Body and Soul Part 2: Why the Soul is Immaterial

Body and Soul Part 2: Why the Soul is Immaterial

by Dr. J. P. Moreland

Tom’s mother lies in a hospital bed in a darkened room. Suddenly, the blips on her heart monitor become erratic. Within seconds, a flat line appears. A nurse hurries into the room and turns the monitor off. After a long illness, Tom’s mom is dead. But is she?

What if Tom’s mother’s soul survives as a distinctly separate entity after her brain waves cease and her human body no longer lives? If such is the case, the stage is set for discussion of life beyond death, and the subject of the immaterial nature of the soul takes on deep significance. Immaterial in this context means “having no physical or material reality,” not that Mom’s soul is inconsequential. Precisely because such a human being matters so much, understanding the relationship between body and soul carries great importance.

Part I of this series showed how the properties that make up one’s stream of consciousness are not physical, but genuinely mental. This article, Part II, argues that a human being’s soul or self (e.g., a mother’s soul) is immaterial (or non-material). Before considering the arguments, the reader may wish to review briefly the nature of a physical substance.

Substances are particular individual things like acorns, carbon atoms, or moms. A substance, like a particular mom, cannot be in more than one place at the same time (no matter how much she might like for her children to believe otherwise).

Substances are basic fundamental things. They are not in other things or aspects of other things. Though an adult child may be convinced at times that Mom lives inside his head, she is in fact a substance, a separate entity made up of parts, properties, and capacities (dispositions, tendencies, and potentialities). Mom has a number of parts such as eyes, mouth, a broken fingernail, and a stubbed toe. Properties include her weight and age. New properties can change, yet the substance remains the same throughout that change. For instance, Mom’s hair may go from the property of gray to the property of blonde, but she’ll always be Mom.

In addition, Mom has some capacities or potentialities that are not always actual. For example, she has the capacity to invoke discipline even though she may choose to wait until Dad comes home.

Substance dualists assert that as a human, Mom consists of an immaterial substantial soul with a physical body that is not identical to the soul. Because substance dualists believe that the properties of ego and consciousness are without physical material, they are also property dualists.  However, an individual can be a mere property dualist without being a substance dualist by accepting the immateriality of consciousness but holding the belief that its owner is the body or, more likely, the brain. In contrast with mere property dualism, substance dualists believe that the brain is a physical thing with physical properties and the mind or soul is a mental substance that has mental properties.

When Mom is in pain, her brain has certain physical properties (e.g., electrical, chemical), and the soul or self has certain mental properties (e.g., the conscious awareness of pain). Her soul possesses its experiences. It stands behind, over, and above them and remains the same throughout her life. Mom’s soul and brain can interact with each other, but they are different particulars with different properties. Since her soul is not to be identified with any part of the brain or with any particular mental experience, then it may be able to survive the destruction of the body.  Substance dualists accept the existence of both mental properties and substances.

Three main forms of substance dualism are currently being debated. However, a simple argument can be made for that which all three positions hold in common; a human being’s self or ego as an immaterial substance that bears consciousness.1  

A Case for the Immaterial Nature of the Self

Recent literature offers at least four arguments for the disembodied identity of the soul.

1. Basic Awareness of the Self

When an individual such as a mom pays attention to her own consciousness, she becomes aware of her own self (i.e., her ego, “I,” her center of consciousness) as being distinct from her body and from any particular mental experience she has. Mom simply has a basic direct awareness of the fact that she is not identical to her body or her mental events; rather, she is the self that has a body and a conscious mental life.

The following example illustrates this point. Mom’s son looks at chocolate chip cookies sitting on a counter and walks toward them. In so doing, he experiences a series of what are called phenomenological objects or cookie representations. That is, several different cookie experiences replace one another in rapid succession. As he approaches the cookies, cookie sensations change. The aroma grows stronger.  What originally may have appeared to be ants take shape and become recognized as chocolate chips. Further, because of the lighting in the kitchen, the cookies change color slightly, they may be a little on the dark side. The cookies don’t actually change in smell, shape, or color; but the son’s cookie “experiences” do.

Of course, the son is aware of all the different experiences of the cookies during the fifteen seconds it took to walk across the room. But if paying attention, the son is also aware of two more things. First, he does not simply experience a series of sense-images of a cookie. Rather, through self-awareness, the fact is also experienced that it is “I” the self who has each cookie experience. Each cookie sensation produced at each angle of perspective has a perceiver who is I. An “I” accompanies each sense experience to produce a series of awarenesses—“I am experiencing a cookie sense image now”.

