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September 21, 2010

Why Are Religious Claims a Target for the Extraordinary Claims Campaign?
Some comments on Supernatural Claims, Evidence, and the Burden of Proof

The Claims:

The term “soul” has had a variety of meanings over the centuries since Plato defined it as “the essence of the person”. Western religious traditions generally consider the soul to be experientially synonymous with the conscious mind, but immaterial (ie. not identical to the physical brain). Since the soul is non-physical, it can survive the death of the body. In fact, as far as many religious traditions are concerned, that’s the whole point: the soul persists eternally in a state of bliss or torment, or is recycled into a better or worse incarnation, according to the way the deceased has led his or her life.

The Evidence:

Surely, if the soul can survive biological death, it should also be immune to less severe insults to the body. This suggests a way of determining which, if any, aspects of our mental life are attributable to it, and not just to the activity of neurons and neurotransmitters.

Consider the single most obvious aspect of the mind: that stream of subjective awareness we call “consciousness”. Most people spend about one-third of every day in the unconscious state — in fact it is necessary to continue functioning and remain healthy that we do so. Unconsciousness occurs naturally in sleep, or can be induced by the ingestion of a variety of substances which interact with the nervous system in ways that are now well-understood. If the soul is the seat of consciousness, then where is it, and what is it doing, while we are asleep? If it is immaterial then why should it be affected by neuro-active chemicals? It certainly doesn’t look like consciousness has a non-physical cause.

Or consider reason and cognition: anyone who has ever had more than a few drinks (or a dose of certain drugs, either medicinally or for recreation) remembers the confused perceptions and thoughts that ensued. As with consciousness, reason is vulnerable to the action of neuro-active chemicals. The tragic stories of patients with mental illness, dementia, stroke or traumatic brain injury show us instances of long-term impairments of cognition. Across multiple case histories, damage to specific areas of the brain consistently results in the same specific impairments. If the seat of reason were non-physical, why should physical brain damage affect it, often devastatingly?

Similar patterns can be shown to occur with emotions, memory formation and retention, to any other aspect of the mind: they all seem to depend intimately on the functioning of the physical brain, with nothing left over requiring a non-physical explanation.


There is no evidence of a non-material component to our mental lives, nor of any conscious survival beyond death. The most reasonable conclusion is that there is no “ghost in the machine”, no soul associated with our brain.


Wikipedia Page on Souls

The Skeptic’s Dictionary Entry on Souls

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Antonymous permalink
    September 24, 2013 1:01 AM

    Absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence. Just something to keep in mind.

    Because biological death is irreversible, there is no possible way to revive and dead person and ask them what death was like. So ultimately, claims of non-physical “life” after death are like Cantor’s continuum hypothesis: They cannot be proven or disproven.

    There are certain fundamental questions that science ultimatley does not have tool to answer. What happens to the mind after death remains a mystery.

  2. Rudy permalink
    May 27, 2011 4:51 PM


    All of your organs have shutdown, including your brain.

  3. another viewpoint permalink
    April 7, 2011 6:49 PM

    There are many religions that believe that animals have souls. It is my belief that all lifeforms (all the way down to bacteria) have a soul.

    If the soul truly is immaterial then how can we use science to prove that it exists? Science requires physical evidence, yet there can never be any. Science is not applicable in this scenario. I know this may be hard for some people to believe but science cannot answer every question.

    On the topic of brain injuries and deformities affecting cognition. If we assume there is a soul that is immaterial then I would propose that the brain is the “proxy” for the soul in the physical world. If your proxy is damaged then it stands to reason that it will no longer be a true representative for the soul in the physical world. The soul is no longer capable of fully manifesting itself through the brain.

    On Evolution. I think there is sufficient evidence to say that there was a slow and gradual change in life over the billions of years the earth has been around. The problem i have with Evolution is the fact that it relies to heavily randomness in gene mutations. It is my belief that in reality there is no such thing as a random event (except in the case of where life/intelligence is involved, life is capable of truly random acts). At the physical level, there is always a very specific and explicit reason events happen. The fact that we don’t fully understand all the variables involved or how they interact does not mean it is random. We USE randomness to MODEL reality but that IS NOT reality. When we roll dice on the craps table we call it a random roll but in reality we just don’t know how to predict it because we don’t have that fine of control over our bodies or the environment. So if i were to simplify the argument greatly: scientists say that life was created by Randomness and creationists say that life was created by God. How can you prove either statement?

    On sleeping. There is brain activity while we sleep so something is still happening. The fact that the body needs to rest has no bearing at all on whether or not the soul exists.

