Souls do not Exist
Evidence from Science & Philosophy Against Mind-Body Dualism

Our 'minds', 'souls', 'spirit' and consciousness are all physical in nature. Thousands of years of investigation has shown us that our brains comprise and produce our true selves, although because that for most of human history we have had no understanding of how our brains work most Humans have falsely believed inferred that we have souls1. Souls and spirits do not exist. Our bodies run themselves. We know from cases of brain damage and the effects of psychoactive drugs, that our experiences are caused by physical chemistry acting on our physical neurones in our brains. Our innermost self is our biochemical self.

Human and animal mental processes look just as they can be expected to look if there is no soul or other immaterial component.

Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)2

1. The Physical Brain is the Source of Emotions and Personality, Not the Soul

If you take a couple of drinks, or smoke some pot, YOU become intoxicated. It is easy to understand how the chemicals in alcohol and cannabis can affect the ticking of your nerve cells. But how can physical reactions in your brain cause the psychological or spiritual YOU to get high? If your mind controls your body how does it do so? When you drive a car, you sit in the driver's seat, you push on the pedals with your feet, and you turn the wheel with your hands. If you consider your body to be a biological machine "driven" by your mind, where does the driver "sit"? And how does your purely spiritual or psychological "mind" pull the biological strings that make your neurones fire and your muscles move?

"Understanding Human Behavior" by James V. McConnel (1986)3

After a long analysis my page "Emotions Without Souls: How Biochemistry and Neurology Account for Feelings" by Vexen Crabtree (1999) concludes:

Do emotions result from us having a soul, or merely from the laws of nature? Degenerative diseases of the brain that erode personality, and cases where brain damage causes sudden changes in character, are both only possible if character itself is biological. Mood disorders and mind-altering drugs indicate that the sources of feelings are biochemical. Inherited mood disorders and developmental diseases show us that personality is driven by biology. Depression, love, niceness, politeness, aggression, basic drives, abstract thinking, judgement, patience, considered behaviour, instincts, memories, language construction and comprehension, and every emotion, have turned out to have biochemical causes4, not spiritual ones, and can all be radically affected by brain damage and brain surgery. If there was a soul, brain damage could not also damage our emotional feelings, but it does. Electrical stimulation of the brain causes actual desire to arise instantly. If memory, behaviour and emotions are all controlled by the physical brain, what is a soul for? It seems that there isn't anything for a soul to do - it certainly does not control behaviour or character, and, any free will it exerts is promptly overridden by biological chemistry, hence why so many diseases have an uncontrollable effect on personality. Modern science proves that the idea of souls is misguided. Everything is biological.

"Emotions Without Souls: How Biochemistry and Neurology Account for Feelings: 9. Conclusion"
Vexen Crabtree

This page is about many other beliefs concerning the soul except for the wrong idea that it was our emotional centre.

Virtually all contemporary scientists and philosophers expert on the subject agree that the mind, which comprises consciousness and rational process, is the brain at work. They have rejected the mind-brain dualism of René Descartes, who in Meditationes (1642) concluded that 'by the divine power the mind can exist without the body and the body without the mind.

"Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge"
E. O. Wilson (1998)5

Our brainstem controls the impulses that are sent to our body. Our muscles, glands, hormone secretions, skin sensitivity, organ action, heart rate and thousands of other actions are all controlled by our nervous system, which is managed by our brains. So, if we damage a part of our brain we can impair our ability to control our bodies. If we damage our medulla, our physical co-ordination can be lost, if we damage our frontal lobes, our personality can be changed. This is because the brain controls the body and emotions. The cause and effect is clear: physical damage to the brain damages our soul.

Book CoverConversely, even if things happen to our bodies that we do not choose (such as the progression of Alzheimer's disease, which causes senility and dementia)6, we are forced to change our behaviour and feelings as a result of changes to the structure of our brain during medical procedures. Psychosurgery, including lobotomies or leucotomies, became used regularly from the 1930s for severely disrupted patients. Since then highly accurate and specific stereotactic tractotomies, stereotactic limbic leucotomies and the like have been developed, allowing the destruction of very small parts of the brain, normally locating particular pathways between one part and another in order to change specific aspects of behaviour and symptoms. For example, a cingulotomy is occasionally used against obsessive and compulsive patients by destroying 2-3cm of particular white matter. An amygdalotomy destroys the brain's neural connection between the amygdala and the hypothalamus and is normally used on patients who suffer from episodes of unstoppable violence and terror.7. What all this shows is that the physical structures and chemistry of the brain can control large portions of our chosen behaviours, experiences and feelings.

If our medulla is damaged, or our brainstem, why can't the soul control our body? If we have a serotonin imbalance as the result of disease, why does our soul suffer depression and mood disorders? It seems that the soul is completely physical.

A small amount of damage [...] might even cause rather dramatic changes in your personality. Why? Because your brain is the seat of your self-awareness, the locus of your intelligence, your compassion, and your creativity. All of your mental activities - your thoughts, emotions and feelings - and all your bodily processes are affected by the functioning of your brain.

"Understanding Human Behavior" by James V. McConnel (1986)8

If we suffer brain damage, take drugs, or if we are injected unknowingly with hormones by an experimenter, our feelings can be altered. This must mean that a soul is a reader of our experiences, but not a cause of them.

If you take a couple of drinks, or smoke some pot, YOU become intoxicated. It is easy to understand how the chemicals in alcohol and cannabis can affect the ticking of your nerve cells. But how can physical reactions in your brain cause the psychological or spiritual YOU to get high? If your mind controls your body how does it do so? When you drive a car, you sit in the driver's seat, you push on the pedals with your feet, and you turn the wheel with your hands. If you consider your body to be a biological machine "driven" by your mind, where does the driver "sit"? And how does your purely spiritual or psychological "mind" pull the biological strings that make your neurones fire and your muscles move?

