The Soul and Science: Challenging the “Consensus”

By Dr. Joshua Farris

Are we souls, bodies, or some combination of the two? Even raising the question anymore is met with similar responses of raising questions about current longstanding government programs. Once you have them, it is hard to consider alternatives. And, even when they are practically overturned, their shadow is often still with us. Something like this has been occurring for a long time in scientific communities. For one to raise the question about souls is to suggest that spooky entities (e.g., ghosts and angels) exist, which is to challenge the prevailing, or the “supposed” prevailing, consensus in some circles that all of reality under investigation is material in nature, i.e., a little more than flesh and blood machines.

For one to say that the soul has been under attack would be an understatement. Since the rise of logical positivism, the attitude to the soul is likened to the attitude toward God. Logical positivism is the philosophical thesis that we can only know that which is empirically verifiable, which excludes the statement: “God exists,” because it is not verifiable empirically, at least not directly. Logical positivism may not hold prime authority in philosophy and science anymore, but the shadow of logical positivism remains in some academic circles. Closely related to it is the belief in materialism of some sort, namely, the philosophical stance that the reality under investigation is wholly material in nature, mechanistic, and is governed solely by regular lawful events. And, it is often supposed that belief in the soul, if not in contradiction with it, is not supported by science.

One famous critic of the soul, Nancey Murphy captures this “leftover” attitude quite well:

While  body-soul dualism is a hot topic now in conservative Christian circles in the United States, the debate over dualism versus physicalism is thought to be settled by scholars in a variety of fields…. [B]iblical scholars called body-soul dualism into question beginning a century ago (but given the current popularity of books for and against the soul, they apparently neglected to inform their congregations!). The concept of the self has long served as a replacement for the soul in a number of disciplines, such as psychology, and in ordinary language as well. No significant neuroscientist has been a dualist since the death of Sir John Eccles.[i]

Making several appeals to authority, Murphy gives the reader the impression that dualism is simply not taken seriously anymore by anyone credentialed in respected scientific fields. But this just isn’t the case. As Murphy mentions, the esteemed Sir John Eccles took it that humans are soul-body composites. What Murphy doesn’t tell us is how important Sir John Eccles is to neuroscience. Instead, she gives the impression that he is one “significant” neuroscientist among many, but, sadly, this would be mistaken. In fact, he is one of the most significant neuroscientists of the last century as a Nobel prize winner in 1969. Unfortunately, in many ways, he was and still is ridiculed for his belief in the soul.[ii]

So, are there any other significant neuroscientists who advocate for a soul? What about Mario Beauregard? Beauregard (PhD, University of Montreal) has been involved in several projects that call the scientific “consensus” into question by re-envisioning science in a post-materialist way (i.e., science is not beholden to a worldview that is governed mechanistically, and is non-intentional and non-experiencing all the way down).[iii] And, Beauregard is famous for showing that our emotions, which are presumably not physical in nature, can actually change our brain states—even more they can affect our epigenetic patterns. But, Beauregard certainly isn’t the only scientifically-minded intellectual who believes the soul exists and has some important role to play in our investigation of the world. So also does Jeffrey Schwartz (M.D., research psychiatrist at the University of California at Los Angeles).

Schwartz is a famous psychologist who has argued for the soul as an important datum that informs our way of thinking about humans and the world. In several places, Schwartz has argued that you are not your brain, but, in fact, you are something more or above and beyond your brain. You are something other than your brain illustrated by the fact that your brain can be shaped by you—it’s almost as if you are an outside force that can shape and form your own neural patterns. Scientists have referred to the neural phenomena as neuroplasticity (i.e., the view that our neural patterns are malleable), which Schwartz has deployed as a way of showing that we are the kinds of agents that can change our brain states.

