yes, no one gets out of life alive.
But, death is not the end; life continues because nothing
is lost, nothing.
More Than Material: Evidence for the Existence of the Human Soul
by Matt Koschmann
All of us will die some day. That's one certainty about life we can count on--it ends. This article is for people who will die. But it's not about death. It concerns life, here and beyond.
We've all been confronted with our own mortality at some time. We're lying in bed at night, thinking about life, the lights are out, and all the distractions of our day are gone. What questions linger and bother us? What's going to happen to me after I die?
Am I just a material being--composed simply of a body, a brain, and a central nervous system--or is there something more to me? Is it possible that I have an immaterial component, such as a mind or soul, or is that just the stuff of myths and legends; something our culture still talks about, but science did away with a long time ago? Are all those religious people crazy, or is the existence of the soul probable? If I do have a soul, what are the implications for the decisions I make today?
As the Greek philosopher Aristotle pointed out, all of us, by our very nature, desire to know things. We want to know what is true and what is false. We want to know if we are rationally justified in our beliefs. We want to know the answers to what appear to be unsolvable mysteries, such as, do we have a soul? If you want to know, keep reading.
Body and Soul
If we are simply material beings, then when our bodies die, we die, because we are our bodies, nothing more, nothing less. This is physicalism. There is no difference between the mind and the brain. Chemical reactions governed by physical processes are all that really goes on inside your head. What we mistakenly understand to be the mind or the soul is simply the brain. Consciousness is a mere property of the brain. It is produced by the brain and is dependent on the brain. The physical world is all there is.
On the other hand, if dualism is true, then we are both bodies and souls. There is an immaterial side of life that cannot be tested scientifically--observed, measured, quantified, and so on. The physical body houses a soul that animates the body--it gives the body ultimate life and unity.
Let's assume for now that you only have a physical body, a complex collection of matter. If the matter configured into your body ceases to be, then we would have to say that you cease to be. Sounds reasonable, but check this out.
Science tells us that approximately every seven to nine years, all the matter in your body changes at the atomic level, including your brain. Think about it. You probably look significantly different now than you did eight years ago, and will probably look even more different eight years from today. This would mean that every seven to nine years "you" cease to be and another person begins.
But this is absurd. To accept this, we'd have to reject many common sense ideas. For instance, we can't look at our baby pictures and call them ours because many years ago that baby was a different set of matter--different body--and therefore a different person. Ten years from now you won't be able to say that you worked hard to earn a college degree, because by then there will be a different body, a different person. And why plan for retirement? "You" won't be there.
This doesn't seem right!. You are the person in your baby pictures, you remember your eighteenth birthday, and you look forward to your retirement. But this can only be the case if there is something that remains the same throughout your whole life, not something material, but immaterial. This enduring immaterial reality that makes you the same person throughout your whole life is your soul.(1)
At this point you may have some objections with this argument. "Surely there must be some way of accounting for our identity over time from a scientific (physicalist) perspective without the need to invoke a soul. After all, we have no physical evidence that there is a soul. We cannot look inside our brains and find a soul. If we cannot sense it, why should we believe it exists?"
This response assumes that the only valid category of evidence is empirical evidence (based on experiments and observations, i.e., the scientific method), and the only knowledge we can obtain is that which is supported with empirical evidence. But this can't possibly be the only evidence we have for our knowledge. If so, we are severely limiting our capacity for knowledge and understanding.
Suppose that the only things we can know are those things supported with empirical evidence. That means we can have no knowledge of things such as mathematical understanding or our own internal mental states.2
In the case of mathematical knowledge, we rely on evidence of reason based on certain universal mathematical principles, none of which are empirical. When we deal with knowledge about our own internal mental states, we know them based on introspection or self-examination. For example, I am in pain simply by feeling hurt. Most of our internal states are simply self-evident.
So what sort of evidence should we consider for the soul? Should we look for empirical evidence? The answer is clearly, "No!" And so it is not an objection to the existence of the soul (dualism) that there is no empirical evidence for it, any more that it is an objection to mathematical knowledge claims to say that there is no empirical evidence for them. The soul, if it exists, is not physical. We cannot scientifically measure and observe a soul. But this does not mean, as has been stated, that there is no evidence for it. This only means that there is no physical evidence for the soul.
