I used to believe that a human being has a supernatural, spiritual soul and that it is obvious for the reasons stated below. I was very surprised to find out that not only secular philosophy, but even Catholic academic theology seem to reject this view.

As far as I understand (correct me if I'm wrong, I'm having a hard time understanding this and related problems), currently the dominant view, both in secular philosophy and even in Christian theology is as follows:

  • All functions and capabilities of a human being are purely natural and emergent of the matter that constitutes the human's body (with the possible exception of immortality if religious beliefs are accepted - but with no exceptions regarding consciousness, free will etc *even if religious beliefs are accepted)
  • Soul, if defined, can mean the sum of information that describes the human - this is the sense of the saying that the 'soul is the form of the body'.

Or, in other words: If we compare a human to a book, then the book's 'body' would be paper and ink that stains this paper, while the book's 'soul' would be the contents of the book. Similarly, if we compare a human to a computer, then the computer's body is of metal, semiconductors, etc, while its 'soul' would be the specific way all this matter is arranged (the design of the CPU and other parts) as well as the contents of the computer's hard disk.

The above view is in opposition to intuitive beliefs of many people, which lean towards mind-body dualism (this seems especially common in religious people who are not philosophically or even theologically refined) - nonetheless mind-body dualism is rejected even by academic theology.

I find this view very surprising as it seems to me that it is prone to a reduction ad absurdum, which I will now attempt.

Assume, as everyone seems to believe, that a human being is little or nothing more than a really complex natural mechanism - all of its capabilities are emergent of the complexity of physical & chemical reactions that occur in the body.

Even if we say that there is no free will it is obvious that humans have consciousness and can feel happiness or pain. How does this not frustrate this view?

Increasing complexity does not seem to help here. AFAIK it is not a popular view that a log or a stone possesses consciousness. Now what about a doll that contains an audio player with a few recorded scream sounds and is wired in such a way that if someone hits this doll then will this mean that this doll will be able to feel pain any more, even a really teeny tiny bit more than a stone or a log? It seems that the answer is a no. It seems that the existence of consciousness is a very qualitative change, while complexity is, rather, a quantitative value. It is very much unclear how could increasing complexity give a rise to consciousness.

But assume that it does so indeed. However, all natural processes can be simulated by other natural processes. Therefore let us conduct the following thought experiment. Assume that the workings of a human being have been fully understood by science. It is therefore possible to fully simulate a human being. Or if it is not possible, then it is only difficult for the lack of sufficient computing power, rather than any fundamental prohibitions. But whatever a computer can do so can a human arithmetician with a pen and some paper.

Let us, therefore, simulate a human being in the following way. Let us build an enormous office and hire a vast number of arithmeticians. Let us give them a ridiculously large number of pens and sheets of paper, as well as lots of time. Perhaps one bazillion of arithmeticians will be able to do computations that simulate a second of the life of a single cell within 100 years? All information that reaches a person through their eyes, ears and other senses can, likewise, be prepared and simulated in the same way.

If the view that all functions of a human being are emergent from fully natural processes that happen inside the human's body then it follows that the above office will give a rise to a complete human being? And such a human being will, also, have rights. It also follows that firing all arithmeticians and leaving all of their sheets of paper intact will freeze our simulated human in time, while burning the office down without having salvaged the sheets of paper will be tantamount to murder. And it also follows that somehow these sheets of paper will give a raise to consciousness.

While I don't have a hard proof I must say that this conclusion seems incredibly counterintuitive to me. But if an army of arithmeticians with their sheets of paper cannot give a raise to a human being then neither can other fully natural processes. Therefore it follows that there must be some non-natural 'organ' that is a part of a human being, let's call it the 'soul' - and it is responsible, at least, for consciousness.

Since this view is exceedingly unpopular - may I ask where is my mistake?

  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Philosophy Meta, or in Philosophy Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 13 at 7:41
  • If there is a soul, at most one person has it.
    – IS4
    Mar 13 at 17:50
  • 1
    How is this a philosophy question? Mar 13 at 23:37
  • @CarlWitthoft How fluent are you in contemporary metaphilosophical discourse?
    – J D
    Apr 4 at 15:22
  • @JD Alan Sokal is a friend and a high school chum of mine. Apr 4 at 16:51

14 Answers 14


First of all, it is not unpopular to believe that there is a soul.

Secondly, there is no evidence that a soul exists. Not much further inquiry in this is needed. Noone has observed, verified, detected, in any way, shape, or form, the existence of a soul. At best we can say that humans have postulated the existence of it.

But just because humans have postulated the existence of it, does not imply that it exists.

  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Philosophy Meta, or in Philosophy Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 13 at 7:41
  • 1
    I'd also suggest watching at least 2. The nature of persons: dualism vs. physicalism (the first after the course introduction) of Death With Shelly Kagan (PHIL 176) on the YaleCourses channel on YouTube if you'd like an articulate explanation for a reason many people are physicalists.
    – ssokolow
    Mar 13 at 11:03
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    In OP's defense, they analogously refer to the soul as the "content of the book" (as opposed to the paper and ink). If you get a book in a language you don't understand; you could postulate that there is a narrative in there, even though you cannot measure it (i.e. separate a good story from gobbledygook in its own language, e.g. random characters). However, just because you cannot measure it does not mean that the book is nothing more than gobbledygook in its own language. Physical verification does not counter OP's interpretation of what a soul might be.
    – Flater
    Mar 14 at 5:44

I share your intuition of mind-body dualism. But to answer your question. I've listed 5 reasons below, why this intuition isn't as popular as it might have been a few hundred years ago.

