What Happens To Your Soul When You Die? | Unveiled
VOICE OVER: Noah Baum
What happens AFTER WE DIE? And, more specifically, what happens to our soul? In this video, Unveiled uncovers all there is to know about the human spirit... and what happens to it when the human body passes on! Featuring a range of scientific and philosophical views... it's the ultimate answer to the ultimate question!
What Happens to Your Soul When You Die?
Is death really the end? Or is there something else waiting for us once our mortal bodies are no more?
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what happens to your soul when you die?
Although we’ve been contemplating it, debating it and generally trying to understand it for thousands of years, the soul remains an exceptionally tricky concept to nail down. Depending on your spiritual, religious, philosophical or scientific views, it can mean or resemble a number of things. Generally speaking, however, the soul is held to be the bodiless, non-physical essence of a living thing. It’s what guides or drives that living thing’s consciousness; its character, personality, experience and way of thinking. For humans, the soul is what makes us… us. And, our bodies - our arms and legs and hearts and brains - only really exist as vehicles to house and facilitate our souls. Nevertheless, we know that our physical bodies are only capable of doing this for a certain amount of time. So, when they expire, when we die, what happens to our soul then?
In 1901, the American doctor Duncan MacDougall conducted what became known as the 21 Grams Experiment. He measured the weight of six people at the moment of their death, and roughly concluded that there was a weight loss before and after dying - of about 21 grams. MacDougall’s study has since been widely discredited for a number of reasons - including the small sample size, and the fact that only one of his six subjects showed an exactly 21-gram loss - but it highlights how the soul has continually been perceived as separate from the body and in some way exempt from death.
This idea has been present since at least the eighth century BC. We know this thanks to the 2008 discovery of the Kuttamuwa Monument in modern-day Turkey; an inscribed, stone tablet to mark the death of Kuttamuwa (a high-ranking official). On it, there’s mention of offering “a ram for my soul”, seeming to suggest that the ancient Assyrians believed a part of them survived even when their bodies perished.
The concept shifts for later belief systems like Christianity and Islam, and in classical mythology, where it’s often held that the soul is what gets judged by God, before being either allowed into Heaven (for eternal peace and happiness) or cast off into Hell (to be tormented forever or destroyed completely). The specifics differ between religions and denominations of religions, though, with some believing that the soul actually doesn’t leave the body when we die, and instead resides there in unconscious sleep until the dead are resurrected. Meanwhile, for the Church of Latter-day Saints, the soul exists in a spirit world until it’s reunited with the body and exalted into eternal life.
For many branches of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism there’s a more significant change of direction, though, in the form of reincarnation. Loosely speaking, this is the idea that while your body will die, your soul (or spirit) will pass on and into something else. In pop culture, its next destination is usually an animal of some kind… but, depending on belief system, your soul could also migrate to trees and plants, or even into a new-born child. The key aspect is that there’s a cycle that your soul is moving through, with many believing that it’s only when the soul is freed from this cycle that it can achieve its ultimate goal… what some refer to as nirvana.
From a philosophical standpoint, the soul has intrigued and tormented many of the greatest thinkers in history. Plato believed, too, that the soul survived beyond when the body carrying it died, and also that it could move between bodies to regenerate anew. Plato also mapped out what he believed the soul actually was, however, with his tripartite theory being one of the earliest recorded attempts to make some sense of it. The tripartite theory of the soul divides the soul into three main sections; the logos, which is found in the head and covers logic and thought; the thymos, found in the chest and the birthplace of anger; and the eros, which was said to be in the stomach, and responsible for desire. The key to a healthy soul was keeping these three aspects of it in balance.
Aristotle also devised a three-tier mode of thinking about the soul, but this time he sought to differentiate between the souls of people, animals and plants. For Aristotle, there were three levels. The first related to souls needing to grow and reproduce, only… so that’s all of life, including plants. The second related to animated souls responding to senses with sensitivity… so, that’s all animals and people. And the third related to souls capable of reason… so, only people. Where Aristotle most differed to Plato, though, is that he didn’t necessarily believe that the soul was immortal. Critics are still divided on exactly where Aristotle stood regarding the soul post-death.
In the days since Plato and Aristotle, this toing and froing over what the soul is, where it is and what ultimately happens to it has never truly been resolved. But, for more modern philosophers and scientists, it’s been less a question of trying to physically define the soul, or translating it into some kind of knowable substance… and more a question of determining what we really mean when we refer to it. For the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, the soul (as with God and the afterlife) was unavoidably beyond human comprehension. We could only ever trust in its existence, rather than know that it existed… which, to some interpretations, takes the question of death out of the picture.
Another major player in the history of the soul (and how we understand it) is the seventeenth-century French thinker, René Descartes. His most famous work centred on the mind-body problem, and his argument for dualism - the idea that the soul and body are separate, but very closely linked. For the dualist Descartes, the body couldn’t exist without the mind, but the mind could exist without the body… and therefore the death of the body needn’t be the death of the mind. That part of us, the part that comprehends the rest of us, might then carry on forever.
This tying up between the soul and the mind (and consciousness generally) has also been a key theme in more recent studies. Descartes suggested that there could be some kind of filter within the human body, connecting our immaterial thoughts to the material world - with the pineal gland in the brain being where he thought that was. But that idea, the idea that the pineal gland held the key, has since been widely thrown out and ridiculed. Descartes’ general concept of dualism hasn’t been dropped though, although it is contested by monism - the idea that mind and body are one; that neither exists without the other.
For those searching for an outlook wherein at least a part of us lives forever, monism (particularly one version of it, physicalism) probably isn’t for you. Here, if there is a soul, it’s the product only of our physical, biological matter being arranged in exactly the right way; we only have a soul because we have a brain which can power it. So, when we die and that all-important brain is no more, the soul disappears forever, too. In the twenty-first century, the Franco-American cognitive scientist and writer, Julien Musolino - who wrote the 2015 book, “The Soul Fallacy” - has become one of the most prominent voices on this side of the argument, against there being a soul to survive our deaths… while the US physicist Sean M. Carroll is another leading the charge against the soul, arguing that there’s nothing we know of to support even its existence.
Clearly, there is no one, certain answer to this question. If there was, we’d all be one huge step closer to deciphering the meaning of life! Most religions teach that the soul in some way lives on, be that in an afterlife, in unconscious sleep until resurrection or via reincarnation. For philosophers throughout history, it has been just as important to determine what the soul is before wondering what happens to it when our bodies expire. Meanwhile, for modern-day scientists, the soul is just as unknowable and, according to some, it might not exist at all.
No matter your belief, though, if we understand the soul (abstract, or not) to be what guides our lives… to be our own, individuality, personality and essence… then let’s all try to put it to good use. Because a little soul goes a long way!