Prof. Matt McCormick

                                                                                                Department of Philosophy

                                                                                                California State University

                                                                                                Sacramento, CA  95819



Copyright 2006.  Not to be copied, distributed, or otherwised used without permission.


Against the Immortality of the Soul


Matt McCormick



According to a recent Harris Poll, 84% of Americans believe that they possess a soul that will survive after the death of their bodies.[1]  Every week, millions of people attend religious services where they have discussions about and try to improve the lot of their immortal souls.  Politicians and celebrities make frequent comments about their souls and the afterlife.  People across the social, economic, and educational spectrum regularly modify their behavior and make decisions based on the view that there is an afterlife and that they must act to protect the fate of their souls.  In short, the belief in an immortal soul is enormously popular. 


 In this paper, I will argue that humans do not have an immortal soul.  All of the characteristics that we typically associate or identify with souls are causally dependent upon the existence of a brain and nervous system.  At death, the brain ceases to function, so the soul ceases to exist at the same time the body does.  So, humans do not possess immortal souls.   In sections I-IV, I will discuss the major steps in this argument in more detail.  Then in sections V-VIII, I will consider objections to the argument, and address several closely related questions concerning the implications of the argument for surviving death, resurrection, and so on. 


I.  The soul contains a person’s essential features.


There are different accounts of what a soul is.  In this argument, I will address the view that the soul is a non-physical, conscious, personal entity that carries or possesses the characteristics that are essential to person’s identity.  On this view, thinking, being conscious, being self-aware, and having a personality are essential features of a person’s soul.  There are substantial reasons for focusing on this account of the soul.  First, this characterization is by far the most common in western religious and cultural traditions.    Second, other characterizations do not have as much personal or metaphysical significance.  A personal soul is integral to any account of personal immortality.  And third, this account of the soul is clearly refuted by the evidence.  Let us consider the first two reasons and then address the third in the next section.      


When we characterize the soul, we typically think of it in personal terms.  First, we depict souls as aware, they are conscious, they are entities similar to the embodied persons we are familiar with.  Frequently, we describe the afterlife as someplace where a person, in the form of their soul, is rewarded or punished, where their soul will serve or worship God.  Only a conscious, self-aware, thinking entity can do these things.  Furthermore, it is not merely that some consciousness or thinking entity survives the death of my body, but that my consciousness will survive.  My soul is my consciousness, so there will be continuity from my perspective between my awareness in my body and my awareness after the death of my body.[2]  In our art, our movies, our mythology, and our religious traditions, the transition from this life to the afterlife is often portrayed like the transition we make when we fall asleep and then wake up again.  When I wake up, I am the same person, with the same thoughts, memories, personal traits, and the same body as the person who went to sleep.  When the soul leaves the body, however, the difference is that when it wakes up, it has left the physical body behind and only the soul has survived with ones thoughts, memories, and personal traits.  It is widely held that something that makes me up will survive, that I will have eternal life, that I will be reincarnated, or my soul will go to heaven.   The things that are essential to me as an individual consciousness are my beliefs, my hopes, my dispositions, my emotional reactions, and my memories.  So in these popular depictions of the soul, we seem to be identifying it with what we usually call a person’s mind. 


Your mind is the thing you are aware of from your first person perspective when you introspect.  It thinks, believes, has emotions, makes plans, has aspirations, and so on.  Other people are only aware of your mind through their awareness of your body’s behavior.   Your brain, at least from your perspective, is not the same as your mind.  It is the two pound organ inside your skull; it is part of your body.  From your perspective, you are not aware of your mental processes as brain processes.  The argument that is developed in this paper is that mental processes are dependent for their existence on the presence and continuance of physical processes in the brain.  And since we identify our souls with our minds and their processes, the soul no longer exists when the body fails.


