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The soul is the name given to the supposed "immaterial part"[1] of an individual, which some believe can exist separately from the body in the afterlife. Though the term itself largely comes from Christian traditions, most religions have some concept of a "part" of the person that is separate and distinct from the body. It's considered by those who believe in it to be a self-evident and intrinsic part of humanity (hence why things like philosophical zombies can exist in some peoples' minds). It is an important aspect of much religious belief—particularly when concerning the afterlife.

The term is often invoked in a metaphorical sense (such as a poetic statement "my soul was moved by his words") without implying the actual existence of a separate "magical" part of a person that exists after the person dies.

Scientific view[edit]

The concept of the soul is not recognised by science because it is a supernatural explanation of the phenomenon of human consciousness, and as such it is non-falsifiable. The soul is postulated by believers to be completely immaterial. Scientists who attempt, and without exception fail, to find evidence of the soul will usually be told that they can't measure or characterise it anyway. Like most other spiritual beliefs, this makes the idea of the soul (conveniently) immune to scrutiny. Those who logically and scientifically argue against a "soul" would state that if something can't be measured or tested—directly or indirectly—in any way, then it can't affect the material world and therefore is, in all practicality and in all actuality, non-existent.

The soul is usually described as an immaterial "thing" in a way that implies that it "contains" someone's consciousness, emotions, personality, and memories. In reality, the only possibility of a soul existing would be through a function of awareness; that is, awareness from a body at a moment in time. We know from physics that time is merely space, so the fact that humans experience from one point in time rather than simultaneously experiencing the entirety of our lifespan creates an argument for the idea of the soul occupying a body, and traveling through space connected with it. The movement would be what we perceive as time.

Neuroscience suggests that these various aspects of the mind are almost exclusively dependent on the brain. Changes to the brain from injury or illness directly affect memories, emotions and in fact their overall character.[2][3][4] If those changes in actual personality can be identified within the working brain, how can the "soul" which is generally described as these aspects in collective, exist? An immaterial entity would not be expected to be affected by a giant rod ploughing right through its owner's skullWikipedia.

If the soul does not interact with the physical body at all, then it should not bear any responsibility for the actions of its "host", like "sin". (The soul would just be an "observer", but even just "observing" something physically affects that thing.) If a body sins, it cannot be the soul's fault.

If the soul interacts with the physical body in some way, then that makes the soul a physical phenomenon.


In an effort to put the soul onto a more scientific footing, Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill, Massachusetts tried, in 1901, to weigh the soul (he disagreed with the common view of the soul, believing it was material, thus having mass). He took a dying man and weighed him until the "moment" of death, at which point he apparently noticed a reduction in weight of three-fourths of an ounce. This experiment was dramatized, with a great deal of artistic license, in the Sunn Classic Pictures pesudoscience documentary Beyond and Back. MacDougall subsequently repeated the experiment with fifteen unfortunate dogs and found no such reduction. Over time he repeated the experiment with five other dying humans - and got a variety of differing results which rather invalidated his premise.[5] The human weight loss he arrived at, about 21 grams, lived on in the urban legend stating we all lose this upon death, referenced in the title (and briefly in the plot) of a movie with the same name starring Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts.

Harry La Verne Twining also attempted to weigh the soul of animals in a set of experiments and obtained some interesting differences in weight loss. However scientists including Twining himself later on in his life claimed that the experiments turned out to be the result of the natural cause of moisture loss.[6]


The physicist R. A. Watters in the 1930's carried out some experiments with a Wilson cloud chamber and claimed to have observed the soul of insects and animals leaving their bodies at death. His results have not been replicated by other scientists and skeptics believe his photographs depict dust.

