A Nobel Laureate on the Existence of the Soul

Author: ks. Mieczysław Piotrowski TChr

Every human being has an immortal soul. Such was the assertion of one of the world’s greatest authorities in human brain research, Australian neurophysiologist and Nobel laureate in the field of physiology and medicine, Sir John Carew Eccles (1903-1997).

John Eccles claimed, on the basis of his many years of scientific inquiry and analysis, that matter is incapable of creating mental phenomena and there is no transference of physical into mental energy. Only spiritual reality is capable of creating mental phenomena. The Australian Nobel laureate stated that from a scientific point of view we must flatly reject the materialist view that human consciousness is a product of matter. It became obvious to him that the human mind–our personal “I”–exists in the form of a spiritual dimension and constitutes the immortal soul. This outstanding scientist stressed that in the face of the miracle of life and the splendor of the human person modern science imparts a message of humility. The real qualities of the human being are not only his brain and intelligence but also his creativity and power of imagination. Eccles speaks of two certainties: the uniqueness (unrepeatability) of the human person in both his physicality and the spiritual existence of his immortal soul.

Based on the findings of his research, Eccles emphatically dismissed the materialistic theory of the brain, which sees the latter as a super-complex computer, in which the cerebral cortex generates all thoughts and feelings. He characterizes this theory as “barren and empty,” since it resorts to vague generalities. Above all, such a view is incapable of accounting for the miracle and mystery of the uniqueness of the personal “I” along with its spiritual capacities, its creativeness and imaginativeness (How The Self Controls Its Brain, pp. 33, 176). He writes: “Since the materialistic conception is incapable or explaining and accounting for the experience of our unrepeatability, I am forced to accept the supernatural creation of the unique, spiritual, and personal ‘I’–that is, the soul. Or, to put it in theological terms, every Soul is a new Divine creation infused into the human embryo” (Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self, p. 237).

Eccles created an ingenious new theory of the functioning of the human brain known as “dualist-interactionism.” He explains: “I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition....We have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world” (Evolution of the Brain, p. 241). Eccles dismisses as “superstition” the materialist view that sees thought as the outcome of material processes. This, he claims has nothing to do with scientific determination. “The more we discover scientifically about the brain the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena and the more wonderful do the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a superstition held by dogmatic materialists. It has all the features of a Messianic prophecy, with the promise of a future freed of all problems–a kind of Nirvana for our unfortunate successors. The materialist critics argue that insuperable difficulties are encountered by the hypothesis that immaterial mental events can act in any way on material structures such as neurons. Such a presumed action is alleged to be incompatible with the conservation laws of physics, in particular of the first law of thermodynamics. This objection would certainly be sustained by nineteenth century physicists, and by neuroscientists and philosophers who are still ideologically in the physics of the nineteenth century, not recognizing the revolution wrought by quantum physicists in the twentieth century” (“A unitary hypothesis of mind-brain interaction in the cerebral cortex” (1990), art. published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B 240, pp. 433-451).

The many years devoted by John Eccles to the study of the human brain enabled him to state that all human beings possess a “self,” that is, an immaterial mind, which acts through the material brain. Thus, there exists, in addition to our physical world, a mental (i.e. spiritual) world, and both these realities impinge upon each other (cf. How The Self Controls Its Brain, p. 38). Eccles underlines the astounding fact the self-consciousness of every personal “I” endures invariably throughout the person’s whole life–“and this fact we must acknowledge as a miracle” (Ibid., 139).

About the immortality of the human soul, that is, about the existence of the personal “I” after every person’s death, John Eccles has this to say: “I believe that there is a fundamental mystery in my existence, transcending any biological account of the development of my body (including my brain) with its genetic inheritance and its evolutionary origin....I cannot believe that this wonderful gift of a conscious existence has no further future, no possibility of another existence under some other unimaginable conditions” (“Facing Reality: Philosophical Adventures by a Brain Scientist,” Heidelberg Science Library (1970), p. 83). Elsewhere, the Australian researcher observes: “We may look at the death of the body and brain as the dissolution of our dualistic existence. We hope that the liberated soul will find a new future of more profound importance and with a more delightful experience of a renewed bodily existence in keeping with traditional Christian teaching” (Evolution of the Brain, p. 242). “Our coming-to-be is as mysterious as our ceasing-to-be at death. Can we therefore not derive hope because our ignorance about our origin matches our ignorance about our destiny? Cannot life be lived as a challenging and wonderful adventure that has meaning yet to be discovered?” (“Facing Reality: Philosophical Adventures by a Brain Scientist,” p. 95).

May this testimony to the immortality of the soul by one of the world’s greatest experts of the human brain, Nobel laureate Dr. John Eccles, mobilize us to take greater care of our souls, our spiritual life, including our purity of heart, freedom from evil, and eternal life. We do this by deepening our personal relationship with Christ in daily prayer and by receiving the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Let us remember the words of Jesus: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his own soul. Or what shall a man give in return for his own soul” (Mat 16: 26).


Fr. M. Piotrowski SChr

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