  1. Neuroscience. We've seen from brain-damaged individuals that a lot of our common-sense intuitions about experience aren't true.

  2. Idea of causal closure of physics. If physics (as it is currently) is causally closed, there seems to be no room for immaterial soul.

  3. The development of computing has led to this powerful idea that the mind is the function/computation of what the brain does. So there's this software/hardware analogy. We look at the hardware of a computer... look at the software... at first glance it seems counter-intuitive how one causally leads to the other. Yet, there's nothing mysterious in computers. People have "stretched" this type of thinking (imo incorrectly) to "experience" and the "subject of experience". I think the brain does a lot of computation, but I don't think "experience" or the subject of experience is "computation" or "function".

  4. the theory of evolution has given a naturalistic explanation which at first seemed like it could only be explained by design (biology). So people are much more willing now to wait for a non-spiritual explanation even if the spiritual explanation is intuitive. You often hear opponents of dualism say that is like vitalism, and it's just a matter of time before we have fully naturalistic explanation for consciousness.

  5. The idea of a soul (separate mental substance) is associated with religion and by association associated with the historical dogma of religion (the idea that religion has been wrong about a lot of things, so it's likely wrong about this too). If you argue for a mental substance separate from a physical substance, you'll often be accused of following some kind of religious tradition. And it doesn't help that almost all philosophers advocating for mind-body dualism seem to be Christian ones. Michael Huemer is the only atheistic philosopher I've seen advocating for mind/body dualism.

  • 6
    Pedantry: our current models of physics are causally closed. They're also incomplete. Physics is the science of modelling the world in a causally closed way, but that doesn't mean the world is causally-closed – though the unreasonable effectiveness of physics does suggest that it might be. (Such a question is outside the remit of physics, though perhaps not outside the remit of scientific enquiry.)
    – wizzwizz4
    Mar 12 at 20:28
  • 3
    @wizzwizz4, yes I agree with all that. Point is that people believe that the world is causally closed because our current models of physics are. Mar 12 at 23:04
  • And for #3. The idea that our brains are a form of computer is at a point where it hampers both computing and neuroscience development. See this article about brains not being computers
    – Nelson
    Mar 14 at 1:08
  • 2
    I work with Machine Learning, AI, big data projects. The way people refer to the AI kind of like a person is really useless. I would say our AIs are like idiot savant 5 year olds... aka: unlike any children we've actually met, so it's actually not like children at all.
    – Nelson
    Mar 14 at 1:09

Firstly I echo the comment of Thinkingman that it is not unpopular to believe that there is a soul.

Secondly, your question seems to boil down to defining the word 'soul' to be a synonym for 'consciousness', and since consciousness seems to be natural, the soul- as you've defined it- is natural too, not supernatural.

Thirdly, when you compare the soul to the content of a book, you are missing an important point. A book contains pages on which various combinations of letters are printed. That content is in itself meaningless. The meaning of the content of a book is a product of the human mind- the letters themselves do not have a meaning.

  • The word "soul" is very different from consciousness. Soul implies the unkillable part -- the piece of you that can never be destroyed. It existed before; it will exist after. Spirit is a more specific term that may be implied by "soul" in the religious context.
    – Brannon
    Mar 11 at 13:54
  • 7
    @Brannon Who are you arguing with? OP's point was that the "soul" objectively exists, if you define "soul" in a specific way. But Marco is pointing out that what OP has defined is usually called "consciousness", not "soul". Mar 12 at 2:52
  • Widespread popularity among the worldwide population, still allows for hostility and vociferous disparagement within academic subsets of the general population. This is what the OP was asking about.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 15 at 18:15

The top answer to the other question you linked cites the Catholic catechism:

366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not "produced" by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.

And the catechism furthermore states:

362 The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual.

Of course Protestant thought is very diverse, but similar views are held in many mainstream denominations, an example here from the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod:

The Lutheran Confessions, the normative statement of Biblical doctrine for Lutherans, speaks, like Scriptures, of man as having a body and a soul... man's body and soul are integrally united; both are corrupted by sin and subject to death. Together they constitute man's essence or nature. According to the Athanasian Creed the rational soul and the flesh are one man, as God and man are one Christ.

It is true that most academic philosophers today are materialists. However, even among this group, there are still some dualists. Of the three cited in that link, Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga are Christians, and while I don't know E.J. Lowe's personal beliefs, he wrote in support of the ontological argument, so he was likely at least a deist. There are, of course, also many idealists, as well as some neutral monists and many other opinions as well.

So to sum up, it's certainly possible to make a career as a professional philosopher while not being a materialist, and mainstream Christianity does not reject dualism. Materialism's popularity among philosophers is a majority position, not a universal one.

  • 1
    @Brannon go ask on physics.SE if any of the "forms of matter that we do not yet understand or detect" could make up the soul. They'll say "no". Why? Because we know what kind of particles can and cannot affect the macro world.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 12 at 2:25
  • 1
    @Brannon and "soul particles" must affect the macro world; otherwise, they couldn't interact with our bodies. Thus, we'd be able to detect them in living and recently-dead bodies.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 12 at 2:26
  • 1
    @RonJohn There are physicists that believe exactly that. Roger Penrose believes consciousness is an unknown quantum mechanical effect that is mediated by microtubules in brain cells. In my opinion as well as most biologists, this is extremely unlikely, but he's a highly respected physicist. Mar 12 at 10:16
  • 4
    @fluffysheap “let ne rephrase your comment: <respected physicist> believes X, which is outside his field of expertise, so we must give it credence, even though experts in the field, and experts in his field who have studied it, think it’s absolute bunk.”
    – RonJohn
    Mar 12 at 10:22
  • 1
    @fluffysheap With all due respect to Sir Roger, I'd be more interested in opinions about consciousness from an actual neuroscientist. Mar 12 at 20:56

What do you mean by soul? That is the question that makes it dubious terminology. Because it's a word used for hugely different ideas in greatly varying traditions.

