The Illogical Concept of Souls

This is an excerpt from Icarus of Brooklyn: A Spiritual Quest Gone Wrong by Matthew Alper (Rogue Press, 2012). Alper is also the author of The “God” Part of the Brain. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

According to theologians, humans were viewed as God’s chosen creatures, an anomalous union of beast and angel — the animal with a soul. The more science I learned, however, the more trouble I had accepting this religious interpretation.

Based on what I had learned of the biological sciences, I was convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that life did not suddenly appear on this planet a few thousand years ago — to be forged over the course of seven days — but rather that it had gradually evolved over the course of approximately three billion years. That there existed so much scientific data to support an evolutionary theory of life made it impossible for me to believe in any of the creation myths offered by the various world religions, all of which contradicted one another anyhow.

I now had to reconcile the notion of an eternal soul with the theory of evolution, which now stood as something of a stumbling block for me. The problem I had was: if humans — as God’s allegedly chosen creatures — were the only creature to possess a soul, at what point in the evolutionary process did this aberrant trait emerge? Was I supposed to believe that at some transitional point in our evolution, God came down and injected a soul into our species? Moreover, was this new component then infused into our genes so that we now possessed the capacity to pass this unusual trait along to our offspring? Was it that we suddenly carried some kind of mystical “soul” gene within our DNA?

Unable to reconcile the notion of a human soul with modern evolutionary theory, I decided to try another route. What if souls weren’t exclusive to humans? What if other animals possessed souls as well? What if it was simply a component of all living things?

With this in mind, I now needed to explore the possibility that not just Man but all organic life possessed a soul. Perhaps this would be the manner by which I would reconcile the existence of a soul with evolution. After some consideration, however, I found there were problems here, too.

As I pondered the possibility that all animals possessed a soul, I decided I would start with humans and then work my way down the evolutionary ladder. Presuming humans had souls, I now worked my way back down the evolutionary scale to the other primates. All right, I thought. Apes and chimpanzees express a wide range of emotions complemented by what could be construed as a “higher” intelligence. I suppose it’s possible that they, too, possess souls. I now stepped further back to the less intelligent mammals. How about cats and dogs? Do they possess souls? I thought about how cats and dogs also expressed emotions and a basic intelligence, how if one looked into their eyes one could sense whether they were happy or sad, for instance. Sure, why not? Maybe they have souls as well.

So I went even further down the evolutionary scale, back to the reptiles, amphibians, fish. Do fish have souls? The further back I went, the more dubious the idea was beginning to sound. So I went back further still. Jellyfish, mollusks, insects, sponges? Can a sponge differentiate between good and evil? Is there a heaven and hell for good and bad cockroaches? If they possessed souls then they, too, must be immortal. And if they’re immortal, they must possess their own afterworlds. The concept was getting more and more absurd. And yet I had to reach back even further.

How about one-celled organisms? Does an amoeba — a creature bereft of a simple nervous system, just a nucleus for a brain — have a soul? Then it dawned on me. If individual cells possess souls, then I am an organism composed of trillions of individual souls. Was it possible that every cell in my body possessed its own soul? Was the fingernail I just bit off and spit onto the sidewalk the gravesite of a million deceased souls? Was it possible that every time I masturbated I was committing genocide? That was the last straw for me. It was impossible to imagine that these simplest life forms could possess a soul, which meant that if souls existed at all, they had to be an attribute exclusive to humans, though I had already decided that logic didn’t hold up either. Oh well. No answers here.

Icarus of Brooklyn: A Spiritual Quest Gone Wrong is now available on Amazon.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • C Peterson

    For me, the idea of a “traditional” soul falls apart based on my knowledge of neuroscience. Our personalities are, indisputably, heavily influenced by oddities of brain wiring and by the chemical environment of our bodies. And the two affect each other. Depression is a chemical problem, and a person who lives with it a long time will have their personality formed by it. Even if they are able to successfully treat their depression (with more chemicals!) their personality will be forever molded by their experiences while depressed. So what personality can we expect a soul to have? Some pure essence that has no relationship with the person while alive? Or will the soul retain the effects of the physical body? Neither makes any sense.

    How intelligent is the soul of a person who is profoundly retarded in life? How happy is the soul of someone who was bipolar? How nice is the soul of a person who was psychopathic? As souls ourselves, would we even be able to recognize anybody we knew in life?

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    I love the imagery in the last paragraph, trillions of immortal souls inhabiting one body. Just think, when we die, should we be re-united with all those souls, not just the ones in our cells as we die, but all those we have cast off as we’ve lived.  How would they all combine, so many souls for so many cells.

    A rather good way of showing, yet again, that this idea of the soul is just so much tosh. I think I might be using this one in the future.

