Where is your soul located?

When I came across this article by Candida Moss and Jessica Baron with the title Where in your body is your soul? I groaned, expecting yet another mushy spiritual mess. (I am sure that many readers of this blog had a similar reaction when seeing the post title.) But it is actually quite an interesting article, tracing the origins of the concept of the soul and how people have addressed the numerous problems associated with it.

Moss and Barron say that the concept did not originate with Christianity but entered it from the Greeks, suggesting that it originated with them. I am not so sure about this. That may be a somewhat western-centric view and, although I have not looked into it, I would not be surprised if the ancient philosophies of the East also had similar concepts. The strong sense that we have of an enduring personal identity is universal and can easily morph into viewing it as something distinct from the body.

The authors say that while Plato thought of thought of the soul as an “intangible, incorporeal essence” others conceived of it as something physical, made up of bits of air and fire and other invisible materials.

For those who thought that the soul was material, this led to another question: where is it located in your body? Ancient philosophers and philosophically educated doctors like Aristotle and Galen wanted to know. For many, the soul resided in one of the mysterious and generally misunderstood internal organs. The stomach in general and the kidneys and liver, in particular, were commonly believed to be the fleshy containers of the soul. But while ancient physicians and philosophers sometimes caught a glimpse inside the body when it was wounded in battle or by accident, human dissection was largely forbidden.

Galen thought the soul resided in the brain while Aristotle thought it was in the heart. But a fourth century Christian theologian Nemesius thought the soul was an incorporeal entity that was spread through the body, because the idea of the soul being made up of material substances caused all manner of theological problems.

Questions about the soul now became rooted in finding material evidence. Despite having no overriding religious agenda, those who argued for the presence of a material soul were labeled atheists, since it was presumed that this meant that human bodies operated like clocks, with all the material pieces merely doing their jobs, unimpeded by a higher power. The possibility of a material soul was even more worrying to Christians, who were concerned that a material soul might get trapped or destroyed.

Exploration of the New World and the racist caricatures of the “Natives” as cannibals that resulted, led to more extreme questions: what would happen to bodies and souls if they were torn apart and eaten? If the soul is made of matter and that matter is ingested and processed into nourishment by an animal (or a cannibal), would the soul still be intact?

The rise of medical education raised a new problem. The dissection of a dead person might mean that their soul would get fragmented and not survive the resurrection so dissection began to be viewed as one more punishment for executed criminals since they deserved to lose their souls as well as their lives.

For people in general dissection was worse than death. As Hulkower puts it, “While execution was a threat to one’s life, dissection was an assault on one’s soul.”

Interestingly, the later idea that associated the soul with the brain and the central nervous system led to treaties limiting the use of nerve gas partly because of the fears of what it might do to the soul.

To this day some scientists continue to talk about the nervous system as the home of the soul. In 2012, Professor Stuart Hameroff and British physicist Sir Roger Penrose put forward the theory that near-death experiences are the result of the soul leaving the nervous system. They further hypothesized, in a way that would please the ancient Stoics, that when a person dies their soul does not die but dissipates into the universe at large.

(As an aside, Penrose has done excellent work in physics and mathematics but his quasi-religious, mystical views that he has expressed later in life are, in my view, bonkers.)

Many people still associate the heart with the soul and this has interesting consequences for transplant operations.

In the arena of organ donation, for example, heart recipients often experience depression and existential angst after they receive the transplant. This is in contrast to kidney, liver, pancreas, and lung transplantees who might experience a sense of guilt, but rarely worry about whether they are themselves anymore. Part of the reason for this is that, as a society, we associate the heart with our emotions and identity. For heart transplant recipients it’s hard to get away from the cultural baggage associated with the heart and the sense that something of ourselves is lost when we literally lose our own.

The concept of a soul is an unnecessary one, a relic of our past ignorance of how the body works. But it does serve the purpose of giving people a sense of immortality, that while our bodies may perish, our true essence will live on forever. This may make the prospect of death easier for some to face, thus the enduring popularity of the concept.

But while all of us have a unique sense of self or identity, that is better seen as the creation of our brain. Invoking the idea of a soul as anything other than a metaphor for that feeling is a mistake.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    Rob Grigjanis, I consider Penrose’s speculations on quantum mechanics and consciousness to be well out of the mainstream. My impression is worsened by the way he went about it (e.g. naming his book “The Emperor’s New Mind” displays an awful lot of ‘attitude’ for such a poorly conceived notion) and his unwillingness to give up in the face of the criticism his ideas have received, which I consider to be very well-founded.
    In addition, what do you make of this, (op. cit., paragraph on his religious views):

    Penrose is an atheist.[31] In the film A Brief History of Time, he said, “I think I would say that the universe has a purpose, it’s not somehow just there by chance … some people, I think, take the view that the universe is just there and it runs along – it’s a bit like it just sort of computes, and we happen somehow by accident to find ourselves in this thing. But I don’t think that’s a very fruitful or helpful way of looking at the universe, I think that there is something much deeper about it.“[32] Penrose is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association.