Aristotle held to a tripartite soul (vegetative; sensitive or animal (anima); intellectual (nous)), with a relationship of each successive layer having supervenient impacts, or downward causation on to the other layers. He saw the soul as arising with birth, and ceasing with death, and stated the notion of a body without a soul, or of a soul independent of a body, is simply unintelligible. Aquinas was influenced by Aristotle, in how he compartmentalised the soul as the model that became the Five Wits.

Judaism & the Old Testament don't explicitly say the soul is immortal, and the Christian doctrine of physical resurrection of the faithful seems to be at odds with an immaterial soul. The Christian idea of n eternal soul, seems to have come from the influence of Plato, and the idea of us having a timeless form in the same way as specific numbers manifest supposedly timeless transcendental mathematics. Specifically, as the part of us that goes beyond mundane cognition, and into inferential and transcendental reasoning, and so knowledge of the divine.

In mainstream Hindu thought, the atman is the part of us that is in relation to Brahman, the ultimate reality or transcendental monist consciousness, which all other beings are only manifestations of. Spiritual practice can result in 'yoga', yoking to or union with the divine.

Buddhist thought has the doctrine of anatman or 'no-self', that there is no atman that is unchanging, because everything is impermanent and subject to change. For Buddhists the soul preexisted eternally, and transmigrates, but through a causal process of changing like a candle lighting another candle, rather than a reincarnation of something timeless. In the Buddhas discourses, "Are the soul and the body (jīvam & sarīram) similar or different?" is declared to be one of the Accintaya or unanswerable questions, which it is considered a hindrance to dwell obsessively on.

In Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, they elaborate the five physical senses, with an additional three mental faculties, in a way that's very reminiscent of Aristotle's Five Wits. The most important st interesting is Eighth Consciousness or Alayavijnana. This is the layer of 'storehouse consciousness' through which karma is reborn (but not identity, see anatta). I argue it is directly equivalent to the noosphere of Russian Cosmicism, and the memesphere developed from the work of Dawkins. That is, it is the realm of idea-replicators, that have substrate-independence, and so can transmigrate as a karmic seed or im a karmic chain, independently of a specific identity (arguably - in Buddhist thought the self is considered a bundle of linked phenomena, rather than an essence).

The physicalist-materialist picture of the self as arising from physical phenomena, is captured pithily by Sartre's 'Existence is before essence', the concrete or instantiated is precursor to the abstract or transcendental. This I would describe as being the picture of modern science, that while substrate-independence is possible, it is only a way of grouping movements of atoms and the void into useful units as a conceptual shorthand.

Given your metaphor of a book: how much change can occur before it is not the same book? In philosophy the Ship of Theseus and Teletransportation Paradoxes, are tools for challenging our intuitions about identity. You might consider the branching changes to Christian texts, and especially the different sets that constitute the canons of different Christian or Christian-influenced traditions. An extreme case is the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest recorded story, and thought to have been reworked into the story of Noah, and Perseus and Medusa, by scholars of comparative mythology - but with very different lessons drawn, and social purposes, eg Gilgamesh is an arrogant tyrant, Perseus rebels against one.

I would point to Hofstadter's 'Strange Loop' model, to understand not just complexity but a specific structure is involved in having intentions, and affective states. That is, having a model of oneself in our picture of reality, which allows 'trying on' different ways of being, before deciding which will cultivate desired outcomes.

On the paper being conscious, it's comparable to the question of the Chinese room: are algorithms to manipulate symbols, really enough to declare 'understanding Chinese'? You should consider Embodied Cognition, and Extended Cognition, in terms of how our minds extend beyond our brains (eg the gut-brain axis), and our minds extend beyond our bodies altogether (eg the 'mental abacus). You should also see the XKCD episode A Bunch Of Rocks.

The nature of mind, self, and consciousness are open questions in philosophy, and science. My experience is 'soul' is a term that generally indicates a set of unexamined intuitions, and is used to turn away from investigating our experiences, not to examine them more deeply. I recommend finding more sophisticated and precise terminology, so as to avoid talking to others at cross-purposes.

  • 1
    How would a physical resurrection work without a soul for someone who is nothing but a skeleton, or someone who is nothing but ashes? Assuming they aren't raised as a mindless husk, their consciousness would need to be somewhere (unless God just recreates it from memory?).
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 12 at 6:52
  • 1
    I think that most of what people think about is "a hindrance to dwell obsessively on." But that's just me, I guess.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 12 at 13:51
  • 2
    @NotThatGuy: Information is thought to be conserved, & so still be in the world en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… What of you would be resurrected though? What age? How alike would that being be to you? Lots of unanswered questions to such a doctrine. But then Christianity doesn't go much into the nature of identity, it's all just 'God will figure it out'...
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 12 at 18:24

There are a few parts to this question, so let's go through them one by one.

Souls within theism / Christianity

It is not an unpopular view in Christianity that human beings have supernatural and spiritual souls. In fact, the idea of the afterlife seems to depend on it.

