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.

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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.