[A slightly modified version of this article is also available on the author’s The Mind Set Free blog.]
You may have been told that you will live forever, but that seems quite unlikely to me. For our brains will one day be gone. Throughout our life those brains have been the seat of our thoughts, emotions, and memories. So when the brain is gone, then the lights must go out. Surely then it is all over.
But some will tell me that something else lives on even after the brain has disintegrated. They often call this the soul. And ultimately, they say, the soul is the seat of the mind. And so, even if the brain is gone, the mind can continue as a function of a soul that survives death.
If the soul is really in charge, though, why do you even need a brain? If thinking is done by the soul, what is left for the brain to do? Some propose that the brain is simply an interface to the body. It gathers information from the senses and feeds it to the soul. There the soul processes the incoming data, saves memories, and makes decisions. The soul then somehow directs the brain to drive the muscles of the body. The soul is in charge, they say, and the brain handles the interface with the body.
But science has shown that it is truly the brain that is in charge. We think with our brains, not with immaterial souls.
Have You Got Soul?
Let’s look at some of the evidence that the brain is in charge, and that there is no separate, nonmaterial soul.
First, there is the evidence of amnesia. When elderly people suffer a stroke, or when trauma occurs to the brain, patients often lose the ability to remember things that happen after that tragic event. The person loses an important mental function, the ability to remember new things. But it was not the soul that had been damaged. The brain was damaged. Somehow damage to the brain causes that person to lose the ability to efficiently store new memories. If memories are actually a function of the soul, why would damage to the brain affect the functioning of the soul? Since damage to the brain affects the ability to store memories, then it must be the brain that stores the memories.
You might argue that what happened is that the brain stopped giving the soul new data. Thus, the soul has nothing to remember. But that is clearly not what is happening in such cases. The essence of the person is still communicating with us. That person sees us, recognizes us, and communicates. The mind’s senses are still working. The mind is still able to observe, but the person forgets what was observed. Why? The brain is damaged. And this damage hinders memory storage. So it must be the brain that is remembering. When the brain is affected, the mind is affected.
Second, when conditions prevent a brain from developing properly, the personality does not reach maturity. If the soul is distinct from the brain, why wouldn’t the soul go on to maturity?
A third kind of evidence that the brain is doing the thinking is the fact that, if the brain slows down and goes to sleep at night, the soul also sleeps. Suppose that your soul is something different from the brain. Why does the soul go to sleep when the brain sleeps? Why can’t it just keep on being your soul, wide awake, even though the brain goes to sleep and has stopped giving the soul input from the world? It doesn’t work that way. When the brain is affected, the mind is affected.
The effect is even more pronounced under anesthesia. In such procedures, one loses virtually all contact with the world and does not sense even severe pain. After waking up, one is not even aware of the passage of time while he was unconscious. If the soul was distinct from the brain, one would think that you could simply start counting as you go under and keep on counting into the thousands in your soul while contact with the world goes blank. It would be like losing the connection while on a Zoom call. The soul would still be awake. The person whose brain is sleeping would still be able to count or plan his next day, but the incoming sensations of the world would temporarily be blank. This is not what happens.
Fourth, evidence shows that we inherit our basic personality through our genes. How is it that genes can affect our personality? Genes must surely be directing the brain’s physical development, which then influences personality development. How could genes also change a separate, immaterial soul? That makes no sense. Personality must therefore be a function of the brain, not of a separate entity known as the soul. How else could genes have such a significant effect on the personality?
Fifth, a patient with Alzheimer’s disease enters a period of altered mental capability due to brain disease. Is the soul of the Alzheimer’s victim also changed by his physical condition? That makes no sense. The disease affects the brain, not the soul. But if the soul is working normally, why are the thoughts so confused?
