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A simple argument for the existence of the soul
Jun 18, 2011, 9:55a - Consciousness

(1) I am a conscious being with subjective experience of myself and the world around me.

(2) No theory exists for how consciousness (specifically subjective experience or qualia) can arise purely from physical materials.

If you assume (1) and (2) to be true, one logical result is that

(3) We must live in a world that is not purely materialistic.

One inference that follows from (3) is that

(4) We live in an (at least) dualistic world where souls imbue certain material configurations (e.g. brains) with consciousness.

This is my argument for the existence of the soul.

It can be refuted in many ways:

(a) Consciousness does not exist, therefore the purely materialistic world survives intact without any souls to worry about.
    - Several annoying philosophers take this position. It just seems stupid and refutes the only thing that we know *must* exist, which is the subjective experience that is a part of consciousness. We rely on our consciousness to even make such an idiotic statement.

(b) There is a theory for how consciousness exists from purely physical materials. It's [insert theory here]. Therefore we don't need to introduce this ludicrous notion of a soul.
    - I'd like to hear such a theory. All people who have claimed such theories that I've heard turn out to not solve the hard problem of consciousness. I just read a book (Soul Dust) which falls in exactly this camp, claiming a solution to consciousness which is in no way a solution to the hard problem. It's so damn annoying and blatantly dishonest.

(c) Just because a theory for the existence of consciousness from purely physical materials doesn't exist yet, it will one day. So we don't need souls, just patience.
    - This is the counter-argument that I find most compelling. But since people have been trying to come up with materialistic theories for thousands of years and all have failed to even be feasible, I'm doubtful of this approach. It's important to point out that it's not just that all theories have been proven wrong; it's rather that they aren't even feasible to start with. Consciousness is the only phenomenon that I know of that so strongly forsakes "theory-making" that you can't even get to the "theory-testing" step.

So my logic leads me, once again, to believing in the existence of the soul.

I don't know if the soul can exist without the body; I'm inclined to think not. But my experience of consciousness can lead me to nothing else than a belief in my soul.

Now on to more practical things: I poke the neurons of worms everyday looking for consciousness. If it's not to be found in the materials, why keep on poking? I guess I'm still holding out for refutation (c). Or perhaps if we can identify the properties that endow materials with the ability to soul-house, that would be pretty neat. It won't tell us about the soul, but will at least tell us about its interactions with the materialistic.

(Note: There are some issues around what counts as a "theory". Specifically, if I make a statement like "When these 10 million molecules are moving in this way which is found in that part of the brain, you have the visual experience of seeing a bright red cherry." Is that a "theory" for how you have conscious experience of a cherry? It sounds less like a theory and more like an observation to me, but I guess in practice this is likely what we'll end up with after neuroscience finishes its work. I guess to me the important thing about a "theory" is that it generalize and predict much more broadly than the empirical observations alone would. Specifically, I would hope that a theory for consciousness would tell me conditions sufficient (not just necessary) for having subjective experience, such that I could test whether other non-human organisms, all the way down to bacteria, might have this capacity. So some degree of generalization beyond specific molecular configuration seems like a necessary feature for a theory of consciousness.)

May 2012 Update:
I've posted a follow-up to this blog post entitled "Countering a primitivist attack on the soul."

Read comments (13) - Comment

Gokul - Jun 18, 2011, 11:26a
Hi Nikhil! How on earth is quest for consciousness related to quantum mechanics? like I hear these two things being linked many times.. What is it about? Is it just that we can travel to and fro in time only in our thoughts and memories?

Jason - Jun 18, 2011, 7:51p
Hey Nik. You may find this documentary interesting. I stumbled upon it recently on Netflix:

Kate - Jun 19, 2011, 8:45a
Nikhil, you crack me up. Who knew an argument for the existence for the soul could be so funny and stimulating? Good post.
Here's my comment: while I'm not so familiar with the world of soul-existing arguments, but I think it's a little odd that one of the main tenets of your argument, (2), is that there is no pre-existing theory for X out there.
"(2) No theory exists for how consciousness (specifically subjective experience or qualia) can arise purely from physical materials."
Okay fine... but if there were such a theory (and you didn't like that theory), how would that affect your argument for the existence of the soul? I don't see that it would. Just sayin'...
Keep poking worms.

