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The soul, according to many religious and philosophical traditions, is a self-aware ethereal substance particular to a unique living being. In these traditions the soul is thought to incorporate the inner essence of each living being, and to be the true basis for sentience. In distinction to spirit which may or may not be eternal, souls are usually (but not always as explained below) considered to be immortal and to pre-exist their incarnation in flesh.

The concept of the soul has strong links with notions of an afterlife, but opinions may vary wildly, even within a given religion, as to what may happen to the soul after the death of the body. Many within these religions and philosophies see the soul as immaterial, while others consider it to possibly have a material component, and some have even tried to establish the mass (weight) of the soul.


The current English word "soul" may have originated from the Old English sawol, documented in 970 AD[citation needed]. "Sawol" has possible etymological links with a Germanic root from which we also get the word "sea". The old German word is called 'se(u)la', which means: belonging to the sea (ancient Germanic conceptions involved the souls of the unborn and of the dead "living" being part of a medium, similar to water), or perhaps, "living water" [citation needed].

The word "soul" did not exist in the times of Jesus, Socrates or Aristotle, and so the quotations, interpretations and translations of the word "soul" from these sources, means that the word should be handled very carefully. One might go as far as saying that the word "soul", in the sense we use it today, did not exist in Hebrew or Aramaic, and only partly in Greek [citation needed]. Ancient Greeks sometimes referred to the soul as psyche (as in modern English psychology). Aristotle's works in Latin translation, used the word anima (as in animated), which also means "breath". In the New Testament, the original word may sometimes better translate as "life", as in :

"For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26


The Latin root of the related word spirit, like anima, also expresses the idea of "breath". Likewise, the Biblical Hebrew word for 'soul' is nefesh, meaning life, or vital breath.

The various origins and usages demonstrate not only that what people call "soul" today has varied in meaning throughout history, but that the word and concept themselves have changed in their implications.

Philosophical views

The Ancient Greeks used the same word for 'alive' as for 'ensouled'. So the earliest surviving Western philosophical] view might suggest that the soul makes living things alive.

Francis M. Cornford quotes Pindar in saying that the soul sleeps whilst the limbs are active, but when man is sleeping, the soul is active and reveals in many a dream "an award of joy or sorrow drawing near". [1]

Erwin Rohde writes that the early 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. [2]

Socrates and Plato

Plato, drawing on the words of his teacher Socrates, considered the soul as the essence of a person, being that which decides how we act. He considered this essence as an incorporeal occupant of our being. The Platonic soul comprises three parts:

  1. the logos (mind, nous, superego, or reason)
  2. the thymos (emotion, ego, or spiritedness)
  3. the pathos (appetitive, id, or carnal)

Each of these has a function in a balanced and peaceful soul.

The logos equates to the mind. It corresponds to the charioteer, directing the balanced horses of appetite and spirit. It allows for logic to prevail, and for the optimisation of balance.

The thymos comprises our emotional motive, 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.

The pathos equates to the appetite 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.


Aristotle, following Plato, defined the soul as the core essence of a being, but argued against its having a separate existence. For instance, if a knife had a soul, the act of cutting would be that soul, because 'cutting' is the essence of what it is to be a knife. Unlike Plato and the religious traditions, Aristotle did not consider the soul as some kind of separate, ghostly occupant of the body (just as we cannot separate the activity of cutting from the knife). As the soul, in Aristotle's view, is an activity of the body, it cannot be immortal (when a knife is destroyed, the cutting stops). More precisely, the soul is the "first activity" of a living body. This is a state, or a potential for actual, or 'second', activity. "The axe has an edge for cutting" was, for Aristotle, analogous to "humans have bodies for rational activity," and the potential for rational activity thus constituted the essence of a human soul. Aristotle used his concept of the soul in many of his works; the Nicomachean Ethics provides a good place to start to gain more understanding of his views.

Aristotle's view appears to have some similarity to the Buddhist 'no soul' view (see below). For both, there is certainly no 'separable immortal essence'.

