A question by many involves the existence of the soul. Is their a soul? If so, where does it reside in the body? How it is connected to the body? Neuroscience attempts to explain away the soul with the entire functions of the brain. Since the brain stores memory, controls emotion, and shapes personality, many contend that the actions of the soul are in reality the functions of the brain. According to many atheistic scientists, this strips the necessity of the soul and replaces it with the natural functions of the brain. However, many theists contend that the soul and the brain overlap and work together. The brain is a metaphysical organ with the capabilities to translate for the soul and help the soul manifest itself in the world. The brain and its functions hence are the vehicle for the soul to communicate with the world not a replacement.
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Atheistic guided neuroscience has proudly proclaimed the death of the soul with advances of understanding how the brain operates and functions. As DJ Dobbins in his article, “Does the Soul Exist” proclaimed, “There is nothing left for the soul to do (Dobbins, 2013)”. It would seem with every emotion, abstract thought and “spiritual” function mapped out throughout the brain that the soul itself is an antiquated ideal.
Take into consideration the brain itself. Within the amygdala, various emotional reactions related to fear and anger are monitored and controlled. Within the hypothalamus, stress response triggers tied closely to pituitary gland are regulated giving the body its ability of fight or flight. Within memory itself, the hippocampus creates and stores memory through a flash work of neurons and neurotransmitters creating a pattern of responses that correlate to abstract memory itself. Upon the cerebral cortex, exist various lobes of the cortex that regulate further emotions, inhibitions, understanding, consciousness, memory and language. Furthermore, neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine can greatly alter emotional moods based on excess or less amounts. What one is left with is an astounding explanation of many metaphysical attributes once solely thought as free of matter and scientific observation. The intellect and the will, the hall mark classic identifiers of the soul, are left with material explanations that live and die with the functioning of the brain itself.
In fact, all moral behavior can be explained by brain function. How can one sin or bear responsibility for damaged frontal lobes, mood disorders, or chemical reactions that affect thought and moral decisions.
Also, consider this. If part of the brain is damaged, one can lose important information of one’s life. Amnesia and dementia and physical injuries to the brain can alter identity and self through theft of oneself. If part of one’s brain is altered, taken, or injured, personality and behavior can be greatly altered. If the left and right hemisphere of the brain is divided, there can become two autonomous actions independent of each other. So is the idea of the soul merely a mechanical action that exists and dies with the brain’s activity?
Reactions in defense of the soul
Dualism is the most common reaction to the atheistic neuroscience. Dualistic ideals teach that the brain and soul operate simultaneously. Rene’ Descartes believed that both the brain and soul operated in parallel of each other. He properly dictated that something spiritual cannot be spiritual divided unlike the brain and hence the soul operates at a independent level. Opponents point out that a dual consciousness can arise when the hemispheres of the brain are split. What does this say of the soul they contend?
Others point out that the soul communicates through the brain. The fullness of the soul exists independent of the brain but is manifested in the brain. Of course, this is theological discourse, not scientific observation.
What type of soul?
When incorporating dualism it is important to understand one’s own definition of the soul. Ideas of the soul and its connection with the body differ from traditions. From a philosophical Platonic school of thought, the body is a temporal vessel of the soul. In Buddhism and Hinduism, the soul travels from different material bodies through reincarnation. In these religious and philosophical traditions, the importance of the body is regulated to a shell. Hence once the soul escapes the body, what explains its consciousness if the body was just a shell but yet still produced such spiritual activity within its own very functioning?
It is important in Christian Counseling to understand the human nature.
In Christian theology, the body and soul are inseparable . Before the fall of Adam, the body and soul communicated perfectly. Adam’s control of his passions and great intellect all pointed towards a body that worked perfectly with the soul in regards to balance of emotion. Hence Adam’s brain operated at full capacity without defect. Adam’s endocrine system did not create chemical imbalances. His neurotransmitters did not create imbalances of serotonin or dopamine to create mood disorders. In essence, his body was in complete harmony with his soul.
