Souls Searched Out

Four Lines of Evidence for the Existence of a Nonmaterial Soul

In the winter of 2018, Chinese scientists announced that they were close to producing the world’s most powerful MRI device. The machine, which was designed to generate a magnetic field strength of up to 14 tesla (a normal MRI registers about 1.5), would produce images with a thousand times higher resolution than any of its predecessors. Several promises accompanied the development of the device. One was that it would allow scientists to peer so far into the human brain that they could “for the first time capture a full picture of human consciousness or the essence of life itself  . . . phenomenon unseen before  . . . maybe even the soul.”1

The idea of finding the immaterial soul inside the human brain using an MRI machine may sound nonsensical. It should. An MRI is a tool used for exploring the physical body, and no serious thinker has ever claimed that the soul is physical. But the materialist worldview that dominates our culture demands that real things must be physical—that we are nothing but biological machines. On that view, any attempt to explain or understand the “soulish” aspects of our human nature requires not that the materialists reconsider their presuppositions, just that they build a bigger magnet.

Trying to understand the nature of the soul is a worthy goal. But before we can do that, we first need to define what it is we’re looking for.

Scripture uses terms like mind, heart, soul, and spirit interchangeably. All of these refer to some kind of non-physical reality that fits most simply within the philosophical framework known as “substance dualism.” This is the idea that we are made up of two different kinds of things—a physical body and a non-physical soul. Just as our body is made up of different components, so is the soul. The heart and mind represent the emotional and intellectual aspects of the soul. The spirit is the part of the soul that is aware of and seeks to communicate with our Maker. The latter is what makes us unique among all the creatures on Earth and represents part of what the Bible means when it says we are “made in the image of God.”2

Evidence for these non-physical substances won’t show up on an MRI scan, but that doesn’t mean science is impotent for conducting the search.

The Mind-Body Problem

Materialists insist that the body and soul are one and the same. But the laws of logic tell us that two things cannot be the sameif they don’t exhibit the exact same properties in the same way. For substance dualism to be true, we would need to uncover evidence for things with properties that are distinctly not physical. The materialists dismiss any such project as an effort in futility. But the scientific evidence tells a different story.

We learn from biology that the cells that make up our bodies constantly die off and get replaced. Some types of cells only last a couple of days. Others last for decades. Physically, you become a completely different individual over and over again throughout your lifetime. Yet we all recognize that though we may grow older and slower, we are still the same person we’ve always been. There is something about us that endures even though our bodies are constantly in flux. And that means that the persistent “self” is made of a different substance than the body.

All of us know and experience a direct awareness of our conscious selves. We know we exist because we experience the physical realities of the world. At the same time, neuroscientists can attach electrodes to your head. They can locate and measure electro-chemical impulses firing in the synapses in your brain. While you are hooked up to those electrodes, the neuroscientists can tell you to do things and then identify which part of your brain lights up when you do them. They can use that data to correlate activity in certain areas of the brain with your physical actions. But if they wanted to know what you were thinking while you performed those acts, they could never know what it was—unless you told them. And that means that “you”—the persistent, conscious property of your soul—cannot be equivalent to your brain.

We can’t measure or weigh our thoughts. They don’t extend in space. But in many ways, our inner thoughts are the most real things we know and experience. Ironically, in a world where we are obsessed with our physical bodies, the things we can’t see—or find with an MRI scan—turn out to be the most important things about us.

This puzzling phenomenon is called the mind-body problem. Everyone experiences the “self,” but a purely physical universe cannot even begin to explain what it is. That’s why the connection between mind and body is called a problem.

Actions and electrical impulses in the brain correlate to one another. But correlation does not equal causation. We have no idea how thoughts can cause things to happen in the brain, or vice versa. All we know is that it works. But scientific research into how the mind works has led to some pretty astonishing and convincing evidence that the connection between body and soul is real.

Lines of Evidence

The “placebo effect” is one such example. Patients who believe they are taking medicine are instead given benign sugar pills that should have no effect on what ails them. And yet, their physical symptoms often disappear. Medical researchers have seen placebos produce dramatic improvements in patients suffering from pain, depression, and even Parkinson’s disease. More dramatically, there are cases where patients in control groups have undergone “sham” surgeries, after which their pain and mobility dramatically improved, even though the doctors did nothing to repair their injuries.3

The treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) provides similar data. When patients who exhibit OCD are compelled to engage in repeated behavior, neural pathways are activated in the part of the brain that controls that action. A PET scan can illuminate the areas of increased metabolic activity that result from this activation.4 This means scientists can detect the physical location in the brain where the patient’s OCD behavior is manifesting.