Religious views

Bahá'í beliefs

The Bahá'í Faith affirm that "the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel." [3] Concerning the soul or spirit of human beings and its relationship to the physical body, Bahá'u'lláh explained: "Know thou that the soul of man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind. That a sick person showeth signs of weakness is due to the hindrances that interpose themselves between his soul and his body, for the soul itself remaineth unaffected by any bodily ailments. ... When it leaveth the body, however, it will evince such ascendancy, and reveal such influence as no force on earth can equal ... consider the sun which hath been obscured by the clouds. Observe how its splendor appeareth to have diminished, when in reality the source of that light hath remained unchanged. The soul of man should be likened unto this sun, and all things on earth should be regarded as his body. So long as no external impediment interveneth between them, the body will, in its entirety, continue to reflect the light of the soul, and to be sustained by its power. As soon as, however, a veil interposeth itself between them, the brightness of the light seemeth to lessen.... The soul of man is the sun by which his body is illumined, and from which it draweth its sustenance, and should be so regarded." [4]

The soul not only continues to live after the physical death of the human body, but is, in fact, immortal. Bahá'u'lláh wrote: "Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter. It will endure as long as the Kingdom of God, His sovereignty, His dominion and power will endure." [5]

Heaven can be seen partly as the soul's state of nearness to God; and hell as a state of remoteness from God. Each state follows as a natural consequence of individual efforts, or the lack thereof, to develop spiritually.[6]

Bahá'u'lláh taught that individuals have no existence previous to their life here on earth. The soul's evolution is always towards God and away from the material world. 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. Similarly, this physical world is like a womb for entry into the spiritual world.[6] 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.[6]

Buddhist beliefs

In Buddhism, it is acknowledges that there is a self (identity), however only a temporary one illustrated by experiences, therefore not the true nature (anatta).

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 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 for human conflict on the emotional, social and political levels[citation needed]. They add that understanding of anatta (or "not-self") 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 an arising mind to an awaiting being, that is, a fetus developing the ability to harbor consciousness. Thus, in some Buddhist sects[citation needed], a being that is born is neither entirely different, nor exactly the same, as it was prior to rebirth.

However, there are scholars, such as Shirō Matsumoto, who 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.

In some Mahayana Buddhist schools, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, the view is that there are 3 minds: Very-Subtle-Mind, which isn't disintegrated in incarnation-death; Subtle-Mind, which is disintegrated in death, and is "dreaming-mind" or "unconscious-mind"; and Gross-Mind. Gross-Mind doesn't exist when one is sleeping, so it is more impermanent even than Subtle-Mind, which doesn't exist in death. Very-Subtle-Mind, however, does continue, and when it "catches on" or coincides with phenomena again, a new Subtle-Mind emerges, with its own personality/assumptions/habits and that someone/entity experiences the karma on that continuum that is ripening then.

One should note the polarity in Tibetan Buddhism between shes-pa (the principle of consciousness) and rig-pa (pure consciousness equal to Buddha-nature). The concept of a person as a tulku provides even more controversy. A tulku has, due to heroic austerities and esoteric training (or due to innate talent combined with great subtle-mind commitment in the moment of death), achieved the goal of transferring personal "identity" (or nature/commitment) from one rebirth to the next (for instance, Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama a tulku). The mechanics behind this work as follows: although Buddha-nature does not incarnate, the individual self comprises skandhas, or components, that undergo rebirth. For an ordinary person, skandhas cohere in a way that dissolves upon the person's death. So, elements of the transformed personality re-incarnate, but they lose the unity that constitutes personal selfhood for a specific person. In the case of tulkus, however, they supposedly achieve sufficient "crystallization" of skandhas in such a manner that the skandhas do not entirely "disentangle" upon the tulku's death; rather, a directed reincarnation occurs. In this new birth, the tulku possesses a continuity of personal identity/commitment, rooted in the fact that the consciousness or shes-pa (which equates to a type of skandha called vijnana) has not dissolved after death, but has sufficient durability to survive in repeated births. Since, however, subtle-mind emerges in incarnation, and gross-mind emerges in periods of sufficient awareness within some incarnations, there isn't really any contradiction: very-subtle-mind's original nature, that is irreducible mind / clarity whose function is knowing, doesn't have any "body", and the coarser minds that emerge "on" it while it drifts/wanders/dreams aren't continuous. Any continuity of awareness achieved by tulku is simply a greater continuity than is achieved by/in a normal incarnation, as it continues across several, is only a difference of degree.

