How to understand and explain the soul?

Hello all, this is my first post to the forum. I am a college student taking some online classes, one of which is World Literature. Last week we had to read from Genesis and Psalms, and discuss what he thought of the readings in an online discussion board. One of my fellow students is an atheist, and was responding to a lot of the believers in the class and calling them out for their belief in God. He made a post and in that post said something along the lines of that he could promise that nothing happens after we die. I responded to him and challenged him, saying he could not promise such a thing, as there is no way he could know that nothing happens after we die. I invited him to email me privately, he did, and we have been having a back and forth conversation about who we are and what we believe.

In his first email he linked an article from Psychology Today discussing how the idea of dualism can’t be true because our understanding of how the mind and body work do not allow for a soul to exist. Obviously he subscribes to the idea that once we are dead, our brains shut down, the thing that is us ceases to exist, and our body begins to decompose.
I responded and linked an article from the Catholic Answers website written by Tim Staples, " Seven Proofs for the Natural Immortality of the Human Soul," that used St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of the soul, and told my fellow student that because the soul exist outside of our understanding, in a realm that science and math can’t measure, trying to use science to disprove the existence of a soul wouldn’t work.
In turn, his response was that I was using the logical fallacies of “argument from ignorance” as well as “an appeal to authority.” On top of that he linked an article from Catholic Answers that was titled “Do Animals Have Souls like Humans?” He said his understanding was that souls are split between the relationship to rationality, and that the Catholic viewpoint seems to also be that ones ability to be rational is determined by ones ability to be spiritual. I think he misunderstood the article that he linked, because it was saying we, as humans, have rational souls because we have spiritual souls, not material souls like plants or animals. Not that we have the ability to be rational because we can also be spiritual.

I know this is a wall of text. What I am asking is what is the best way to proceed with this person? How can I make solid arguments for the existence of an immaterial soul? He will not accept anything on faith, and as is obvious, is looking for logical fallacies in any argument I make (although I disagree that I made an appeal to authority, I was merely using St. Thomas to help describe my own understanding of what a soul is, not to say that I am right because St. Thomas says so.) I would like to continue my conversation with him, as I feel I have an obligation as a Christian to try and help him understand the truth about the existence of God. Also, I would have linked the articles I referenced, but being a first time user, I don’t think I am allowed to put links in post yet.

I appreciate any help that the community can give me, and look forward to reading the responses.

In the Immortal words of CS Lewis:
You are a soul, you have a body.


CS Lewis has a great written essay about something he calls “transposition”, which I think is a reasonable introduction for atheists to begin to consider the relationship between the soul and body (or more broadly, the spiritual and the material).

The essay (titled ‘Transposition’) can be found online, but I’m reluctant to link to any pdfs since I can’t vouch for the security of given websites. But if you and this atheist fellow are comfortable finding/linking to the essay…? (Obviously best would be if you both happen to have, or buy, CS Lewis books, then just read in person. My shelf is full of CS Lewis works.)

Excerpted quote from ‘Transposition’ in case it piques your interest:

It is clear that in each case what is happening in the lower
medium can be understood only if we know the higher medium.
The instance where this knowledge is most commonly lacking is
the musical one. The piano version means one thing to the musician
who knows the original orchestral score and another thing
to the man who hears it simply as a piano piece. But the second
man would be at an even greater disadvantage if he had never
heard any instrument but a piano and even doubted the existence of
other instruments.

Even more, we understand pictures
only because we know and inhabit the three-dimensional world.
If we can imagine a creature who perceived only two dimensions
and yet could somehow be aware of the lines as he crawled over
them on the paper, we shall easily see how impossible it would
be for him to understand.

At first he might be prepared to accept
on authority our assurance that there was a world in three dimensions.
But when we pointed to the lines on the paper and tried
to explain, say, that “This is a road,” would he not reply that the
shape which we were asking him to accept as a revelation of our
mysterious other world was the very same shape which, on our
own showing, elsewhere meant nothing but a triangle. And soon,
I think, he would say, “You keep on telling me of this other world
and its unimaginable shapes which you call solid. But isn’t it very
suspicious that all the shapes which you offer me as images or
reflections of the solid ones turn out on inspection to be simply the
old two-dimensional shapes of my own world as I have always
known it? Is it not obvious that your vaunted other world, so far
from being the archetype, is a dream which borrows all its elements
from this one?”

But that is a digression. Let us now return to our original question,
about Spirit and Nature, God and Man.