The treatment for OCD is straightforward. Doctors teach patients to control their actions by changing their thought patterns. When they feel compelled to repeat a compulsive habit, they stop and force themselves to take a different action. And it works. OCD sufferers have been able to will their way to behavioral change.

But here’s the fascinating part: An updated PET scan of patients who have successfully changed their habits reveals that the activity level in that area of the brain has been reduced. This means that the brain has rerouted its neural pathways along with adopting the new behavior.

The placebo effect is a real-world example of the connection between mind and matter. But the evidence from OCD treatment goes beyond that to show that changing a patient’s thought patterns can change the physical structure of his brain without any drugs, chemicals, surgery, or any other kind of physical contact.5

Soul Survivors

Near-death experiences (NDE) are yet another line of evidence for substance dualism. These are more than some “I went to heaven but came back to write this book” stories. They are rare, medically documented cases where a doctor pronounces a patient dead. But later, the patient recovers. When he does, he accurately describes scenes, conversations, or events that occurred in other places while he was dead.

One such case is that of an eleven-year-old girl who nearly drowned when her hair was caught in a drain at the bottom of a swimming pool. After 45 minutes of CPR, paramedics were able to restart her heart. Afterward, she described herself as having floated above her body. She “was able to totally and correctly recount the details from the time the paramedics arrived in her yard through the work performed later in the hospital emergency room.”6 Some write off stories like these by claiming that a stopped heart does not preclude the brain from functioning. But don’t miss the fact that her description of the event began when her rescuers appeared on the scene—while she was still at the bottom of the pool.

And what about cases where there is a documented loss of brain function? In their book, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality, Gary Habermas and J.  P. Moreland cite example after example of this kind of event. One is of a woman who sat up on a gurney as she was being wheeled to the morgue—three-and-a-half hours aftershe had been declared dead. In subsequent interviews, she shared her experience of floating above the bed and watching the team of doctors and nurses in the emergency room. She described details of their dialogue and the procedures they used. She was even able to identify how many people were in the room and the clothes they were wearing during their attempt to rescue her.7

There are stories of people leaving their bodies and later reporting seeing loved ones, not knowing that the people they claimed to have seen were deceased. There are cases where “dead” patients have returned and described events going on away from the hospital or identified items on the hospital roof. These are not urban legends. And the only explanation for them is that there is some kind of non-physical part of us that can separate from our physical bodies at life’s end.

The Mind-Body Solution

The origin and nature of the connection between mind and body is a mystery so elusive that the atheist philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett has famously declared that “consciousness is an illusion.” But illusions are had by persons. So it’s fair to ask Dr. Dennett, “Who is having the illusion?”

Dennett’s unsatisfactory explanation for human consciousness betrays a major flaw in atheistic materialism. A purely physical world cannot begin to make sense of what’s going on between your physical brain and your conscious “self.” You can picture things in your mind, but those thoughts about things are not the same as the things themselves. We can’t crack your head open and see them inside your skull.

Human consciousness. Persistent personhood. The mind-body problem. Near-death experiences. Materialism has no way to account for any of it. These phenomena are not just hard to explain inside a materialist worldview; they’re impossible. In a world made only of physical stuff, none of it makes sense.

Conversely, theism offers a simple, coherent explanation for it all. We have ample evidence that a powerful, non-physical, mind-possessing agent like God exists. And if he does, he would be perfectly capable of creating creatures that share a similar nature. There is not a shred of evidence that matter has the ability to create non-matter. But we have no reason to doubt that an infinite mind can produce lesser, finite minds.

The case for the existence of the soul is more than just a thought experiment or a wishful fantasy. We have reliable scientific evidence that the soul is just as real as the body to which it is mysteriously ­connected.

1. Stephen Chen, “Chinese scientists go in search of the soul with the world’s most powerful brain scanner,” South China Morning Post (Dec. 9, 2018):
2. Genesis 1:27.
3. Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (HarperOne, 2007), 140–144.
4. A PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan is an imaging test that uses a radioactive chemical “tracer” to detect diseased or damaged cells in the body. The cells absorb the tracer, which can then be illuminated by an x-ray machine.
5. Beauregard and O’Leary, 130.
6. Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality (Wipf & Stock, 1998), 159.
7. Habermas and Moreland, 161.

is a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy (B. S., Aerospace Engineering) and Biola University (M.A., Christian Apologetics). Recently retired, his professional aviation career included 8 years in the U. S. Marine Corps flying the AV-8B Harrier attack jet and nearly 32 years as a commercial airline pilot. Bob blogs about Christianity and the culture at:

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #63, Winter 2022 Copyright © 2023 Salvo |


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