Conversatio Divina

Part 1 of 2

Publicly Available Knowledge of the Soul

Brandon Rickabaugh

“To develop accurate knowledge of the human soul,” writes Dallas Willard, “is the primary need of our times.”Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation, and the Restoration of the Soul,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 26 (1) (1998), 109. See also Willard, The Great Omission, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2006), 74; and Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1988), 112-3 J.P. Moreland and I are convinced that Willard was right. As a result, we spent nearly four years writing The Substance of Consciousness.

01.  About the Book

Our book is an academic defense of substance dualism (that we are a unity of body and soul) written at the level of Willard’s The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. In Part One, we explain how experts have rejected the soul mainly for ideology rather than solid arguments. Part Two shows that the experience of our inner life is a source of knowledge that reveals the soul. Part Three demonstrates that, unlike a brain or body, we are deeply unified and, therefore, a bodily soul. In Part Four, we update a traditional argument and show how free will points to the soul. In Part Five, we answer common objections to the soul, especially from neuroscience. We close with Part Six, exploring promising research projects on the soul.

02.  Why is This Important?

First, many Christians writing on spiritual formation reject the soul. Curt Thompson, for example, trades talk of the soul for talk of the mind, which he identifies as an emergent process of the brain.Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2010), 29-31. David Benner rejects the soul as real, instead taking “soul” as a metaphor for a way of living.David G. Benner, Spirituality and the Awakening Self (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2012), 22. Recently, books on spiritual formation, under the false presumption that neuroscience has disproven the soul, have been written by Jim Wilder, Michael Hendrix, and others.See, Jim Wilder, Renovated (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2020); Jim Wilder and Michael Hendricks, The Other Half of the Church (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2020); and Brad Strawn and Warren Brown, Enhancing Christian Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020). There are also academic books on spiritual formation by Paul Markham, Warren Brown, and Brad Strawn.See, Paul N. Markham, Rewired: Exploring Religious Conversion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2007); and Warren S. Brown and Brad D. Straw, The Physical Nature of the Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). Every one of these books makes numerous errors and false assumptions in attempting to reject the soul.For a direct response to these views, see Brandon Rickabaugh and C. Stephen Evans, “Neuroscience, Spiritual Formation, and Bodily Souls: A Critique of Christian Physicalism,” in Loftin and Farris (Eds.). Christian Physicalism? (Lexington Books, 2018). The Substance of Consciousness explains why.

Second, the reality and nature of the soul have always been at the core of Christian spiritual formation. I’ll use Willard as an example. The core of Willard’s thinking about spiritual formation is based on the reality and dynamics of the soul. Willard was a staunch advocate of substance dualism and went to great lengths to explain its vital role in the with-God life.See, Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1998), 75-76; Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 20thAnniversary Edition (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2021), chapters 1, 2, and 11; Willard, “Grey Matter and the Soul,” in Gary Black Jr. (ed.), Renewing the Christian Mind (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016); Dallas Willard, “Understanding the Person: Including the Invisible Parts,” in Willard, Living in Christ’s Presence (Downers Grover: IL: InterVarsity Press); Willard, “On the Texture and Substance of the Human Soul,” unpublished lecture (1994). URL: <>; Willard, “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” Lecture (2002). URL: <>.

Lastly, the soul is necessary for understanding the nature of thought, desire, sin, the will, and the integration of the human person, among other things.Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 79-83. The soul is unavoidable. Willard writes,

Those who deny the soul, perhaps for what they regard as the most overwhelming of scientific and philosophical reasonings, still have to live a life, and they need to find the resources for it. If they cannot deal with that need in terms of a healthy soul, they still have to deal with it in some terms. What shall those terms be? They have to find them in one way or another, and not all ways are equal. The soul will strike back.Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 212-13.

Moreland and I offer the most complete and detailed defense of the soul, which lays the philosophical foundation for Jesus’s vision of spiritual formation and life in his Kingdom. It is aimed at a scholarly audience without any Christian assumptions because, as we show, knowledge of the soul is publicly available to everyone.

03.  Building on Willard’s View of the Human Person.

Let me briefly describe aspects of the view we developed in the book that are compatible with, if not identical to, Willard’s views, followed by two points of possible disagreement. Let me first point out that, we share Willard’s philosophical methodology. Like Willard, we consider neuroscience’s methods and findings largely irrelevant to the central questions in the philosophy of mind. We also make new developments, many of which develop aspects of Willard’s work based on insights from Aristotle, Aquinas, and Edmund Husserl.


  • The Human Person. The human person is a unified whole, a subject of consciousnesses, and possesses a mind (thoughts and emotions), a will, a body, and a social presence. The human person is an immaterial substance—the soul—and the various faculties—mind, will, emotion, body, etc.—are seated in and unified by a person’s essence.
  • Soul. The soul is a simple (containing no separable parts), immaterial, spatially unextended substance. Its essence contains, as a primitive unity, a structural arrangement of capacities (e.g., capacities for consciousness and for animating, enlivening, and teleologically developing its body). The faculties of the soul (e.g., the mind, will, spirit, and emotions) are inseparable parts/modes of the soul. The soul unifies the activities of the dimensions of one’s life.
  • Body. The body is not a mere physical machine or a container for the human person. The operational functions of the body are rooted in the internal structure of the soul. The parts of the body are internally related to other parts and to the soul’s essence. As a mode of the soul, the body is an ensouled physical structure with a soulish, immaterial aspect and a physical aspect. The soulish aspect of the body contains meanings, sensations, and other conscious states since the soul is fully present at the place of sensations, for example, and the body qua soul contains the conscious state, and habituated dispositions.

Points of Disagreement or Modification. Nearly every aspect of our view matches Willard’s. Two areas, however, must be modified if they are to be compatible with our view.See, J. P. Moreland, “Tweaking Dallas Willard’s Ontology of the Human Person,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 8 (2) (2015): 187-202. Sometimes, Willard describes the soul as a part of the person. We deny this. However, in some places, Willard describes the soul as an individual immaterial substance. This is our view, as the human person is an individual, immaterial, substantial soul. In some places, he says that my body is essential to my identity and part of the image of God in me. On our view, while embodied, one’s body is crucial to one’s identity, and while one can be in the image of God without one’s body, nevertheless, the body is a critical part of that image.


Brandon Rickabaugh and J. P. Moreland, The Substance of Consciousness: A Comprehensive Defense of Contemporary Substance Dualism. Wiley-Blackwell, $39.99. Now available on Amazon.