"Understanding Human Behavior" by James V. McConnel (1986)3

It seems that whatever role our 'soul' has, it is not directly linked to the control of our physical bodies, and it is not directly a cause of our experiences.

My fundamental premise about the brain is that its workings—what we sometimes call “mind”—are a consequence of its anatomy and physiology, and nothing more. —CARL SAGAN


2. The Physics of the Soul

2.1. Evolution and Development of the Self

There is another major problem with the idea that a soul is required for some parts of the brain to function... the fact that all the individual parts of the brain obey normal biological and chemical rules. Animals and such evolved through a long process of gradual complexification. At no point in the history of the evolution of the nervous system has a soul became necessary. The soul itself must have evolved with us, within us. Growing with us from birth. It is as if our 'soul' is our brains, and nothing more. Or in other words, the evolution of our brain shows us that we have merely mistaken some of the emergent properties of consciousness to be a soul, somehow different from the brain itself. Now we know enough neurology to say for sure that this isn't true. In short there is only one sensible conclusion: Souls do not exist. This lesson from natural biology came too late for some, and the belief in special souls just for Human Beings has pervaded Human religions up to the present day.

2.2. Consciousness and Complexity

The most basic consensus amongst those who study consciousness is that it is a result of the complexity of our brains:

Book CoverThe complexity of our nervous system which makes our consciousness possible... [...] it is less obvious whether consciousness was itself adaptive or simply a side-effect or byproduct of a complex nervous system.

"Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour" by Richard Gross (1996)10

EEG scans have told us much - including the point during gestation where consciousness first looks like it could have arisen:

But when does the magical journey of consciousness begin? Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate, the thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content, begins to be in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. Roughly two months later synchrony of the electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm across both cortical hemispheres signals the onset of global neuronal integration. Thus, many of the circuit elements necessary for consciousness are in place by the third trimester.

Prof. Christof Koch (2009)

But as researchers looked deeper, they found a system so complex that it defied centralisation. E. O. Wilson summarizes brilliantly:

Book CoverConsciousness consists of the parallel processing of vast numbers of such coding networks. Many are linked by the synchronized firing of the nerve cells at forty cycles per second, allowing the simultaneous internal mapping of multiple sensory impressions. [...] Who or what within the brain monitors all this activity? No one. [...] There is not even a Cartesian theater, to use Daniel Dennett's dismissive phrase, no single locus of the brain where the scenarios are played out in coherent form. Instead, there are interlacing patterns of neural activity within and among particular sites throughout the forebrain, from cerebral cortex to other specialized centers of cognition such as the thalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus. There is no single stream of consciousness in which all information is brought together by an executive ego. There are instead multiple streams of activity, some of which contribute momentarily to conscious thought and then phase out. Consciousness is the massive coupled aggregates of such participating circuits.

"Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge" by E. O. Wilson (1998)11

E. O. Wilson also repeats the little expression of the biologist S. J. Singer to sum it all up12:

I link, therefore I am

This may all highlight how consciousness is possible, but why did it arise? The psychologist Richard Gross above has already said that it is hard to tell if consciousness is merely a by-product of complexity, or if it specifically evolved. In "Kinds of Minds" by Daniel C. Dennett (1996) the author airs a respectable theory: That consciousness arose as a method for trying to manipulate other individuals' reactions to our actions, therefore 'mapping' their consciousness, therefore leaving space to analyse own reactions too. Combine with words and language and we have a modern, Human, intelligent conscious lifeform being where consciousness awareness is selected for on the basis of the benefits of increased social skills.

3. Voltaire Verses Descartes13

Voltaire in 1764 argued that as seemingly immaterial features can be found in material objects, the same can be true for thought existing as part of the physical body, and not requiring an additional supernatural element to explain its existence:

''Thought is something distinct from matter," say you. But what proof of it have you? Is it because matter is divisible and figurable, and thought is not? [...] Weak, reckless reasoners! Gravitation is neither wood, nor sand, nor metal, nor stone; movement, vegetation, life are not these things either, and yet life, vegetation, movement, gravitation, are given to matter.

"Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary" by Voltaire (1764)14

Before Voltaire, France had also given us René Descartes (1596-1650), ever popular amongst Christians, who is famous for his separation of "soul" from body. He thought this was necessary because the increasing knowledge of physiology and chemistry by early scientists had meant that many were coming (correctly) to see the physical world as a clockwork world, where everything obeys the unconscious laws of physics. He could not bear to face the reality that our very thoughts are subject to the same rules of cause and effect, and devised a new scheme to avoid this conclusion:

Book CoverDescartes [provoked hostility with] his separation of the human soul from its body, his conclusion that there was some mental Descartes - mind, soul, consciousness - that existed independently of his body. Descartes presented organic beings as living machines in which functions such as digestion, respiration, and sexual arousal arise 'simply from the disposition of the organs as wholly naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the disposition of its counterweights and wheels.'12 Even more controversially, he insisted that the nervous system also operates mechanically, so that memory and deliberate actions were also covered by his clockwork model. [...] Descartes declared that animals are machines with no soul, a claim that horrified his critics. [...] In his view of life, people are different from machines and also from animals because they can talk, reason and make moral decisions.

[Descartes ...] had some formidable objections to overcome. Most urgently, he needed to explain how an immaterial mind can interact with a body made of matter. [...] This problem was, Descartes feebly admitted, 'very difficult', and he never came up with a satisfactory answer. He eventually decided that the pineal gland, tucked away inside the brain, is the place where the soul processes physical data, almost as though it were a miniature person detachedly watching the body's sensations play out on a screen in front of it.

