Spirit ≠ Soul



Greetings Russell, Friends & Readers – –

I hope that you are well on the way to returning your trees to the earth for mulch or to the closet for storage. Russell will be back to writing soon.  He is blessed to enjoy a traveling vacation with his beautiful family.  I look forward to his return.  Until then I wanted to expand on a topic that I touched on in the last post and one that Howie extended in the comments to Dredbeauty.  Both new readers are very welcome here.  Dredbeauty and I likely align a bit in our thinking as do Howie and Russell.  That is a tentative conclusion based on a few comments.  I hope that they both stay so that the conclusion can be challenged and tested.  Here’s the topic:  do we have spiritis?

First a quote offered from Howie’s link in the comment from Sean Carroll.  He is Russell’s favorite physicist.  I know – – I have a friend with a favorite physicist.  My favorite physicist was Isaac Newton.  He was ignorant enough to be a Christian.  He constructed God of the Gaps apologetics that were later deconstructed by Laplace and many others.  But he was a pretty sharp guy who was humble enough to say that he stood on the shoulders of giants.  I am willing to make Sean Carroll my current favorite living physicist.  Newton maintains my favorite smart dead guy post.  I think Carroll might pick Boltzmann.

Here’s the quote:

I have an enormous respect for Adam; he’s a smart guy and a careful thinker. When we disagree it’s with the kind of respectful dialogue that should be a model for disagreeing with non-crazy people. – – Sean Carroll – – Physics and the Immortality of the Soul

Howie and probably Russell know the context of the quote.  I would invite others to read the brief, instructive post.  Carroll is referring to his friend and colleague Adam Frank who believes that we should remain agnostic (not knowing) about the topic of an immortal soul.  Carroll believes it is an appropriate scientific question, asked and answered in the negative.  If I misrepresent his view please correct me.

Where do I stand?  I suppose that I stand for precise language.  Carroll is a professional physicist and a master communicator.  I will devour everything he has on audible.com this year and help send his kids to college.  He is, by his own description, not a theologian.  He describes his upbringing in a white bread suburban mainstream church.  The teaching captured neither his nor his parents’ imagination.  On arrival to a Catholic university, he was an atheist.  Fair enough.

So should I argue the premise that we have no existence beyond the natural?  What of neuroscience, the functional MRI pictured above, neuroanatomy, neurotransmitters, and the very true arguments that Howie makes in his comments to Dredbeauty?  What of this articulate, intelligent blogger with a compelling story that led her away from faith in a veil of tears?  Will neuroscience solve the issue of soul?

It could.  To honor precise language and the thinking of generations of metaphysicists – – the soul is comprised of the mind, will, and emotions.  Can my mind be mapped now, manipulated later by MRI and ferrous nanoparticles?  Probably.  Can my will be broken by suggestion, sleep deprivation, even torture?  Demonstrably so.  Can my emotions ride the wave of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, THC, or alcohol?  Yes.  Then what is supernatural at all?

In the Christian worldview, spirit ≠ soul.  The spirit of man lives forever.  And what of the connection and relation between spirit and soul.  I don’t know.  In middle age, I just don’t know.  If I live to be older I hope to understand more.  How do I hope to know?

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  Hebrews 4: 12 (ESV)

My worldview requires these cornerstones, the final being chief:

Supernatural, Scripture, Saints, Savior

If soul is conflated with spirit, it will be hard for Dr. Carroll and I to begin.  I believe that his logic can be, perhaps should be, applied to soul – – not to spirit.




  1. Hi Pascal,

    I’m honored that I’ve made it into a post here, and feel glad that I’ve been warmly welcomed into your community here.

    I think that using the right words is important sometimes so you are right to post this. I wonder though if Carroll is just using the word soul interchangeably because that is commonly done by many (perhaps even believers). I’m not sure. My understanding is that whatever word he did use he is trying to respond to the idea of Cartesian dualism which is the most common Christian view as I’ve always understood it. That idea is that there is an immaterial “thing” (for lack of a better word) which somehow represents who we actually are as a person. That thing, since it is actually “us” must then somehow interact with our physical being to cause it to do the things it does (because our bodies are the things actually doing the acts that they do). I believe that is the subject matter of Carroll’s article, so I think the wording may not be the major issue there. The interaction problem which he is referencing is usually said to be the toughest issue for those that believe in dualism (or an immaterial spirit which represents who we are), although there are certainly other issues some of which I mentioned in that comment on the last post.

    Also, if it really isn’t very clear what the relationship is between soul and spirit or what it really means for our spirit to live on but not be our soul then it may actually even be difficult to assess the veridicality of it’s existence at all.

    By the way, Victoria (author of the blog you linked to) is a blogging friend of mine (I’ve seen it said that we atheists seem to find each other on wordpress 😉 ). Her story is definitely an intense one and she has certainly done a lot of research on the brain especially related to spiritual experiences.

    Thanks again for making me feel welcomed here!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Okay Howie – – you have officially joined the club of people who expand my vocabulary and push me to learn. Thank you!

      Cartesian dualism

      I think that you’re right. Carroll equated the terms spirit and soul in his argument. Descarte did the same thing. So how do I reconcile the Christian view of trinity and modern neuroscience? I think a trinitarian conception of man is more correct than a dualistic conception.

      I offer that we are spirits who have souls and live in bodies. The soul of human – – mind, will, and emotions is likely very well captured by the physical interactions referred to by Carroll and elegantly taught by Victoria.

