Is There Any Evidence for the Soul?

An Important Foundation
There are many things that we, as Christians, take for granted regarding what we believe about the nature of God and the nature of our physical world. Many of these necessary truths are accepted without much examination, even though they are critical and foundational to the faith that we hold. One such foundational truth is something called “dualism”. As Christians, you and I believe that there is more to this life than the physical world around us. We also believe that this short time span of existence is not all that waits for us as humans. We do have the hope of Heaven. But for this to be true, we have to hold a view of TWO realities: the physical and the spiritual. It is a ‘dual’ view of world around us. We believe in BOTH the brain and the mind, the body and the soul (an essence that differs from the body and is not dissolved by death), the material existence and the spiritual realm. This concept of dualism, the recognition of two co-existent realms and realities, is critical to our faith as Christians. If dualism is NOT true (the opposite view is often called ‘monism’ or ‘physicalism’) then there is no realm in which God exists, we have no souls designed for salvation and life with God, and there is no life beyond this one. That’s why the examination of the TRUTH of dualism is so important.

Can We Prove It With Science?
So how can we begin to prove the existence of something that cannot be seen? What kind of science could we possibly use? After all, science deals with the natural, physical realm, and we are trying to measure something that is immaterial. Is science even the right instrument to get this job done? Probably NOT. A better and more rational approach would be to take a look at the issue from a philosophical perspective and see if there is any rational philosophical reason to believe in anything immaterial. So, that is exactly what we are going to do. We will begin by looking into the possibility of just one immaterial reality. We will begin by looking at the existence of the MIND. If we can provide evidence for the existence of the mind, we can open up the possibility of other nonmaterial realities such as the soul and the spiritual realm, so that will be our task.

We need to recognize that strict physicalists deny the existence of anything immaterial or non-physical. To this way of thinking, there are NO abstract immaterial objects. All that exists in the world, in this view, can be described using physics and chemistry. In this view, there is no mind; there is only a materiel brain containing neurons and C-fibers that are firing as a series of electrical and chemical events that cause a mental sensation (a thought or occurrence of pain, for example). For physicalists, there is only a brain and nervous system, limited to the physical world, and containing physical properties in which occur physical events. For physicalists, any idea that there is a “mind” or a “soul” is simply the product of the physical functioning of our brains. These things don’t really exist; they are simply the product of the physical workings of our brains.

Evidence from the Law of Identity
As Christians, we reject physicalism and believe that there are TWO realities, the brain and the mind, the body and the soul. We believe that there is an immaterial, unseen reality. And there is evidence to support our belief. Let’s begin by establishing the way that we are going to look at this evidence. Let’s be rational and logical about it. In fact, let’s begin with a simple LAW of logic called the Law of Identity. It’s a pretty simple law actually. Here is what it claims:

A = A

Boy, it doesn’t get much simpler than that, does it? The Law of identity simply states that something on one side of the equal sign is identical to something on the other side of the equation if they have the exact same qualities or properties. If this is true, we can say that they have an “identity relationship”. Now sometimes this is easy to understand. For example, it’s easy to see that this is true:

George Washington = George Washington

We can see easily that this is true. But what if we change the equation slightly? Take a look at this:

George Washington = First President of the United States

While the equation may look different at first glance, we can actually see that we still have an identity relationship due to the fact that all the qualities and properties of George Washington (his life, history and biological properties) are identical to the qualities and properties of “The First President of the United States”. Ok, so let’s apply this to our examination of the Soul. Physicalists argue that there is an identity relationship here:

the brain = the mind
the body = the soul

If this is true, we should find that all the properties and qualities on one side of the equations should be identical to all the properties on the other side of the equation. If this CANNOT be said; if there are DIFFERENCES in the qualities and nature of the items on opposite sides of the equation, then we know that we DO have two realities, just as Christians have known all along.

