Does an Atheist Have a Soul?

August 11, 2010 § 60 Comments

I’ve not covered this topic as yet, so what a better time to do so than now?

I’ve covered death, afterlife, evolution, space, existentialism, gods, demons, medicine et al., but haven’t really touched on soul. And there’s a reason for it, it’s a difficult topic to cover with any sense of authority because it’s a grey area, one where there is no proof either way as to its existence. And because it is such a hotly debated and highly sensitive are for some,  I am also bracing myself for a barrage of criticism over this one, so I’m a bit hesitant to publish it.  But it is a loaded question, for if there is no soul, and it is eventually proven by science to be the case, then the basis for the major religions’ fixation with the afterlife falls over, and after all who is going to enjoy eternity by god’s side, or get the promised 72 virgins?

Theists claim there is an eternal soul, one that carries on forever well after the body has rotted in the ground. This suggests that there is a living soul within every human that is breathing right now. As usual, a quick search for the definition of “soul” reveals this:

1. The animating and vital principle in humans, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity.
2. The spiritual nature of humans, regarded as immortal, separable from the body at death, and susceptible to happiness or misery in a future state.
3. The disembodied spirit of a dead human.

So the soul is what makes us breathe, move, think, act, and emote. It is immortal, and continues to have feelings after it is separated from the body at death. And it is a ghost. Very convenient for those who want to postulate that there is indeed a soul; it can’t be seen or measured, has never been observed, and is immaterial. In fact some might say it is beyond understanding (now, where have I heard that before?)

Recent scientific studies which include brain scans can reveal that certain parts of the brain fire when we experience something, or make a decision, or do something. These firings happen all over the brain, like an electrical storm, and the long-held belief that humans “only use 10% of their brain” has been disproven or at least refuted. We can now watch real-time how the brain fires off when a person is thinking about a loved-one, or experiencing pain, or playing chess. We can also, through stimulation of parts of the brain, replicate feelings like extreme sadness, sensations such as the taste of roast beef, or out-of-body experiences such as feeling like you are floating a metre above your physical body. So where does the idea of “soul” fit within the framework of the discoveries of modern neuroscience?

But before we look at that, let’s first look at the human animal.

We like to think that we are pretty special among the animals on earth, and to some extent we are quite special, and unique in many ways. We have evolved to a point where we can alter the world to our liking, have developed complex language and commerce, societies that contain millions of individuals. We are the only animal to have taken this path of evolution, where the body has remained relatively unchanged for 500,000 years, but the brain and our built societies continue to evolve. We have free will, and a very distinct sense of self. We also have a very distinct sense of “others”, and can empathise at the plight of those around us. We have built moral structures around our societies, firstly to preserve ourselves and our immediate communities, then to help us interact with other communities with the least amount of bloodshed ( this is not universal, but it is common). And with our self-awareness comes this thing we call “consciousness”.

People like to separate “self-awareness” from “consciousness” as a way to back up the idea of a soul stating something like “How can we be conscious of ourselves if there is no soul?” But consciousness is merely the ability to know that you are alive (living), you are separate from others around you (individual) and to recognise that fact (self-aware). So from that, consciousness is a description of the act of being able to discriminate between our own self and those around us, and to realise our own “living”.

Self awareness develops from almost none (we are born and only recognise outside influences such as food) to a very acute “persona” (I am me, and I know these things, like these things, dislike these things, my history is this, I belong to these groups). A baby doesn’t know the idea of self until well after it starts to consciously make decisions about its life, and after it discovers that the decisions that he or she makes can be advantageous to him or her.

And we become very attached to our own consciousness. Anyone who has knowingly had a change of their consciousness, either through illness of or injury to the brain, will attest that the idea of losing themselves, or at least their perceived selves, is a very scary thing to experience. Brain injury sufferers for instance may still be able to think and do things they had been able to before the injury, but may feel disconnected from themselves due to this injury, as if they’ve lost their sense of their own selves.

And we make our judgments of the world and those around us consciously. But consciousness also varies in nature from person to person. Temple Grandin, a diagnosed autistic person famous for her work with ethical treatment of animals, says in the introduction to her essay “Consciousness in Animals and People with Autism”:

“As a person with autism, my ‘autistic like’ consciousness is different from normal people. I think in pictures and language is not used to form thoughts or make decisions.”

In this document she talks about varying levels of consciousness and decision-making in animals, talking from her perspective as a person living with autism. She has been able to make breakthroughs in the way humans treat domesticated animals because she believes her consciousness is much more akin to that of a non-human animal than to the human public at large. She definitely has a good understanding of the way non-human animals think and will react to given situations as has been proven by her work in the field.

So in different people consciousness and self-awareness will differ depending on brain chemistry, neurology of the brain, brain injuries, illnesses of the brain etc. This means consciousness, and the definition thereof, is subjective to the physiology of the person describing it. We all have it, but it is different for each one of us. And the general consensus is that many of the animals on earth have consciousness also, but in varying degrees of complexity.

Higher consciousness is a concept whereby, through  great control of the mind and body, once can see better, think better and more clearly, and have a transcendent understanding of the world and the universe. Things like meditation can alter the patterns of the brain and allow for different kinds of experiences, some of which could be called “a state of higher consciousness”. These states are reached through techniques of breathing control and bodily relaxation, and have been proven to change the patterns in the brain. Some people attribute this sense of “higher” consciousness to the existence of a soul, because it is so unusual to our accustomed knowledge of our consciousness it must be otherworldly. But is it really proof of the existence of the soul?

Our consciousness is all we know. It defines how we interact with the world, and it informs our emotions and reactions. It allows for us to reflect on what certain situations mean for us, for those around us, and for our surroundings. And it is for each of us, as well as our sense of self, our sense of individuality, our identity, and some would say our soul. We hold onto it tightly in our waking hours, and let go of some of it every night when we sleep and dream, but a loss of this is a very scary concept indeed.

And when we die, and our brain ceases to function, the MRI stops showing the lightning storms of neural activity, the body’s electrical impulses stop functioning and the heart stops, so too does our consciousness. But some would argue that the consciousness is then freed from the body in the form of a soul (which weighs 21 grams apparently).