Just the Facts, Please
So what kind of evidence is there for the soul? Let's look at three forms of evidence (although there are more) supporting the existence of the soul. First, there is the evidence based on the experience of ourselves, second, the evidence based on free will, and third, the evidence based on near death experiences.
Experience of Ourselves
It is clear we are conscious. We are conscious of ourselves, as well as the world around us. But what is consciousness? Could it just be a complex physical state of the brain? Again I would say no. Consider the following argument from philosopher Thomas Nagel:
It is not a far stretch at all to suppose that bats are conscious. Suppose someone had perfect physiological knowledge of bats. It would follow, then, that if consciousness were merely a complex physical state, then that person would know exactly what it would be like to be a bat. However, it seems clear that all the knowledge in the world about bats could not tell someone what it is like to be a bat.
The reason is that while physiological facts are objective -- i.e. they are accessible to anyone, what it is like to be a bat is purely subjective and can only be known by the bat who is that bat. Our consciousness is not something accessible to anyone but ourselves. But if we were merely a complex physical structure, surely it would be accessible to anyone with enough knowledge. But it is not. Hence, this is evidence that the mind is not physical.3
Freedom. It's one of humanity's highest virtues. It seems clear from our awareness of our choices that we are free to move our wills in any way we choose. We can choose to have chocolate ice cream, or to have vanilla instead, and such a choice seems quite undetermined. At least we'd like to think so. But all physical states are determined by other physical states, governed by physical laws. If our minds are simply physical states, then we are not free. All of our decisions are determined.
So what does this mean? Think of all the choices you have made in your life that have developed you into the person you are; where you went to school, who you associate with, how you spend your free time, who you enter into relationships with. Are you willing to accept that these are simply random events that you had no control over? That's what a purely materialistic view of ourselves limits us to believe. It robs us of any purpose or meaning to life. It says that all you are, and all you will become is merely the result of a physical process that you have no power over.
And if there's no control, that means we aren't capable of choosing a good idea over a bad idea. Thus rationality is eliminated, because rationality means that we evaluate ideas and choose the one that makes the most sense, given the evidence.4 If we get rid of rationality, then our whole system of government, justice, and morality is flawed and without a basis.
But this too is incorrect. Surely we have free will, and it is we who make our choices. These choices are not determined. We are free beings that make decisions based on reason. Our free will choices make us unique and give us identity.
Near Death Experiences
Near death experiences, or NDEs as they are often called, are intriguing and even inspiring. For almost 20 years, hundreds of thousands of people interested in the subject of life after death have been captivated by NDEs. Much attention is focused on some of the common phenomena associated with NDEs: the sense that one is dead, looking down on one's body, traveling down a tunnel or dark passageway, seeing a bright light, meeting other persons or supernatural beings, participating in a life review, reentering one's body, or seeing beautiful scenery. In fact, in a 1982 Gallup survey nearly 23 million Americans claimed to have been close to death and had something to tell about it.5
Are these experiences only subjective? Is this just something for science fiction movies and spiritual fanatics, or are any of these stories true objective reality. What evidence, if any, can be given in their support? What can NDEs tell us about possible life beyond death?
At first, the early publications dealing with these experiences were unusually popular. They reported the claims of those who came close to death and survived and often used some rather fantastic stories to support their "findings." But studies since that time have become much more empirical and scientific. More recent data have effectively presented strong evidence for a minimal view of life after death and the existence of consciousness apart from the physical body.6
In their book Immortality, the Other Side of Death, researchers and authors Gary R. Habermas and J.P. Moreland list numerous corroborated reports detailing a number of NDEs. Many cases have been gathered in which dying persons were able to view individuals, events, or circumstances around them, or even other places, with amazing accuracy after coming close to dying or being pronounced clinically dead. Some of the descriptions were of occurrences that happened even when the patients were comatose. In other words, the research shows that these subjects reported data that would not normally have been in the range of their senses even if they were fully conscious at the time.
In one case, a girl named Katie had almost drowned in a pool. After her emergency room resuscitation, a CAT scan showed massive brain swelling, and her doctor had an artificial lung machine attached to her to keep her breathing. She was given a 10 percent chance to survive. But three days later she totally recovered and told an amazing story. She accurately described the physical characteristics of the doctors involved in her resuscitation, details of the hospital rooms she was taken into, and reported particulars of the specific medical procedures used on her, even though she was pronounced "profoundly comatose," with her eyes closed, during the entire time.7
Other fascinating cases involve a number of blind persons. A chemist, after being blinded a year earlier in an accident, correctly reported the visual details surrounding his near death experience. Other individuals who had been blind for years (and were tested for blindness again afterward) accurately described the design and colors of clothing and jewelry worn by those around them when they almost died. Habermas and Moreland report that these cases are not rare; they are unexpectedly common.