Many modern Buddhists, particularly in Western countries, reject the concept of rebirth or reincarnation as incompatible with the concept of anatta, and typically take an agnostic stance toward the concept. Stephen Batchelor, notably, discusses this issue in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs. However, the question arises: if a self does not exist, who thinks/lives now? Some Buddhist sects hold the view that thought itself thinks: if you remove the thought, there's no thinker (self) to be found. A detailed introduction to this, and to other basic Buddhist teachings, appears in What the Buddha taught by the Buddhist monk Walpola Rahula.

Others see the Buddha's warning that those who believe that a permanent self does not exist are just as gravely mistaken as those who believe that one does, and understand that He taught that both views were erroneous and could not capture the actual truth of the matter, speculations along those lines would only cause suffering rather than its removal. (See: neti neti).

Some say that the self endures after death, some say it perishes. In the Theravada Buddhist view, both are wrong and their error is most grievous. Theravadins believe that if one says the self is perishable, the fruit they strive for will perish too, and at some time there will be no hereafter. Good and evil would be indifferent. This salvation from selfishness is without merit. Theravada Buddhism's stance on many beliefs of soul after Death are explained in the Brahmajala Sutta.

Christian beliefs

In Christianity, the New Testament teaches that when a person dies their soul will be judged by God, who sees all the wrong and right that they have done during their lives. If they have repented (to turn away from) of their sins and put their trust in Jesus Christ (the one who took the punishment for our sins) before death, they will inherit eternal life in "Heaven" and enjoy eternal fellowship with God. If they have not repented of their sins, they will go to "Hell", and suffer eternal separation from God.

Various opinions

Most 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 Christian groups dispute whether this reward/punishment depends upon doing good deeds, or merely upon believing in God and in Jesus.

Christian belief also holds that the soul cannot be bought; this is why money is not an accurate measurement of spirituality. You can be very wealthy, and still be "poor, and blind and naked" (Revelation). The notion that the salvation of the soul cannot be earned by good deeds can appear to contradict Biblical teaching, when Christians are instructed to "Love your neighbour as yourself" as the second most important command. However, scripture holds that only by grace directly from God the father are we "saved", and to make the robe of the soul clean requires only an acceptance of this grace, which incidentally is a neutral deed, neither good nor evil.

Many Christian scholars hold, as Aristotle did, that "to attain any assured knowledge of the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world". 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. Philosopher Anthony Quinton said the soul is a "series of mental states connected by continuity of character and memory, [and] is the essential constituent of personality. The soul, therefore, is not only logically distinct from any particular human body with which it is associated; it is also what a person is". Richard Swinburne, a Christian philosopher of religion at Oxford University, wrote that "it is a frequent criticism of substance dualism that dualists cannot say what souls are.... Souls are immaterial subjects of mental properties. They have sensations and thoughts, desires and beliefs, and perform intentional actions. Souls are essential parts of human beings..."

The origin of the soul has provided a sometimes vexing question in Christianity; the major theories put forward include Creationism, traducianism and pre-existence.

Other Christian beliefs differ:

  • A few Christian groups do not believe in the soul, and hold that people cease to exist, both mind and body, at death; they claim however, that God will recreate the minds and bodies of believers in Jesus at some future time, the "end of the world."
  • Another minority of Christians believe in the soul, but don't regard it as inherently immortal. This minority also believes the life of Christ brings immortality, but only to believers.
  • Medieval Christian thinkers often assigned to the soul attributes such as thought and imagination, as well as faith and love: this suggests that the boundaries between "soul" and "mind" can vary in different interpretations.
  • 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. See Strong's Concordance under "soul", with Biblical meaning that animals and people are souls, that souls are not immortal, but die; soul means the person; life as a person, etc.
  • The soul sleep theory states that the soul goes to "sleep" at the time of death, and stays in this quiescent state until the last judgment.
  • The "absent from the body, present with the Lord" theory states that the soul at the point of death, immediately becomes present at the end of time, without experiencing any time passing between.
  • The "purgatory" theory states that the soul, if imperfect, spends a period of time purging or cleansing, before becoming ready for the end of time.
  • 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."
  • Swedenborgianism teaches that each person's soul is created by the Lord at the same time as the physical body is developed, that the soul is the person himself or herself, and that the soul is eternal, and has an eternal spiritual body, that is substantial without being material. After the death of the body, the person becomes immediately conscious in the spiritual world.
  • Some minorities beleive that a soul is what keeps the spirit alive (thinking and feeling) and when the soul is destroyed on death leaving the spirit dorment.