Could it not be said then that the concept of “soul” could be encapsulated in here somewhere, somewhere within the consciousness, self awareness and self-preservation of our identities, and our longing not to die (the abyss scares us so much as a species), that we define the idea of “soul”? Or do we just fizzle out, our electrical impulses and chemicals dissipating to be redistributed among the universe, following the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics?

I think that, with all the evidence pointing in one direction, humans, like rabbits or insects, are no more than the sum of the incredibly beautiful and astoundingly complex parts from which we exist.

So to answer the question, “Does an atheist have a soul?” I would say, all things taken into consideration, probably not. But then again, I don’t think it’s likely that a theist has a soul either.  What do you think?

Stumble This!


Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

§ 60 Responses to Does an Atheist Have a Soul?

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tim Hawken, Tim Hawken, Atheist Climber, Marty, Marty and others. Marty said: Does an Atheist Have a Soul?: […]

  • Phil Hart says:

    In my opinion, the theists’ assertions that there is a part of us that continues to exist after our bodies die is pure balderdash: they cannot accept the reality of their own cessation of consciousness.

  • MrSnowflake says:

    The assertion theists make about humans having a soul is as founded on evidence as the existence of their god(s) is: there is none.

    So, why would we believe (as that’s the key word here) we have a soul while we do not believe in the, well known, teapot around Mars? I try not to believe anything without proper evidence (but then it’s not believing, so I try not to believe anything), so I know we have no soul. (Know here is use in the same sense as ‘I know there is no teapot around Mars’, which means: ‘I know with great probability that…’)

  • Miguel says:

    I will say there is a soul. Just through a different meaning.

    A person’s soul is simply the memory you leave of yourself in others. The way people remember you. People who live a meaningful life, or who contribute greatly to a society, will forever be remembered- (Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr- come to mind). People dear to you… your parents, brothers, and other close family members.

    You forever live in the memory of your loved ones.

    • Christian says:

      (I am an atheist despite my name)
      I heard that before from a friend of mine. If you define soul by that of course every human has a soul, as well as any other living thing, maybe even Ayers Rock 😉
      The problems with this definition are:
      – You’re bending over backwards to have an acceptable definition of the sould that you can live with. Nevertheless most other people you tell you believe in a soul won’t have the same definition.
      – This definition lacks one important thing the “classic” definition of the soul has: Choice after death! For example, which of your 72 virgins you f**** today. Or which harp composition you play today, depending on your religion 😉
      – That friend actually thinks this is the official soul definition of the Vatican. 😀

  • Dan Buzzard says:

    No human on Earth has a soul. Except in the metaphysical sense.

  • Patmos Pete says:

    Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.

  • rudyruddell says:

    I agree. When humans and other animals die, that is the end. With regard to religious experiences, here is an excellent documentary.

    If you prefer to read about it, here is an article:

  • sabepashubbo says:

    Sorry to butt in again, but I think the evidence of the existence of soul actually has some scientific support. This idea is based on the premise that something tangible doesn’t cause something intangible. If we want to use methodological naturalism (which is the approved scientific method), then nothing in the natural world can produce something intangible.

    Take for example, the writing of a book. Did something tangible (a person) create something intangible (words)? No. In a completely natural sense that person created ink spread on a piece of paper in specified formations, and the concept of words only comes about when another tangible entity (the brain) interprets those formations into the experience of what we call “words.” This presents an interesting question, because then from naturalism we have to wonder, “Where did words come from?” How did these concepts evolve naturally over time if they can’t be proven to exist on a purely natural level? Unfortunately, that’s one question that evolution can’t answer without the concept of some immaterial aspect of our nature.

    Which leads me logically back to this concept of soul, for this is a reasonable explanation about where intangible concepts can find their origins. While the brain is largely responsible for interpreting the responses to these concepts, it isn’t sufficient for explaining the origin of emotions, because emotions can’t be shown to exist tangibly or to be caused by something tangible.

    I’ve made this point previously, when I was told that brain scans are a tangible depiction of emotion, but I haven’t seen science make this claim. Once again, brain scans are colors placed onto a tangible piece of film that are merely representations of what neurons are doing in the brain, and no one equates neurons with emotions. So we are only left with what science calls the “inference of the best explanation,” which is that intangible concepts find their origins in something intangible, which leads logically to the conclusion that the existence of soul is the best possible explanation for the existence of intangible concepts and emotions.

    • You do realise you’re basically arguing the god of the gaps fallacy there, don’t you? Just because there’s other things science can’t explain and in your mind may have some similarities to, doesn’t make that a tangible explination.

    • Not only is this the God-Of-The-Gaps fallacy, but I did point out that we can stimulate emotions and feelings by probing the brain while the patient is conscious. Yes emotions etc are a physical phenomenon, as is transcendence.

      This is what I’m talking about, and this puts your whole theory about the “intangible” aspects of emotions.

    • Christian says:

      In addition to the god of the gaps argument:
      If I understand this correctly, you can’t imagine man inventing words, right? You do understand that establishing even simple forms of communication must have been a huge evolutionary advantage?

    • sabepashubbo says:

      Hi Christian,

      What I’m saying is that for a process such as the formation of words, which are intangible, to come about naturally as a process of evolution doesn’t make sense since words are not a part of the natural world. That would require you to say something tangible caused something intangible, which is in direct contrast to the findings of science, particularly because of the limits of methodological naturalism. So to say that words are a by-product of evolution is a huge assumption to make in the mind of the naturalist, not even considering how different languages would have been able to come about using this process.

      Think about how remarkable and how far you would have to take this, and do so as if you didn’t already know the result. Humans everywhere grunt as a means of simple communication, then by some chance over 6,000 different ways to say “rock” emerge from the same type of communication. But other species that evolve (like animals) make the same types of noise and communication as their ancestors. Anybody see the problem here?