I am not contesting the claim that some non-personal and non-conscious aspects of a person survive the death of the body.  The physical substances that make up a person’s body survive;  the carbon atoms in a person’s body, for example, become part of other physical entities like the tree that grows in the graveyard.  The house I built, the books I wrote, the children I parented, the impacts I had in the world, may all last longer than I do.  And to the extent that we leave a lasting trace in the world, it could be argued that we are immortal.  But, these things are not me.  They are impersonal effects that I had on the world.  The persistence of my carbon is not the survival past death of me.  The chemicals that make up my body, if they are not configured in the way that allows my brain and body to function, will not produce my thoughts again.  They will not have dreams, they will not remember, they will not have beliefs.  Once they lose the configuration that makes them into my body, my molecules do not have a perspective or any awareness.  To use Nagel’s famous dictum, there is nothing it is like to be a molecule.  The common view of the soul that is being challenged here is the view that my non-physical consciousness will continue after the end of my physical body.   


II.  All of the essential features of a person are dependent upon the brain.


All of our evidence indicates that a being cannot think, have a mind, or have a personality without a brain and a nervous system of a certain minimal level of complexity.  Brainless minds, as far as our ample evidence indicates, do not occur.  One of the most compelling reasons for believing that there cannot be a brainless mind is the close causal connection we observe between the states of our bodies and the states of our minds.  Centuries of medical data about brain damage has made it clear that when people get brain damage, they get mind damage.  Head trauma, lesions, tumors, excisions, and other physical alterations of the brain impair the mental functions that we attribute to the soul like decision making, problem solving, memories, the ability to abstract, and emotional responses.  The frontal lobe of the brain is most responsible for the functions identified with the soul.  It controls language, our responses to our environment, judgments, emotions; it assigns word meanings, and so on.  Damage to the frontal lobe can result in loss of spontaneity, loss of flexibility in thoughts or the persistence of a single thought.  It can result in mood changes, changes in personality, and reduced capacity for problem solving.   The temporal lobes on the sides of the brain are responsible for hearing, acquiring memories, and the categorization of objects.   Damage to the temporal lobes can result in aggression, persistent talking, increased or decreased sexual interest, short and long term memory problems, difficulty recognizing faces, and difficulty understanding words and identifying objects. 


The physical dependence of mental states is also evident when alterations of the chemistry of the brain with drugs, food, sleep deprivation, fasting, or coffee change the way we think.  We have all experienced the direct effect that physical circumstances have on the way we think, the prevalence of positive or negative thoughts in our minds, our being irritable or happy, or our being cognitively impaired from too much alcohol to drink.  Too little to eat or drink and our thoughts grow slow and negative, too much caffeine and our thoughts race.  Even the weather can have a pronounced affect on the character and direction of out thoughts.  Hallucinogenic drugs induce visions in the mind of a different reality.  People on PCP often envision spiders and have a powerful belief that they can fly.  Millions of people take anti-depression drugs every day—chemical compounds that alter the chemical events in the brain—that produce a change in their beliefs, feelings, dispositions, and other mental phenomena.  The causal dependence in these cases is clear; the mind depends upon specific chemical and electrical reactions in the nervous systems.  Modify those reactions even slightly and there is a corresponding change in the mind.  The examples of a direct, causal link between physical events in the body and our thoughts are so numerous and so common in our daily lives that it is quite remarkable that the view that a brainless mind can exist has any credence at all.


Nor is the evidence for the causal dependence of the soul on the body limited to humans.  Creatures exhibit advanced cognitive abilities like abstraction, problem solving, thinking, and self-awareness in direct correlation with the complexity of their nervous systems.  Chimps exhibit cognitive abilities commensurate to their brain size, composition, and sophistication.  So do garden slugs.  Chimps are able to fashion and use primitive tools; slugs cannot.  The continuum ranges from those creatures with nervous systems that are so simple that they scarcely qualify as having a brain across the spectrum to humans whose brains are the most complex objects in the universe.   And across that continuum, the cognitive abilities possessed by those creatures are correlated closely to what sort of brain they have.   The simplest nervous systems are able to do the least—they cannot think, they do not have complicated emotional responses, they are not self-aware, they only have the most rudimentary functions.  The most complex brains possess the full list of features we associate with the soul making it clear that in order to possess those features, one must have a brain.  And without a brain, or if a being’s nervous system is too primitive, one does not have a soul.  We have never discovered a single plausible exception to this continuous scale of brain/mind complexity. 


III.  What about “Out-of-body” experiences and psychic spiritual contact as evidence for brainless minds or bodiless persons?


