What Is The Soul?

This article covers the answer to the question: “What Is The Soul?

In many religious and philosophical systems, the word “soul” denotes the inner essence of a being comprising its locus of sapience (self-awareness) and metaphysical identity. Souls are usually described as immortal (surviving death in an afterlife) and incorporeal (without bodily form); however, some consider souls to have a material component, and have even tried to establish the mass (or weight) of the soul. Additionally, while souls are often described as immortal they are not necessarily eternal or indestructible, as is commonly assumed.

Throughout history, the belief in the existence of a soul has been a common feature in most of the world’s religions and cultures, although some major religions (notably Buddhism) reject the notion of an eternal soul. Those not belonging to an organized religion still often believe in the existence of souls although some cultures posit more than one soul in each person (see below). The metaphysical concept of a soul is often linked with ideas such as reincarnation, heaven, and hell.

The word “soul” can also refer to a type of modern music (see Soul Music).


The modern English word soul derives from the Old English sáwol, sáwel, which itself comes from the Old High German sêula, sêla. The Germanic word is a translation of the Greek psychē (ψυχή- “life, spirit, consciousness”) by missionaries such as Ulfila, apostle to the Goths (fourth century C.E.).


There is no universal agreement on the nature, origin, or purpose of the soul although there is much consensus that life, as we know it, does involve some deeper animating force inherent in all living beings (or at least in humans). In fact, the concept of an intrinsic life-force in all organisms has been a pervasive cross-cultural human belief. Many preliterate cultures embraced notions of animism and shamanism postulating early ideas of the soul. Over time, philosophical reflection on the nature of the soul/spirit, and their relationship to the material world became more refined and sophisticated. In particular, the ancient Greeks and Hindu philosophers, for example, eventually distinguished different aspects of the soul, or alternatively, asserted the non-dualism of the cosmic soul.

Greek philosophers used many words for soul such as thymos, ker/kardie, phren/phrenes, menos, noos, and psyche. Eventually, the Greeks differentiated between soul and spirit (psychē and pneuma respectively) and suggested that “aliveness” and the soul were conceptually linked.

However, it is not entirely clear that a single being had only one soul, as is often believed today. In fact, several ancient cultures such as the Egyptians and the Chinese posited that individual beings comprised of different souls (or had different elements in their soul). For instance, Egyptian mythology taught that an individual was made up of various elements, some physical and some spiritual, the Ren (name), the  (personality), the Ka (vital spark), the Sheut (shadow), and the Jb (heart). Chinese tradition suggests that every individual has two types of soul called hun and po. Daoism considers there are ten elements to the soul: three hun and seven po.

It is also debated whether both animals and humans have souls, or only humans. In some systems of thought, souls are restricted to human beings while in other systems, souls encompass all life forms. These questions are often related to larger issues of creation and the relationship of the Creator to the created.

Consequently, the definition of a soul is not as straightforward as it may seem for it is confounded by issues of whether their is one soul or many, whether souls are pre-existent or created, and whether they are unified or separated, as well as their relationship to a divine being. For these reasons, it is impossible to come up with a universally recognized definition of a soul, although in popular spirituality souls are generally perceived to be the inner essence of a person that survives death and is essentially spiritual, although these views many not accord with scriptural teachings.

Soul Woman Person Smoke Light Sad Spirit Mask

Soul of a Woman

Philosophical Perspectives

Among Western philosophers, the ancient Greeks provided much insight into the nature of the soul. Two paradigmatic viewpoints were articulated by the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato, drawing on the words of his teacher Socrates, considered the soul as the essence of a person, which is an incorporeal, eternal occupant of our being. As our bodies die the soul is continually reborn in subsequent bodies. For Plato, the soul comprises three parts, each having a function in a balanced and peaceful life:

  1. the logos (superego, mind, nous, or reason). The logos corresponds to the charioteer, directing the balanced horses of appetite and spirit. It allows for logic to prevail, and for the optimisation of balance

  2. the thymos (emotion, ego, or spiritedness). The thymos comprises our emotional motive (ego), that which drives us to acts of bravery and glory. If left unchecked, it leads to hubris—the most fatal of all flaws in the Greek view.

  3. the pathos (appetitive, id, or carnal). The pathos equates to the appetite (id) that drives humankind to seek out its basic bodily needs. When the passion controls us, it drives us to hedonism in all forms. In the Ancient Greek view, this is the basal and most feral state.

