Distinctions between Body and Soul


  • There are two aspects to human beings, a physical body and a non-physical soul
  • They tend to believe in life after death


  • Humans beings are made of one substance, the physical body
  • They reject the concept of life after death –there is no scientific evidence for the ‘soul’
  • They believe in only one substance, matter and therefore dualism is incorrect as it postulates the existence of matter and a non-physical substance
  • A person’s identity is inextricably linked to their physical body so when the body dies, their life ends
  • They contend that all experiences, emotions and thoughts are derived from our brains and that everything can be explained by the mental activity of the brain
  • The materialist argument for not accepting survival after death may be summarised as follows:
  • Life depends on a functioning brain, nervous system and physical body.
  • Death involves the destruction of the brain, the nervous system and physical body.
  • Therefore a person’s life ends at death, as without a physical form life cannot be supported.

The Problem

Whether the mind and body are one of the same nature (monistic view) or whether they have two natures (dualistic view).

What therefore happens when we die?


This is the notion that humans have composite natures (the material part is the physical body and the non-material part is the mind/soul). The mind and body both exist though and are linked in some way.


Although Plato’s beliefs have changed over time, his general belief about the soul is that it is immaterial, and the real me. It is pre-existent and immortal. We come back in our next life as something better or worse depending on how we were during our previous life, until we fulfil our potential and enter a type of heaven.


Our body is spatial but not conscious, while the mind is not spatial but is conscious. Even though this mind and body were separate, they interact within the brain. The state of the body will affect the mind and visa versa. When people die their body is left behind although their soul is able to continue with God.

There are problems with dualism though:

  • How do souls and bodies interact if they are completely separate things?
  • Gilbert Ryle dismissed dualism as a theory about ‘a ghost [mind] in a machine [body]’. He felt that this separation of the mind and body was a ‘category mistake’. Use the example of *Cambridge University and asking where is the university.


This is the view that the mind cannot be separated from the body


We are made up of two things a body (matter) and a soul or ‘psyche’ (the form), and (unlike Plato) the soul is an integral part of the body. You can’t have one without the other (e.g. a cake cannot be a cake without its ingredients or form). The soul animates the body, by organising a potential living body into an actual living body. Aquinas took on these ideas.


Rejects the idea of the soul. All mental events are physical events interpreted in a mental way. But what if for example we were wishing? This is not a physical event. He believes that an individual is a physical living body and no more, and so when the body dies that’s it, the whole person is dead.


Biological materialist. Doesn’t believe in a soul. He believed that life is simply physical matter made up of DNA. We are the survival machines for this DNA as we are simply ‘gene machines’ driven by our genes to protect and duplicate themselves. He takes a reductionist approach believing that the mind is nothing but “a computer made of meat”. Evolution filters in the ‘good’ genes and filters out the ‘bad’. Does believe in consciousness though (as more important that DNA). Once the DNA has developed the brain, it can begin to think for itself as an individual and consider the consequences of its own actions. Is this simply what others call a soul though? And although Dawkins believes that everything points away from a creator, as Peter Williams pointed out, where did this information/DNA originally come from. Was there no mind behind this?


He is also a materialist although, unlike Dawkins, he believes in a life after death as well as God. Hicks Replica Theory believes that the soul cannot be separated from the body, and at the point of death on earth, God creates an exact replica of that person in another space. They would look the same and have the same memories. This theory is very vague though.

A Mixture Between Monism and Dualism


He modified Aristotle’s thinking. Believed that the soul is the form of the body and therefore the body needs the soul to give it life and the soul needs the body. The soul is the anima, the thing that animates the body and gives it life. What we do to our body and what happens to our mind process is closely linked. The body ages, but the mind does not though. At death the soul does leave the body though to enter purgatory before re-uniting with the body at the second judgement. This is a huge contradiction in his thought as the soul does split from the body!


This is the view that the mind is the only reality and the body is unreal.

Bishop Berkeley

The mind is all that exists. Only our minds and perceptions are real. He believed that knowledge was only attainable by experience (therefore he is an empiricist). You can only know your experience on an object, but cannot know if the object really exists. A difficult one to refute although is largely rejected.