The critic might argue that paranormal reports of out-of-body experiences are exceptions to the physical dependency argument because they show that soul can exist without a body.  They might also argue that life-after-death experiences, communication with the dead, ghosts, and other paranormal claims give us evidence for the independence of the soul.  In these cases, it is alleged that the body is either impaired, separated from the soul, or it has ceased to function altogether, but the soul goes on.  The bodiless soul has managed to communicate with us, or escape the dying body, or otherwise made its presence known.  Do these cases support the argument for an immortal soul? 


They do not.  In every case where skeptics like Houdini, James Randi, Penn and Teller, Michael Shermer, Martin Gardener, and others have taken these alleged paranormal cases seriously, investigation has revealed that fraud, deception, enthusiasm, poor scientific testing, financial gain, or just simple mistakes are the norm.  Out-of-body claims have not withstood closer examination.  So-called psychics have been discovered to be performing mundane sleight-of-hand tricks.  Impartial investigators have not been able to find tenable evidence to support ghost sightings.  Attempts to corroborate, document, repeat, test, or even record the various kinds of paranormal phenomena that might support the brainless mind thesis have come up empty handed again and again. 


There are over 6 billion people on the earth right now.  And in the history of humanity, there have been many times more.  If humans possess ontologically independent souls, and if there are paranormal events that give evidence for bodiless minds, why have we not been able to observe or document a single credible case?  The answer, I maintain, is that there are no credible cases. 


Since so many cases of alleged contacts with bodiless souls contact have been debunked, the reasonable person is in a similar position to the one that Hume argued we are in concerning miracles.  Evidence showing the dependence of the mind on the brain is ubiquitous.  If someone makes a paranormal claim that contradicts that evidence, then we must ask ourselves:  Is it more likely that the person claiming to have had an out-of-body experience or contact with a non-physical soul is lying, deceived, mistaken, or that they are correct?  Those who claim to be contacting the dead through seances or psychic means are often using magicians’ cold reading techniques to draw information from living relatives who want to make contact.  In many cases, the psychic has even surreptitiously researched information to give back to the bereaved.  On the popular television show, Crossing Over, John Edward typically interviews audience members before the cameras role to find out who they want to contact and what they want to know.  Then hours of vague questions, shotgun predictions, and stabs in the dark are filmed and edited down to give the appearance that Edward was immediately able to give detailed and unprompted information about the sought after dead person.  The television audience does not get to see the evidence that makes it clear that Edward is little more than a carnival showman.  Fraudulent psychics will notice subtle body language cues, clothing, facial expressions, and other details about a person for guidance in directing their allegedly psychic inquiry.  Given how often they are lying, mistaken, or misguided, anyone claiming to have contacted the world of non-physical souls must meet a substantial burden of proof to show that they are not employing trickery or making a mistake.  To date, that burden of proof has not been adequately met.  And given the billions and billions of people that have existed on this planet, one would think that conclusive evidence would not be hard to obtain.   


But suppose that the burden of proof is met and the paranormalist has either demonstrated reliable and accurate access to information that only the dead possess, or they have produced other evidence that defies our attempts to debunk.  What would that show?  Would it suggest that souls survive the death of the body?   It is not clear that it would.  We know how often magicians, psychics, and paranomalists have fooled us with entirely natural means.  And we have learned the lesson from centuries of alleged supernatural events ultimately being explained in natural terms.  So the careful and reasonable person would remain agnostic about the brainless mind thesis until substantial evidence has been amassed.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  Unsubstantiated, anecdotal, non-repeated, undocumented allegations from adherents and enthusiasts will not suffice for a claim as important and philosophically profound as the immortality of the soul.    