Other religions with an afterlife presumably often also involve something similar to a soul.

(No) souls within atheism / naturalism

From an atheist and naturalistic perspective, one might say that we don't have concrete evidence of a "soul" or anything else supernatural, and we shouldn't accept claims of the supernatural until we have the evidence to support them. That's the pretty standard skeptic atheist position.

Methodological naturalism would try to explain how the brain works through natural processes, because that's really the only way we're able to explain things; "humans have souls" would be little more than an assertion that doesn't explain how souls actually work, or where they come from or where they go (although the latter can be addressed with a few more assertions). We have made some good progress to understand how the brain works through natural processes already, e.g. we have some idea of which parts of the brain are responsible for which functions, which chemicals gets released in the brain and what they do, how the brain is influenced by the rest of the body and external forces, and how various diseases and injuries impact the brain and how a person thinks.

If anything, I'd probably say our understanding of the brain is one of the most damning sets of evidence against the proposition that a soul exists. You can hit your head and turn into a completely different person overnight. Diseases can deteriorate or alter brain function to a point that the person in question seems like a completely different person.

If a soul exists, this would imply that it is as influenced by the natural world as a purely natural brain would be, in which case the soul becomes much less necessary or useful as a proposition. An alternative is that the soul controls the brain externally, and e.g. brain injuries may reduce the soul's control over the brain. But the amount of mental changes that can occur due to injury or disease would not leave a lot that can actually be contained within a soul. If, for example, emotion and memory is stored within a soul, it would not make much sense (or at least be seemingly completely unnecessary) for there to be specific sections of the brain dedicated to these functions (and injuries to these brain sections often results in sudden personality changes or amnesia).

The arithmeticians / the Chinese room

Your arithmeticians analogy sounds vaguely similar to the Chinese Room thought experiment (and has been used in relation to AI). In brief, the idea is that if you put a person in a room and explain which Chinese symbols they must give in response to which symbols, they may be able to appear to understand Chinese without actually understanding it.

The idea of computers being conscious and experiencing emotion is frequently explored in fiction, and we just don't know whether or not this is theoretically possible.

In any case, I'll present a few possible responses to your analogy:

  • A brain is known to be more than just raw "computing". There are also a bunch of chemicals floating around, at the very least. Perhaps these just affect the computing, or perhaps this results in some other effects.

  • "I don't know how brains work, therefore the supernatural exists" is not a good argument, and "this seems counter-intuitive, therefore something else is true" isn't a good one either. The appropriate conclusion to not knowing something is that you don't know it.

  • Why would the supernatural fix this problem?

    Imagine a variant of your analogy, where the arithmeticians are replaced by supernatural arithmeticians. Or some combination of natural and supernatural ones.

    Since a soul would be fully emergent from supernatural processes, it stands to reason that a supernatural being would be able to fully simulate it.

    Now one might say that the supernatural just works differently from material reality, so this analogy doesn't work. Or one might even concede that being simulated by a supernatural being is material existence. For the latter, one might wonder why this is acceptable for the supernatural, but not the natural. For the former, unless you can explain how it works, the supernatural would just be some magical thing to which you can attribute anything you don't understand (one might similarly say there's some part of the natural world that "just works differently", whatever that means, or maybe there is no such part and consciousness just isn't that deep).

A side note

And [an arithmetician-based human] will, also, have rights. It also follows that firing all arithmeticians and leaving all of their sheets of paper intact will freeze our simulated human in time, while burning the office down without having salvaged the sheets of paper will be tantamount to murder. And it also follows that somehow these sheets of paper will give a raise to consciousness.

If they are able to perfectly simulate a human, then the above could be so, yes.

If we ever get to a point where we understand the brain well enough for this to be theoretically plausible, or humans can realistically / easily be simulated in this way, that may raise some hard or uncomfortable questions about our existence. On that note, the idea of free will, what it actually means and whether it exists, has been the subject of much discussion.

Crucially though, hard questions or uncomfortable conclusions does not make something false.

  • It is too bad that there aren't rooms full of Philosophers who could decisively answer people's questions of this nature, like H&R Block at tax time. We could also use armies of Therapists, physical Trainers, Dieticians, Teachers... "How many Therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, if the lightbulb really wants to change." I see the problem right there.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 12 at 14:03

This is a complex question, so the answer will have to be complex as well. I will try to break the question up into sub questions.

  1. Is belief in souls unpopular? Yes, and no. The "no" comes from the number of religious adherents of all the worlds religions, each of which is committed to some form of either spiritual dualism or else idealism. The majority of humans, and even of academically educated humans, are religious, whether organized or not, and every religious person is committed to some form of souls. (Caveat -- a few recently active theologians argue for ways for consciousness and souls to operate "materially" -- but they are a very minority movement and mostly of only academic interest today).

The "yes" comes from the presumptions of academia today. Nearly every intellectual who is NOT religious, which is the majority in most academic and research organizations, presumes that spiritual dualism is intrinsically false, and the view is only held by ignorant superstitious people, or those in thrall to a religious dogma. The presumption of materialism is basically a pre-requisite to almost all academic or research approval processes.