    So he’s an atheist. Good. He’s a Humanist. Fine. But what is this crap about some sort of deeper meaning? It makes his proclamation of atheism rather suspect.

  2. says

    I love asking theists about their theory of ensoulment. I have never encountered one that can withstand even basic challenge. I haven’t yet encountered a theory of ensoulment that doesn’t violate conservation laws. Fun questions:
    1) is your soul always operating?
    2) if your soul is energy, where does it fall on the EM spectrum?
    3) are souls disrupted by xrays, cosmic rays, ultraviolet light, or sound waves? (Does heavy metal affect your soul?)
    4) does your soul consume energy from your body? Is it self-powering? How does it get its energy?
    5) describe how the soul interacts with the body
    6) of what material or energy are prayers made?

    Most of the time I get one or two moves in response:
    -- I dont know but I know it is real
    -- It is an unknown energy

    The latter is funny because then we get to diacuss how the EM spectrum is fully mapped and there are no unknown energies except dark energy which we know does not interact with baryonic matter like bodies.

  3. says

    But I don’t think that’s a very fruitful or helpful way of looking at the universe, I think that there is something much deeper about it.

    He’s never going to compete with Deepak Chopra if he doesn’t make more aggressive claims.

  4. says

    while our bodies may perish, our true essence will live on forever.

    That sound you heard was all the conservation laws flushing down the toilet.

    What remains of us that can sustain itself after we die? Other people’s memories of us is the only answer I’ve ever come up with.

  5. busterggi says

    Don’t know if its dogma but I’ve had Jehovah’s Witnesses tell me that the soul is in the blood and that is why their religion refuses blood transfusions. I asked how many people have part of my soul then as I’ve donated gallons of blood -- do my acions affect their damnation/salvation or do their actions affect mine -- but the conversation ended right there every time.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Reginald Selkirk @2: Well yes, they’re well out of the mainstream. That in itself doesn’t invalidate anything. I’m not qualified to discuss his reasoning about Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, but I tentatively accept the expert consensus that he got that wrong.

    While I don’t take them very seriously, I certainly don’t dismiss out of hand his interpretation of wave function collapse, or his notion that quantum coherence might play some role in brain function.

    If you judge people by their book titles, the list of those you don’t take seriously must be huge.

    As for speculations about “meaning”, I try not to judge based on a quote from a pop-sci documentary. I know Penrose has always had an eye to deeper structures than those we have. He may have meant nothing more than that. So nothing necessarily “mystical” or “bonkers”.

  7. cartomancer says

    Ah, now this sort of thing is very much my wheelhouse. My doctoral thesis looked at medieval thought on the soul during the late Twelfth and early Thirteenth centuries, when the works of Aristotle, Galen and numerous other ancient thinkers were translated into Latin for a Western European audience.

    It’s a fair article. But I would say that, like so many potted histories of an idea, it falls into the “empty sandwich” model of intellectual history -- lots on ancient thought, little or nothing in the middle, pick up the story again in the Renaissance or Enlightenment. Given that the soul and its relationship to the body were among the most fundamental and widely discussed of all issues in Medieval thought, this is even more of a mistake here than it is elsewhere. In particular it downplays and fundamentally misrepresents the Aristotelian model of the soul -- the basis of almost all Medieval speculation (after religious texts, Boethius and the Aeneid, Aristotle’s Peri Psyches, in its Latin form De Anima, is the most common surviving manuscript of all from this period)).

    The article touches on Aristotle’s soul only to contrast his ideas about the seat of motion, sensation and thought (from De Partibus Animalium) with those of Galen. It implies, by omission, that Aristotle’s notion of the soul was very similar to Plato’s. But it wasn’t. Aristotle did not think, as Plato did, that the soul was some kind of incorporeal entity from a higher state of existence that enabled the human to tap in to the divine world of Ideas and the Logos. To Aristotle the soul was the substantial form and organising principle of the body (morphe) -- it was the shape and configuration that made the matter (hyle) of the body do what bodies do (sensation, movement, rational thought), rather than not being able to do those things as would be the case in an unformed heap of the same matter. If you put a human in a blender and separated out each particle of the matter, you would find no soul matter there because the soul is not the matter, it is the way the matter is put together (and you’ve just blended that out of existence).

