Wednesday, 1 March 2017

In defense of the soul

In this essay, I argue that we have good reasons to think that the soul exists. I use the Kantian conception of the soul as a point of departure - and show how this may find its application in contemporary quantum physics. I discuss the Penrose-Hameroff theory of consciousness in which they understand the soul in terms of quantum information which may continue existing after death. This is the fifth part in the series Science, Philosophy and God.

Long ago, there was a time when about everybody believed in the existence of the soul. Although the ancient peoples had various conceptions of the soul, they all believed that humans have souls which continue to exist after their death. In their view, the body governs our interaction with the material world and the soul governs our interaction with the spiritual world (spirit world). In our own time, the situation is very different. Whereas religious people, in general, believe in the existence of the soul, the non-religious does not.

One may propose that the soul is the great divider between believers (not only of the Christian faith) and atheists. The reason is that atheists, in general, do not believe in the existence of the human soul (there may be black swans!). Although atheism is often presented only in terms of non-belief (not believing in God or gods), the soul is part of a metaphysical worldview which is typically associated with religious belief. In spite of this, one may think that at least some atheists would try to understand any data that may be consistent with the religious conception of the soul within their own conceptual framework. We are, however, not even close to this happening and the purpose of the present essay is to present a working concept of the soul and then to argue that this is not only consistent with science but also that we have - even at this early stage - good reasons to think that the soul most probably exists.

The main question is: What would science be looking for insofar as the soul is concerned? What would be a sensible way to think of the soul which would allow scientific scrutiny thereof? As before in this series, I use the Kantian conceptual structure as a point of departure. I show what the Kantian conception of the soul entails and also how that concept may find its empirical confirmation in science (although, as in the case of dark matter, I think that only indirect empirical confirmation would be possible). I then argue that our current scientific knowledge is more in line with the possible existence of the soul than in conflict with it.

The Kantian conception of the soul

Kant distinguishes between three concepts of the self, all of which are closely connected with his concept of the soul. These are the "self as appearance", the "logical self" and the "noumenal self". The first two concepts are part of Kant's epistemology (the study of knowledge claims) and the second of his moral philosophy. Even so, Kant discusses all of these in his critique of rational psychology in the second part of his famous Critique of Pure Reason which focuses on epistemology.

What does Kant mean by these concepts? By the "self as appearance" - also known as the "phenomenal self" - Kant means one's sense of oneself as one appears to oneself (in the inner sense). Kant argues that all efforts to arrive at some knowledge of the soul through an analysis of the way in which we appear to ourselves are doomed to fail since insofar as such appearances are used to formulate a concept of our "logical self" (a pure analytic concept), which is then used to say something about the existence of the soul, that it is a step taken too far. Logical concepts do not necessarily imply a corresponding kind of existence!

We cannot proceed from an analytic judgment (i.e. from a judgment regarding pure concepts) to one which involves existence (for which a synthetic judgment is needed) without showing how that would be possible in the framework of our senses. We may formulate logical concepts but their reference to really existing things can only be established when these concepts are complemented by empirical data given in the senses (and by extension, in experiment). Knowledge about the soul - as (transcendental [1]) ground for the phenomenal self - would only be possible if we can apply that concept to data given in our senses in the framework of space/time. This cannot happen with regard to the soul (I discuss the Kantian conception of knowledge in [2]).

The second concept is that of the "logical self". In this case, Kant refers to the "I" as logical or formal conception of the unity of consciousness. This is that self-consciousness (also called apperception) which produces the thought (representation) "I think". The "I think" must be able to accompany all my thoughts - otherwise it would not be the identical I. The one identical I which can logically be conceptualized as the self which underlies all my thoughts, is the "logical self". Although we can form a clear concept of this self within the wider context of our human ability to obtain knowledge of objects, we cannot in any way gain knowledge about this self itself for the reasons given above.

