Neuroscience and the soul

Neuroscienceby Stephen Asma

This video presentation covers a brief history of the concept of the soul, as well as a discussion of what, if anything, neurobiology and evolutionary biology can tell us about it. Stephen Asma, Tom Greif, and Rami Gabriel, of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Columbia College Chicago also talk about in what sense “soul talk” can be recovered and made sense of in the modern secular world, informed by a scientific view of things.


Stephen T. Asma is the author of On Monsters: an Unnatural History of our Worst Fears (Oxford University Press), and Against Fairness (University of Chicago Press). Asma is a Fulbright Scholar, a fellow at the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture, and professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. He previously published for Scientia Salon “An official guide for demon hunters: helpful advice from philosophers and witch-hunters.”


76 thoughts on “Neuroscience and the soul

  1. Life and Soul of the Party, the Quantum Historical Way

    Does a Party have a Soul? Is it just metaphorical? No. Moods, collective moods, really exist.

    Why should a soul last longer than a party? Because, as the party dissolves, memories are left. For a while.
    Low and behold, the Soul of the Party is only the neurological side

    Labnut’s metaphysics is most peculiar. Not only he ignores the problem of grace, or free wiil, which has disgraced the partisans of the omnipotent god, but now he has joined the “Multiverse” (a confusion in the interpretation of Quantum Physics). I guess, it all goes back to the Trinity. Indeed, if three is one, why can’t the one be infinity too!

    What Tienzengong said is fully compatible with what I said. To a great extent, it’s the same thing, phrased a bit differently.

    What is this Quantum History? (The Qh of Tienzengong).

    Well culture, of course!

    Each and any particle interaction (and a conversation involves trillions of them), results in as many Quantum Entanglements. And those can be pretty persistent, resistant not just to light years, but eons.

    Thus the soul of (say) Jesus is still around that way.

    Did I not say Jesus was a myth? Yes. However, a myth becomes real to those who real believe in it, and modify their brains accordingly. All godnuts will tell you as much. I am myself burnishing my soul by writing a lot, in the hope somebody will notice… And carry (me) on.


  2. To try to further clarify my point, because it does help delineate the situation, if not resolve the foundation of it, consciousness expresses itself as energy. Desire, attraction, boredom, repulsions, sensory input, observation, etc. are expressions of energy. Then when we get into the more intellectual side, it becomes form. Languages, frames, models, history, memory, etc.
    Now what is the most definite feature of biology and thus the foundational source of consciousness, if not the ability to survive, reproduce and expand? What is the main characteristic of energy, if not that it is conserved, in whatever form? These seem to be similar attributes.
    Yet so much of these discussions are about the form and expression of this energy, primarily memory, but the issue of the reality of mortality is that our structure, our bodies, our thoughts and our memories, are erased, while the biological process continues in other forms. In computer language, this is known as pushing the reset button. New born babies are extremely conscious, but mostly lacking in mental forms. Much like stem cells, they are blank slates. Yet once inscribed on, the information/form starts to accumulate and direction their further awareness and emotional energy. Eventually they get more and more resistant to change.
    What this leads me to consider is that the elemental state of consciousness is immortal, but being both dynamic and finite, like energy, can only manifest a select state of form and so is constantly moving on from one to another, often in cycles of expansion and consolidation, thus the increasing complexity.
    Now I am putting this forward as an observation, not a belief, as it no more behooves me to lose all memory and form, since that is what expresses my individuality, but I do think it offers a possible idea to consider.


  3. Hi Massimo,

    Coel, calling the video “a propaganda piece” isn’t really warranted. It is simply putting forth a position that you disagree with, …

    No, actually I do agree with it. It is saying that there is no “soul” (as traditionally conceived) but that we don’t lose anything important by lacking a soul. I entirely agree. The word “propaganda” was a gentle dig at the presentational style, complete with mood music to denote the “correct” opinions. Though if that is successful in persuading dualistic theists then great!

    Hi Robin,

    Coel’s “nugget” of non-material stuff is a little like Sean Carroll’s “blob of spiritual energy”, it kind of misses the point about what “non-material” or “non-physical” means.

