Souls as material and spiritual entities

Brian T. Greuel (
Mon, 9 Feb 1998 17:31:24 GMT-5

John W. Burgeson wrote in part:

> I was not ascribing material properties to the soul. What I was doing,
> and I apologize for not being very clear, was saying that IF there was
> such a thing as a soul, (and that thing might be material or
> non-material), one might reasonably conclude that there was one soul per
> human being; that if one were to assume otherwise (two or more
> souls/person or two or more persons per soul) that all kinds of weird
> conclusions might be drawn from that assumption. So, for the argument's
> sake, I though we might all agree to assume 1 soul/person, at least for
> now. Again, whether material or non-material is not specified.

I think it makes a big difference whether we regard the soul as a material or
spiritual entity. Ultimately, I favor the view that the soul is a spiritual
entity which is placed there by God, but let me try to address both
possible scenarios.

The mammalian embryo has an incredible ability to alter the course of its
development depending upon certain signals that are transmitted between cells
of the embryo--we call this property "regulative development." For example,
if you remove a single cell from a 4- or 8-cell mouse embryo, the remaining
cells of the embryo will adjust their development so that all of the
structures of the embryo are still generated. No parts of the mouse will be
missing after you transfer the embryo back into a foster mother and allow
development to proceed. Even the single cell isolated from such an early
embryo will adjust its course of development so that it gives rise to an
entire embryo (and mouse!) rather than to just part of a mouse.

This property of regulative development is also exhibited when you isolate two
separate 4- or 8-cell mouse embryos and put them in close contact after
removing the zona pellucida that surrounds them. The two embryos in close
contact will often fuse together and develop as a single embryo that has only
one set of structures instead of two. No parts are unnecessarily duplicated
because the cell-cell interactions within the fused embryo changed the overall
course of development for each individual cell.

The same properties of regulative development that operate in mice also appear
to operate in human embryos. For example, when an inner cell mass splits
within a blastocyst, it gives rise to identical twins--each half of the embryo
regulates its development to give rise to a separate, complete embryo instead
of just part of a single embryo.

If, for the sake of argument, the soul is a material entity within the early
embryo, one might postulate that it is present as early as the one-celled
embryo (zygote) stage. Like the embryo, it, too, could undergo gradual
development--increasing in complexity as the embryo itself increases in
complexity, and being responsive to signals that it receives from its
surroundings. As part of the embryo, one might expect that the soul would
likewise be subject to regulative development. One soul could give rise to
two souls under the same circumstances that one embryo gives rise to two
embryos. Moreover, just as two embryos can fuse together and develop as a
single embryo, so, too, could two souls fuse together and develop as a single
soul. There's nothing bizarre about this scenario if, in fact, the soul is a
material entity that is subject to the same forces as the rest of the embryo.

As a material entity, then, the soul could reasonably begin at the zygote
stage--perhaps the consequence of rearrangements in egg cytoplasm that occur
during fertilization--and progress through a continuum of development until it
reaches "maturity" in the adult human being. To terminate development at ANY
stage along this continuum would result in the termination of a life with a
soul at some stage of maturation. Therefore, according to this logic,
termination of human life at any stage of development from zygote to adult
would be murder.

The main problem I see with a soul being a material entity is that it would
be subject to death and decay like the rest of the mortal body. But that isn't
how most of us view the soul, is it? We view the soul as an entity that exits
the body at the time of death, persisting as a spiritual entity in the
"presence of the Lord." Now we're back to the same old questions again. If
the soul is a spiritual entity, at what point does it enter in the continuum of
human development? And how does it get there? I would submit that it is put
there directly by almighty God--a purposive act by an omnipotent Deity who is
the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He imparts a soul to each human
life so that we are "made in His image"--so that we, like Him, will exist for
eternity, in eternal fellowship with Him if we choose to follow Him. When does
God transfer a soul into a developing human life? My best guess is that it is
at the earliest moment when the process of fertilization is complete and a
single-celled embryo, the zygote, has been formed and commences development.
Perhaps the soul, as a spiritual entity, is still capable of "regulative
development" as I described above--so that two distinct souls could become "one
soul" and vice versa. Whatever the case, God is in control--He is the Sustainer
and Creator of the Universe.. Therefore, IMHO, to terminate an embryo, even
as early as the zygote stage, would be to terminate a human life made in the
image of God--this would be an act of murder.



Brian T. Greuel, Ph.D.
Dept. of Biology
John Brown University
Box 3119
2000 W. University Street
Siloam Springs, AR 72761
TEL: (501) 524-7433
FAX: (501) 524-9548