Six reasons why you should believe in non-physical souls

This podcast is a must-listen. Please take the time to download this podcast and listen to it. I guarantee that you will love this podcast. I even recommended it to my Dad and I almost never do that.


In this podcast, J. Warner examines the evidence for the existence of the mind (and inferentially, the soul) as he looks at six classic philosophical arguments. Jim also briefly discusses Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos and discusses the limitations of physicalism.

The MP3 file is here. (67 MB, 72 minutes)


  • Atheist Thomas Nagel’s latest book “Mind and Cosmos” makes the case that materialism cannot account for the evidence of mental phenomena
  • Nagel writes in this recent New York Times article that materialism cannot account for the reality of consciousness, meaning, intention and purpose
  • Quote from the Nagel article:

Even though the theistic outlook, in some versions, is consistent with the available scientific evidence, I don’t believe it, and am drawn instead to a naturalistic, though non-materialist, alternative. Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy.

  • When looking at this question, it’s important to not have our conclusions pre-determined by presupposing materialism or atheism
  • If your mind/soul doesn’t exist and you are a purely physical being then that is a defeater for Christianity, so we need to respond
  • Traditionally, Christians have been committed to a view of human nature called “dualism” – human beings are souls who have bodies
  • The best way* to argue for the existence of the soul is using philosophical arguments

The case:

  • The law of identity says that if A = B’ if A and B have the exact same properties
  • If A = the mind and B = the brain, then is A identical to B?
  • Wallace will present 6 arguments to show that A is not identical to B because they have different properties

Not everyone of the arguments below might make sense to you, but you will probably find one or two that strike you as correct. Some of the points are more illustrative than persuasive, like #2. However, I do find #3, #5 and #6 persuasive.

1) First-person access to mental properties

  • Thought experiment: Imagine your dream car, and picture it clearly in your mind
  • If we invited an artist to come and sketch out your dream car, then we could see your dream car’s shape on paper
  • This concept of your dream car is not something that people can see by looking at your brain structure
  • Physical properties can be physically accessed, but the properties of your dream care and privately accessed

2) Our experience of consciousness implies that we are not our bodies

  • Common sense notion of personhood is that we own our bodies, but we are not our bodies

3) Persistent self-identity through time

  • Thought experiment: replacing a new car with an old car one piece at a time
  • When you change even the smallest part of a physical object, it changes the identity of that object
  • Similarly, your body is undergoing changes constantly over time
  • Every cell in your body is different from the body you had 10 years ago
  • Even your brain cells undergo changes (see this from New Scientist – WK)
  • If you are the same person you were 10 years ago, then you are not your physical body

4) Mental properties cannot be measured like physical objects

  • Physical objects can be measured (e.g. – use physical measurements to measure weight, size, etc.)
  • Mental properties cannot be measured

5) Intentionality or About-ness

  • Mental entities can refer to realities that are physical, something outside of themselves
  • A tree is not about anything, it just is a physical object
  • But you can have thoughts about the tree out there in the garden that needs water

6) Free will and personal responsibility

  • If humans are purely physical, then all our actions are determined by sensory inputs and genetic programming
  • Biological determinism is not compatible with free will, and free will is required for personal responsibility
  • Our experience of moral choices and moral responsibility requires free will, and free will requires minds/souls

He spends the last 10 minutes of the podcast responding to naturalistic objections to the mind/soul hypothesis.

*Now in the podcast, Wallace does say that scientific evidence is not the best kind of evidence to use when discussing this issue of body/soul and mind/brain. But I did blog before about two pieces of evidence that I think are relevant to this discussion: corroborated near-death experiences and mental effort.

You might remember that Dr. Craig brought up the issue of substance dualism, and the argument from intentionality (“aboutness”), in his debate with the naturalist philosopher Alex Rosenberg, so this argument about dualism is battle-ready. You can add it to your list of arguments for Christian theism along with all the other arguments like the Big Bang, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, stellar habitability, galactic habitability, irreducible complexity, molecular machines, the Cambrian explosion, the moral argument, the resurrection, biological convergence, and so on.

11 thoughts on “Six reasons why you should believe in non-physical souls”

  1. Wow – you read my mind, WK! (Get it?!? :-)) Seriously, I have been looking for something like this to add to Kreeft and Tacelli’s 25 arguments for life after death in their “Handbook of Christian Apologetics.” Thanks!


  2. “If your mind/soul doesn’t exist and you are a purely physical being then that is a defeater for Christianity” Depends. There are Christian philosophers of mind and Christians who are brain physiologists who are monists rather than dualists. They contend it is more proper to conclude that we ARE souls, rather than to claim that we “have” souls.
    See also


  3. Persistent self identity? Sometimes people undergo multiple personality disorders, or even amnesia or Alzheimer’s where they forget who they are. Neither would I say I am the same person I was when I was a baby or even an adolescent born again Christian. People change. The cosmos is in constant motion. Yes, there is continuity of some sort if you retain memories and so long as the organism remains alive. Neural pathways don’t usually change overnight. But I certainly don’t recall the womb or earlier, and my childhood memories also are sporadic at best. But some habits built up over a lifetime, including habits of thought no doubt remain even though brain cells have been replaced, because the neurons interact with one another via a trillion electro-chemical impulse constantly reinforcing and also changing to some degree over time. So even new neurons find their place in the overall continual feedback loop of the mind-brain system.