In favor of a conscious non-material entity ("soul") that survives bodily death

Some traditional Christians argue that the Bible teaches the survival of a conscious self after death. They interpret this as an intermediate state, before the deceased unite with their Resurrection bodies and restore the psychosomatic unity that existed from conception, and which death disrupts. Amongst others these Christians point out:

  • Rachel's death in Genesis 35:18 equates with her soul (Hebrew nephesh) departing. And 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". So death meant that something called nephesh (or "soul") became separated from the body, and life could return when this soul returned.
  • Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross, "I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Interpretation: that very day, the thief will in a conscious way have fellowship with Christ in Paradise, despite the apparent destruction of his body. According to the apostle Peter, Jesus descended (upon His death) into Hades, which could not hold Him, and led the souls of the righteous dead (including the thief on the cross) which were imprisoned in Paradise (a compartment of Hades, which was reserved for those righteous dead) out of captivity, and "led captivity captive" (thus emptying Paradise, according to the apostle Paul), who also claimed that Jesus was King not only by birth, but "by nature of an indestructible life" (in the letter to the Hebrews, if it was written by Paul). Afterwards, in John's vision of Revelation, Jesus appeared to John and claimed that He had "the keys of Hades".
  • Jesus' account of the rich man and Lazarus, who were both still conscious at the same time as the rich man's brothers, who lived on. This scenario preceded Jesus taking the souls of Paradise with Him to heaven, therefore Lazarus remains in Paradise. The rich man stood in another compartment of Sheol where he could see Lazarus, but could never cross over. The patriarch Abraham comforted Lazarus, whereas the rich man remained in torment. Jesus said, "Truly, truly, how difficult it is for a rich man to enter into Heaven," (although Lazarus was not there yet).

Christian Gnosticism: Valentinus

In early years of Christianity, the Gnostic Christian Valentinus of Valentinius (circa 100 - circa 153) proposed a version of spiritual psychology that accorded with numerous other "perennial wisdom" doctrines. He conceived the human being as a triple entity, consisting of body (soma, hyle), soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma). This equates exactly to the division one finds in St. Paul’s Epistle to Thessalonians I, but enriched: Valentinus considered that all humans possess semi-dormant "spiritual seed" (sperma pneumatikon) which, in spiritually developed Christians, can unite with spirit, equated with Angel Christ. Evidently his spiritual seed corresponds precisely to shes-pa in Tibetan Buddhism, jiva in Vedanta, ruh in Hermetic Sufism or soul-spark in other traditions, and Angel Christ to Higher Self in modern transpersonal psychologies, Atman in Vedanta or Buddha nature in Mahayana Buddhism. In Valentinus’ opinion, spiritual seed, the ray from Angel Christ, returns to its source. This is true resurrection (as Valentinus himself wrote in The Gospel of Truth: "People who say they will first die and then arise are mistaken. If they do not receive resurrection while they are alive, once they have died they will receive nothing."). In Valentinus’ vision of life human bodies go to dust, soul-sparks or spiritual seeds unite (in realised Gnostics) with their Higher Selves/Angel Christ and the soul proper, carrier of psychological functions and personalities (emotions, memory, rational faculties, imagination,...) will survive - but will not go to Pleroma or Fullness (the source of all where resurrected seeds that have realised their beings as Angels Christ return to). The souls stay in "the places that are in the middle", the worlds of Psyche. In time, after numerous purifications, the souls receive "spiritual flesh", i.e. a resurrection body. This division appears rather puzzling, but not dissimilar to Kabbalah, where neshamah goes to the source and ruach is, undestructed and indestructible, but unredeemed, relegated to a lower world. Similarly, according to Valentinus, complete resurrection occurs only after the end of Time (in the Christian worldview), when transfigured souls who have acquired spiritual flesh finally re-unite with the perfect, individual Angel Christ, residing in the Pleroma. Valentinus sees this as final salvation.