Although Aristotle agreed with Plato that the soul is the core essence of a being, he argued against its having a separate existence. Unlike Plato, Aristotle did not consider the soul as some kind of separate, ghostly occupant of the body. According to him, the soul is an actuality of a living body, and thus it cannot be immortal. Aristotle describes this concept of the soul in many of his works such as the De Anima. He believed that there were four parts, or powers, of the soul: the calculative part, the scientific part on the rational side used for making decisions and the desiderative part and the vegetative part on the irrational side responsible for identifying our needs.

Pre-Pythagorean belief was that the soul had no life when it departed from the body, and retired into Hades with no hope of returning to a body.

Departed Souls

Departed Souls

Religious views

An alphabetical survey of some religious views on the soul is provided below:

Bahá’í beliefs

The principle figure of the Bahá’í Faith, known as Bahá’u’lláh, taught that individuals have no existence previous to their life here on earth. A human being spends nine months in the womb in preparation for entry into this physical life. During that nine-month period, the fetus acquires the physical tools (e.g., eyes, limbs, and so forth) necessary for existence in this world. He said that similarly, this physical world is like a womb for entry into the spiritual world. Our time here is thus a period of preparation during which we are to acquire the spiritual and intellectual tools necessary for life in the next world. The crucial difference is that, whereas physical development in the mother’s womb is involuntary, spiritual and intellectual development in this world depends strictly on conscious individual effort. The soul’s evolution is always towards God and away from the material world.

Chinese beliefs

The ancient Chinese believed that every person’s soul consisted of at least two distinct parts: p’o and hun. The p‘o is the visible personality indissolubly attached to the body, while the hun was its more ethereal complement also interpenetrating the body, but not of necessity tied to it. The hun in its wanderings may be either visible or invisible; if the former, it appears in the guise of its original body, which actually may be far away lying in a trance-like state tenanted by the p‘o. Furthermore, the body is duplicated under these conditions, but also the garments that clothe it. Should the hun stay away permanently, death results.

Most Daoist schools believe that every individual has more than one soul (or the soul can be separated into different parts) and these souls are constantly transforming themselves. Some believe there are at least three souls for every person: one soul coming from one’s father, one from one’s mother, and one primordial soul. An important part of spiritual practice for some Taoist schools is to harmonize/integrate those three souls.

Some other schools believe there are ten souls for each person: three from heaven, seven from earth.

Christian beliefs

Some Christians regard the soul as the immortal essence of a human – the seat or locus of human will, understanding, and personality – and that after death, God either rewards or punishes the soul. (Different groups dispute whether this reward/punishment depends upon doing good deeds, or merely upon believing in God and in Jesus.) Other Christians reject the idea of the immortality of the soul, citing the Apostles Creed’s reference to the “resurrection of the body” (the Greek word for body is soma, which implies the whole person, not sarx, the term for flesh or corpse). They consider the soul to be the life force, which ends in death and is restored in the resurrection. In this theory, the soul goes to “sleep” at the time of death, and stays in this quiescent state until the last judgment. However, other Christians that believe the soul will be destroyed in hell, instead of suffering eternally.

One of the main issues is whether the body and soul are separate or there is unity, and whether they remain so after death. In popular thinking, it is often presumed that the soul survives death separate from the body but scriptural analysis suggests that the resurrected person involves both body and soul together and unified. Seventh-Day Adventists believe that the main definition of the term “Soul” is a combination of Spirit (breath of life) and body, defying the view that the soul has a consciousness or sentient existence of its own. They affirm this through Genesis 2:7 “And (God) breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Yet, other passages from the Bible seem to contradict this view. For example, “Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief.” The soul and body are noted as separate. Psalm 63:1 “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Here the body and soul are noted as separate again. Micah 6:7 “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Once again, the soul and body are noted separate.

Augustine, one of the most influential early Christian thinkers, described the soul as “a special substance, endowed with reason, adapted to rule the body.” The apostle Paul said that the “body wars against” the soul, and that “I buffet my body,” to keep it under control. Saint Thomas Aquinas understood the soul as the first principle, or act, of the body. However, his epistemological theory required that, since the intellectual soul is capable of knowing all material things, and since in order to know a material thing there must be no material thing within it, the soul was definitely not corporeal. Therefore, the soul had an operation separate from the body and therefore could subsist without the body. Furthermore, since the rational soul of human beings was subsistent and was not made up of matter and form, it could not be destroyed in any natural process. The full argument for the immortality of the soul and Thomas’s elaboration of Aristotelian theory is found in Question 75 of the Summa Theologica.