This begs the question: If we grant that Murphy is right about the neuroscientific consensus, what does that prove? Arguably, neuroscience has very little to say that is direct about our mental and internal lives. It might tell us about various neurons in our brains and what those neurons do, but neuroscience tells us little about the nature of consciousness, thought, virtue, experience—you know, all that interesting human stuff. Comparatively little that is of bearing regarding the soul or mind is the object of neuroscientific study. In fact, it is more likely that neuroscientists are often not directly concerned with the soul question at all. Even if they have a settled opinion that the soul doesn’t exist, their own discipline tells us very little about the nature of the soul; at least not directly, so their belief may be misguided. Why then should we take Murphy’s authority claim seriously? Simply put, we shouldn’t. For, Murphy’s claim that no neuroscientist believes in the existence of souls is little more than an appeal to authority for something else going on in the discussion. Take another look at the quote above.

Murphy suggests that biblical scholars have begun to change their language from the use of soul to self in part because of the scientific consensus and also in part because there is no need for a soul anymore. Her passing statement: “but given the current popularity of books for and against the soul, they apparently neglected to inform their congregations!” amounts to a kind of paternalistic condescension of lay people sitting in their pews who don’t know any better. One might be inclined to say thank you for those “intellectuals”, like Murphy, to show us how we’ve been so wrong. By disabusing us of our infantile beliefs, we can move on to more mature beliefs about human nature informed by rigorous standards of “science”! However, Murphy gives us a place to start for thinking about the soul. She states that the common man (or woman) in the pew believes in the existence of souls. Why is that? Well some psychologists have confirmed that this belief is supported by our own cognitively inclined dispositions.

Renowned and respected psychologist Paul Bloom (Ph.D, Professor at Yale University) has argued in more than one place that children naturally develop a belief in God and soul. Bloom goes so far as to suggest that that these beliefs are often a package deal. As we develop as young infants, we naturally form dualist beliefs about who we are. When a child begins to recognize her hand, she instinctively makes a distinction between her hand and her hand.[iv] In one article, Bloom calls this initial and naturally developed belief in dualism “common-sense dualism” because the belief comes about as a natural operating orientation, which comes from our cognitive apparatus. He proceeds to point out that the first thing we learn in introductory psychology is that substance dualism isn’t true and that nearly all scientists reject it.[v] Bloom offers no additional reason why we should concur with the consensus of the scientific community. Beyond our common-sense belief that we are distinct from our bodies, there are other sophisticated reasons for thinking that I am a soul and not simply a body.

Why should we believe in the soul?

While Paul Bloom has given us an initial reason for believing in the existence of the soul, we can gain additional reasons by taking a deeper look at our natures. Upon further reflection, it appears that the material realm just doesn’t provide us with the reasons for explaining those features that are most central to our internal lives. In other words, the material just doesn’t cut it as an explanation for the life of the mind. Picking up on a thought above, we can consider the various parts of our body and, like the child developing her cognitive abilities, we naturally develop the belief that we are distinct from our bodies or the parts that comprise our bodies. On further examination, it appears that we try to find a candidate that adequately describes who we are as persons, minds, and conscious beings, we come up short of an answer when looking at our bodies. We can consider our hands, but not only do we develop the belief that we are not our hands we could also conceive of those hands being somehow lopped off and we would remain the self-same persons.

There is a deeper fact that explains why it is impossible for us to conceive of the fact that we are not identical to the body or the parts that comprise our bodies. The fact is that we are simple (i.e., indivisible) beings unlike our material bodies. The nature of our internal lives is such that it is not characteristically complex and, in principle, divisible in the way that material things are divisible. Conceivably, the body could be divided into smaller pieces, and, for that matter, all material things are divisible into smaller parts. However, one’s own consciousness does not work that way. For what would mean for a soul’s thinking to be broken down into parts? As Descartes himself famously stated, “We can’t conceive of half a soul.”[vi]

Another argument supports the fact of our indivisibility. Thomas Nagel has recently argued that the prevailing paradigm in science, namely materialism, doesn’t have the resources to account for consciousness. He states: “The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth, and that the natural order is far less austere than it be if physics and chemistry account for everything.” Part of the reason the material or natural order lacks the resources to explain consciousness has to do with what Nagel calls “subjective appearances”.[vii] There is something of what it is like to me in my own conscious experience of the world that simply cannot be captured by the material world or by science as it is often described. There is another reason. My conscious experience brings with it a qualitative feel that is not captured by the material realm. The deeper question is what is it that explains these “subjective appearances” and the qualitative feel of our conscious experiences of the world? I suggest to you that this answer to this question is found in a deeper fact about souls. Each individual soul appears to contribute something novel to the world that is otherwise non-capturable in the material order. Such a fact presses us to think about the world beyond the bounds of the material order of mechanistic causes and effects. This gives us a second reason for believing in the existence of the soul.[viii]

