Is there a secular argument for the immortality of the soul?



I was inspired by the following question, which is unfortunately on hold:

Has the question of after-life been discussed in philosophy?

There has also been some discussion about the general question of whether there is a secular argument for the soul (see Is there a modern, secular argument for the soul?).

Is there a secular argument for the immortality of the soul?


Posted 2014-07-25T21:43:23.393

Reputation: 1 231

A million years from now my atoms will be repurposed to something else. Maybe something better. I believe in my own immortality and my belief is solidly based in physics. "We are stardust." – user4894 – 2014-07-29T03:16:54.207

"... this isn't immortality, since the universe has finite duration." What? If the universe has finite duration, nothing is immortal. You seem to be refuting your own premises. – user4894 – 2014-07-29T05:02:47.737

Sure, if the physical universe is all there is, then you are correct. Immortality is impossible. Can you prove the universe is all there is? If so, then you've met my challenge. – yters – 2014-07-29T21:59:32.590



A (modified) argument:

1) The soul is the property of the universe which enables the human brain to manifest that phenomena which we call consciousness, qualia, or the essence of that which the Buddhists refer to as the watcher.

2) The soul exists.

3) We do not know the nature of the soul.

4) In particular we do not know if the soul can cease to exist.


Posted 2014-07-25T21:43:23.393

Reputation: 4 231

An interesting approach, but saying mortality is an illusion is not the same as arguing for immortality. Immortality presumes mortality is real. – yters – 2014-07-25T22:32:38.687

I do not argue that mortality is an illusion. – nir – 2014-07-25T22:37:25.630

Time is an illusion = mortality is an illusion. Perhaps I misunderstand your point. – yters – 2014-07-29T21:55:24.943

Neither time nor mortality is an illusion, but neither transcendence nor immortality is impossibility. – Asphir Dom – 2014-07-31T23:39:43.173

@yters, I modified the argument in response to your comment – nir – 2014-08-06T11:06:08.417

Excellent, this is a winner for my weaker challenge :) Good job. – yters – 2014-08-06T12:55:29.067

why is this a good answer?? its full of axioms and its only states that the sole gives us the ability to be conscious. – yamm – 2015-01-13T09:49:32.000


I can sketch a proof to the contrary to your weaker claim, if you like. We do indeed have a good reason to believe that "the soul" (which for the sake of avoiding long metaphysical discussion I shall take to be something like a person's identity, something that characterises what they are beyond just their physical present body but their contribution to the whole of human existence) exists only finitely in time.

It's simply that it is an entirely reasonable hypothesis (suggested as a possible correlate in theories of physical origins) that the universe will ultimately reach a point in the future where it undergoes heat death, collapsing into a state of complete entropic randomness. If this is so, then even if there is something in reality that persists of an individual's identity even beyond their personal death, not only will there be nobody to remember you by, but there will be a collapse of any energetic boundaries of any sort, such that there is no longer anything that distinguishes any individual from any other. There would be no mechanism in reality by which any sense of individual might persist beyond that event.

Since there is good reason to believe that heat death might occur, and it follows from heat death that, whatever souls are such that an individual persists past their own death, they will ultimately perish themselves, then I take it that there does exist good reason to believe that the soul is mortal.

Paul Ross

Posted 2014-07-25T21:43:23.393

Reputation: 4 801

1Yes, this is also a valid approach, to show immortality is most likely false. Of course, it assumes physicality encompasses all of reality, which isn't necessarily true. It'd be stronger if you could demonstrate that reality must only be physical, since that isn't a necessary secular premise. – yters – 2014-07-25T22:29:37.477

Actually, one of the virtues of the "heat death" approach is that it allows for there to be more than physical stuff in the universe via some kind of supervenience relation that ALSO ultimately perishes. We're not just interested in the physical termination of the universe, because then a "big crunch" type argument would have sufficed. This argument covers the case where reality uses the physical world as a mere medium for the exchange of information - that reality too would be a mortal existence. – Paul Ross – 2014-07-25T22:32:49.737

In saying that, though, we would need to go further and say that the objective identity conditions of a human being are indeed information over a physical medium, even if the object that is to serve as "the soul" or "identity" of the person isn't physical. But this premise too seems fairly reasonable to me. – Paul Ross – 2014-07-25T22:41:19.150

You'd still have to show that any other aspect of reality can only be supervenient. As it is, your argument still depends on physicalism being true. And physicalism isn't the only option out there, so you need some sort of reason why that's the most plausible premise. – yters – 2014-07-27T16:07:53.113

That assumes that the soul is affected by what we currently understand of physics. – user2808054 – 2014-07-28T10:10:17.990