    • Christian says:

      Why is it so hard to accept that something material (a human) can create something immaterial (like the idea of a hammer and how to use it)? An idea can be thought, represented in a material way (ink, air waves, …), tried to convey, misunderstood, reinvented, all that. It’s immaterial, so how is this impossible?
      I’m not a biologist, but I’d guess the fact that animal “language” is so much more consistent over large distances is due to the fact that it’s implemented genetically, where human language managed to separate from the genes, thus making it much more easy to evolve and improve, but also less “intuitive” or natural if you like. Of course this means that something like Klingon or Quenya might have become what english is today, basically language is just a communication standard and could have turned out very differently. So what?
      I don’t see your problem; it might be rooted in the fact that you simply state a rule (nothing material can create something immaterial) whithout explaining why this should be so. So no, I don’t see a problem here.

    • sabepashubbo says:

      Hi Christian,

      I think the issue I’m having here is a misrepresentation of what the function of the brain is. Scientifically speaking, the brain is an organ that serves functions of both interpretation and storage, but this does not include creation. For instance, the brain does not create memories, but rather stores images that it has previously interpreted to recall when triggered. The actual memory is a tangible act that has been performed at some point in the past. So ideas are not something created by the brain, but rather interpreted by the neurons into rational thought processes.

      Again, I think the best explanation I can give is one I have given, which is that if we are to use methodological naturalism, than anything immaterial is automatically ruled out of the equation. So if we are limited to MN, in theory we would have to begin with the pre-supposition that anything immaterial doesn’t exist, because immaterial things do not exist in the natural world. But since we both agree that immaterial things do exist, we have to expand our scope beyond MN. A logical place to do that would be to taxonomy.

      As part of the supertype/subtype relationship, here’s what is required: “In such an inheritance relationship, the subtype by definition has the same properties, behaviors, and constraints as the supertype plus one or more additional properties, behaviors, or constraints. For example, car is a subtype of vehicle. So any car is also a vehicle, but not every vehicle is a car. Therefore, a type needs to satisfy more constraints to be a car than to be a vehicle.” So if the supertype we pre-suppose is intangibility or immateriality, then all things that are subtypes of this supertype would have to possess the same properties plus one or more additional properties. The concept we call “soul” would fit this qualification. The brain would not, because it does not possess the same properties as the supertype.

      So once again, the intangibility of concepts supports the idea of soul both logically and scientifically.

      As to the language issue, the only problem I see with your statement would be that these languages would have had to be evolving at the same time to get where we are at today in terms of complexity, and if they were evolving at the same rate, and we are all the same species, we should have developed a homogenous language independent of location, because it would be a biological process. The difference in languages would suggest naturalistically that some people are less evolved than others, which we might poke fun about but would not claim scientifically.

      I’m no biologist either, but that seems logical to me. Questions? Comments?

    • Ok your language example is not correct. Language is not something that just magically appeared all at once in it’s current state of complexity. It has been evolving with our specie for many thousands of years. Language varies in complexity in various species such as in chimpanzees, dogs, and Cephalopods, and in humans it continues to get more and more complex over time, absorbing new words and concepts as they arise. It is an extension of non-verbal communication, not some magical deterministic idea. What your arguments lack in general are a recognition of the immense amount of time that it has taken to arrive at modern humans in the 21st century. Language centers in the brain have not always been there in every iteration of humankind’s evolutionary path. I think you make far too many presuppositions.

    • Christian says:

      sabepashubbo, can’t you or won’t you understand me?
      Maybe there’s that basic misconception you have that immaterial things have an existing of their own. They don’t. They’re just ideas, represented and interpreted in the brain. The brain isn’t some computer that has this “store” function and that “xyz” function. It reads, interpretes, processes, stores sensor data, creates expectations from experience, and so on. It’s complex.
      Technically speaking, it doesn’t create ideas. It just processes “bits and bytes” which represent certain ideas, but there’s no real creation process involved, as if the universe had an idea storage which afterwards conained that new idea. There’s no such thing, with the last human (assuming no species evolves far enough by then) dies the last idea.
      Basically you’re saying: In nature nothing immaterial exists, but since mankind has created ideas, which exist an are immaterial, it must have a soul. Right?
      – Ideas don’t exist, they’re just brain patterns. There’s no spoon! 😉
      – If you were right I’d have to ask you where that immaterial soul-thingy comes from. And – wonder of wonders – you’d probably have some GOD brand to name me, right?
      – Furthermore, I’d find interesting, if there was a soul, when exactly woud it be created/given in the human reproduction cycle? On fertilization? On specialization of the cells? On birth? On baptization?^^

      You simply make false assertions that help you make that idea of a soul sound reasonable. It isn’t.

    • sabepashubbo says:

      Hi all,

      For the language question, I guess it just seems to me like you’re making the assumption about language’s evolution based on the end result (begging the question, so to speak). But I’m asking where words came from to begin with. If you want to say they arose as a result of needing to specify communication to be better understood, then fine. But that doesn’t mean that they evolved necessarily. It just means new information was created, just like a heliocentric view of our solar system was new information but didn’t necessarily evolve. I can understand language getting more complex over time; I just can’t (and you just can’t) make the leap that because it’s getting more complex that it evolves in a biological sense.

      Christian, if immaterial things don’t exist externally from the brain (as you have admitted–thanks for agreeing with me!), then how can the brain process them? For instance, what about emotions? Are you ready to assert there’s no such thing as love, happiness, anger?

      As to where the soul came from, I would only have to say that it could come from something that also possesses the property of intangibility. Whether that’s God or not, well, you can decide for yourself. You could attribute it to the Tooth Fairy if you want, so long as you realize that its creator would have to be intangible and therefore supernatural.

      And as to when it is created, I’m honest enough with myself to admit that I don’t really know. All I know is that it’s present at the time of birth, because that’s when the brain begins interpreting the concepts that I believe come from the soul.

      I think we’re on the same side of the fence here. If immaterial things aren’t created by the brain, then either they are generated within something else immaterial or they don’t exist. You have chosen the latter, but is that really a more plausible explanation based on the evidence?

    • Mark Devon says:

      There is a biological explanation for the origin of each emotion.

      Revenge, for example, is an negative emotion triggered whenever you reach the conclusion “X harmed me by breaking the rules”.
      The negative effect of revenge stops when you reach the second conclusion “I harmed X as much X harmed me”.
      Revenge encourages victims of rule breaking to always retaliate – even when it harms the victim.
      By encouraging retaliation against rule breakers, the emotion of revenge reduces the number of rule breakers in a group.
      The fewer rule breakers there are in a group, the more efficient it is.
      Lines or queues work without a policeman because potential line-cutters expect people in the line to feel revenge when they try to cut in.

