Some thoughts on the Soul

What is the soul?

Definition: the non-physical aspect of a person; the complex of human attributes that manifests as consciousness, thought, feeling and will; regarded as distinct from the physical body.

A strength of Plato’s dualism is that it says there is more to living than just what we are always aware of.

Another is that he doesn’t deny the existence of the physical world but it isn’t as important.

Aristotle argued that Plato’s definition of soul was wrong, it isn’t immortal but rather like the life-force of the body so when the body dies so must the soul.

A small amount of damage might even cause rather dramatic changes in your personality. Why? Because your brain is the seat of your self-awareness, the locus of your compassion and your creativity. All of your mental activities –your thoughts, emotions and feelings – an all your bodily processes are affected by the functioning of your brain.’ James V McConnel.

It seems that whatever role our soul has it is not directly linked to the control of our physical bodies, and is not directly a cause of our experiences.

Our emotions are deeply tied to bio-chemistry and neurology. Neurological causes precede emotions…this means that our qualia and fundamental experience of life results from our brain chemistry. Vexen Crabtree.


The Phaedo was also known to ancient readers as Plato’s On the Soul central features of the soul – responsibility for the life of an organism; for cognitive and intellectual functions and for moral virtues such as courage and justice.

The just person is always happier than the unjust. Yet nothing in his answer to Glaucon commits Socrates to the view that justice is sufficient for complete happiness.

With the philosophers and warriors ‘guardians’, in the ideal state everyone has what is theirs: the philosophers knowledge; the warriors honours; the commoners goods and pleasures. This is his definition of justice. And the root of all trouble is unlimited desire!

This argument begins with the

Premise [1] that to the soul is attributed the function of ‘caring for things, ruling them and deliberating’ and adds,

Premise [2] that living is also part of this function of soul.

Premise [3] is that justice is the virtue appropriate to the soul…

Conclusion: a just soul lives well; an unjust one badly.

The dramatic differences in how good people are at leading lives and relatedly the dramatic differences in how well they exercise their cognitive and intellectual functions are due to the differences in the conditions of their souls, namely the presence of or absence of the virtues of justice, wisdom, courage and temperance.

The Republic puts forward a new theory of soul…claims that the embodied human soul has three parts or aspects – namely reason, spirit and appetite. However Reason and Appetite can often be in conflict.

Reason is attached to knowledge, truth.

The natural attachment of spirit is to honour, recognition and esteem by others. As a motivating force it accounts for self-assertion and ambition.

Appetite is mainly concerned with food, drink and sex. Socrates also called appetite the money-loving part – given that it is by means of money that its primary desires are fulfilled (once more immediate and basic needs are satisfied of course!)

  • The three parts of the soul are likened to a charioteer and two horses which have grown into one entity:
  • One horse is of high stature, a lover of honour and respect; controlled by command and speech; magnificent and fearless. Spirit
  • The other is bloody-minded, insolent and deaf; troublesome to drive. Appetite
  • And the charioteer is Reason trying always to mediate between the needs of the different parts.


The three parts of the soul also correspond to parts of the body: reason to the head, spirit to the heart and desire to the organs of desire, mostly in the abdomen!

The conception of the soul in The Republic is broader than our concept of mind, yet it remains incompletely developed in this work. It does not for example address the question of how soul is related to life-functions!

Socrates was apparently agnostic about the soul’s fate after death. The idea that the soul is the true locus of personhood, that its welfare is vastly more important than the body’s welfare that at least some part of it survives death, is judged for its actions and may be reincarnated that the post-mortem fate of the soul provides reasons to embrace a life of earthly virtue – for all these Socratic commitments there is Pre-Socratic precedent.

The Republic’s vindication of the just life in no way depends on eternal rewards.

What Plato added to existing views was the attempt to prove the soul’s immortality. His Phaedo is structured as a series of proofs.

  1. The Opposites Argument – whatever has an opposite comes to be from its opposite – thus heat from cold, waking from sleeping, cooling down from warming up. Living and dying are thus opposites and since dying comes from being alive so too must living things come from dead ones! The souls of the dead must therefore go somewhere they can come back from!
  2. The Recollection Argument – we possess some non-empirical knowledge, innate, intuitive at birth implying that the soul existed before birth in order to carry that knowledge.
  3. The Resemblance Argument – explains that invisible, incorporeal and immortal things are different from visible, mortal and corporeal things. Our soul is of the former, while our body is of the latter so when our bodies decay our souls will continue to live!

The Phaedrus argues for the souls immortality from its essence as a self-mover (remember the First Cause and self caused beings?) Each thing can only be destroyed by its own proper evils – wood by rot, iron by rust etc but the soul can only be worsened not destroyed by vice. Thus the soul is imperishable. Yet immortality is only a quality of our rational souls.

In The Timaeus he discusses eternity. Time is created along with the visible cosmos, so all of the entities who cooperated in its creation – including the creator must be outside time itself. For the Creator there is no ‘was’ or ‘will be’ but since souls came to be they are intrinsically liable to decay and destruction but are extrinsically guaranteed continued existence by the Creator, though their eternity like the cosmos is towards the future only.

Plato isn’t a materialist, he believes there is more than just matter to the world and he calls this the soul or ‘psyche’ Plato thinks this is what makes bodies move and animates them.

