Does the Soul Exist? Consciousness, Brain and Quantum Physics

“Whatever may or may not be the soul’s future, there is one impregnable central fact in existence: that here and now, in this world, we have a soul which has a life of its own in its appreciation of truth, beauty, harmony and good against evil.”

Imam Sultan Muḥammad Shah Aga Khan III

“The structure of quantum theory opens the door to the possibility that all causes and reasons need not be purely mechanical. Thoughts and intentions are themselves actual realities, and as such they ought to be able to have, in their own right, real actual consequences. Quantum theory allows this, and in actual scientific practice demands it.”

Henry Stapp

The purpose of this article is to present some key arguments for the existence of the human soul as an immaterial or “spiritual substance” (jawhar ruḥānī). Human soul and consciousness are neither identical to nor reducible to material objects such as brains, neuron firings, biochemistry, fundamental particles, etc. Of course, some materialists will claim that these arguments only leave us with a “body-soul dualism” in which spiritual substance and material substance are irreducibly different and unable to have interactions without violating the laws of physics. Therefore, we will conclude by offering a coherent model of soul-body interaction based on quantum physics by drawing on the work of physicist Henry Stapp.

A. What is the “Soul”?

To begin, it is best to specify what we mean by “soul” (Arabic: nafs; Persian: jān) and for this we turn to the definitions of the human soul provided by the Ismā‘īlī Musim thinker Sayyidnā Nāṣir-i Khusraw and the eminent scholar of world religions Huston Smith:

“We know that within us there exists a conceptual faculty which is our own distinguishing property and that the ‘I-ness’ of each and every one of us resides there; moreover, all our actions and utterances issue from this conceptual faculty through its use of those organs which go to make up the human compound. Nor do animals possess this faculty. We know that within it is something through which the actions of the different parts of the body occur and that they do so because of its command and desire, and that ‘I-ness’ in the body belongs there. This ‘something’ is what we call ‘soul’ (nafs). It possesses knowledge of good and of bad. It is the locus of action. And so God says, ‘By a soul (nafs) and what fashioned  it, and then inspired it [to know] what is abominable and what is reverent within it’ (Qur’ān  91:7-8). The tongue ‘speaks’ at the command of the soul; it is the soul which stirs it to speech.”

Sayyidnā Nāṣir-i Khusraw, (Jāmi‘ al-ḥikmatayn, trans. Ormsby, 97-99

The above passages define the human soul as the subject or agent of human consciousness and action, which is also “self-conscious” of himself or herself as the “I”. This human soul or “I-ness” is the agent who experiences various conscious states such as sensations (i.e. perceiving something through the five senses), feelings (i.e. the feeling of pain, the feeling of pleasure, emotions), imagination (to represent something by means of an image derived from sensation), desires (the inclination for something), intentions (the will to do x), and thoughts (the conception of something or someone, a belief about something, step by step logical reasoning, etc).  Huston Smith provides a lucid explanation of how the human soul is the locus of personal identity that underlies all conscious states and physical flux:

The soul is the final locus of our individuality. Situated as it were behind the senses, it sees through the eyes without being seen, hears with the ears without itself being heard. Similarly it lies deeper than mind. If we equate mind with the stream of consciousness, the soul is the source of this stream; it is also its witness while never itself appearing within the stream as a datum to be observed. It underlies, in fact, not only the flux of mind but all the changes through which an individual passes; it thereby provides the sense in which these changes can be considered to be his. No collection of the traits I possess – my age, my appearance, what have you – constitutes the essential ‘me,’ for the traits change while I remain in some sense myself.”

– Huston Smith, (Forgotten Truth, 1985,63

B. Arguments for the Immateriality of the Soul and Consciousness


“Mechanists consider mind to be a part of the body, but this is a mistake. The brain is a part of the body, but mind and brain are not identical. The brain breathes mind like the lungs breathe air.”

– Huston Smith

Below is a list of the ten arguments – each argument is further explained below:

1. Conscious states or mental events lack the spatio-temporal properties of material objects

2. Conscious states are not divisible into parts or components as are material objects

3. Conscious states possess an aboutness or intentionality directed toward other things while material objects are not “about” anything.

4. Conscious states possess qualia or qualitative characteristics 

5. Conscious states, in certain cases, include abstract ideas like mathematical objects or logical operators

6. Conscious states, in certain cases, are logically structured and ordered in their sequence, i.e. 2 + 2 = 4

7. The correlation between brain activity and conscious states breaks down in certain cases

8. Certain conscious states like Near Death Experiences occur when no brain activity is present (this is verified in peer reviewed studies)

9. The human consciousness is self-aware or reflexive while material objects lack self-awareness.

10. There is no explanation of how material brain events such as neural firings give rise to the qualitative and non-spatial features of conscious experience.