    Well, so far we don’t have an actual meaning of “non-material” or “non-physical”, because we don’t know of anything such.

    If they were observing really closely and calculating all the vectors that should have been followed if the laws held, then they would see a deviation from this, but they would see nothing that caused that deviation.

    Another red rag to the scientismist in me! Asher has replied, but, along the same lines:

    Suppose we see “deviations” and thus realise that our understanding of the behaviour of things is incomplete. We then start making lists and analyses of these deviations, and we start constructing models about them. In other words, we apply the same scientific method as we usually do when we don’t understand something.

    What is the difference between your person causing these deviations, and, say, a chimpanzee in the real world? We can’t know about the chimpanzee directly, but what we do have is streams of photons impinging on our senses, and, out of the patterns and regularities in that stream of photons, we construct an explanation that we call a “chimpanzee”. Science can readily study chimpanzees, even if they are whimsical and capricious.

    What is the difference with your scenario? What stops us applying the same method and doing the best we can? Even if the nudges on the mouse were whimsical, stocastic and uncomputable, well, science can still cope with that possibility, as it does with radioactive decay.

    Indeed, this is exactly how normal science works. For example, the idea of “dark matter” arises because physical bodies show “deviations” from the previously known descriptions (Newtonian or GR gravity) of how they behave, and thus one studies those deviations and then adds to or tweaks the “web of ideas” in order to explain the deviations, such as by invoking a dark-matter particle, or by tweaking gravity laws (e.g. MOND) or whatever.

    The only way to place anything actually beyond the reach of science is to declare that it has no effect whatsoever on anything at all, at which point Mr Ockham disposes of it.


  4. Coel, my apologies, obviously I read your comment in a hurry. Yeah, the production is a bit cheesy, which I pointed out to Stephen (and he agreed).


  5. To me it is interesting to puzzle over how philosophy profs in reasonably good secular universities would handle what they might regard as a goofy scenario put forth by an undergraduate. This must be a real problem, not faced often by STEM profs. At least it is one I’d find very difficult. In fact learning about this may be the main (but not the only) reason why I look at things in this webzine, including some replies. Certainly we have a few such phil profs here. I really don’t know if many, or even any, of the habitual responders are in the category of beginning undergrad students; many sound like they may be.

    For example, an 18 year old from a Missouri farm, let’s call him Ladnutter, who has at least some independence of mind, might have come up with the following ‘heresy’, on long lonely nights in the country with time on his hands, which he puts forth at a discussion in a phil seminar:

    “Once the person dies the mind (information state of the brain) is preserved in God’s memory.This we call the soul. It is immortal because information is eternally preserved in God’s mind.”

    I haven’t heard how this might be discussed. For example, would the phil prof ask questions such as the following, or do those questions sound a bit too much in the scientific vein?

    ‘Would you be thinking that any living individual with a nervous system, say, a crocodile, has this soul as above, or is it only some, perhaps even just humans, or close cousins?
    If the latter, at what point in the evolution of humans did god decide to start uploading? Might some humans be able to then communicate in the afterlife, or ‘after-resurrection’, with Neanderthals, ‘Hobbits’, even the Australopithicenes, or was this decision much later in god’s odyssey?
    If a certain form of one present day religion were close to correct, modulo this clever revision of yours, would the lucky murderers be then able to actually experience, in this ‘software soul/mind’ of theirs, all the sexual delights of the 72 inflatable doll, or whatever, virgins which you promised them?’

    I can’t think of more philosophical responses/questions myself (hardly surprising). But then again, I thought phil and psych profs had some time ago ceased taking seriously the religious uses of the word ‘soul’, except in places like Bob Jones U.


  6. phoffman56,

    Your failed attempt at wit couldn’t be more off target had you intended it to be. labnut is not a professor of philosophy, he’s an engineer who has enjoyed a successful career in business. Like many of us, he is a non-academic with an interest in both philosophy and science. He is also a Catholic, not a Muslim, so I have no idea why you wish to interject the reference to the ’72 virgins’ here.