Plato: a dualist approach  

  • The soul as more important than the body
  • The body is part of the empirical world and so, is subject to constant change
  • Therefore, for Plato, the body and its senses cannot be a reliable guide to the truth
  • The body allows us to gain opinions via our senses
  • The soul enables us to have knowledge and it is unchanging and therefore immortal
  • It cannot be changed and it had a pre-existing before birth in the world of the Forms thus,
  • It is capable of recognising and understanding the Forms (before it was pulled to earthy by the appetites it resided there)
  • The body is the source of endless trouble...is liable also to diseases...in fact as men say, takes away from us all power of thinking at all”
  • Our bodies distract us from our real purpose: philosophical thought
  • The body is a prison and the soul is liberated at death
  • Plato compared the soul to a charioteer in charge of two horses with one being good and the other being badly behaved representing: reason, spirit and appetite (desire)


Reason: the highest, most superior of the three elements. It allows us to gain knowledge, to distinguish from right and wrong, and to understand the Forms.

Spirit/emotion: the second element allows us to love and inspires courage but if it is left unchecked, we can become reckless and conceited.

Appetite/desire: the most inferior element. It is necessary to encourage us to look after our bodies physical needs but if left unchecked it can cause us to drift into lives of hedonism and become little better than animals.

Each element of the soul plays a part in the balance of the individual.

  • Plato gave the analogy to show how he thought the three different strands worked together
  • He thought that a person should always allow reason and logic to take the lead, rather than letting the demands of emotion or appetites obscure wisdom
  • In his work ‘Phaedo,’  Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates his beliefs about the immortality of the soul and that idea that even though he had been executed, Socrates’ soul would live on after death and that it would continue to contemplate the Form of the Good
  • Socrates argued that the soul continues to live in a state where it has thoughts and intelligence and that after death, it is undisturbed by the distractions of its bodily demands and can therefore reach its highest state
  • The soul is a life giving essence and must therefore always have life, regardless of the death of the physical body
  • The body … takes away from us all power of thinking at all

Aristotle: a monist approach

The body and soul cannot be separated and gave the example of a wax tablet to show that the soul is inseparable from the person - “It is as meaningless as to ask whether the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one

  • Aristotle sees the soul as the formal cause of the body – it is our characteristics and attributes and not an extra addition
  • The soul is not distinct or self-contained, but works together with the body. Its nature depends on the type of living being that it is and souls can be arranged in hierarchy e.g. the soul of a plant has powers of nutrition, growth and reproduction, whereas the human soul also has the power of reason. The soul can be said to be the ‘raison d’etre’

He used these analogies:

  • If the body were an axe, the soul will be its ability to chop
  • If the body were an eye, the soul would be its ability to see
  • There can be no soul present without the body
  • Our soul is a human soul with human properties
  • They have a rational and an irrational part
  • The irrational part is the same as an animal’s - it is vegetative and appetitive
  • The human soul is different as it can reason
  • The soul cannot survive death as it is inseparable from the body

John Hick

Rejects the traditional belief in body-soul dualism by adopting a materialist position (humans consist of physical matter alone)

  • He contends that this does not weaken the possibility of life after death
  • When we describe the soul, he believed that we were describing mental characteristics/personality traits

Hick’s view of personal identity is that a person is more than the mental processes. A person includes both the physical and the mental and the Human is therefore a psycho physical unity.

Talking about the soul is describing what a person does or their ‘behavioural dispositions’ – what they are likely to do

  • Soul – expresses value of humans
  • SOS = Save Our Souls! We are not expecting a ghostly substance to be saved, but our whole character
  • “There is no ‘ghost in the machine.’  All that needs to be said about us can be explained by reference to our physical selves”
  • There is no mysterious ghostly figure! Gilbert Ryle criticised dualism for portraying this misconception
  • Traducianism = early Christian teaching that souls were passed down from parents rather than uniquely implanted by God (from 3rd century bishop Tertullian)

This idea seems to be more in keeping with modern science and fits in with Hick’s idea that the soul does not refer to an extra something implanted by God.