      I’m suggesting that there is more – – that spirit and soul are not synonymous and therefore should not be conflated. If that is true, then Carroll’s friend was right – – at most a scientist can be agnostic towards spirit.


      1. Cool, I can adjust to that, although given what I’ve read the common Christian stance is mind-body dualism which is what Carroll was responding to.

        So let’s work with your formulation then. It sounds like you would agree that the spirit is a part of us that both exists now and also lives on forever. Is that true or does it not exist now and only comes into existence after death?


        1. Sorry for the delay — back to work this week with a little catch up. I appreciate your willingness to work with my formulation.

          May I confess that it is tentative? I’ve read some more about Cartesian dualism. Cartesian is the Latin form of Descartes. So, in essence, this is Rene Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” conception of the mind being made of different stuff than the body. I couldn’t help but be curious. Was the Cartesian coordinate system also credited to Descartes? Yes! What’s up with smart dead French guys?

          Would I agree that you and I have spirits now and that these spirits will survive the death of our bodies? I would.


          1. No worries Pascal – whatever pace works for you is perfectly fine with me.

            Regarding the word Cartesian, I can relate. A few years ago when I decided to put more effort into studying epistemology I learned the same thing as you and also had the fun “aha” moment when I realized Cartesian coordinates was also related to Descartes. By the way, if you aren’t familiar with Cartesian demons (or Decartes’ evil demon idea) then I recommend looking into that. It’s an important concept in epistemology. I also would like to recommend a book that is neither about atheism or theism, but touches on some epistemology ideas: “Worldviews, An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science”. I think you’ll find it an easy read, very informative, and refreshingly devoid of a theistic or atheistic bent (I confess I’ve only read half of it, but so far I can see he avoids the question to the point that I can’t even tell whether he is a theist or not).

            Ok, back to the discussion – unless you have an extremely off-shoot version of Christianity I’m pretty sure you believe that “spirit” is immaterial. In that way I can’t see how Carroll’s analysis is any different. His critique is that for an immaterial spirit to exist it would have to interact with the physical in some way. This would be the case whether we split who we are into 2 pieces or 3 pieces. Adding some intermediary “middle piece” called the soul doesn’t seem to resolve the difficulty.

            As to whether or not we should be agnostic I take that to be a question of epistemology. I don’t take this to be a simple clear-cut thing to be honest. I personally believe that given the evidence we have from both experience and science that it is at least a fair statement that we can be doubtful of the existence of spirits to the same extent that many are doubtful of the claim of re-incarnation. Barring the fact that it is part of your belief from the bible do you believe there is good evidence for believing in spirits?


            1. Very well said. I’ve read some about epistemology, but I’d love to learn more. Consider your book recommendation added to the 2015 que. I do indeed believe spirit to be immaterial. If I understand Carroll correctly, there is no such thing as the immaterial. Since the mysteries of will, mind, emotion are unfolding in neuroscience then what need is there for spirit?

              I need to directly and humbly address your last question. The answer is no. I also don’t view this as clear-cut and I can’t yet wield the tools of epistemology well. One possible evidentiary thread is history. I’m really enjoying a series on civilization by WIll (later Ariel) Durant. Essentially all societies have believed in an immaterial spirit. Will that change with increasing scientific knowledge? Durant, in his 90’s, actually said that his opinion had changed over his life. He took the sum of human experience and belief more seriously.

              Is that squishy? Absolutely. Do I believe that an immaterial interacts with the material parts of me? That makes all the sense in the world. Would that interaction be traceable, detectable, quantifiable? Perhaps not. I clearly need to read and learn more, and I certainly can’t claim big “T” truth. It does help me to make sense of the world and has implications for the way I live and interact with others.


              1. Pascal,

                Sounds fair enough. I hope you can tell from the language I use that I don’t feel as strongly as Carroll does about this, but in the same vein I also feel I have some valid reasons to lean in a certain direction and even to say that I’m not really agnostic in the sense that it’s 50/50 to me. All ideas are a possibility to me (e.g. solipsism) but that doesn’t mean I claim agnosticism on everything. In my realization of my humanity I don’t feel like I can claim certainty on anything (except the cogito, and the fact that I’m fallible) but like you I feel I have to at least take a stab at what I think reality is like.

                As far as close to every society thinking we have immaterial souls I think there may be room for debate on that, but my current guess from some debates I’ve listened to is that you are probably right. Although there is the interesting fact that the Old Testament seems to indicate that afterlife belief wasn’t very prevalent before a certain time in ancient Israelite history. But afterlife could theoretically be distinguished from an immaterial spirit (i.e. perhaps they believed in an immaterial spirit that didn’t continue on after death). And I’m not sure about the history of other societies regarding this.

                Also, my understanding is that animism was pretty much the consistent belief across the board if we go back about 7000 years or more, but animism isn’t accepted as truth now because of that. Flat earth and geocentricism were also widely accepted not that long ago. So I’m not sure that a prevalent belief of humanity is necessarily reliable.

                But none of that is necessarily here nor there, just added things to think about.

                I hope I’m not dragging this on to the point of frustration, but I really am curious what implications having an immaterial spirit has for they way you live and interact with others. I can understand how believing in the bible has some implications, but not exactly clear why immaterial spirit versus non-material has implications. Can you help explain?

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Far from frustrated. A little amused as I suspect that you and Russell were separated at birth! Let me chew on your last paragraph. We’re up early for a short local holiday. Back to blogging next week. I am so glad you’re here.

                  Liked by 1 person


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