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Does the soul violate physics?

Published: 26 December 2015 (GMT+10)

T. O. from the U.S. asked:

How can the immaterial part of the human being interact with the human brain without violating the conservation of energy?

CMI’s responds:

Hi T.,

The Bible is very clear that there is an immaterial component to human beings. Scripture makes a distinction between the body and the soul or spirit, and indicates that these can be separated from each other at death. Consider the following verses as a small representative sampling of the Bible’s claims.

  • Matthew 10:28—And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
  • James 2:26—For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:8—Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

In philosophy, the idea that humans are composed of a material and an immaterial part is known as substance dualism.1 This is, therefore, the biblical view, and I would argue that the Bible also indicates that our immaterial part can affect the physical part—a view called interactionism.

Various philosophers have defended interactionistic substance dualism against the charge that it violates the conservation of energy. For example, philosopher Robin Collins has argued that, strictly speaking, energy conservation may not necessarily apply even to all physical systems according to general relativity,2 and that, in any case, quantum mechanics may furnish examples of how physical interactions can take place without any energy-momentum exchange.3 So, Collins asks, why could not the mind/body interactions work in similar ways?

But there may be an even more simple and obvious solution. As we’ve pointed out in articles like Miracles and science, physical laws describe what happens apart from any outside force. When an apple falls from a tree, it falls to the ground unless something from outside the system intervenes. A person could reach out and catch it, for example, but this is not a violation of gravity. No laws were broken or disobeyed. Gravity is still operating on the apple even once it’s caught, but another force has overcome the gravitational attraction, which the law permits.

Similarly, then, if our minds/souls can effect change in physical systems like our brains, perhaps they actually do have the power to introduce new energy in limited ways, as prominent philosophers like Alvin Plantinga have suggested.4 This would not “violate” the conservation of energy since, technically, that law only holds rigidly true in isolated systems, and an immaterial soul could be intervening from outside the system. It’s the same reason why divine miracles don’t violate the conservation of energy—God is outside the system. So to deny that God or human agents have the power to cause change in the physical realm because of the law of energy conservation is to beg the question.

By the way, there are also many positive extrabiblical reasons to believe that we are partly immaterial. This is deftly argued in the writings of evangelical philosophers like J.P. Moreland5 and Angus Menuge,6 for example, as well as long ago by Thomas Aquinas and the modern Thomist philosopher Ed Feser.7 And factors like these contributed to atheist Thomas Nagel's concession that the mind is unexplainable by reductive materialism, and to Anthony Flew’s transition out of atheism to belief in a deistic sort of god.

Finally, you might also be helped by Brain chemistry and the fate of the personality after death.

References and notes

  1. Not to be confused with the Platonic type of dualism that says spirit is good but matter is evil, or with Zoroastrian dualism that posits equal creators of ultimate good (Ahura Mazda) and ultimate evil (Angra Mainyu). Return to text
  2. Conservation of energy is mathematically a consequence of laws of physics not changing with time, according to Nöther’s theorem (after Emmy Nöther (1882–1935)). This states that every symmetry of a physical theory has an associated conservation law; time invariance corresponds to energy conservation. But since GR teaches that gravity affects time, so time is not invariant, therefore energy is not conserved under GR. So the conservation law must be extended to stress–energy–momentum, expressed by a 16-component stress–energy–momentum tensor. Return to text
  3. Collins, R., Modern Physics and the Energy Conservation Objection to Mind-Body Dualism, The American Philosophical Quarterly 45(1):31–42, January 2008. Return to text
  4. Plantinga, A., Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, p. 119, footnote 41, Oxford University Press, 2011. But as our review documents, Plantinga is inexcusably slack on biblical creation. Return to text
  5. Moreland, J.P., The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters, Moody Publishers, 2014. Return to text
  6. Menuge, A.J.L., Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science, Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. More recently, Menuge outclassed atheist P.Z. Myers in a debate, “Does Neuroscience Leave Room for God?” Return to text
  7. Feser, E., The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, ch. 4: The soul, 2012. See also his Philosophy of Mind, chs. 7 and 8, 2005. Feser even argues that under an Aristotelian–Thomist worldview, the mind-body problem is a non-issue. Return to text

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