One main characteristic is that the soul has free will. (see evil and suffering links)


Atheism and the soul

Richard Dawkins in a debate entitled ‘Is science killing the soul?’ with Steve Pinker.

Two types of soul:

Soul One refers to a theory of life, some vital non-physical principle. The theory is that the body has to be animated by some anima, vitalised by a vital force, energised by some mysterious energy and spiritualised by some mysterious spirit. All these definitions are circular and non-productive.

John Huxley once likened vitalism to the theory that a railway engine works by ‘force-locomotif!’ in this sense science has either killed off soul one or will do so shortly.

Soul Two: ‘ intellectual or spiritual power.’ High development of mental faculties. Deep feeling, sensitivity.’ In this sense science doesn’t kill the soul but gives it constant and exhilarating rebirth.

It is a cheap debating trick if science can’t explain something to doubt whether the explanation will ever be forthcoming and therefore substitute soul or spirit as if that were an explanation. It’s not, it’s an evasion.

In 1931 Charles Singer in a Short History of Biology asserted that the gene could not be examined outside of its environs, and yet in 1953 Watson and Crick did just that, cataloguing the gene sequence, isolating it, bottling it… now in the context of the gene the explanation is more or less total. And completely unexpected decades ago!

How much more will science be able to explain soon? So Soul One will be totally killed off yet Soul Two will go on to discover new ideas, to conquer new worlds.


Dualism – is associated most closely with Plato but Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is a more modern exponent. His famous saying ‘I think therefore I am’ summed up his belief that there was one necessary premise and that is that we must exist. However he did not deny that his senses may be deceived and in reality his body may exist only as an impression in his mind. (perhaps like phantom limbs???)

Monism – those who believe that there is only one ultimate reality and both mind and body are reducible to it. Materialism, a particularly old tradition within this theory holds that the only reality is physical. That all matter is composed of ‘atomoi’. Atoms! Even the soul which is made up of soul-atoms!

Gilbert Ryle – a philosophical behaviourist – regarded Descartes dualism as a ‘myth’ the ‘dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’. It is a category mistake and illustrated his idea with a story of someone visiting a university, being shown all the different buildings and afterwards asking ‘but where is the university?’ So too ‘mind’ shouldn’t be placed in the same category as body or brain.

In the end the materialist’s position is that a person is identical with his or her body; or that mind is identified with brain and its functioning. When the body/ brain dies there is no continuation of the person, no hope of an after life. The dualist does not identify the person with their body / brain and so leaves the door open for belief in an after life.

Questions over exactly when does death occur have been answered variously as e.g. when there is a flat line on an EEG or when there is n o activity in the forebrain where personality resides as in some euthanasia cases.


Life After Death: Resurrection

John Hick’s replica theory – he was addressing the problem of the body decomposing after death and ceasing to exist which he felt could be solved if the body was recreated in the afterlife at the instant of death. He uses three examples:

In 1 and 2 he establishes the logical possibility that somebody could cease to exist in one part of the world and at the same time be recreated in another part with the exact same appearance, memories and self-awareness. In the final example the person dies and is replicated in another world holding the same identity as the deceased, and likens their appearance in the new world to awakening from sleep. (Plato’s ideal forms???)

It is certainly in line with modern Christian thought of resurrection of the body!

John Locke (1632-1704) highlighted the problem with identity after death. If people are to recognise me in an after-life then it seems reasonable to assume there needs to be some continuity with my body for recognition to take place.

Yet my physical body changes all the time as cells die and are replaced; my mental state too changes each second as sensory data streams in. Who am I? And at which moment in time am I that person? And will I still be that person this time next year?

In Christianity this issue is partly resolved through the notion that believers receive a new resurrection body in the after-life. In Hebraic thought the belief was that the body would be resurrected as a complete unit, in the New Testament the notion of the immortal soul was borrowed from Plato though in many writings the difference between our heavenly and earthly bodies is one of ‘kind’. ‘the body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.’ 1 Cor 15:42

After he was raised Jesus’ body resembled his earthly body, yet was also not recognisable and was not limited like our bodies. Thus we find Jesus walking through walls, appearing and disappearing in an out of rooms and ascending to heaven in bodily form, yet also allowing people to touch him, walking around and eating food! How hasn’t exactly been resolved yet.

Thus replica theorists suggest the resurrected body must be an idealised state. This in itself throws up yet more problems e.g. what about babies who die at birth? To which some suggest there needs to be a continuation of human development after death (holistic development) – but the notion of yet more learning does not fit in with heaven being a state of ‘blissful rest’!!


Life After Death: Reincarnation

Both of these views make clear that the purpose of morality is to gain the best after life! Moral codes are therefore the prime enforcer of society and religious belief governs what is regarded as moral and what is not.

And so to…


Evil and suffering…

John Hick following the Irenaean theodicy said that the purpose of evil and suffering was for soul making. Without life after death there would be no point in it. Our lives are simply too short for the soul-making process to reach completion, at least for most people so there has to be a further life, perhaps even more than one, which God, through persuasion, will gradually win us over. But why didn’t God simply make our life spans longer? Hick’s answer would probably be God didn’t want faith to be an easy matter! God wants true faith and that means in things unseen.


An imaginary argument between John Hick and an opponent:


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