Neha - Jun 20, 2011, 10:14a
(c) seems pretty right to me. We're still a long ways off from technology good enough to really get at neurons and what's going on in there! It seems incredibly premature to say that there is no correct theory of consciousness and will never be one. Give materialism a chance!

nikhil - Jun 26, 2011, 1:50a
To Gokul and Jason, on the topic of quantum mechanics and consciousness:

One central argument against the existence of free will, which is a part of consciousness, is that if we live in a deterministic world governed by the basic rules of physics, there's no room for us to make a "choice". We don't decide what we do, the molecules just follow physical rules and everything is simply predetermined, without another source (free will) influencing things from the outside. So free will is just some sort of elaborate illusion constructed by our brain.

Quantum mechanics changes our notion of determinism in 2 ways. First, fundamental particles become more "random" in that they're position in space seems best described with probabilities rather than definite locations. Second, the act of "observation" (which is not well-defined) forces the particles to adopt definite positions, so an external action seems capable of influencing the outcome of a physical system of particles.

The interpretation that tries to connect consciousness with quantum mechanics builds on each of these ideas. First, because basic particles seem to move probabilistically and indeterministically, perhaps there is now room for free will, because everything isn't just particle-interaction destiny. Second, maybe free will acts as the "observer" and forces the random system of particles to adopt specific positions. This opens the door for free will as an external force that influences and determines reality.

That said, I don't believe anything I wrote in the last paragraph. I think the beliefs around the connection between free will and quantum is 100% hopeful speculation on the part of various New Age thinkers and 0% scientifically supported. Roger Penrose, a famous mathematician/theoretical physicist, put forth the idea that quantum fluctuations in brain cells might support free will, but unfortunately there is zero evidence for this in neuroscience. But of course no one is doing quantum-level experiments in the brain, so it's not like this theory has been proven wrong. It just hasn't been tested, and it just seems highly unlikely given all that's known about how the brain works.

More importantly from my perspective is that the theories above don't address the more basic part of consciousness, what's called the "hard problem" of qualia. Quantum doesn't deal with the question of how we have subjective experience of our world, something that most people intuitively believe is not the case for most other physical objects. What distinguishes our material composition from others' such that it supports qualia, so that we're not just robots behaving like we're alive but we're people actually experiencing life? I've heard no real theory for how qualia can be constructed in purely a materialistic manner, and I don't believe that such a theory can even exist. This is the main reason why I believe in the existence of the soul, or some non-materialist entity that interacts with the material to give materials new properties, such as qualia.

nikhil - Jun 26, 2011, 2:09a
To Kate, on the topic of materialistic theories of consciousness:

If there was a real theory that explained how consciousness arises from material interactions, I would be super-intrigued. I would be satisfied with such a theory if it enabled me to distinguish conscious objects from nonconscious ones. So it could tell me whether my worms were conscious, or at least what information I'd need to know about my worms to determine whether they were conscious or not.

Based on my original argument above, I would certainly have less logical reason to believe in the existence of the soul.

However, I might still believe, due not to logic but certain life experiences (see

But regardless I'd be stoked.

Yu-li - Jun 28, 2011, 8:09p
Hi, thank you for another interesting post. As for me, I am an agnostic, but I believe in free will (I often say that "I am determined to believe in free will.") I desperately(?) "want" to believe in non-materialistic soul, but I cannot erase my doubts. I should say I'm still in confusion.

There is a need to distinguish "high-level consciousness" and "lower-level consciousness". Consciousness requires computation, and as you know materialistic theories do exist for computation (like how neural signals are generated and processed). The theories can explain at least lower-level consciousness, and I think worms have very low level consciousness at least.

I would like to quote Marvin Minsky : "we'll show that you can build a mind from many little parts, each mindless by itself. I'll call "Society of Mind" this scheme in which each mind is made of many smaller processes." I think it makes some sense even though I do not like its strong materialistic scent... His approach implies hierarchy of consciousness, and low level consciousness can be materialistic at least.

For high level consciousness (like decision making or construction of theory of mind), I feel a lot of confusion. Emotion is the hardest and most important part, because emotion gives "meaning" to computation. I doubt whether we can perfectly figure out what materialistic processes can generate emotion. However, there are so many other systems(human beings, other animals...) that can generate emotion, and it means emotional systems can be "replicated" in this world. It could imply emotion is also materialistic. I do not believe that there is a clear line between material and mind though (I'm an agnostic).