    His speculation happens to be a variation of an hypothesis first formulated in the computer sciences and initially propagated by a handful of AI technicians, mathematicians, and physicists; and has adherents in the neurosciences. It is popular in the so-called “transhumanist’ movement, which is largely populated by the scientistically minded who are convinced that technology will alter human evolution. What does that say about the sciences?

    I myself pointed out the flaws of his speculation and why it should be rejected, and suggested why the notion of an immortal/immaterial soul has been rejected as a working hypothesis in both science and philosophy. But there seems no point in simply ridiculing it, and there is certainly no point in using it to bash professional philosophy, since it is not representative of most professional philosophy with which I am familiar.

    Your comment is an object lesson in the dangers of reading lightly through too fixed a perspective; and of rejecting thinking one doesn’t understand or wish to investigate further.

    Frankly, rather than successfully spoofing labnut, you’ve only revealed your own limitations.


  7. Hi ejwinner,

    Did a search for “god” in that wiki ref you gave me, but nothing showed up. Does “God’s memory” appear at all in the writings (of the transhumanist nutters to whom you refer, and with which I had been vaguely aware)?

    “What does that say about the sciences?”
    Perhaps that your “AI technicians” are not the ones to consult if you are trying to learn science.

    I’m well aware that our friend labnut is neither philosopher nor formal student, but thanks for the info.

    “…the notion of an immortal/immaterial soul has been rejected as a working hypothesis in both science and philosophy. But there seems no point in simply ridiculing it, and there is certainly no point in using it to bash professional philosophy, since it is not representative of most professional philosophy…”

    But the video itself seems to presume the need to use neuroscience for this rejection, And it is done by professional academics, presented here under the auspices of another, and apparently taken seriously by many respondents. Perhaps you could provide a reason why that should have happened, despite this apparent thorough rejection by “most professional philosophy”. I hope you are correct there, and “not representative” is as strong as those words imply.

    It will be interesting to hear any answers to the three questions, or other responses, especially ones sufficient to make me reconsider my difficulty in taking anything much on this particular topic at all seriously.


  8. phoffman56,

    Apparently you did not understand the video, did not understand my comment, and do not really have a firm grasp on the issues involved. You may have simply dropped in to vent, although why is unclear, and I have no interest in your motives.

    I will note that, as you seem to be rejecting computer sciences and neurosciences, your idea of what constitutes science per se seems to be a bit insular.

    Nobody asked you to take any of this seriously, but by the same token, be sure that at least some others will not take your opinions on the matter seriously either.


    this is my last comment, so if you have a response to my comment to you, we will have to wait for a fuller conversation on such matters at another time.

    Stephen Asma,

    I found the video an entertaining introduction to the issues you are working on. However, I did find the music a little heavy handed (I would have preferred something light and Celtic).

    To those suggesting that we can re-conceive ‘soul’ in terms of energy and sub-atomic activity,

    I fear that this clearly loses the historical relationship between ‘soul talk’ and consciousness, so I’m afraid that’s merely metaphor, and like the 19th century discussions on ‘will,’ risk reification into empty conceptualization.


  9. I will add that I am substantially in agreement with the comments above at 8:57 by Robin Herbert. His is merely another way of saying the point I made in my earlier post. There are several important phenomenon about the mind that were traditionally explained by the soul that neuroscience has no good explanation for. These include things like consciousness, personal identity, subjectivity, and others. My making this point is not a way of defending the “soul hypothesis.” It is merely a way saying that neuroscience still has yet to explain several important phenomena and there is no evidence we have that these explanations will inevitably be forthcoming. To suggest that neuroscience is sufficient to explain our mental lives is to go beyond what the evidence entitles us to say, and as a philosopher this seems to me mistaken.


  10. Here is a little consideration that haunts me and makes me wary of any rush to say that science has narrowed the metaphysical mysteries of “the soul.” I hope SciSal will keep this thread open a bit longer as I’m curious what others here would make of this.

    Assume materialism is true. For simplicity, take this to mean that reality is nothing but a flow of particles in space and time. My existence as a unique self-aware self, therefore, must be realized by some unique configuration of particles. That is, there must be some configuration of particles such that whenever it exists, I exist. Is it not at least logically possible that this configuration could exist more than once, meaning that I could exist more than once? What is the nature of the connection between my selfhood and my particular configuration of particles? Why am I associated with the specific configuration that I am and not some other?