Even though these stories were checked and rechecked for the accuracy and truthfulness of the victim's claims, it still can be difficult to believe these amazing events. Is there a way to scientifically measure NDEs to provide more objective evidence?
Some individuals who have had NDEs have actually registered an absence of brain waives. It is fascinating to consider, therefore, that some of the most vivid memories in the lives of these people happened while their brains actually registered no known activity. Flat brain waves on the EEG, when present for long periods of time, are the chief contemporary definition of natural death.8 So ordinarily, life during such times appears to be powerful evidence that human consciousness may exist after death.
And we have such evidence. As a specific example, a woman who had both a flat EEG reading and no vital signs had been declared dead. But she spontaneously revived about three-and-a-half hours later. In fact, she regained consciousness and lifted the sheet off her face as she was being taken to the morgue by an orderly! Then she reported that she had floated over her body during the resuscitation attempts. She precisely described not only the procedures that were used in her attempted rescue but also the number of persons who came into the hospital room and what they said. All this happened after she had no brain activity whatsoever.9
All the claims were carefully checked with the medical records and the doctors who were present. It was determined that her entire description was correct, even though her EEG reading had been flat during that entire time. Kind of spooky, but the facts don't lie.
The One Who Knows
We've looked at some philosophical reasons for accepting life after death, as well as evidence based on scientific research verifying the rationality of what that philosophy shows. Need more evidence?
If someone told you with authentic authority that there is a soul and it survives after a physical death, what would you think? Perhaps this person would talk about immortality, what it's like, and what happens to your soul after you die. Suppose this person then spoke about his own experiences, his own death, how he survived it, and how you could be certain your soul would survive physical death.
There was such a person who did speak about the soul and gave his own evidence for its existence. That person was Jesus Christ.
Jesus challenges us to consider the significance of our achievements against the backdrop of the spiritual condition of our soul.10 He taught that our souls would exist for eternity, even after our physical bodies have died.11 He showed us that we can find life for our soul, and he pointed us to himself as the person in whom we could find that life.12
But there's something that stops us from seeking out Jesus, and that relationship our soul wants with him. It's like a blockade between our soul and him. That barrier is sin.13 It taints our soul and our even our physical life. This sin we harbor in our lives is a result of a rebellious soul toward God. That's why we die. It's the price we pay for living a life apart from God.
So what can we do about the hopelessness of our own soul? Fortunately for us, God provided the solution in Jesus. He removed that barrier between us and God. He died for us, so we wouldn't have to. Of course, we're all going to die physically, but we can be certain our soul will continue living on. Our souls will either live on with God, or be forever separated from him.
Since Jesus gave us himself, he offered two solutions for our soul. We can accept his way, or reject it and pay the consequences. It's quite simple. That's the beauty of the message of Jesus. We can receive Christ into our lives, guaranteeing our soul's existence with God for eternity.
Then again, anyone could offer this solution. But what makes the claims of Jesus valid is that he did die, and then rose again.14 In fact, the religion that bears his name-Christianity-totally relies on his resurrection for its validity. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then why believe anything he says?
Because of Jesus and what he did, we no longer need to fear death. Do you want to have a spiritual connection with God?15 This is your decision, no one else can make it for you. If you want to begin a new relationship with God, you can do so right now by asking him to forgive you and come into your life. You can know with certainty the condition of your soul after you die.16 Jesus said, "Behold I stand at the door [of your life] and knock, If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in [to your life]."17
God is ready to welcome you into that new relationship. You can express your heart to him right now and place your trust in Jesus Christ. Prayer is one way to express your heart to God. It's simply talking with God. If you're not sure what to say, this may help:
"Jesus, I need you. Thank you for dying for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive you as my Savior and Lord. Thank you for forgiving my sins and guaranteeing my soul's existence with you for eternity. Amen. "
Do these words express the desire of your heart? If so, you can pray through them right now. God is listening. Placing your faith in Jesus means he'll come into your life as he has promised. This will begin a lifelong relationship with him that will grow deeper and more intimate as you get to know Him better.
Your soul will never be the same!
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