"Science: A Four Thousand Year History" by Patricia Fara (2009)15

4. Particular Phenomenon

4.1. Ghosts16

Everything about ghosts - from their mystical and unclear communications, their appearance to individuals alone, their frequenting of dark, odd, scary, lonely or old places, their half-seen and half-heard nature, all require large amounts of personal and subjective interpretation in order to create the experience. Ghosts seem to appear in all the circumstances in which our minds are at their least logical, least clear, and least sensible. This is not the hallmark of a murky spiritual world 'just beyond reach' - it is the hallmark of a phenomenon that comes from the quirky psychological of the living rather than the strange attempts of the recently dead to somehow appear - complete with clothes - and to try most ineffectually to tell us things. Every scientific investigation has found the idea of ghosts to be impossible, and every solved case has turned out to have utterly mundane origins, mostly in Human confusion, hallucination and other thinking errors, but unfortunately many so-called ghost photos and stories have turned out to be simple exaggerations, pranks and frauds. All it takes is suggestion, and a ghost story can become real: to prove this, multiple times sceptics have invented ghost stories and spread them: it is only a matter of time before the invented ghosts get reported to them by people who think they've seen them17. The occurrence of ghosts in hallucinations can give believers the most convincing experiences, and, other coincidences (such as dreaming of someone and finding out that they're dead) are only akin with the laws of chance. Try to think of how many more times we dream of those we know and they turn out not to have recently died! The problem is, these more mundane experiences are easily forgotten, where the occasional coincidence is so dramatic we remember it, and build false theories upon them. There is no afterlife, there is no soul, there are no spirits wandering around occasionally making themselves visible: there are no ghosts.

"Ghosts, Physical Properties and Ghostly Clothes: A Skeptical Investigation: 8. Conclusions" by Vexen Crabtree (2013)

A series of wonderful investigations documented in "The Supernatural?" by Lionel A. Weatherley (1891) provide some timeless notes on hallucinations and ghosts:

Mrs. A., so graphically described by Sir David Brewster in his letters to Sir Walter Scott on Natural Magic. Mrs A. was suffering repeated hallucinations, and was advised to carry out a simple test to determine if she was really seeing an exterior ghost: to squash one of her eyes with her hand, so as to cause the ghost to appear double. A mental apparition would not be effected by this test. (However she was too stressed during the episodes to carry out this test.)

"The Supernatural?" by Lionel A. Weatherley (1891)18

Another case dated 26th Dec 1830 was about a wife who repeatedly hears her husband calling for her (later on, impatiently so) but she can't find him in the house. When they meet later, she is surprised to know that he was quite well, but nowhere near the house, and not calling for her. Weatherly describes this as a simple aural hallucination. She had many hallucinations during a period of general ill health, but, being seen by doctors and a sound person, didn't suspect any supernatural cause. No doubt such things are the sources of many so-called supernatural experiences. Surely, she could have been easily pushed by friends or relatives into thinking her illusions were true, or, that they were meaningful. Imagine just for a moment if after telling someone about one of these hallucinations, she soon discovered that her husband had died in an accident. Such an amazing story would spread like wildfire, and 'believers' would be aghast how anyone, after hearing the story, could continue to not believe in souls and ghosts. But luckily in this case, as supernatural beliefs were not promoted to her, the illness passed into history much more rapidly whereas a superstitious or gullible person could have ended up spending decades telling stories about ghosts.

4.2. The Appearance of the Recently Dead

In many folk tales, Westerners tell of seeing the ghosts of the recently departed. Scientific investigation has always found that such cases are either explainable in terms of the subject actually knowing more than they knew they knew (or let on), or are mistaken. Experiments where people write down such predictions before finding out confirming evidence (such as receiving a phone call informing them a relative is dead), results in a very poor record of accuracy, with the only slight success rate attributable to the fact that people tend to predict the deaths of the elderly or unwell. The investigative psychologist Stan Gooch, who does believe that the human brain is capable of supernatural intelligence, argues that all such encounters with the dead are actually subjective methods of interpreting information, but which do not actually have a basis in physical reality:

In all these cases we do not require the discarnate spirit hypothesis at all. It is totally irrelevant. [...] (As emphasized, the person is not always dead when the vision occurs). Is it not enough to say that in all cases of death that having received kind of telepathic impulse if events, the unconscious mind then generates some kind of symbolic fantasy - a vision, a dream, a premonition - by which means it presents the received information to consciousness? That view gains enormously also from the fact that Australian aborigines are very good at sensing the death of a distant companion. But they do not see a ghostly vision of that person, as westerners often do. Instead they see a vision of that person's totem animal running about the camp. Once again, 'we see what we expect to see' in terms of our cultural (and in this case religious) upbringing. The totem animal is the best choice, and the obvious choice, for the Aborigine unconscious mind to make in presenting its information to consciousness.

"The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind"
Stan Gooch (2007) [Book Review]19

And the following story by Lionel Weatherley leads us to realize that the way we think and construct ideas from coincidences is so natural that it is hard to imagine ghostly stories ever being eradicated by healthy skeptical thinking:

I well remember, some few years ago, when on the Thames (some hundreds of miles from my home) with a party of friends, that [...] I saw seated [...] a fellow whom I at once thought I distinguished beyond a shadow of a doubt as one of my brothers [...]. His face was so identical, his cap, his light-grey coat, his peculiar collar [...etc]. I called him by name. No response. Again I hailed him. [...] Yet what was my surprise, on reaching home, to find that he had never been absent for a single hour! Here, then, was a striking example of mistaken identity.

