Objections to the Existence of the Soul

by Jacobus Erasmus

In a recent blog post, Professor Keith Parsons offers three reasons for why (he thinks) the soul does not exist. (You might recall that Parsons debated William Lane Craig in 1998). Since Parsons’ objections to substance dualism (for simplicity, I will hereafter refer to substance dualism simply as ‘dualism’) seem rather common among lay atheists, his objections are worth evaluating. Let us, then, evaluate Parsons’ blog post.

The Burden of Proof

Before offering his three objections to dualism, Parsons argues that the burden of proof falls on the dualist. According to Parsons, the non-dualist (i.e, the person who believes the soul does not exist, such as the physicalist or property dualist) does not have to defend their position because ‘the burden of proof falls entirely on those who support the existence of spiritual souls.’ Why does Parsons think this? Well, for two reasons. First, he argues that, since the brain can perform mental functions, one’s default position should be to assume that souls do not exist. He writes,

Well, first, let us consider what, I presume, is known to everyone: We know that certain configurations of matter–those configurations we refer to as ‘human beings,’ for instance–are capable of performing mental functions. They think, feel, perceive, imagine, desire, will, believe, and so forth. If, then, certain configurations of matter can perform mental functions and possess mental properties, the parsimonious, spontaneous, and natural assumption would be that matter, when organized in suitable ways, can perform mental functions and possess mental properties.

It seems perverse to make the opposite assumption, namely that material beings cannot think, and that therefore their mental functions and properties must be due to the operation of something non-physical, a soul perhaps. … Therefore, the burden of proof should be on those who say that matter is incapable of mental functions or of possessing mental properties, and that these must instead be due to something non-material.

There are several problems with this argument…

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