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The philosophy of the soul supposes that there exists with-in man an immaterial spirit that existed prior to the creation of his body and will continue to exist long after the destruction of it.

I had always taken it for granted, that man had a soul distinct from his body.

— Priestley, Joseph., Disquisitions relating to matter and spirit iii

Causes for Doubt

  1. What is the exact nature of a soul?
  2. How can an immaterial spirit interact with a material body?
  3. Why doesn't the soul float away if it is distinct from the body?


Ancient philosophers through observation of the body at death supposed that a person's invisible character was released through the body's final exhalation. The natural process of the body exhaling its last breath became the supernatural ethereal spirit or soul releasing itself from the body. It is from this supposition that the common idiom "he gave up the ghost" comes.

“What the ancients meant by an immaterial substance [or spirit] being nothing more than an attenuated matter, like air, ether, fire, or light, considered as fluids, beyond which their idea incorporeity did not go.”
—Priestley, Joseph, Disquisitions relating to matter and spirit p. 212
“The ablest and most orthodox christian Fathers, he says, always say that God is a light, and a sublime light, and that all the celestial powers which surround the Deity are lights of a second order, rays of the first light.”
—Priestley, Joseph, Disquisitions relating to matter and spirit p. 223
“The idea of invisible forces and invisible spirits might have risen from the sight of winds coming out of nowhere and lightning bolts from the blue. Our forefathers were not aware of static air, as they could not perceive it by any of our senses. Therefore, when air began to move around they naturally assumed that it was some invisible, living force at work... Man was projecting his own nature on these invisible forces.”
—William, Xavier, World Religions KL 924-926, 929
“Another widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they are composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material. Anthropologists link this idea to early beliefs that ghosts were the person within the person (the person's spirit), most noticeable in ancient cultures as a person's breath, which upon exhaling in colder climates appears visibly as a white mist. This belief may have also fostered the metaphorical meaning of "breath" in certain languages.”
—Wikipedia, Ghosts
“Mankind have always been [very ready] to ascribe the unknown cause of extraordinary appearances to something to which they can give the name spirit.”
—Priestley, Joseph, Disquisitions relating to matter and spirit p. 210

The logical conclusion then was that there existed both good and bad spirits according to the character or disposition of the person from which they came. Wicked men were said to release a wicked spirit and righteous men were said to release a righteous spirit.

“Nevertheless, Josephus says that "demons are the spirits of wicked men, who enter the living, and kill those who receive no help:" language too clear and express to be perverted by the power of criticism.”
—Farmer, Hugh, An essay on the demoniacs of the New Testament p. 25
“It is no inconsiderable confirmation of all that hath been offered concerning possessing demons, that the primitive Christian understood hereby human spirits, and represent this as the general opinion of the world.”
—Farmer, Hugh, An essay on the demoniacs of the New Testament p. 28

Believing these spirits to then have supernatural powers, men began venerating them.

“The doctrine of a soul, and consequently that of an intermediate state between death and the resurrection, has been the foundation of the worship of dead men and women, called saints, of the doctrine of purgatory, and many other doctrines of popery”
—Priestley, Joseph, Discourses relating to the evidences of revealed religion p. 212


The ancients philosophers, based on their belief in spirit, supposed that the origin of all existence was either of spirit or of matter.

“Such a distinction as the ancient philosophers did make between matter and spirit... made the Supreme Mind the author of all good, and matter the source of all evil, that all inferior intelligences are emanations from the Supreme Mind, or made out of its substance, and that matter was reduced to its present form not by the Supreme Mind itself, but by another intelligence, a peculiar emanation from it, has been the real source of the greatest corruptions of true religion in all ages, many of which remain to this very day.”
—Priestley, Joseph, Disquisitions relating to matter and spirit p. iii

Those beings that were spirit, having great powers, were esteemed. Those beings that were matter, having only their natural powers, were abhorred. Everything that was spirit was thought to be holy and pure and everything that was matter was thought to be fleshly and defiled.

