Most religions claim that there is more to the self than the brain. The traditional understanding is that human sentience and selfhood are conveyed via some kind of nonphysical substance, often called a “soul.”
Though the soul is far out of favor with most contemporary philosophers, a few distinguished scholars defend and scrutinize the idea of a self that is founded on the soul and extends beyond the physical and could survive after the body dies.
Even so, those scholars diverge on the concept, with some saying the soul is crucial to personal identity, though perhaps it cannot be separated from the physical body. Another idea is that the soul is an “information-bearing pattern” that connects the living self with the afterlife person who lives forever. And still another scholar suggests the soul, as it were, is a sort of existential unity of successive stages of the brain over a person’s lifetime.
The essence of the soul
Distinguished Oxford philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne, author of “Brain, Mind and Free Will” (Oxford University Press, 2013), defends the soul with sophistication and vigor.
“If you want to tell the whole story of the world, you must say what objects there are in the world, what substances there are, and what properties they have at different times,” Swinburne said on “Closer to Truth.” “Of course, that will include all the physical objects, all the tables and chairs and planets and atoms. But, of course, that won’t tell the whole story. You will also have to tell the story of conscious life, which is associated with each body.”
Swinburne asserted that in order to tell “the full story of the world,” one must “pick out subjects of experience — not just by the experiences they have, not just by the physical bodies with which they are associated” but also with “separate mental entities for which the natural word is ‘soul’… If you can’t bring ‘soul’ into the account of the world, you will not tell the full story of the world, because you will not tell who has which conscious life.”
“If the only things were physical objects, including bodies and brains, we would not be able to distinguish a case where you have the body which is presently yours and I have the body which is presently mine, from the case where you have the body which is presently mine and I have the body which is presently yours,” he added.
“If physical properties and mental properties were just properties of bodies there would be no difference between these cases;” but because there are obvious differences between “you” and “me,” Swinburne claimed that “there must be another essential part of me which goes where I go, and this we can call my ‘soul.'”
Swinburne stressed that his argument for the existence of a soul — that “souls constitute personal identity and the continued existence of me will consist in the continued existence of my soul” — “is quite apart from what might happen in the world to come.” In other words, Swinburne said that his claim about the reality of a nonphysical soul does not depend on theological revelation or his own religious belief.
As to the relationship between the body and the soul, Swinburne is ambivalent. “Maybe, of course, a soul can’t function on its own,” he said. “Maybe it can only function when associated with a body. In that case, my continued existence would consist in it being joined to a body again, perhaps an entirely new body. I think a soul could exist on its own, but not a great deal turns on that.” A body is required, Swinburne said, because “for us to interact with others, to recognize others, we need different public characteristics.”
I asked Swinburne to speculate on the essence or composition of such a soul. Is it a differentiated substance? What’s to prevent your soul from getting mixed up with my soul?
“The difference between souls is ultimate, unanalyzable by anything else,” Swinburne responded. “A soul has no extension. It is an ‘immaterial particular’, to use an old-fashioned philosophical term. It does, of course, have characteristics, properties. It has thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and so on. But the way we distinguish in practice between souls is in terms of the bodies with which they are associated because the difference between your soul and my soul, being ultimate, does not consist in their relations to our respective bodies.
There is of course nothing paradoxical about the difference between souls being unanalyzable, because some differences must be ultimate; if you can analyze ‘a’ by ‘b’ and ‘b’ by ‘c’ and so on, you eventually get to things which you can’t analyze, and the differences between human souls in my view are one of those things.” This is why the only way souls can have a public presence is through their attachment to bodies.
Afterlife of the soul
Physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne gets to a similar religious result for the meaning and purpose of the self, but he achieves it via a different religious formulation. He agrees with fellow scientists that patterns of information carry the self, but as to what follows, he diverges dramatically.