Useful Things | February 20, 2020

We hope you enjoy this bonus article from the January edition of The Worldview Bulletin—an interview with acclaimed Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne on his recent book on the existence and nature of the soul.


Christopher Reese

Managing Editor

An Interview with Richard Swinburne

by Christopher Reese

I recently talked with Dr. Richard Swinburne about his new book Are We Bodies or Souls?(Oxford University Press, 2019) in which he provides a philosophical defense for the soul’s existence, especially in contrast to naturalistic explanations of personal identity.  He has a longtime interest in this topic, and wrote about it previously in his books The Evolution of the Soul (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Mind, Brain, & Free Will (Oxford University Press, 2013).  Dr. Swinburne is Emeritus Professor of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford and a distinguished philosopher of religion.

Worldview Bulletin: Professor Swinburne, thanks very much for taking time to answer some questions about your new book Are We Bodies or Souls?  Why is the idea of a soul so controversial in academia today?

Swinburne: Given my view that the soul is the one essential part of every human being which makes them the person they are, this idea is not so much controversial among contemporary philosophers and scientists, but rather regarded as so obviously false as not to merit serious discussion. I doubt if more than 2% of contemporary philosophers and scientists would hold this view. The reason for its massive unpopularity is I think twofold. First, most contemporary intellectuals do not believe that there is a God and they think of that view of the soul as part of theism. My book was designed to produce arguments for the soul quite independent of any reliance on religious beliefs.

The second source of this unpopularity is the view that the progress of science over the last 400 years has shown that everything can be explained by the operation of physical laws of nature on physical states of affairs. But the world of conscious experience is so different from the public world of physics that it would not be in the least surprising if quite different entities and principles of operation from those which apply to the physical world apply to the world of conscious experience. What is important about human beings is entirely dependent on their having a conscious life, and to suppose that physics can deal with that is to make a big and unjustified assumption. I believe that if we look at the data of conscious experience (as well as that of neuroscience) without that bias in favour of physicalism, we are led inescapably to my account of the soul.

WB: What do you believe is at stake if society, or important segments of it, abandons belief in the soul?

Swinburne: The criminal justice system and our normal way of attributing moral responsibility assume that a person is fully responsible for actions which he or she did many years ago. But all non-soul theories of personal identity  assume that what makes a person the person they are is something that changes over the years—for example, if the identity of a present person with a past person is thought to consist in the present person being able to remember at least some of the experiences of the past person and having a similar attitude to life to that person’s attitude, then anyone who has forgotten almost all the experiences before a certain time and has an entirely different attitude to life from the past person who had their body and brain would not be fully the same person as that past person, and so should not be held fully responsible for the actions of that person.

But on a soul theory, what makes a person the person who he or she is is an unchanging indivisible substance. (It may change in its accidental properties, such as its attitudes towards the world; but what changes in these accidental respects is itself the same thing.) So a murderer is just as responsible for the murder committed 30 years ago by the person with his body and brain as he would be for a murder he committed today. (It doesn’t automatically follow that he should be punished in exactly the same way—that depends on your theory of punishment; on one theory, one purpose of punishment is reform, and someone may not need reforming now for the way they acted 30 years ago.) (Of course if most of a person’s brain is replaced and their character changes totally, it does become a serious and irresolvable question whether the same soul is in control of what is left of the same body; but all non-soul theories turn out to be committed to small changes in their body or memory making small differences in a person’s identity; and so diminished responsibility for actions committed long ago by the person having most of their body and brain. But that, I argue, does not make sense, because partial identity of persons makes no sense.)

Further, on any theory which claims that personal identity depends on having some of the same body, it is difficult to make sense of the view of almost all the major religions that a person whose body has been turned into energy by being burnt in a crematorium will live again after their death. For there is nothing which distinguishes one chunk of energy from another chunk of energy of the same amount, and so nothing which God could do to bring me to life rather than someone with a body exactly like mine. The same applies to a theory on which personal identity depends on having some of the same memories; there is nothing which God could do to ensure that he brings to life me rather than just someone else who has similar memories to me. But on the soul theory, when the body dies it is logically possible that the soul remains; and on a Christian view it can continue to have conscious experiences, and can be reunited again with a new body, which becomes its body in virtue of its connection to that soul, in the General Resurrection.

WB: In your view, what is the strongest argument that human beings are essentially souls?

Swinburne: The human brain consists of two cerebral hemispheres—left and right, and a lower brain; consciousness depends on the cerebral hemispheres, and we know that removing one of their cerebral hemispheres does not greatly change a person’s beliefs and other mental states. Scientists are now learning to reconnect severed spinal nerves, and so one day should be able to connect a new cerebral hemisphere to a brain from which a cerebral hemisphere has been removed. So it should become possible to remove a left hemisphere and put it into the brain of a person who has had their left hemisphere removed, and at the same time to remove the first person’s right hemisphere and put it into the brain of a person who has had that hemisphere removed. Then both later persons, both the one who has received the left hemisphere and the one who has received the right hemisphere, would have some of the brain and similar memories of the experiences of the earlier person. 