      The Origin of Emotions is a book which identifies the purpose, trigger and effect of each emotion.
      It can be downloaded for free at

    • Dave says:

      F’in language! How does it work?

  • Mark Fyfe says:

    Well done a fine description of how we have come to think we have a soul. The story is really the same old same old, those things we have been unable to explain through science we simply invent an answer for. We have internal narratives being played out incessantly, it feels like another entity and it lines up with the religious soul idea. But a sensation in the brain of the brain’s state combined with sensed bodily state is not another entity, it is just a more complex state of living matter. It is called mind which some feel a need to assign supernatural properties perhaps through arrogance, naivety or hopefullness.

    A great article

  • Plates says:

    was an excellent article.


  • The concept of a soul is paramount to convincing unintelligent and easily-duped people that they will be punished for eternity for their actions or inactions on earth. Since an afterlife is central to almost all major world religions, it comes as no surprise that the idea of a soul has flourished for so long.

    However, like orbiting teapots, invisible unicorns, and deities, there is and never will be proof of one, so it exists in a circle that does not overlap with my “give a shit” circle in the Venn diagram of my life.

    • God's Militant says:

      Of course you have a soul. Every living being on earth does….

      While our lord condemns the souls of atheists to burn in hell for their treason we Christians will live in heaven away from the horrors of sin..

    • tsuken says:

      @God’s Militant – ahhhhh that loving god’s love and such.

      Riddle me thins: if your god has a plan for everyone, then it’s his plan that I’m atheist, and his plan therefore that I burn in hell for eternity. Loving god …

      Your answer … free will. Right?

      I was born into an atheist family, and therefore not brought up to believe in gods. For my parents’ atheism then I will burn for eternity? Loving god …

      I can choose to convert. Right?

      Bullshit. How does one just “decide” to believe something? I could choose to say I did, to adopt the trappings of that belief (oh, and to pay a tithe to the Church – that always helps. Right?). Now are you saying that would be enough? All your god demands is to look like we believe?

      Or is he incapable of figuring out whether or not we really believe or are just paying lip service?

      Or am I just screwed because I was brought up to value rational thought and to accept scientific evidence – both of which preclude “deciding to believe” in some magical sky fairy?

      Loving god. Yeah. Right.

    • God's Militant says:

      God loves those who worship him. You knowingly defy your creator, he might forgive someone who was never correctly educated but you are not one of those people. You know about god and yet choose to turn your back on him. For this you are likely to burn in hell unless you repent.

  • tsuken says:

    Good post Marty. My approach in general where there isn’t sufficient evidence to say (near) conclusively that something does or doesn’t exist is not to assume it exists. I figure it’s more parsimonious to proceed as though it doesn’t – until and unless proven otherwise. When that thing is a thing the existence of which would go against a whole lotta science, I find myself even happier with that approach 😉

    The notion of a “soul” is analogous to gods and religion. The sould is a concept invented by humans in an attempt to explain something about themselves they didn’t understand – just as gods and religion were inventions of humans attempting to explain aspects of the world they didn’t understand. Now just as the more we learn about the world and universe around us, the more apparent it becomes that gods and religions are simply failed explanations, the more we learn about the brain, the more we find that the concept of a soul is likewise simply a failed explanation.

    People draw a false distinction between brain and mind – and consciousness, and soul, and spirit and whatever else. What is mind if not the brain? What is conciousness if not the activity and awareness of the brain? Take away someone’s brain: do they have a mind? Do they have consciousness? Of course not. The mind is simply the brain – and signals from the rest of the body as perceived, created, and interpreted by the brain. Nothing more, nothing less.

    … What is soul if not the brain?

    Some people will decry this as biological reductionism, and say that it takes away the wonder and passion and such. To that I say bollocks! Why is it reductionist or diminishing to think that what makes us “us” lies within us, and comes from us, rather than being some nebulous magical zephyr bestowed upon us by a sky-fairy?

    We are this bag of meat and squishy bits. That’s it. Nothing more – but nothing less, and I reckon it’s enough. Just as I don’t need a god to live a moral life, I don’t need a soul to live a passionate one.

    Thanks again for the post 8)

  • sabepashubbo says:

    To BS and Marty,

    First, I couldn’t open up the link you posted, Marty, so if you could copy/paste or something, that would be helpful.

    As to the God-of-the-gaps theory, I think I made it pretty clear that what I was using was accepted scientific methods of thinking, namely the “inference of the best explanation,” which is accepted scientific thought.

    The reason that something intangible is the best explanation for something intangible is that nothing has been shown scientifically to be intangible yet created from something tangible. If this was true, we would have evidence and external corroboration from other realms besides the one at play, but we do not. Just like it’s reasonable to assume that little chickens come from other bigger chickens, it is reasonable to assume that something intangible would have to come from something that assumes the same scientific property, which, again, is intangibility. I think I’m on solid ground here. I don’t have to prove the soul exists, just that it is the best possible explanation.

    And Marty, what you have shown is that the interpretation of emotions by the brain can be altered, and therefore the behavior of the person is altered. This proves nothing. The behavior of bacteria can be altered, but that doesn’t mean that emotions live tangibly inside of bacteria. You can’t have this concept of brain and concept of mind and equate the two (MarkFyfe, Tsuken). Science doesn’t let you do that, because if you were to take away part of the brain, you would therefore be saying you are taking away part of the mind, but there are parts of the brain you can take away that have no bearing on emotions, so the two are not equal. Rather, science is on a quest to find the best possible scenario, and as I’ve shown above, the best scenario for a cause of something intangible is something else that is also intangible. Ergo, a soul.