What lives after death is a replica or a duplicate. The replica comes to life in heaven as an exact copy of the person who lived and died on earth. God creates this replica to live on after death.

The important thing to remember about John Hick’s ‘Replica’ theory is the distinction he makes between logical possibility and factual possibility. He himself claims that his theory is not factually possible, but suggests that changes in the way matter functions could make it factually possible.

Hick sets up three scenarios through which he attempts to demonstrate that resurrection of the person is a logically possible hypothesis:

  • A man is at a conference in London, and during the blinking of his eyes, he finds himself transported to a conference in New York. He has continuity of body, memory and personality (he’s the same person) which is verified by friends of his from London who travel to New York to see him. Instead of a sudden disappearance, there is a sudden death. The man at the conference in London dies and an exactly similar ‘replica’ of him appears in New York. There is continuity of memory, body and personality and a living counterpart of a dead man in another country
  • A person dies and is ‘replicated’ in another world which is populated with other dead persons who have been ‘replicated.’ It is God who brings this resurrection/’replication’ about
  • Number 3 is Hick’s ‘replica’ theory. He suggests that it is logically possible for there to exist a separate world populated by resurrected persons (‘replicas’) who are brought back to life by God. He uses these three examples to show that logically (not factually) this can happen, but that being resurrected is quite different to merely being transported from say, London to New York

Hick on life after death

  • Religious belief carries a ‘cosmic optimism’ that one day we will have the chance to improve ourselves, become more perfect and overcoming problems we could not overcome on earth
  • Within eastern traditions, this is understood in terms of the constant rebirths into the physical world
  • In Western traditions, it is understood in terms of a belief in eternal life in heaven or hell

Hick argues that if in our life after death, we have improved greatly, we would be able to see the suffering we faced more clearly and we might be able to understand what it was all for and what progress we have made as a result.

He accepts that the idea of life after death is not provable but argues that it is not an unreasonable belief and that if we do continue this journey of progress and development after dearth, this provides a coherent explanation for the problem of evil in the world.

He rejects the doctrine of hell because he sees this belief as incompatible with the belief in a God of love and argues that this belief was developed as a form of social control, encouraging people not to disobey God or fear eternal punishment.

The body and soul, in his view, are inseparable therefore, if there is to be a life after death for the soul, the body has to be resurrected 

Richard Dawkins: a materialist approach

He is a materialist who believed that Human beings are bytes of digital information. There is no soul or consciousness as we are the sum total of our genes. He concentrates of the idea that humans are merely carriers of information and DNA.

For Dawkins, the only conceivable theory is that of evolution. We are as we are because of our genetic makeup, not the efforts of our soul to guide us towards the realm of ideas each change is due to evolution. There is no soul which continues, there is only the survival of DNA, the function of life.

He strongly rejects the notion of the soul in the religious or Platonic sense but does suggest that there may be a place for talking about ‘soul’ in a metaphorical or symbolic way.

  • Soul 1 – traditional view of a principle of life, a real separate thing that is spiritual and contains personality. Dawkins rejects this
  • Soul 2 – as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary refers to ‘intellectual or spiritual power. High development of the mental faculties. Deep feeling and sensitivity.’ Dawkins argues that this is a meaningful way of describing ourselves provided we are clear that this does not refer to a separate thing

He argues that the consolation religion provides can only truly by consolidation if religion is true and we are able to survive death.

He contends that death should not be feared and that it is merely the ‘extinguishing’ of our consciousness and will be no different to the time before we were born.

“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world”

In his book ‘The Selfish Gene’ (1976) he proposes that humans are nothing more than ‘survival machines’ – they are the vehicles of genes which are only interested in replicating themselves in order to survive into the next generation.

He deems that humans do not have immortal souls and instead are simply a mixture of chemicals – “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes”.

In Dawkin’s view, human self-awareness is not due to the soul but has developed because self-awareness has evolutionary advantages.

He argues, as Betrand Russell did, that religious beliefs in ideas such as immortality of the soul has no sound basis as they are based on wish-fulfilment for those who lack courage or who fear death.

Materialists believe that consciousness is no more than electro-chemical events within the brain and that no person is capable of surviving brain death. Therefore, physical death is the end.

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