This academic bias against dualism, and shaming/banning of non-materialists, is a real phenomenon. Becoming a parapsychology researcher -- IE any effort to do science based on the presumption that dualism (or idealism) is a viable naturalist ontological framework, is generally a career killer. In philosophy, the situation today is not quite as bad. There are a few notable current dualist philosophers. Richard Swinburne, John Polkinghorne, and David Chalmers are all respected dualists. However, that was not true 40 years ago. Despite the founders of the current analytic philosophy movement being all over the place on ontological commitments (Frege was a triplest, Whitehead an idealist, and Russell a neutral monist), Karl Popper quickly went from respected elder statesman in philosophy to a dismissed non-entity after he came out against materialism, and as a dualist in the late 70s. Aside, actually Popper was a Fregean triplest, and his dualism would be called emergent psycho-physical dualism today, rather than spiritual dualism -- but emergence and ANY form of dualism/triplism were verboten at that time.

WHY this bias and shunning exists -- I postulate is a reaction to the history of religions trying to impose ontological dogma onto academics -- for centuries. Anyone who has been trained in academics is very well versed in the history of thought suppression by religions, and strongly hostile to it. There is a view in memeplex theory -- that only false memeplexes need to and aggressively suppress free thinking. I postulate this feeds a presumption among many of the non-religious that all religious views MUST therefore be false. I suspect that this view is widely held among the non-religious academia, and once the non-religious became a majority, it just defaulted into a dominant view, leading to the career killing etc. as a byproduct.

So -- that is both yes and no on belief in souls being unpopular. It depends on what part of society one is talking about.

  1. Is materialism relative to consciousness refuted by your example case? As with the first part of the question, the answer is yes and no.

There are actually a large spectrum of materialist theories of consciousness. See this answer for a quick summary of many of them: Objections to token-token identity theory in philosophy of mind No single test case will refute all materialist models.

The argument you have made is one made by John Searle against functionalist and computationalist identity theory. You note the ability of machines to emulate each other. This is explicitly a point make by Turing about computers -- any Turing machine can emulate any other, and any Turing machine can run any algorithm. Searle expanded upon this point -- algorithms on computers are run with a fixed set of rules, and changes to memory states. BUT -- it is functionally identical to keep the memory states fixed, and change the rules step to step. Therefore, every discrete set of memory locations, such as the matrix of molecules in the desk or podium in front of him, or in the wall behind him, can continually emulate all functions just by applying a virtual changing rule set to them. Therefore, if a function (or computation) is conscious, then so should be his desk, podium, or wall.

This argument does not really work against eliminative reductionism, or against the emergentist theories of consciousness that are more common today than algorithmic theories. However, Integrated Information Theory (IIT) was explicitly conceived of to try to get around this objection -- by requiring BOTH and algorithm AND a high Phi matrix running it, before consciousness becomes identical with an algorithm. Searle's argument is considered a major problem for computationalism.

  1. Are there other arguments which in combination with Searle's serve to refute materialism? Again, yes and no. Materialism WAS the mostly unchallenged consensus in philosophy of mind about 60-30 years ago. However, a variety of arguments and challenges have been floated against materialist thinking at the time and since then.

The current consensus in philosophy circles is that -- while individual materialists think they have solutions to "the hard problem of consciousness" their solutions are DIFFERENT from each other, and their peers all think the ones who claim to have solved it, are wrong about their claimed solution. Does this refute materialism? Well -- worldviews in philosophy are basically Lakatosian Research Programmes, http://www.mantleplumes.org/Lakatos.html and research programmes can tolerate some unanswered questions. However, the repeated failures to answer this question, and the duration of the failure, ARE starting to erode support for materialism. The number of philosophers who espouse a non-materialist ontology has increased significantly in the last 3 decades. Materialism is still a plurality, but it is no longer a majority view.

For examples of materialists who have struggled with the problem of consciousness, I will reference 3.

Jaegwon Kim flat out claims that materialist reductionism is falsified, ased on the qualia thougth problems of the last half century. He personally thinks that emergent physicalism cannot be made to work (basically he thinks it needs to include causal independence for emergent consciousness, but causal closure is a precondition for physicalism, so he thinks emergent physicalism is self-contradictory). Here is my review of his book, Physicalism or Something Near Enough. https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1LFTMUSP8VEWB/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0691133859 Kim advocates for a halfway Identity Theory for much of consciousness, but with Qualia being non-material epiphenomenon.

Daniel Stoljar, in Physicalism, seizes upon Hempel's Dilemma -- that one cannot specify what physicalism IS, without the specification either a) being false, or b) allowing independently causal consciousness at least in principle. After stepping thru over a dozen plus failing attempts to define physicalism, he declares the project failed. He then argues that physicalism was an attempt to preserve 19th century Newtonian materialism, but that modern physics (Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics) so changed our understanding of matter that Materialism with its focus on inert macro scale objects no longer makes sense, and CAN'T be turned into modern physicalism as an equivalent. Stoljar says he embraces an open minded naturalism instead. But naturalism without physicalism is just methodological naturalism -- IE epistemology, not ontology. Here is my review: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R13R2OUNXMIN6H/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0415452635

Susan Blackmore argues that the psych lab and neurology lab experiments with consciousness refute EVERY physicalist theory of consciousness. BUT, because we know that physicalism is true (she has not read Stoljar, on how we can't even DEFINE physicalism without every definition being false!), then something else has to give. She runs with treating all of consciousness as a delusion. Throw out the data, and the theory remains unrefuted. This is an explicit rejection of science. See my review: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1C1TJFIWBZ8ZQ/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0198794738

Both Kim and Blackmore reject emergent causal consciousness. I consider emergent causal consciousness to be the only viable option remaining for physicalism. It is not very far from spiritual dualism, and when Popper proposed it, he called it dualism. There are self-identified physicalists who embrace this idea, and it does not include souls that survive death, but addresses fairly well most of the various objections based on qualia, etc.