The present Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the soul as “the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image: ‘soul’ signifies the spiritual principle in man.” The soul is the center of the human will, intellect (or mind), and imagination (or memory), and the source of all free human acts, although good acts are aided by God’s grace. At the moment of death, the soul goes either to Purgatory, Heaven, or Hell. Purgatory is a place of atonement for sins that one goes through to pay the temporal punishment for post-baptismal sins that have not been atoned for by sufferings during one’s earthly life. This is distinct from the atonement for the eternal punishment due to sin which was affected by Christ’s suffering and death. Eastern Orthodox views are very similar to Catholic views while Protestants generally believe both in the soul’s existence but do not generally believe in Purgatory.

Hindu beliefs

In Hinduism, several Sanskrit words are used to denote the “soul” within living beings. These words include “Jiva” (individual soul), Atman (intrinsic divine essence), and “Purusha” (spirit), among others. Hinduism contains many variant beliefs on the origin, purpose, and fate of the soul. For example, Advaita (non-dualism) accords the soul union with Brahman (the Absolute) in eventuality or in pre-existing fact. Dvaita (dualism) rejects this position, instead identifying the soul as a different and incompatible substance.

The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most significant Hindu scriptures, refers to the spiritual body or soul as Purusha (see also Sankhya philosophy). The Purusha is part and parcel of God, is unchanging (is never born and never dies), is indestructible, and, though essentially indivisible, can be described as having three characteristics: (i)’ ‘Sat (truth or existence), (ii) Chit (consciousness or knowledge), and (iii) Ananda (bliss).

Islamic beliefs

Main articles: Ruh, Nafs in Islam, and Nafs (The Soul)

The Qur’an does not explain much about the concept of the soul. However, the following information can be inferred. According to the Holy Qur’an (Sura 15 verse 29), the creation of man involves Allah or an Angel of Allah “breathing” a soul into man. This intangible part of an individual’s existence is “pure” at birth and has the potential of growing and achieving nearness to God if the person leads a righteous life. At death the person’s soul transitions to an eternal afterlife of bliss, peace, and unending spiritual growth (Qur’an 66:8, 39:20). This transition can be pleasant (Heaven) or unpleasant (Hell) depending on the degree to which a person has developed or destroyed his or her soul during life (Qur’an 91:7-10).

Thus, it is generally believed that all living beings are comprised of two aspects during their existence: the physical (being the body) and the non-physical (being the soul). The non-physical aspect, namely the soul, includes his/her feelings and emotions, thoughts, conscious and sub-conscious desires and objectives. While the body and its physical actions are said to serve as a “reflection” of one’s soul, whether it is good or evil, thus confirming the extent of such intentions.

Jain beliefs

According to Jainism, Soul (jiva) exists as a reality, having a separate existence from the body that houses it. Every being – be it a human or a plant or a bacterium – has a soul and has a capacity to experience pain and pleasure. The soul (Jiva) is differentiated from non-soul or non-living reality (ajiva) that includes matter, time, space, principle of motion and principle of rest.

As realization of the soul and its salvation are the highest objective to be attained, most of the Jaina texts deal with various aspects of the soul (i.e., its qualities, attributes, bondage, interaction with other elements, salvation etc.). The soul is described as being without taste, color and cannot be perceived by the five senses. Consciousness is its chief attribute. To know the soul is to be free of any gender and not bound by any dimensions of shape and size. Hence the soul, according to Jainism, is indestructible and permanent from the point of view of substance. It is temporary and ever changing from the point of view of its modes. The soul continuously undergoes modifications as per the karma it attracts and hence reincarnates in the following four states of existence – 1) as a Demi-God in Heaven, or 2) as a tormented soul in Hell, or 3) as a Human being on Continents, or 4) as an Animal, or a Plant, or as a Micro-organism. The soul will remain in bondage until it attains liberation. The liberated soul, which is formless and incorporeal in nature, is said to experience infinite knowledge, omniscience, infinite power and infinite bliss after liberation. Even after liberation and attainment of Godhood, the soul does not merge into any entity (as in other philosophies), but maintains its individuality.