1. Conscious states lack spatio-temporal properties: Thoughts, sensations, feelings, and intentions do not have mass, momentum, shape, spatial location, spatial extension, or temporal location and they are neither particles nor waves. Meanwhile, material objects do possess some spatio-temporal properties. Colin McGuin illustrates the general argument for the immateriality of the human mind using a generic example that mental events or conscious states lack the properties of material objects:

“Consider a visual experience, E, as of a yellow flash. Associated with E in the cortex is a complex of neural structures and events, N, which does admit of spatial description. N occurs, say, an inch from the back of the head; it extends over some specific area of the cortex; it has some kind of configuration or contour; it is composed of spatial parts that aggregate into a structured whole; it exists in three spatial dimensions; it excludes other neural complexes from its spatial location. N is a regular denizen of space, as much as any other physical entity. But E seems not to have any of these spatial characteristics: it is not located at any specific place; it takes up no particular volume of space; it has no shape; it is not made up of spatially distributed parts; it has no spatial dimensionality; it is not solid. Even to ask for its spatial properties is to commit some sort of category mistake, analogous to asking for the spatial properties of numbers.”

Colin McGuin, (Consciousness and Space, Click Here to Read

Since conscious states lack the properties of material objects, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

“Matter is located in space; one can specify precisely where a given tree, let us say, resides. But if one asks where his perception of the tree is located he can expect difficulties. The difficulties increase if he asks how tall his perception of the tree is; not how tall is the tree he sees, but how tall is his seeing of it.”

Huston Smith, (Forgotten Truth, 1985,67)

2. Conscious states are not divisible into material parts or components: Material objects are divisible into parts, but one cannot divide sensations like seeing redness, the feelings of joy, the intentions to stand up, or a logical deduction into material parts.  A red object may be material and contain parts, but the perception of the red object that occurs in the mind knows no such division. Since conscious states are not divisible as are material objects, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

3. Conscious states have an “aboutness” or intentionality: a thought is about something, an idea is of something, a desire is for something, an image is an image of something, an abstract proposition refers to something. Meanwhile, material objects, i.e. tables, chairs, brain cells, do NOT possess any intentionality: they have no “aboutness” and do not refer to anything. Thus, while a belief or proposition in the mind can be true or false, a material brain state is neither true nor false due to lacking intentionality. Since conscious states have intentionality and material objects do not, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

4. Conscious states possess qualia or qualitative features: these qualia cannot be fully described by or reduced to the correlated physical brain activity that occurs at the same time as the conscious experience.  For example, one can know about every neuron firing that occurs in the brain when the colour red is being perceived, including the molecular composition of the red object represented mathematically, but none of this data will provide the actual experience of seeing red. Consequently, even if a person knows all of the empirical data about the colour red, they will still attain new knowledge when they actually perceive red in conscious experience. Since conscious states contain qualia and material objects lack qualia, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

5. Certain conscious states include abstract concepts and categories to immediately interpret sense-data. For example, when the conscious subject has the sensation or experience of touching an apple, he also interprets this sensation as signifying an actual external object as opposed to nothing more than an impression. Thus, the mind interprets sensory impressions by resorting to abstract concepts and imposing them upon the sense impression in order to situate the impression in an intelligible context. Another example is that when the conscious subject notices that two perceived objects are similar and two objects are different, the mind is resorting to abstract notions of similarity and difference to make this judgment.  But these abstract concepts – of similarity, difference, equality, inequality, etc. are not themselves material and cannot be provided or created by mere aggregates of material objects like atoms, molecule, cells or neurons. Indeed, the converse is more true – our very understanding of atoms, molecules or cells relies on abstract concepts to begin with. Since some conscious states employ abstract concepts that are not present in material objects, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

6. Certain mental events, such as propositional thought processes, are logically ordered: With respect to abstract propositions in the mind there is a logical relationship between the content of one thought and the content of the subsequent thought.  For example, two plus two equals four or “All men are mortals; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal” are propositions whose content is determined by logic and not by neuro-biological brain events.  Meanwhile, neuron firings in the brain are organically related and not related conceptually or logically. But the thought content of abstract propositions are related logically and conceptually.  Therefore, certain mental states such as rational and logical thought are clearly not governed by the same parameters as the corresponding brain events (if there is such a correlation). Since conscious thinking has logical form and structure while material brain states do not, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