Difference One: “Public” Verses “Private”
(The Private Knowledge Argument)
OK, let’s begin with a short exercise. Take a minute and think about an imaginary car. Imagine that you have the chance to CREATE anything that you want. Cost is no limit here, and you can make it any shape you would like. It need not be limited by any other pre-existing shape or design. You can create anything you can imagine. OK, now I want you to picture this car in your mind. Take a minute. So picture it clearly, OK? Ready? Now if I were to sit you down with a graphic artist for a few hours, do you think you could work with him to give us a visual idea of what you are thinking about? Of course you could! You could work closely to make sure that the shape you have in your mind could be expressed accurately for all the rest of us. In the end, we would ALL be able to see exactly what you were thinking.

Now here is the dilemma for the physicalist. There is no car like this outside of your body that you looked at FIRST and then simply described to us. This car, with its very particular shape and style, lies only within the thoughts of your mind. Your brain is not referencing optical data from an object in the room. And neurophysiologists cannot open your physical brain and locate the car or its shape or properties. But think about this for a second. Your image of the car DOES have properties! Yet these properties cannot be SEEN in the brain by outsiders who might open your head and try to look. The best that science can offer is perhaps a set of neurons that may be responsible for CAUSING the sensation, but they are simply identifying two SEPARATE things that have a causal relationship between each other, just as there is a causal relationship between the MP3 file, the microchip and the sound of the music (but remember that the audible music is NOT the same as the microchip)

The properties of your dream car are privately known properties. Only you know and experience them. Those of us who are outside your mind cannot look in your brain, find the car and report its properties. These cannot be viewed by EVERYONE. Unless you tell me about them, I have NO idea what you are thinking. The reality of the car lies only in YOUR private consciousness. So here is a simple argument that demonstrates that the BRAIN and the MIND are two different things:

  • Physical Properties Can Be PUBLICLY Known: We can all look at a piece of sculpture, for example. The sculpture is physical and can be accessed by everyone.

  • Mental Properties Are Only PRIVATELY Known: How the sculpture makes you feel is impossible for us to access publicly. You would have to tell us. We cannot know from a physical examination of your brain unless you TELL us what you are feeling.

  • THEREFORE: Mental Properties Are NOT Physical Properties: See what this means? We can now conclude that the physical brain is something different from the immaterial mind. They are different because one possesses privately held knowledge (the mind) and the other (the brain) does not.

We’ve definitely simplified this evidence to an extreme to be brief here, but hopefully you are starting to grasp the philosophical basis for dualism. But let’s move on…

Difference Two: “I” Versus “My Body”
(The First Person Argument)
How many times have you heard someone say this: “I am a body”? We don’t hear that very often. Instead, we do hear expressions like “I have a body”. In this second sentence, who is the “I”? Who is the person who has the body? When we say something like, “my finger itches”, why do we claim to be something other than the finger? Why do we claim possessive ownership of something if, in fact, we are not something separate from it? When you say “This is my body”, do you really only mean, “This is the body that belongs to this brain”? Of course not.

When I say something like that, I mean exactly what I said! This is MY body! It seems that I instinctively know that “I” (my first person description of myself) am different than the physical body that I inhabit. I continue to say things like, “This is my body”, in the same way that I would say “This is my hat”. “I” and my hat are two separate things, and in the same way, “I” and my body are two separate things. We innately understand that whatever it is that we identify as “I”, this is something different than our body or any part of our body. That’s why when we lose a ton of weight we don’t then believe that we are somehow less a person, even though we are clearly less of a body. That’s why when we lose a limb in some accident, we don’t say that we are somehow less of a person. In fact, disabled people are always arguing just the opposite, aren’t they? So here is the thumbnail of this second argument:

  • Like Everyone, I Only Use First Person Possessive Pronouns to Indicate Possession of Something Other Than “Me”: I use expressions like, “This is MY toothbrush,” or “This is my mom,” because I am describing someone or something other then ‘me’.

  • Like Everyone, I Commonly Use First Person Possessive Pronouns When Describing My Body: I also find myself using expressions like, “This is my body,” or “This is my hand” when describing my physical body or some portion of my body.