“The more unnatural anything is, the more it is capable of becoming the object of dismal admiration.”
—Paine, Thomas, The age of reason p. 13


The prevailing notion concerning the constitution of the soul is that it is incorporeal or immaterial. The difficultly with this supposition is in defining how the soul and the body interact with one another seeing they have no properties in common.

“The modern doctrines of immateriality have generally contended themselves with supposing, that there is some unknown real influence between the soul and the body, but that the connection is a mystery to us. And this is not the first absurdity, and impossibility, that has found a convenient shelter under that term.”
“To say, in general, that matter and spirit must have some common property, but that this common property is altogether unknown to us, cannot give any satisfaction. For till it be defined, I am at liberty to say, that such unknown common property may be impossible in nature.”

If the soul or spirit be immaterial and the body be material, there is nothing preventing the one from flying away from the other.

“It is contended for by all metaphysicians, who maintain the doctrine of any proper immaterial principle, that spirit and body can have no common property; and when it is asked, How, then can they act upon one another, and how can they be so intimately connected as to be continually and necessarily subject to each other's influence? It is acknowledged to be a difficulty, and a mystery that we cannot comprehend. But had this question been considered with due attention, what has been called a difficulty would, I doubt not, have been deemed an impossibility; or such a mystery as that of the bread and wine in the Lord's supper, becoming the real body and blood of Christ, or that of each of the three persons in the Trinity being equally God, and yet there being no more Gods than one; which in the eye of common sense, are not properly difficulties, or mysteries, but direct contradictions; such as that of a thing being and not being at the same time.”
—Priestley, Joseph, Disquisitions relating to matter and spirit p. 81

The Mind

In the same manner that the soul is thought to be immaterial, it is also thought that the human mind is immaterial and that it also exists distinct from the body.

“According to Descartes, minds and bodies are distinct kinds of substance. Bodies, he held, are spatially extended substances, incapable of feeling or thought; minds, in contrast, are unextended, thinking, feeling substances... If minds and bodies are radically different kinds of substance, however, it is not easy to see how they could causally interact
—Wikipedia, Mind Body Problem

The problem with separating the mind from the body philosophically is that it contradicts empirical evidence.

“There is no instance of any man retaining the faculty of thinking, when his brain was destroyed; and whenever that faculty is impeded, or injured, there is sufficient reason to believe that the brain is disordered in proportion; and therefore we are necessarily led to consider the latter as the seat of the former... Moreover, as the faculty of thinking in general ripens, and comes to maturity with the body, it is also observed to decay with it; and if, in some cases, the mental faculties continue vigorous when the body in general is enfeebled, it is evidently because, in those particular cases, the brain is not much affected by the general cause of weakness.”
—Priestley, Joseph, Disquisitions relating to matter and spirit p. 47
“The notion, therefore, of the possibility of thinking in man, without an organized body, is not only destitute of all evidence from actual appearances, but is directly contrary to them; and yet these appearances ought alone to guide the judgement of philosophers.”
—Priestley, Joseph, Disquisitions relating to matter and spirit p. 54

In other words, the proposition that the mind exists distinct from the body leads to that gross conclusion that when the body enters a vegetative state the mind becomes its prisoner.

Futhermore, the immaterial soul and the immaterial mind suffer from the same problem of commonality.

“The absence of an empirically identifiable meeting point between the non-physical mind and its physical extension has proven problematic to dualism”
—Wikipedia, Mind Body Problem
“There is no scientific evidence that there is any measurable manifestation of a consciousness or soul which is separate from neural activity”
—Wikipedia, Astral projection


It is commonly thought that the soul of man is immortal.

“The only reason why it has been so earnestly contended for, that there is some principle in man that is not material, is that it might subsist, and be capable of sensation and action, when the body was dead”
—Priestley, Joseph, Disquisitions relating to matter and spirit p. 55

The Jews don't believe in the immortality of the soul which is puzzling seeing all the time that God spent with them. He told them all the complex legal rituals they should perform toward him, but forgot to describe something as simple as what constitutes the nature of man.