As I myself am a practicing mystic, and directly experience discarnate intelligences, I myself go all the way to full spiritual dualism. But this is a different data set than the solely consciousness ones that you have been asking about.

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    "The presumption of materialism is basically a pre-requisite to almost all academic or research approval processes" - if you can scientifically verify any supernatural claim, or successfully argue that the supernatural is the simplest explanation for any observed phenomenon, I'm sure you'd have people throwing billions and billions of dollars at you. Until then, however, sticking to what we can actually demonstrate is the way to go.
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 12 at 15:42
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    "WHY this bias and shunning exists -- I postulate is a reaction to the history of religions trying to impose ontological dogma onto academics" - Firstly, it's rather disrespectful and naive to assume some of the smartest people in the world, that's discovered some of the most useful knowledge in human history, are merely rebelling, as opposed to actually having good reasons for excluding supernatural claims (such as the reasons they state themselves). Secondly, 81% of the US (for example) believes in God, so having the non-exclusive scientific community rebel against religion makes no sense.
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 12 at 15:51
  • 3
    @Dcleve Scientists are not immune to dogmatism or ideology, but the only "dogma" in science is that you should question your beliefs and follow the evidence (if you want to argue that's bad...). Peer review and the reputability of institutions and journals are there to minimise how much preexisting false beliefs taints the science people do. Given the prevalence of religious beliefs, if you think scientists as a whole are biased by dogma, you'd expect to see a whole lot more pro-supernatural science, but we don't, which is evidence against your argument.
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 12 at 17:34
  • 3
    @Dcleve No-one has scientifically demonstrated supernatural claims to any reasonable degree. If you want to argue otherwise, you've got a far higher burden of proof than what would be satisfied with a vague claim that someone has met this burden. You didn't seriously just reference astrology to support your case... (in any case, question would be whether their study was preregistered, whether they accounted for confounding variables, and whether it's repeatable, which are exceedingly common problems with this sort of "science").
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 12 at 17:34
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    @Dcleve "First-person empiricism" sounds like one of the biggest problems scientists and skeptics have with supernatural claims. I can explain to you all the ways in which what you experienced shouldn't justify what you concluded about those experiences, how other people have had contradictory experiences, how other people have had similar experiences and reached the same conclusions, but later realised they were unjustified in doing so, how those experiences could've naturally occurred, and you can simply dismiss all of that because "you don't know what I felt". That's not good epistemology
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 12 at 19:30

In pragmatic terms, here is what actually seems to have happened: the idea of mind/matter dualism is impossible to disprove empirically, and there is no evidence for it. It’s strongly associated with one particular religious tradition, which is the real reason most people in the West believe it. (Which is what I take the posters saying “It’s not unpopular,” to mean.) Since there were no other important reasons for that belief, it fell out of favor along with the rest of the belief system it was originally part of. In academic philosophy, saying “Most people think so,” or, “My religion says so,” is considered dull. Philosophers want to talk about ideas that are new, clever, or have some interesting implications.

You and many others have proposed interpretations of “supernatural” or “immaterial soul” that stand independently of a particular religious tradition. I would posit that your interpretation is, in principle, verifiable, and leads someplace interesting. If (as you seem to be assuming) the human brain is physically incapable of producing consciousness by physical means alone, but (as seems very plausible right now) it’s simple enough to create human-like cognition on a computer, that would be strong evidence that our minds are actually neural nets running on a computer outside our universe, and our brains are just modems that download them into the Matrix. If, on the other hand, physics completely accounts for how the human brain can produce our experiences on its own, there is nothing left to explain. And if it’s impossible to run humanlike minds on a computer, a lot of people are about to be disappointed but relieved.

  • If computer-based approaches fail, we would probably just figure out how to build computers that were enough like brains for it to work. "Nothing succeeds like success."
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 12 at 14:23

For the recursive human based on many arithmetician using pen and paper to simulate a human. Would such a simulated human be considered a human in themselves?

The philosophical stance on this is that just because something sounds incredulous and absurd, that does not make it wrong. Philosophers take that stance because time and again, people thought things to be ridiculous, like the earth rotating around the sun, earth being round, diseases being spread by breath, the moon being a place we can travel to, replacing horses with metal machines and so on.

Just because it sounds incredible does not mean we can reject it, philosophically.

So the mistake in the OPs question is the classical argument from incredulity fallacy. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_incredulity


Interesting, because my intuition is exactly the opposite. I'm not trained in the philosophic arts, so I cannot provide a sufficiently academic response here, but I can at least provide a viewpoint which has the opposite intuition. In particular, here is what I think about your questions:

Even if we say that there is no free will it is obvious that humans have consciousness and can feel happiness or pain. How does this not frustrate this view?

Even the best scientists today have not been able to come up with a good definition of what "consciousness" is. The concept seems to be intuitive, yet elusive. But that doesn't stop it from being an emergent phenomena in a sufficiently complicated (in the right ways, of course) system.

It is very much unclear how could increasing complexity give a rise to consciousness.

Indeed, since, as I said, we don't even have a good idea what consciousness is.

If the view that all functions of a human being are emergent from fully natural processes that happen inside the human's body then it follows that the above office will give a rise to a complete human being?


And such a human being will, also, have rights. It also follows that firing all arithmeticians and leaving all of their sheets of paper intact will freeze our simulated human in time


while burning the office down without having salvaged the sheets of paper will be tantamount to murder.