  • Octoberfurst

     The book looks really good. I added it to my Amazon list. Up until the time I became an atheist I believed that we all had a soul. I started out with typical born-again style beliefs. You know, the soul either goes to heaven or hell when you die. Then I came to believe that heaven and hell didn’t exist but the soul did and that there was some sort of other-worldly afterlife—or reincarnation. But I had trouble defining what a “soul” was. I was told it was the inner me–my emotions, thoughts—all that made me who I am. But how can a consciousness exist without a brain? That’s like digestion existing without a stomach.  So when I became an atheist I decided that when I die I just won’t exist anymore.
      Mind you, I don’t LIKE the idea of not existing. It would be nice to be able to live on in some form.  Maybe we do. Who really knows?  I like to think about the story of the Zen student asking his master what happens after we die. The master said, “I don’t know.” The student was quite puzzled by this and said,  “But you are a Zen master! How could you not know what happens after death?” The master just looked at him and replied, “Because I haven’t died yet.”
       The rational part of me says that when I die I will just cease to be.  So I feel that I must live life to the fullest and enjoy what time I have. And if there is some form of afterlife–great! But if not, I won’t care because I will have no awareness of my situation.

  • Glasofruix

     Yep, that sums pretty much my position up. Also, ig a 30 years old dude gets a blow to his head and loses his memory, he then develops another personnality, so which one of the two goes to heaven?

  • Matt Eggler

    To be clear, I find the entire concept of “souls” to be ridiculous, however, I don’t find Alper’s arguments very compelling. We know there are single-celled organisms and that they evolved into more complex multi-celled organisms. So why couldn’t the “single-souls” of these organisms evolve into more complex “multi-souled” organisms, an individual soul made up of many soul cells just as we are individual living creatures made up of many cells. The absurdity of this argument lies in the notion of there being a “soul” in the first place.

    Like C Peterson neuroscience makes the concept of a “soul” untenable. QualiaSoup did an excellent job of showing how Dualism fails to hold up to evidence and logic:

  • Bonnie

    Genocidal Masturbation of the Soul is the name of my new band.

    Great excerpt. Makes me want to read more.

  • Silo Mowbray

    “Was it possible that every time I masturbated I was committing genocide?”

    SEE?!! Masturbation therefore Hitler!

  • articulett

    If souls are invisible, immaterial, and immeasurable, then why shouldn’t we assume trees have souls? Or rocks? Or air? 

    Consciousness is clearly an emergent process of an evolved material brain.  I don’t think there is even a coherent definition of a soul. What distinguishes a real soul from an imaginary one?

  • Michaelbrice

    Hilarious,  good question! 

  • MargueriteF

    As a Lutheran, I believed in souls. But I also realized that if I had a soul, my dogs certainly did too– and in fact they stood a much better chance of making it into heaven, being far more worthy than I am (aside from a certain sinful habit of stealing food off the counters). They seemed clearly self-aware to me, if not as mentally advanced as humans, and so I would have declined to go to any heaven that wouldn’t let my dogs in.

    I no longer believe in souls. It was one of the hardest things about religion to give up, though. I liked the comfort of believing I’d see my husband again. But alas, what’s comforting is not necessarily realistic. It seems obvious to me now that self-awareness is tied into the brain, and does not outlast it. In fact I find it difficult to understand why I ever thought differently. The things we can convince ourselves to believe…

  • jose

    I hope the rest of the book is more focused. He doesn’t need to do this sort of brownian writing in order to address the topic of soul&evolution. It would be shorter to talk to a couple of priests and be told that the church has no opinion on whether the dozen or so extinct human species we know so far had souls or not.

  • Octoberfurst

     I totally understand where you are coming from.  The concept of not having a soul was the hardest thing for me to give up. I really, really wanted to see my deceased grandparents again. But I know I never will. All I have is memories and that will have to suffice.

  • Eric Steinhart

    Aristotle developed an entirely naturalistic concept of the soul over two thousand years ago: the soul is the form of the body.  All living things have souls.  I’m always surprised that this Aristotelian concept is almost never brought up in these discussions. 

  • chicago dyke, Blonde

    gotta agree with jose. there are easier and simpler ways to question the concept of a “soul.”

    in my case it was one of the reasons i was able to resist strong religious belief from an early age. when i was quite young and my believing neighbors took me to their church (saving my ‘soul’ from my atheist parents’ neglectful ways, i’m sure they thought) and the concept was explained to me in great detail, i rebelled. i was like, “so, what you’re saying is that you can’t see it, touch it, feel it, hear it, or in any way identify where it is, but it’s the most important thing every person possesses? and you know this, how, exactly?” just did not compute.

    eventually i told them thanks but no thanks on the whole ‘we’ll pick you up and take you to our church this sunday’ thing. i’m proud of my parents, who never put up any objection or derision when i was churching, but instead let me make up my own mind by myself. i was like, 12 or so. 

  • anon101

    I have never understood the argument against souls from evolution. As far as I understand it neither the human sperms nor the human eggs are claimed to have souls by most relgious sects. Thus god necessarily has to implant the soul at some point after the insemination.

    From my point of view evolution does not factor in in the problem with the concept of souls.

  • ElsaKay

    The concept of souls died for me when I began working with dementia patients.  If one has spent the last 15 years of their life in a state of mental decline, forgetting where they are, forgetting their friends and family, and forgetting themselves, which personality goes to heaven?  Is it the pre-dementia personality?  Or is it the personality of that person at their peak intellectual ability, which could have happened thirty years earlier?  The house of cards fell apart.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Based on what I had learned of the biological sciences…
     So I went even further down the evolutionary scale, back to the reptiles, amphibians, fish. Do fish have souls

    If he still believes in an “evolutionary scale,” he could stand to learn some more biology.

  • Reginald Selkirk

     Every sperm is sacred.

  • Reginald Selkirk

     And yet, churches have opinions on such issues as whether the communion wafer is actually the body of Jesus H. Christ, or just a symbol of it.

  • Reginald Selkirk

     Well that just runs right into the questions that Alper asked. Did other human species have souls? Do other animals have souls? Etc. To someone with a knowledge of human biology, any attempt at human exceptionalism falls flat, and the question of where the human || other animals dividing line falls stands out as artificial. And you have certainly done nothing whatsoever to address it.

  • Brad Tankersley

    You do live on virtually immortal the atoms that make up your body will exist until the end of the universe and the energy that makes up those atoms may exist even longer in the mean time those atoms will be recycled for an eternity, becoming other people and possibly toilet seats .

  • Brad Tankersley

    Of course the immense guilt one could suffer by thinking he has mass murdered millions of potential souls everyday would be too difficult for most to bear.

  • Octoberfurst

    You’re right. When you spoke of me becoming recycled atoms I found that comforting—until you said my atoms could end up in a toilet seat.  That kind of killed it for me.  :-(

  • Brad Tankersley

    Unless you’re a Protestant

  • Keulan

    The concept of the soul is ridiculous. I’m convinced that souls don’t exist for pretty much the same reasons as explored here:

  • Edmond

    In Heaven, we’ll all be haunted by our 80′s haircuts.

  • Dean

    Shelly Kagan’s Yale lectures on death are amazing. And his Arguments for the Existence of the Soul are spectacular. It was my first introduction to the idea that there is no soul. I highly recommend them.

  • Edmond

    But then the  question becomes, at what point in our evolutionary lineage did God begin to do that?  Homo sapiens rhodesiensis?  With Homo heidelbergensis?  Earlier?  Or, did God wait until the first mutation that was truly the current Homo sapiens?  If he waited, then why were previous descendent species deprived of souls?  They had social groups, language, they were certainly capable of identity, and of treating each other with kindness and cruelty.  How advanced does a species have to be before it’s fit for residency in the Eternal Kingdom?  Just asking the questions pokes holes in the myth.

  • Sandy Kokch

    The only “logical” (and I do use that word in its loosest sense) way of believing in “souls” is the animist way of looking at it – a common “spirit” shared by all things. A sort of star Wars “Force”.

    Imagine the logic backflips that the Salesian Brothers who taught me in school had to go through when teaching about souls in RE class after we had come out of the 2hrs of biology class where we had spent term after term learning about evolution – which strangely enough the Brothers were fully supportive of and taught thoroughly. They also encouraged critical thinking and challenging ideas and dogma…..made for some interesting RE classes I can tell you.

    I just think Im lucky in that I went to a Salesian school in the UK where the Brothers and priests cared more about giving the kids a sound and thorough education in science than trying to make reality fit with the RCC daftness on souls.

  • Drakk

    There any evidence for it being true? What’s a “form” anyway?

  • Earl G.

    That’s a great point.  
    Of course,  it doesn’t even take dementia to change who a person is.  Every single day we live changes us.  So which me would be the one in heaven?  The five-year-old child me?  The teenager me?  The college student me?  The middle-aged me?  The elderly me?  Because they’re all different people.    

  • Earl G.

    This sounds like reading my high school journal!  He’s basically describing how I too first started to question the existence of souls.

  • Sindigo

    A friend of mine, when I asked why she believed in god replied that she preferred to think of her father as sitting on a cloud playing a harp than lying in the ground.

    At the very core of all religion, I think you find this denial of mortality. It’s like our brain finds any way it can to convince us that we won’t die someday. It causes us to believe the craziest things to support that idea.

  • dewNOTbelieve

    OK, these comments came full-circle somehow. First, it was your “like digestion existing without a stomach.” CLASSIC! May I steal that? Then my brain started thinking about possible snarky sayings based on that phrase, and I came up with “The Holy Shit Peristaltic Church.” Which Brad then brought full-circle with his toilet seat comment. I’m flushed with pride and ready to be baptized with toilet water.