The third Kantian concept under discussion is that of the "noumenal self" (which corresponds to the traditional concept of the soul). The distinction that Kant makes between the phenomenal and noumenal realms underlies the difference between the phenomenal and noumenal selves. Whereas we all have some experience of the phenomenal self, we can only think about the possible existence of the noumenal self (the word "noumenal" is derived from the Greek word "nous", meaning mind). What distinguishes the noumenal self from the "logical self", is that the concept of this self involves the idea of freedom (of choice) within the context of Kant's practical/moral philosophy (the logical self is also produced through an "act of spontaneity", but this is understood in the context of Kant's epistemology).

In Kant's program, his epistemology and his moral philosophy stand very much apart. The first is discussed in the Critique of Pure Reason (the first Critique) and the second in his Critique of Practical Reason (the second Critique). Although Kant follows a transcendental approach (as he calls his philosophy [1]) to both, the points of departure and the way in which these are presented are very different. Whereas the "logical self" is the necessary thought of oneself as an identical self which may obtain "objective" [2] knowledge when certain epistemological conditions are in place, the "noumenal self" is the necessary thought of oneself as the agent of one's own actions in the framework of morality.

According to Kant, there is a "gap" between our thinking about ourselves in the world of knowledge and science and our thinking about ourselves in the world of morality. This has led some interpreters to identify Kant's phenomenal and noumenal realms with the scientific and moral realms. One often finds that these are treated totally apart as if they do not impact on each other and theologians with a Kantian (or even German) philosophical background usually think in these terms. For them, Kant's famous words in the preface to the second edition of the first Critique where he says that he had to "remove" knowledge (from the noumenal realm) in order to make space for belief implies this. And this is true: for Kant, we have no sensible access to the noumenal realm and can therefore not say anything substantially about that in scientific terms.

So, the problem is the following: in Kant's epistemology the "logical self" does not necessitate the existence of the soul nor does his moral philosophy. There is no possible way to know whether the soul really exists. Kant writes: "[T]he conclusion is that in no way whatsoever can we cognize [gain knowledge of] anything about the constitution of our soul that in any way at all concerns the possibility of its separate existence" (B420). So, why is the soul important in Kant's metaphysics (which is not a dogmatic metaphysics)? The reason is that the noumenal self or soul allows us to introduce the concept of free choice in morality. Since the soul's existence would be in the noumenal realm outside nature where determinism (mechanism) rules, it is not contradictory to ascribe freedom (free action) to the soul.

The Kantian philosopher Udo Thiel states it nicely: "If I think of myself as a noumenon, I think of myself as existing independently of the conditions of our experience (space and time), and, consequently, I think of myself as not being affected by spatiotemporal determinations and in that sense as 'free' (B310)" [3]. So, even though we can never gain any knowledge of the soul in Kant's system, we can form a clear concept of the soul as existing outside the phenomenal realm and as such as governed by another principle, namely spontaneity (for Kant spontaneity underlies freedom to act [4]).

Kant's relevance for today

The problem for the Kantian position is that Kant acknowledges that we cannot gain any knowledge about the possible existence of the soul. Although we may form a coherent concept of the soul, as existing in the noumenal realm, we cannot "know" whether the soul really exists. For Kant, our human senses are just not able to confirm or deny that. In the view of atheists, this is a very comfortable position: arguing that the soul may exist but that we can never empirically establish its existence. For them, this comes close to a "God in the gap" position, even though Kant gave very good reasons for his position.

Although Kant acknowledged that there is a"gap" between the world of experience (science) and that of morality, he also presented a scientific philosophy in which this gap is closed. He did this in his Critique of the Power of Judgement (the third Critique). In this (final) Critique Kant introduced another approach, which actually lies at the basis of all our interaction with both nature and morality, namely that as humans (with our kind of constitution) we have no choice but to introduce certain regulative ideas (guiding ideas; hypotheses) which can never be confirmed or denied, but which regulate the conceptual framework through which we engage with the world. In science, for example, we need the regulative idea that the world is ordered even though this can never be proven empirically [2]. In fact, this is the basis of all science! For Kant, the soul is another such regulative idea (although this is not discussed in the third Critique). Kant also introduced the idea of reflective judgment, which is not determinative (providing final outcomes) but which serves merely as an estimation of what the world may be like [5]. This kind of judgment operates together with regulative concepts.