"The Supernatural?" by Lionel A. Weatherley (1891)20

I am sure most of us recognize that this type of event is not unusual. In this case, the man was with friends but it is easy to imagine that many times such awkward moments occur when we are on our own. The next insight of Weatherley, I think, explains a lot about how some of us come to believe that we have seen a ghost:

Now, supposing something had happened to my brother at that time, and on that day, what more likely than that I should have rushed off into print to record the most wonderful instance of [a ghost]? The Psychical Research Society would have welcomed it, and with solemn faces would have at once said: 'Yes, here is another instance...'

"The Supernatural?" by Lionel A. Weatherley (1891)20

All it takes is their collecting of several of these coincidences, mistakes and illusions and they will confidently make the case that this constitutes evidence of ghosts. The problem is, their error, is that they are not recording failed occurrences where mundane explanations were found. To count as evidence, the occurrence rate of ghostly appearances must be correlated against the rate of soon-forgotten mistakes that turned out not to be ghostly at all. Such an impossible endeavour would find, I am sure, that the rate of ghost-appearances is a result of chance and that the appearance of meaning comes from selection bias and other cognitive errors, whereby we ignore all the mundane explanations and concentrate solely on the much more exciting supernatural ones.

The problem is, once stories and beliefs like this take hold, they are all but impossible to dislodge. Imagine that Lionel's brother had died at home during his day-long excursion to the Thames. He may well have been utterly convinced that his dead brother appeared to him after his death, as a farewell. Skeptics are left with the almost impossible situation where they have to tell him it was coincidence or mistake, and perhaps just mistaken identity. It is easy to see how we would come to ridicule the skeptics, as he has a real life experience to back up his belief. Only through sustained teaching that our experiences are not always what they seem, can we hope to curb irrationalism.

4.3. Out of Body Experiences (OBEs) and Near-Death Experiences (NDEs)

Out-of-body experiences were once poorly studied scientifically because of their purely psychological nature, but recent technological developments have allowed neurologists to study these types of states of consciousness. Scientists have been able to recreate situations in which out of body experiences occur in wide-awake individuals.

Two sets of studies published independently in the same issue of the journal Science demonstrate how the illusion of a bodily self outside one's own body can be stimulated in the laboratory. The studies forge ways to better understand both out-of-body and near-death experiences. "The research provides a physical explanation for the phenomenon usually ascribed to otherworldly influences," Peter Bruger, a neurologist at University Hospital in Zurich who was not involved in the experiment, told science journalist Sandra Blakesee in her report on these experiments in The New York Times (August 24).

Kendrick Frazier (2007)21

Book CoverOlaf Blanke and his colleagues report that they are able to bring about so-called out-of-body experiences (OBE), where a person's consciousness seems to become detached from the body, by electrical stimulation of a specific region in the brain. I have discussed OBE experiments in two books and have concluded that they provide no evidence for anything happening outside of the physical processes of the brain.

"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)22

The two books by Prof. Victor Stenger on this subject, plus relevant page numbers, are:

  1. Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World beyond the Senses (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990) p111.
  2. Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003) p290-99.

Extensive research into cases of OBEs by skeptical scientists have shown that in all cases, details of the event have not produced anything that could not have been known by the patient. Experiments have included hidden symbols placed high up in rooms so that only through an OBE or other supernatural process could someone know what the symbol was. Simple tests like this have always demonstrated that what is 'seen' during an OBE is only ever what the patient already knew was there. This, combined with our neurological understanding of OBEs is conclusive proof that OBEs are purely psychological, with, as Prof Stenger says, "no evidence for anything happening outside of the physical processes of the brain".

The Natural Death Centre, who do not have vested interests one way or another in this topic but whom have conducted research into Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) as part of their professional work on the experience of death at home, report that:

While many people who have had NDEs are totally convinced about what has happened [...] Dr Robert Buckman [explains that the medical reasons are known - NDEs are] caused by substances produced in the brain called endorphins. [...] Dr Susan Blackmore, a Bristol University psychologist, explains the common NDE vision of a long tunnel with a bright light at the end, as the retina as the back of the eye becoming starved of oxygen, with nerve cells beginning to fire at random. These are more nerve cells in the most sensitive part, the fovea, so a bright spot that looks like the end of a tunnel is seen.

Albery & Wienrich
The Natural Death Centre (2010)

4.4. Night Terrors: Demonic Attacks

My full page on Night Terrors:

The following phenomenon has its basis in the biochemistry of the brain, involving the limbic system, cerebellum and duodenum and the way that they are suppressed during sleep. An incorrect balance of neurone-controlling chemicals during sleep makes some people more susceptible to night terrors than others. They occur in the early night and "experiences of entrapment, of being choked or attacked, often with shrieking, sitting-up, or sleep-walking, and tremendous acceleration of the heart. [They become] more frequent when there is greater daytime anxiety; they are frequent among wartime battle evacuees and night terrors are commonly experienced by children aged 10-14"23. The human biologist McConnel describes a likely Night Terror:

You begin to sense - deep down inside you - that something has gone very wrong. Slowly, almost dimly, you regain enough consciousness to realize that you are suffocating, that some heavy weight is lying on your chest and crushing your lungs. Suddenly you realize your breathing has almost stopped, and you are dying for air. Terrified, you scream! At once, you seem to awaken. There is this thing hovering over you, crushing the very life out of your lungs. You shout at the thing, but it won't leave you alone.

Despite a strange feeling of paralysis, you start to resist. Your pulse begins to race, your breathing becomes rapid, and you push futilely at the thing that is choking you to death. Your legs tremble, then begin to thrash about under the covers. You sweep the bedclothes aside, stumble to your feet, and flee into the darkness. You run clumsily through the house, trying to get from the thing.