Many non-denominational Christians, and indeed many people who ostensibly subscribe to denominations having clear-cut dogma on the concept of soul, take an "à la carte" approach to the belief, that is, they judge each issue on what they see as its merits and juxtapose different beliefs from different branches of Christianity, from other religions, and from their understanding of science.

See also Christian eschatology.

Hindu beliefs

main articles: Atman (Hinduism), Jiva

In Hinduism, the Sanskrit words most closely corresponding to soul are "Jiva", meaning the individual soul or personality, and "Atman", which can also mean soul or even God. The Atman is seen as the portion of Brahman within us. Hinduism contains many variant beliefs on the origin, purpose, and fate of the soul. For example, advaita or non-dualistic conception of the soul accords it union with Brahman, the absolute uncreated (roughly, the Godhead), in eventuality or in pre-existing fact. Dvaita or dualistic concepts reject this, instead identifying the soul as a different and incompatible substance.

The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most significant puranic 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)

(iii) Ananda (bliss)

Islamic beliefs

According to the Qur'an of Islam (15:29), the creation of man involves Allah "breathing" a soul into him. 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).

In Sufism, Islamic mysticism, elaborate doctrines on the soul have developed, as explained in the article on Sufi psychology

Jainist beliefs

Jainists believe in a jiva, an immortal essence of a living being analogous to a soul, subject to the illusion of maya and evolving through many incarnations from mineral to vegetable to animal, its accumulated karma determining the form of its next birth.

Jewish beliefs

Jewish views of the soul begin with the book of Genesis, in which verse 2:7 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." (New JPS)

The Hebrew Bible offers no systematic definition of a soul; various descriptions of the soul exist in classical rabbinic literature.

Saadia Gaon, in his Emunoth ve-Deoth 6:3, explained classical rabbinic teaching about the soul. He held that the soul comprises that part of a person's mind which constitutes physical desire, emotion, and thought.

Maimonides, in his The Guide to the Perplexed, explained classical rabbinic teaching about the soul through the lens of neo-Aristotelian philosophy, and viewed the soul as a person's developed intellect, which has no substance.

Kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) saw the soul as having three elements. The Zohar, a classic work of Jewish mysticism, posits that the human soul has three elements, the nefesh, ru'ah, and neshamah. A common way of explaining these three parts follows:

  • Nefesh - the lower or animal part of the soul. It links to instincts and bodily cravings. It is found in all humans, and enters the physical body at birth. 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 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.

Extra soul states

Both Rabbinic and kabbalistic works also posit a few additional, non-permanent states to the soul that people can develop on certain occasions. These extra souls, or extra states of the soul, play no part in any afterlife scheme, but are mentioned for completeness.

  • Ruach HaKodesh - a state of the soul that makes prophecy possible. Since the age of classical prophecy passed, no one receives the soul of prophecy any longer.
  • Neshamah Yeseira - The supplemental soul that a Jew experiences on Shabbat. It makes possible an enhanced spiritual enjoyment of the day. This exists only while one observes Shabbat; it can be lost and gained depending on one's observance.
  • Neshamah Kedosha - Provided to Jews at the age of majority (13 for boys, 12 for girls), and related to the study and fulfillment of the Torah commandments. It exists only when one studies and follows Torah; it can be lost and gained depending on one's study and observance.

For more detail on Jewish beliefs about the soul see Jewish eschatology.

Other religious beliefs and views

In Egyptian Mythology, an individual was believed to be made up of various elements, some physical and some spiritual. See the article Egyptian soul for more details.

These are the two parts which the ancient Chinese believed constitute every person's soul. The p‘o is the visible personality indissolubly attached to the body, while the hun is its more ethereal complement also interpenetrating the body, but not of necessity always 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. And not only is the body duplicated under these conditions, but also the garments that clothe it. Should the hun stay away permanently, death results.