The third Critique provides the basis from which we may consider the issue of the existence of the human soul. In the spirit of this Critique, we may regard the existence of the soul as a working hypothesis in science. But how could we overcome the problem that all knowledge of the soul is ruled out in Kant's philosophical system? There is actually a way out. I have proposed that Kant's system may be reworked to bring it in line with contemporary scientific thought [6]. This may be done when we allow that time be combined not only with proper space as we find in the Kantian system but also with ideal (conceptual) space as we find in quantum physics, where time is coupled with Hilbert (abstract) space.

When we introduce this change, we find that Kant's noumenal realm - called the supersensible realm in this Critique - is consistent with our current conception of the quantum realm (in both quantum mechanics and quantum field theory). This way of presenting the noumenal realm in the context of science is also in the spirit of the third Critique, where Kant introduced the noumenal realm within the framework of his philosophy of science. There he states quite unequivocal: "The power of judgment, through its a priori principle of judging nature in accordance with possible particular laws for it, provides for its supersensible substratum (in us as well as outside us) determinability [i.e. that it can determine outcomes as phenomena] through the intellectual faculty [i.e. we can think it]' (5:196)" (my accentuation).

I previously argued that Kant's noumenal realm is confirmed in quantum physics in the sense that his conceptualization thereof is in line with our theoretical (mathematical) and experimental understanding of the quantum realm [5]. Now we may recast the Kantian concept of the soul in such a quantum context. The soul as noumenal self would be that part of humans which exists in the quantum realm, which allows us to make free choices and which continues to exist after our death. This means that the soul is within the framework of scientific inquiry - something that Kant never thought would be possible. Although we may never be able to empirically demonstrate the existence of the soul (as Kant believed), we may be able to indirectly establish its existence in a similar way that we (indirectly) establish the existence of quantum particles even though they are not within experimental reach in their pre-measurement phase.  

Searching for the soul

Since the time of Kant science has established that the most important characteristic that Kant ascribes to the soul, namely spontaneity (at least in Bohr's reading), is indeed to be found in the context of the quantum realm (for a discussion, see [7]). One should remember that it was to account for freedom of choice (grounded in spontaneity), that Kant introduced the concept of the noumenal self in the first place. Although this in itself obviously does not necessarily mean that the soul exists, it is nonetheless significant that spontaneity exists in our world in line with Kant's suggestion - and also that it exists exactly in the quantum realm which corresponds with Kant's noumenal realm. 

What would scientists be looking for when they search for evidence of the soul? According to the Kantian conception of the soul, they would be searching for an integrated part of our human existence which lies beyond our material bodies in the quantum realm, but which are nonetheless closely interwoven with the body in the context of consciousness, for example. The soul would involve a coherent, permanent form of existence which goes beyond mere quantum particles - one may suggest some kind of quantum "body", i.e. a non-material body, which corresponds to the pre-measurement state of quantum entities in the sense that it is not an appearance in space-time. (The soul would include aspects that are beyond the current scientific understanding of quantum physics; it may even include aspects that go beyond quantum physics itself). For the soul to continue existing after death with some kind of conscious mind, this quantum body must be able to store information independently from the body. Although the soul would be outside the direct reach of our senses and instruments, it may be within the reach of indirect empirical confirmation.

The British scientist-philosopher Sir Roger Penrose, who is an emeritus professor at Oxford University, together with Stuart Hameroff, emeritus professor at the University of Arizona, have developed a quantum theory of consciousness which they understand in terms of the soul. According to their neurological theory, consciousness is explained in terms of packets of information stored on the quantum level in microtubules in the brain [8]. In fact, we should not only think of consciousness as a packet of information stored in quantum states in the brain but also that this information may survive death. Regarding the soul, Hameroff said in the documentary Through the Wormhole, which was aired in 2012 on the Science Channel: "If the patient dies, it is possible that this quantum information can exist outside the body, perhaps indefinitely, as the soul" [9]. Insofar as their theory ascribes the soul to the quantum level, their view is consistent with mine.  