    Note that the rather old-fashioned version of materialism shouldn’t affect the validity of these considerations.


  11. ej,

    “To those suggesting that we can re-conceive ‘soul’ in terms of energy and sub-atomic activity,

    I fear that this clearly loses the historical relationship between ‘soul talk’ and consciousness, so I’m afraid that’s merely metaphor, and like the 19th century discussions on ‘will,’ risk reification into empty conceptualization.”

    As this seems to be a response to my points, this analogy does not presume to explain consciousness or the soul, but simply explores ways to delineate them. That the relationship between consciousness and the thoughts it manifests, might be compared to the relationship between energy and the physical forms it manifests. Also that the individual consciousness, presumably the essential element of the soul, might be considered as a measure/quanta of some broader, biologically manifest phenomenal sense. Considering that biology and consciousness seem deeply intertwined and are constantly creating and shedding individual organisms and particular thoughts, might there be some foundational element. Whether biology is emergent from consciousness, consciousness is emergent from biology, or the question remains irresolvable, it is still an issue I consider worth exploring, by whatever methods seem productive.

    If you have some clear explanations for why these are not valid comparisons, I’d certainly be interested to hear them. Unfortunately it’s my last comment as well, so possibly this might come up in a future discussion, since I tend to repeat ideas that no one specifically refutes.


  12. From Stephen Asma:
    As several comments have noted, the film offers some consolations for those who have relinquished the soul idea. The second half of the film addresses the retention of meaning after a traditional immortal soul has been abandoned. This was structured as a response to the usual Western anxieties that attend to the “death of the soul” (e.g., the obvious case being fundamentalist Western soteriologies, but also contemporary non-affiliated “spiritual” students –who jettison almost every feature of religion, but cling quite strongly to a soul idea). I would even suggest that “soul” is a more stubborn belief than most other religious concepts, including God.
    Based on the comments here, however, it looks like that aspect of the film was not very troubling, and the real sticking point was whether we had over reached by saying that science (neuroscience and evolution) had eliminated the soul. I see now that our argument for such elimination was quite truncated, and left some viewers wondering if we were counting a promissory note (neuroscience) that has not yet been paid.

    Some comments suggested that neuroscience could not explain the subjective awareness of consciousness, and that we had focused on the “easy problems” of mind rather than the “hard problem” (Chalmers’ well-known distinction). That might be true in the film (though not true in our academic writings), but it certainly doesn’t help to reserve the soul as some kind of corrective to this lacuna. The soul “bakes no bread” on this issue.

    The more interesting critique seems to be just under the surface of several objections. Are we entitled to make the kind of Ockham’s Razor argument, that mind is more simply explained by neuroscience than by supernaturalism? Is our naturalism justifiable on these traditional parsimonious grounds? This is a really interesting point and gives me much to think about. If the question is: which view –natural (brain science) or supernatural (soul) better explains the phenomenon of subjective consciousness? –then it depends on whether you’re a dualist or a neutral monist, or an emergent evolutionist. All three of these metaphysical orientations have trouble with consciousness, but none of them is obviously superior in explaining subjective awareness. If this is the main complaint, then our view is at least as good as the historically dominant prescientific candidate (soul), and at least has the added benefit of the consilience of inductions with other brain/mind correlations.

    Moreover the “simplicity” of Ockham’s Razor is not just brevity of explanatory articulation, but ontological simplicity. Which of the competing accounts makes fewer ontological assumptions or posits? Often the metaphysically simpler explanation is in fact the rhetorically more complicated account.
    But here’s the interesting rub. If I am already religious, then I may have an idea of soul as a significant piece of my epistemic furniture. Alvin Plantinga pointed out that the religious person already has an idea of God as a foundational given –a sensus divinitatis –that serves as an essential category/entity in their explanatory matrix. I don’t personally have this “given,” but I’m awarding the believer a charitable construal for the moment. Under this scenario, the soul (like Plantinga’s God) might be a “warranted datum” (“tested” and confirmed over years of first-person interpretation, albeit idiosyncratic). Now when two explanations of a phenomenon (say a personality trait) are vying for status of “most parsimonious account,” the soul explanation may indeed be simpler for the believer than a neuroscientific explanation. All this might make it seem that the soul believer has a real parsimonious explanation of personality because the soul does not need to be “added” to his epistemic or metaphysical toolbox. For the believer, the soul is already a tried-and-true conceptual lever that does yeoman work in many domains of life.