  • THEREFORE: My Body Is Something Other Than “Me”: Just like my toothbrush is something other than ‘me’, my physical body is ALSO something other than ‘me’. ‘I’ am NOT my body. These are two different things. There are two realities, the material and the immaterial.

As it turns out, all of us have an intuitive sense that we are enduring beings who transcend the shape and limits of our bodies.

Difference Three: “Temporary Parts” Versus “Transcendent Identity” (The Parts Argument)
And there is actually more than one reason that we have this intuitive sense of the transcendent nature of our identity as humans. We also understand this based on the fact that we do NOT lose our identity over time. Let’s do another exercise together. Imagine that you own a beautiful 1972 Volkswagen Bug (just like mine). It is in mint condition and perfect in every way. No dings, no damage; a true collector’s item. Now imagine that your next door neighbor also owns a 1972 VW Bug. What a coincidence. The only difference between the two is that his Bug is a mess. Old and damaged, it doesn’t run and looks like a complete piece of junk. One day as you look out your window, you notice that the front quarter panel on YOUR Bug looks just like the old front quarter panel that used to be on your neighbors Bug! And sure enough, his Bug now has a quarter panel that looks just like yours! It appears as though the panels have been exchanged, one for the other! Now suspend logic a little bit here and imagine that over the next years, each and every day, more and more of your Bug was seen on your neighbor’s Bug, cleanly exchanged for parts from YOUR vehicle! In fact, at the end of the year, the Bug sitting on YOUR driveway looks suspiciously like your NEIGHBOR’S Bug. All the parts have been exchanged.

OK, now let me ask you a question: that Bug that is now sitting in your driveway. Whose Bug is it? Is it yours? Or is it your neighbor’s? I think we would agree that the Bug sitting in your driveway, even though it is on your property, is actually the Bug that used to belong to your neighbor! So, what’s the point of all this? Simply this: physical things are dependent on their parts for their identity. When the parts get exchanged, their identity changes as well. At some point, that Bug was no longer your Bug. Even when only ONE part had been replaced, you would not have been happy about it. You would have to admit that a pristine 1974 Bug with one crummy quarter panel was NOT your Bug!

But while physical things are dependent on their parts for their identity, Souls are NOT. Look at yourself in the mirror. Do you have the same body today that you had ten years ago? No. Each and every cell in your body has been renewed and replaced. Some would argue that brain cells are NOT renewed, but that ignores what is happening at the cellular level WITHIN each cell. The replacement process is taking place at that level, until whatever brain cells you were born with have nothing in common with what you now have. So let’s be very strict about this. While you have a very different body than you had years ago, YOU are still YOU! So clearly YOU cannot be described as something that is purely physical, because physical things that have different PARTS have a different identity. Here is what the argument looks like:

  • Physical Entities Are Dependent on Their Parts for Their Identity: We know the difference between our car and someone else’s car in a parking lot, and we know the difference between our cell phone and someone else’s phone left behind in a library. We know this because we recognize that the parts are what establish the identity of physical objects.

  • But We, as Humans, Are NOT Dependent On Our Parts for Our Identity: But no matter how much we have changed (even if we have an organ transplant, we know that our identity is NOT at risk. I am still me, regardless of my parts.

  • THEREFORE: Humans Are NOT Purely Physical Entities: For this reason, we know that we are more than mere physical entities dependent on our pats for our identity. Once again, we know intuitively that we had a transcendent identity. We have a soul.

There is something about YOU that doesn’t change, regardless of the rearrangement or exchange of ‘parts’. As Christians, we call this ‘YOU’ your soul.