Image result for penrose soul
Sir Roger Penrose
In my view, the possible confirmation of the soul is something which lies in the distant future - although arguments for believing therein may soon become part of the current scientific debate. One may, for example, think that the soul exists in the framework of black matter - where theoretical scientists have proposed that humans have a body similar to our physical body existing of black matter [10]. As such this would be a quantum body, which is beyond direct empirical observation, but which nevertheless exists as part of our human existence. Although science cannot as yet determine whether this is indeed the case, there cannot be any doubt that scientific debate has changed dramatically over the last few years and that the existence of the soul as working hypothesis to explain things such as consciousness and freedom of choice (as a pillar of our justice system), makes good sense. 

The existence of the soul would negate atheism. It would support the religious worldview. If confirmed, the current conflict between religious and atheistic narratives would probably be superseded by one in which the various religious narratives are closely scrutinized for their consistency with reality. This is where the ascription of spontaneity and freedom of choice to the soul is particularly important. In the Judaeo-Christian view, this is the basic requirement for the soul which allows humans to live up to the God-given moral law [11]. If we do not have free choice, this requirement is nonsensical. If the soul is indeed found to exist in the quantum realm where spontaneity rules, it would serve as a major confirmation of the Judaeo-Christian worldview. Then the quest would be to show how the soul interacts with the body to allow for free choice [12]. 

One may, in fact, argue that since spontaneity has been confirmed in the context of the quantum realm (insofar as that is possible, see [7]), that we have good reason to think that humans have freedom of choice (it is consistent evidence since the first is a necessary requirement for the second). But for humans to have freedom of choice, they would need a very complicated quantum aspect operating in the context of the human body which allows for such choice to become possible. Such a quantum aspect is consistent with our conception of the human soul - especially when viewed in terms of Kant's noumenal self. This means that we have good reasons to think that humans have souls (the opposing view which rejects the possibility of the soul based on the metaphysical view that the universe is deterministic, has become untenable.)


Although we cannot as yet confirm or deny the existence of the human soul, the total rejection of this idea which characterized modernist times is long gone. We may proceed within the context of Kant's third Critique to present the noumenal self or soul (and even the logical self insofar as consciousness is concerned) as a sensible hypothesis which may govern a coherent scientific project. Science has already established that spontaneity is part of our world on the quantum level in accordance with Kant's proposal in this regard. It may soon establish that coherent "quantum bodies" exist and eventually that such a body (presumably a very complex one) is an integral part of our human existence.

The modernist man took a very superior position with regard to the ancients. The soul was one of the things - together with God - that they rejected as untenable. Now, everything has changed. If (when?) science establishes that such a quantum body underlies our physical body, the acknowledgement that science only presents us with a very reductive view of our world would be dramatically exhibited. In fact, since spontaneity would be an integrated part of such a quantum body (since it belongs to the quantum realm!), the case for God as the giver of the moral law (for which freedom of choice is necessary) would become very strong indeed. Readers should ask themselves whether they would bet their eternal happiness on science not finding evidence for the soul over the next one hundred years? If the soul exists, life after death does - and from the Judaeo-Christian standpoint, one has much to gain from belief in God [13].