Some transhumanists believe that it will become possible to perform mind transfer, either from one human body to another, or from a human body to a computer. Operations of this type (along with teleportation), raise philosophical questions related to the concept of the Soul.

Crisscrossing specific religions, the phenomenon of therianthropy and belief in the existence of otherkin also occur. One can perhaps better describe these as phenomena rather than as beliefs, since people of varying religion, ethnicity, or nationality may believe in them. Therianthropy involves the belief that a person or his soul has a spiritual, emotional, or mental connection with an animal. Such a belief may manifest itself in many forms, and many explanations for it often draw on a person's religious beliefs. Otherkin hold similar beliefs: they generally see their souls are entirely non-human, and usually not of this world.

Another fairly large segment of the population, not necessarily favoring organized religion, simply label themselves as "spiritual" and hold that both humans and all other living creatures have souls. Some further believe the entire universe has a cosmic soul as a spirit or unified consciousness. Such a conception of the soul may link with the idea of an existence before and after the present one, and one could consider such a soul as the spark, or the self, the "I" in existence that feels and lives life.

Some believe souls in some way "echo" to the edges of this universe, or even to multiple universes with compiled multiple possibilities, each presented with a slightly different energy version of itself. The science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, for example, has explored such ideas.

In Surat Shabda Yoga, the soul is considered to be an exact replica and spark of the Divine. The purpose of Surat Shabd Yoga is to realize one’s True Self as soul (Self-Realization), True Essence (Spirit-Realization) and True Divinity (God-Realization) while living in the physical body.

Gurdjieff taught that man has no soul. Rather, man must create a soul while incarnate, whose substance could withstand the shock of death. Without a soul, Gurdjieff taught, man will "die like a dog."


Main article: Pantheism

According to the pantheistic view that Gnosticism follows (combining pantheism with monotheism like some Christian Gnostics, being clearly visible in Gospel of Thomas, or rejecting monotheism completely in favor of pantheism), Soul is synonymous with Mind, and emanates (since it is non-dimensional, or trans-dimensional) from the Spirit (the essence that can manifest itself through any level in pantheistic hierarchy/holarchy - as a mind/soul of a single cell (with very primitive, elemental consciousness), a human or animal mind/soul (with consciousness on a level of organic synergy of an individual human or animal), or a (superior) mind/soul with synergetically extremely complex and sophisticated consciousness of whole galaxies involving all sub-levels. Spirit (essence) manifests as - Soul/Mind. And the (non-physical) Soul/Mind is a 'driver' of the body. Therefore, the body, including the brain, is just a 'vehicle' for the physical world (if we, for example, have a whole planet as a 'body' then its brain is the synergetic super-brain that involves all the brains of species with a brain, on that planet). [citation needed]

Science and the soul

Western science and medicine seeks naturalistic accounts of the observable natural world. This stance is known as methodological naturalism[4], which is silent on the question of whether non-material or supernatural entities, such as the soul, can or do exist as distinct from natural entities. Scientists, therefore, investigate 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.

A search of the PubMed research literature database shows the following numbers of articles with the indicated term in the title:

  1. brain – 167,244
  2. consciousness – 2,918 (842, 29%, of these articles also include “brain” in the database entry)
  3. soul - 552 (40, 7%, of these articles also include “brain” in the database entry. Many of these articles deal with medical ethics issue such as the implications of religious beliefs on decisions about life support for people in persistent vegetative states)

An oft-encountered analogy is that the brain is to computer hardware as the mind is to computer software. The idea of the mind as software has led some scientists to use the word "soul" to emphasize their belief that the human mind has powers beyond or at least qualitatively different from what artificial software can do. Roger Penrose expounds this position in The Emperor's New Mind[5]. He posits that the mind is in fact not like a computer as generally understood, but rather a quantum computer, that can do things impossible on a classical computer, such as decide the halting problem. Some have located the soul in this possible difference between the mind and a classical computer.

Attempted demonstrations of the soul as distinct from the mind

During the late 19th and first half 20th 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, and although MacDougall's results varied considerably from 21 grams, for some people this figure has become synonymous with the measure of a soul's weight. Experiments such as MacDougall's have not been repeated with current precision equipment and research tools, and concludes of one researcher that:

"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 curiousity, but nothing more."
Source and details:

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.