    But let’s go back to this God-of-the-gaps logic. When looking at evidence scientifically, we must compare causal adequacy of competing hypotheses in order to make a judgment as to which hypothesis is best. We would not say, for example, that an archaeologist had committed a “scribe of the gaps” fallacy simply because–after rejecting the hypothesis that an ancient hieroglyphic inscription was caused by a sand storm–he went on to conclude that the inscription had been produced by a human scribe. Instead, we recognize that the archaeologist has made an inference based upon his experience-based knowledge. Our experience tells us that nothing in nature that is intangible is caused by something tangible, which means that it is completely within reason scientifically to infer the best explanation for intangible concepts, which is an intangible storage unit, aka soul.

    For the record, where did we get words from? You guys didn’t answer my question on that. Is there a “linguist of the gaps” fallacy being committed here?

    Finally, just wanted to touch on something quickly that Tsuken said:

    “My approach in general where there isn’t sufficient evidence to say (near) conclusively that something does or doesn’t exist is not to assume it exists.”

    So are you saying that you don’t believe in evolution because there isn’t anywhere near sufficient evidence to show that missing links exist? Just curious how far you are willing to go with your statement.

    • The Duck goes "Quak" says:

      Dear sabepashubbo.

      Your entire argument is based on the assumption that god exists. Unfortunately for you he doesn’t; get over it already.

    • sabepashubbo says:

      Wow and the foundation for your argument is….where?

      I think the theist is in a better position because a theist is open to both the natural and supernatural explanations, so a theist can follow the evidence where it leads. The atheist HAS to believe in only the natural explanation, because it’s the only game in town for the atheist. So even if the evidence (which I feel like I’ve explained pretty well) points to something outside of the natural world, the atheist must either reject it (and have reasonable grounds to do so) or reject his/her atheistic beliefs.

      So I’m on solid ground. I would love to hear your argument.

    • m1nd7r1p says:

      I really can’t believe that you believe this argument. Your entire argument is based on a fallacious assumption.

      “something tangible doesn’t cause something intangible. If we want to use methodological naturalism (which is the approved scientific method), then nothing in the natural world can produce something intangible.

      Take for example, the writing of a book. Did something tangible (a person) create something intangible (words)? No. In a completely natural sense that person created ink spread on a piece of paper in specified formations, and the concept of words only comes about when another tangible entity (the brain) interprets those formations into the experience of what we call “words.” This presents an interesting question, because then from naturalism we have to wonder, “Where did words come from?” How did these concepts evolve naturally over time if they can’t be proven to exist on a purely natural level? Unfortunately, that’s one question that evolution can’t answer without the concept of some immaterial aspect of our nature.”

      Your assumption is that words or language are somehow intangible, thus cannot be created by something tangible (an assumption I will not debate here, but am not ready to concede without further reflection). Yet, words and language are completely tangible. Let’s define tangible:

         /ɪnˈtændʒəbəl/ Show Spelled[in-tan-juh-buhl] Show IPA
      not tangible; incapable of being perceived by the sense of touch, as incorporeal or immaterial things; impalpable.
      not definite or clear to the mind: intangible arguments.
      (of an asset) existing only in connection with something else, as the goodwill of a business.

      You cannot hold to the idea that intangible simply means “something that cannot be perceived by the sense of touch”. If you do, you must agree that your argument that tangible things cannot produce intangible things is fallacious. My evidence? Light. It cannot be perceived by “the sense of touch”, but it is directly produced by tangible objects (flashlights come to mind, if you wish to argue that you can’t touch a candleflame or the sun). So the definition of intangible, in your argument, must be “something that cannot be perceived by the senses”, or perhaps “something that cannot be measured”.

      Language, however, can be directly measured, in the same way that subatomic particles are measured: by the observations of the changes they make in physical matter. And where do we see that? Why, by studying the brain, of course (the tangible thing that produces it). We can clearly measure through FMRI, PET scans, and intracranial EEG not only the response to the sounds of language, but in fact the ideas that preceed it. We can identify different areas of the brain that are activated when someone thinks of a “chair” versus a “car”, versus “love” and “god”. You argue that thought is intangible, that language cannot be perceived, and this argument is baseless. We can indeed perceive it through our senses, and measure it by studying its impact.

      You attempt to support this argument by attacking the tangible existence of emotions. “While the brain is largely responsible for interpreting the responses to these concepts, it isn’t sufficient for explaining the origin of emotions, because emotions can’t be shown to exist tangibly or to be caused by something tangible. ” Actually, they can. Again, by studying patterns of neural firing, we can clearly identify that patterns in the brain that are produced when someone reports feeling love, or hate, or anger. We can see the increased blood flows to the areas responsible for emotion on PET scans. And indeed, we have seen that sociopaths, those with reduced emotional display and lacking in empathy, have measurable differences in the functioning of the prefrontal cortex (responsible for decision-making) and the limbic and mesolimbic regions (responsible for generation of emotions and fear conditioning). We see direct evidence of the brain’s generation of personality most clearly when traumatic brain injury occurs. Read up on Phineas Gage, who had a complete personality change after a head injury at work. His case is credited for sparking our quest to identify regions of the brain responsible for various activities and experiences.

      You then go on to query “where do words come from?” As if words were somehow granted down on high, formed and complete, separate from any neural net that experiences them, and that a soul must be responsible because it is another intangible thing, and thus is the “best explanation” of the origin of words. Do fireflies have souls? They clearly communicate to each other, and must have a the receiving organism must not only have senses capable of receiving their method of communication, but interpreting it as well. How about honeybees, that dance for each other to communicate direction and distance of located pollen sources? After all, humans are not the only organism on the planet that receive complex bits of communication from others of their species. How full the ether must be to house the collective spirits of every living thing that has attempted communication with another living thing.

      You also assume that a soul is the ONLY intangible thing that could be responsible for words. Why, as long as we’re delving into realms completely unverifiable, I could argue that there are ethereal, intangible beings that exist, say on Mars just for shits and grins, that are responsible for all thought and emotion. They dole out perception and emotion on a whim, causing some to be reasonable and other irrational, which is why some days I just wake up in a pissed off mood. Fucking aliens.

