Can science make room for the soul?

In the 18th century, Abraham Trembley discovered that a microscopic, fresh-water animal called the hydra could be cut up to form as many hydras as one would like. This troubled the then current idea of the soul, which held that all animals had souls. If all animals had souls, then the hydra should as well. Does cutting up the hydra mean that one is cutting up the soul? If not, does God grant each of the pieces a soul? Or does the experiment imply — as many atheists of the time inferred — that there simply is no immaterial soul?

In our time, unknown to most people, there is a new challenge to the soul. In this new challenge, instead of cutting up hydra, neuroscientists cut up the human brain. It has been found that splitting the brain into two produces two independent personalities with distinct minds (the split-brain procedure is used out of medical necessity in the treatment of certain disorders). In fact, these two minds can have distinct religious beliefs. Here is neuroscientist VS Ramachandran explaining an experiment in which one patient was recorded as having both atheist and theist halves of his brain:

While this split-brain patient is probably the most damning implication of neuroscience for soul-beliefs, there are other difficulties as well. For example, the by-now trivial observation that physical manipulations of the brain cause changes in the mind, to the extent that the elimination of brain function eliminates mind function, is a part of our normal experience of the world. Most of the people in our society know that taking anti-depressents, drinking alcohol, inhaling paint fumes, having brain surgery, and so on, have severe effects on the brain. Are we to infer that the soul is just as susceptible to alcohol as the body? Or does it seem that a different conclusion is more likely — that there is no soul distinct from the physical system of the brain?

Do discoveries like these show that the soul is incompatible with contemporary science? That’s the topic I will address in this post.

To begin, consider the following sort of question: Can one accept neuroscience while still accepting the existence of the soul?

That question seems to have a variety of interpretations. On one reading of that question, one is simply asking whether or not humans are capable of believing in souls when they know about neuroscience. Humans are certainly capable of believing many things, but of course that doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not they should. For example, humans are capable of believing that crystals have magical powers while also believing in contemporary geology — but they shouldn’t. And believing in souls, while also believing in neuroscientific results, is certainly something that humans are capable of doing (there is no psychological block to doing so). Nonetheless, I think a much more interesting question concerns whether or not they should.

Another way to understand the question is to ask whether or not neuroscience and soul-doctrines logically contradict each other. There are some soul-doctrines which do contradict neuroscience — such as substance dualism — and others — such as Christian materialism — which do not. But I don’t find the question of logical contradiction to be very interesting either. There is no logical contradiction between the belief that weather patterns are actually caused by invisible, immaterial dragons that perfectly mimic natural forces and the belief that all of the scientific evidence about weather patterns is consistent with those patterns being caused by natural forces. Yet we would still say that natural forces are a better explanation for weather than invisible, immaterial dragons and that any consistent use of science would reject the dragons.

This brings us to what I think is a better way to ask the question. Does a consistent use of science yield the conclusion that there is a soul? And, of course, the answer is no. And if science is the best method that we have for arriving at explanations and simply infers to the best explanation, then these theological explanations can be nothing other than inferences to less than best explanations using less than the best methods. I call that an incompatibility between science and religion. When asked in this way, I say that soul-beliefs are not compatible with science.

The Christian might push back against this conclusion by claiming that there are “many ways of knowing”. But this cannot work as a rebuttal, since I did not claim that there were no other ways of knowing. What I claimed was that science constituted the best ways of knowing which we presently have, a claim that I would back by citing both the history of knowledge claims and by appeal to the no-miracles argument, and by noting that science involves inference to the best explanation, itself relatively non-controversial amongst philosophers of science. To fully respond to this accusation in a satisfactory way, what the Christian would need to demonstrate is not only does there exist another way of knowing but that this other way is at least as reliable and veridical as our scientific methods. I have never seen a demonstration of this sort provided for a religious epistemology.

Another unsatisfactory response the Christian may give would be to point out that there are plenty of non-scientific things which contain truth. Poetry isn’t scientific, yet it can provide us information about the world. If that’s true, then theology may contain truth as well. This response isn’t satisfactory for two reasons. First, because poetry isn’t veridical in any appropriate sense. Reading a poem does not inform us in some satisfactory way about the nature of the universe unless it either contains an argument, reference to scientific data, or is considered jointly with scientific information. In other words, poetry itself doesn’t do any of the epistemic work. Second, because it is unclear why the existence of one acceptable non-scientific epistemology should entail that theology is an acceptable non-scientific epistemology. If the existence of a single non-scientific epistemology implied that any other non-scientific epistemology was acceptable, then reading tea leaves and consulting horoscopes should be acceptable as well.


  • December 23, 2013 - 2:37 pm | Permalink

    may I suggest that apparent difficulties can be resolved if you step away from certainty that “science involves inference to the best explanation” and consider “other way[s] of knowing …at least as reliable and veridical as our scientific methods.” Science does not provide any explanation for why slavery was acceptable in 1813 and not in 1913 or why proposals of gay marriage were likely punishable by lashes in 1813 and imprisonment in 1913 but are even applauded in 2013. “Other ways of knowing” include “training” and “practice” — which provide my knowledge of how to play a piece of music and that teach me ways to put my emotions into it.

