An Assessment of the Nature of a Human Soul


When discussing a topic such as life after death and the nature of the soul (or whether it even exists), it is important to consider and question the nature of the relationship between body and soul: whether they are two completely separate entities, which we call the theory of substance dualism, intrinsically linked but still different (monism) or one entity (materialism). The qualities a soul possesses in relation to the body leads philosophers to come to various different conclusions about whether or not it can be considered immortal, as well as how that could be justified using scripture or logic.

Like any philosophical argument, this debate has been going on for centuries, millennia even. Philosophers such as Plato argued that the soul alone is immortal due to its entirely unique nature of not being of this finite world, yet others such as Hick believe that the body plays a necessary role in the soul’s afterlife. Not all philosophers who wrote on this topic have been totally clear, Aristotle for example, was a vague proponent of the monist stance, although little of his work on the matter has survived the test of time

For Plato, the key idea of the immortal, immutable soul is valid. As a dualist, he believed that the body and soul are two separate entities and that the soul is immortal, whilst the body is not. Plato justified this by claiming that the soul exists in a different world to other earthly matter: The Realm of the Forms. As the Realm is eternal, it logically follows that the soul is too, and therefore immortal. He further argued that when we learn, we are actually remembering that which our soul already knew in the Realm. Thus, Plato claimed that when we die our immortal soul lives on as pure conscience, not distracted by the matters of the physical world. Plato used the Myth of Er, which describes the cyclical process of birth and rebirth, to demonstrate what is finite and subject to change (our bodies) and what is eternal (our souls, or our souls’ punishment should we live a life of extreme sin), as well as the necessity of seeking wisdom through philosophy in order for the soul to benefit.

Whilst his ideas about the immortality of the soul are easy to comprehend and seem to have no logical contradictions, they rely heavily on our acceptance of the Realm of the Forms as something which exists. Without that acceptance, his argument does not stand. Descartes, a 17th century French philosopher and fellow dualist to Plato, supported classical dualism in his Meditations II and VI. Unlike Plato, he did not base his theory on a different world existing but used his own consciousness in an attempt to prove that the body and soul were separate entities. He said, “My essence consists solely of the fact that I am a thinking thing” and claimed that as he could think of himself without a body but could not deny that he was a thinking thing, then the body and soul must be separate because one could be doubted but the other could not. This argument for a distinction between body and soul is fairly convincing due to its reason-based approach, and it can successfully support the claim that the soul is immortalised as a consciousness due to his claim cogito ergo sum, which implies that the soul can be immortal as long as it vacates its vessel. However, scholars such as Norman Malcolm have argued that Descartes’ argument is too strongly reliant on word games and that it is easily possible to inverse the argument by substituting the terms Descartes uses (“I can doubt that there exists a being whose essential nature is to think but I cannot doubt that I exist, ergo I am not a being whose essential nature is to think”).

In contrast, Aristotle believed that the body and soul were two separate entities with an intrinsic link. He used the analogy of the wax stamp to describe this symbiotic relationship: the soul is the stamp and the wax is the body, and those two things cannot be separated.  He can be quoted as saying says “It indubitably follows that the soul is inseparable from the body”. The philosopher argued that to talk of the soul was to talk of the formal cause (or specification) of what something is. He believed that everything in the empirical world possessed a soul, however there were stark differences between the ‘vegetative’ soul (possessed by all things including plants), the ‘appetitive’ soul (which is the soul of carnal desires like hunger, shared with animals) and the ‘intellectual’ soul (which is rational and directive). Aristotle wrote that the soul has the potential for immortality inasmuch as knowledge possessed by it can live on, either as thoughts and memories left behind in others or as knowledge is passed onto those around us. Although Aristotle was vague on the subject of the soul’s immortality, a logical conclusion can be drawn from his ideas: if the soul and body are intrinsically linked and cannot exist without each other as the soul is nothing more than the formal cause of a person, it follows that when the body dies the soul must die too, and therefore cannot be immortal. This argument is quite successful in proving that the soul is mortal as it is easy to follow and has no logical contradictions. Much like Plato, Aristotle’s only problem with creating a completely watertight argument is that it requires a belief in the existence of the four causes, as well as agreeing with his interpretation of the soul as the formal cause.

The scholar John Hick presents a take on the immortality of the soul, arguing from the viewpoint of a materialist, he believes that the soul and the body are entirely one entity and are therefore immortal and in fact, the body is needed for the soul to pass onto the afterlife. Hick argues that human life on Earth is a ‘vale of soul-making’, where human beings are able to develop their moral selves and build a relationship with God through the free will they are given. Unlike Plato, he argues that the soul develops and grows much like the body does while on Earth, and that eventually all souls can live in full understanding of God. The most coherent understanding of life after death, in Hick’s view, is St. Paul’s idea of a physical rebirth. The argument states that our perishable body dies, and we are resurrected with an imperishable body, as God has the power to create for us an imperishable body to carry our souls into the afterlife. Hick’s view is balanced by his claim in the book ‘Death and Eterna Life’ that the immortality of the soul is not something that can be proved empirically, however it is a reasonable argument and can be rationally argued for. Hick’s argument is also entirely compatible with Christian ideas of what happens after death, which makes it more convincing to believers. On the other hand, his argument sounds less believable when considering the matter of what type of body we use to take us to the afterlife. In cases such as child mortality, dying in catastrophic accidents which leave the corpse mangled, or dying of extreme old age, the body does not seem to be an appropriate vessel for continuing to live in God’s kingdom as it would not be practical.

Finally, all the arguments claiming that the soul is immortal rely completely on the assumption that the soul even exists, and that it exists as a thing separate from the mind and body, i.e.: it is not a physical thing but ‘something else’. Hard materialists like Richard Dawkins and Gilbert Ryle claim that mind (and therefore soul) is entirely matter, and, particularly in Dawkins’ case, assuming the existence of a soul and furthermore questioning its immortality is absurd. Since there is little conclusive empirical evidence of the soul existing, this could be a plausible argument, although, for many people, both believers and non-believers, the idea of a soul which is somehow ‘other’ is comforting and rings true. However, that does not necessarily mean that it must be a fact.

Like so many things rooted in faith, the idea of the soul, and thus the plausibility of its existence is incomprehensibly subjective, and whilst scholarly views and impressive, logic-based arguments may sway, add to or develop one’s opinion on the nature of the soul, they are unlikely to significantly alter the individual’s already existing beliefs. Yet for what it’s worth, if one were to believe in the existence of the soul, John Hick’s argument is likely to be the most successful one as there are no logical contradictions, nor does one have to make an inductive leap or agree that anything (apart from the soul) exists in order for the argument to make sense. In fact, it’s only real weakness is that it does not seem practical in its view that the afterlife is infinitely forgiving and accepting. However, human beings arguably don’t have the capacity to judge the plausibility of something they have no experience with, like the afterlife. Besides, Hick’s view of what ‘heaven’ is seems like a more welcoming and pleasant place than the ‘exclusive salvation’ demonstrated by most organised religions.