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What is the soul made out of?

What is the soul?

The soul is the immaterial part of a human being. It is the essence of a person’s being that is believed to survive death and in some beliefs, passes to an afterlife. The existence and nature of the soul has been debated for millennia in philosophy, religion, and metaphysics. There are many theories about what the soul is made of and differing beliefs across cultures and religions.

Major theories on the composition of the soul


Plato, one of the most influential philosophers, proposed that the soul is made of three parts – the logical, the spirited, and the appetitive. The logical part governs reasoning and makes decisions. The spirited part drives emotions and morality. The appetitive drives basic needs and desires. Plato believed the soul was immortal and eternal, existing before birth and after death.

Aristotle’s theory

Aristotle, Plato’s student, also theorized a three-part soul but with slightly different aspects – the vegetative, responsible for growth and nutrition; the sensitive, responsible for sensation and movement; and the rational, responsible for reason and thought. Aristotle believed the soul was the form of the body – intimately connected and could not exist without it.

Christian concepts

In Christian belief, the soul originates from God and is immortal. It animates the physical body during life and continues existing after death. Composition is not defined but it is believed to confer functions like thought, feeling, memory, and imagination. It is believed to be accountable for moral choices and subject to divine judgment.

Cartesian dualism

French philosopher Rene Descartes proposed a radical distinction between soul/mind and body. He theorized that the soul is an immaterial non-physical substance that interacts with the physical body. The body can be scientifically studied but the soul is only accessible through introspection. This position is known as Cartesian dualism.

Eastern concepts

In Hinduism and Buddhism, the soul (atman) is considered the eternal, immutable essence of a living being. It is believed to be without beginning or end, and subject to transmigration into new bodies through reincarnation. The goal is liberation (moksha) when the soul realizes its distinction from the physical body.

Scientific perspectives

Modern science generally considers the soul to be outside the realm of scientific study, since it cannot be observed or measured. However, some theories have been proposed:

Soul as neural energy

Some have theorized the soul could be a kind of energy produced by neural activity in the brain. This energy is proposed to be measurable one day when science advances. However, this view struggles to account for the soul surviving death.

Quantum physics soul theory

Applying quantum physics concepts, Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose theorized the soul might be contained in microtubules within brain cells. These microtubules are suitable to support quantum effects that could organize into a conscious entity. But this perspective lacks broad acceptance in the scientific community.

Soul as information pattern

Some scientists take a computational view that the soul arises from the complex pattern of information processing in the brain. According to this perspective, the soul could theoretically be downloaded and persist digitally after death. However, this view is speculative and not widely accepted.

What religions and philosophies believe about the composition of the soul?


Christians believe the soul originates from God, is given to each person at conception, and continues existing eternally after death. Its composition is not defined but is described as being capable of emotions, morality, free will, reasoning, and connecting with God.


In Islam, the soul (Ruh) is a spiritual entity placed by God inside humans, giving life and abilities like reason, perception, and knowledge. It remains immortal and returns to God upon death. The Quran does not define exact composition but says the soul comes from God’s command.


Hindus believe the soul (atman) is pure immutable consciousness, eternal and exists before birth. It is distinct from both mind and body. The soul transmigrates into new bodies through rebirth. The goal is for the soul to attain liberation (moksha) and realize its true nature.


Buddhism rejects the idea of an eternal, unchanging soul entity (atman). However, mental consciousness continues after death, reuniting with a new physical body. The goal is to attain nirvana, ending this cycle of rebirth, by extinguishing attachment and craving.


In Taoism, the soul has two components – the po, or corporeal soul made of essence energy, and the hun, or spiritual soul associated with thought, emotions, and personality. The hun leaves the body at death while the po stays, eventually transforming into another life form.


Judaism has a more holistic concept of the soul (nefesh), seeing it as the life force that imbues the body. It has no material substance but gives the physical body spirituality and intellect. The soul departs upon death and will eventually be reunited with the body at the resurrection.

What are the philosophical arguments around the existence of the soul?

The existence and nature of the soul has been debated philosophically for millennia across cultures. Here are some of the key perspectives:

Plato’s Argument

Plato argued that people grasp abstract, unchanging truths even though our senses perceive a physical world in flux. Since an eternal world of unchanging ideas must exist, our soul must originate from and return to that realm after death.

Descartes’ Argument

Rene Descartes started from the position “I think, therefore I am.” He believed the act of thinking proved the existence of a non-physical soul distinct from the body, since thoughts do not occupy physical space.

Immateriality of Consciousness

Some argue that consciousness, self-awareness, and subjectivity are inherently immaterial and cannot originate from lumps of physical matter in the brain alone. This implies a non-physical component like a soul exists.

Near-Death Experiences

Reports of conscious experience during near-death experiences, such as during cardiac arrest when the brain is not functioning, can be used as circumstantial evidence for a soul.

Rejection of Immaterial Souls

Scientific materialists argue there is no evidence of any immaterial substance interacting with the physical brain. Consciousness and mind emerge from complex neurochemistry rather than an additional metaphysical entity.