In the cases of people who claim that they have had life-after-death experiences, the burden of proof is different.  In the typical case, it is alleged that while a person’s body was dying or dead on the operating room table, they have an experience of separating from their bodies.  They hover above, listening and watching the events in the room, and then float down a tunnel towards a light to be welcomed by loved ones or by God.  For these cases to be taken as evidence for the autonomy of the mind from the body, then at least two things must be established.  First, they must demonstrate that they are not mistaken, enthusiastic, or otherwise deceived.  Second, it must be shown that the nervous could not have been responsible for the sensations.  Proof is difficult to establish in these cases because the death of the body is not a concise event.  Often the heart and circulatory system cease to function first, then the brain is starved of oxygen and eventually ceases to function thereafter.  And even then, the whole brain does not stop functioning at once.  Random neural firings and electrical-chemical activity persists long after doctors have declared the official time of death.  Some of this electrical-chemical activity can persist for days—many morgue employees have been startled by the random ticks of the limbs of cadavers.  If some out-of-body experience is alleged to have occurred while a patent’s heart has stopped, for instance, what needs to be established is that it did not occur during a period of brain and nervous system activity that could have accounted for those experiences.   While many people have been revived after substantial blood loss, or after their hearts have stopped, humans are not revived after complete brain death.  If the brain has deteriorated to the point that all electrical and chemical activity has ceased, then it is past the point of resuscitation, thus raising the suspicion that every reported case of out-of-body experience is actually the product of latent brain activity, not a genuine instance of a physically independent soul.  Clinical death rarely occurs at the same instant as complete brain death, and resuscitation is not uncommon. 


Furthermore, the physical mechanisms behind many of the aspects of out-of-body reports are well understood.  Oxygen deprivation produces tunnel vision, as anyone who stands up too fast can attest.  Blood loss can produce the sensation of detachment, floating, well-being, dizziness, and calm.  Drugs with psychoactive effects like tranquilizers, pain killers, stimulants, and sedatives, which are often used on trauma patients during emergency treatment, alter the brain and produce wild imaginings.  People who report out-of-body experiences are often suffering from the well-documented effects of hypoxia or oxygen deprivation to the brain which induces tunnel vision, a sensation of warmth and floating, and memory dumps in the brain.  We should not resort to a supernatural explanation of an alleged out-of-body story until these obvious natural explanations have been conclusively ruled out.   If someone reports an out-of-body experience, and it appears that they really did have the sensations, then why not conclude that they spring from the brain itself just as dreams and hallucinations do? 



IV.  The Implications of the Physical Dependency Thesis:  When the Brain Dies, the Soul Dies.


At death, all of the biological functions of the body will cease, including those in the nervous system even though it may not stop at the moment clinical death is declared.  So the brain stops working.  Our thoughts, our consciousness, our beliefs, our self-awareness—the traits identified with the soul above—all depend upon the functioning of the brain to persist.  So when the brain stops, they stop too.  Therefore, the soul does not survive the death of the body.  The physical dependency of the soul implies its mortality, not its immortality.   


V.  Could something survive that is not brain dependent?


Suppose that someone argues that the immortal aspects of the soul are not personal beliefs, thoughts, emotions,  and the self-awareness produced by the brain.  There is something else—an energy or life force, or an impersonal spirit—that survives the body.  All beings, or all humans possess this life energy, the critic might argue, and even though our bodies decay, the life in them is transferred and lives on.


First, it should be pointed out that this objection appears to concede my central thesis.  The argument thus far has been to show that if the soul is characterized in the personal, conscious fashion that is common, it is not immortal.


Second, what evidence do we have that such a life force or energy exists?  The electrical and chemical events that occur in the human body and nervous system cease when a human dies.  We understand and are able to measure energy in the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays.  No other kind of energy or force has ever been observed, measured, or documented.  No other kind of energy known to science is present in the human body.  The body gives off some heat energy, and its chemical and electrical processes radiate energy.  When the body dies, those energies dissipate and cease.  Where is the evidence that there is some other kind of energy that survives the death of the body?  The burden of proof, once again, is on those who would defend the reasonableness of the immortality claim. 


Third, suppose the objection is correct and that there is some mysterious non-personal energy that survives.  For most people, their interest in the afterlife is based upon their interests in what happens to them after they die.  The reason heaven is a reward and hell is a punishment is because I will be there to experience it.  If some immortal aspect of me, but not my consciousness, or my thoughts, continues after I die, its survival will mean nothing to me because there is no me to care one way or another.  So the life force objection doesn’t salvage any of the personal aspects of the soul that originally gave us an interest in its fate.  Depersonalizing the account of the soul as the life force objection does dramatically reduces its philosophical and metaphysical significance.  If my soul is not personal, then whatever it means nothing to me when I am gone.  If it is not me that goes on, what interest do I have in it?      