You may argue that the soul is still normal, but that the connection of the brain to the soul is blurred. And that we can still communicate with the essence of the Alzheimer’s victim, with the part that you would call the soul. That spark of the inner person is still there, you might think. The communication still works. But we can see that the very essence of the inner person is changing. The part that you would call the soul is deteriorating. Why? The brain is being altered. Since the mind is a function of the brain, it too becomes altered.
Are we to believe that death does for the Alzheimer’s victim what no medicine can do? Does death suddenly restore the mind to full functioning? How could that be? The disease gradually destroys the brain, and this deteriorates the mind. How then could the full destruction of the brain at death cause the mind to become restored?
Sixth, if the soul is separate from the brain, exactly how does a soul interface with the brain? As far as we can tell, brain function consists of movements of electrons and chemicals. How could our soul communicate with this brain? Does the soul somehow start moving electrons around in our brains so that the brain knows to move a certain muscle or to command the mouth to say a certain word? How can the stuff of the soul push matter? Wouldn’t a soul push right through an electron, just like spirits supposedly pass through walls?
And if souls actually push molecules or electrons around, why can’t they push the molecules that are outside of the brain? If your soul can push molecules in your brain, why can’t it push molecules in my brain?
None of this can be observed in nature. Nowhere do we find evidence for souls deflecting molecules. So how can a nonphysical soul affect the movements of the body? It can’t. I conclude that the mind is simply a function of the brain.
Seventh, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, we have evolved from other animals. Do apes have souls? Do reptiles, fish, and germs have souls? If not, exactly when was a soul inserted into the animal kingdom for the first time? Was the first being to have a soul raised by someone without a soul? It is easy to see how mind functions could develop incrementally through many generations as we evolved. It is difficult to see how an evolved creature would somehow suddenly get a separate, immaterial soul for the first time. And if apes don’t have souls, how do their brains partially duplicate some of the functions that we require a soul to do?
For all of these reasons, I conclude that it is the brain, not an immaterial soul, that stores memories and does our thinking. For more on mind-brain dependence, see “The Case Against Immortality” by Keith Augustine, “Mind-Brain Dependence as Twofold Support for Atheism” by Steven J. Conifer, and section III.6 of Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism by Richard Carrier.
Yes, I know—you look inside, and you see that your conscious mind is in there telling the body what to do. Your consciousness is in charge, or so it seems to you. And you equate that consciousness with a soul that is separate from the body. So how can you be perceiving this soul inside of you to be directing the show, when actually it is brain molecules that are doing the heavy lifting? Good question.
Science has shown that the brain decides to do things before the person is aware that he made the decision. One experiment that verified this involved subjects who were told to decide to bend their wrist while watching a slowly spinning disk. They were told to tell the experimenters exactly where the disk was when they decided to bend their wrist. The experimenters used this information to determine when the subject was aware that he was making the decision. The subjects were also hooked up to sensors that could detect brain activity that occurred when the subjects decided to act.
It turns out that the brainwaves started before the subjects were aware that they were deciding. If you asked the subjects, they would tell you that they made the decision consciously at the moment that they were aware of it. But the instruments they were wired to indicate otherwise. The brain cells had begun to fire and started the process of commanding the hand to move before the person was consciously aware of the decision.
Could it be that our brain cells are running the show, and that what we call the conscious mind comes along later and fills in the story after the fact? This kind of after-the-fact consciousness has been demonstrated in another experiment. Here is how it worked. A red dot was projected onto a screen. Then the red dot was turned off and, a split second later, a green dot was projected near the spot where the red dot had been. When people saw this, they reported that they saw the red dot start to move to the side, then change suddenly to a green dot as it moved along, and then continue to the new location as a green dot. Obviously, this is not what they saw. There was no moving dot that changed colors. The dot had never been in the middle. But the conscious mind told the story that the dot had traveled, and that the dot’s color had changed from red to green at the middle. The conscious mind was convinced that it had observed this happen. It was mistaken.