7. The correlation between conscious experience and neuro-biological brain events breaks down in several cases. Scientists have so far discovered a correlation between certain conscious states and neurobiological brain events. This correlation should, however, be expected if consciousness is immaterial and has causal influence on the states of the brain. Nevertheless, certain kinds of conscious experience which are more intense, transpersonal or transcendent (than ordinary conscious states) are inversely correlated with brain activity because they take place with less or diminished brain activity.  Some examples given by Bernardo Kastrup are listed below:
a)      Fainting caused by asphyxiation or other restrictions of blood flow to the brain is known to sometimes induce intense transpersonal experiences and states of non-locality.

b)      Pilots undergoing G-force induced loss of consciousness – where blood is forced out of the brain, significantly reducing its metabolism – report experiences similar to Near Death Experiences. (Whinnery and Whinnery 1990)

c)      Certain Yogic breathing practices increase blood alkalinity levels, thereby constricting blood vessels in the brain and causing hypoxia and dissociation. This leads to significant transpersonal and non-local out of body experiences. (Taylor 1994)

d)     Psychedelic substances cause intense, non-local transpersonal experiences (Strassman et al, 2008). But a recent study showed that these substances do not increase brain activity, they actually decrease brain activity by decreasing cerebral blood flow, where the magnitude of decrease predicted the intensity of the conscious experience.

e)      Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) can inhibit cortical function in certain locations of the brain and subjects reported Out of Body Experiences when neural activity in the angular gyrus of patients with epilepsy was inhibited in this way.

The full descriptions of the above examples are given here.

8. Near Death Experiences occur when there is no brain activity at all: Near Death Experiences, perhaps the most intense and transcendent of reported transpersonal experiences of consciousness, occur when the subjects are brain dead and brain activity is totally flat. While scientists have tried to attribute the cause of NDEs to anoxia of the brain, release of endomorphines, or fear of death, a recent study published in the Lancet December 2001 Issue called “Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest; a prospective study in the Netherlands” put these theories to rest. The author of this peer reviewed NDE study, Pim Van Lommel, writes that:

Out Of Body Experience

“In our prospective study of patients that have been clinically dead (VF on the ECG) no electric activity of the cortex of the brain (flat EEG) must have been possible, but also the abolition of brain stem activity like the loss of the corneareflex, fixed dilated pupils and the loss of the gag reflex is a clinical finding in those patients. However, patients with an NDE can report a clear consciousness, in which cognitive functioning, emotion, sense of identity, and memory from early childhood was possible, as well as perception from a position out and above their “dead” body. Because of the sometimes reported and verifiable out-of -body experiences, like the case of the dentures reported in our study, we know that the NDE must happen during the period of unconsciousness, and not in the first or last second of this period.  So we have to conclude that NDE in our study was experienced during a transient functional loss of all functions of the cortex and of the brainstem. It is important to mention that there is a well documented report of a patient with constant registration of the EEG during cerebral surgery for an gigantic cerebral aneurysm at the base of the brain, operated with a body temperature between 10 and 15 degrees, she was put on the heart-lung machine, with VF, with all blood drained from her head, with a flat line EEG, with clicking devices in both ears, with eyes taped shut, and this patient experienced an NDE with an out-of-body experience, and all details she perceived and heard could later be verified. There is also a theory that consciousness can be experienced independently from the normal body-linked waking consciousness. The current concept in medical science states that consciousness is the product of the brain. This concept, however, has never been scientifically proven.”

– Pim Van Lommel

The main author of the Lancet study, Van Lommel, concludes that prominent atheist Michael Shermer’s view that consciousness is material is incorrect and contrary to the results of his study:

“Michael Shermer states that, in reality, all experience is mediated and produced by the brain, and that so-called paranormal phenomena like out-of body experiences are nothing more than neuronal events. The study of patients with NDE, however, clearly shows us that consciousness with memories, cognition, with emotion, self-identity, and perception out and above a life-less body is experienced during a period of a non-functioning brain (transient pancerebral anoxia).”

There are a number of scholarly peer reviewed articles written on the subject of NDEs by qualified physicians and scientists. Some of these are given below:

Famous NDEs where the patient recalls what happens while they were brain dead and the observation was verified – called the Dentures case and the Reynolds case

[As B. Greyson writes in an above article, scientists tested NDE observations of people in cardiac arrest against a control group of cardiac arrest patients who had no NDE and the former group reported everything 100% accuracy while 80% of the control group made errors]

9. In human beings, consciousness is self-aware or self-reflexive: Consciousness in the human being is self-aware; that is to say, human beings are not only conscious, but they are conscious of their consciousness. A person has a direct knowledge of his or her own selfhood or “I-ness”, as Aristotle writes:

“There is something in us which is aware that we are in activity, and so we are aware that we are sensing and we would be thinking that we are thinking.”

