The Soul is the Form of the Body

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

According to the Wiccan theory of reincarnation, your soul leaves your body at death and enters a new body at conception.  The Wiccan theory of reincarnation thus presupposes that human beings are soul-body composites.  It is a type of soul-body dualism.  Cunningham writes “The soul is ageless, sexless, nonphysical, possessed of the divine spark of the Goddess and God” (2004: 73).  Since Cunningham identifies the soul with consciousness, this soul-body dualism is a kind of mind-body dualism: “the consciousness (soul) is reborn many times” (2004: 73).   Silver Elder writes that “non-physical matter such as the Soul, or Self cannot be destroyed or transmuted allowing us to evolve in wisdom over many life times” (2011: 57).  Obviously, it’s nonsense to talk about non-physical matter.  At most these Wiccans are thinking of some sort of immaterial thinking substance.  Many philosophers have argued that the soul is an indestructible immaterial thinking substance.  Among these, Descartes is the most famous; but the idea goes back to Aquinas at least (Summa Theologica, Part 1, Q. 75-102).  It may go back even further.

Against soul-body or mind-body dualism, many philosophers have argued for monism.  This is also known as physicalism or materialism about persons.  This materialism states that if something is a person, then it is a body.  Modern science contains a very precise and powerful Success Argument for the materialist theory of persons.  It goes like this: (1) For every function F, if any person can do F, then there is some part of the body of that person whose activity is both necessary and sufficient for the performance of F.  All your digestion is done by your guts; all your breathing is done by your lungs; and all your thinking is done by the part of your body that computes (your brain, your nervous system, your immune system).  Everything you do is done either by some part of your body or by your whole body (which is an improper part of itself).  (2) If everything you do is done by some part of your body, then you are your body.  Therefore (3) you are your body.  This argument is general: every person is identical with his or her body.

Materialism is successful.  Of course, there is a large literature arguing for the materialist theory of persons.  You can start with Paul Churchland’s old but wonderful book Matter and Consciousness (1985)And here it’s worth pointing out that the fact that we don’t know everything about the brain or about consciousness does not imply that there is any room for an immaterial thinking substance.  There is no empirical justification for the existence of any immaterial thinking substances.  Consequently, it is irrational to affirm that they exist.  When Cunningham and Silver Elder assert that immaterial thinking substnaces exist, they are wrong.   However, the theory that the soul is an immaterial thinking substance is not the only theory of the soul.  There are other theories of the soul.

Aristotle said the soul is to the body as form is to matter (De Anima, 412a5-414a33).  On the basis of this analogy, he declared that the soul is the form of the body.  The Aristotelian theory of the soul as the form of the body has recently received much greater attention due to computers.  The Aristotelian idea that the soul is to the body as form is to matter becomes computationally interpreted as the idea that the soul is to the body as a program is to a computer.  Every cell in the body is performing a biological computation at the molecular level.  The cellular program is mainly encoded in its genes.  But the body is just a network of interacting cells; hence the body is also performing a biological computation.  The form of this computation is the body-program.  The body-program is the form of the body; the body-program is the soul.  The soul is the logos of the body – it is the algorithm of the body.  Tipler writes that “the human ‘soul’ is nothing but a specific program being run on a computing machine called the brain”(1995: 1-2).  And Barrow & Tipler explicitly identify the soul with the body-program:

an intelligent being — or more generally, any living creature — is fundamentally a type of computer . . . the really important part of a computer is not the particular hardware, but the program; we may even say that a human being is a program designed to run on particular hardware called a human body, coding its data in very special types of data storage devices called DNA molecules and nerve cells.  The essence of a human being is not the body but the program which controls the body;  . . . A living human being is a representation of a definite program rather than the program itself.  In principle, the program corresponding to a human being could be stored in many different forms. (Barrow & Tipler, 1986: 659)

As the form of the body, the soul is an immanent universal (it is a universal in re).  It does not exist as an independent substance.  And just as a program without a computer does not compute, so a soul without a body does not live or think.  Of course, since the soul is a form, it can be multiply instantiated.  It can be instantiated in other natural human bodies besides your body.  Or it could even be instantiated by an artificial robotic body, or by an artificial software body in some virtual reality simulation of your body.  More abstractly, it could be instantiated by a purely mathematical structure.   To be sure, since anysuch structure is purely mathematical, it does not think or live – it merely exists.  Your soul can exist even if your body does not; but it cannot exist apart from an instantiation.  Your soul is a form, and every form is realized or instantiated by some object.