Some parapsychologists have also reported cases of "soul mist" being seen after people have died; however, these reports are based on personal stories or testimonials and are not considered evidence for the soul by the scientific community.[7]

The number of souls[edit]

Modern monotheists seem to posit one soul per person. Other religious traditions generate souls more generously.[8] Ancient Egyptians distinguished at least five souls,[9] and Aristotle, following Egyptian lore, subdivided the soul into three.[10] One Chinese tradition postulates three souls,[11] but Taoism features ten souls, sanhunqipo (三魂七魄) per person: "three hun and seven po".[12]

History of the Judeo-Christian concept[edit]

Before the influence of the Greek concept of the psyche on Hebrew thought, the Bible's authors only spoke of a man having breath (spirit), and any living creature was called a "soul". In fact, the Old Testament explicitly denies the belief in consciousness after death:

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, KJV

The Old Testament is also notable the extent to which it dwells on the futility of the human condition. In the Hebrew writings, humans have no ontological superiority over animals.

I said in my heart with regard to the sons of men that God is testing them to show them that they are but beasts. For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Ecclesiastes 3:18-20

However, the New Testament begins to speak of a promised resurrection for the dead at the end of time, and parallel destinations of either hell or heaven/paradise (Luke 23:43, Matthew 25:31-46, Mark 9:43, Revelation 14:11, etc.) Some have argued in favor of annihilationism rather than an eternal hell, although that has never been the most widely held or traditional view (the Parable of the Rich man and LazarusWikipedia, for instance, supports the latter). It's not entirely clear how heaven or paradise and the resurrection fit together (Christians have wrangled over the details for generations), however the Book of Revelation indicates this does not take place "in the sky", but rather on a future Earth. The idea of the soul being immaterial may also be wrong, with every dead person rather being resurrected, judged and then either sent to eternal torment/annihilated (depending on the specific interpretation) or given eternal life in heaven/paradise inhabiting an immortal body.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Whatever that is even supposed to mean, as the word "part" is clearly derived from the material.
  2. "Brain tumour causes uncontrollable paedophilia"
  3. Kennedy, DP; Gläscher, J; Tyszka, JM; Adolphs, R. "Personal space regulation by the human amygdala." (2009). Nat Neuroscince. 12 pmid=19718035
  4. Bucher, K.; Myersn, R.; Southwick, C. "Anterior temporal cortex and maternal behaviour in monkey." (1970). Neurology. 20 pmid = 4998075
  5. snopes: Soul Man
  6. Len Fisher Weighing The Soul: Scientific Discovery From the Brilliant to the Bizarre 2004, p. 14-15
  7. More Witnesses to “Soul Mist” by Michael Tymn
  8. For example: Report of the ... Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. J. Murray. 1916. p. 662. Retrieved 2016-10-13. "Numerous instances of 'multiple souls' resembling those of Egypt have been recorded from the Congo and West Africa [...]" 
  9. Najovits, Simson (2003). Egypt, trunk of the tree : a modern survey of an ancient land. 2. New York: Algora Publishing. p. 60. ISBN 9780875862019. Retrieved 2016-10-13. "It is clear that the pharaohs — their bodies and several spiritual entities, or souls — enjoyed immortal survival and union with the divine as far back as can be traced in the Early Dynastic Period (from c. 3100 BC). [...] The Egyptian soul system was intimately linked to the numbers five and nine. Five united souls in the afterlife constituted a unified person." 
  10. Diop, Cheikh Anta (1991) [1981]. Civilization Or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. p. 358. ISBN 9781613747421. Retrieved 2016-10-13. "On a psychological level, the soul, according to Aristotle, as with all the ancient Egyptians, is composed of three principles [...]." 
  11. Tong, Daniel (2003). "Theological Perceptions". A Biblical Approach to Chinese Traditions and Beliefs. Singapore: Armour Publishing Pte Ltd. p. 71. ISBN 9789814045926. Retrieved 19 November 2019. "The Chinese [...] believe that each person has three souls. [They] believe that upon the death of a person, the souls are dispersed to reside in three different places." 
  12. "Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (2008)". Archived from the original on 5 November 2011. Retrieved 19 November 2019. "One common view included the idea of three hun and seven po. These multiple soul theories were among the factors in popular religion that mitigated widespread acceptance of belief in salvation of the individual soul. At the same time, however, multiple soul theories helped Chinese to manage contrasting perceptions of ancestral souls (as benevolent or malevolent, for example) and to provide an explanatory framework for the differing rituals of the domestic, gravesite, and clan hall cults for ancestors."