Musings on the Soul

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There's a follow up to this essay: Further Musings on Soul


Here are a few e-mails a few of my friends and I exchanged regarding the nature/existence of the soul. The first message is mine, explaining my position to a friend of mine, following a few brief remarks made the night before, at too late of an hour to expand upon. The two other messages are responses from two of my friends. After reading their responses, I still tend to agree with my theory. I do have rebuttals to their arguments, but those were exchanged during conversations we had. And if I wrote those rebuttals down here, my friends would not have a chance to respond in writing to defend their arguments, so it would not be fair to them. So, I leave the convesation as it is, and allow the reader to come to their own conclusion.


On 7 January, 2002, Jeff wrote:


I'll respond to the second paragraph right now. I want to go home and read through the section on the first paragraph before I respond to it.

Anyway, I don't really have proof as to the existence of a soul, but rather logical reasoning which I think strongly suggests that existence. It stems from the fact that we actually perceive our lives. Not "I think, therefore I am" but rather "I experience thinking, therefore I am". When you look at our bodies, they're just a bunch of chemicals. They're arranged in a very complex way, but they're still just atoms. Nothing that we know about atoms suggests that they have any self awareness. No matter how complex the arrangements, they still don't know that they exist. With enough knowledge, it would be possible to arrange atoms in such a way as to have very complex reactions to certain inputs. That is basically what the human body is, as well as other animals, organisms, complex machines, and computers. So you can have all these atoms put together, reacting in very complex ways to inputs, creating a system that behaves like we do, even to the point where it says, "I think, therefore I am." But there is no real self awareness. It is just a complex system designed to say and do those things. The part that provides the self awareness is the soul.

There are two related alternate theories I can think of that would negate this argument. These come from my assumption that atoms have no self awareness. Perhaps they do. Perhaps our bodies are just a sum of the self awareness of the individual pieces of matter we are composed of. Or, perhaps there's something equivalent to critical mass. Once a system becomes complex enough, it has self awareness. Following the analogy to critical mass, since there are still nuclear reactions before critical mass, it is only once you get to that mass that it sets up a chain reaction, perhaps then, critical complexity must be reached before a system becomes self aware. One interesting aspect of these theories relates to the fact that we're constantly gaining and losing atoms. Perhaps, not just in a sense of matter, but also of the soul, we're different people now than we were a year ago.

Another possibility is that when a system becomes complex enough, it attains self awareness, even though no smaller unit has any self awareness. However, I find this theory the least likely, as nature tends not to behave in thesholds, but rather varying levels of a certain quantity depending on the circumstances.

Anyway, the possibilities I see, in increasing order of what I consider likely, is that a system attains self awareness once it is complex enough; everything has some degree of self awareness, and the bigger or more complex the system, the more self awareness it has, possibly with some critical complexity; or that we have souls in the classical sense, one (or a limited number) of souls per being. This theory does nothing to explain where the souls come from, whether they just flash into existence from nothing (not very likely), have always been in existence and for some reason or another take residence in a certain being, or are created by some higher being(s) and put into a physical body.

Let me know what you think about this, if you see any holes or have any other thoughts. I'm sure I'll talk to you later about it. Anyway, I'm in the office right now, and they're paying me to do engineering, not philosophy, so I probably ought to get back to work.

Talk to you later,


On 7 January, 2002, Roy wrote:


I read your explanation and it is most insightful. I'll try to play devil's advocate - it's not that I totally disagree with your reasoning (I'm very inclined to believe it!), I just want to respond. You write:

"When you look at our bodies, they're just a bunch of chemicals. They're arranged in a very complex way, but they're still just atoms. Nothing that we know about atoms suggests that they have any self awareness. No matter how complex the arrangements, they still don't know that they exist."

Are you sure? Don't you need to show that no matter how complex the arrangements, they still don't know they exist. After all, as you say " would be possible to arrange atoms in such a way as to have very complex reactions to certain inputs. That is basically what the human body is..." So isn't it possible that the human body is a complex combination such that one of the outputs is this thing call self-awareness? Could it be that the human body is so arranged that it takes in various inputs and produces various outputs and in particular, one of the outputs is awareness of the self?

Your alternatives are also interesting - particularly the issue of whether by losing atoms our identities change. This sort of theory raises a host of problems and questions I could ask but since I know it isn't what you really have in mind, I'll won't bother you with them unless you want.

In general, it seems as though you reason from self-awareness to the existence of a soul. I would venture to guess that you don't believe that plants are self-aware, but are animals? If yes, do they have souls too? If no, how can you tell that they aren't self-aware? How do you know that I am self-aware? Maybe I'm just some sort of robot programmed to behave very much like a self-aware human (like Descartes' evil genius or like The Truman Show where there aren't actors but instead there are very accurate robots). How do you know that I am self-aware? It seems to me you have a couple options:

(1) You could give a reason for believing that I am self-aware, but I don't think that will stand up in light of the possibility that I might be some sort of robot
(2) You could accept that you cannot know that I am self aware. In this case, your argument shrinks from "humans have souls" to "I have a soul" and collapses into solipsism
(3) You could say "damn it roy, if you aren't willing to grant me that all humans are self-aware then I'm not ever going to be able to argue that we have souls and if you don't believe that all humans are self-aware, then you're not worth arguing with."

I'd take option (3). But the a question still remains - how do you know what is self-aware? How do you determine what is self-aware? What are your criteria? Do animals fit that criteria?

To sum up, my questions are (1) how can you be sure that this thing called self-awareness isn't just another outuput of this very intricate machine called the human body? (2) what does self-awareness consist in? are animals self-aware? what does that mean regarding them having souls?

All in all, I'm very interested in your argument. I think you've got something here but there may be some lingering details to work out.

Take it easy,


On 9 January, 2002, Rick wrote:

Wow, neat. I like Roy's option (3).

Since I'm also getting paid to do engineering and not philosophy, I'll keep this short. I appreciate the argument that nature works in gradients, and that absolute thresholds are rare. However, some thresholds do exist, like critical mass. Also, matter will change states at varying temperatures. One could argue that a solid isn't much different than a liquid, but I do believe certain chemical reactions will or will not take place depending on the temperature.

With this in mind, I like to think that there *is* a point where we become self-aware. I'm not saying it comes on instantly, or even quickly. But I like to think that rocks are completely non-self-aware. Moving up a step, individual cells in our body? Not likely. Sperm cells and egg cells included, which I like because I like to thing that zygotes are not self aware. But as we develop, our minds become more complex, we begin to observe things. Perhaps we then observe that we are observing things, and self-awareness begins to grow.

And the argument about verifying a soul/self-awareness is interesting. I believe that there is no Turing test for the existance of self-awareness; that one could not make a distinction between a very complex machine and a person simply through observations of the 'input/output' of the machine/person...

-- Rick