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Feedback archiveFeedback 2015

Does the soul violate physics?

Published: 26 December 2015 (GMT+10)

Tomislav 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 Tomislav,

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.

Related Articles

Further Reading

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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Readers’ comments
King T., South Africa, 28 December 2015

I guess another more simplistic way to look at this soul-body relationship would be to use the analogy of computer hardware and its associated software. The software is the arrangement of certain elemental physical entities in such a way that it affects or influences the behaviour of the system at large. Our brains have an intricate and highly complex arrangement of neurons and ganglions which altogether constitute our acquired programming with resultant externally observed behaviour.

Similarly just about every modern piece of equipment has some kind of programming embedded into it - one can think of the mechanics of a motor vehicle, a power station, a fridge, microwave etc. All these have a structured logical and abstract arrangement of physical parts which when activated, exhibits characteristic and expected behaviour. Some of the more complex programs e.g. artificial intelligent stock trading systems or helicopter flight automations has such intricate programming as to appear autonomous and better than humans.

Yet in all this, the software itself is abstract or for lack of another word - spiritual, lacking physical substance.

Chris W., United Kingdom, 27 December 2015

Dear Sirs, Thank you for this interesting article although I did find the statement ...'Scripture makes a distinction between the body and the soul or spirit,'... somewhat different to my understanding of how we humans are comprised. I would cite 2 verses to elucidate this point:

1Thes:23 (NLT) Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again.

and: Heb 4:12 (NLT) For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.

So, I've always understood that the soul would relate to the personality, thinking, character etc and the spirit to that most innermost part of us that is eternal, confirms that we are made in the image of God (who is spirit), needs to be born again, is dead in the unbeliever, but alive when we come to faith, and will be clothed with a new body in the life to come.

1 COR 14:14 also comes to mind where Paul says: For if I pray in tongues, my spirit is praying, but I don’t understand what I am saying.'

This suggests to me that when I pray in tongues it is my spirit-man that is being exercised, whilst my mind and emotions are bypassed. What do you think?

Keaton Halley responds

To clarify, in that statement I wasn't trying to take a position on the dichotomous vs. trichotomous perspectives, and CMI has no official position on the matter. I was only differentiating between our material and immaterial parts. Whether the soul and spirit should be further differentiated is another matter. But that subject is discussed briefly in Dr. Sarfati's book, The Genesis Account, so you might want to check that out.

Robert O., United States, 27 December 2015

I am with Ian H. on this, but I have a much less sophisticated response. Simply this: Physics speaks to physical realities, not to the spiritual. The spiritual is of a greater infinity than is the physical, and contains the physical. It is absolutely mind boggling to me that any PhD. in physics should posit such a ridiculous assertion that the idea of a soul violates the laws of physics because of the law of Conservation of Energy in the physical realm. It is sophistry on the surface of it. Love your website CMI. I visit regularly.

Gian Carlo B., Puerto Rico, 26 December 2015

I remember having an informal, Internet debate with an atheist who said the mind is another physical phenomena, not an immaterial part and uses evidence like mental traumas and brain dysfunction to prove his point, what he failed to get, and I admit I didn't point to it clearly, is that the Judeo-Christian worldview has what it's called a complementarian interactionist dualism of mind-body. The soul affects the body as much as the body affects the soul, each plays their role. You made an excellent point that the soul exerts some form of energy that intervenes in the normal process of the body, Carl Wieland also argued that, because both our components are fallen, we do not fully control the impulses of our flesh, which is what Jesus said about the mind body issue: "the flesh is weak but the spirit is willing", this means that, even though we can at some form control our impulses, our bodily impulses and other problems will impact the workings of our consciousness without reducing its ontological framework nor existence. Both do not destroy one another but compliment one another, not perfect but the interaction exists. This is why the Bible teaches that our bodies are the Spirit's Temple and we ought to be both mind and body obedient. We have to take care of the works of our bodies as much as our soul, both components are the whole of humanity.

Tomislav O., United States, 26 December 2015

"Then some of the scribes answered, 'Teacher, you have spoken well.' " (Luke 20:39) I have found Robin Collins' article to be very helpful.

Chandrasekaran M., Australia, 26 December 2015

I suppose all scientists, especially molecules to moral homo-sapiens evolution scientists, know that all these physical laws describe what happens observationally. This means that if there appears to be a violation according to the physical laws, homo-sapiens observation is not complete or observationally not verifiable. How many physical laws would have to be violated to uphold molecules to moral homo-sapiens evolution that includes four dimensional DNA genetic program?

Ian H., Australia, 26 December 2015

Does the soul violate physics? My Take! The laws of physics determine the actions of matter. Information is non material. Taking 2 books and 2 bottles of ink if one bottle is used to color the book randomly and the other to record a book, say the Bible then they both have the same gravitational, matter and heat component (presuming the pages and ink are treated similarly). Presumably the mind records emotions, thoughts and history in the same way, the content can be good or bad but they are non material therefore not subject to the Laws of Thermodynamics? Interesting when we die the matter component remains in this Time/Space continuum but the soul (non material) goes to God and is (or could be) the DNA Information including the Epigenetic Code. When people succumb to disease affecting the brain the interface between the soul and brain fails but the essence of man, the soul, remains until death

Wayne T., Australia, 26 December 2015

It is interesting that numerous scientists argue against dualism by asserting that only the physical exists. Daniel Dennett, Gilbert Ryle, and numerous others have tried to explain the mind/brain with reference to the physical sciences alone, as currently understood, but are not open to two possibilities: (1) the physical sciences are not fully understood; and (2), there is more to existence than the physical. Arguing consistently within a paradigm will not give the right answer if the presuppositions are incorrect. It is enough for us to accept the existence of God to accept that the immaterial and material can and do interact, just as it is sufficient to accept God's creating our existence from nothing to accept the reality of miracles - what greater miracle could there be? There is more than adequate evidence that the mind is immaterial, every argument against that proposition failing in multiple ways, such as that made by a Biology Professor at Cornell University, William Provine: "There is no way that evolutionary process ... can produce a being that is truly free to make choices." William Provine is a Professor of Biology and a proponent of evolution, by choice apparently, and claims copyright on his writings, yet he simultaneously teaches that none of us can make free choices and thus by implication, should have no rights to copyright our non-choices. As he does indeed make choices, by his own logic he should admit that evolution theory is false. The basics of evidence and logic that apply to the mind/brain interface would also apply to the soul, always provided that we accept that there is such an entity as the soul. If we accept the truth of God and His revelations, then there is no reason to question whether the sould can interact with the body.

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