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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2013

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‘The soul hypothesis’ (the belief that souls exist and humans have them) enjoys near unanimous support in the general population. Among philosophers and scientists, however, belief in the soul is far less common. The purpose of this essay to explain why many philosophers and scientists reject the soul hypothesis and to consider what the non-existence of the soul would entail.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2013 

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1 It's important to note that the soul is not merely the mind. Although soul believers may equate souls with minds, one can believe in minds without believing in souls. For example, one might believe that mental activity occurs within the mind, and even think of the mind as something other than the brain, but also maintain that all mental activity is dependent upon brain activity. Belief in the soul however, as it is classically conceived, requires one to believe that what houses mental activity is separable from the brain – that it can continue on without the brain. Unlike belief in souls, belief in the existence of minds is still the norm in most academic circles.

2 In fact, one might argue that the theory of recollection merely assumes the existence of souls; it does not establish it. Regardless, as Socrates' dialogue partners point out in the Phaedo (77d-80c, 85D-86D, 91E-92C, 94D-94E), this argument doesn't prove that the soul is immortal, but only that it pre-exists the body. In the Meno (81b-E, 85B-86B) Socrates suggests that, if the soul pre-exists the body, it is reasonable to assume that it exists after death as well. Socrates presents other arguments for the existence and immortality of the soul, but they also fail for similar reasons. See Alcibiades I, 129B-130C and Republic 352D-354A.

3 For more on Descartes' arguments see Long, Douglas C.'s ‘Descartes’ Argument for Mind-Body Dualism' The Philosophical Forum, vol.1, no.3 (1969), 259273.Google Scholar

4 For more on Sperry's, and others' work, see Gazzaniga, M. S., ‘Forty-five years of split-brain research and still going strong’, [Review]. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol.6, no.8 (2005), 653–651.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

5 We have discovered that quantum events have no cause, but that does not violate causal closure.

6 See Carter, Rita's Mapping the Mind (Revised and Updated Edition). (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010), pages 1, 2427.Google Scholar

7 Our raw emotions and impulses arise from our limbic system, and would rule us if not for our reasoning-and-deciding frontal cortex, which sends inhibitory signals to squelch the limbic system when it becomes overactive. With Gage's frontal cortex considerably damaged, his impulsive and emotional limbic system ruled and controlled his actions.

8 Saying the soul is non-material adds no illuminating information about the substance of which the soul is made. That would be like describing your ideal house as ‘not this one’, Negative descriptions are not enlightening.

9 See Carus, Paul (Trans.) The Gospel of Buddha, (Chicago: Open Court, 1991)Google Scholar, Part LIII, ‘Identity and non-Identity’ Line 10, 153.

10 The Hebrew word often translated into English as ‘spirit’ is ‘ruach’, but only means ‘the breath of life. ‘The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation rather than of simple faith, and is nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture.’ From the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia entry ‘Immortality of the soul’. The entire encyclopedia can be found online at

11 The ancient Jews did not believe in heaven or hell, only ‘sheol’, a physical location where all the dead go to sleep.

12 For example, the early apologist Justin Martyr did not. In chapter LXXX, of his Second Apology (the Dialogue with Trypho), Trypho asks Justin whether he believes that Jerusalem will be remade upon the resurrection of the dead. Justin says that he does, yet there are some Christians who don't. However, he tells Trypho, ‘…if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit this …who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians.’

13 This has near universal agreement among biblical scholars. See Thatche, Adrian's ‘Christian Theism and the Concept of a Person’, in Peacocke, A. and Gillett, G.'s (eds) Persons and Personality, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).Google Scholar

14 For example, according to St. Paul in I Corinthians 15, Jesus' resurrection is supposed to prove that death is not the end. If Jesus was not raised, then we will not be either, and thus, when we die, that's it; those who have already died are lost (verse 17) and ‘we are to be pitied more than all men’ (verse 18). We might as well just ‘eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’. (verse 32). But with the resurrection, God proved that he has power over death; as he did with Jesus, he can bring us back by resurrecting us. Jesus' resurrection was the ‘firstfruits’, and later those who belong to him will also be raised (verse 23). By Jesus' resurrection, God has taken the ‘sting’ (verse 55) out of death. But if the soul is immortal and thus we continue to live on after death anyway, death has no sting in the first place and the resurrection is pointless.

15 See Thatche, 184.

16 See Elwell, Walter A.'s entry on Soul in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1129.Google Scholar

17 This concept is not biblical. However, given that the material that made up the bodies of ancient Christians has long since decomposed, reentered the ecosystem, and is now being used by our bodies, this may be the only way the Christian God can facilitate the resurrection of the dead.

18 See van Inwagen, Peter's ‘The Possibility of ResurrectionInternational Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol.9, no.2 (1978), 114121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 See, for example, the chapters by Nielsen, Kai, Dennett, Daniel, Fischer, John Martin, Pereboom, Derk, and Frankfurt, Harry, in Kane, Robert's (ed.) Free Will (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).Google Scholar

20 This definition suggests that free will requires alternate possibilities. You can only freely do X if it is possible for you to not decide to do X.

21 For example, some Christians might affirm the existence of the soul, but simply deny its immortality. This would essentially be the same position of those that believe in the mind, and suggest that it relies upon the body for existence. It is not the classic view we have been addressing.

22 For a collection of arguments in favor of the soul's existence, see Baker, Mark C. and Goetz, Stewart (ed.) The Soul Hypothesis, Investigations into the Existence of the Soul (London: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2011).Google Scholar