Difference Four: “Measurable” Verses “Immeasurable”
(The Measurement Argument)
If, as humans, we are simply an assemblage of physical parts, we should expect to be able to perform certain tasks that are natural to perform on physical objects. For example, we can weigh an object, measure its length or measure its mass. But when we start to think about the nature of mental entities (like desires, sensations emotions and wills) we quickly recognize that these things cannot be examined in such a way. These mental entities are not subject to the processes that we commonly apply to physical objects. While your thoughts have propositional content, they obviously don’t have physical weight. And conversely, while your brain has physical weight, it does NOT have propositional content. Once again, we have discovered qualities of the mind that are NOT the same as qualities of the brain. There is, therefore, no identity relationship between the two. We could put it this way:

  • Physical Entities Can Be Measured Using Physical Measurement Instruments: We can take out a ruler and measure the width and length of your brain. We can weigh it and calculate its mass.

  • But As Humans, We Possess Mental Entities (Thoughts, Wills, Desires and Sensations) That Are Not Measurable By These Methods: We cannot use physical measurement tools to examine our thoughts. Propositional content cannot be measured in this way.

  • THEREFORE: Humans Are More Than Physical Beings: There is a physically immeasurable dimension to our beings. We are more than matter. We have a physically immeasurable soul.

Once again the identity equation is comparing things that have different qualities and properties. Minds are not brains, bodies are not souls.

Difference Five: “About Others” Versus “About Themselves” 
(The Self-Existence Argument)
Now let’s move from physical properties of the brain to characteristics of the mind. There is another quality or property difference between the brain and the mind. In our minds we often experience thoughts or concerns about the world around us. We worry about our jobs or our homework. We are afraid of scary movies, or things that go bump in the night. We are concerned about our friends and family. We are hopeful about the future. All of these mental entities, (our worries, our concerns, our fears, our hopes) are ABOUT something else. Now think about that for a minute. These mental entities are not self-existent. They require something ELSE to exist. They don’t exist unless there is something OUTSIDE themselves ABOUT which they are focused.

Now this is NOT true of physical entities. A tree is not ABOUT anything else. It simply IS. Yet our concerns about the tree (if for example it is in danger of dying) are ABOUT the tree. They require the tree in order to exist. Our concerns, in this example, RELY on the tree for their very existence. And this differentiates the realm of the mind from the realm of the brain. The mind contains those mental entities that are ABOUT something physical, while the brain is simply something physical (requiring no other object to define or determine its existence). Here is what the argument might look like:

  • Mental Entities Are Not Self Existent: Our hopes, fears, concerns and worries are always ABOUT something else; something outside of themselves.

  • But Our Brains, As Physical Entities, ARE Self Existent: Physical things are not ABOUT something else; they simply exist on their own and do not rely on other physical objects for their definition.

  • THEREFORE: Our Brains Are NOT The Same As Our Minds: Brains are physical, self existent entities, minds contain mental entities that are dependent on outside entities for their definition.

Yet another set of qualities has therefore been uncovered that helps us to differentiate between the material and immaterial world; between the brain and the mind, the body and the soul.

Difference Six: “Morally Determined” Versus “Morally Free”
(The Free Will Argument)
OK, we are now at the last piece of evidence that we will offer in demonstrating the existence of the unseen realm. Once again, imagine a scenario with me. You are 6 years old, and standing in line at the grocery store. You are buying a comic book. But there on the shelf, right next to the checkout, is your favorite candy bar. You don’t have enough money to buy it. So, you are now faced with a dilemma. Do you put the thing in your pocket anyway? It’s a moral choice. You hesitate for a minute, and then quickly slip it into your pocket. As you pay for the comic book, the savvy clerk tells you to empty your pockets and sternly asks for your home phone number. She calls your parents and lays you out. When your dad arrives at the store, he asks you why you did it. What is your answer?

Now, one possible answer is, “Dad, there was an earthquake and the candy bar was simply jarred off the shelf into my pocket!” Or you might say, “Dad, a strong wind came in through the front door and started to push over the shelf, and the candy bar just fell into my pocket!” But let’s fact it, I doubt that kind of excuse will get you very far. You might like to try to say that the theft was caused by some other event, but in the end, you’ll have to admit that YOU were a personal free agent that made a bad moral choice. YOU caused the theft. You can’t blame it on some outside prior event. The buck stops with YOU. As a free agent on this world, with the ability to act freely, you are the first and only cause of the theft.

