Scientific perspective on the soul

Every religion I have read about (Eastern and Western) talk about every sentient organism having a ‘soul’. It is one thing all religions seem to agree on - everyone has a soul, and something happens to it upon death. The most developed / abstract philosophical systems (Hindu Vedanta, Madhyamika Buddhism) teach that the soul only exists at a transactional level; the fundamental reality being that individual souls are merely reflections of the ‘universal soul’, aka God/Isvara.

But no system I know of denies the existence of the soul as the real experiencer of events, with the body literally being the garment he wears.

My purpose in starting this thread is to obtain a rational scientific viewpoint on this matter.

  • Does science believe there is something akin to a soul, as described by most religious traditions?
  • Is mainstream science agnostic about its possible existence, or dismissive based on scientific evidence?
  • What, if any, scientific experiments have been undertaken to settle this question one way or the other?
  • Is the brain (in case of humans) believed to fully explain consciousness, and thus the qualities attributed to a soul by religious thought? How does science explain lifeforms that live without a nervous system of any kind?

I am looking for a scientific perspective on this topic, but I welcome personal thoughts too, particularly from athiests.

Mods: Please move if inappropriate for this forum.


At present, the idea of “soul” is purely theological, and essentially supernatural.

There is no physical, scientific, objective, measurable, repeatable, useful evidence for the soul. It has been claimed by some that the human body loses a small amount of weight upon death, but this has pretty thoroughly been debunked.

Among the many problems with the idea is the question of the body/soul interface. Where does the soul “hook up” with the body? If it is one specific location (Descartes suggested the pineal gland) then what if we surgically removed that bit? Can we render a man soulless?

(Many “out of body” testaments refer to the “silver cord” that connects the spirit to the body. Sometimes, this attaches to the navel. The same problem arises, then: what if we surgically remove someone’s navel, taking, for good measure, a large chunk of the flesh surrounding it?)

What is difficult to understand about life-forms without nervous systems? Amoebas do just fine.

At present, most scientists working in relevant fields would say that the brain explains consciousness, and no extra-material addition is needed.

As for the theological soul, as long as it is solely a matter of faith and belief, science is able to remain agnostic. Science can’t tell you if God is one or three, or whether Jesus pre-existed his own birth, or whether the wafer and wine partake of the spiritual nature of God, etc.

(Science can tell you that the wafer and wine do not actually physically become flesh and blood. This particular experiment, while a tad blasphemous, has been conducted. No muscle tissue, no blood cells.)

About a good as place to start as any is Mary Roach’s book Spook.. Let’s just say she neither believes in souls or the afterlife, but she does write about the scientific experiments done to try to find and measure the soul, for instance when it supposedly is escaping our body upon death.
Spoiler alert: none was found.

It is true that most religions believe in a soul. Most religions are wrong. Most religions are engaging in wishful thinking or worse, because isn’t it easier to sign up the converts if you promise them eternal life, and isn’t it easier to get them to give you money if you convince them that eternal life depends on them listening to you, the religious leader?

If you wonder where you go after you die, just think about where a program running on your computer goes after you smash it to bits.
Same place.

Redmond Washington. :smiley:


What observations have we made that necesitate an explanation like the soul? It’s a wishful thinking solution in search for a problem.

What does the soul do? Is it the essence of who we are, what gives us our personality? Then why can someone’s personality be changed entirely by brain injury, surgery, drugs, or even little electric zaps? If a guy falls on his head and goes from liking vanilla ice cream best to chocolate, did his soul change from the fall?

Brain physiology is complex, and we don’t understand the entirety of it, but there is nothing we’ve learned that requires magic to make it work. The interaction of neurons and brain components explain conciousness, decision making, personality in a natural way that introduces no new (magical) assumptions.

On the other hand, we have a very good explanation as to why the existance of a soul is accepted amongst most religions. Essentially, the purpose of a religion is to explain the unknown with something that gives people comfort and/or a sense of control, along with convincing them that they’re special, that there’s a grand purpose and they aren’t merely the lucky result of some self-replicating chemicals coming together a billion years ago.

Since the primary fear religion attempts to relieve is the fear of death, it’s necesary for them to construct an idea of something that’s the essence of you that’s not physical, not attached to your body, and won’t die when your body expires. Without that, how do you promise an afterlife where you essentially remain you? So the fact that almost all religions came to share this concept isn’t proof that they’re hinting at some underlying truth, but merely an obvious and necesary component as to what makes them a religion, and what they offer to people.

It’s really no different than if I posited that the body runs off a mystical battery called a goobledegock that taps into the hidden magical power of the universe. Sure, we understand how the body is actually powered - how nutrients get turned into chemical energy, and how muscles turn that into breathing, movement, etc. But I could say that underneath all that, there’s this mystical battery that invisibly, secretly powers everything, even though there’s no evidence for it, nor any need for it to explain how the body works. How would this be any different from the arguments for a soul? They’re both unsubstantiated, magical solutions in search of a problem.

I am not pushing a religious viewpoint here, nor questioning posters’ personally-held beliefs. I will occasionally play the devil’s advocate, though, based on what little I know of philosophical systems.