Our problem was that in what claims to be our spiritual life all the
elements of our natural life recur: and, what is worse, it looks at first glance
as if no other elements were present. We now see that if the spiritual
is richer than the natural (as no one who believes in its existence
would deny) then this is exactly what we should expect. And the
sceptic’s conclusion that the so-called spiritual is really derived
from the natural, that it is a mirage or projection or imaginary
extension of the natural, is also exactly what we should expect;
for, as we have seen, this is the mistake which an observer who
knew only the lower medium would be bound to make in every
case of Transposition. The brutal man never can by analysis find
anything but lust in love; the Flatlander never can find anything
but flat shapes in a picture; physiology never can find anything
in thought except twitchings of the grey matter. It is no good
browbeating the critic who approaches a Transposition from below.
On the evidence available to him his conclusion is the only one possible.
Everything is different when you approach the Transposition
from above…


Well, I’m thirty-eight and I no longer argue with Atheists. For one Psychology Today isn’t a credible outlet for psychology much less anything scientific; it’s a popular culture magazine that just so happens to have psychology in the title. Second, logical fallacies are relative and open to discussion in an epistemological way such as the No True Scotsman Fallacy or the Slippery Slope. So, essentially he is calling you ignorant for believing in God and the Soul and using the term Fallacy as an excuse.

Like every atheist I’ve ever known he is trying to outsmart you. The only lesson I would take is the perspective that intellect isn’t a measure of anything other than the ability to reason within patterns. And oftentimes from my experience, intellect can be a disability when it comes from a pattern or frame or paradigm of someone whose other emotions are in play. I’ve met people who idolize Spock and the Vulcans from Star Trek and even have that same monotonic tone; I feel bad for them because to me that is a sign of trauma, a sign someone has shut their emotions down because they don’t have the perspective to confront deep rooted emotions, often time rage and anger. But to many atheist, an emotionless wold of self-interest and hedonism is a reasonable world and if everyone can get away with it then they would do it; the ignore the contrary there is something good and divine, moral about our nature repulsed by the Evil.

So, in short, there is nothing you can do about him. I would say the better result is to begin to pray the Rosary and Divine Office along with reading more from Catholic Theologians. The point of prayer is to experiential-ly develop a relationship with God where you experience his presence in Prayer and in Mass.

The person you are corresponding with has already made his decision. He’ll make typical arguments about religious oppression which I don’t deny exists. Or, he’ll make arguments that take a certain level of faith on science and psychology. Well, when I use faith there is use little “f” faith as opposed to what we have Faith. Again, you can’t share an experience with him or you can’t share personal revelation because that is all anecdotal evidence. You can show him my reply if you want to. But if he is willing to accept death over eternal life and is not willing to take the journey of growing his soul or relationship with God then there is not much you can do for him.


I don’t have time to elaborate, but two points of interest if we proceed from St. Thomas arguments:

  • It’s a mistake to think of his idea of the intellect as being similar to Descartes. Modern science has done away with the notion that the mind is a separate substance that interacts with the body, but that’s not what St. Thomas taught. Focusing on better understanding Aristotleam hylemorphism will help, but it may take some time to wrap your mind around it.
  • The basis for why St. Thomas held the intellect to be immaterial was the intentionality of thought, that thought could intelligibly be about anything. It wasn’t based on Rationalist arguments about qualia. It is also related to his position on the problem of universals.

I know I haven’t said much, and I may be able to revisit this more in depth later. But it’s okay to cut your losses and accept a loss. You may not be prepared to defend this position. I’m not saying you should give up, I’m just saying you shouldn’t feel bad if you want to just put it off until you’ve studied the issue more.

Soul/mind simply is essence of any being or thing. Essence is something that gives whatness to something. Soul has ability to experience, decide and cause.

Again, I may sound heard hearted about this. But it’s best as a pilgrim to focus on your own religious life and those of your loved ones. Secularism as we know it started in the late nineteenth century with the writings by people like Nietzche, Freud, Darwin and Marx. There has always been secularism since the time of Plato, who argued for Monotheism. However, this particular strand of secularism where an, “intelligent rational,” person would not believe in God and the, “masses,” are ignorant lemmings who follow blindly a false authority emerged out of that period.