And then, all at once, you find yourself in your living room. The lights come on, the thing instantly retreats to the shadows of your mind, and you are awake. You are safe now, but you are intensely wrought up and disturbed. You shake your head, wondering what has happened to you. You can remember that you were fleeing from the thing that was crushing you. But you have forgotten your scream and talking in your sleep. The thing dream is a classic example of a night terror.

"Understanding Human Behavior" by James V. McConnel (1986)24

It is clear to see how such physiological events can be interpreted supernaturally by its victims!

Before the physiological causes of these experiences were known, night terrors were interpreted as being the attacks of evil spirits. Others have experienced it as an alien abduction, an attempted possession or as the evil magic of medieval witches, along with all manner of other supernatural and paranormal explanations that have arose historically. These interpretations have all been shown to be false by modern science, as all the factors that cause sleep terrors have been found to be biochemical in nature. The chemistry precedes the attack.

"Nightmares and Night Terrors: 2.2. Religion and Superstition" by Vexen Crabtree (2005)

5. Religion

5.1. A Life Force: The Creation of a Pre-Scientific Age

The whole idea of a mystical and spiritual life-force embodied a lack of knowledge of neurology and cognitive psychology1; the neurology of the self was simply beyond any possible investigation. Many ancient languages and cultures conflated the act of breathing with life:

Book CoverThe association of spirit with air is embedded in a number of ancient languages: the Hebrew ruah ("wind" or "breath") and nefesh, also associated with breathing; the Greek psychein ("to breathe"), which is related to the word psyche for "soul"; and the Latin words anima ("air," "breath," or "life") and spiritus, which also refers to breathing. The soul was seen as departing the body in the dying last breath. [...] In the Old Testament, the soul is life itself, breathing into the body by God.

"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)25

Now we know that us Humans evolved, along with all other animals, developing a complex nervous system and brain along the way. This led slowly, over time, to conscious life and emotional awareness. As we noted in the section on evolution, there was no point in the evolution of our minds that an independent soul became a necessary addition. Yet many religionists such as Jews, Christians and Muslims have gone to great lengths to argue that only Human Beings have souls and that animals and plants do not. In the Christian world, this is based on the account of creation where God 'breathes life' into Adam and Eve but not into the various animals.

Historically speaking, however, the relationship between religion and the sciences of the mind has been tense at least since the middle of the nineteenth century [...] As doctors documented how injury or illness could rob a patient of his mental or moral faculties, they struggled to assure the clergy that (somehow) their discoveries did not contradict the religious notions of the immortal soul (Ray 1863; 1871).

"Science and Religion" by William Sims Bainbridge (2011)26

This is despite the fact that the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam do not endorse the idea of souls. Confused? The leaders of the main faiths have taken up some pretty contradictory positions on the existence of the soul: it has been endorsed, denied, preached for, preached against, declared heretical and declared essential.

In his classic work The Illusion of Immortality, philosopher Corliss Lamont surveyed all the aspects of the subject of immortality, from theological and philosophical to scientific and social. He points out that the exact nature of the immortality that is preached in Christianity, as well as in other religions, is not at all clear, with many different doctrines being presented over the ages.

"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)27

5.2. Judaism and the Old Testament

Christianity and Islam both got their original framework of ideas from Judaism. The language of the Old Testament is purely earthly when it comes to discussions of what we now call the soul. In Genesis 2:7 it says God created man 'from dust' and then breathed into it. God didn't add a soul, it says next, that the dust itself became a living being (nephesh). Genesis 1:24 sees the same term applied to animals.

The Hebrew word translated "soul" in the Old Testament is nephesh, which simply means "a breathing creature." Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words defines nephesh as "the essence of life, the act of breathing, taking breath ... The problem with the English term 'soul' is that no actual equivalent of the term or the idea behind it is represented in the Hebrew language. The Hebrew system of thought does not include the combination or opposition of the 'body' and 'soul' which are really Greek and Latin in origin" (1985, p. 237-238, emphasis added).

The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible [comments that] "In the OT it never means the immortal soul, but it is essentially the life principle, or the living being, or the self as the subject of appetite, and emotion, occasionally of volition" (Vol. 4, 1962, "Soul," emphasis added). [...]

The Hebrew Scriptures state plainly that, rather than possess immortality, the soul can and does die. "The soul [nephesh] who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4,20).

[...] Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 describes sheol as a place of unconsciousness: "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished ..."

Gary Petty in The Good News (n.d., accessed 2011 Nov 26)

5.3. Buddhism28

Anatta is the word given in Buddhist doctrine to mean "no soul" or "soullessness". Official Buddhist scriptures are voluminous, complicated, and to study all comments on the soul and other spiritual issues takes a lifetime. Many have conducted such researches, and I do not know of one single devotee who thinks that they have got to the bottom of what, exactly, Buddhism teaches about the soul. But of those who do make proclamations, it is generally in the negative: Buddhism does not teach that there is an eternal soul that survives from life to life. Yes, something passes on, but, it is not what Westerners call "the soul".

Kaiten Nukariya in "Zen - The Religion of the Samurai" cites Abhidharmamahavibhasa-castra, volume 114 as referring to "the fundamental doctrine of non-soul"29. Christmas Humphreys was President of the Buddhist Society, London, from its foundation in 1924 until its Silver Jubilee in 1954. On page 79 of his book Buddhism in a section entitled "No God, No Soul" agrees with other scholars who have noted Buddhism's "no-soul" doctrine.

5.4. Christianity: No Souls, Only Physical Resurrection

We have already seen that the Old Testament does not endorse any idea of an eternal soul that is separate from the body. Both die into unconsciousness in the grave, or both rise again in resurrection. Christianity's official approach has not often differed:

Historically, the Catholic Church has taught that the full body is resurrected. The Apostle's Creed, adopted in the second century and still recited, states that there will be a resurrection of the flesh. The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century asserted that the "identical body" will be restored "without deformities." St Augustine declared that "the substance of our bodies, however disintegrated, shall be entirely reunited."

