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Preach to the choir
Icon religion.svg
Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith
SpongeBob: Do souls look like pickles?
Mr. Krabs: Aye, as a matter of fact they do.
SpongeBob SquarePants, "Scaredy Pants"

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]

Science does not recognise the concept of a soul - because the soul provides a supernatural explanation of the phenomenon of human consciousness, and as such the idea is non-falsifiable. Believers postulate that soul-stuff is 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 - compare Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Like most other spiritual beliefs, the inability to measure 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.

Soul-fans usually describe the soul 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 a person's overall character.[2][3][4] If those changes in actual personality can be identified within a working brain, how can the "soul" - which is generally described as these aspects in collective - exist? One wouldn't expect an immaterial entity 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", such as "sin". (The soul would just be some sort of "observer", but even just "observing" something - according to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, may physically affect that thing.) If a body sins, it cannot be the soul's fault. Compare conscience.[5]

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. The Sunn Classic Pictures 1978 pesudoscience documentary Beyond and Back,[6] dramatized MacDougall's experiment - with a great deal of artistic license. 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.[7] 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 the 2003 movie 21 Grams 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 in his life in 1915) claimed that the experiments turned out to be the result of the natural cause of moisture loss.[8]


The physicist R. A. Watters in the 1930s carried out some experiments with a Wilson cloud chamber and claimed to have observed the souls 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, the scientific community does not regard these reports - based on personal stories or testimonials - as evidence for the existence of souls.[9]

The number of souls[edit]

Modern monotheists seem to posit one soul per person. Other religious traditions generate souls more generously.[10] Ancient Egyptians distinguished at least five souls,[11] and Aristotle, following Egyptian lore, subdivided the soul into three.[12] One Chinese tradition postulates three souls,[13] but Taoism features ten souls, sanhunqipo (三魂七魄) per person: "three hun and seven po".[14]

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:

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. - Luke 23:43
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: [...] Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: [...] And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. - Matthew 25:31-46
And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. - Mark 9:43-48
And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name. - Revelation 14:9-11

and so forth. (Limbo came later.) Some have argued in favor of annihilationism rather than an eternal hell, although that has never been the most widely-held or traditional view. 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 the whole scenario 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 while 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" by Charles Choi. New Scientist, 21 October 2002. - "The sudden and uncontrollable paedophilia exhibited by a 40-year-old man was caused by an egg-sized brain tumour, his doctors have told a scientific conference. And once the tumour had been removed, his sex-obsession disappeared."
  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. See the Wikipedia article on conscience.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Beyond and Back.
  7. snopes: Soul Man
  8. Len Fisher Weighing The Soul: Scientific Discovery From the Brilliant to the Bizarre 2004, p. 14-15
  9. More Witnesses to “Soul Mist” by Michael Tymn.
  10. 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 [...]" 
  11. 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." 
  12. 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 [...]." 
  13. 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." 
  14. "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."