    Most of the arguments in this article are just really poorly thought out, in addition to being arrogant, dismissive and condescending. You might want to take a couple days between writing and publishing so you can review and maybe throw in a few citations while your at it. This just comes off as a rant 😦

  4. Diogenes permalink
    December 17, 2010 3:20 PM

    Hi Andy,

    Right back at ya.

    I am loath to pick from Plato, Aristotle, Descartes etc.

    But argumentum ad verecundiam I know.


    That is somewhat inadequate, but it should do to starters.

    Note of course that the same page contains arguments against dualism, but as I said I am not arguing for or against merely that both are rational viewpoints.

  5. Andy permalink
    December 17, 2010 11:17 AM

    Hi Diogenes

    “I merely pointed out that there are many rational arguments for dualism which fit perfectly well scientific evidence. ”

    I’d be quite interested in hearing just one of those rational if you wouldn’t mind?


  6. Brian Ritter permalink
    December 7, 2010 1:30 PM

    @Diogenes: Right. Absolutely.
    I agree that there’s way better arguments for dualism than presented here.
    There’s also much to be said on idealism, as by George Berkely, on this matter – but this, I think, is more of a fast-food version of sceptisism.
    It’s a campaign and campaigns mostly go for lowest denominator. Sadly though.

  7. Diogenes permalink
    December 7, 2010 12:06 PM


    It’s dualism, not duality. But my point was not that dualism is necessarily correct, nor that I was personally advocating it. I merely pointed out that there are many rational arguments for dualism which fit perfectly well scientific evidence. Thus I was refuting the statement in the article that “[t]here is no evidence of a non-material component to our mental lives”.

    As for saying that the only people who believe in dualism are stuffy old philosophers who are unaware of any scientific advancement since Archimedes (I know, my words not yours) and people whose faith requires them to. I would say that most average people who are non-religious believe in a… non-corporeal, if you like, aspect to life and consciousness.

    Of course simply because a lot of people believe it does not make it true. Once again I am not arguing either for or against the existence of the soul, or for the accuracy of Dualism. I am merely arguing that the above article is woefully incomplete and the matter warrants more time, consideration and respect than is given to it here.

    I pride myself on always trying to give fair consideration to all philosophical matters and to never dismiss them out of hand. Because of this I often find myself (rather ironically) acting advocatus diabolli in matter of religious argument, while being profoundly irreligious personally.

  8. Brian Ritter permalink
    December 7, 2010 11:06 AM

    I think the only people advocating duality at this point are either old stubborn philosophers (like my old professor) or religious peolpe.

    Duality only survives on the claim that thoughts and brains are two seperate entities.

    Neurologists on the other hand, most often claim that you can’t have one without the other – like with light and colour, you can’t have one without the other – even though the concepts can stand alone – and there’s your problem:
    Just because we have seperate definitions/concepts, with very different properties for thoughts and matter, doesn’t nessesarily mean that they are separable.

  9. Diogenes permalink
    December 6, 2010 11:16 AM

    May I suggest that you contention “There is no evidence of a non-material component to our mental lives” is not entirely correct. May I direct you to the arguments for dualism. I grant you that whether the concept of consciousness and the concept of the soul are synonymous is a question in and of itself, however you seem to have taken the position that they are in your article. Thus the argument for, and of course against, dualism can be said to apply.

    Furthermore if I may say so the greatest minds of human civilisation have grappled with this question for over 3000 years, I humbly suggest it merits more consideration than simply a page of text completely lacking in citation. If you seek to apply the scientific method to a topic at least follow it yourself.

  10. Brian Ritter permalink
    December 4, 2010 3:37 PM

    Imam – The simple answer: electricity baby!
    What’s the difference a running computer and one that has been turned off?
    A computer runs on electricity, as do we.

  11. December 3, 2010 7:35 PM


    the difference is the corpse is a non-functioning human

    it’s stopped working because it’s too damaged (byt disease or physical trauma) or has broken down from old age

    why should humans have souls if other animals don’t?

    if there is such a thing as a soul, then any afterlife is a part of nature and what that afterlife is, will not be dependant on what we did or didn’t do with our genitals in life.

  12. Imam permalink
    December 3, 2010 2:43 AM

    “…The most reasonable conclusion is that there is no “ghost in the machine”, no soul associated with our brain.”

    I have a simple question for you:
    but, Why there is difference facts between human corpse and alive human… whereas you know that they have same ‘thing’ i.e. ‘brain’????

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