This Halloween, Remember That Souls Make Humans Exceptional

Children’s Halloween day parade in Manhattan, 2015 (Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
The holiday of mortality is a time to reflect on the immortal.

Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, originated as the first in a three-day celebration of the dead consisting of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. It is not a remembrance of beings that no longer exist, but an honoring of the faithfully departed and the relationship between the living and those in heaven. The essential element of this is the belief that souls are real, they live on, and the way we live has consequences for our souls. Even in today’s secularized Halloween, with the religious element stripped out, the focus is often on mortality, the supernatural, and what may happen after death.

But is the soul real? Or is it just an old construct used to explain what a scientifically illiterate society could not? What does the evidence indicate?

As it turns out, science, viewed as a means to knowledge and not as a limit of inquiry, provides strong reasons to believe that something besides physical matter is needed to explain what the human mind experiences. The same science that exclaims we are made of stardust also suggests that every time we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and think, it’s evidence of immaterial minds — our souls — in action.

Otherwise, for physics alone to explain what we experience, there would need to be a means to turn states of matter, such as the spin of an electron or a collection of atoms, into subjective experiences. This would require that discrete physical entities can constitute a whole; that this whole can perceive its own subjective meaning; that multiple subjective perceptions can be aggregated into a larger, whole experience; that a subjective perception can evaluate itself and then act on the physical properties that constitute it.

But subjectivity is not a property of matter. Summing neurons does not equal a mind. To suggest otherwise would be to say that the experience of being in love with someone else, and the self-aware action of putting your arm around that person, can be explained simply in terms of firing neurons.

Some materialists, also known as physicalists, give a naturalistic explanation for the mind. One way they try to overcome these known limitations is through the concept of emergent properties. The idea is that if parts come together in a complex system, new properties sometimes emerge that aren’t otherwise apparent in the individual components. So from a group of neurons may emerge a mind capable of subjective experiences.

But when it comes to the mind, this idea has its issues. First, all scientifically observed emergence is actually unanticipated behavior resulting from known physical properties, and not new properties that exceed what physics can explain. Some materialists suggest that consciousness might emerge from physical processes on the quantum level, but any emergence there would be disrupted by anything that has an effect on quantum physics — such as holding up a cell phone to your head or getting an MRI. Simply put, emergence depends on properties that already exist in the system’s constituent parts. It doesn’t matter how many Legos are assembled in incredibly complex arrangements, they will never generate a nuclear reaction. Just as radioactivity cannot emerge from the plastic used in the blocks, consciousness does not emerge from the physical parts of the brain.

An additional challenge to a naturalistic explanation for the mind is a theorem developed by the logician Kurt Gödel. His incompleteness theorem demonstrates that human intelligence exceeds anything that can be expressed in a formal, axiomatic system. While computational processes arising out of physical systems are dependent on rules, human mentative properties are not.

Of course, these arguments are mostly negative ones based on our current understanding of science. It may be that future discoveries will explain what we presently cannot.

But if heretofore unknown physics can someday explain how matter produces consciousness, that would imply the existence of a separate layer of physical existence — one beyond what we can presently observe. The conscious mind would simultaneously be part of two systems, the already-observable system of particle physics and a currently-undiscovered system of consciousness. These systems would have to consist of different properties yet never conflict. The seeming impossibility of this implies that our consciousness has the ability to operate independently of physical matter and does not arise directly from it. Consciousness is therefore an immaterial system, one that interacts with matter but is not fully dependent on it for its operation.

Another way materialists try to get around the problem of consciousness is by contending that conscious awareness and perceptions are mere illusions. This view requires us to deny our own experiences. It is also self-contradictory, for we must have the capability of consciousness in order to experience an illusion.

And there is positive evidence for the existence of the soul. Studies of near-death experiences indicate that large numbers of clinically dead people who were subsequently revived experienced perceptions beyond the capability of the inactive states of their brain. They see, hear, and learn things that they could only know if they possessed a conscious awareness independent of their bodies. This includes interactions with dead people in a supernatural realm. Remarkably, there have even been instances of people blind from birth, with no concept of sight, accurately describing what they saw during their clinical death.

This points to the existence of a supernatural being, one with the extraordinary intelligence and power needed to confer souls on humans and ensure the souls’ continued existence even after the body stops functioning.

Yet we see no direct evidence for such activity. Why would such a being act to ensure our existence but then apparently be absent for the rest of our lives — including during horrific and unjust suffering?

It’s logical to think that our near-universal sense of what constitutes basic goodness — don’t steal or murder, be faithful and charitable — is consistent with the source of our souls. So it would seem that human suffering would also be contrary to that being’s desires. Under what circumstances would it be better for a powerful, supernatural being to do nothing to prevent suffering?

There is at least one explanation consistent with mercy, love, and justice. Somehow, suffering must not be quite as bad as it seems. It must be made right for each individual in the end, and it must be the case that preventing the suffering would impede something more important. Under the Judeo-Christian worldview, the thing that would be impeded is our free choice to want to become holy, to be reconciled to God.

While none of this is absolute proof, it is consistent with what we know and experience. It also indicates that humans, as moral agents with souls, are exceptional.

Given the stakes involved, it would be foolish to ignore these arguments. We should factor this into what we value and how we live. If God allows suffering for the sake of a greater good for each of us, not attaining that good could be catastrophic.

After all, our souls just might be eternal.


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