The life-force of an individual, as distinguished from that person’s physical body. The concept of “soul” has been used in different ways in different contexts. Soul and spirit are sometimes seen as separate, with spirit denoting life-force and soul referring to an individual’s core identity. In all religious traditions except classical Buddhism, the soul is held to be immortal, although it may be associated with a series of physical bodies in different lifetimes (see Reincarnation).

The Buddhist doctrine of anatta, or “no soul,” teaches that the soul is a fi gment of the human imagination, from which it follows that it is incapable of Survival After Death. Reincarnation results from karma—the effect of all actions, good and bad—and does not involve the transmission of consciousness or personality between lifetimes.

According to Christianity, an individual’s soul is created by God at the beginning of each new life and deposited by Him in that person’s body. After the body’s demise, the soul is not extinguished, but continues to exist in an afterworld. Christians hold that the individual will eventually have a bodily resurrection.

Traditional cultures such as the Native Americans, Africans or Australian Aborigines, have complex systems of beliefs about the soul (see Animism). In some societies, one finds the belief that the body is home to more than a single soul at a given time. In some belief systems, different souls are inherited from each parent and are transmitted through members of the appropriate sex to their children. In other cases, different souls are responsible for different bodily functions—one may be associated with the breath, another with the intellect, a third with the bones, and so forth.

Almost always one or the other of these souls is believed to be separable from the body during life, and the wanderings of this soul are believed to be responsible for dreaming and for illness, the permanent departure of the soul resulting in death (see Soul Loss). After death, the soul (or spirit) may separate into two or more parts, perhaps becoming a ghost, an ancestral spirit, and a reincarnating spirit—thus, no contradiction is recognized between Reincarnation and survival in the afterlife. The soul or spirit is believed to be a body double, and is sometimes equated with a person’s shadow.

In Spiritualism, the concept of soul is midway between that found in Western religions and in animism. The soul is conceived as discrete and indivisible, and each person is normally allotted one, and only one. The soul, however, is detachable from the body and may leave it, as during out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences. The astral body is conceived as a “vehicle” for the soul, if not as a reflection of the soul itself. Apparitions are considered by many to be appearances of the astral body.

On the assumption that the soul is quasi-physical and has some mass, attempts have been made to weigh the body at death in hopes of finding evidence of the soul. In the most famous experiment of this sort, conducted by Duncan McDougall in 1907, five patients were weighed as they died. In two cases, there was an initial abrupt weight loss of one-half ounce, followed by a second abrupt loss of one ounce, within three minutes of death. In a third case, there was a slight weight loss, followed by a great weight gain, then a weight loss after 15 minutes. However, these results are not Scientifically conclusive.


  • Alvarado, Carlos S. “The Physical Detection of the Astral Body: An Historical Perspective.” Theta 8 (1980): 4–7.
  • Broad, C. D. Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research. New York: Humanities Press, 1969.
  • Kung, Hans. Eternal Life? Life after Death as a Medical, Philosophical and Theological Problem. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.
  • Myers, Frederic W. H. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. 2 vols. New York: Longmans, Green, 1903.
  • Radhakrishnan, R. 2,500 Years of Buddhism. New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1956.
  • Tylor, Edward Burnett. Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1956.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley  – September 1, 2007


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