"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)30

But because doctrine in Christianity is based on a collection of different writings by different people, and its organisations are all-too-human, the concept of a soul has often been commonly accepted by Christians. Although their idea of it isn't what we would always expect - they do not always infer that souls exist because we are conscious, moral beings. "At the Council of Maçon in the 6th century the bishops had to vote to decide whether women had souls. The motion was carried by one vote"31 - there have clearly been a lot of Christians who have believed (as do scientists) that all the faculties of sentience can be mimicked purely by the body - hence how they could believe that perhaps only men had souls and women didn't, despite the complete similarity in emotional and moral coherence. Do all people have souls? Should Christians believe in souls? Let's return to the Bible and see.

When it comes to quoting verse and chapter, some snippets are unclear. Examine John 11:23-24 and Matthew 10:28. But there are many statements in the Bible that do clearly teach that there is no eternal soul, and that people do not possess any immortal component, and that such immortality, if it is given by God at all, comes after the physical body is resurrected and is granted to the physical body:

The dead remain dead, in their graves, until the day of judgement. Then, those believers whom are chosen are given eternal life, and thusly their bodies, and brains, continue to live forever. In this scheme, there are no eternal souls. Just bodies, dead or alive. In other words, the New Testament teaches the same thing as the Old Testament in this respect and the Greek concept of an immortal soul was not accepted or employed even though such ideas became increasingly common amongst Pagans and common people.

Gary Petty:

In the New Testament the Greek word translated "soul" is psuche, which is also translated "life." In Psalm 16:10 David uses nephesh ("soul") to claim that the "Holy One," or Messiah, wouldn't be left in sheol, the grave. Peter quotes this verse in Acts 2:27, using the Greek psuche for the Hebrew nephesh (notice verses 25-31).

Like nephesh, psuche refers to human "souls" (Acts 2:41) and for animals (it is translated "life" in the King James Version of Revelation 8:9 and 16:3). Jesus declared that God can destroy man's psuche, or "soul" (Matthew 10:28). [...]

Many people are surprised to find that the term immortal soul appears nowhere in the Bible.

Physical resurrection causes as many problems as it solves. It is no longer a problem that the physical brain is the true us, being tied completely with our personality without any influence of soul. But it becomes a problem that our memories are also completely physical. Do those who suffer Alzheimer's disease find themselves resurrected with gaping holes in their memories and cognitive functions? If you restore someone's memories, you change their character and life experience. So at what point in a person's life do you declare that this is the "definitive" version to which they will return when they come back to consciousness? Or is heaven full of the senile? It simply can't be the whole story that in heaven, a place of perfection, people simply find themselves resurrected with their imperfect physical bodies and brains. These complexities and problems cause so many problems for Christianity's idea of physical resurrection that it seems simply to make little sense.

5.5. Islam

We well know the approach whose most familiar expression is the opposition between the soul and the body. But a careful reading of the scriptural sources reveals that there is nothing in the Islamic tradition that can serve as a basis for the dualistic approach that opposes two constituent elements of humankind, each characterized by a positive and negative ethical quality: the soul would be the expression (explicitly or implicitly) of good, the body the expression (explicitly or implicitly) of evil. Never does the Qur'anic Revelation or the Prophetic tradition suggest anything of the sort.

"Western Muslims and the Future of Islam" by Tariq Ramadan (2004)32

5.6. God Does Not Need Souls

Souls are unnecessary33. Consciousness can come from flesh. God's memory is infinitely perfect and it knows our personality and memories better than we do. God can simply revive and restore our consciousness without the need for souls. To claim God needs souls is to deny God's omnipotency. The biological and chemical make-up of our brains and consciousness is known perfectly to God, its own memory is sufficient, God simply contains all of us. It can recreate us, including our personality and memories, as they were at any point in our life, all without the need for wobbly souls. The belief in an all-powerful God is logically incompatible with the belief in necessary souls.

"God Does Not need Prayer, Prophets, Souls, Evangelists, etc: 6. Souls"
Vexen Crabtree

5.7. Souls are a Pagan Concept

The concept of a soul exists in various pagan religions well before they existed in the monotheistic, traditional "world religions". Mainstream religions inherited local pagan concepts of souls from the local, uneducated masses. For example, early Christianity inherited the beliefs of the Roman, pagan masses on 'souls'. Bertrand Russell (1935) outlines briefly the source of the Christian idea of the soul:

The "soul," as it first appeared in Greek thought, had a religious though not a Christian origin. It seems, so far as Greece was concerned, to have originated in the teachings of the Pythagoreans, who believed in transmigration. [... They] influenced Plato, and Plato influenced the Father of the Church; in this way the doctrine of the soul as something distinct from the body became part of Christian doctrine. [...] It appears from Plato that doctrines very similar to those subsequently taught by Christianity were widely held in his day by the general public rather than by philosophers.

"Religion and Science" by Bertrand Russell (1935)34

In all ancient religions, the soul was the surviving aspect of the self that afforded reincarnation (or "transmigration"); in Hinduism and Buddhism it was the source of life that passed on from one body to be reborn in another, in the samsaric cycle of life; with further incarnations being higher up or lower down in the scale according to a measure of the good (or fruitful) and bad (or deluded) actions performed during life. This concept easily translates into the Christian concept of 'sin' and the idea of the soul thus passed from the pagan-influenced advanced Jews of the first century, and the Roman pagans themselves, into Christianity.