There is a third reason. If you are a Christian or a theist generally, then you likely believe in the afterlife. Following Paul Bloom’s argument, the belief in an existing soul comes as a package deal along with the belief in God’s existence and a belief that we will exist after death. He states in the context of talking about religious belief and soul-body dualism that, “These biases make it natural to believe in Gods and spirits, in an afterlife, and in the divine creation of the universe.”[ix] John Cooper actually argues that souls are presumed in Scripture because of its teaching that we survive our death. In his famous book, Soul, Body and Life Everlasting, he develops the most sustained defense to date for dualism and the existence of persons after death from a biblical perspective.[x]

Some in the scientific community, like Murphy, may have you thinking that the soul is passé and no longer scientifically reputable. Three challenges present themselves to Murphy’s claim. First, science, especially neuroscience, tells us very little about the features often associated with the soul, which concern features like consciousness, thought, experience, and values. Second, there are a number of scientists, psychologists, and neuroscientists who believe we have lots of reasons to think that there is a soul or, at a minimum, something above and beyond our present embodiment. Third, for these and many other reasons, not only have the scientists offered little that refutes the existence of the soul, but we seem to have good positive grounds for thinking that, in fact, souls do exist.[xi]

Joshua R. FarrisJoshua R. Farris, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University in Houston, Texas. He is currently a Henry Fellow at the Carl F. H. Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for The Creation Project (Spring 2019). Farris is also the author of The Soul of Theological Anthropology and coeditor of several volumes, including: Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation, New England Dogmatics: A Systematic Collection of Questions and Answers in Divinity by Maltby Gelston, Christian Physicalism? and The Routledge Companion  to Theological Anthropology.

[i] Nancey Murphy, “Reductionism and Emergence: A Critical Perspective,” in Human Identity at the Intersection of Science, Technology and Religion ed. by Nancey Murphy and Christopher C. Knight (New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 79. If you think that Nancey Murphy goes on to defend these rather bold claims, then think again. She doesn’t! Not even close. Instead, she discusses the difference between a reductive understanding of the material world and what she proposes, namely a non-reductive or emergentist understanding of the world.


[iii] Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientists Case for the Existence of Soul (New York: Harper One, 2007).

[iv] See Paul Bloom, Descartes’ Baby (New York: Basic Books, 2004).

[v] Paul Bloom, “Religion is Natural” in Developmental Science vol. 10, issue 1 (2007), p. 149.

[vi] Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy trans. By Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett publishing, 1980), p. 52.

[vii] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 35.

[viii] For other reasons to think souls exist, see Richard Swinburne, Are We Bodies or Souls? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2019).

[ix] “Religion is Natural,” p. 150.

[x] See John Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). Joshua Farris builds on Cooper’s work and deploys the findings in systematic theology by drawing on the Christian tradition and making a unique argument from 2 Corinthians 5:1-10. See Joshua R. Farris, The Soul of Theological Anthropology: A Cartesian Exploration (New York: Routledge, 2016). For a set of criticisms against the growing trend to accept a physicalism or materialism conception of persons, see R. Keith Loftin and Joshua R. Farris (eds.), Christian Physicalism: Philosophical and Theological Criticisms (New York: Lexington, 2018).

[xi] I must thank the Carl F.H. Henry Center, The Creation Project, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, which afforded me the time to write this article. The views here are my own and should not be taken to reflect the views of either the John Templeton Foundation or the Carl F.H. Henry Center.

[Editor’s Note: Christianity, Mind and Mental Health image from Van Gogh’s The Pietà (after Delacroix), 1889, found at Wikipedia Commons.]