Jewish beliefs

According to the Hebrew Bible, the origin of the soul is described in the Book of Genesis, which states “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7 New JPS). In other books of the Tanakh, Rachel’s death in Genesis 35:18 equates with her soul (Hebrew nephesh) departing. Later, when Elijah prays in 1 Kings 17:21 for the return of a widow’s boy to life, he entreats, “O Lord my God, I pray you, let this child’s nephesh come into him again.” Thus, death in the Torah meant that something called nephesh (or “soul”) became separated from the body, and life could return when this soul returned. Classical rabbinic literature provided various commentaries on the Torah, which elucidated the nature of the soul. For example, Saadia Gaon, in his Emunoth ve-Deoth 6:3, held that the soul comprises that part of a person’s mind that constitutes physical desire, emotion, and thought. Maimonides, in his The Guide to the Perplexed, viewed the soul through the lens of neo-Aristotelian philosophy, as a person’s developed intellect.

Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) saw the soul as having three elements: the nephesh, ru’ah, and neshamah. A common way of explaining these three parts follows:

  • Nephesh – The part that is alive and signifies that which is vital in man: it feels hunger, hates, loves, loathes, weeps, and most importantly, can die (can depart from the body, but can sometimes come back in again). The nephesh is in all humans and enters the body at birth when the body first takes a breath. Animals also have a nephesh (they breathe), but plants do not. It is the source of one’s physical and psychological nature.

The next two parts of the soul are not implanted at birth, but are slowly created over time; their development depends on the actions and beliefs of the individual. They are said to only fully exist in people awakened spiritually:

  • Ruach – the middle soul, or spirit. It contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. In modern parlance, it equates to psyche or ego-personality.
  • Neshamah – the higher soul, Higher Self or super-soul. This distinguishes man from all other life forms. It relates to the intellect, and allows man to enjoy and benefit from the afterlife. This part of the soul is provided both to Jew and non-Jew alike at birth. It allows one to have some awareness of the existence and presence of God. In the Zohar, after death, the Nefesh disintegrates, Ruach is sent to a sort of intermediate zone where it is submitted to purification and enters in “temporary paradise,” while Neshamah returns to the source, the world of Platonic ideas, where it enjoys “the kiss of the beloved.” Supposedly after resurrection, Ruach and Neshamah, soul and spirit re-unite in a permanently transmuted state of being.

The Raaya Meheimna, a Kabbalistic tractate always published with the Zohar, posits two more parts of the human soul, the chayyah and yehidah. Gershom Scholem wrote that these “were considered to represent the sublimest levels of intuitive cognition, and to be within the grasp of only a few chosen individuals”:

  • Chayyah – The part of the soul that allows one to have an awareness of the divine life force itself.
  • Yehidah – the highest plane of the soul, in which one can achieve as full a union with God as is possible.

Sikh beliefs

Sikhism considers the Atma (soul) to be part of the Universal Soul, which is God (Parmatma). The Sikh holy book is known as the “Guru Granth Sahib” contains various hymns that affirm the loving relationship between Atma and God:

“God is in the Soul and the Soul is in the God.”
“The soul is divine; divine is the soul. Worship Him with love.”
“The soul is the Lord, and the Lord is the soul; contemplating the Shabad, the Lord is found.”

Sundry beliefs

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) believe that the soul is the union of a spirit, which was previously created by God, and a body, which is formed by physical conception later.
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses view the Hebrew word NePHeSH in its literal concrete meaning of “breath,” making a person who is animated by the spirit of God into a living BREATHER, rather than a body containing an invisible entity such as the majority concept of Soul. Spirit is seen to be anything powerful and invisible symbolized by the Hebrew word RuaCH which has the literal meaning of wind. Thus Soul is used by them to mean a person rather than an invisible core entity associated with a spirit or a force, which leaves the body at or after death. (Gen.2:7; Ezek.18:4, KJV). When a person dies his Soul leaves him meaning that he has stopped breathing and his fate for any future existence rests solely with God who they believe has the power to re-create the whole person and restore their existence. This is in line with their belief that Hell represents the grave and the possibility of eternal death for unbelievers rather than eternal torment.