Now, we’ve just illustrated something very important here. There are clearly two kinds of causes. EVENTS can cause something to happen, and FREE AGENTS can cause something to happen. One event can clearly cause another event to happen. The earthquake, for example, can cause the candy bar to fall into your pocket. When one EVENT causes another event to occur, it is appropriate to say something like, “Hey, WHAT caused that?”, because we know that in the physical world, each event is caused by a prior event (the shaking of the ground is caused by the earthquake that is cause by the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates that is caused by gravitational forces, etc., etc., etc.). All these events are simply like a series of dominos that fall down in order. There is no choice in the matter. The next event HAS to occur based on the prior event. When the tectonic plates shift, the ground MUST shake.

But we know that you took that candy bar on your own. No earthquake or physical event caused that. You made a choice. When a FREE ANGENT causes something to occur, it is appropriate to say something like, “Hey, WHO caused that?” Your dad won’t even begin to ask you, “Hey, WHAT caused this candy bar to get in your pocket?”, because he knows that YOU as a free agent made a moral choice. See, when a free agent causes something, he or she requires NO physical event to come before the action. The free agent is NOT just another domino in the line of events. The free agent is the FIRST domino.

When physical events are the cause of something, we call this “event causation”. When you or I are the cause of something, we call this “agent causation”. It’s important to recognize that physical things always respond to event causation, but agents have the freedom to act without a prior causal event. You and I can be the first domino. Physical events cannot choose to act or respond morally, but we can. So it is clear that we must be something more than physical! After all, you and I DO make moral choices all the time as free agents, and if we were purely physical, we would only be able to respond to events, just like other physical objects are only able to respond to events! So here is what this evidence might look like in argument form (it’s a little longer than the other arguments):

  • No Physical System is a Free Agent: They are either determined (one event following the other) or random.

  • Therefore No Physical System Has Moral Responsibility: Because moral responsibility requires moral freedom of choice.

  • Human Beings DO Have Moral Responsibility: We have the innate sense that each of us has the responsibility to act morally, and indeed, we observe that we are free agents who DO choose right from wrong freely.

  • THEREFORE: Therefore Human Beings Are NOT Simply Physical Systems: If we were purely physical entities, we would only act as events, and we would be unable to act freely (this is the nature of physical things). Our free agency demonstrates that we are more than simple physical objects.

Our existence as free will agents should make it obvious that we are NOT limited to the physical world with its limitations of event causality. We are human souls (non-physical personal substances) with the ability to act as the first cause.

Two Different Realms, Two Different Realities
OK, we spent some time making a case for the existence of the immaterial realm (the mind and the soul). When we look at this evidence in its entirety, it is clear that it is reasonable for us to conclude that the mind and body are something altogether different than the mind and soul. When we simply apply the law of identity to what we have already discussed, we can see that what’s on one side of the equation, cannot be found on the other side of the equation. These are different qualities and properties that can be seen on either side of the equation:

BRAIN (BODY)                        =                      MIND (SOUL)?  

Can Be Publicly Observed (Known)                     Can Only Be Privately Observed (Known)
Described in the Third Person                             Described in the First Person
Requires Parts for Identity                                 Not Dependant on Parts for Identity
Measured with Tools                                          Immeasurable with Tools
Is An Independent Physical Entity                       Is A Dependant Mental Entity
Responsive Only to Event Causation                   Able to Act Freely as a Causation Agent

If nothing else, you can see that there is a reasonable and logical foundation for believing in the existence of the unseen and immaterial realm in which the mind and soul clearly exist.