“Almost all forms of Judaism do not share the traditional majority Christian belief in the immortality of the soul”
—Wikipedia, Problem of Hell


The writings ascribed to Moses paint the world in a natural philosophy that is gradually replaced by later ages with spiritual one. Only in the Christian ages does spiritual philosophy reach its zenith.

“The first corruptions of Christianity were derived from heathenism, and especially form the principles of the oriental philosophy; and there are similar austeries at this very day among the Hindoos. Their notion that the soul is a distinct substance from the body, and that the latter is only a prison and clog to the former, naturally leads them to extenuate and mortify the body, in order to exalt and purify the soul. Hence came the idea of the great use and value of fasting, of abstinence from marriage, and of voluntary pain and torture; til at length it became a maxim, that the man who could contrive to make himself the most miserable here, secures to himself a greater share of happiness hereafter.”
—Priestley, Joseph., An History of the Corruptions on Christianity p. 205

It was in the fourth century A.D. that Christian philosophies first proposed that the soul was capable of existing outside of the body.

“In the fourth century, Christians were concerned that Jesus had not returned and wondered what happened to those who died before the Second Coming of Christ. Christians, led by Augustine of Hippo and under the influence of both gnosticism and neoplatonism, developed a new belief in the soul as capable of a separate existence abstract from the material world. The human souls, unlike those of animals, would survive death and, depending on God's judgment, be transferred to the non-material realms of heaven or hell and the new realm of limbo for unbaptized persons and purgatory for those who do not deserve hell but are not purified for heaven..”
—Wikipedia, Natural Religion


Most of the instances in the scriptures where the English translators used the soul can just as equally be translated as life. That the word soul exists in the bible is not proof that souls exists or that humans have souls. In fact, no where in the entire bible does it define what constitutes a soul. Neither does it define what constitutes a spirit or relate how a soul and spirit differ from one another.

“The word nephish which our translators have here rendered soul, is a common Hebrew word for life, and is very often so rendered.”
—Balfour, Walter, Inquiry p. 30
“The phrase, "both soul and body," is a mere Hebrew idiom, to express the whole man or person”
—Balfour, Walter, Inquiry p. 149

1 Thessalonians 5:23

This is probably the most notable verse that is used in support of their being three parts in man; and that concept is used as justification by the orthodox for their being three in one God.

“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
—1 Thessalonians 5:23 NKJV

The apostle Paul traveled extensively and was most likely familiar with many Jewish fables [1] and Gentile philosophies.

“Also, when the apostle Paul, 1 Thess. v. 23. says, I pray God your whole spirit, and soul, and body, be preserved blameless until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, he only uses these terms as denoting, in the philosophy of his time (which had spread even among the Jews) all that constituted a complete man, without hinting at the possibility of any separation of the several parts.”
—Priestley, Joseph, Disquisitions relating to matter and spirit p. 169

Bodily Soul

A soul existing distinct from the body has been discussed above at length. A soul existing within the body is suggested as a possibility by Aristotle,

“In sum, Aristotle saw the relation between soul and body as uncomplicated, in the same way that it is uncomplicated that a cubical shape is a property of a toy building block. The soul is a property exhibited by the body, one among many. Moreover, Aristotle proposed that when the body perishes, so does the soul, just as the shape of a building block disappears with destruction of the block.
—Wikipedia, Mind Body Problem

I cannot find any basis for a soul existing within the body. The reason being that there exists no organ or part properly called the soul within the body according to our knowledge of human anatomy. Until somebody can identify it within the realm of the body, I am inclined to say that mankind has no such soul. And the thought of a material soul is so different from what is commonly thought of as a soul that if one did exist, it should properly be called something else.

Further Reading

Most of the quotes found on this page come from volume one of Joseph Priestley's work on matter and spirit which I highly recommend.


  1. 2 Timothy 3:8-9