Yet at most one of these later persons can be the same person as the earlier person; but we could know all about what has happened to every atom of the earlier person’s brain, and all about what the later persons are able to remember, and yet not know which, if either, of the later persons is the same person as the earlier person. And yet there must be a truth about whether someone has or has not survived an operation of this kind. So what makes them who they are must be a matter not of physical parts or of consciously accessible mental states such as memories, but of something non-physical and indivisible—and that is their soul. This argument which I develop in chapter 3 of my book shows that having the same soul is necessary for a person’s continuing existence. I go on in chapter 4 to show that Descartes’s argument for the soul shows that having the same soul is sufficient for a person’s continuing existence. So I show that having the same soul is both necessary and sufficient for a person’s continuing existence, and that is to show that human beings are essentially souls.

WB: What is the most common objection to the existence of souls, and how do you respond to it?

Swinburne: I suspect that the most common objection is that there is no principle of identity for souls – that we cannot distinguish one person from another by their soul, since there is no way of distinguishing one soul from another. There would be no recognizable difference, the objection runs, between my actual soul being connected to my body and some other soul being connected to my body, if the latter soul had just the same mental properties—the same beliefs, thoughts and so on—as my actual soul has. I have two answers to this. The first answer is that if someone other than myself had my body and my mental life, at least that person would recognise the difference made by my absence, and so the absence of my soul. And if I (and so my soul), identified as the actual possessor of certain present experiences, had your body; and you (and so your soul), identified as the actual possessor of certain different present experiences had my body, both of us would be aware of the difference.

My second answer is to acknowledge that each soul has its own “thisness”; each soul is different from each other soul intrinsically, not in virtue of having different properties from other souls. Two souls could have all the same properties and yet be different from each other. Even if we were not able to recognise the difference between two such souls, the difference would exist all the same. I make this view plausible by pointing out that it is a serious issue in the philosophy of physics whether fundamental particles have thisness—that is, whether the world would be different if instead of a certain electron occupying a certain location at certain time a different electron having all the same properties as the former electron occupied that location. The majority view in the philosophy of physics is that no fundamental particles have thisness; they are what they are only in virtue of their properties. But it is perfectly comprehensible to suppose that some fundamental particles do have thisness, and if we can suppose this for physical entities, we can certainly suppose it for souls.

WB: Is neuroscience able to address the question of whether souls exist?

Swinburne: Arguments from the mere logical possibility of half-brain transplants are in my view sufficient to show that personal identity is a matter of having a particular soul. But some philosophers doubt the efficacy of such arguments. Yet now the two recent discoveries mentioned in answer to question 3—that a person can lose either of their two hemispheres without their beliefs and other mental events being very much affected thereby, and the serious possibility of connecting severed brain nerve—means that what was once a mere thought experiment is now passing into the realm of the scientifically possible. And so those who do not take thought experiments seriously are being forced to take these possibilities seriously. I cannot see that anything that neuroscience might discover could affect the question of whether souls exist, but these latest scientific “advances” should force people to take the arguments in favour of souls more seriously.

WB: Have your views on the soul changed since the publication of your two previous books that deal with it and related topics—The Evolution of the Soul and Mind, Brain, & Free Will?

Swinburne: of those previous books were concerned, as well as with the soul, with free will. Are We Bodies or Souls? does not discuss free will. Also, Are We Bodies or Souls? is aimed at a somewhat wider audience than was Mind, Brain, & Free Will.The Evolution of the Soul claimed that souls were made of soul-stuff; that I now deny—stuff is divisible, so if souls were made of stuff they would be divisible; and I now argue that that is not possible. I now hold that souls are not made of anything (just as some fundamental particles are not made of anything; they are just centres of force). With this exception, my conclusions are the same as in the earlier books: but there are new arguments for those conclusions in Are We Bodies or Souls? For example, in addition to the argument discussed in my answer to question 3, I produce what I regard as a sound version of Descartes’s argument for each person’s soul being the essential part of them.

WB: Are there philosophical insights into the soul that can inform Christian theology or, even more practically, Christian spiritual formation?

Swinburne: A belief in life after death is central to Christian theology, as is the belief that humans are fully responsible for all the actions done by them at different times in their lives. I made the point in answer to question 2 that these theological doctrines seem to require the view that their soul is necessary for the identity of the person. I don’t think that anything that I have written provides new theological insights, but I do think that it provides substantial justification for some old insights. For example, I argue that there could not possibly be a scientific explanation of why any particular soul ever comes into existence; from which it follows (though I do not draw that conclusion in the book) that unless this is entirely due to chance, it is due directly to the act of God that you, rather than someone exactly like you, comes into existence with the development of your fetus.

Christopher Reese is a freelance writer and the managing editor of The Worldview Bulletin. He co-founded the Christian Apologetics Alliance and is general editor of The Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (forthcoming from Zondervan, 2021).


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