And so, in that experiment, we find that minds rewrote history, just like the historians in the novel 1984 rewrote history to reflect what Big Brother wanted. A similar thing must have happened in the minds of the subjects. Their minds had known that objects don’t usually just disappear and immediately show up in a new location. They knew that, in such instances, the object probably moved from point A to point B. And if it changed colors, it had to change somewhere. The mind makes up the story that it observed the dot changing color when it was in the middle of its movement. The subject’s minds rewrote their memories, and did it so well that they were confident that the revised story was true.
Their conscious memory of seeing the dot change color as it moved was a sheer fabrication. The subjects “remember” it, but it never happened.
You have probably observed the mind rewriting memories. A significant event may happen to somebody, and immediately he tells us what happened. Ten minutes later you hear him tell the same story again, but it is a little different this time. An hour later, the story has been modified further. We hear the same story the next day and the next week. Each time we hear it, it is a little different. And often we can observe a trend in the rewrite. What the person thinks he should have said becomes a memory of what he did say.
True, sometimes the person modifying the story may be deliberately deceptive. But often the person is not trying to lie to us. He is an honest person, and yet his mind is changing the story.
Folks have probably observed a similar thing in you and me. Our minds gradually and unconsciously change the memories of the past so that they conform to what makes sense to us. Thus, we end up with memories of being conscious of something in the past, even though we never actually experienced it that way.
Notice that the memories of the person who saw a dot disappear and another dot appear are just like the memories of the person who truly saw a dot move. One memory reflects what was consciously observed. One is a fabrication. We cannot tell the difference. Our minds are being misinformed about what we consciously experienced. We believe the lies that are being written to our memories.
Notice also that it is our memory of past events that is fundamental to our consciousness. Suppose that you had no ability to remember anything. You would be constantly aware of your current state at each moment, but you would be totally unaware of anything that had happened a microsecond earlier. It would be like listening to a music CD that was stuck on the same chord. Now that would not be real music. Music requires change, and so does consciousness. To really mean anything, our consciousness must consist of an awareness of the narrative that has brought us to the current state.
But as we have seen, this narrative is often freely being changed. We think that we have conscious memories of how the story has unfolded, but somehow what we call our conscious memory is only the modified story that our minds create. What we call consciousness is just the story of how we got to where we are. The problem is that this story is somewhat illusory, for our minds are constantly revising that story, sometimes incorrectly.
So perhaps this explains how we can deceive ourselves into believing that there is a soul inside of us that is making the decision, even though experiments show that such decisions were made before we were aware of them. Perhaps our minds continuously create the story that we call consciousness and write it in such a way that we think that consciousness is making the decisions.
Where Do Your Words Come From?
Think about it. Where do your decisions come from? When you decide to speak, for instance, where do those words come from? You really don’t know, do you?
Think about all that is involved in creating spontaneous speech. Your brain contains information about the thousands of thoughts that you could express. You have a vocabulary of thousands of words that you can use, and your mind knows the definition of each. And these words must be put together according to the syntax of your language. But you don’t remember sorting through your mental dictionary to look up the meanings of all of the relevant words to select the proper words to express the thought. No, you just speak, and the right words present themselves to you. And you and your listeners both hear the sentence from your mouth at the same time. But where did the words come from?
If your soul is the speechwriter, why isn’t the soul aware of how the words came into your consciousness? Why isn’t your soul aware of looking up the meanings of all of the words that it could have used? Instead, behind the scenes, something must be working to look up available words and form those sentences for you. I contend that this something is nothing more than the millions of neurons in your brain. They must be working behind the scenes to write your speech for you. You and I think that our conscious mind is speaking, but the conscious mind isn’t even aware of how the speech is being written.
Even when we slowly deliberate, weighing every word carefully before speaking, we cannot tell where those word options originated. The words just present themselves to us. Something looked through our mental dictionary and pulled those words up for us.