...maybe? This is really a legal question, not a philosophical one. And an interesting one too. We'll have to find an answer to it once we've perfected AI far enough that it can do all the things that humans can.

And it also follows that somehow these sheets of paper will give a raise to consciousness.

Yes. Although, see above: we still don't have a clear definition of "consciousness".

And get this: some people believe that we already are simulated intelligences. That we live in a virtual reality like The Matrix and are nothing but NPCs. I, personally, don't think so, however this is one more idea that cannot be either proven or disproven.

And that, I think, is the crux of the issue here - the existence of a "soul" cannot be either proven or disproven - not without defining what a "soul" is. Science in general has a long history grappling with ideas that are ultimately neither provable or disprovable, and it has come to the conclusion that it won't bother with them. There's just too many of them; it's too easy to come up with new ideas like that; and trying to argue about them just wastes time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere.

For this reason I think no scientist will ever vehemently deny the existence of a soul, but neither will they support it. They'll just say - "for now we've seen no reason to think that there might be a soul; and we have no potential avenues with which to approach this question".

It's a very firm "maybe".


Nobody understands the nature of human consciousness, and therefore nobody can answer your question.


TLDR: science is encroaching on the workings of the mind and it does seem that the space for a supernatural object like a soul becomes smaller and smaller.

I cannot speak for Christianity, but simply as an agnostic/atheist (let's not delve into the fine differences here).

At face value, or what you call "intuitive", it seems like consciousness is something so different on a categorical level that there is a valid assumption that it "mechanically" works differently than the rest of the physical world. I think most people grow up so infused in their feeling of self that even assuming that it could just be pure biology/chemistry/electricity at the lowest level seems to sound too profane to be true, no matter which kind of religion one subscribes to (or doesn't).

Issues arise when you start looking closer at this - not on a theoretical level, but practically. As you see, most features of our body are readily available for inspection. I can look at my limbs and joints and figure out how they work together. I can poke my muscles and ligaments with my fingers and non-destructively figure out how they work like a "spring + cable" mechanism. I know, from experience or transferring from seeing maybe dead animals, that there are hard bones which provide stability to this system.

Then there is a layer of biochemistry which was not possible to look at in the distant past (e.g. the gut, the blood, all the organs), but where we are quite far now. Much, much of it is still mysterious and actively researched, but we have no doubt that all of it is totally natural and can be understood if we just poke at it long enough.

The same goes for the brain - we know a lot, but there is of course much, much more that we still do not know. Especially consciousness is totally opaque to us so far, there is no generally accepted view on that at all.

But there are other techniques to inspect consciousness - specifically, meditation. Purely "natural" meditation which has nothing to do with religion or spirituality. Everybody can sit down, quiet down most senses (i.e., close the eyes, chose a quiet room, avoid disturbances etc.) and see what happens. In this way, we can inspect consciousness, senses and so on from the inside out instead of from the outside in.

Crucially, if you do that, you immediately find some very interesting and fascinating facts, for example that thoughts are distinct from consciousness (you cannot really steer your thoughts anymore than you can dictate which noise your ears will hear next). You find that there seem to be utterly random process going on (i.e., totally un-called-for thoughts entering your consciousness). In some respect, witnessing thoughts almost seems like just another sense in addition to hearing, smelling etc.

Also, you very soon find that when you sit still and are not bothered by anything, your body, or parts of it, starts feeling quite differently. You will feel pain in areas where there is no obvious reason; if there occurs itching you will notice it much more closely and so on and forth. One awesome finding is that sometimes a thought pops up, and comes as an adjunct to other bodily feelings (i.e., heat, or some weird feeling in the stomach). So at least the thinking process seems to be firmly rooted in or connected with the physical body on some level.

The same goes for emotions - everybody knows how when you fall in love, you feel "butterflies" in your stomach. That is a real feeling; while there may not be any butterflies down there, the feeling in itself is absolutely there. Or, we are all familiar with especially children blushing when overwhelmed by some emotion (i.e. shame when caught lying). It does seem like emotions are thus also tightly coupled to the more coarse parts of the body.

Memory also seems tightly coupled to the actual brain matter, as witnessed by people losing chunks of their brain to injury, cancer or age, who cannot remember even quite everyday facts anymore.

Some of us have experiences with drugs influencing sensory input; or at the very least with the tunnel vision effect when you're in high stress.

So... the body itself, thoughts, emotions, memory and sensory input seem not to be part of some magical world but to be just plain biochemistry.

While many features are unclear in their exact working, basically the only part we have not a single clue about is consciousness itself. Here, some meditations ask you to "look for the one who is looking" (a.k.a. the "self"), after you're familiar with just watching the senses or your body. The idea is that if our consciousness is able to inspect all of those features of our being described above, we could also try to look and see if we can find some part of ourselves which "does the consciousness'ing". Some "different" thing, that is not thinking (we already are aware that thinking is different from being aware). Interestingly, no matter how long you sit and look and look and search everywhere, you simply cannot find anything.