His soul in fact was never created prior to his body. Unlike Platonic ideas of the soul, Christian theology teaches that the soul and the body were made for each other. Hence the intricacies of the brain operating and the soul operating are in many instances one mind. The fact that metaphysical realties would manifest within matter are no surprise. The brain, like an interpreter, is able to process abstract spiritual concepts and physically manifest them. The partnership of the brain and soul is so intense that it is not truly even dualistic. They were never intended to be separated.
It was the sin and fall of humanity that caused death. Death, from a Christian standpoint, is an unnatural event. It is the tearing of the soul from the body. It is the cost of sin itself.
With the death of the broken body due to sin and its displaced spiritual component, one pays the price for the sin of Adam. One’s entire life has been a struggle until that moment of death. The body does not respond to the intellect and will perfectly, the body breaks down, the soul is open to passionate and uncontrolled inclinations. Due to this temporal dysfunction within the the fallen world, death arrives.
A purely dualistic system of thought sees the soul as an independent rider of the bike that can be cast off the bike at death to exist independently, but the Christian system views the bike and its rider as one system. While the consciousness absorbed through temporal life exists beyond the death, it is through God that it incompletely still exists awaiting judgement and the return of the body. While the temporal connection was broken, one’s human nature was not completely corrupted on earth and still yearns the perfect reunion. The body and soul were made for each other.
Christ is the New Adam and hence it is only fitting through His resurrection, His Body was a glorified Body. Christ was already perfect, but His Body on earth was still temporal despite the Divinity within Himself that allowed Him to perform miracles. After His Resurrection, Christ’s Glorified Body was the body that is intended for all humanity. Like Adam’s pre-fall body, the soul has complete mastery of the body, but it is also glorified. From Scripture, Christ can manifest differently with light and make it hard for individuals to know who He is. Furthermore, He is able to transport from different areas, however, due to the wounds on His Hands, Side and Feet, it is clear it is the same Body that was crucified but transformed.
Humanity will share in Christ’s Resurrection. Through Christ’s death, He conquered sin and through His Resurrection promises a full reunion of body and soul. The temporary exile of the soul from the body is removed. The body and soul then are reunited in a perfect way. It is of no wonder then that the brain and soul are so close to each other. It is natural that they exist side by side and work together in expressing a full human nature.
The Brain as a Metaphysical Organ and Partner of the Soul
While atheistic neurosciences see the brain as the soul from an only observational and empirical standpoint, they cannot philosophically deny possibility of a spiritual component within human nature. The brain in itself is a metaphysical organ. It translates spiritual emotion, thought and memory in a material code through the patterns of firing neurons. Like the ability of radio waves to interpret human words on the radio, the brain and its certain components have the amazing ability to translate the soul. The soul receives all information through the senses. The branch of Epistemology or how humans gain knowledge can be divided into the concept of realism. Within realism, knowledge is gained by the senses. This was championed by St. Thomas Aquinas. Hence the soul gains its primary knowledge from its surrounding areas via the senses. The brain interprets and aids the soul in this material exploration. Albeit imperfect in the temporal reality due to sin, the partnership still functions.
The brain hence is immersed within the soul and vice versa. They were never intended to be separated at creation. The brain is a partner of the soul and all its manifestations aid the soul in understanding reality.
“Proofs” of the Soul
While the brain is not the soul itself but a partner intimately interwoven with it, the soul after the Fall, was deemed to be separated from the body. Death is unnatural but the soul still exists beyond as conscious energy. The amount of time one is separated from the body is not measured in minutes since time is no longer a player after death. It could be seen like an instant upon the refusion of the soul and body upon where it will enter into its heavenly reward or hellish curse. However, due to sin, the unnatural state of death kills the broken body and snatches an incomplete human’s soul into eternity without his/her body.
Yet, the conscious energy of the soul, albeit incomplete still has abilities to exist due to God’s plan to reunite it with the body. How this is accomplished is a matter of faith. The immortality of the soul is a mystery that science cannot explain. Yet one can see instances of the soul and its operations beyond its interwoven material expressions within the brain.