VI.  Isn’t it at least possible that we have an immortal, non-physical soul?


Someone might point out that my arguments so far have shown only that it is unreasonable to believe that the soul is immortal, not that it is not possible for it to persist.  After all, this argument has not proven that non-physical, immortal souls are impossible, only that the evidence supports the view that they do not exist.     


As far as it goes, this objection is correct.  This argument does not address the logical possibility that they could exist.  The argument in this paper is not that a brainless mind is logically impossible, only that given the abundance of evidence before us, there is no reason to think that our conscious selves will survive the death of the body.  All of our evidence clearly supports the conclusion for physical dependency which shows that it is not reasonable to believe such a claim.  We have mountains of evidence in support of the view that all of the features identified with the soul require the normal functioning of the human nervous system to continue.  And we have no credible evidence whatsoever to think that there can be a brainless mind.  The mere lack of logical contradiction in a proposal does not establish is reasonability, nor does it entitle one to indulge in believing it. It would be a mistake to conclude that since souls are possible, it is somehow acceptable to adopt the view that they are real.   


Notice that in the objection, the position has been reduced from “Immortal souls exist,” to “It is possible that immortal souls exist, but we do not have adequate evidence for thinking that they do.”  Similarly, someone might be (unreasonably) sympathetic with the Medieval view that fever is caused by demon possession.  So they might insist that it is at least logically possible that demon’s enter the body and overheat it.  But the fact that a proposition is not explicitly logically contradictory is not grounds for its being reasonable to believe.  Suppose a modern doctor correctly diagnoses your fever and claims that a bacterial infection is causing it and that you need an antibiotic to cure it.  There are an infinite number of other logically possible explanations for your fever, including demon possession, aliens are radiating you with an undetectable fever gun, invisible, fever inflicting elves, and so on.  All of these theses are logically possible but preposterous.  The reasonable person listens to the doctor and draws a conclusion on the basis of the preponderance of evidence.  The mere possibility that we could have immortal souls, considered by itself, is no evidence for thinking that we do.    


Another objection to my argument maintains that the evidence for physical dependency given above is consistent with a dualistic position that minds and bodies are ontologically separate entities.  What if the mind is distinct from the body, and it controls the body and depends upon it to publicly express itself?  If the body is the physical expression of the mind’s thoughts and the mind controls the body, damage to the body would produce a reduction in the mind’s ability to express itself physically, but the mind could be a separate, intact entity.  If we imagine the body as a sort of puppet that is controlled by the separate and remote mind, then brain damage would produce what appears to be mind damage, but actually it is only the mind’s physical means of speaking, writing, walking, and physically acting that has been affected, not the mind’s abilities themselves.  Or if we think of the eyes as a window through which the mind sees, darkening the window makes it impossible to see, but the mind remains intact.  Brain damage that inhibits the body’s ability to speak prevents the mind from speaking, but does not stop the mind from thinking.  In yet another metaphor, the mind is a separate mainframe processor and the body is nothing but a dumb, remote workstation that gets its instructions from afar.  According to this dualist scenario, the evidence cited above to support the physical dependency thesis is equivocal because it is at least consistent with the possibility that the mind controls the body but the mind is ontologically distinct from it, and the mind depends upon the proper function of the body to publicly express itself. Maybe the mind was fine all along, but its ability to publicly manifest itself was compromised which made it look as if the mind was damaged.   


So does the evidence from brain and body damage cases support the dualist and physical dependency theses equally well?  It does not.  In some brain damage cases, for example, stroke victims suffer from apraxia where they have difficultly producing articulate speech and difficulty coordinating mouth and speech movements.  And stroke patients suffering from dysarthia can think and form language, but they cannot control the muscles required to pronounce the sounds.  Later, when these patients reacquire the ability to speak through rehabilitation, they report that they could think perfectly well, but they could not get their mouths to say what they were thinking.  Similarly, when a person loses their sight or hearing because of damage to their eyes or ears, their minds remain intact.  But since different parts of the brain control the formation of concepts and the ability to control the muscles and respiration required to express them with one’s mouth, and since the eyes and ears are separate from the brain processes that are responsible for thoughts, these cases do not support the claim that the mind does not need the brain to function.  In these cases, the parts of the brain associated with mental functions are otherwise undamaged and presumed necessary for the mind, and it is the portions of the brain that were not vital to the abstract mental functions that were damaged.  Indeed, it is these sorts of cases of localized damage that allowed neuroscientists to find the regions of the brain that control the motor skills connected to the mouth and isolate them from the regions that are responsible for conceptualization, and other functions. 


