Does the Soul Exist?

By Elias Ayala (MDiv & M.A.T.)

Does the Soul Exist?The question of the existence of the soul is an important one. Indeed, a central debate between the Christian theist and the materialistic physicalist is whether “consciousness is a brain state or a mental, immaterial state reflective of an immaterial soul?” If it can be demonstrated that man is not simply composed of physical material, but rather is a body soul composite, the evidence for man’s immaterial consciousness or soul would be a good foundation upon which one can infer the existence of God, who, in accordance with traditional theism, is a universal immaterial mind or soul.

Why Should Christians be Concerned about the Question of the Soul?

This question should be particularly important to the Christian because the bible teaches that human beings have souls. Hence, if there is no soul, then it would seem that the biblical teaching of the soul is false. Anyone concerned for biblical truth should then find this question important. Furthermore, if the immaterial soul exists, this would make more plausible the notion of “life-after-death.” Now, it should be noted that it is a coherent notion that the soul could be real yet, cease to exist upon the death of the material body, however, the notion of an immaterial soul makes it more plausible to believe that it could exist independent of the physical body. Lastly, the existence of an immaterial soul would entail the impossibility of a scientific explanation for consciousness and hence, an answer to the question would have to take the route of philosophical reflection. Given that science deals with empirical issues, something like evolution for instance, would never provide a satisfactory answer to the question of consciousness.

3 Important Preliminary Comments:

  1. We need to keep in mind that the question of consciousness/soul is not a scientific question, and hence, the fields of neuroscience and neurobiology will not answer these profound metaphysical questions. The reason that this is the case is because of the issue of empirically equivalent theories. The following statements: 1) I am my brain, and 2) I am a soul who uses my brain, are both empirically equivalent. Based upon empirical investigation, one could not conclude that either dualism (body & soul) or physicalism (material body only) is true. This is not to say, that the question of whether an immaterial soul exists or not cannot be answered, it is only to say that the question itself is not a scientific or empirical one.
  2. Secondly, we need to draw an important distinction between a “thing” and the state of a “thing.” For example, water is a thing (substance), but there are different states of water (solid, liquid, and gas). Hence, we have the “thing” and then we have the “states of the thing.” More broadly speaking, we can talk of substances (rocks, water, dogs, pencils, etc.), and we can speak of properties (redness, wetness, circularity, etc.). A substance possesses certain properties. These considerations are important since with regards to consciousness, there exists “5 states” or “states of consciousness.
  3. Thirdly, we want to consider the “Law of Identity”, sometimes called “Leibniz’s Law of the Indiscernibility of identicals.” This law states that if “x” is identical to “y”, then whatever is true of “x” is true of “y”. This law provides for us a test for non-identity. Simply put, if one can find something true of “y” that is not true of “x”, then it follows that “y” is not identical to “x”. A more simplistic example would be, “Just because fire causes smoke, it does not follow that smoke is identical to fire, or just because the brain ban be stimulated so as to cause the recollection of a memory, it does not follow that the memory is identical to activity in the brain. This will become important as we continue to argue in favor of the position that the brain is not identical to the mind/consciousness.

What is Consciousness? Is It Physical or Non-Physical?

When defining consciousness, it becomes necessary that we define it “ostensibly”; that is to say that we define it by pointing to it or providing an example of what we mean. For example, when we ask the question: What is the color red? We would define “red” by pointing to something “red”. In like fashion we define consciousness by pointing to instances of it as first-person experiences. We use “ostensible” definitions when pointing to something basic. Hence, when we are defining states of consciousness, we want to define them using first-person ostensive definitions. Brain states on the other hand cannot be defined ostensibly hinting to us that the this is the case because there is a difference between states of consciousness and physical brain states. This point is quite relevant since atheistic materialists will, in rejecting the immaterial soul, equate states of consciousness with physical brain states. Unlike defining states of consciousness ostensibly, physical brain states are defined using the predicates of neurobiology, physics and chemistry. It seems evident that this must be the case because states of consciousness and brain states are not the same thing.

Returning back the “Law of Identity” or “Leibniz’s Law of the Indiscernibility of Identicals”, we found that if “x” is identical to “y”, then whatever is true of “x” is true of “y”. Let us then consider brain states and states of consciousness. In arguing for the existence of the immaterial soul, we want to point out “contra” the physicalist (the body is purely physical), that there are things true of states of consciousness that are not true of brain states, hence refuting the notion that they are one and the same and hence refuting the notion that the states of consciousness reduce to physical brain states.

The 5 States of Consciousness:

There are 5 states of consciousness. 1) Sensation, 2) Thought, 3) Belief, 4) Desire, and 5) Volitions. A “sensation” is pure sentience or pure awareness. For example, the feeling of pain, the taste of an apple, the sensation of the color purple, or the sensation of hearing a sound. Within the category of sensations there is a sub-category which would include things like love and anger which are themselves states we would call sensations. Sensations are neither true or false, but they can accurate or inaccurate. A “thought” is a propositional or mental content that can be expressed in an entire sentence. For example, many languages can express a single thought. The statement: La nieve es blanca (The snow is white), expresses the same thought as when we say: La neige est blanche (The snow is white). Thoughts are different than sensations in that one can have thoughts they are not sensing, and one can have sensations that they are not thinking about. Furthermore, unlike sensations, thoughts can be true or false. A “belief” is a propositional content that one takes to be true somewhere between 51-100% certainty. A belief can be true or false, and they are not equivalent to thoughts in that a thought can only exist while the person is entertaining it, but we may have beliefs that we are not currently aware of. Furthermore, another difference would be that we have thoughts we don’t believe, and we can have beliefs we are not thinking about. A “desires” is a felt inclination towards or away from something. Desires are neither true or false, and they are not the same as sensations. “Volitions” or acts of free choice can be understood as “an endeavoring or trying to bring something about, as the choice to raise one’s arm, or kick one’s leg up.

The “1 Million Dollar Question”:

Are the states of consciousness listed above physical? It clearly seems to not be the case that they are, since in accordance with the “Law of Identity”, there are things true of states of consciousness that are not true of brain states. Thoughts for example, have no spatial location but brain states do. There is a cheesy joke where it was said: “Philosophers may have heavy thoughts, but they don’t wear neck braces.” Thoughts have the property of being true or false, yet brains states lack this property. A physical brain state is neither true or false, brain states just are what they are. Thoughts have the property of intentionality (The of-ness or aboutness). We have thoughts “of” this or thoughts “about” that; however, brain states aren’t “of” or “about” anything. Lastly, we have first-person access to our conscious life, but we do not have this sort of access t our brains. Hence, there are many things true of thoughts that are not true of our brains and hence by logical extension, they are not identical to one another.

The fact that our brain states are not identical to our mental states, and that mental states seem more plausibly immaterial whereas brain states are reducible to material physical things, it seems to follow that a powerful argument can be made for the existence of an immaterial mind/soul. While it is not the focus of this present article to argue for the existence of God, the reality of an immaterial soul is better explained within a worldview context in which individual minds/souls are products of a more fundamental mind one could argue is God. However, space does not allow this to be fleshed some more. This perhaps can occupy the content of a future article.

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