In response to both, I'd just like to remind you that all I am seeking to prove is that there exists good reason. The truth of physicalism is less important to my claim than its plausibility, and even that is stronger than I need given that the argument applies allowing some kind of supervenience or dependence based abstraction principle for human souls/identities. – Paul Ross – 2014-07-28T15:15:19.243

Well, think about it like this. I have asked for one of two sorts of arguments: 1) a plausible argument that the soul is immortal, or 2) an argument that #1 is impossible. You've given me #3, a plausible argument that the soul is not immortal. To give me a #2, you need to show that physicalism is the only plausible option. – yters – 2014-07-29T22:01:49.297

1Ehh... your weaker challenge is, to quote, "to prove that there is no good reason to believe the soul is mortal", which would require 2') an argument that there is no plausible argument for the soul being mortal, rather than 2) an argument that there is no plausible argument for the soul being immortal. My answer was to present a case for ¬(2')), rather than 2). If you'd like to change your challenge, I'll happily retract my answer. – Paul Ross – 2014-07-30T15:17:16.330

"Good reason to believe" - you YOU should write a bible of logic. After that phrase your argument collapsed -- neither making it a good transcendental inspiration, nor following the boring rules of reasonable logic. – Asphir Dom – 2014-07-31T23:36:38.783

It's a direct quote from the question! – Paul Ross – 2014-08-01T05:11:28.500

@PaulRoss, while a good point, ¬(2') is not one of my listed challenges. The weaker challenge does not include its contrary, unlike the primary challenge. – yters – 2014-08-06T13:04:54.623


There are some problems with your question.

(1) You want proof, which is impossible.

(2) Deciding an alleged tie by popularity is wrong. If there is some set of positions and none of them can refute the others they are all flawed and further research is needed.

(3) We don't know that the universe will have finite duration.

(4) Whether the universe has finite or infinite duration as measured by some particular kind of clock does not determine how you long you will live subjectively.

What is relevant for how long you will live subjectively if you're being simulated in computers is how many computational steps you will be able to do before the end of the universe. If you can do an indefinitely large number of steps there is no upper bound on the number of experiences you can have and so subjectively you will live forever.

For a universe that lasts for an infinite amount of time the number of computational steps that can be done may be finite. The expansion of the universe might spread out resources so that the computation runs out of blank bits after a finite number of steps.

For a computer that lasts a finite amount of time there might be no upper bound to the number of steps provided that the time it takes to do steps decreases sufficiently quickly and has no lower bound.

There are models in which the number of computational steps that can be done can be made indefinitely large.


Posted 2014-07-25T21:43:23.393

Reputation: 6 821

Do you have proof that proof is impossible, lol. Everything is finite in a finite, quantized universe. – yters – 2014-07-29T21:57:01.223

"Do you have proof that proof is impossible". No, I have an explanation of why it is impossible. The link is to my answer to another Phil Stack Exchange question. "Everything is finite in a finite, quantized universe." Quantization is not relevant because it does not imply that there is an upper bound on the number of bits that can be created during the future history of the universe. Nor does the fact that the volume of the patch of the universe we can see is finite imply such an upper bound. – alanf – 2014-07-30T08:02:06.350

Could a self-sustaining energetic system exist without its self-maintaining properties depending on the 'structural integrity' of some of its 'physical' parts? If it could then this system might exist indefinitely. This could be part of a non-religious argument for a dynamic system ,like us, our 'minds' existing indefinitely. – 201044 – 2015-06-24T02:29:01.263


If we take a oscillatory universe, not a heat death universe, then we get a infinite amount of big crunches followed by big bangs.

Now if an infinite permutation of universes occurs, then you will exist forever, though not continuously, and there may be tiny bit of a gap between existences.

Keith Nicholas

Posted 2014-07-25T21:43:23.393

Reputation: 553

This was the view of the Stoics. Oscillatory universe = the conflagration. – virmaior – 2014-07-29T03:13:30.133

Right, that's also the view promoted by Nietzsche. I'll grant you that is a form of immortality. But, I'm really looking for something more akin to the religious idea of immortality, but based on secular principles. – yters – 2014-07-29T21:58:25.650

Not sure you can make that argument (certainly can't prove it ). Making a secular argument is quite constraining, we are basically limited to physics to come up with an argument for immortality, introduction of any other concept would probably not count as secular. – Keith Nicholas – 2014-07-29T23:36:41.387

Secular merely means not relying on a religious authority. This does not constrain us to only scientific sources. – yters – 2014-08-06T12:58:51.100


is there a secular argument for the immortality of the soul?

Sure! I can think of sev-

Is there a [good] secular argument for the immortality of the soul?

Ah. Short answer: No, and a solid argument for the opposite.


First, by secular argument I assume that you mean one that does not include magic - i.e., that relies only on what we know of the physical universe, how it works, and some reasonable extrapolation from there into areas where the results aren't in yet.