– Aristotle, (Nicomachean Ethics, 10.9.1170a31-3

The “I-ness” of each human is his rational soul (nafs al-nāṭiqah) and this self-aware rational soul is, in no way, reducible to the brain or matter in general. This is evident for the simple reason that material things, including whatever the human brain is composed of, totally lack the property of being self-aware. Materialists like to argue that a complex arrangement of matter can somehow magically produce consciousness but offer no explanation of how unconscious, unaware material entities produce immaterial and qualitative conscious experience, let alone self-aware consciousness.

“But if someone says that it is not so, but that atoms or other partless units can produce the soul by coming together in unity and identity of experience, he could be refuted by their juxtaposition, and not a complete one, since nothing which is one and united with itself in identity of experience can come from bodies which are incapable of unification and sensation, but soul is united in itself in identity of experience.

– Plotinus, (Ennead 4.3.1-6, tr. Armstrong)

Since human consciousness is self-aware while material objects are not self aware, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

10. There exists no material explanation of how the material brain can solely create or produce subjective consciousness – this is known as the “Hard Problem”:

“The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution would look like or even is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) is a mystery.”

Steven Pinker, (The Mystery of Consciousness, Mind & Body Special Issue of Time Magazine, January 29, 2007)

C. The Soul, Brain, and Quantum Physics


“Contemporary physical theory allows, and its orthodox von Neumann form entails, an interactive dualism that is fully in accord with all the laws of physics.”

Henry Stapp

Materialists like Daniel Dennet, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris immediately dismiss the possibility of an immaterial soul or mind that interacts with the brain and the physical body. They argue this on the grounds of classical physics according to which the activity of the soul or any other immaterial entity upon the brain violates the law of conservation of energy. They conclude that matter is the fundamental reality of human beings and of the entire Universe:

“The prevailing wisdom, variously expressed and argued for is materialism: there is one sort of stuff, namely matter – the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology – and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the brain. According to the materialists, we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws, and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition, and growth.”

– Daniel Dennet, (Consciousness Explained, 1991, 33)

What is often ignored today is how Dennet, Dawkins, Sam Harris and the materialists fail to realize that their entire argument for materialism and the denial of the soul is based on an outdated “classical physics” paradigm that was overturned in the 20th century with the advent of quantum physics. The general thinking of many people, however, is still shaped by classical physics and for this reason alone, materialism seems like the most scientific worldview. Thus Henry Stapp comments that the materialist argument against soul-body dualism falls apart in the face of contemporary physics:

This argument depends on identifying ‘standard physics’ with classical physics. The argument collapses when one goes over to contemporary physics, in which, due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, trajectories of particles are replaced by cloud-like structures, and in which conscious choices can influence physically described activity without violating the conservation laws or any other laws of quantum physics. Contemporary physical theory allows, and its orthodox von Neumann form entails, an interactive dualism that is fully in accord with all the laws of physics.”

Henry Stapp, (Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer, 1997, 81)

At the quantum level, subatomic particles like electrons do not exist concretely; instead, they exist in a state of potentiality. For example, the electron at the quantum level does not occupy a fixed position or a momentum. Instead, the electron occupies an entire range of possible positions – and the evolution of these possibilities over time can be described by a wave function called the Schrödinger equation:

“The quantum state of a single elementary particle can be visualized, roughly, as a continuous cloud of (complex) numbers, one assigned to every point in three dimensional space. This cloud of numbers evolves in time and, taken as a whole, it determines, at each instant, for each allowed process 1 action, an associated set of alternative possible experiential outcomes or feedbacks, and the ‘probability of finding (i.e., experiencing)’ that particular outcome.”<

Henry Stapp, (Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer, 1997,25)

It is only the act of measurement or observation by a conscious observer that 1) assigns concrete probabilities to each possible position, and 2) selects one of the possible positions of the electron and actualizes this possibility as a physical event. Prior to observation, there is no “matter stuff” but only “possibilities”, as Stapp writes:

[R]eality is not made out of any material substance, but rather out of ‘events’ (actions) and ‘potentialities’ for these events to occur. Potentialities are not material realities, and there is no logical requirement that they be simply additive.”