The sort of evidence that is needed to support the dualist thesis are cases where the brain regions that are directly correlated with a specific higher mental function are damaged to the point that they cannot function, but it can be established unequivocally that those mental functions continued during and despite that damage.  The challenge for the dualist is that if the brain systems correlated with abstract, conceptual, or other mental activities are damaged, there are no public indicators that the mind remains unaffected. 


One place the dualist might look is to stroke victims who have various forms of aphasia.  In severe cases they lose the ability to produce words, recognize words, read or write altogether.  In more mild cases, they can sometimes understand words and read, but they have trouble finding words themselves.   Perhaps the brains of stroke victims who have had damage to the regions associated with forming abstract thoughts (not merely their ability to speak or express themselves) could recover through rehabilitation.  Then, if the dualist thesis is correct, we would expect those victims to report that all the time during their brain injury they were thinking and abstracting normally, but they found themselves mysteriously unable to express those thoughts.  Furthermore, this difficulty is different from the difficulty that apraxia and dysarthia patients suffer.     


But research into these cases has not produced the evidence that would be needed to support the dualist’s thesis.  Quite the contrary, it has been our ability to identify highly localized regions of damage and the testimony of recovered patients that has allowed us to isolate the different regions of the brain and identify different kinds of disorder.  When a patient recovers,[3] we can get details about exactly what sort of cognitive difficulties they were having and we can correlate those with the sort of physical damage to their brains.  They report that they could form abstract thoughts but they couldn’t get their mouths to express them, or they report that their ability to form abstractions seemed hampered, but other cognitive or physical abilities were intact, and so on.  What they do not report in cases where there is damage to vital cognitive centers is that all of their mental powers were unharmed.  The very fact that we are able to successfully separate different disorders such as global aphasia, Broca’s aphasia, Wernicke’s aphasia, anomic aphasia, apraxia, and dysarthria, and identify the physical damage that is responsible for them and their different symptoms disproves the dualist’s hypothesis.  And what we also find is that these specific regions associated with higher mental functions are the same across all humans, and that damage to them has predictable results.  The mind does not operate independently from the brain—the body is not merely a puppet that is directly by a separate entity, the control of the body and mental functions emanate from the brain itself.


VII.  Is there any way the soul could survive beyond the brain? 


The physical dependence of the soul suggests a couple of possibilities for long term, or even permanent survival.  I have argued that there is no non-physical immortality.  But perhaps immortality or near-immortality could be achieved physically.  First, if we can perfect medical treatments, as well as improve dietary and health resources to the point that we can extend human life indefinitely, then the existence of a person’s soul could be prolonged.   If we can repair or maintain a person’s body and brain indefinitely, then perhaps their consciousness could be immortal.  Secondly, if the electrical and chemical events in the brain could be duplicated in a machine, or in another biological device, then perhaps this duplicate could take up the task of sustaining one’s personality and consciousness.  But such technology is far off, and philosophers have legitimately worried about whether or not a copy or transferral of my consciousness could actually sustain the actual consciousness and perspective that I have, or merely be another version of me the way two copies of a music recording are the same, but not numerically identical. 


In some religious traditions, the claim is made that there will be a physical resurrection where a person’s body will be reconstituted into a form it had before it died, and that person will live again forever.  So even though the body and brain of a person long dead have decayed and their molecules have been incorporated into other things, through a miraculous event, God will either reclaim those very same molecules, or ones like them, and then remake the body and breathe life back into it. 