For precision, you might try to argue that souls are encoded in genomes.  You might say that every possible human genotype encodes some human soul.  The encoding compresses the instructions for building and running a human body into a series of nucleotides.  This is an interesting idea, since the genotype is wholly present in almost every living cell in the body.  Old philosophers (like Plotinus and Anselm) used to argue that the soul is integrally omnipresent in the body – it is wholly present in every part of the body.  The genotype comes close to this old-fashioned notion.  And the genotype remains pretty much invariant through your whole life.  Essences are invariants; hence your genotype is your essence.  If this is the correct theory of the soul, then any two people who share the same genotype share the same soul.  For example, monozygotic twins and clones share the same soul.  This is an entirely scientific conception of the soul.  Of course, you may want to add lots more information to the soul.  And you’re entirely free to do so.

The theory that the soul is the form of the body, modernized using computer science, is consistent with current natural science.  This is a scientific theory of the soul.  As an immanent universal, the soul has a place in the naturalistic ontology sketched in an earlier post.  There is nothing super-natural about the soul as the form of the body.  And there are good evidence-based arguments for the existence of immanent universals.  Of course, some nominalists, positivists, and materialists cannot agree with the existence of any universals at all.  But not all atheists belong to those groups.  Atheists can be Aristotelians (or even Platonists), and can affirm that the soul is the form of the body.

Follow up posts on the soul and multiple lives:

From Aristotle through Buddhism to Nietzsche

The Eternal Return of the Same

Links to references and to related posts in this series are below the fold:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Atheism and Beauty

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

On Participation in Being-Itself

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

Wiccan Theology and Sexual Equality

More on Religious Diversity among Atheists

Revelation versus Manifestation

Creation Stories

The Logic of Creation

Evolution by Rational Selection

Two Arguments for Evolution by Rational Selection

The Wheel of the Year

Criticizing Wicca: The Wheel of the Year

The Atheist Wheel of the Year



Barrow, J. & Tipler, F. (1986) The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford Paperbacks).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Churchland, P. (1985) Matter and Consciousness: A Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Cunningham, S. (2004) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Silver Elder (2011) Wiccan Celebrations.  Winchester, UK: Moon Books.

Tipler, F. (1995) The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead.  New York: Anchor Books.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Against soul-body or mind-body dualism, many philosophers have argued for monism. This is also known as physicalism or materialism about persons.

    This isn’t quite true. Materialism is a type of monism, but there are monisms that are not materialistic ones. For example, idealism is a monistic theory, as it posits that all that exists are ideas. Neutral monism as well asserts that there is only one type of stuff, but that that stuff can contain mental or physical properties. So you have to be very careful with this move.

    Second, it seems that you are taking aim at substance dualism, but you can have a mind-body dualism that’s based on properties, not on substances. It isn’t clear, then, that you couldn’t be a materialist about how things are while still claiming to be a dualist about mind. Chalmers might be a good example of that sort of position.

    The form of this computation is the body-program. The body-program is the form of the body; the body-program is the soul. The soul is the logos of the body – it is the algorithm of the body. Tipler writes that “the human ‘soul’ is nothing but a specific program being run on a computing machine called the brain”(1995: 1-2).

    The problem with this move is that you can’t link it back to reincarnation, meaning that your link back to Wicca is lost. A program as an algorithm is indeed the same in all instantiations; we’d all share the same soul if it really is an algorithm. And thus even the move to the genetic template violates the idea from computer science of the algorithm; that would be one way to implement the algorithm, not the algorithm itself. And to try to make it the algorithm itself and so unique runs into massive problems of defining just what that algorithm is; programs and algorithms can at least in principle be defined, and such uniqueness would make it impossible to define what the algorithm is beyond simply looking at the results. And the results do not determine the algorithm in computing.

    • Eric Steinhart

      Oops! You’re right, I forgot about idealism, which indeed is a type of monism. The error is pretty easy to fix; thanks for pointing it out.

      The soul as form of the body is not any type of mind-body dualism. The form of the body does not think or do anything else that minds do. It’s just a property (and properties don’t perform actions like perceiving, thinking, or acting). So there is no mind-body dualism here.

      The Wiccan doctrine of earthly reincarnation (like any doctrine of earthly reincarnation) is false. But it points to a more abstract idea that is defensible, in which the form of the body plays a role.

    • Verbose Stoic

      Actually, my point was indeed that your form was not a mind-body dualism, but that your targets are all substance dualist arguments and thus ignored the mind-body dualism of property dualism. And if you are going to talk about properties, then you might indeed be a property dualist, while still being a materialist about mind.

    • Eric Steinhart

      Still, property dualists usually mean that some properties are physical while others are mental. I don’t understand that distinction at all (I never have understood it). Properties are just properties. And as the form of the body, the soul is surely not a mental property. It has as its subforms things like the form of the liver as well as the form of the brain.

  • michaelbrew

    You could define a soul like that, I suppose, if you must call something a soul, but I don’t see how you can tie that back to the Wiccan belief in reincarnation.

  • Editor B

    I’m fascinated by this topic and wonder where the notion of process fits in. I think of the soul as a process that emerges from the body. I guess that’s still simply monism; I guess that one might swap out “program” for “process” above and the meaning would remain intact.