But Hasn’t Science Explained All This?
Now some of you may be versed well enough in the scientific literature related to the brain and consciousness to have heard scientists claim that they can locate the exact spot where certain feelings are formed, or certain thoughts originate. Scientists claim to be able to map the brain well enough to know where these thought processes are centered. If they stimulate a particular point in the brain, they observe that they can cause a particular sensation or reaction. Scientists are working hard to demonstrate this in an effort to show that the life of the immaterial mind actually CAN be physically located within the material thing that we call a brain. They continue to argue that there really is no difference between what we call the brain and what we call the mind, and therefore there is no difference between what we call the body and what we call the soul. In essence, they would argue that the immaterial world is simply a figment of our imagination; yet another product of firing C-fibers!

But let’s be clear about something here. As theists who recognize the existence of the mind and the soul, we are not saying that scientists cannot stimulate particular places in the brain and cause a mental experience to occur. We know that this has been done in the laboratory. But this does NOT prove that the immaterial MIND is the same as the material BRAIN. We’ve already demonstrated why we know that this is not true. In order to understand the relationship between the brain and the mind, we need to take a close look at HOW scientists have “mapped” the brain. Once we do this, it’s easy to see why this mapping FAILS to prove an identity relationship between the brain and the mind.

In order to understand what parts of my brain are related to functions of my mind, the scientist will typically open my head up and start to stimulate a particular spot on my brain. Then he will ASK ME what result this is having in my thought process. Once I’ve reported this back to him, he will catalogue the result and draw conclusions. But note something very important here. UNLESS I TELL THE SCIENTIST WHAT I EXPERIENCED, HE WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO GUESS WHAT I AM THINKING OR FEELING IN ADVANCE! The scientist is still dependent on my reporting what he has no true access to: MY PERSONAL thoughts. Once again, we are seeing the difference between the public realm of the material world (the brain), and the private realm of the immaterial world (the mind). Every brain is different, and science will NOT be able to predict in advance precisely what memory can be stimulated by this type of interaction. It will always have to rely on the reporting of the individual to reveal the private details of memory.

But What About Examples of Brain Damage?
Finally let’s look at an issue that is often raised in order to make the claim that there is no difference between the brain and the mind. Let’s take a look at someone who is injured in some way so that they are no longer are able to think clearly. In these cases, isn’t it clear that a damaged mind simply cannot create the thoughts that we theists attribute to the mind? Isn’t this proof that the brain and the mind are the same thing?

This only proves that there is some sort of cause and effect relationship between these two very different things. Let me give you an example. My IPod does not contain the actual SOUNDS of music, but when I stimulate the electronics of the microchip holding the MP3 file, sound results from the activity. The microchip (a material object) and the music (an immaterial sound) are two very different things. One is not the same as the other; one simply has the capacity to cause the other. But think about it. Even without the IPod, we still find ourselves humming the song after the music has stopped. The immaterial song (that begins with the microchip) has a life of its own, even after the microchip stops doing its job.

Before he died, my grandfather began to lose his memory. He eventually did not recognize his children and finally did not even know who he was. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves using the common terminology of the culture by saying something like, “He’s losing his mind”. But in reality, this is not the case at all. To be more accurate, we should say, “He’s losing ACCESS to his mind”, or “His BRAIN is beginning to fail”. My grandfather did not lose his identity just because his brain was not functioning properly. He was still HIM. But in that slow process, the interaction that typically occurs between the brain and the mind, became inhibited. He was often seen struggling to connect the two, to use his brain to access his mind. As Christians who understand the dual reality of the universe, we understand that in this life, he may have lost access to his mind, but his mind is still there. It’s just like a damaged computer processor that receives the electrical input and cannot access the internet. We cannot then conclude that the internet is no longer available, only that my processor isn’t working correctly. One has nothing to do with the other.

So What Does All This Mean?
As Christians, we believe that there is a dual reality: the seen and the unseen, the material and the immaterial, the brain and the mind, the body and the soul, the earth and Heaven. The material world changes over time; it decays and collapses. The Immaterial world exists alongside the material: it is not subject to the natural laws of materialism and exists outside the limits of time and matter. These two worlds DO have some relationship to each other; that is clear. Together they dance and interact. And as we come to understand the nature of this dance, we begin to understand the nature of the Christian worldview.

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J. Warner Wallace