Bundle Theory

Bundle theory views the mind as a ‘bundle’ of perceptions, memories, and experiences rather than a distinct self or soul. This perspective sees no need for an underlying persistent entity like a traditional soul.

What scientific evidence exists around the existence of the soul?

While the concept of an immaterial, immortal soul is outside the scope of science, researchers have probed related phenomena that provide clues around the question:

Near-Death Experiences

Studies of reported consciousness during cardiac arrest have mapped some common elements of ‘near-death experiences’ including moving through a tunnel, seeing a bright light, meeting beings, and out-of-body experiences. While these do not provide direct evidence of a soul, they suggest consciousness may exist independently of the functioning brain.

Clinical Death and Resuscitation

There are many anecdotal case reports of cardiac arrest patients with no heartbeat or brain activity for several minutes, who were later resuscitated and able to recount detailed memories and experiences during that period. This suggests some form of consciousness persisted beyond clinical death.

Quantum Biology

While controversial, some theorists speculate that quantum effects in microtubules within neurons could support quantum computation linked to consciousness. This could allow for a soul functioning at the quantum scale.

Artificial Intelligence

The difficulty in reproducing human-like consciousness and self-awareness in AI systems, despite advanced computing power, raises philosophical questions around whether consciousness requires some non-physical component.

Psychology and Neuroscience

While neuroscience has revealed much about brain function, the subjective first-person experience of consciousness remains mysterious. The relationship between measurable brain states and immaterial mental states is disputed, raising the question of whether consciousness requires an additional ingredient.

What are some thought experiments that provide insight?

Thought experiments exploring hypothetical scenarios have shed light on philosophical perspectives around the nature of mind, consciousness, and the possibility of a soul:

Mary’s Room

Frank Jackson’s thought experiment imagines a brilliant scientist Mary who knows all physical facts about color perception but has only seen black and white. When she sees color for the first time, does she learn anything new? The experiment highlights the debate around qualia and materialism.

Philosophical Zombies

A philosophical zombie is imagined to be identical to a normal human but lacks conscious experience. Does the conceivability of such a being demonstrate that physical facts alone cannot account for consciousness?


Imagine a molecule-for-molecule identical copy of a person is created accidentally in a swamp after the original person dies. Does this “swampman” have the same memories and consciousness? This tests intuitions about consciousness and physical states.


Thought experiments around teleportation probe intuitions around continuity of consciousness. If you teleport, is the new version still “you”? Is continuity tied to the physical atoms or an immaterial soul?

Brain Transplants

Imagining switching brains between bodies elicits conflicting intuitions. Does your self/soul follow the brain or remain with the original body? Useful for examining assumptions around the mind-body relationship.

What are the main arguments against the existence of the soul?

While belief in the soul remains widespread, critics have raised important counterarguments:

Lack of evidence

The existence of a metaphysical soul is considered unfalsifiable by scientific standards. There is no direct observable evidence of an immaterial substance interacting with the physical body and brain.

Mind is what brain does

Evidence from neuroscience of precise correlations between brain activity and mental states suggests that mind emerges from the brain itself rather than requiring a separate soul.

Evolutionary origins

Human consciousness likely evolved gradually along with increasing brain complexity. This would argue against the sudden arrival of an eternal soul at some point in evolution.


The view that reality is fundamentally entirely physical in nature leaves no room for non-physical souls to exist and interact with physical things like human bodies.

Problems of interaction

If an immaterial soul exists, how can it interact with the material body and vice versa? The mechanisms of proposed interaction have not been explained.

Lack of definition

The properties and composition of a hypothetical soul are vague and ill-defined. Advocates struggle to explain what a soul actually is beyond simply labelling some aspects of cognition.

What are possible alternatives to the traditional concept of the soul?

Rather than an indwelling immaterial entity, some philosophical perspectives explain consciousness and personal identity in different ways:


Mental states emerge from brain states alone. Consciousness is an outcome of complex neurochemistry in the brain rather than a separate soul.

Property dualism

Only physical substances exist but mental states involve additional immaterial properties (like qualia) beyond strictly physical properties.


Elements of consciousness are intrinsic properties of all matter rather than limited to human souls. Consciousness is a fundamental aspect of the universe.


The soul is defined more by continuing functionality, continuity, and connectedness than an underlying persistent substance. Functionalist psychology focuses on cognition.

No-self theories

Buddhist and some modern perspectives argue the notion of a permanent, unchanging self or soul is an illusion. Identity is fluid and there is no eternal essence.


The enduring question of the existence and nature of the human soul touches on fundamental issues around the relationship between mind and body, consciousness and personal identity. While traditional religious and spiritual perspectives posit an immaterial soul that persists beyond death, modern science has not found evidence for such entities. However, the gap between subjective mental states and objective brain activity continues to prompt profound questions, leaving room for ongoing philosophical debate around this deep mystery. The possibilities range from physicalist theories that equate mental states with brain states, to property dualist perspectives that allow for additional aspects of consciousness not captured by physics, to views of consciousness as a more universal property. While a definitive answer remains elusive, probing theories around the soul provide insight into what it means to be human.