  • Dunc

    I have a great deal of difficulty with the notion that “souls are encoded in genomes”… As I understand it (which admittedly isn’t particularly far) it’s not even true that the basic physical structure of the body is “encoded” in the genome – the body is a result of a very complex developmental process in which the genome plays an important, but by no means exclusive, role. The further developmental processes which shape neural development and learning are even more complex and even less determined by the genome.

    • John Morales


      Indeed, there’s more to organisms than just the genome.

      cf. Jonathan Wells knows nothing about development, part II

      This is developmental biology 101. We describe this central issue, and then, basically, the rest of the term is spent explaining exactly how this works: we tell the students about maternal factors, environmental effects, cell signaling, single transduction, gene repression and activation, all this wonderfully fun stuff that explains how cells with the same DNA would differentiate in many distinct ways.

    • Eric Steinhart

      I fail to see what this has to do with the Aristotelian conception of the soul as the form of the body. Obviously there’s more to an organism than its genome — most of our bodies are water, not DNA.

      Perhaps these worries about the genome are caused by the lingering thought that the soul is the mind. On Aristotle’s view, it isn’t. There’s nothing mental about it.

      It would be consistent with an Aristotelian theory of the soul to say that by definition whatever the genome does, that’s what the soul does, and whatever the genotype is, that’s what the soul is.

    • Marnie

      Perhaps these worries about the genome are caused by the lingering thought that the soul is the mind. On Aristotle’s view, it isn’t. There’s nothing mental about it.

      I might be confusing the atheistic view of Wicca with the theistic view of Wicca but how is this in keeping with the idea that you keep improving yourself in each life? If there’s no consciousness or mind to the soul then the soul is distinct from the part of you that does all the improving in each life. If the soul is just a spark of life with no real role in the workings of the mind then there’s no picking up from where you left off. It’s luck of the draw whose mind you get in the next life.

    • Eric Steinhart

      Your life is like a story; on each new life, your biography is revised — errors are corrected, bad parts improved, etc. You next life is like the remake of an old film, except the remake is improved.

    • Dunc

      I fail to see what this has to do with the Aristotelian conception of the soul as the form of the body.

      No, I didn’t follow that either, but you were the one who brought it up.

  • Marnie

    According to the Wiccan theory of reincarnation, your soul leaves your body at death and enters a new body at conception.

    Do you think this poses any problems when discussing birth control for women and right to abortions? It certainly does for many people who practice the Abrahamic religions.

    • Eric Steinhart

      I’m not sure why the metaphysics of the soul would cause any problems for the Wiccan account. I recall the Farrar’s approving of birth control and abortion (though they seemed to be saying only that women should have the right to abortion, not that it was for the best to exercise it). Birth control raises no problems at all if souls enter zygotes at conception. On the Wiccan account, the soul doesn’t seem to care all that much about which body it enters. Still, the Wiccan account has so many other problems that there’s little reason to worry about these issues. Souls don’t leave dying bodies or enter newly conceived bodies. Souls aren’t physical things that move around in space and time like some kind of ball of subtle stuff.

    • Marnie

      Birth control raises no problems at all if souls enter zygotes at conception.

      Barrier methods prevent conception, but the pill (in some cases) and morning after pill (in all cases, I assume) prevent the fertilized egg from attaching so conception does happen, it just doesn’t implant or stay implanted.

      This is why, for instance, some evangelical pharmacists refuse to dispense birth control pills and why the morning after pill received so much resistance from the religious right.

      Obviously, many religious people who believe in souls also use (or support the use of) birth control and feel no misgivings, I’m thinking more big picture wise. Does the idea of having a soul pose problems when discussing a woman’s right to abortion and birth control? Is there a way to define this idea of a soul that wouldn’t put the non-viable cells on equal footing with the woman?

      Reasonable people who make thoughtful ethical choices based on science don’t really worry me, it’s people who use their religious beliefs to drive policy that do and I’m wondering how Wicca can cut this problem off at the pass, should they gain enough footing to impact policy.

    • Dunc

      As far as I am aware, the notion that either form of contraceptive pill prevents implantation is entirely mythical: there is no evidence whatsoever that it ever happens that way. The morning-after pill works just like the regular contraceptive pill, by preventing ovulation.

    • Eric Steinhart

      The important point is that Wiccans themselves have various opinions about the soul and its relation to the body. There’s no standard official dogma (on the contrary, they reject dogmas). So various Wiccans will have various theories of the soul. So I think you’d get different answers to your questions from different Wiccans.

      However, the view that the soul is an immaterial thinking substance (a Cartesian mind) is not defensible. Any scientific person ought to reject it, and it would seem that many Wiccans would too. The most rational way to think of the soul, even within a Wiccan context, is to think of it as the form of the body. None of these problems arise from that theory of the soul.