:36

I suspect you're trying to articulate something about human legacy. However, applying the word soul to that definition doesn't necessarily work because soul is defined in various ways, in various belief systems.

Unless you identify the (existing) belief system(s) that your definition is intended to be compatible with, you may be using the word soul simply as a label, rather than talking about a concept that has broader meaning.


At least in Western philosophy, souls are usually understood as being causes of the agent's behavior. There's disagreement on the kind of cause — for Aristotle the soul was a formal and final cause; for Descartes it was supposed to be an efficient cause — but it was still a cause of behavior. For example, this Stanford Encyclopedia article glosses classical Greek theories of soul as generally sharing these assumptions:

soul is standardly thought and spoken of, for instance, as the distinguishing mark of living things, as something that is the subject of emotional states and that is responsible for planning and practical thinking, and also as the bearer of such virtues as courage and justice.

The effects of our actions will generally not be causes of our actions; effects aren't characteristic of living beings; aren't subjects of emotional states; aren't generally responsible for planning and practical thinking; and don't bear virtues such as courage or justice. (An action might be called courageous or just, but I don't think we would typically say that the effects are courageous or just.)

So it seems like your suggested definition is at least highly revisionist.


Although your definition meets several of the requirements/properties of a "soul," I think it is inadequate. I consider your definition a subset of the total properties because, at the very least, it leaves out the internal properties of a soul.
A closer definition would be, the sum total of the instinctive and learned information a being has gained/obtained trough out its life.
This cover both, the external influences and internal properties of "soul."

  • But this would put the soul inside the being (information stored in a brain), and it would therefore die with its body. The point of my definition is to let the soul live in the shared reality of all beings.
    – JEM_Mosig
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 23:34

You can use this logic in the case of soul.

A blind man will never believe the ability of eyes if very few people only had the power of vision. Even though a few people only had this ability, we call such people who believes it, superstitious. An experience of a 'thing' that is beyond sense organs and that transcends these organs may also be like this. Some people use the term -- 'soul' synonymously to denote consciousness, paramatma, jivatma etc. Those who didn't deny the word -- 'soul' to mention something that is immortal are considered as wise men; not as idiots.

Also, without knowing the experience of energy and matter at the same time correctly, as you believe that "Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.", you may believe this: "Soul is immortal."

Even though this kind of an idea or thing seems as a blind faith (since you have no proof), many people have realized this truth.

I am trying to point out only the biggest flaw in your definition:

Have you thought about the main word you left out? When you used the term 'its action', you didn't consider that 'it' in your definition.

I don't think you would get a (rational) definition that science agrees because science often needs proof that can be verified by perception through senses or by means of devices, equipments etc. And in the case of abstract ideas, by logical thinking/reasoning.

But the greatest wonder is, our own body is the most suitable mean for that because 'real knowledge/experience' of soul is the knowledge of knowledge or the end of knowledge. But this is a rarely accepted fact/truth.

Verify this also:

It lives in everything we have influenced throughout our lifes. When a person dies, the things she did throughout her life still continue to have consequences.

Have you ever thought about the cause of her death? And which soul/souls (according to your definition) might have influenced her death? Which soul would you consider when you try to find out its root?

If you, other readers and me were mere embodiments we wouldn't be able to communicate (so precisely) with each other without much difficulty. So the word--'soul' must have a greater meaning. Otherwise it would only be a four letter word.

To define it there must be something similar or imaginable. This is the main difficulty that most people face. So others will call it a mere nonsense. Don't worry.

This will be helpful to know more about the inadequacy of your question.

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