Soul vs. Spirit and the Duality of Consciousness

I once read a very interesting book entitled The Lost Secret of Death: Our Divided Souls and the Afterlife, by Peter Novak. The thesis was that in ancient times, people made a distinction between soul and spirit, but that in modern times we have forgotten the difference. In a nutshell, spirit is a sort of spark or particle of consciousness or life, whereas soul is some sort of psychic capacitor which accumulates one’s thoughts and life experiences, good and bad. According to this system, human beings are made up of three things: a soul, a spirit, and a body.

Mr. Novak claims that if you do a careful reading of the Bible, you’ll find that this subtle distinction is maintained. He also listed many cultures which make the soul-vs-spirit distinction, which I summarize in the table below. I’ve also included in the table parallel distinctions that Mr. Novak makes between two types of ghosts and between two kinds of afterlife.

If I recall correctly, according to some ancient belief systems, if a person’s soul and spirit remained “attached” after death, then that person’s consciousness would survive death. Otherwise, that person’s consciousness would be lost forever. With special training (special prayers to the gods? meditation exercises? mastery of lucid dreaming?), one could increase the chances that one’s soul and spirit would remain attached after death, in which case one’s consciousness would survive in the afterlife.

A disembodied spirit without an associated soul results in a poltergeist; a disembodied soul without an associated spirit results in a haunt. I suppose that a spirit attached to a body without benefit of a soul may result in a Philosophical Zombie; perhaps a soul is required for qualia.

In the November 17, 2008 issue of the New York Times, an article appeared entitled Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul . In there, the Egyptian distinction between ba and ka is mentioned. So, Mr. Novak wasn’t making it up!

I have also read a book on lucid dreaming (a topic of great interest to me) entitled Stop Sleeping Through Your Dreams: A Guide to Awakening Consciousness During Dream Sleep, written by Charles McPhee (a Princeton alumnus), a.k.a. The Dream Doctor. Mr. McPhee writes:

“When I worked in sleep research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, I once asked sleep researcher Dr. Wallace Mendelson to define human consciousness for me. Much to my surprise, my existential question did not cause Dr. Mendelson to blink an eye. “Consciousness is easy,” he explained. “Consciousness is a duality. It is the seemingly paradoxical ability of being able to experience sensation and, at the same time, of being able to experience oneself experiencing that sensation.

“When Dr. Mendelson first gave me this definition of consciousness, I was unsure of what I had my hands on. Over the years, however, my appreciation of this definition has grown steadily. It is the best understanding of consciousness I have ever encountered.”

I must admit that I very much like Dr. Mendelson’s definition, too. Sometimes when people are talking about consciousness, I get the impression that they are really talking about one or the other of Dr. Mendelson’s two components of consciousness. I like the recursive aspect of the second component, that of “being able to experience oneself experiencing a sensation.” I believe that Douglas Hofstadter had a similar idea about the underlying etiology of consciousness.

I wonder whether Dr. Mendelson has written anything on consciousness. When I go to PubMed and do a search on

mendelson w [au] AND consciousness [tiab]

I find only this paper.

Another very interesting book that touches upon similar topics is Human Devolution: a Vedic alternative to Darwin’s theory, by Michael Cremo. Deliciously intriguing, and very… unorthodox, shall we say. See this paper to learn more about ancient Sanskrit metaphysical teachings on consciousness. Fascinating!

OK, here’s a table listing the words, ghosts, afterlives, and consciousness components as they relate to soul and spirit. I have added a few of my own ideas.