[1] Kant calls his philosophy "transcendental idealism". By "transcendental" Kant means that his idealism is concerned with the possibility of and conditions for (objective) experience, and as such with a priori cognition.
[2] See part 2 of this series
[3] Thiel, U. 2010. The Critique of Rational Psychology. In Graham Bird (ed.) A Companion to Kant. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
[4] Kant writes: "It is especially noteworthy that it is this transcendental idea of freedom [i.e. absolute spontaneity] on which the practical concept of freedom is grounded, and the former constitutes the real moment of the difficulties of the latter, which have long surrounded the question of its possibility" (A534/B562, B461-2; my accentuation).
[5] I simplify the Kantian conceptions such that lay readers would find them easier to understand.
[6] See part 3 of this series
[7] See part 1 of this series
[8] Stuart Hameroff summarizes the Penrose-Hameroff theory in an academic article in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience: "The Penrose–Hameroff theory of 'orchestrated objective reduction (Orch OR)' identifies discrete conscious moments with quantum computations in microtubules inside brain neurons, e.g., 40/s in concert with gamma synchrony EEG. Microtubules organize neuronal interiors and regulate synapses. In Orch OR, microtubule quantum computations occur in integration phases in dendrites and cell bodies of integrate-and-fire brain neurons connected and synchronized by gap junctions, allowing entanglement of microtubules among many neurons. Quantum computations in entangled microtubules terminate by Penrose 'objective reduction (OR),' a proposal for quantum state reduction and conscious moments linked to fundamental spacetime geometry. Each OR reduction selects microtubule states which can trigger axonal firings and control behavior. The quantum computations are 'orchestrated' by synaptic inputs and memory (thus 'Orch OR')." (in Front Integr Neurosci, Vol 6, 2012. See
[10] See, for example,
[11] Some moral philosophers and theologians may argue that equating the soul with a quantum body as part of our human existence, would lead to the infringement of science on the moral terrain. Although my approach does away with the strict divide between the scientific and moral realms typical of Kantian (and German) thinking, it does not undermine the validity of our moral existence. In my view, we should not ground morality on the Kantian divide between the realms of science and morality, but rather on the divide between humans and animals. Although one may argue that human morality got some of its features from animal behaviour (as some atheists do), it is exactly our human dignity (menswaardigheid) which grounds human morality. And this is the very essence of Christianity - we have value because God loves us in a special way.
[12] In the above-mentioned article [8] Hameroff argues that free will may be accounted for on the quantum level insofar as "conscious free will" is concerned. He writes " Regarding consciousness occurring 'too late,' quantum state reductions seem to involve temporal non-locality, able to refer quantum information both forward and backward in what we perceive as time, enabling real-time conscious causal action. Quantum brain biology and Orch OR can thus rescue free will." Although the spontaneity observed in quantum physics is harnessed to explain free will as I propose, there cannot be any doubt that we are still far from a full understanding of free will. In my view, one would require a much more complex quantum structure in line with my idea of a "quantum body" to explain that.
[13] Although my view comes close to identifying the quantum realm with the spirit world (spiritual world; see part 4 of this series), I do not, in fact, equate them. Rather, I argue that the quantum realm is not only consistent with our basic conceptualization of the spirit world (as the noumenal world) but is also our first level of contact with that world in the context of science. As such the soul as a quantum body does not mean that the soul is only a quantum body. No, it may include aspects that go even beyond the quantum realm.
Nonetheless, the identification of the soul/spirit (we may distinguish the soul and the spirit but cannot separate these from each other - it is the spirit that gives the human soul its eternal dimension) with a quantum entity opens the question regarding the Spirit of God. Does He also belong to the quantum realm? One may propose that in the same way that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God in the flesh, that His Spirit realizes His presence in the spirit realm - which in the context of our present discussion implies that He operates in some way within the quantum realm. One of the features of the quantum realm is that entities are connected non-locally - which on some level may imply being present everywhere.
One may argue that insofar as God exists outside of his creation, He even stands outside the spirit realm - that is, if we view it as part of God's creation (it involves spiritual entities as created beings). This would mean that when we read that "God is spirit" (Joh. 4:24), it merely means that God manifests Himself as Spirit and that this is the way in which we as humans have communion with Him. 

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.

The author is a scientist-philosopher (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, and science.

Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 1: The problem of spontaneity in quantum mechanics
Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 2: Science and our restricted human understanding
Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 3: Science and metaphysics: in search of Russell's teapot
                                                      A new argument for the existence of God
Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 4. Science and the spiritual realm
Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 6: Science and Atheism 
Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 7: Science and spiritual intuition

Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 8: The Christian and Evolution