      The problem with your argument is that, like a freshman in their first philosophy class, you glom onto a word such as “intangible” without clearly defining your meaning (ahhhh ambiguity, the Devil’s vollyball), create an entire world view around your assumptions, then run with it as if it were Truth. You then go on to babble this word repeatedly, again without defining it, and believe that you have refuted the argument of any who do not correctly interpret your meaning, that you never clarified. Because of course if the could correctly interpret your meaning, why they must agree with you. This is not scientific, this is dogmatic. A scientist is not only completely open to the idea that their assumption is wrong, they in fact attempt to *prove* that their assumption is wrong. You do not, so please do not pretend to approach this discussion with any degree of scientific objectivity.

      “A philosopher and a theologian were having a debate. Said the theologian to the philosopher, ‘You are like a blind man in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn’t there.’ Replied the philosopher, ‘Yes, but you would find it.'”

    • sabepashubbo says:

      I think what I’m seeing here is an argument using bigger words that says exactly the same thing I told you has been said before. What are you showing me is that the brain can interpret intangible (which yes, means cannot be perceived using touch, sight, smell, taste, or hearing), which is not in debate here. You can show me using PET scans that the brain can interpret the word “chair” or “car”, but you cannot show me that the brain creates the word “chair.” Again, the brain’s function is to interpret and store, not create. I think my point to Christian about memories is sufficient for this.

      Again, what you are showing me when you are talking about measurements is that we can measure the interpretive power of the brain, but this speaks nothing to anything regarding creative intent. That’s why an argument regarding emotions is relevant, because what is measured is the response to the idea of emotion, not the emotion itself. Our brains can interpret emotions from others just as well as they can interpret our own emotions, but you can’t say that our brains created others’ emotions. It just doesn’t make sense.

      Where did I say that light was intangible? I think your argument on this front is fallacious.

      Your argument for fireflies and honeybees is not a valid one either, because you are discussing communication. No one argues that the brain is used to interpret data and therefore be a source of communication between beings. We’re talking about the creation of intangible concepts, which is not done through communication. Communication doesn’t create anything; it is merely the physical expression of what the brain interprets. That’s why animals don’t use words, because the intangible nature of soul doesn’t apply, so there is nothing created for them to interpret in this sense.

      “You also assume that a soul is the ONLY intangible thing that could be responsible for words.” That’s not what I said. I said that the soul is the most plausible explanation for intangible concepts. What I am saying is that something that cannot be measured by MN is responsible for these things, and that would suggest something supernatural (see my taxonomy argument). Whether you want to attribute it to God, fairies or invisible aliens is up to you, but to say that the best explanation for the existence of something intangible is something tangible means that in reality you are starting with pre-suppositions that something intangible can’t exist. You are actually attempting to explain away intangibility, rather than trying to find some compatibility between the two states of being. That’s not accepting all hypotheses; you are just parroting what MN says. If you start with a broad acceptance that all hypotheses are potentially valid, then you can follow the evidence where it leads.

      Maybe I’m not entirely objective, but I am open to more evidentiary positions than anyone who begins with a pre-supposition that naturalism is all there is. And what I think I’ve done is use accepted science to validate my position. I’m not clinging to anything that I haven’t been able to support, and I’ve tried for what seems like the 8th or 9th time to show using both logic and science that these concepts aren’t created in the brain, but only interpreted in the brain. If you are unwilling to listen to either, then there’s really nothing that I can do for you.

    • Sabepashubo, here is an image I found for you

    • Christian says:

      sabepashubbo, I don’t get what you believe. Some questions:

      Do you believe “intangible” things like the idea of a wheel exist by themselves, once they have been created by, as you claim, a soul? This would mean even after a nuclear war that kills everyone, a trillion ideas would still be somewhat “around”, independent from brains.

      Do I understand you correct that you claim that, in case I come up with a new idea this is only possible because I have a soul? So: Intangible things can only be created by an intangible sould because by your definition, every thought can only come from an intangible soul because by your definition, … kind of circular, no?

      I really don’t understand you, you might be mixing up the way tangible things exist and the way intangible things “exist”.

      Another thing: If the “soul” enables us to “create” intangible things, that means it has to interact in some way with our brain cells. Even if you define this interaction as one-way to prevent the “soul” from becoming tangible – that would mean we should be able to observe some brain processes that contradict physics, like neurons firing without any reason (internal or external). If this behaviour should be discovered we can talk about the existence of a soul, until then the brain is just a huge, complex computer. With no USB crystal ball attached. 😉

      And yes, I assume nature is all there is until the existence of some supernatural existence has been proven. And no, ideas are no supernatural existence but simply neural processes.

    • m1nd7r1p says:

      You claim that the brain “cannot create words”. What is your basis for this argument? In fact, brains DO create words, as evidenced by certain neurological disorders affecting Wernicke’s area–known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy. People affected by this condition speak “nonsense words” (referred to as neologisms) in place of words of their native language. Note that this is NOT gibberish, they will repeatedly use *the same* nonsense word when attempting to refer to an object or idea, but their brain spits out a new word in place of the accepted word of their native language. This is not evidence of The Divine; this is evidence that our brains have developed particular areas to deal with our need to communicate with other members of our species to increase our chances of survival. Most motile creatures on the planet have developed other means of communication, be they auditory, visual, tactile, or olfactory in nature. Your only fallback here is to claim that since god created our brain, this is proof of god–a circular argument without basis in reason.

    • m1nd7r1p says:

      On further review, many of your claims about the brain lack merit. Yes, the brain *can* create memories; we see this in cases of “recovered memories” where patients report events that occurred in their lives that not only cannot be corroborated, but are clearly refuted by collateral sources and objective evidence. Despite the overwhelming evidence, such patients are adamant that their memories actually occurred, and can clearly describe minute details of events that never happened. Further, the brain can create the experiences of hearing voices or seeing demons in people with psychotic illnesses, ex nihilo. It has been clearly shown that young children who are not victims of sexual abuse, when repeatedly asked about sexual abuse at first deny any history of this, but on repeat questioning often go on to claim such a history, and can begin to provide details of ‘memories’ of this abuse to the point that they begin to exhibit symptoms of PTSD, as if they actually had been abused. In psychiatric cases of Follie a Deux, persons without mental illness but living with persons who are experiencing psychosis can go on to become delusional and psychotic themselves, endorsing memories and experiences that support the delusional beliefs of the actual psychotic patient. On separating from the patient, these persons go on to have remission of their symptoms. To claim that the brain is incapable of creating ideas, concepts, or words is simply not accurate, has been refuted by science, and is yet another fallacious assumption you hold as Truth. Our brains do in fact create the emotions we experience.