Agreed. AFAIK, no religion/philosophy ever claimed the soul was made of something material.

Why would a “supernatural” soul need to attach to flesh? According to Chakra theory, the individual soul sits in the “heart chakra”. Chakras are energy systems, not physical flesh-and-blood systems.

My question was, if the brain animates us, then how do brainless organism also “live”, display awareness of their existance, and defend themselves from destruction?

Energy is physical.

There is no evidence that anything other than material things exist.

What test could be applied that would show that souls do not exist? If those who believe in souls cannot answer that question, then their belief is a matter of faith that cannot be disproven by science, but probably does not need to be.

What’s an energy system? Do you know really? Can you show me one? Or is it just a pairing of words someone thought sounded good?

What test could be applied that would show that chakras and “energy systems” do not exist? If those who believe in them cannot answer that question, then their belief is a matter of faith that cannot be disproven by science, but probably does not need to be.

Brains aren’t a necessary pre-requisite to either animation or life. Simple organisms are animated by nervous and chemical systems that don’t rise to a degree of sophistication that one would call them a “brain” but are sufficient to provide a degree of animation and self reproduction to an organism sufficient for the organism to be regarded as life.

If the soul is something supernatural (as most religions seem to assert) then a scientific perspective on the soul is impossible. Science deals with the natural world, and the supernatural is simply outside of its purview. However, if it is simply “energy” then it should be detectable. So far, absolutely no link between our physical body and any type of “soul” has been detected. Furthermore, as neuroscience has advanced, we’ve found that just about everything we experience can be attributed purely to physical processes in our brains.

Stimulus-response circuits. Complex ones. Just like the brain, really.


I think science is a reliable tool to learn how reality works, but I’m not a scientist.

  • Science does not acknowledge the existence of soul, as defined by religion.
  • Scientists, as individuals, may be either agnostic or dismissive; science can be a method or a particular discipline. I’m not aware of a scientific observation or a discipline that may attest the existence of the soul, as defined by religion. (Frankly, if the soul is of non-material nature, I don’t see how science may ever do that either.)
  • I think there have been pseudo-scientific attempts to attest the presence of the soul, but (from what I’ve heard or seen) I don’t think they’re convincing.
  • The brain accounts for consciousness entirely and thus the presence of a soul seems superfluous from a scientific point of view.

Not all lifeforms are regarded as endowed with soul by every religion either. Most of them are not even conscious. Their metabolism is regulated by varied mechanisms, such as the endocrine system.

If souls were real and had anything to do with us, they’d have to interact with us in some fashion. The effects of that interaction science could detect.

Souls that don’t interact with the world are for all practical intents and purposes identical to souls not existing at all.


Aristotle taught that the soul is the form of the body, i.e., the (internal and external) structure in virtue of which a body is alive, rather than dead matter. As such, it is a perfectly real thing, and is extensively studied, though not under that name, by branches of science such as physiology and biochemistry.

Aristotle himself also most probably believed (according to what is by far the most plausible interpretation of the vast majority of what he wrote about it) that the soul dies along with the body. Death is, in effect, the disruption of the dynamic bodily structures, the Aristotelian soul, that keep us alive (or, more accurately, constitute our being alive).

However, Thomas Aquinas, via a huge and extremely ingenious effort of casuistry, attempted to reconcile Aristotle’s conception of the soul to Christian dogmas, and, via a tendentious reading of a short, very obscure, and probably corrupt (i.e., the extant text is probably not quite what Aristotle actually wrote) passage in Aristotle’s writings, managed to make a case for the soul’s immortality. Aquinas’ theory soon became standard Christian doctrine, and, I believe, remains so in Roman Catholicism at least.

Descartes, in the 17th century, came up with a quite different account of the soul, as consisting of an immaterial substance quite distinct from the body. So far as I am aware, no theologian of any Christian denomination of any significance has ever embraced this theory of the soul. Nevertheless, Descartes has so deeply influenced modern thought (the scientific revolution was largely founded upon his metaphysical theories, which still pervade the thinking even of people who have never heard his name) that most people today, believers and unbelievers alike, seem to think of the soul in a Cartesian way, as an object made of some non-material substance. That is, it is the Cartesian soul, or something much like it, that atheists say doesn’t exist, and that most Christians (I don’t know about followers of other religions) think does exist (even though theologians would probably roll their eyes at it).

So are there souls? It depends what you mean by the word.

Many religious people believe that, when push comes to shove, we are our souls.

Example? If you mean Carrot Top, that’s all hyperbole. Life forms by definition have the capability to respond to stimuli. The definition of nervous system involves the specifics of detection/response.

It seems to me that essentially every definition used is either worthless or unverifiable.

I went into a record store once, and there was a whole Soul section! Explain that!

See the RationalWiki article on Non-materialist neuroscience; it might not answer all your questions, but it’s a good place to start.

That would be false. One solution to the problems associated with mind-body dualism is to reject dualism altogether. Peter Van Inwagen (PhD at Notre Dame), for example suggests that one solution for believers in the soul (or mind, whatever) is that it is a particle located in the brain.

What does he mean by “particle”? A subatomic particle?