Philosophy Magazine

I Need a Soul To Do Science

By Stuart_gray @stuartg__uk

I Need a Soul To Do Science

Some of my friends are real science geeks … and I like them a lot. Usually whenever the subject of the human soul comes up with them, I detect a rolling of the eyes. “Come on Stuart,” they say. “People are just physical, biological machines. We have brains, we are alive, we can think, and that’s enough. Why bother with religious, metaphysical stuff like the soul that cannot be proven scientifically?”

Not all science geeks think like that. I happen to be in this different camp. In fact, I would go so far to say you NEED a soul to do science in the first place.[1]


What’s a soul? Moreland describes it as a substantial, unified reality giving form to its body. It’s fully present throughout the body, and immaterial, relating to the body in a cause-effect way. One of the properties of the soul, is the mind.

What is science? There are a billion definitions. But we usually agree it involves making a set of observations that we analyze in order to come to some sort of (usually material) conclusion. Everyone will probably have their own definition of the scientific method as it is applied in their field. But – notice that:

1 – We need to be able to make free choices as we follow the scientific method. We are assimilating lots of data from various sources and deciding which are important and, crucially, what conclusions we can freely draw from them.

2 – We need to apply reason and judgement to form conclusions based on this information.

Given that using the scientific method involves us thinking in these ways, if I am just a biological machine with a physical brain and no immaterial mind, this makes the practice of the scientific method impossible. If I think I am being cleverly scientific to say that people have brains but no souls, then I need to think again.

Why do I claim this?

Blaise Pascal, 17th century French mathematician, explains:

“[W]e are composed of two opposite natures … soul and body. For it is impossible that our rational part should be other than spiritual; and if any one maintain that we are simply corporeal, this would far more exclude us from the knowledge of things … [it would be nonsense to say] matter knows itself. It is impossible to imagine how it should know itself. So, if we are simply material, we can know nothing at all.”[2]

He’s saying that if I’m just a brain, this doesn’t just destroy my ability to engage in science, but it also kills any and every form of rational thought. If I’m just physical matter and the inevitable behavior of matter, I cannot know anything at all. Why?

First, because a physical brain alone is just controlled by the activity of physics and chemistry. As atheist philosopher Nagel points out, “There is no room for agency in a world of neural impulses, chemical reactions, and bone and muscle movements.”[3] Science requires the thoughts of an agent, and physical brains are incapable of free thought. We might think we are free, but actually our conscious choices are “produced by inevitable physical processes in the brain over which we have no directive control.”[4] If we aren’t freely observing, categorising and theorising, then surely we aren’t doing science? Physicalism undermines our ability to do these things.

Second, the activity of free agency cannot come from brain states, but must come from mind or soul. This is because physical brain states are always dependant on prior physical brain states. They are therefore not freely chosen by an agent, but are again determined. In order for me to make freely chosen choices, I need an “immaterial ‘I,’ a self who can intervene in the physical workings of the brain according to a conscious intention.”[5] But if I am a physical brain and my mental life is constrained to the properties of my brain alone, I’m locked in and do not have this freedom.

Third – if I’m just a physical brain, then I can never that is the case! If my thoughts are physical and physically determined, then they are controlled by chemistry and not the laws of logic. “Blind chemical processes cannot take principles of good reasoning into account and therefore do not constitute genuine rationality (even though such processes could accidently produce a result that conforms to the laws of logic.”[6] If I’m a determined being and have no freedom, then I can never break out of this state to discover that I am determined. There is no vantage point outside that I can reach to observe this fact. So – to say I’m only a brain is actually self-refuting. I can never know that.

Fourth, if my thoughts are controlled by the motions of matter, I have no reason to claim that my mind is aimed at understanding truth. Motions of matter are just motion of matter, there is no truth about it. But we cannot live this way, we operate from an assumption that we are rational beings and “rationality requires a mind that can consciously direct its own activity to arrive upon the truth (such as mathematical solutions) through correct reasoning.”[7] Science is supposed to be all about finding out the truth. Well, none of this appears to be available to us if I’m just a physical brain in a body without a soul.

If I don’t have an immaterial mind or soul, then rational free thought is off the table, and so the practice of scientific methods becomes impossible. I need a soul to do science. So – because science geeks love to do great science – this points to them (and us) being embodied souls.

I think we need a soul to do science.

[1] J. P. Moreland, The Soul How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014).

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, Great Books of the Western World, vol 30 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 184.

[3] Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 111.

[4] Melissa Cain Travis, Science and the Mind of the Maker, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2018),  kindle edition, loc 3069.

[5] Travis, loc 3080.

[6] Travis, loc 3130.

[7] Travis, loc 3109.

Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash

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