Research on the concept of the soul

In his book Consilience, E. O. Wilson took note that sociology has identified belief in a soul as one of the universal human cultural elements. Wilson suggested that biologists need to investigate how human genes predispose people to believe in a soul.

Daniel Dennett has championed the idea that the human survival strategy depends heavily on adoption of the intentional stance, a behavioral strategy that predicts the actions of others based on the expectation that they have a mind like one's own (see theory of mind). Mirror neurons in brain regions such as Broca's area may facilitate this behavioral strategy. The intentional stance, Dennett suggests, has proven so successful that people tend to apply it to all aspects of human experience, thus leading to animism and to other conceptualizations of soul. But as several theologians and philosophers have noted (e.g. Keith Sutherland), claims by Dennett and his ilk are prompted by the philosophical agenda of pure materialism. One counter-argument points out that just because the brain has regions that deal with colour and other aspects of vision, one does not argue that the genes produce an area to promote the illusion of a blue sky. By analogy, if there is a 'God sense' just as there is a sense of vision, it seems to argue for the objective existence of an extra-mundane reality. Finally, claims of genetic determinism have suffered a serious blow after the human genome project reduced the number of genes to fewer than 25,000. There is thus no longer sufficient information content in the genome to determine such details. Dennett has been accused by his arch-rival in philospy, John Searle, of implying that only he amongst modern philosophers does useful research, whilst others such as Searle philosophise into a vacuum. This self-praise has resulted in Dennet being widely seen by the media as the sole researcher of the soul. However, David Chalmers might make a stronger claim for this, as he has by calling attention to the existence of the hard problem of consciousness pointed out the yawning gap between physicalist research and the subjective homonculus or soul.

Other uses of the term

  • Popular usage often describes experiences that evoke deep emotions as "touching the soul".
  • Soulmates are people who one believes are destined to be found and become close to in this lifetime.
  • Soul (music) is a kind of modern music
  • "Soul nurtured and was nurtured by the Black Man in America." (Mississippi John Hurt)
  • Stealing souls and using their energy to fuel some sort of doomsday weapon or other "great machine" is a common plot device in some types of fiction (particularly science-fiction).
  • Seele, the German form of the word, is the name for the council in Neon Genesis Evangelion.

See also

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:


  1. Francis M. Cornford, Greek Religious Thought, p.64, referring to Pindar, Fragment 131.
  2. Erwin Rohde, Psyche, 1928.
  3. [1]
  4. [2]
  5. [3]
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Taherzadeh, Adib (1976). The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, Volume 1, Oxford, UK: George Ronald. ISBN 0853982708.


  • Ghost (USA, 1990) with Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore.
  • White Noise (USA, 2005) with Michael Keaton.
  • 21 Grams: Regards the urban legend that the body loses twenty-one grams of weight at death, this weight surmised to be the soul.

Additional references

  • Batchelor, Stephen. Buddhism Without Belief - aha.
  • Cornford, Francis, M., Greek Religious Thought, 1950.
  • Rohde, Erwin, Psyche, 1928.
  • Swinburne (1997). The Evolution of the Soul. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stevenson (1975). Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Volume I: Ten Cases in India. University Press of Virginia
  • Stevenson (1974). Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia
  • Stevenson (1983). Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Volume IV: Twelve Cases in Thailand and Burma. University Press of Virginia
  • Stevenson (1997). Reincarnation and Biology : A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Praeger Publishers

Further reading

  • Search for the Soul by Milbourne Christopher, Thomas Y. Crowell Publishers, 1979
  • Brain & Belief: An Exploration of the Human Soul by John J. McGraw, Aegis Press, 2004
  • Bering, J.M. (2006). The folk psychology of souls. In Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Cambridge University Press. Full text

External links

ar:روح cs:Duše da:Sjæl de:Seele es:Alma eo:Animo fr:Âme gd:Anam hr:Duša io:Anmo id:Jiwa he:נשמה lv:Dvēsele hu:Lélek nl:Ziel no:Sjel nn:Sjel pt:Alma ru:Душа simple:Soul sk:Duša fi:Sielu sv:Själ uk:Душа zh:灵魂

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