The son is also aware of the basic fact that the same self that currently has a fairly large cookie experience (especially as the hand comes to within reach of the cookie) is the very same self as the one who had all of the other cookie experiences preceding this current one. In other words, through self-awareness, one gains an awareness of the fact that “I” am an enduring “I” who was and is (and will be) present as the owner of all the experiences in the series.

These two facts—”I” am the owner of self-experience, and “I” am an enduring self who exists as the same possessor of all self-experience through time—show that a person is not identical to his experiences. Self (or “I) is the thing that has them. In short, “I” is a mental substance. Only a single enduring self can relate and unify experiences, a fact that property dualists and physicalists cannot adequately account for or explain away.

2. More than Third Person

A complete physicalist description of the world would be one in which everything would be exhaustively described from a third-person point of view in terms of objects, properties, processes, and their spatiotemporal locations. For example, a description of a cookie in a room would go something like this: “An object exists three feet from the south wall of the kitchen and two feet from its east wall, and that object has the properties of being light brown, circular, sweet, and so on.”

The first-person point of view is the vantage point used to describe the world from one’s own perspective. Expressions of a first-person point of view use what are called indexicals—words such as “I,” “here,” “now,” “there,” and “then.” Here and now are where and when “I”am. There and then are where and when “I” am not. Indexicals refer to me myself. “I” is the most basic indexical and refers to a self that is known by acquaintance with one’s own consciousness in acts of self-awareness. “I” am immediately aware of my own self and I know who “I” refers to when “I”use it; it refers to an individual as the self-conscious self-reflexive owner of his own body and mental states.

According to physicalism, no irreducible privileged first-person perspectives exist. Everything can be exhaustively described in an objective language from a third-person perspective. A physicalist description of a mom would say, “There exists a body at a certain location that is five feet tall, weighs 115 pounds,” and so forth. The property dualist would add a description of the properties possessed by that body, such as the body is feeling pain, thinking about lunch, or can remember being on vacation with her children in Grandview, Missouri, in 1965.

But no amount of third-person description can capture Mom’s own subjective first-person acquaintance of her own self in acts of self-awareness. In fact, for any third-person description, an open question always exists as to whether the person described in third-person terms is the same person as Mom. She knows her self not because she knows some third-person description of a set of mental and physical properties and because a certain person satisfies that description. She knows herself as an ego immediately through being acquainted with her own self. She expresses that self-awareness by using the term “I.”

“I”refers to Mom’s own substantial soul. It does not refer to any mental property or bundle of mental properties she is having, nor does it refer to any body described from a third-person perspective. “I”is a term that refers to something that exists, and does not refer to any object or set of properties described from a third-person point of view. Rather, “I”refers to Mom’s own self with which she is directly acquainted and who, through acts of self-awareness, she knows to be the substantial possessor of her mental states and her body.

3. The Modal Argument

Thought experiments have rightly been central to debates about personal identity.  For example, people are often invited to consider situations in which two persons switch bodies, brains, or personality traits or in which a person exists disembodied.  In these thought experiments, someone argues in the following way: Because a certain state of affairs S (e.g., Mom’s existing in a disembodied state) is conceivable, one can justifiably think that S is metaphysically possible.  Now if S is possible, then certain implications follow about what is/is not essential to personal identity (e.g., Mom is not essentially a body).

People use conceiving as a test for possibility/impossibility throughout their lives.  Mom knows that her son can become President (even if she thinks it is highly unlikely) because she can conceive it to be so. She knows square circles are impossible because they are inconceivable, given her knowledge of being square and being circular.  To be sure, judgments that a state of affairs is possible/impossible grounded in conceivability are not infallible.  They can be wrong.  Still, they provide strong evidence for genuine possibility/impossibility. In light of this, this author offers the following criterion:

For any entities x and y, if grounds exist for believing one can conceive of x existing without y or vice versa, then an individual has good grounds for believing x is not essentially identical to y or vice versa.

Application of these insights about conceivability and possibility to the modal argument for substance dualism comes in many forms. One version of the argument can be stated in the following way:2

  1. The law of identity:  If x is identical to y, then whatever is true of x is true of y and vice versa.
  2. Mom can conceive of herself as existing in a disembodied state.
  3. If she can strongly conceive of some state of affairs S that S possibly attains, then she has good grounds for believing of S that S is possible.
  4. Therefore, she has good grounds for believing of herself that it is possible for her to exist and be disembodied.
  5. If some entity x can possibly exist without y, then (i) x is not identical to y and   (ii) y is not essential to x.
  6. Mom’s body cannot possibly exist disembodied (i.e., her body is essentially a body).
  7. Therefore, she has good grounds for believing of herself that she is not identical to her body and that her physical body is not essential to her.