Many Christians seem to recognize that thoughts come to us fully formed. I have heard some ascribe different authors to the thoughts that stream through their minds. It is interesting to hear them describe the experience. They will tell me that Satan was saying something in their minds, and then they responded, and then God said something, and then the old nature argued, and then Jesus said something, and so on. It must be interesting being them! There are enough people inside to have great conversation. But perhaps they are mistaken. Perhaps various thoughts originate, not from various competing spirit beings inside the mind, but from various competing coalitions of neurons in the brain.
Science indicates that there are millions of neurons working in our brains, and that this activity produces thoughts. It is a cacophony of voices, with many different ideas competing for dominance. But somehow the winning thoughts come to the top and present themselves as a string of conscious ideas. The real work, however, is done among all these competing neurons.
Often our language betrays the fact that things are going on outside of our direct conscious control. We say things like “I didn’t mean to do that,” “The words wouldn’t come,” “I couldn’t help myself,” or “I don’t know why I did that.” In such statements there is a subtle recognition that our consciousness is not really in charge.
The consciousness is along for the ride, observing the finished work that the neurons have put together. And the consciousness rewrites its memories in such a way that it seems to us that our consciousness is making the decisions.
For more on how our brains create consciousness, see Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett and my essay “How Can Molecules Think?“
I conclude that thinking is done by the brain, and these thoughts produce our consciousness. Consciousness does not come from an immaterial soul.
Life after Death
We know that brain activity stops when we die. If our memories are in the brain, how could they remain after death? And how can the inherited personality survive if the very brain that produced it is destroyed? It seems that it too must be gone. If my memories and personality are gone, how can I still be said to exist?
Some will agree that the brain is doing the thinking here on Earth, but posit that there is a soul in there also. And the soul just so happens to want the same thing that the brain wants, and stores the same memories that the brain stores. So, though the brain is gone at death, a soul that works in parallel supposedly remains. How convenient! Since this seems implausible to me, I won’t waste time hoping that it is so.
Ah, but someone might counter: “Couldn’t God just make a copy of all that we had experienced in our brain? When we die, perhaps God restores everything from the backup, just like we would do on a computer. Our mind would literally be backed up in the cloud.”
If there is a backup of my mental database that will be used to drive a new body someday, how do we know that it won’t be instantiated in two bodies, or even a thousand? Will there be thousands of copies of me out there running off of the same backup database of me? It is difficult to see how we could refer to any of those backups as “me.” They are copies, not me. The same thing can be said, then, about the first copy made from a backup database of my memories. It’s not really me. Would it be fair to punish or reward a copy of me for what I have done here on Earth?
Is it possible that God is making a backup copy of me that can live forever? Perhaps, but I can make hundreds of similar wild guesses as to what might happen someday. For instance, is there a possibility that aliens will land on Jupiter, transform it into a paradise for humans, and then offer free shuttle service back and forth to Earth? Perhaps. But I don’t spend long hoping for that to happen. Nor do I spend long hoping that some backup copy of me lives forever.
So it appears that neither a soul nor a copy of the brain’s database survives death.
But what about bodily resurrection? Perhaps the brain lies dormant until God puts it back together and resurrects the body. But how could that happen? What about the bodies of people that died a thousand years ago? Their bodies have disintegrated, and the constituent atoms are spread throughout the world. Some of those particles could be in your brain now. Some atoms may have been part of many people’s brains throughout history. To which brain will they go in the resurrection?
If, on the other hand, I am reconstructed from a new set of molecules, is not such a reconstructed me just one of many possible copies of me that could be made? We are left with a copy, or even multiple copies, not a continued existence of my mind. A copy of me is not the same thing as me.
So, it appears that our minds will not survive death. Your mind is a function of your brain, and your brain will someday die. If you and I are going to find the good life, we will need to make the most of what we have here. Let us make this life count.
 Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston, MA: Back Bay Books, 1991), pp. 162-163.
 Dennett, Consciousness Explained, p. 114.
Copyright ©2022 by Merle Hertzler. The electronic version is copyright ©2022 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Merle Hertzler. All rights reserved.