    Aristotle thought that there were three levels of soul, corresponding to particular faculties of the body. The lowest level was the vegetative soul, which enabled the body to take in nourishment and reproduce itself. Plants had this kind of soul. The second level was the motive soul, which enabled the body to sense its environment in one or more ways and to move. Animal souls had both this and the previous level. The third layer of soul was the rational soul, the human soul, which could do thinking on top of the rest. So while Aristotle did identify the heart as the organ responsible for processing sensation and thought, he did not think of it as the location of the soul. More accurate would be to say that the soul was the metaphysical spec sheet that specified how the heart (in the context of the whole body) was made such that it could support these functions. Aristotle did offer a brief speculation in the third book of De Anima that if there was any part of the process of thinking that required non-corporeal inputs then the rational part of the soul at least would be immortal, but he did not pursue the question further. Late antique Aristotelians such as Alexander of Aphrodisias did, and concluded that there wasn’t so the soul was mortal and ended with the death of the body. Christian Aristotelians came to the opposite conclusion, taking their scriptural evidence into account. Christian and Islamic thinkers respected Aristotle for his scientific insights, but they were also thoroughly committed to a soul that was much more like Plato’s -- elevated, supernal, immortal and in touch with the divine. Augustine more than anyone made the Neoplatonic tradition in philosophy a part of Christian thought, and Medieval speculation on the soul worked to reconcile the two very different models into one complete whole -- a whole that accounted for both the soul’s relationship with the ideal and the supernal and its relationship with the bodily and the mundane.

    Medieval Islamic and (particularly) Christian adaptations of Aristotle’s model, however, did reintroduce speculations about how the soul might be mapped on to the body. In particular the doctrine of the Resurrection insisted that, at the end of time, all the dead would be brought back to life, their bodies restored, and they would go to their ultimate fate in the hereafter as complete human beings. This meant both body and soul. Theologians asked many questions about how this would work in practice -- what happened to the matter of limbs eaten by fish for instance? What about stillborn babies? Even, what if one man eats the matter of another and turns it into his own matter? Who would that matter come back as? We tend to think of the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection as some mystical transfiguration, but to Medieval thought it was a very real flesh-and-blood thing. In fact sects that proposed anything else were considered heretical and persecuted -- such as the Amauricians and Oribasianists. To the Amauricians the body would be transformed into pure spiritual matter during the Resurrection, and then united first with the soul and then with God. Mainstream medieval theologians would not abide this notion -- it suggested that corporeal matter was somehow impure and inadequate, and since God decided to create corporeal matter in the first place, that suggested God had made a mistake. Meanwhile dualist heretics like the Cathars believed that there would be no resurrection -- the body was irredeemably tainted by nature, a trap for the soul made by the evil principle in the universe, and the Judgment at the end of time would simply be the total separation of matter from spirit to return things to how they always should have been.

    Post-Enlightenment speculation on the possible dissection of bodies and souls thus draws on a much earlier tradition of thought along exactly the same lines -- albeit one with well-defined philosophical answers as to why it’s not something to worry about.

  8. michael42 says

    I am an archaeologist. I think the concept of a soul or spirit is much older than the Greeks and Egyptians. Ancient hunter-gathers left grave goods in burials for use in the after life over 70,000 years ago. Hunters also believed in animal spirits in the animals they hunted, and the spirits had to be shown respect. Animal totem beliefs come from around the world where the spirits of different animals are revered by different clans. Many groups have ancestor worship where the spirits of the ancestors can intervene in their behalf. The temple, Gobekli Tepe from 11,500 B.C. from Pre-Pottery Neolithic A & B, is thought by some researchers to be built by a cult of the dead. The researchers speculate that the stone pillars represent ancestors, and the carved animals are there to protect the dead. All of these seem to point to a belief in souls and spirits in prehistoric times.

  9. CJO says

    Moss and Barron say that the concept did not originate with Christianity but entered it from the Greeks, suggesting that it originated with them. I am not so sure about this. That may be a somewhat western-centric view and, although I have not looked into it, I would not be surprised if the ancient philosophies of the East also had similar concepts. The strong sense that we have of an enduring personal identity is universal and can easily morph into viewing it as something distinct from the body.

    Yes, there are soul-concepts much older than the Greek. But I would characterize them as coming more from Near Eastern folk-psychology or folk-anthropologies than from “philosophies” per se, and that is one of the challenges in teasing out these concepts and making them conform to modern or even Classical concepts: Greek philosophy and medieval harmonizations of Christian soteriology and Aristotelian metaphysics are self-consciously analytical in a way that earlier systems of thought simply were not.

    And indeed, in my view, going back to earliest Christianity, a great deal of the metaphysical incoherence of texts like the letters of Paul on such matters comes from the conceptual confusion between the Greek concept of an immortal, incorporeal psuche and the Near-Eastern derived Hebrew-scriptures’ concept. In a nutshell, the difference is stark: for the Greeks, a psuche had an independent existence from a living body, which it inhabited in life and separated from it, intact, in death, whereas in the Judean and earlier Semitic and Near Eastern cultures, the soul-analog was the animating force of the living body and had no independent purpose other than that. A dead body was dead precisely because the “breath” that was the soul had departed it, to maintain some ultimately body-like existence in a shadowy version of life in some underworld. (Or not, ghosts were the dangerous apparitions of the dead who had not had the correct funeral preparations; entry into the afterlife was contingent on actions of the living, one of the fearful aspects of death far from home, at sea, or shamefully unburied following execution.)

    Anyway, a quick rundown of some ancient Near Easters soul concepts:
    The Akkadian etennu was the name for the ghost that inhabited the netherworld of the Mesopotamian cultures. Derived from mythological texts, it is not always clear whether this had a role as the animating force in life, or was somehow engendered by the body’s transition from living person to inert corpse.
    Mesopotamian folk-anthropology, in common with other Semitic conceptions, had the basic animating principle as physiology: either the breath or the heartbeat, or both. Thus Biblical Hebrew nephesh, breath, wind, soul; cognate with Akkadian n-b-s. There was also the concept of a ‘dream-soul’ which was imagined to briefly leave the body to experience dreams; this might be closer to a folk-psychological concept of personality or ‘perceiving soul’.
    The Egyptian concepts were interesting and as usual for that culture, quite unique. Egyptian folk-anthropology held that there were five parts of a person: the body, the name, the shadow (odd, but a salient presence in that sun-drenched valley), and the ba and the ka. The last two are the soul-concept-analogs, with the ka being more tied to the body as an animating force and the ba closer in meaning to our ‘personality’ or, better, ‘will’. In order to be fully present in the afterlife as an “awakened akh” the honored dead needed to have the ba and the ka reunited after death by means of famously elaborate funeral preparations lasting weeks, and culminating in the ritual of ‘opening of the mouth’. The troublesome dead, free to roam out of the underworld at night and in liminal zones, were conceived of as errant kas, separated from their moderating ba, and seeking to harm the living.

  10. Mano Singham says

    Rob @#1,

    Perhaps bonkers was too strong a word. Penrose hasn’t gone full Polkinghorne yet (I am referring to John Polkinghorne, an eminent particle physicist who later in life decided to become an Anglican priest and became a full-bore Jesus-is-the son-of-god apologist) but he has become somewhat mystical in his approaches to things like consciousness and the universe, seeming to seek explanations that go beyond naturalism and verge on the supernatural.

  11. Mano Singham says

    Wow, this has been an extremely interesting and informative discussion! Thanks to all who have shared their detailed knowledge.

  12. says

    The soul? Why, I thought everyone knew it lives in the lower intestine and smells of sulfur. It feeds on certain vegetables and its DNA is that of gut bacteria. It’s first name is “Arr” and some of it frequently leaves the body to annoy the souls around it.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mano @13: What I see is a brilliant mind willing to risk a pratfall on a dodgy (but by no means supernatural) conjecture. I’m not going to be among the crows cawing that they knew it was crap all along.

  14. grasshopper says

    I know where my soul is. Even after fifty years, my first girlfriend still has it.
    And, I think, I still have hers.

  15. Dunc says

    I just have to second both Marcus @10 and Mano @14: some really great comments here folks!

  16. Owlmirror says

    I am interested to see if you have any thoughts on this summary of Aristotle’s ideas, from Armand Leroi’s documentary “Aristotle’s Lagoon”.

    Aristotle’s Lagoon part 3 of 4 — the first 3 minutes or so.

    Leroi speaks about Aristotle’s ideas as mapped to modern concepts of biology. It certainly looks very similar to what you write in your comment #9, but.

    Leroi also wrote a book — The Lagoon — on the topic, and while I have not read it, a quick search in the book for the term “soul” finds many hits inside, with much discussion of what Aristotle thought on the topic.

  17. KG says

    Rob Grigjanis@16,

    Well there’s so much utter crap in The Emperor’s New Mind that I don’t and can’t take Penrose seriously outside his areas of real expertise.

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