    Be that as it may, our argument (naturalizing the soul) has the advantage of promising nothing more than the physiochemical structures/functions that are publically available for a wide variety of biological confirmation. We may still be a long way from any comprehensive correlation of personality and brain, but everything from Phineas Gage to Antonio Damasio’s and Jaak Panksepp’s work reveals the great promise of the overall approach. No such correlation/cause dynamic is corroborated (beyond fideistic communal dogma) in the soul explanations of personality. For that reason, we can readily accept all of the reminders that neuroscience is still in its infancy, but still assert its stunning advantage over metaphysical soul talk.


  13. ejwinner:

    “…you seem to be rejecting computer sciences and neurosciences…”

    On the latter, only that fussing about water under the bridge, namely souls, seems a waste of time.

    As to computer science, as a math prof, I never did regard myself as a computer scientist, but I can, if you’re interested (phoffman ‘at’ give you the URLs of the few hundred pages of my 4 or 5 papers on program verification, mainly via dynamic logic. So your rejecting remark, based on my low opinion of the transhumanist movement, may say more about what you actually know about CS than it says about anything else. Anyway, apparently that movement had nothing to say about uploading to god, so raising it was a red herring or a total confusion on your part.


  14. “seems to me that the burden of proof in these cases is squarely on those who want to make an argument in favor of complicating our ontology, not those that want to keep it simple.”

    Supposing :

    1) The soul exist
    2) The soul doesn’t exist

    Would you say that adding 1) or 2) complicates our ontology but adding 1) complicates it a lot more?


  15. Stephen Asma,

    Thanks for your latest reply at 11:53, which addresses the issues some of us had directly. I think you do a good job explaining the point here and this is helpful. The only point I would note is that this latest way of addressing the problem brings out the “philosophical” charater of the issue. It is not merely that evidence from neuroscience has resolved the issue, but that this evidence, when combined with nonempirical considerations like simplicity (e.g.), favors one approach. This makes more sense to me, though we’ll still have to wait as the evidence comes in.


  16. The point I’d like to note is that, despite skepticism the quality/value of this video post, it has generated a significant amount of traffic and thoughtful discussion. As an editor, I’m pleased…


  17. Massimo, I forgot to address my previous comment to you.

    Stephen Asma,

    “Under this scenario, the soul (like Plantinga’s God) might be a “warranted datum” (“tested” and confirmed over years of first-person interpretation, albeit idiosyncratic). Now when two explanations of a phenomenon (say a personality trait) are vying for status of “most parsimonious account,” the soul explanation may indeed be simpler for the believer than a neuroscientific explanation”

    Interesting, I often encounter supernatural arguments being justified that way.


  18. marc,

    “Would you say that adding 1) or 2) complicates our ontology but adding 1) complicates it a lot more?”

    I feel like this is a trick question, but I’m going to answer it anyway: yes, a LOT more! (And in fact, #2 doesn’t complicate our ontology, it simplifies it.)


  19. Massimo,

    “I feel like this is a trick question”

    Not how I meant it. I was sympathetic to Marko‘s response to your comment, but after your response to Marko I decided to try (yet again) to get a better understanding of, and the distinction between, ontology and epistemology. It’s slow going. My question was an attempt to clarify my current understanding without rambling too much.

    “but I’m going to answer it anyway: yes, a LOT more! ”

    I was going to write “a lot lot more” so we agree 🙂

    “And in fact, #2 doesn’t complicate our ontology, it simplifies it.”

    How do you get to the idea that it simplifies it?

    To be clear, I don’t see any reason or justifications for the claim that ‘souls exist’, and I’m understanding what you said as: our ontology is simpler with ‘the soul doesn’t exist’ in it and not only simpler in relation to adding the ‘soul exist’ to it.