A parallel argument can be advanced in which the notions of a body and disembodiment are replaced with the notions of physical objects.  So understood, the argument implies the conclusion that Mom has good grounds for thinking that she is not identical to a physical particular nor is any physical particular essential to her. A parallel argument can also be developed to show that possessing the ultimate capacities of sensation, thought, belief, desire, and volition are essential to her, that is, she is a substantial soul or mind.

A full defense of the argument cannot be undertaken here, but the second point, which states “Mom can strongly conceive of herself as existing disembodied,” compels further discussion. A number of things that make a person (Mom, in this case) aware of her “self” and of her body give support to the conceivability expressed in the statement.  Mom is aware that she is unextended (“fully present” at each location in her body, as Augustine claimed), that she is not a complex aggregate of separable parts, nor is she the sort of thing that can be composed of physical parts. Rather she is a basic, unity of inseparable faculties (of mind, volitions, emotion, etc.) that sustains absolute sameness through change, and that she is not capable of gradation (she cannot become two-thirds of a person, not even if her legs are amputated or she loses some of her memory at age 90).3

In some near death experiences, people report themselves to have been disembodied.  They are not aware of having bodies in any sense.  Rather, they are aware of themselves as unified egos that exemplify sensations, thoughts, and so forth. 

Moreover, Christians who understand the biblical teaching that God is a bodiless spirit also understand by direct introspection that they are made in God’s image in the sense that they are spirit but also have human bodies. New Testament implies that people will and, therefore, can exist temporarily without their bodies.  In II Corinthians 12:1-4, Paul asserts that he may actually have been disembodied.  Surely Paul’s willingness to consider this a real possibility came at least in part from an awareness of his own nature through introspection, his recognition of his similarity to God in this respect, and his knowledge of biblical teaching. 

All these factors imply that people can conceive of themselves as existing in a disembodied state. This implication provides grounds for thinking of such a case as being a real possibility (even if it is false though, of course, this author does not think it is false).

4. Free Will, Morality, and Responsibility

To say that a human is a free will being is to say that humans exercise what is called libertarian freedom: Given choices A and B, a person can literally choose either one. No circumstances exist that are sufficient to determine a choice. A person’s choice is up to the individual, and if Mom does A or B, she could have done otherwise. She acts as an agent who is the first cause or ultimate originator of her own actions. Moreover, her reasons for acting do not partially or fully cause her actions, she does.  Rather, her reasons are the teleological goals—the purposes or the ends—for the sake of which she acts. If Mom takes a nap because she’s tired, the desire to satisfy her need for rest is the end for the sake of which she acts freely.

If physicalism is true, then human free will does not exist. Instead, determinism is true.4 If Mom is purely a physical system, nothing in her has the capacity to freely choose to do something. Material systems, at least large-scale ones, change over time in deterministic fashion according to the initial conditions of the system and the laws of chemistry and physics to which such systems are subject. A pot of water reaches a certain temperature at a given time in a way determined by the amount of water, the input of heat, and the laws of heat transfer.

Moral obligation and responsibility make little or no sense if determinism is true. Morality seems to presuppose freedom of the will. If Mom “ought” to do something, it seems necessary to suppose that she can do it, that she is in control of her actions. No one would say that she ought to jump to the top of a fifty-floor building to save a baby, or that she ought to stop the American Civil War. Clearly, she does not have the ability. If physicalism is true, Mom does not have any genuine ability to choose her actions.  Further, since free acts seem to be for the sake of goals or ends, if physicalism (or mere property dualism) is true, there is no ultimate purpose and, thus, there can be no libertarian free acts.

One may safely say that physicalism requires a radical revision of common-sense notions about freedom, moral obligation, responsibility, and punishment. On the other hand, if these common-sense notions are true, physicalism is false.

The same problem besets property dualism. Property dualists handle human actions in two ways. First, some property dualists are epiphenomenalists (e-pi-fi-′na-me-nal-ists). This belief proposes that a person is a living physical body having a mind, the mind consisting, however, of nothing but a more or less continuous series of conscious or unconscious states and events . . . which are the effects, but never the causes of bodily activity. Put another way, when matter reaches a certain organizational complexity and structure, as is the case with the human brain, then matter produces mental states as a fire produces smoke. The mind is to the body as smoke is to fire. Smoke is different from fire (to keep the analogy going, the physicalist would identify the smoke with the fire or the functioning of the fire), but fire causes smoke, not vice versa. The mind is a by-product of the brain, which causes nothing; the mind merely “rides” on top of the events in the brain. Hence, epiphenomenalism rejects free will, for it denies that mental states cause anything.