      Your argument about communication, language and animals is absolutely ridiculous. Communication ONLY exists out of a need to express intangible concepts to another being. Animals don’t have “words” because they lack a larynx or the facial and lingual musculature required to form them. Instead they use other means of communication to convey concepts. A recent study demonstrated that dogs can understand the meanings behind different kinds of growls, including growls that mean ‘play’, ‘back off’, and ‘leave my food/toy/bone alone !’ another example is the gorilla who was taught American Sign Language; she clearly expresses complex desires, thoughts, and emotions through sign language. Are you sure she doesn’t have a soul? Or are you suggesting that Helen Keller didn’t?

      I am not arguing that intangible things don’t exist; I am arguing that intangible things can exist in the ‘virtual space’ created by a neural network, (and perhaps they can *only* exist there), that such neural networks are not limited to Homo Sapiens sapiens, and that such a network can indeed create them. I therefore reject your claim that because intangible things exist, souls exist

      Please note that I have never once claimed that naturalism “is all there is”–do not put words in my mouth and argue that they are mine. I am quite open to the idea that there is much more than what we think we know, and am currently entertaining lines of thought about how we as a species are creating our own reality; I’m just saying show me the proof, which I posit you have not done.

    • m1nd7r1p says:

      As I re-read your main argument, I again find it baseless. Your main assumption is that emotions, words, concepts are intangible with no basis in the physical world, and thus cannot be created by a physical entity. I will posit that that the patterns of firing in the brain associated with each such an intangible event, ARE the intangible event. For yet another example from neuroscience, look at the phenomena of chronic pain and phantom pain. In the former, a person experiences a traumatic event that results in severe pain lasting an extended period of time, such as a severe car accident. The pattern neurons that mediate pain in the brain is repeatedly activated, leading to potentiation of those neurons. Potentiation is the brain’s way of laying down memory–every time a neuron fires, its threshold for firing the next time is lowered. This is why rote memorization works. In pain, when pain pathways repeatedly fire the neurons in those pathways become potentiated, leading to less and less required stimulus to produce another firing event. Eventually neurons become so potentiated that they continue to fire without any required stimulus. Similar neural events are also seen in cases of phantom pain, where amputees continue to experience tactile sensations in the limb that is no longer there–just because the peripheral nerves are gone doesn’t mean the central nerves don’t fire. They don’t just interpret a ‘pain event’, they *create* the pain event.

      It strikes me that what you’re really arguing for is mind-brain dualism, an argument that has been hashed and rehashed for years–you just happen to be calling it a ‘soul’ instead of a ‘mind’. I argue the other side, that the mind is firmly rooted in and dependent on the brain, and have ample evidence from neuroscience literature to demonstrate this. Personality, emotion, sensation, even self-awareness are directly created in the brain, and that patients who experience traumatic brain injury, intracranial hemorrhages, intracranial tumors, meningitis, encephalatis, or other physical maladies have direct changes in the brain that can lead to altered personalities, emotions, sensations, etc. Let me drive a spike into your head and I can keep you alive, yet remove your self-awareness, decision-making capacity, alter your emotions and perceptions, and change who you are as a person.

      If you would like to call your consciousness and self-awareness a ‘soul’, that is entirely your purview–you can call it a chicken sandwich if you like, though none of us will follow your lead. But realize that claiming this somehow proves a supreme, supernatural entity is a leap of faith, not a scientific proof. I have no problem with your leap of faith, but please don’t pass it off as science. Occam’s razor still makes more plausible sense here.

  • Tsuken says:

    Sabepashubbo, what you are basically doing is saying that because you personally don’t understand something, it must be god or a soul. That’s what pre-scientific cultures did. Those ‘explanations’ are longer needed.

    As for your last comment to me, evolution is not a thing, to exist or not. It is a scientific Theory (capital T) that provides the best explanation of the way life arose. It has been supported by vast amounts of evidence across many different branches of scienctific study – including every bit of new relevant evidence.

    If you really are interested in the way i think about that, feel free to visit my blog, where aome weeks back i discussed that issue of belief/non-belief/disbelief

    • sabepashubbo says:


      Actually what I’m doing is using scientific principles to reasonably conclude (based on natural causes, mind you, so that methodological naturalism remains intact) that intangible things must be generated by something that also possesses the property of intangibility. That’s not lack of understanding; that’s the scientific method of classification. I think I’m seeing a lot of generalization of my argument here in an attempt to explain away the fact that I’m using actual science to proffer the existence of soul as, again, the accepted scientific thinking of “inference of best explanation.” No one has refuted my scientific argument in this sense, nor has anyone answered my question about the origin of words. I think right now I have the position of strength until these things can be explained. I think Marty would call what you put forth in your first paragraph a “straw man.”

      Perhaps you misunderstood my question. Since there is no reliable evidence of missing links, wouldn’t by your own admission you have to “not assume it exists”? If you’re going purely on the evidence, then evolution notwithstanding, you have to apply this principle to missing links. Since missing links are somewhat crucial to the evolutionary theory of small and gradual mutations, this seems to be a hole in your acceptance of evolutionary theory.

      And what do you say to the arguments of “special complexity” and “irreducible complexity” put forth in recent years by those supporting intelligent design? Are they “irrelevant,” and on what grounds do you make such a claim?

      Finally, I will accept your invitation to visit your blog, where perhaps we can continue to have meaningful discussion. I apologize if you thought my previous tone was in any way rude, and I will try to keep it on the up-and-up the best that I can both here and on your blog. Thanks for taking time to read and respond. 🙂

  • Wow, there’s a lot here and I’ll have to come back and digest properly.

    I’m REALLY glad you’ve mentioned the myth of “we only use 10%” of our brain. It’s hard to know exactly where that cropped up, but Silva Mind Control and other slightly questionable New Age type groups have been touting that one for a while – falsely.