There are several substantial questions and problems with this scenario.  First, we have little or no substantial evidence to think that such an event will happen.  By some readings, the Bible and other religious documents foretell a physical resurrection.  But without substantial independent and impartial grounds that would make believing such a fantastic prediction plausible, we cannot take it seriously.  The claim by the Bible or any other source that an unprecedented supernatural event will occur is not enough to meet the burdens of proof discussed above.  And, as we have seen, the burden of proof increases proportionally to the extraordinariness of the claim.  Meeting that burden for claims made thousands of years ago from a fragmented and equivocal set of manuscripts would appear to be impossible.[4]


Second, notice that the physical resurrection scenario seems to concede of the point of the soul’s physical dependency, which is the major thesis of this argument.  The soul cannot exist without the operation of the body and brain. 


Third, there are a staggering number of atoms in the body.  After death, those atoms get widely disseminated.  It is not improbable, for example, that some of the atoms that were in Shakespeare’s body are in yours.  And he got many of his from other people.  So we have this question:  If humans are all resurrected from the grave, who gets the atoms?  The first owner?  The last owner?  What about everyone else in between?  Furthermore, the atoms in your body are being regularly discarded and replaced with new ones throughout your life.  Which ones get reconstituted in your resurrection? 


Suppose in the resurrection it is not necessary to use exactly the same atoms.  Instead, all that is needed is to replace carbon with carbon, oxygen with oxygen, and so on.  Here’s another difficult question:  which body of all the bodies that you have had from birth to old age, and which configuration of atoms gets resurrected?  Do you come back as the aging, rapidly failing senior citizen you were the moment before your death?  Would eternity in that state be the ultimate reward (or punishment?)  Are you resurrected as a newborn?  Once you are resurrected, do you start to age again?  Do you age and die, or does your body stay static?  If it stays static, do your thoughts change, does your personality mature and grow as it did in your first life?  Or are you made into a complete, perfect, unchanging, new being?  If so, that would be resurrecting a person who is radically different from the one you are now.  How could that complete, static, perfect, new being be you at all if your consciousness and your personality with all the imperfections and limitations that make you unique no longer exist?


So while it appears that there may be some physical means to preserve the soul, the central thesis that a brainless soul cannot exist has withstood the objections.  And a long and complicated list of challenges and questions confront physical preservation or resurrection scenarios.     


VIII.  Conclusion


So it does not appear that any of the evidence in favor of the soul’s immortality is plausible.  Psychic contact, out-of-body stories, and paranormal reports are not to be trusted.  The body is not merely a puppet being directed by a distinct, non-physical mind.  Claims about the survival of an impersonal energy force are scientifically unsubstantiated, or they lose their appeal to the individual precisely because they promise no survival for that person.  And even though the physical autonomy of the soul may be logically possible, it is not reasonable to believe.  All hope for the prolonged existence of my soul seems to depend upon our ability to prolong the existence of its physical source. 


The argument presented here is relatively simple.  Consciousness and personality are physically  dependent.  When the brain dies, consciousness and personality cease.  A person’s soul, as we commonly characterize it, is made up of their consciousness and personality.  Therefore, a person’s soul does not survive the demise of the brain, and thus cannot be immortal. 



[1]  The Harris Poll #11, February 26, 2003.  “The Religious and Other Beliefs of Americans” 2003.  Humphrey Taylor.

[2] In addition to the thesis argued for here for the dependency of the soul on the brain, we may legitimately worry about how it can be that a disembodied soul is able to sense--see, hear, move, feel, and so on—without eyes, ears, legs, hands, or any of the physical organs that make having a physical location and conscious perspective possible.


[3] It should be noted that full recovery is rare and difficult.  Stroke victims undergo arduous regimens of physical and psychological therapy that takes years and often only produces partial recovery from the symptoms.  It is the plasticity and the wide distribution of mind functions across brain regions that allows any recovery at all.


[4] Notice that in our own age, people making extraordinary, supernatural claims are abundant.  On television, on the radio, in churches, at psychic fairs, seances, and so on, supernatural claims are commonplace.  Yet, for the most of us, the vast majority of these claims are obviously false, and we do not take them seriously.  We should be cautious about applying an epistemic double standard when we consider these supernatural claims and the supernatural claims in ancient religious texts.  People have always been gullible, prone to mistakes, deceitful, and enthusiastic about supernatural claims.