The soul vs unconsciousness

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: If the mind and self-awareness are attached to the human soul, what happens to your sense of existence when you are unconscious — say, absolutely so — as when under general anesthesia? At that time, the brain is essentially shut down (or put to sleep), and the person has no sense of time or of self. Does this support soul sleep — the doctrine that nothing survives physical death and that the soul will be resurrected with the body when Jesus returns?

Or worse… that there is nothing beyond physical death… and that the soul and spirit exist only in the computer we call a brain and that all cease when our operating system shuts down… because where is our sense of existence — our self-consciousness — when the brain shuts down? I’m a believer, but I’m playing the devil's advocate here. I’d appreciate your insights.

Answer: Greetings, friend. This is an interesting question — especially for believers — and I do not think less of you for playing devil’s advocate here. In fact, I wish more Christians would do this because nothing bolsters the faith quite like answering its challenges.

But before we begin, I’d like to warn you not to attach your sense of a soul to the existence of a soul… and you’ve already detailed some of the reasons why we should not. People routinely find themselves in various states of unconsciousness. But unconsciousness is a physical state, not a metaphysical one, and as such, it cannot speak to whether or not a metaphysical entity like the soul exists. Logically, this makes linking unconsciousness to the existence of the soul a nonstarter… although the question, do metaphysical entities exist at all will always be valid. By definition, physicalists believe they do not, and Christians believe they do.

The doctrine of soul sleep would fall under the same logical ax. It’s a false doctrine, but if it were true, the sleeping soul would still be a metaphysical entity while awaiting the resurrected body. I don’t think we have to go any further than Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) or his declaration to the penitent thief on the cross that this day he would be with him in paradise (Luke 23:43) to put the idea of soul sleep to bed (so to speak). But we still have to address the notion… incorrect though it may be… and it is still a non-starter when we try to link it in a cause-and-effect (or an effect-and-proof) kind of way with physical entities.

What is the story with our self-awareness then? We Christians insist that it as a function of the soul, but the physicalist restricts himself to physical systems… although they are not foolish enough to say that there is no such thing as self-awareness. They account for that phenomenon by saying that self-awareness is an illusion caused by our physical systems to trick us into copulating. Richard Dawkins famously said that we are [mere] machines for propagating DNA… and he was so close. We are soulish machines that also propagate DNA. That’s more like it!

I’ve written a couple of articles that discuss the Christian versus physicalists issues in more detail, and rather than paste them in, let me give you their links so you can look at them at your convenience.

Introduction to the main article:

Link to the main article:

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