This could mean at least three things:

  • Either there is nothing that is a separate "consciousness component" (like ears, nose, eyes, thinking, emotion-processing etc.), and consciousness somehow arises from complexity itself. Meaning from the humongous amount of neurons and synapses in our brain, which is a staggering 10^11 or 10^14.
  • Or there is such a component in the brain but it is simply mechanically wired in a way that makes it quite impossible to inspect itself. This would be similar to how our current PCs/smartphones use their CPUs - they have software which you could put on a level with consciousness (just categorically, not functionally, of course); that software can only "see" things it has sensors for (i.e., your user input, the RAM or storage, and so on). It cannot see its own workings, i.e. it's own machine code or the layout of the copper traces within the physical CPU in any way (at least not unless you are a developer employing advanced low-level debuggers).
  • Or, finally, it is a spiritual or religious object, i.e., a truly supernatural soul which uses our body as a simple mortal vehicle.

There is nothing whatsoever that speaks for or against the 3rd solution, while 1 and 2 are perfectly amenable to either our scientific or self-experimental methods, as witnessed by all the things we already know about the workings of our mind from outside (science) or inside (meditation). As often in religion, there simply is no handle we have on a "soul" whatsoever. So people who are inclined to believe in this kind of thing by default will do so; and other people will not. Those other people might still use the word "soul" just a shortcut to talk about consciousness and other aspects of our brain that we simply have no explanation for, yet, simply because the word is so commonplace (like "heart" when talking about emotions...).


Why is it an unpopular view that a human being has a supernatural, spiritual soul?

If you're talking the general public, I believe it is quite popular. If you're talking about secular philosophers and scientists, it's because it doesn't fit in a naturalistic (SEP) worldview.

As a non-believer in souls, I'll just offer three points for consideration:

It's Intuitive to Believe in an Animating Substance

I suspect the vast majority of people at large do believe in a soul (it's an empirical question really), because 'soul' complements a strong intuition that there is some 'substance' that animates inorganic matter to make it 'alive'. This is a long held and quite durable belief because it complements our sense in folk physics that inanimate objects can't spontaneous become animate. The theme of animating the inanimate goes back into pre-civilization myth most likely. Philosophically in science, this was eventually discarded through the discovery that organic chemistry is naturalistic and vitalism isn't tenable.

There's No Physical Evidence for an Animating Substance

In the modern secular world, souls are either rejected entirely (I certainly see no reason to believe they exist as anything other than abstraction) or they are partitioned off as articles of faith that aren't open to scientific exploration. Gould, as I understood it was diplomatic and encouraged the latter with his NOMA, and the militant atheist Dawkins of course believes that science dispatches all supernatural discourse. The soul, has no mass or energy, does not help scientific theory in anyway, and otherwise cannot be shown to exist in any empirical fashion. There have been attempts to weigh bodies at the point of death and the like, but nothing that amounts to serious scientific theory or research supports any notion of an animating substance. As already mentioned, vitalism was abandoned a long time ago.

The Soul as an Explanatory Device

Scientists can explain why an egg forms and breaks, but they cannot undo the breakage of an egg. That doesn't mean that they don't have a mastery over the explanation over what an eggshell is. Likewise, because we cannot create life in a lab, doesn't mean that we don't understand what life is, how it functions, and how to heal or harm it. There is a difference between knowledge-how and knowledge-that (SEP). The skeptical method asks us to apply Occam's razor and ask ourselves, is the use of the concept of 'soul' parsimonious? In a way, yes. It simplifies things tremendously. Instead of explaining consciousness, for example, in terms of biochemistry which is near-insurmountably complex, it simply let's us wave a magic wand and say "it has a soul". But it smacks of the same explanatory simplicity that "angels bowling in heaven" has when explaining the hydrological cycle. Thus, the belief in the soul functions like a God-of-the-gaps in that it makes it easy to explain something that is not understood, even if it is not literally true.


Here are some reasons that acknowledging the existence of a spirit may be unpopular:

  1. Our current educational systems exude a world view that our science is very advanced, that we're only a few minor discoveries away from understanding everything, that we've answered all the major questions. This is obviously false, as any cosmologist, biologist, or quantum physicist would tell you. The problem is that this viewpoint makes it embarrassing to discuss any major gap in any field.

  2. The philosophy of "eat, drink, and be merry" is appealing to many; the idea that they might be held accountable or yet have to progress after this life scares them.

  3. As mentioned, there is an idea that the soul of something is their works that continue on after their life. This includes their influence on their progeny or their written word, etc. There is similar confusion on the word consciousness, referring to different levels of it or recognition of surroundings or beauty, etc. I'm in favor of gaining all possible insight from text, both ancient and modern, but perhaps these alternative understandings allow people to excuse a great deal of human experience and scripture as fluff, as symbols only. The literal experience and wisdom become unduly devalued thereby.

  • 2
    2. Atheists just want to sin?
    – RonJohn
    Mar 12 at 2:39
  • 4
    "the idea that they might be held accountable or yet have to progress after this life scares them" - or... you know, maybe listen to all the reasons people give for not believing any given supernatural claim. People have spoken thousands of hours on the subject. And maybe stop thinking so little of atheists, or apply even the smallest amount of common sense, and accept that pretty much no person on the planet would willingly give up an eternity of bliss for a few short-term pleasures (but an eternity that's existence we don't have the evidence to justify belief in, on the other hand...).
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 12 at 6:02
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    "educational systems exude a world view that our science is very advanced" - our science is very advanced. We know of events that happened billions of years ago, galaxies billions of light years away, creatures from the deepest oceans, the deepest part of our planet and microscopic organisms. We don't know everything, but we know a lot. "... that we've answered all the major questions" - education is far from perfect, but curiously, it's typically the theists who insist that they know things (i.e. that the supernatural exists), whereas atheists are usually fine with saying "I don't know".
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 12 at 6:18

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