6. The Religion of Spiritualism35

6.1. Institutionalized Spiritual Populism

Despite all the logical and physical problems with supposing that spirits can interact with the world, as examined above, Spiritualism, a modern religion that is based on such interaction, arose in the 19th century. It involves 'mediums' receiving messages from the dead, during psychodramas called séances.

Book CoverSpiritualism includes a variety of differing networks and groups, some of which hold some specifically Christian beliefs and others of which are almost totally devoid of any religious dogma at all. They all, however, share on central concept - communication with the spirit realm through gifted or psychic individuals. Spiritualists always speak of the 'departed' rather than the 'dead'.

"Encyclopedia of New Religions" by Christopher Partridge (2004)36

The modern movement began in Hydesville, New York, USA, in 1848, where the Fox family lived37, 38. John Fox's two daughters, Maggie and Katherine, along with a few early converts and colleagues who accompanied them on tours around the country, all proceeded to demonstrate that they communicate with the dead. It presumed a general Christian outlook on life and retained a Christian morality. It has become more than a sect of Christianity, and should be considered a religion in its own right due to the development of its authoritative written works that are no longer Christian. It remains a very loose and secular spread of practitioners, but nonetheless Spiritualist Churches hold services several times a week, some of them including Christian Holy Communion.

It has become the public face of the New Age: 'channellers' and 'mediums' have appeared on a long string of television dramas and in books, so much so, that portions of the population think that there must be underlying truth (if not evidence) to it.

6.2. Issues and Problems: Its Original Proponents Admit Making It Up

The religion has been mired in problems. Not only the apparent fact that souls, spirits and ghosts don't exist, but that mediums' communications are fraudulent. The information gleaned from the dead is the same tone and quality as that obtained through cold-reading, which is the method used by psychics such as tarot-card readers. It is a mixture between obscurantism, astute observations and a Machiavellian understanding of what types of things people want to hear and will believe. There have been several court cases resulting in criminal convictions for fraud against Spiritualists, which is probably the reason that some of their websites state that they are "for entertainment purposes only"39. Not only are there problems with the soul-based theories of the religion and the general substance of séances, but the two Fox daughters who founded the movement admitted later during their lifetimes that it had been a hoax:

Four decades after spiritualism began, sisters Margaret Fox Kane and Katherine Fox Jencken confessed it had all been a trick. On Sunday, October 21, 1888, the sisters appeared at the Academy of Music in New York City. [...] She explained how she had produced the rapping noises [... and] demonstrated the effect for the audience. [...] Margaret then went on to state:

"I think that it is about time that the truth of this miserable subject "Spiritualism" should be brought out. It is now widespread all over the world, [...] I was the first in the field and I have the right to expose it. [...] Mother [...] could not understand it and did not suspect us of being capable of a trick because we were so young."

[...] Margaret also stated that Leah knew the spirit rappings were fake, and that when she traveled with the girls (on their first nationwide tour) it was she who signalled the answers to various questions. (She probably chatted with sitters before the séance to obtain information; when that did not produce the requisite facts, the "spirits" no doubt spoke in vague generalizations that are the mainstay of spiritualistic charlatans). Margaret repeated her exposé in other cities close to New York.

Today, spiritualists characterize Margaret's exposé as bogus, attributing it to her need for money or the desire for revenge against her rivals or both. However, not only were her admissions fully corroborated by her sister, but she demonstrated to the audience that she could produce the mysterious raps just as she said.

Joe Nickell in Skeptical Inquirer (2008)37

Extensive investigations at the original site in Hydesville where the Fox daughters invented the first Spiritualist communications, have also shown every aspect of the story to be invented falsehoods; with details about bodies, persons and fake walls all to be incorrect and with evidence of attempted trickery.

The religion's take on spirits and the spirit world remain a mixture of pop culture assertions and assumptions, with very little rationality or coherency. There seems to be no reason why, if spirits can communicate by banging things, moving tables, talking through people's mouths, that they can't instead simply write clear letters with pens on paper. Also, the abysmal failure rate of psychic 'help' in real police cases, the cold-reading associations, the fraud cases and the negative results of scientific investigations into Spiritualist claims all point to fundamental flaws in the religion/movement.

Read / Write LJ Comments

By Vexen Crabtree 2007 Dec 14
(Last Modified: 2015 Jul 23)
Originally published 1998 Nov 16
Parent page: Soul Theory and Skepticism: Science Versus Spirituality

Social Media

References: (What's this?)

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Skeptical Inquirer. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, New York, USA.

The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]

Albery & Wienrich
(2010) "The New Natural Death Handbook" 3rd revised edition edited by Nicholas Albery and Stephanie Wienrich. Originally published 1993. Published by the Natural Death Center, London, UK.

Armstrong, Karen
(1986) The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West. Subtitled "Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West". Hardback. Published by Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd, London, UK.

Bainbridge, William Sims
(2011) Science and Religion. This essay is chapter 16 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages p303-318).

Bear, Connors and Paradiso
(1996) Neuroscience. Published by Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. The Amazon link is to a newer version. Mark F. Bear Ph.D. and Barry W Connors Ph.D. are both Professors of Neuroscience at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, and Michael A. Paradiso Ph.D., associate professor.

Bloom, Paul
(2004) Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains what Makes Us Human. Published by Basic Books, New York, USA. In Clarke (2011) p311-312. Bloom is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, USA.

Bunn, Geoff Dr
(2011) A History of the Brain. A ten-part BBC Radio 4 series aired from 2011 Nov 07 at time 13:45 (weekdays only, 2wks). Link: programme website.

Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. First published 2009.

Crabtree, Vexen
(1999) "Emotions Without Souls: How Biochemistry and Neurology Account for Feelings" (1999). Accessed 2015 Jul 23.
(2005) "Nightmares and Night Terrors" (2005). Accessed 2015 Jul 23.