Ancient Christianity (?) Soul Spirit
Greece Psuche Thumos
Egypt Ba Ka
Israel Nephesh Ruwach
Persia Urvan Daena
Islam Ruh Nafs
India Jiva Atman
China Hun Po
Haiti Bon Ange Ti Bon Ange
Hawaii Uhane Unihipili
Dakota Indians Nagi Niya
Academic Fields of Study Arts and Humanities Science and Engineering
Peter Novak’s descriptions of soul and spirit Subjective, dependent, fertile, emotional, nonverbal, recessive,
passive, responsive, in possession and control of the memory. Emphasizes unity with the external.
Objective, independent, logical, verbal, dominant, active, possessing independent free will. Emphasizes distinction and separateness from the external.
Ghosts Haunts
(stereotypically, a ghost tied to a specific locale, moaning about his past life, and clanking chains like Marley’s Ghost)
(pure motive force, no emotional content, throwing things around)
Afterlife Eternal Bliss or Suffering
(Heaven and Hell; acyclic)
Reincarnation (cyclic)
Split Brain Right Brain Left Brain
Freud Unconscious Mind Conscious Mind
Dr. Wallace Mendelson’s definition of consciousness as a duality. Ability to experience sensation. Ability to experience oneself experiencing sensation.
Dungeons and Dragons Wisdom (clerics) Intelligence (magic users)

It was with great interest that I discovered that many psychic readings of Edgar Cayce (pronounced “kay-see”), “The Sleeping Prophet” (I wonder whether he experienced lucid dreams), have been gathered into a single book entitled Soul and Spirit. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to make much sense of the readings! They are raw and largely unedited (the editors didn’t want them to be colored by someone else’s interpretations), and are very challenging to read. You can try reading a sample here; maybe you’ll do better than me.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that there are three parts to the “soul”: reason, will, and desire. This isn’t quite the same as the spirit-soul-body triad, but I thought it was interesting enough to mention in this post.

Addendum (07/18/09): I just found a series of articles from 1913 entitled Spirit, Soul, and Flesh, by Ernest D. Burton, published in The American Journal of Theology. Here are the references (if you do not have a JSTOR account, these links may not work):

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: I. Am J Theol, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Oct., 1913), pp. 563-598.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: II. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan., 1914), pp. 59-80.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: III. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jul., 1914), pp. 395-414.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: III. Am J Theol, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Oct., 1914), pp. 571-599 [yes, for some reason ‘III’ was repeated; this was probably an error]

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: IV. Am J Theol, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Jul., 1916), pp. 390-413.

Spirit, Soul, and Flesh: V. Am J Theol, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct., 1916), pp. 563-596

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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] 01-17-009: Here’s my post on the soul vs. spirit issue. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Soul vs. Spirit and the Duality of […]

  2. I was looking at your table and I found it facinating. I’m doing a research on my own (just for my own knowledge, but part of my research contradicts to your table of soul vs spirit). I’m doing my research based on traditional doctors who practice traditional and holistic healing and would like to share power point slides with you.

    If you are up for it, i left my email behind. 🙂 i like your feedback on it.

    • I’d be delighted to review your PowerPoint slides! We can discuss offline.

      Your comment has reminded me: I haven’t posted anything on my blog recently. I have been busy working on my thesis.



  3. Hi,

    A quick comment on your table: It should be
    Jiva=Soul Atma=Spirit

    In India – soul is translated as Atman in general.

    However, if you look at properties ascribed to it, it is in fact the spirit.

    On the other hand Jiva (means living) really corresponds to what you refer to as the soul. It is more like a container in which the spirit resides.

    When a Atma enters a body, it is called Jivatma (Jiva+Atma), the living being.

    Hope that helps 🙂


    • Thanks, Sunny, that indeed helps. You made me wonder, did Mr. Novak mis-translate the two words jiva and atman? I just pulled out the book and reviewed Mr. Novak’s discussion of these two words, and discovered that the error was MY OWN; I had transposed the two words! I shall amend the table accordingly.

      If you can obtain a copy of Mr. Novak’s book, please check out Chapter 1, entitled When We All Spoke One Language: The Single World Religion of Humanity’s Past.

      By some coincidence, just the other day I downloaded a 1986 paper critiquing the “two-brain theory”. (This theory seems related to some of the rows in the table, e.g. the entries for “Split-Brain” and perhaps “Academic Fields of Study.”) I haven’t finished reading the paper yet, but I gather that Professor Shook is arguing that pop culture has taken the two-brain theory a little too far, at least with respect to education and pedagogical practice.



  4. A way to put it succinctly – the soul incurs learning; the spirit incurs living.
    Excellent site. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your note. I think that’s a nice way to put it.