A second way that property dualists handle human action is through a notion called event-event causation.  To understand event-event causation, consider a baseball that breaks a window. The cause in this case is not the baseball itself (which is a substance), but an event: the baseball’s being in a certain state—a state of motion. The effect is another event: the window being in a certain state—the breaking state. Thus, one state or event—the throwing of a baseball—causes another state or event to occur—the breaking of the window.  Further, according to event-event causation, whenever one event causes another, some deterministic or probabilistic law of nature relates the two events.  The first event combined with the law of nature is sufficient to determine or fix the chances for the occurrence of the second event.

In contrast to the property dualist employment of either epiphenomenalism or event-event causation (which deny genuine free will) stands agent causation, which is an important part of an adequate libertarian account of freedom of the will. One example of agent causation is a typical case of a human action: Mom’s raising her arm and throwing the baseball. When she raises her arm, she, as a substance, simply acts by spontaneously exercising her causal powers. She raises her arm; she freely and spontaneously exercises the powers within her substantial soul and simply acts. No set of conditions exists within her that is sufficient to determine that she raises her arm.  Moreover, this substantial agent is characterized by the power of active freedom, conscious awareness, the ability to think, form goals and plans, to act teleologically, and so forth.  Such an agent is an immaterial substance and not a physical object. Thus, libertarian freedom is best explained by substance dualism and not by physicalism or mere property dualism.

In summary then, substance dualism offers the libertarian freedom denied by property dualism because it adopts either epiphenomenalism or event-event causation. Thus, given the truth of a libertarian account of free will, moral ability, and moral responsibility; property dualism, no less than physicalism, is false. One’s commonsense notions about moral ability and responsibility are almost self-evident. People all operate toward one another on the assumption that these are true concepts (and these common-sense notions seem to assume libertarian free will). However, if physicalism or property dualism is true, people have to abandon and revise their common-sense notions of moral ability, and responsibility because free will is ruled out. One wonders if such a revision is worth the price. These common-sense notions seem more reasonable than physicalism or property dualism. If anything should be abandoned, it is the latter, not the former.

The first two articles of this series present good reasons for accepting the fact that consciousness is not physical but, rather, consists of genuinely mental properties and events.  Solid grounds make a case for believing that a human being’s (e.g., a mom’s) ego or self is an immaterial spiritual owner of consciousness. As such, the possibility exists that though the physical body of Tom’s mother may die, his mom’s self may live on. But for an adequate treatment of the body and soul discussion, one needs to examine various versions of physicalism.  This task remains for part III of this series.


  1. For a more complete treatment of the three views on substance dualism see Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul (Oxford:  Clarendon, rev. ed., 1997); J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae, Body and Soul (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2000); William Hasker, The Emergent Self (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).
  2. Cf. Keith Yandell, “A Defense of Dualism,” Faith and Philosophy 12 (October 1995): 548-566; Charles Taliaferro, “Animals, Brains, and Spirits,” Faith and Philosophy 12 (October 1995): 567-581.
  3. In normal life, Mom may be focused on speaking kindly and unaware that she’s scowling. In extreme cases (multiple personalities and split brains), she may be fragmented in her functioning or incapable of consciously and simultaneously attending to all of her mental states, but the various personalities and mental states are still all hers.
  4. For four reasons, quantum indeterminacy is irrelevant here: (1) The best interpretation of quantum indeterminacy may be epistemological (knowing) and not ontological (being). (2) Even if micro-indeterminacy is real, macro-objects such as the brain may still be deterministic in their behavior.  (3) Granting micro- and macro-indeterminacy for the sake of argument, quantum indeterminacy is still irrelevant to issues about libertarian freedom for two reasons: a) The occurrence of an uncaused, indeterminate event inside of a person still does not yield a free act because the latter requires that the agent has control over the act which, arguably, would not be present if a random, uncaused event just happened to occur in the agent. b) As will be noted below, indeterministic physical causation depicts causes and effects as events that stand in the proper law of nature such that, given the cause and the (statistical) law, the chances for the effect are fixed.  But in a libertarian free act, the chances of the act occurring are not fixed by any prior conditions. (4) Even if diachronic indeterminism is granted, there is still the problem of synchronic micro to macro emergent determinism of macro-objects and their behavior on their ultimate physical parts. For these reasons, this researcher will continue to talk about determinism.  Those who think such talk is inappropriate given quantum indeterminacy should realize that, in light of these four points, such talk is not at all inappropriate.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3