Second, be aware that you are taking as a given that something called a 'soul' exists. While the nature and properties of 'soul' are not well defined, I will assume for the sake of argument that by 'soul' we can mean 'some core aspect of self'.

Third, we must assume that the 'soul' has some effect on/control of our minds/bodies while we are alive in order to meaningfully represent 'us'. This should follow fairly obviously from the second assumption, but it is a critical consideration to keep in mind.

Fourth, in order for a soul to carry that core aspect of self into the future postmortem, we must assume the soul pre-death is largely the same as the soul post-death.

In order for a soul to exist past bodily death (without invoking magic, per the first assumption), the soul would need to exist as some combination of forces, matter and/or energy so it can drive our bodies while we're alive (second & third assumptions) AND not rely on those same physical bodies so they may continue to exist postmortem (fourth assumption).

Things that affect matter (such as our material bodies) are called forces. Therefore, souls must be able to exert some kind of force on our bodies while we are alive. Any soul-force candidates can then be evaluated to see if the associated energy can persist in some meaningful way after we die (per the fourth assumption, the soul would not become a completely different fundamental force after dying).

We know of four fundamental forces: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravity. Since there are only four we can fairly quickly examine each as candidate carriers of the 'soul force' to see if any could support the existence of an external, post-death soul. (Again: with no force there's nothing that a soul can do to or for us while we're alive.)

  • The two nuclear forces are what hold atoms together and don't have an effect outside the atom - we can rule out both the strong and weak force as soul-force candidates since, again, 'soul' would also have to be able to affect our bodies in life (Third assumption).
  • Gravity is an extremely weak force that requires rather large amounts mass to become at all noticeable, and that kind of mass leaving a body would be extremely obvious. Combined with the traditional notion that souls are incorporeal (have no mass), we can quickly rule out gravity.
  • Electromagnetic activity, like the firing of our neurons while we're alive, is detectable and measurable with modern technology. Electromagnetism is the best candidate of the four known forces as the source of the 'soul force'. We can measure EM activity in the brain (using technology such as MRI), and we know that this activity correlates with mental activity. So far, so good! Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that this activity can exist without the physical brain to carry the signals. Additionally, there are no measurements that have been able to detect strange electromagnetic fluxes leaving bodies upon death, nor any known way for such an electromagnetic flux to persist in any meaningful way even for a short time. It should be safe to say that experiment has ruled out electromagnetism as a means for a soul to persist.

Having ruled out the four known forces as possible carriers for an eternal soul, how about an as-yet undiscovered 5th force?

Unfortunately, the 'fifth force' option won't work. We've looked. Any extra forces that may exist are far too wimpy to satisfy the third assumption.

Quoting physicist Sean Carroll (emphasis added):

[F]orces are characterized by three things: their range, their strength, and their source (what they couple to). As discussed above, we know what the possible sources are that are relevant to [macroscopic objects]: quarks, gluons, photons, electrons. So all we have to do is a set of experiments that look for forces between different combinations of those particles. And these experiments have been done! The answer is: any new forces that might be lurking out there are either (far) too short-range to effect everyday objects, or (far) too weak to have readily observable effects.


We know the laws of physics well enough to rule out all possible sources of a 'soul-force' that could both drive our bodies while we're alive and persist after our death. Whatever a 'soul' might be, if it has any relevance to us while we are alive it also dies with us.

Dave B

Posted 2014-07-25T21:43:23.393

Reputation: 915

While I can't accept this as directly answering the question, it is a good clarifying response. It suffers from the same issue as Paul Ross' answer. – yters – 2014-08-06T12:57:53.913

@yters: You asked if there could be a secular argument for an immortal soul, and I tried staying on-task for building the case for 'no'. Do you disagree with any of the initial assumptions? If not, was there a mistake proceeding from there? – Dave B – 2014-08-06T14:11:49.963


Here's one.

It is not a tautology. There is no inductive proof of it. There is only IBE.

And while it is more parsimonious to believe in annihilation, parsimony is just one aspect of the "best" explanation. I.e., if IBE is permitted in reasoning, then we must also include other subjective judgements, such as as aesthetics and so forth.

And there is no absolute consensus among even in the philosophy of physics, whether we will be annihilated.

So "perhaps".

Moreover, if IBE is always provisional, just the judgement that the conclusion can be proven, then it is not reasonable to suppose annihilation is the best explanation, because it is peculiarly non inductive. I am either annihilated or not, so the best explanation is that I am not.

The only counter arguments I can reasonably assume is: 1. It is possible to know someone else has been annihilated, perhaps because we know everything about reality. 2. Occam's razor is self sufficient and not provisional and its instances do not need to be argued for.


Posted 2014-07-25T21:43:23.393