    I have organized more structured suggestions into an essay, titled “How to solve ‘free will’ puzzles and overcome limitations of platonic science,” which is available at

    • Dan Linford
      December 23, 2013 - 10:41 pm | Permalink


      Thank you for your reply! I don’t understand why you think your proposal works. While it may be true that training and practice allow you to play music, I don’t see why this would show either:

      (1) There ways of knowing things other than through science. After all, science also involves training and practice, so neither training nor practice are entirely distinct from science. And music is based entirely upon empirical experience (including our experience of what people generally find to be aesthetically pleasing).

      (2) That there are ways of knowing which allow one to infer the existence of an immaterial soul. Surely you don’t think that either training or practice allow one to do this, or that music does either.

      In addition:

      (3) You said: “may I suggest that apparent difficulties can be resolved if you step away from certainty…” I never said that I was absolutely certain (in any relevant sense) that science was the only way to know things. All I said was that it was the only way that I know of, at present, that actually works. That remains true.

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  • February 22, 2014 - 12:15 am | Permalink

    One way to try and attack this problem is to consider what makes you you. Is it the specific molecules? No, because they come and go as you move through life. Is it the specific neuronal pathways? Not so specifically, because those change through time. Is it your specific psychology? No, because that might change over time. The problem turns out to be pretty tricky. What is the invariant, if there even is one? Is the following of any interest?

    … seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col 3:9-10)

    The key thing here is old self → new self; it seems almost as a kind of discontinuity in the way it is spoken of here and elsewhere (e.g. died with Christ, buried with Christ, etc.). But perhaps there is an invariant on either side of the discontinuity? I’m reminded of Dr. Gregory House’s favorite aphorism, “People don’t change!” Well, is that true? Could be reworded thusly?: “People’s souls don’t change!” The Christian, of course, claims that he’s wrong. :-p But we could also look at Christian ideas of unregenerate people, because there is some sort of claim there that unregenerate people cannot change in certain ways, which may mean they believe in some sort of invariant! (Perhaps a potential well is a better example, actually… hmmmm)

    I will now quote a rather long section from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

    …whatever criteria or principles or evaluative allegiances the emotivist self may profess, they are to be construed as expressions of attitudes, preferences and choices which are themselves not governed by criterion, principle, or value, since they underlie and are prior to all allegiance to criterion, principle, or value. But from this it follows that the emotivist self can have no rational history in its transitions from one state of moral commitment to another. Inner conflicts are for it necessarily au fond the confrontation of one contingent arbitrariness by another. It is a self with no given continuities, save those of the body which is its bearer and of the memory which to the best of its ability gathers in its past. And we know from the outcome of the discussions of personal identity by Locke, Berkeley, Butler and Hume that neither of these separately or together are adequate to specify that identity and continuity of which actual selves are so certain.
    The self is now thought of as lacking any necessary social identity, because the kind of social identity that it once enjoyed is no longer available; the self is now thought of as criterionless, because the kind of telos in terms of which it once judged and acted is no longer thought to be credible. (33)

    Roughly speaking, one could translate MacIntyre’s ‘telos‘ as “life story” or “life purpose”. That would be a way to ‘collect’ a person’s experiences and find a unity to them. (see universals) Stephen Donaldson, in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, uses the term Würd/Word/Weird to get at something akin to a collective purpose, in some neat ways that I need to explore by re-reading his work. MacIntyre later describes Aristotle’s polis, which he claims is much more than just a city, but a collective purpose and public good, which can be sought after by everyone, instead of having clashing private goods with winners and losers. But I digress.

    Aaaanyway, I wonder if we could do something like equate ‘life purpose’ = ‘soul’. Eph 2:10 seems relevant this: “For we are His poiēma, created in Christ Jesus for good works”; see my Hermeneutics.SE question, What would be a good translation of ‘poiēma’? If this equation doesn’t work, perhaps a soul at least includes a purpose, or something like a purpose, as a necessary part. This might help us get at the invariant, above. Note that one’s purpose may not be known until partway through life or even all the way through.

    • Dan Linford
      February 22, 2014 - 12:18 pm | Permalink

      A few things.

      1. The general problem you’ve pointed out here — that there is a problem with the persistence of identity — is a problem for all physical objects. The fact that this problem is true for the human body is not a reason to believe in the soul; it’s a reason to think that the body is consistent with other physical systems (since if the mind is the brain we should expect all of the same conceptual problems that arise for matter to arise for the mind).

      2. Your references to physics simply confuse the issues which you are trying to address.

      3. You haven’t actually provided evidence that the mind is distinct from the body.

      • February 22, 2014 - 1:01 pm | Permalink

        1. It has to do with all objects, although there is something special about life: if it stops eating and excreting, it’s very often dead, and no longer ‘life’. On the other part I brought up, how many objects are considered ‘the same’ after significant mass exchange, a la the ship of Theseus?