  4. Mental properties cannot be measured — but cognitive scientists have proven via many experiments that we each are subject to a wealth of measurable cognitive biases, limitations of thought and perception, and that the brain-mind system appears to be a kluge, systems built on systems in jury-rigged fashion as life and brains evolved.


  5. I am not afraid of losing the notion of “free will” since any decision made that is absolutely free from some sort of natural feedback loop (from blatant to subtle types of feedback such as the butterfly effect in the latter case) is a decision that makes no natural sense and is more like spinning of wheel of fortune than making an informed decision. What one wants to make are INFORMED decisions, one WANTS TO MAINTAIN CONNECTION to remain in the loop always learning more, feeding the human mind more information, enlarging and enriching the mind-brain system. Humans have come a long way in exactly that direction, via what we have learned via telescopes, microscopes, experiments in chemistry, neurochemistry and cognitive science. If that is short of “absolute” or “libertarian” “free will” so what? It’s still given us a lot wider and more knowledge-based options to chose from than jellyfish or even the latest model orangutan. Also, freedom and determinism are relative when one realizes one is part of the cosmos and though everything is determining one’s choices, it’s still your full brain-mind system making such choices as it interacts with not only an external environment but an internal one as well, the internal cosmos of the human brain-mind that is built up via a lifetime of experiences and endless feedback loops of internal thoughts, not just endless feedback loops of external sensory data. Consciousness is a verb, not a noun, it is an ongoing process. And when it comes to processes the whole organism is what’s running them, not individual atoms. Each individual atoms is at the mercy of the total dynamics of the molecule of which it is a part, which is at the mercy of the total dynamics of that molecule’s interactions with other molecules inside that cell, and so forth, the the cell being at the mercy of the total dynamics of the tissue and organ of which it is a part, which is at the mercy of the total organism which is moving or swimming around and seeing and hearing things and its environment (both physical and social) of which it is a part.


    1. With all due respect Edward, you are not addressing the thrust of the argument – how can one be morally responsible for something when one’s ‘conscious’ faculties are merely one part of a long line of falling dominos? A man goes out to rape a little girl and murder her; we would say it is wrong because he shouldn’t have done that – we feel that he had a conscious choice between acting and not acting. However, on materialism, he had no causal input to this event – he is just dancing to the rhythm of biological determinism. He is simply and purely the result of various external factors, which result in the firing of a certain cluster of neurons, which in turn results in the firing of another cluster, which in turn results in the firing of yet another cluster, and so on and so forth. All this neural activity ultimately results in the behavioral response of raping and murdering the little girl.

      On this model, one can see absolutely no reason to hold him accountable for his actions. The same goes for the man who decides to cheat in his examinations, fudge the results of a scientific study, spit bile at gay people, or even send a million people to gulags. All human behaviour, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, becomes an unmitigated farce on biological determinism – in which what is, just is. The only thing doing the leg-work (with regard to human behaviour) are the unconscious causal relations of the material realm – there are no informed decisions, since there is nothing to contemplate the information. It inevitably dissolves into epiphenomenalism, where only the brain and its underlying processes do anything.


  6. With a few hylemorphic tweaks here and there, I can get behind a lot of these arguments. As I’ve said elsewhere, I think there are implicit and potential problems with substance dualism, specifically of the Cartesian variety. But a lot of these points, such as intentional mental states, are generally applicable to both Thomists and substance dualists. They are absolutely spot-on.

    In fact, there is really only one argument which causes me concern – the argument for persistent self-identity through time. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to imply that anything without a res cogitans lacks a persistent identity? The tree you planted fifty years ago is literally not the same tree, the tortoise you were bought as a teenager is not the same tortoise – which, to say it is counter-intuitive, would be an understatement. Most disconcerting however, is the implicit trivialization of the material – and especially the human body, which becomes a sort of biological machine which we (our true selves – the immaterial soul) inhabit. I think identity is probably best understood from an essentialist or hylemorphic position, which avoids a lot of the problems and excesses associated with substance dualism (especially the interaction problem).

    Just some food for thought.


      1. I make you want to jump out of a moving vehicle? It wouldn’t be the first time my incessant waffling did that!

        I would generally recommend anything by Prof David Oderberg or our friend Edward Feser, but Oderberg’s article ‘Hylemorphic Dualism’ (in E.F. Paul, F.D. Miller, and J. Paul’s ‘Personal Identity’ (2005)) is a great place to start on the subject and provides a pretty thorough discussion of hylemorphic dualism.

        Here’s a link to a PDF of the article which Oderberg has very helpfully provided:

        I hope it helps!


        1. Thank you so much, Andy! Yes, you have recommended Feser to me before – sorry I forgot that. I will definitely look into these – God bless you for taking the time to provide them for me!

          As for the Jurassic Park scene, I was thinking of the part where Laura Dern gave the “over my head” gesture. But, if you have the kind of effect on people that makes them want to leave your presence, we have much in common. :-) Pretty funny using a Jurassic Park scene on this discussion – as that movie is steeped in say-so naturalism / materialism.


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s