    Some of my thinking so far:

    My first thought is to think that adding propositions like ‘X don’t exist’ complicates things and starts me don’t a road towards infinite declarations of non-existent things. In those cases I suspend judgment or dismiss the proposition, and I do the same with a proposition like ‘I’m agnostic on X’.

    On second thought, if my ontology contains existing things like X, Y, and Zs and maybe a category N for things that do not exist, and assuming the category N will always be a part of my ontology then I can see how it can be said that adding to the category doesn’t complicate things.

    I feel I might be missing something else, and maybe I’m bringing up more epistemological questions than ontological ones but I’m not sure.


  20. Hi marclevesque, losing the ‘ghostly’ soul simplifies ontology because there is simply less that needs explanation/elaboration within the universe. That is regardless of questions regarding what we know, or how we can know it (epistemology).

    Basically everyone acknowledges we have a physical brain and its function is necessary for continuing activity of the body. ‘Ghosts’ may use the brain as a conduit of some kind but it is clear there are no bodies walking around and talking to people without a brain inside.

    So for most people that leaves two models, with behavior/thought being activity of:

    1) brain (cells)

    2) brain (cells) + ghost

    If you choose 2 then you have all the same elements as 1, plus additional baggage of having to describe the qualities of the ghost (and its world). So 1 is simpler.

    Of course there is no reason the universe must be simple. Materialist ontologies which include the standard model are certainly more complex than earlier ontologies requiring only four elements (or just four subatomic particles).

    In my case I am agnostic on ghosts. Maybe they exist, but then work does have to be put in by those trying to make the case for them. Otherwise, I can simply rest easy on the fact that cells are enough.


  21. dbholmes,

    Thanks for your response.

    I understand that saying souls exist complicates our ontology.

    But I’m not sure why saying souls don’t exist simplifies our ontology more than if we said nothing on souls (as I understood Massimo said).

    “That is regardless of questions regarding what we know, or how we can know it (epistemology).”

    Do you mean talk of what doesn’t exist is more a part of epistemology rather than ontology?

    I think I’m probably missing something more about how ontology and epistemology relate and what that implies.

    If anyone has any reading suggestions on that I’d really appreciate it.


  22. A few brief thoughts:

    Couchloc I see a difference between details of how a naturalist-based idea of consciousness, etc. are to be explained, and probably not by neuroscience along, but neuroscience in conjunction with some other lines of thought mentioned by the original posters, one the one hand, and a reasonable hypothesis for the “that” of consciousness, etc., being grounded in naturalist roots. This somewhat parallels Chalmers’ “hard problem” while refuting his framing of the issue.

    This also gets back to my “Early Bronze Age” observations about neuroscience. 5,000 years ago, in the actual Early Bronze Age, humans didn’t know how to work iron. But, they eventually learned.

    And, as you noted, Asma appears to have addressed some of your concerns, too.

    Paul Paolini seems to be talking about stereotypes that people have about cloning. The clone of your dog won’t be the same as the original. So much the more for a human being. Per embodied cognition ideas about consciousness, plus issues of epigenetics, it wouldn’t be the same person.

    Marcel Perhaps the best take on Option 2 would be what Laplace allegedly told Napoleon, when asked why there was no mention of God in his nebular hypothesis, and he said, “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

    That said, as I blogged a couple of years ago, Laplace deserves more recognition than he gets.


  23. SocraticGadfly, Thanks for the reply to my comment. I think I’m talking about something more fundamental than clones, but that’s an interesting case for consideration. Do clones possess the same sense of self? If they are physically identical in terms of structure and materialism is true, why wouldn’t they? Is it possible for a single sense of self to occupy two or more distinct temporally-co-existing bodies? If not, what would be the case in such a situation? Considerations like these might raises problems for materialism


  24. To add to my last comment, if clones are sufficiently different to realize different senses of self, then they are irrelevant to the point of my comment before my last. The question is not whether cloning yields identical physical structures but whether a relevant physical structure could repeat, by whatever process, and realize again the self associated with the first.

    The general question I’m addressing here is whether the notion that senses of self arise solely from the brain is coherent. Implications of this notion have a lot to say about that and raise interesting questions.


Comments are closed.