Well, this lead to Social Darwinism the idea that some people are superior to others which eventually lead to Nazism. Read the Forward to Eli Wiezel’s Night and he argues as a holocaust survivor the Nazi’s only religion was race and that he was helped to publish by a Catholic. Again, because to Atheists the Nazi’s were Christian. No, they were not Christian; they flew the Swastika not the Cross and the Swastika is a sign found commonly in Hinduism and Buddhism. The Nazi’s only tolerated Christianity until it could replaced by their own ideologies.

Again, from my perspective you are better off not arguing with him. You can pray for him, only don’t tell him you are doing that. You can read Dostoyevsky’s The Underground Man and The Brothers Karamazov because as a Russian Orthodox Dostoyevsky saw the writing on the wall and pretty much predicted the outcome.

But for you, I would instead start getting involved in prayer life. The Rosary, Divine Office or Christian Prayer (Liturgy of the Hours) ask God for strength and personal revelation as well as to feel the Holy Spirit. Ask for a relationship with God through prayer.

Again, nothing can be gained by arguing with him. Secularization has been growing in popularity in this country since the seventies. So, in your personal life stick to the Bible and all the Catholic Tool Box. Keep your aspirations reasonable as in owning an affordable house in a good community you can tend to. Aspire to be akin to the common man and common wisdom and fellowship of the world community. Aspire to get to the point where without a doubt you know we are equal in the eyes of God even if some people have more talents than others. Learn to see beauty everywhere in God’s creation.

But most of all pray.


So there you have it. You can investigate the philosophy of Aristotle and St Thomas and discuss the nuances of hylomorphism, rational beings, essesces and forms with the guy or you could say nothing and pray for him. Or you could tell him that he’s an ignorant lemming, a social Darwinist and a potential Nazi.

Which are you going to choose?

Hello Dakman72

Well, considering that he has never died, he is either lying or he is inflicted with an incredibly arrogant form of atheism.

I wish you could have shown the argument. In any case if he believes that only blind physical processes exists then he should also agree that goal direction does not exist in the universe on any level, since there is no purpose. The mere existence of a person self-evidently contradicts that, since we make goals and act for the purpose of survival on a daily basis.

But he already sounds like somebody i wouldn’t waste my time on, unless you are debating him for the sake others. That takes a lot of patience.

I disagree with his polemics. There is one thing his post makes me think of, though, and it’s an important point as far as how a Christian should live. Being a good scholar and philosopher is a great thing, but it’s nothing if the life is lived without love and charity towards others, and one only has to do the latter to be a good Christian.

I’m not trying to rebut anything you wrote, Freddy. I’m just piggybacking off your post.

C’mon IWG…there’s a deeper meaning to teleology than you are implying. Else: ‘Freddy is going to make a coffee, therefore God’.

And here’s a good link for @Dakman72 which will stock up his philosophical arsenal:

My argument simply means that metaphysical naturalism is self-evidently wrong, and i am correct in my observation.

Couldn’t agree more. But there seems to be a general acceptance that your average atheist seems to be more aware of religious arguments than does your average Christian (and I’m not including myself in that - I’m on the flatter portion of a steep learning curve). And I think that’s true because atheism isn’t the default position and you need to have thought about the arguments for and against God to reach a position where you can declare your own position. Whereas I think that most Christians do not investigate it to that extent.

So if Dackman is going to debate theism with an atheist, then my money is immediately on the atheist. But if Dackman spends some time getting in some book learnin’ then the odds maynwell be in his favour. And he’ll know more about the foundations for his belief.

Then again, he may find the foundations not as solid as he might have wished. But that’s a risk we all take.

1 Like

Well, there’s Dackman’s argument in a nutshell. He can forget about doing any hard yards in regard to study. He can just simply declare ‘I am right in my observation’. It’s a zinger!

Or he can present an irrefutable argument…he can borrow mine if he likes.

Back to the book learnin’ Dack.

Or, we can ask IWG why “metaphysical naturalism is self-evidently wrong”. If it is, then this isn’t “it’s wrong because I say so”… :wink:

I’m sure that you know that there’s two sides to the argument, Georgias. Dack needs to explain his position. Asking why the other one is self-evidently wrong (which literally means that it requires no explanation) is not going to get him far. In fact, he is implying that he doesn’t yet know enough about the matter to put forward a cogent argument. So I would suggest that it is not even self-evidently wrong to him as we stand.

Maybe you could help him out.

Why not? If I claimed that it is self-evident that I exist, I could provide grounds for that assertion. It’s just as fair to ask for the grounds for his assertion!

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit