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Aug 24

A Brief Argument Against the Soul

1. Most theistic laypeople have a belief in the soul that includes it somehow being within or somehow internally connected to their body.¹

2. Their belief likely also includes a conception of the soul as immaterial.²

3. Immaterial things cannot have spatial extension.

4. To reside in a place, like within the body, requires spatial extension.

5. This means that a consequence of (2) is that the soul cannot reside within or be connected to the body.

Conclusion: Most theistic laypeople have a belief in the soul that is internally contradictory [from (1) and (5)]

¹I haven’t tested this hypothesis, but I think a survey of the average person’s conception of the soul would bear this out. Certainly popular level portrayals, like movies, give this sense.

²For example, ask a person who believes in the soul to point it out on an x-ray or to a surgeon.

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11 comments

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  1. Mike

    Just a quick note on how one might run this argument in practice. I think it would go well in tandem with the traditional mind(soul)-body connection problem. The ultimate conclusion of both together is that not only is it necessary that an immaterial soul cannot reside in your body, but we also have no idea how these two things might be connected. This leaves you with an ultimate conclusion that the soul must be in some strange way controlling the body from some other separate immaterial realm. That means all of our bodies and brains are really just dumb, lifeless shells or like characters in a video game and the soul is the real substantial thing. That leaves people with a pretty strange conclusion to mull over. At least I would find it disturbing.

  2. Martin

    I think you mean “spatial”, not special.

  3. Mike

    You’re right. I fixed it. Not sure where that came from.

  4. Anonymous

    A somewhat longer argument against it, ending in the Generalized Anti-Zombie Principle.

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/p7/zombies_zombies/

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/p9/the_generalized_antizombie_principle/

  5. Keith

    How do you feel about using the term “soul” when describing or attributing certain things such as a style, music or food? In this sense I believe that there is a certain understanding of the idea of soul. When pressed, I think many lay people would agree that their connection to “soul” is actually a connection to the idea of a soul and not an actual entity.

  6. Mike

    Keith, I have no issue with that. My criticism is directed more toward soul meant as will or something that controls our thoughts and actions.

  7. The Vicar

    Another proof, which is more powerful in some ways and less in others:

    1. Axiom: the soul is judged after the death of the body for the actions taken by the body during life.
    2. Axiom: whatever judges the soul (god, panel of judges, whatever) is just.
    3. The soul controls the body. (Can be proved using the above.)
    4. Axiom: the material world exists and is observable.
    5. Axiom: the material world obeys cause and effect where not influenced by souls/other nonmaterial entities.
    6. From 4 & 5 (and observation): the human body is controlled by signals which are transmitted by nerves. All of these signals which involve conscious action arise in the brain.
    7. From 6 & 3: the soul must interact with the material world in the brain.
    8. From 4, 5, and 7: there must exist some area within the brain which does not obey ordinary cause and effect.

    But no such area exists. We are now capable of watching a living brain, and it all behaves like any other lump of matter as far as physics and chemistry is concerned. Therefore one of the axioms must be wrong. Which means one or more of the following must be true:

    A.The soul is not judged after death.
    B. Whatever judges souls is not just.
    C. The material world is not observable.
    D. The material world does not obey cause and effect.

    If A or B is true, pretty much all the Abrahamic religions are automatically ruled out, and so are a great many other religions. But there’s a lot of evidence that C and D are false, which would mean A or B must be true.

  8. Abe

    I think this is a good 5 second rationality skill when encountering mysterious answers to mysterious questions. For example, at my talk last week an apologetic friend of mine confronted me and began a dialogue where the issue of the soul came up. After some initial frustration I just started asking him specifics, looking for the “moving parts” of his notion of the soul. He had an idea that the soul was immaterial and the body material, but could not describe how something immaterial influenced something material. “They’re just connected” he would say. As regards the location of the soul, usually this is kept as nebulous as possible as well, but Descartes reminds us how taking questions like this seriously end up so awkward sounding when he asserts that the soul is in the pineal gland.

    What kinds of beliefs do us more secular minded people have that might be mysterious as well? I’d submit beauty, love, friendship and morality as some good examples that, when used as ultimate explanations, are just as mysterious as the Cartesian soul.

  9. Ryan

    Abe,

    What is an ultimate explanation and in what contexts are beauty, love, friendship, and morality used as such?

  10. Woody

    If a “soul” is defined as who we are and what we represent as far as beliefs and memories I do not see how it can exist. Our memories and experiences form our personality good bad or otherwise. All of this information is stored on our brain in the synapsids. When the brain loses oxygen the synapsids stop firing thus the experiences and memories die with the brain. I can see how it would be comforting to think that the person lives on somehow but I can’t see how.

  11. Paul

    Mike,
    I really appreciate your argument because I also saw that believing in a soul while believing that it occupies a body is a problem: that on one hand immaterial things cannot have spatial extension because that is the definition of material things but on the other hand Christians believe in an existence of an immaterial soul that is inside a human body (contradictory since inside is one among many form of spatial extension). However, I think a bigger problem is how a soul can ever fit into the scheme of Nature. Given that the soul is not material it implies that it has no matter, mass, energy, which means that it is not subjected to any of the laws of Nature: since the soul has no mass and energy it cannot be subjected to Newton’s laws of motion (including gravity). If that’s the case how does the soul “move”? If no gravity then what keeps the soul from being at suspension? I just think that immaterial soul is one of the most incoherent ideas in Christianity.

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