In Christianity, the notion of spiritual eyes and spiritual senses is well understood. For instance, knowledge that is gained not through the physical senses explain a deeper existence beyond broken matter in this world. While empirical science does not accept these ideals or looks for logical explanations, individuals, saints and mystics have all experienced out of body, mystical, and innate discourses that do not permeate from the senses. For instance, beyond the natural REM dreaming, one can review prophetic dreams or communications. In some cases, the senses can be utilized but in most cases, the subconscious void of sense perception is open to Divine or angelic communication. In addition, many who experience Near Death Experience describe their surroundings in detail without seeing the surroundings with their own physical eyes which were closed and brain activity was comatose. The spiritual eyes yet were able to see and then later recount the instance utilizing memory of the event from a spiritual source.
Moral Implications of Sin and Choice
It would be criminal not to at least react to atheistic neuroscience’s assault on moral theology. If the brain and its chemical reactions account for all of reality, then how can one be accountable for sin or wrong? If moods due to neurotransmitters are altered, or parts of the brain are altered or removed hence affecting behavior, how can the soul be a source of morality?
Of course, as stated, the manifestation of inhibitions, decisions, and thoughts within the brain are clearly listed. Morality is a complex system of biology, genetics, social norms and learned behavior. Certain maladies do play a key role in altering behaviors.
For the Christian, it is understood there is a complex and intimate connection between the soul and body. It is also understood due to the fall of Adam, there is a conflict between mind and flesh. Due to sin, sickness and death exist as well. Hence, in many, anti-social disorders, depression and other mood disorders, certain behaviors can manifest. In fact, removing certain areas of the brain can have staggering effects on moral behavior. This though in no way complicates the existence of the soul and its connection to the brain. Again, Christians maintain a intimate relationship between the body and mind albeit a broken one. Hence explanations for behavior from a purely neurological point are expected but they are not the sole source.
Christian moral theology takes into account mental maladies that reduce culpabilities of the agent committing the offense but conscience, morality and free choice in most cases still exist. One is not programmed to sin and do evil. It is through disease, broken nature, environment, and habitual vice that lead to many neuro factors that contribute to a mentally disturbed person as well. The sickness of the brain that leads to immoral deeds is a sad story but one due to Original Sin. It exists and plays a factor because the soul and brain are interwoven but it is not the only aspect of the story that dictates what someone is or not.
It is of no wonder to the Christian who understands the unity of human nature that the brain and soul closely are correlated. While separate, they are still intimately interwoven so closely that manifestation of the spiritual is possible. To atheistic neuroscience this may be hard core evidence that the functions of the brain are the soul but to the Christian it only reinforces the idea that the soul and body are meant to be together forever. Unlike platonic and dualist ideals that view the body as the inferior partner or temporary shell, the Christian understands that only due to sin does this fallen temporal reality exist. It is because of sin that the body and soul are not in complete unison and that elements of our body affect our soul and elements of our soul affect our body. It is with this understanding that the Christian can marvel how wonderfully created he/she truly is and how while sin scarred it temporarily, it will one day be completely and perfectly restored. Human nature is both flesh and soul!
Christian Counselors need to understand how the brain, its parts, and neurotransmitters play a role in moral action. It is not a indictment against the existence of the soul but a manifestation of the innate partnership between the brain and soul. Please also review AIHCP’s Christian Counseling Certification and see if it meets your academic and professional goals.
Additional Readings : Some articles are from an atheistic neuroscience stance and others support Christian belief of the soul. Others are merely educational
“The brain and memory: Understanding how the brain thinks”. NIH. (2022) Access here
“What Part of the Brain Controls Emotions?”. Paxinos, G. (2018). Healthline. Access here
“Does the Soul Exist? Evidence Says ‘Yes’”. Lanza, R, MD. (2011). Psychology Today. Access here
“Why psychology lost its soul: everything comes from the brain”. Paxinos, G. (2016). The Conversation. Access here
“Neuroscience and the Soul”. Hobson, A, MD. (2004). Dana Foundation. Access here