May 29, 2024

Does the Soul Exist? A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective

Abby Vaccaro '24

Abby Vaccaro reading Psychology book. Photo courtesy of Abby Vaccaro

Let me say a few words of controversy: The soul, a nonphysical essence that makes us “us,” has never existed. I am certain that some readers may dismiss this article in disbelief, unwilling to read an excerpt with such tones of heresy. Naturally, the idea can be unnerving. How do you go to heaven without a soul? Let me disclose that I am not dismissing the soul altogether. The soul is a key component in how we portray God’s image, but perhaps it isn’t a separate domain from the physical body.  

Research in cognitive neuroscience has opened the door to further philosophical or theological questions. Maybe the soul’s human-defined function was a neurobiological system the whole time. Yes, I know I just ruffled some feathers. I should further disclose that I am not an atheist. Some may assume that this mechanistic way of thinking resides in those who “only believe in science,” but that is not the truth. I am myself a Christian, a believer who argues that science can anchor our questions in theological concepts. Why would God give us an engine to discover knowledge if it wasn’t meant to be discovered? 

The Mental Health, Religion & Culture Journal scrutinizes the soul and its implications in neuroscience. To gain a complete understanding of the topic, author Alison J. Gray provides a firm historical foundation in the early Hebraic text. The word “soul” or nephesh was not a separate essence from the body. The use of the word describes a “being” of life. As time passed and Jesus was resurrected, people were confused about how our souls would live eternally. How could both the soul and the buried body be resurrected? To better understand this concept, Christians were influenced by early Greek thinkers such as Plato or Aristotle. Plato believed that a person’s soul was imprisoned in their mortal body.  

According to Plato, the soul is what gives each person their essence and allows them to consciously make decisions and actions. Aristotle was Plato’s student, who ascribed to a similar philosophy. Now, with the help of the Greeks, Christians could understand the resurrection of the soul. Was this, however, the initial meaning of “the soul?” asks Gray. Many believe the soul is the center of consciousness. It grants us the power to make choices for our physical beings. It directs the brain, which maintains and facilitates bodily functions and actions. Though this makes sense on a theoretical level, on a physiological level, the unconscious brain calculates these decisions before your consciousness does. 

It was busy working so you could “feel” as if you had a conscious choice. In a 2019 UNSW Sydney Newsroom article, they reference the nature journal today on a study that parallels this claim. Two visualizations were presented for participants to freely choose between them. As they made their choice, an fMRI, a brain imaging technique that provides strong spatial resolution, was able to pinpoint activity around 11 seconds before the participant “consciously” made their choice.  

From this review, it is difficult to place a non-physical soul into a dualistic standard. Not only did historical biblical texts use the word “soul” in place of “a whole, living being,” but recent studies in cognitive neuroscience have shown results supporting a more mechanistic way of thinking in theology. You may still disagree with me. This is understandable, as I never would have considered this view two years ago in my early years as a Psychology Major. 

This concept can be daunting, as it may undermine our traditional human understanding of the resurrection of our souls after we die. Whatever that may look like, we can still trust in God’s plan for us after death. Despite the unknowns, this view challenges us to place greater trust in his promise, we can look forward to being with him in paradise. We are living souls, made in God image, and will be reborn after death in his glory.  

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