      The soul component is necessarily unique to each person, since each person’s learning and experiences are different. But is the spirit component (the “spark” or “particle” of consciousness) identical from person to person? If two people exchanged their spirit components, would they both remain the same persons?

      Or perhaps we all share a single, common spirit component (and if we accept that, then by extension perhaps all living things do?), and it is our soul components that differentiate between us one from the other?

      You remind me, it has been a while since I have posted anything on my blog. I will return to the blog soon, after I have dealt with certain looming deadlines.


  5. For information on Islam such as morality and the self, etc, kindly consult the Quranic Foundations and Structure of Muslim Society by Dr. Fazlur Rahman Ansari:

  6. Hi,
    I just found your site and am intrigued by it. Was looking for origin of the cx’ness philosophy connected to BodyTalk – a consciousness based energy medicine – to add to a talk I am giving at our local university next week. As I am often having to justify the benefits of this amazing alternative health care vs the cartesian model of modern medicine I would be very interested in hearing the views of the person who commented with a comparison of traditional doctors practicing trad and holistic medicines. Your views on that as well – if this is something you can share.

    • Hi T., thanks for your comment. I had started to reply to you here in the comment section, but then my rambling thoughts grew into a full-blown Markov Thought Chain. So, I turned it into a new post: Some Thoughts For T.

  7. Buddhists do not believe in a soul but in a consciosness principle that struts and frets (think your Mendelson’s duality) its time upon the stage and then is heard no more after it exhausts itself, either through tedium or trend. (Read John Barth’s theory of exhaustion.) But when you think about it, how could a corporate mind, erroneously called pop-cultured, project or will anything beyond any given six month fad. However, through mediation (will) there’s what’s known as a “transference of consciousness” from one lifetime to the next. Suppossedly these are the enlightened folks that created what’s known as insider trading. The question is thus, do you think, say, a guy like Bernie Madoff will just go quietly off into the sunset, or do you think he’ll be back for another round promoting the next Lady Ga Ga? My best…Frank Pulaski

  8. Hi,

    I’ve been recapitulating much of this inside myself. Another dichotomy that I haven’t seen you raise is the Jungian principles of Anima and Animus. I find these rather insightful.

    Another area of interest, is that of certain Gnostic cults, such as Voudon, where they seem to feel that _spirit_ is an repression of the physical and an escape from sensory riches through what they suggest as transcendental bs. They seem to feel that _soul_ is the Core of un-wholy expansion and awareness.

    Part of me is tempted to dismiss most of this as redundant distinctions and semantic hair-splitting, however, my experience indeed confirms that there are subtle differences that need to be distinguished so as to properly understand the phenomena and thus align progressively and in health.

    Thanks for your blog.

    Peace and respect,


    • Thanks for your comment.

      Now, this is a somewhat tenuous connection, but your thoughts on the Gnostic cults reminded me of some passages I had read earlier this year. I have tracked down the reference: it was in a book by Franklin Merrell-Wolff, entitled Pathways Through To Space. I have the second edition of the book. The part I had in mind is Chapter LXXXVII, which has provocative title The Conflict between Time and Space. It is a little difficult to read, and I think I will need to re-read it several times before it starts to sink in. But given my current understanding of this chapter, I would say that Time maps to the soul, while Space maps to the spirit.

      As an aside, Chapter XLIX (Sleep and Death) is also interesting, since it suggests that lucid dreaming is an important way to prepare for death.


  9. I think the Hebrew word Ruwach actually refers to the spirit whereas Nephesh is more related to the concept of soul. They are reversed in the table. BTW, great post. I really enjoyed it.

    • Hi Jason, just got around to confirming this, and I think you are indeed correct! Check out the translation of Ruwach here, and of Nephesh here. I have updated the table accordingly. Thanks very much!!

      Best regards,


  10. Watchman Nee dedicates the first few chapters of his 3 volume book (The Spiritual Man) to explaining the difference between soul and spirit from a Biblical perspective. You can read it free online at:

    • Thanks, Mooba, that’s of great interest of course. I’ll have to check out those chapters.



  11. Is it possible for one Soul to possess two bodies then search for itself through a lifetime?

  12. Wow.

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