Dennett, Daniel C.
(1996) Kinds of Minds. Science Masters Hardback Edition.

Fara, Patricia
(2009) Science: A Four Thousand Year History. Hardback. Fara has a PhD in History of Science from London University. Published by Oxford University Press.

Gooch, Stan
(2007) The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind. My references are to the original edition published as "Creatures from Inner Space" (1984, hardback) by Rider & Company, London, UK. The edition linked to here is published by Inner Traditions 2007; information retrieved from Amazon UK on 2007 Dec 14. [Book Review]

Gregory, Richard L.
(1987) The Oxford Companion to the Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Quotes from 1987 reprint.

Gross, Richard
(1996) Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour. 3rd edition. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, London UK.

Humphreys, Christmas
(1954) Buddhism. Christmas was President of the Buddhist Society, London, from its foundation in 1924 until its Silver Jubilee.

Kaku, Michio. Professor of theoretical physics.
(2014) The Future of the Mind. subtitled "The Scientific Quest To Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind". Published by Penguin Books Ltd, London, UK. Quotes taken from Amazon e-book.

Koch, Christof Prof.
"When Does Consciousness Arise?" in Scientific American Mind (2009 Sep/Oct) p20-21. Koch is Lois and Victor Troendie Professor of Cognitive and Behavioural Biology at the California Institute of Technology.

McConnel, James V.
(1986) Understanding Human Behavior. Hardback 5th edition. Originally published 1974. CBS College Publishing, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, USA.

Nukariya, Kaiten. Professor of Kei-O-Gi-Jiku University and of So-To-Shu Buddhist College, Tokyo.
(1913) Zen - The Religion of the Samurai. Subtitled "A study of Zen philosophy and discipline in China and Japan". Amazon digital edition. Produced by John B. Hare and proofread by Carrie R. Lorenz.

Partridge, Christopher
(2004, Ed.) Encyclopedia of New Religions. Hardback. Published by Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK.

Ramadan, Tariq. A Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University.
(2004) Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. Published by the Oxford University Press.

Ray, Isaac
(1863) Mental Hygiene. Published by Ticknor & Fields, Boston, USA. In Clarke (2011) p311-312.
(1871) A Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity. Published by Little Brown, Boston, USA. In Clarke (2011) p311-312.

Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1935) Religion and Science. 1997 edition with introduction by Michael Ruse. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.

Voltaire. (1694-1778)
(1764) Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. Digital edition produced by Juliet Sutherland, Lisa Riegel and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Accessed via

Weatherley, Lionel A.
(1891) The Supernatural?. Hardback. Published by J. W. Arrowsmith, Bristol. This is a hard to find book. Bath Library has a copy, accessed 2012 Dec 14.

Wilson, E. O.
(1998) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Hardback. Published by Little, Brown and Company, London, UK. Professor Wilson is one of the foremost sociobiologists.


  1. Added to this page on 2014 Nov 09. Bloom, Paul (2004).^^
  2. Stenger (2007) p106.^
  3. McConnel (1986) p90.^
  4. Dr Geoff Bunn, A History of the Brain (2011 Nov 18) 10th episode. Added to this page on 2014 Dec 31.^
  5. Wilson (1998) chapter "The Mind" p108.^
  6. Bear, Connors & Paradiso (1996) p19.^
  7. Gross (1996) p821-823.^
  8. McConnel (1986) p28.^
  9. Kaku (2014) quotes Cark Sagan at digital location 238. Added to this page on 2015 Jul 23.^
  10. Gross (1996) p75.^
  11. Wilson (1998) chapter The Mind p120.^
  12. Wilson (1998) p121.^
  13. Added to this page on 2013 May 04.^
  14. Voltaire (1764) p183-184.^
  15. Fara (2009) p129.^
  16. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 19.^
  17. Gooch (2007) gives an example on p123, when the writer Frank Smythe invented a ghost. Professor Wiseman of Hertfordshire University has done the same.^
  18. Weatherley (1891) p55-56.^
  19. Gooch (2007) p127.^
  20. Weatherley (1891) p142-143. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 17.^
  21. Kendrick Frazier in Skeptical Inquirer (2007 Nov/Dec) article "Out of Body and in the Lab: New Experiments Stimulate Seeing Self Elsewhere" p5-6.^
  22. Stenger (2007) p83.^
  23. Gregory (1987) Entry on night terrors.^
  24. McConnel (1986) p67.^
  25. Stenger (2007) p78-79.^
  26. Bainbridge (2011) p311-312. Added to this page on 2014 Nov 09.^
  27. Stenger (2007) p102.^
  28. Added to this page on 2014 Nov 13.^
  29. Nukariya (1913) p130 footnote 220, citing the massive compilation of Buddhist texts, the Abhidharmamahavibhasa-castra, volume 114.^
  30. Stenger (2007) p102-103. Added to this page on 2011 Nov 26.^
  31. Armstrong (1986) p64. Added to this page on 2014 Nov 11.^
  32. Ramadan (2004) p14.^
  33. "Souls do not Exist: Evidence from Science & Philosophy Against Mind-Body Dualism" by Vexen Crabtree (2007)^
  34. Russell (1935) p111-112.^
  35. Added to this page on 2008 Sep 25.^
  36. Partridge (2004) p319-320.^
  37. Joe Nickell article "A Skeleton's Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism" in Skeptical Inquirer (2008 Jul/Aug) p17-20. Joe Nickell is the CSI's Senior Research Fellow.^^
  38. Wikipedia: Spiritualism. Accessed 2008 Sep 25.^
  39. front page accessed 2008 Sep 25. The last words on the page read "this website and its psychic reading services are for entertainment purposes only".^
  40. Skeptical Inquirer (2007 Jan/Feb) article "Soul Scales" p28.

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