        2. Do they? Do you know what invariants are in physics? I could also talk about invariants in theory of computation, where an instance of a class is only ‘valid’ if certain conditions are met. If you don’t want to talk about this stuff using rigorous means, I’m afraid that you will win. For, you’ll be restricting my talk to fuzzy-wuzzyness, which can be dismissed on the basis that it’s fuzzy-wuzzy. If we talk about what really defines a person, that thing is the invariant! It may be infinitely complex and only partially knowable, but that would be ok.

        3. I’m didn’t mean to argue for dualism; while it can be useful to carefully talk about different parts of an issue, I have no commitment to it. What I’m arguing for is thinking and speaking clearly, a la The Computation Theory of the Laws of Nature and The Simple Theory of Counterfactuals. If we don’t do this, I can virtually guarantee you that progress in understanding these issues will grind to a halt. And then you will win, because religion is just fuzzy-wuzzy nonsense.

        P.S. I use ‘fuzzy-wuzzy’ based on my statistical interaction with atheists and skeptics; you may disagree, in which case I’d love to hear your thoughts.

        • Dan Linford
          February 22, 2014 - 1:23 pm | Permalink

          1. There may be something special about life — in the sense that it has to maintain special thermodynamic states to be alive — but that’s not a reason to think that persistence of identity problems would somehow lead to different conclusions.

          2. I have half a phd in physics. I know what invariants are in physics. I do not think they are relevant to this conversation.

          3. I didn’t say that religion was “fuzzy-wuzzy nonsense”. Surely, religion is a broader phenomenon than that. Is that what you think religion is? At any rate, this post argued specifically against mind-body dualism. I understood your comment as disagreeing with the thesis I was arguing for (that mind-body dualism is incompatible with contemporary science). Did I misunderstand that?

          • February 22, 2014 - 1:43 pm | Permalink

            Huh, you get to edit your comments and I don’t, eh? How I long for Disqus everywhere, or really, something much better than Disqus…

            1. Nonetheless, I claim that there may be convergence between some discussions of ‘soul’ in the past, and the most convincing ideas of what would be considered a person’s ‘identity’. The ‘soul’ would be the thing that is really you. There’s a lot wrapped up into this too, because it is very different if someone attacks your identity, vs. something that you just happen to be doing now but could change. And I also think there’s fruitful conversation to be had about Dr. Gregory House’s “People don’t change!”

            2. Would you be willing to explain a bit? You may well be right, but you clearly have more expertise on the matter, and so it’ll take fewer man-hours if you’re willing to explain a bit than for me to learn about invariants in physics some more. Perhaps I really am thinking more about invariants in theory of computation.

            Hmmm, perhaps I have figured it out. Let’s model a person’s identity as the Turing machine which (a) properly simulates him/her throughout life; (b) never self-modifies. This is, most precisely, the entire person, the thing that does not change (is ‘invariant’, where now I think I’ve hit equivocation between this use and the use in physics?). Now, if we were to profile the person’s code, we might see a progression between which instructions/states were used during one part of life and not another. If a person never revisits old ‘functions’, we can say that they’ve changed in one sense, but not another.

            Does this make any sense? Returning to the MacIntyre I quoted above, I’m trying to capture the whole person, and have that whole not just be a series of events which we cannot remember properly. This ‘whole person’ may be equatable to ‘soul’. That is, if you were to define ‘soul’ thusly, it may aid comprehension of many uses of the word throughout time. If so, then I claim that we’ve made progress in understanding the concept as something that isn’t dependent on dualism.

            3. I think a lot of atheists and skeptics do view religion as “fuzzy-wuzzy nonsense”, or alternately, “highly systematic nonsense”. The former is what most lay Christians appear to hold to; the latter is what lots of educated Christians appear to hold to, but it doesn’t seem to really contact with reality much, except in fuzzy-wuzzy ways. I am tempted to view a lot of Christianity in one or the other of these ways. Francis Schaeffer discusses this beautifully, where he says that people have lost the denotations of Christian-words and are surfing on the connotations. (I changed it to a surfing metaphor.) One of the most frustrating things I encountered while growing up in the church was Christianese. People would say ‘grace’, but they wouldn’t really understand what it meant. Now I don’t want to come down too hard on people who can successfully operate in fuzzy-wuzzy land—such people do exist—but I’m not one of them. I’m much more analytical.

            As to mind-body dualism, it wasn’t at all clear that the post was primarily about it. I smell a pattern here that shows up in debates between LFW and CFW: what difference does the difference make? That is, how will I act differently in reality if I accept LFW, vs. CFW? Every time I think there’s an answer, I reach out to try and grab and formulate it; it seems to just slip out of my hands like sand. So I wonder if (i) dualist soul vs. (ii) monist soul will experience the same issue. If so, then all the hubbub about dualism is a bit misdirected! That would be a very, very important conclusion to reach, if it is indeed reachable from sound premises.

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