Henry Stapp, (Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer, 1997,26)

Material substance, as such, does not exist without an observation or act of human consciousness. It is therefore nonsensical to argue that material substances, like the aggregation of atoms, molecules and neurons can produce consciousness. Material objects, prior to conscious observation, exist only as wave-like potentialities and nothing more. The act of observation or measurement by a conscious agent is what reduces the potentialities into actualities, as Schrödinger himself writes about some particle x when it is observed at position K – prior to which particle x has no definite existence except in a cloud of potentialities:

“[I]t is then quite clear that a measurement of x affects not only (as is always said) p [ x’s momentum], but also x itself. You have not found a particle at K’ [ x’s definite position], you have produced one there!… Before the second measurement, it is ubiquitous in the cloud (it is not a particle at all).”

Erwin Schrodinger, (The Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: Dublin Seminars, 1995, 106)

Now, the above is especially true of the human brain. The brain, prior to being collapsed into an actual physical state by an act of consciousness or soul, exists only as a “superimposition”,i.e. several possible physical states or potentialities described by a wave function since “according to quantum theory, the state of the brain can become a cloudlike quantum mixture of many different classically describable brain states.” (Stapp, 2007, 31).

The human soul, through its conscious stream of thoughts, intentions, sensations, etc. collapses the wave function of the brain in order to produce an actual physical state of the brain with its neuro-chemistry. Thus, it is the immaterial human soul or consciousness which acts upon the set of possible physical states of the brain and reduces these to an actual physical state: “At each occurrence of a conscious thought, the set of possibilities is reduced to the subset compatible with the occurring increment of knowledge” (Ibid., 52).

This quantum mind-body model, in which human thoughts can cause the occurrence of specific neural activity in the brain, is corroborated by a recent study at UCLA published in Nature 467 (28 October 2010) which shows that human beings can control neuron firings with their thoughts.  The authors of the study write in the abstract that:

“Recording from single neurons in patients implanted with intracranial electrodes for clinical reasons here we demonstrate that humans can regulate the activity of their neurons in the medial temporal lobe (MTL) to alter the outcome of the contest between external images and their internal representation…  Subjects reliably regulated, often on the first trial, the firing rate of their neurons, increasing the rate of some while simultaneously decreasing the rate of others.”

In relation to the above, the famous experiments of Benjamin Libbet took place in the 1980s and he concludes that human beings have real will:

Henry Stapp and Geoffrey Schwartz argue for a Mind-Brain Dualism based on Quantum Mechanics:

Henry Stapp on Quantum Dualism

This quantum soul-body model is not a Cartesian dualism where a wholly different spiritual substance and material substance interact; on the contrary, there is no purely material substance as such prior to conscious observation. What is perceived as material substance is already actualized by and infused with immaterial consciousness and form. Sayyidnā Nāṣir-i Khusraw expressed similar intuitions a thousand years ago when he claimed that the material human body in and of itself is not a substance at all, and that it is man’s immaterial human soul, in its act of knowing, that endows the body with life and substance.

“[I]t is the soul which keeps our bodies alive and that the souls of our bodies subsist by themselves. The soul is a substance and self-subsistent, the mover and keeper alive of the body. The body is not a substance, nor self-subsistent, nor is it the mover of a substance, since the mover by necessity is [another] substance. As for the statement that the action of the soul does not come into existence without a body, the answer is that the action of the soul is to know, and in order to know it does not need a body. But when the soul wants to portray [the form of] that knowledge on a [material] body, it seeks the help of the [human] body which is linked to it, and it is able to do this because of compatibility [between the two bodies]. Ask so that you may know! Comprehend so that you may be liberated!”

Sayyidnā Nāṣir-i Khusraw, (Knowledge and Liberation, 49-50)

The existence of the human soul is a spiritual substance that is neither identical to nor reducible to the physical brain or any other material object. As conveyed by Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh, the forty-eight hereditary Imam of the Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Muslims, the existence of this ineffaceable human soul is the fundamental fact of all human existence:

“Whatever may or may not be the soul’s future, there is one impregnable central fact in existence: that here and now, in this world, we have a soul which has a life of its own in its appreciation of truth, beauty, harmony and good against evil… But the fundamental point of each message if carefully studied is that man’s greatest of all treasures, the greatest of all his possessions, was the inherent, ineffaceable, everlasting nobility of his own soul. In it there was for ever a spark of true divinity which could conquer all the antagonistic and debasing elements in nature. And let me once more stress that this faith in the soul of man expressed in a great variety of ways — in prose and verse, in art and architecture — was not simply a religious or mystic faith but an all-embracing and immediate contact with a fact which, in every human being, is the central fact of existence.”

Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III,(“Hafiz and the Place of Iranian Culture in the World”, London November 9, 1936:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s