Contrary Ideas



Buddhist beliefs

Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent, in a constant state of flux; all is transient, and no abiding state exists by itself. This applies to humanity, as much as to anything else in the cosmos; thus, there is no unchanging and abiding self. Our sense of “I” or “me” is simply a sense, belonging to the ever-changing entity, that (conventionally speaking) is us, our body, and our mind. This expresses in essence the Buddhist principle of anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: anātman).

Buddhist teaching holds that the delusion of a permanent, abiding self is one of the main root causes of human conflict. They add that understanding of anatta (or “not-self or no soul”) provides an accurate description of the human condition and that this understanding allows us to go beyond our mundane desires. Buddhists can speak in conventional terms of the “self” as a matter of convenience, but only under the conviction that ultimately we are changing entities. In death, the body and mind disintegrate; if the disintegrating mind is still in the grip of delusion, it will cause the continuity of the consciousness to bounce back from an arising mind to an awaiting being, that is, a fetus developing the ability to harbor consciousness.

However, some scholars have noted a curious development in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, stemming from the Cittamatra and Vijnanavada schools in India: although this school of thought denies the permanent personal selfhood, it affirms concepts such as Buddha-nature, Tathagatagarbha, Rigpa, or “original nature.” Matsumoto argues that these concepts constitute a non- or trans-personal self, and almost equate in meaning to the Hindu concept of Atman, although they differ in that Buddha-nature does not incarnate.

Atheism and scientific skepticism

Atheists do not usually accept the existence of a soul. Modern skeptics often cite phenomena such as brain lesions and Alzheimer’s disease as supposed evidence that one’s personality is material and contrary to the philosophy of an immortal, unified soul.

Science and medicine seek naturalistic accounts of the observable natural world. This stance is known as methodological naturalism. From this perspective, for the soul to exist it would have to manifest as a form of energy mediated by a force. However, only four forces have been experimentally confirmed to exist (strong interaction, weak interaction, electromagnetism and gravitation). The only force which operates relevantly at the human scale is electromagnetism. This force is understood and described by Quantum Electrodynamics and Special Relativity. Any additional force acting upon humans or emanating from the mind would be detected in laboratories as an aberration of the predictable behavior of electromagnetism. Much of scientific study relating to the soul has been involved in investigating the soul as a human belief or as concept that shapes cognition and understanding of the world (see Memetics), rather than as an entity in and of itself.

When modern scientists speak of the soul outside of this cultural and psychological context, it is generally as a poetic synonym for mind. Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis, for example, has the subtitle, “The scientific search for the soul.” Crick holds the position that one can learn everything knowable about the human soul by studying the workings of the human brain. Depending on one’s belief regarding the relationship between the soul and the mind, then, the findings of neuroscience may be relevant to one’s understanding of the soul.

Nevertheless, in recent decades, much research has been done on near-death experiences, which are held by many as evidence for the existence of a soul and afterlife. Researchers, most notably Ian Stevenson and Brian Weiss have studied reports of children talking about past-life experiences. Any evidence that these experiences were in fact real would require a change in scientific understanding of the mind or would support some notions of the soul.

During the late nineteenth and first half twentieth century, researchers attempted to weigh people who were known to be dying, and record their weight accurately at the time of death. As an example, Dr. Duncan MacDougall, in the early 1900s, sought to measure the weight purportedly lost by a human body when the soul departed the body upon death. MacDougall weighed dying patients in an attempt to prove that the soul was material and measurable. These experiments are widely considered to have had little if any scientific merit:

MacDougall’s results were flawed because the methodology used to harvest them was suspect, the sample size far too small, and the ability to measure changes in weight imprecise. For this reason, credence should not be given to the idea his experiments proved something, let alone that they measured the weight of the soul as 21 grams. His postulations on this topic are a curiosity, but nothing more.

Origin of the Soul

The origin of the soul has provided a sometimes vexing question in Christianity; the major theories put forward include creationism, traducianism and pre-existence. According to creationism, each individual soul is created directly by God, either at the moment of conception, or some later time (identical twins arise several cell divisions after conception, but no one would deny that they have whole souls). According to traducianism, the soul comes from the parents by natural generation. According to the pre-existence theory the soul exists before the moment of conception.

According to the Roman Catholic Church, every human being receives a soul at the moment of conception, and has rights and dignity equal to persons of further development, including the right to life. Thus, the Catholic Church teaches the creationist view of the origin of the soul: “The doctrine of the faith affirms that the spiritual and immortal soul is created immediately by God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 382).

See also

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

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