That is what I think.

Harpoon - Jul 15, 2011, 7:18p
Hey Nikhil, great topic.

I'm pretty much in agreement with your points. From what I've intuited and read (or rather haven't read) we can't even express theories about consciousness and there's no certainty we ever will. I like Noam Chomsky's succinct comment, "what mind-body problem?" Check out this talk he gave:

Starts out slow, but he draws some very compelling connections. However this is a follow up to an even better talk he gave previously I believe is called "Linguistics and Philosophy".

I've done some thought experiments on whether consciousness can be divorced from brain. Most of them have gone awry, because I wasn't willing to kill my brain to try it out. The biggest practical joke by consciousness on humans may be the obvious question of what governs the material world. So we could go in the other direction, and ask what I think is a much harder question: what individuates humans from one another, and from other beings, so that they come to call things "consciousness". Which I know sounds similar to the Gaia concept

dullblade - Aug 30, 2011, 5:53p
I envy your intelligence and your systematic approach to this age-old question. Also you must be a person of great feeling and intuition to arrive at the conclusion that you do; that we do possess "consciousness". Do you believe you can resolve your philosophical question with purely analytical or logical means? Our consciousness is self-evident. That you question it's origin demonstrates the poverty of vision of modern man. We, who have grown up in the age of science, are reluctant to embrace any acknowlegment of our utter incapacity to reach a conclusion about the true mystery and terror of life. You cannot get there from here,( our logic and rational mindset). Godspend to your quest. May you find a way to explain how the divine is manifest in every material part of our wondrous world.

Graham Epp - Apr 15, 2012, 6:48p
Just accept that conciousness exists without likening it to a soul. If you say a soul exists you lend credibility to magic a.k.a. the supernatural. Some things have reality in the physical plane that will never have a detailed explanation for how they come to be, like free will- and we know free will must exist because people have a share of all available power in the physical plane. My whole point is that lack of a full explanation shouldn't result in a deduction where some might conclude wishing power drives creation.

Anonymous - Jan 4, 2013, 2:46p
There is a critical thing you are forgetting. Lack of evidence is not evidence in itself. The mere absence of a theory disproving a soul does not state that there is a soul. Take this for example. There is no theory to prove the existence of God. Therefore there is no God. Also the issue of consciousness falls under philosophy not science(although I am sure it will be due to the development of neuroscience and neuro-psychology). It this point we cannot go further than a hypothesis with this issue. If you use the term hypothesis instead of theory it still will not work for you because there are many that do just what premise two claims that theories do not.

Shriram - Sep 12, 2013, 9:12a
Your arguments are pretty convincing, however we must remember that arguments and counter arguments are always possible with regards to this.

Let me put forth an argument here

1.Existence does not go into non-existence and non-existence does not become existent.

Based on this principle the soul which was not existent did not suddenly become existent. We accept that the person exists currently he cannot go into non-existence.

But then there are many philosophies which say that this soul or consciousness is some thing like continuous motion of something which gives the appearance of continuity like a lamp that can be spinned. Since our consciousness consists of thoughts which are continuously changing we can say that our consciousness is neither existent in the past nor the present nor the future.

We can again argue that without motionlessness motion cannot be defined, the very fact that consciousness can conceive motionless proves this theory to be wrong.

And so on and so forth we can put arguments and counter arguments. There is absolutely no end. If we put an argument forth that the battery has no energy does that mean the energy inside the battery has after life ?

We can put forth another argument stating that even that energy was put into the battery , but how can we say that consciousness is non-existent and suddenly becomes existent.

And so on.

As far as I see certain things are beyond logic, it is the same with consciousness.

John T. - May 2, 2019, 5:06p
Write (1) ="I am a conscious being with subjective experience of myself and the world around me."

Write P ="consciousness can arise purely from physical materials."

Write (3) = "We must live in a world that is not purely materialistic."

Crucially, the negation of P is distinct from

(2) "no theory exists for how P".

By comparison, in 1500, no theory existed for how magnetism arises from purely naturalistic phenomena. But that has always been true, we just didn't know it.

So, as it stands, (1) and (2) do not imply (3). Indeed, suppose (1) and (2) like you do. This is consistent with there being a true theory that does not yet exist for how P. In that case, (3) is false. So (1) and (2) do not eliminate the possibility of (3) being false.

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