Soul : The part of human beings
that thinks and feels, and is immortal.
As defined, this is
mostly a religious
hypothesis, because there is no
evidence for survival after death (which
is indeed a contradictio in adjecto). The scientific hypothesis here is
that the brain is the organ with which one
thinks and feels, and that one's experiences, thoughts and feelings
cease when the brain ceases to live.
Even so, there are at least two uses to which the hypothesis of a
soul may be put, both of which are much tied up with
1. Existence after death: In part, and apart from supposed
immortality, a soul is a kind of self or
I, which seems to be at least a
necessary assumption for human beings to cooperate, since no one can
feel another's feelings or think another's thoughts, while one needs to
come to agreements, share
ends and practices, and live to some extent
in the same commonsensical world.
Thus, the soul may be seen as the self after the body has died, and
indeed in this guise a soul may be supposed to transmigrate to a new
body after the death of a body it inhabited
and guided. This is a rather common religious
hypothesis, but there is little
evidence for it, since all children seem
to start life completely ignorant of the world they have been born in.
Human beings normally, and apart from great personal problems, take
themselves to want to live and survive, and thus the hypothesis that one
has a soul that even survives the death of one's body may be seen as a
rather obvious piece of wishful
thinking, as is the heaven believers in souls like themselves to end
2. Judgment after death: When the soul persists after the
death of the body it animated, there is the
logical possibility it may appear before the
maker(s) of the universe, and be judged for its commissions and
ommissions while living on earth.
This is also a common religious hypothesis for which there is no
evidence. It must have frightened millions, and also must have supported
millions with the hope that in heaven they would be rewarded for leading
blameless if unpleasant lives on earth and finally also everything would
be explained, including the many cases of evident injustice, immorality,
cruelty, murder and persecution all men know of, that are not so easily
explained rationally by a human intellect on the basis of the hypothesis
that there is an infinitely good, benevolent and omniscient
It is probable that this religious belief has been quite effective
morally, in that the belief that one would be judged after one's death
may have kept many from doing evil, and in
that priests and
clergy have widely used one's supposed
divine judgment when dead as a way to influence the faithful and
threaten the faithless. Also, while many may have refrained from harming
others out of fear of divine judgment, there have also been many who
murdered what they held to be the unfaithful in the belief of being
themselves rewarded for such killings.
If we consider the question of what is the evidence for the existence
of an immortal soul, the answer must come in two parts.
First, at present there is no good explanation at all of how
the brain produces one's experiences,
thoughts, feelings, beliefs, desires, values and ends, although there is
very good evidence that it is the brain that produces these, or at least
is necessary for their production.
One important reason for this fact is that the brain is the most
complex organ one has, and so far it was difficult or impossible to
study living brains, though this last restriction is rapidly
disappearing through things like PET-scanners and nano-technology.
Second, there is hardly any evidence evidence for the existence of an
immortal soul: There are no ghosts, no messages from the death, and
prayer has been statistically proved to be ineffective. Also, every time
the purported existence of gods or messages from the death has been
investigated, it has been found to be fraudulent, a hoax, or
(self-)deception. (See e.g. C.E.M. Hansel: "ESP - a scientific
Hence, the assumption in this Philosophical Dictonary is that there
are no souls, and the belief that there are is due to wishful thinking
or religious influences in one's childhood.