    Let me add another perspective:

    When I was a christian, I wasn’t 100% sure that a “soul” existed, that it might not be a core belief. It’s long-known in educated Christian circles that the mind-body or soul-body separation was a Greek idea (from Plato?) that influenced Christian thinking. As I understand it, ancient Jews did not have a soul-separate-from-body idea, they saw us as holistic beings, and this is likely to have been the view of the first Christians.

    For example, when Jesus is resurrected he still has a body, albeit one that is different to our own. He cooks, eats fish, can be touched, etc. This all has rather interesting parallels with reading I’ve been doing on the impossibility of being just a human “mind” without a body.

    Anyway, no doubt I haven’t engaged with your topic but thought I’d share.

    Jonathan from spritzophrenia 🙂

    • sabepashubbo says:

      Hi Jonathan,

      Don’t know exactly what you mean by “ancient Jews,” but I would have to disagree with the idea that the first Christians agreed with this holistic view. According to the Bible, Jesus Himself made this distinction quite clearly (Matthew 10:28). So I think Christianity in its truest form began with this separation already made evident. It’s the scientific reasoning that I proffered above that makes it the most likely explanation that the two (body and soul) are not the same.

  • Fair enough sabepashubbo, I’m going from memory and a minority view held by some scholars. I don’t have time to explore further right now.

    Thanks! 🙂

  • PS: By ‘ancient Jews’ I meant the Hebrews of the First Testament (Old Testament) period, if that clarifies.

    • sabepashubbo says:

      In that case I’m not really sure, though Biblically it sure seems that David believed strongly in an afterlife, so something had to exist independently that would survive his earthly body.

  • leesis says:

    great article! In reading the comments though I feel disturbed. Such certainty from both ‘sides’. Such amazing statements of…fact? I’m sorry but what?

    Personally I think everyone has this soul thingy, in that, within this organic being exists something ‘inorganic’ that is both pre and post to our current existence. I conclude this though through experience…that of being with dying folk, of my own pregnancy and more.

    I have looked to theology but also to philosophy sciences etc for understanding of what this ‘stuff/soul’ might be. I am not sure yet, though I’ve ruled some stuff out.

    But, I think ultimately, to speak in certainty at this point of our psychological evolution is…mmmm…premature let’s say.

    • Christian says:

      Well, if you have made a thought experiment on wether a soul exists or not and you got the answer “Yes”, then please, enlighten us! How did you come to that conclusion?
      I wouldn’t claim to be certain a soul doesn’t exist, since it’s always difficult to prove negatives, it’s just that noone has come up with sufficient evidence, therefore I must put the idea of a soul to those of tooth fairies, Santa Clause, the virgin birth, etc.

  • weez says:

    How much does a soul weigh? I’ll go sell mine to @pzmyers & weigh myself thereafter to make sure the damn thing is gone.

    • m1nd7r1p says:

      Just don’t try selling it on eBay. Dante Knoxx tried to get $38,000 this way but eBay barred the sale. Fucking theists.

    • leesis says:

      yes Christian, indeed Ive spent over thirty years wading ,sometimes drowning and always spluttering in this area.

      The only way I have found to articulate it is to write of my own journey as I am currently doing at my blog under

      I write it this way because unlike many folk here the best I can say is there’s something… I’ve eradicated much dogma, across fundamentalist believers and fundamentalist aithiests alike. I have waded through more academia than is sane and always balanced this with actual experience.

      You talk of certainty…I can’t. I can only talk of experience and this has led me to is to develop some hypothesis…for example that we have some sort of pre/post-existence that requires questioning further.


    • Christian says:

      leesis, well, the fact that you “can say there is something” based on your experience, leading to some hypothesis… that’s not an argument at all. Imagine a physicist saying that by his experience, and from a very strong feeling he has, although he can’t prove it, G in place X is exactly 9.81348573949587474838475764849384885737484. Where he gets that precision from? Just a feeling, but you can’t disprove that!

      Feelings do not equal your claimed “thought experiment”!

  • tsuken says:

    Sapebashubo, you keep using that word (“intangible”). I do not think it means what you think it means 😉

  • m1nd7r1p says:

    Sabepashubbo: read my above reply. I even post the dictionary definition.

  • leesis says:

    Chris I’m not trying to present an argument…rather to share experiences. Nor did I claim a thought experiement…but I do know before anything is thought.

  • Monicks says:

    Great post Marty.

    Only, MacDougall’s so-called experiment was performed in 1907 and never repeated, so the 21 grams bit is kind of a moot point.

    I find it amusing, in the most kindly way of course, when people redefine things to make them fit into their belief systems. No my friends, the concept of soul is not re-definable, what remains in the living ones, are called memories, not soul.

    I cannot assert that there is a soul, but I can’t profess to the contrary either. As a few of you know, I was dead. My experience of passing away was quite terrifying, and longer than I would have liked it to be; the thing is, I was fully aware of what was going on, I felt the pain, the anxiety, the sadness of leaving my loved ones behind, the anguish, then the cold, there came the point when I felt nothing, but I was still “there” watching everyone’s horror expression in their faces… I was dying and at some point I remember letting myself go. I remained dead for seven minutes, the doctors said.

    You would think that in seven minutes I could have seen something, my late dad maybe, the pearly gates, the famous tunnel with its promising light at its very end, something, anything! There was nothing. Mind you that all in all, I was expecting to have a Near Death Experience (which, as we all know, would have been a chemical reaction of the brain to the lack of oxygen), I was going to find some truths, but I didn’t.

    I don’t think that anyone has a soul, atheists or theists alike, but if we do have a soul, then it cannot feel, hear, see, know anything; in other words, if there is a soul it has no consciousness.

    In any case, if I am going to hell for not believing in any god, at least I am certain that my soul will not suffer or feel pain while burning in the eternal flames.

  • leesis says:

    a question if I may Monicks…when you were in a state of “nothing” who was still observing…seeing the grief in others etc, do you think?

  • […] example of the fact that all that happens and that we experience is interpreted by the brain. In an earlier blog piece I discuss the notion of the souls, and conclude that there is, in all probability, no soul. In this […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Does an Atheist Have a Soul? at Atheist Climber.


%d bloggers like this: