Vitalism is:

the theory that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force or principle distinct from purely chemical or physical forces.

Within the universe I wish to create this is somewhat accurate. The bodies of creatures endowed with will (most animals, humans, etc..) are animated by a soul.

If the soul is removed from the body (through the use of magic) the creature in question will die.

I do not mean they will become soulless husks that are still technically alive like in the potterverse. I mean they become braindead and all their vital functions stop.

A bit more information about the soul:

  • The soul is not simply equivalent to consciousness. Though it does encompass what we call consciousness it is further more a physical field flowing within the body.

  • The soul permits certain complex mental processes such as self-awareness, sentience, self-introspection and imagination. In a more discrete way, it also increases (but is not necessary for) the effectiveness of memory, planning and reasoning compared to soulless objects such as computers.

  • The soul is essentially a secondary processing/memory storage unit in the context of the brain. So if you exchanged the souls of two people they'd go insane since the memories/personality traits stored in their brains and the memories/personality traits stored within their new souls would be "incompatible" and contradictory.

  • The soul can be extended outside the body to affect the area around it (moving objects, lighting fires, etc...). This process is called magic.

  • The soul is naturally attracted to the underworld/the afterlife/the spriritual realm/whatever you want to call it. A soul that is not within a body will make its way towards this place.

  • When within a body, the soul is deluded/preoccupied by basic desires like food, sex, sleep and avoiding danger. Because of this, when within a viable host body (one that desires these things) the soul will remain in it.

  • When a body is sufficiently damaged (braindead) the soul regains it's natural attraction to hell/heaven/nirvana/whatever you want to call it and goes there.

  • The soul, though nonmaterial, is definitely physical: it can be measured, collected, tested. It obeys the physical laws of my universe. It is not supernatural.

Now as you can see, I've explained why the soul leaves the body when the latter dies: the soul has no reason to stay and so it leaves. Simple.

However I can not see a way to explain sensibly why forcefully removing the soul would cause the body to die. Afterall:

  • The heart pumps because it is electrically stimulated by firing neurons.

  • Those neurons fire because they are provided with various sets of chemicals.

  • Those chemicals are provided to those neurons by the bloodstream.

  • The bloodstream is maintained by the heart.

  • And so on...

So why would the body suddenly cease to function if the soul, something seemingly completely unnecessary to the body's well-being according to our current medical knowledge, were to leave it?

Note: I am not looking for questions that simply say things like: "In your universe neurons won't fire unless the soul makes them." We know factually that this is not the case.

  • $\begingroup$ How does your souls have effect on the body? If I swap the souls between two people, what happens? $\endgroup$
    – PatJ
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ @PatJ Well you're going to get 2 very mentally unstable individuals. They won't die. But they'll go completely insane. $\endgroup$
    – AngelPray
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ Could you add how the soul affects the body in your question? I mean, you write how it doesn't affect the body but for what it exactly does, we have to guess it. $\endgroup$
    – PatJ
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ @PatJ I've added a extra point explaining how it helps cognition. However it's a bit difficult to explain "what it does" because it doesn't really do anything. It just helps/enables some mental processes and is somehow (though I don't know why, that's the point of the question) the spark of life as in the body cannot survive without being inhabited by a soul. $\endgroup$
    – AngelPray
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ You might find this Question to be on a similar theme. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 7:51

4 Answers 4


This is a fun topic. It's actually very close to the philosophical topic of "compatabalism." Compatabalism is the idea that the idea that "we only have matter and chemistry" and "we have matter, chemistry and *something else" are not actually contradictory. Fortunately, as an author, you can take the easy way out: you know you have souls in your world. You just need an excuse for why science doesn't see them.

The key is metastability. Metastable points are like a ball at the top of a hill which can roll one way or the other. Minute factors near the top of the hill can take this system out of balance and "decide" which way the ball rolls. Life is a very metastable thing. It's a balance on top of a high wire. When you die, you become dirt, which is decidedly stable (along the way you become "meat," which is still not fully stable, but will degrade slowly towards dirt).

One can remain metastable if you have feedback. If, whenever you veer to the left, you lean a little to the right, you can maintain your position on top of this metastable peak. This would be a key place to have your soul influence things. In science, it is believed that all information which can be gathered is gathered through physical means, but what if that wasn't the case. What if "the soul" could gather information by other means. If it could then process the information and convey it physical control mechanisms (like regulatory proteins), they could maintain a metastable balance.

What makes this fit well with the scientific world is that it can hide in the noise. In science, it is always assumed you can't 100% measure everything. There are always error bounds. If you are in a metastable position where the content of those error bounds matters, science cannot predict what happened.

This approach permits many varying degrees of such souls. A soul of an individual who had not submitted themselves to rigorous scientific analysis may have a great deal of freedom to provide information in the from of chemical and physical traces, without ever tipping off science to the fact that this is going on. An individual who has chosen to put themselves to the test, in well controlled experiments, finds that their soul has less freedom to convey information without being detected. The effective bandwidth goes down, limiting what metastabilities it can help control.

The theoretical limit of this could be quantum physics. Quantum physics predicts that there is a certain amount of uncertainty that will be observed in the world. That uncertainty could be under the control of a soul. This is not to say that quantum mechanics proves that a soul exists, but rather than the nature of quantum mechanics provides trillions upon trillions of places to hide a soul from scientific observation, if one existed.

Some creatures may be highly "soulful," dependent on this powerful feedback mechanism to retain their metastability. If they lose their soul, they quickly collapse into stable nothingness. If they depend upon this source of information and feedback to keep their heart from atrophying under the stresses of constant pressure cycles, they could literally die from a broken heart. Others may be more resilient, depending more on physical control loops which don't need soul to keep functioning. Instead, you might only see the loss of their soul in the dullness of their eyes.

Naturally, different cultures would take different approaches. Some might seek to be completely independent of the soul, striving to manage all of their life functions with nothing but chemical and physical feedback loops. Others might strive to be free of this mortal coil, trying to expand their soul to the point where they were completely dependent on it, and indeed their neurons might not even fire without it!

All of this is, of course, based around the idea that you cannot know what is going inside the soul. The act of trying to measure it to the point of understanding it will cause it to flee or break apart instead, losing all the information you sought. Thus, if you wanted the soul to be physical, rather than metaphysical, you can still observe and test it, but you understand that if you push it too hard, you'll lose it.

It's also important that every soul be "unique." That also prevents destructive testing of thousands of souls to learn how they work (genocidal warlords: I'm looking at you!)

  • $\begingroup$ This is actually very interesting, especially the idea that creatures can be more or less soulful/dependant on a soul. However I don't understand exactly why the soul is necessary for any creature. Are you saying that many chemical processes important for the body are subtly maintained by the soul and wouldn't be able to work properly without it or have I misunderstood? And wouldn't souls also be necessary for all lifeforms in that case? I know a lot of fantasy worlds give souls/lifeforce to all lifeforms including plants (and in some case bacteria) but I don't want this to be the case here. $\endgroup$
    – AngelPray
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 19:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AngelPray The full theory is a bit more than I wanted to type here, but you have the basic idea correct. In particular, the soul would have the information needed to rebuild after damage occurred, making it a powerful hedge against entropy. If you run the theory out to its extremes, it shows that any eternal thing must have a soul, but if a thing is not eternal, it merely becomes hard to tell whether it has a soul or not. You can make a pretty decent imitation of such a soul which uses extra energy and replicated storage to emulate a "true" soul. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 19:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thus you could decide that plants don't have "souls," they just have machinery which, on their short lifespan, can emulate a soul acceptably. You could also explore the other direction, suggesting that no person has a soul, but humanity itself does. The beauty of the theory is that its designed to not be falsifiable. It makes it a useless scientific theory, but a very useful lens with which to look into our own souls. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 19:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ An excellent example of one of these emulated souls is our own DNA and our ability to replicate that DNA precisely, with some amazing error correction. As a result, there is a "genetic self" that permeates every one of our cells and does a remarkably imitation of a soul, providing us information about how to make proteins that have been worn out over time, and how to choose where new cells should grow. It could qualify as a "soul" in your book, except that science is getting pretty good at plumbing its secrets, and we're pretty darn confident it's a purely chemical system. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 19:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For artistic flavor, you could have situations which have more color than that. You might have the soul encourage muscle cells to load up on more unstable energy molecules like ATP in preparation for some spontaneous action. That instability might exceed what the cells can handle on their own, but the soul might be able to hold them together like a pilot holding a plane together with spit, bailing wire, hopes, prayers, and raw skill. If the soul leaves in that moment, all that extra unstable energy will go somewhere, potentially degrading the body very rapidly. (maybe even catching fire!) $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 19:35

You've answered your own question, albeit without realizing it. First, let's take a look at what's missing from your analysis of the heartbeat.

The heart beats at the rate it does because of a cluster of cells in the heart itself called the sinus node, the heart's natural pacemaker. The sinus node is, in turn, part of the body's larger autonomic nervous system. This system is responsible for managing all the moment-to-moment functionality of the body that you take for granted or don't think about: breathing, digestion, sexual arousal, the flight-or-fight response, etc. The ANS is rooted in the hypothalamus part of the brain.

Take a closer look at that list of functions. Those are remarkably similar to the things you listed the soul as being "deluded/preoccupied by" while it inhabits a body.

So the soul, in your universe, is equivalent to the hypothalamus (subconscious) part of the brain. This just means the brain of a corpse would be missing a certain part, once the soul departs.

  • $\begingroup$ So beings in my universe don't have a hypothalamus? The issue with this is understanding why the soul would "decide" to delude itself with those survival instincts? The soul doesn't inherantly have any of those desires. It's only when it is within a body that does, that it feels those things. $\endgroup$
    – AngelPray
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ @AngelPray Perhaps the hypothalamus is the part of the brain safest or simplest for the soul to occupy, thus acquiring the basic needs of the body. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ And the hypothalamus doesn't work if it's not inhabited by a soul? Alright, but we know factually that it still would. I'm trying to find an explanation that doesn't go against our current scientific understanding. $\endgroup$
    – AngelPray
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ @AngelPray The problem being that our current understanding of the human body has only one thing it can't explain right now: consciousness. We don't know where it's located or why it exists. I get the impression that you're being argumentative because you don't want to walk away from science, but that's exactly what your question is asking. The only real answer to "Why does magic work this way?" is: "Because I said so." I tried to extrapolate from the info provided a reason for the soul's necessity to a living body. If that isn't sufficient, than I don't know what more to say. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ I had no intention of seeming argumentative. The issue for me is I want something to be in a certain way but I have no way of explaining why it would be that way according to common sense, to science or to the magic system I have devised. And I don't want to change the system to just say "that's the way it is" either. But I can appreciate how the question I asked is difficult and perhaps impossible to answer. $\endgroup$
    – AngelPray
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 18:38

Souls are attracted to mitochondria, the powerplant of the cell.

So mitochondria are the basic building block of cellular respiration. Without functioning mitochondria, your cells die, and when cells die, you die.

So in your universe, perhaps it's not the afterlife that souls are attracted to, but "perfection of form." Heaven/hell/nirvana/whatever are places of great beauty, by whatever criteria souls use. Maybe Heaven (or positive afterlife) exists as rings of perfectly formed ice around the planet, while Hell refers to the super-heated crystalline structure of the planet's core. However souls view the universe, what they're really attracted to are beautiful structures.

Mitochondria have their own ring-shaped DNA in our universe; perhaps in yours the DNA evolved to be perfectly symmetrical, or via some other means souls are attracted to the structure of mitochondrial DNA. The "perfection" of the DNA would be more powerful than Heaven or Hell, and the soul would attach itself to the DNA.

When somebody dies of natural causes, the process breaks down the mitochondria in their cells, and as each mitochondria dies the body loses grip on the soul; at some point, there isn't enough "perfection" left in the body to attract the soul, and it disconnects and leaves. At this point, you may still have a body that can breathe, or stay alive through magical means, but the soul has departed.

So what happens when a soul is ripped from the body? Souls attach themselves to the perfection they percieve, and as such, they've attached themselves to the DNA of Mitochondria. When a soul is torn away from any "perfect" container (a crystal ball or other soul container, for example), the container is destroyed in the process. So, too, are the mitochondrial chromosomes destroyed in the process of tearing away the soul. Because of this, the cellular powerplants shut down, and the body goes into massive cell death.

Another interesting thing this brings up: old Human cultures believed that the liver could be used to foretell the future, and that the liver was the seat of emotions. Others believed the liver to be the source of courage, or power. In your universe, this is literally true! The highest concentration of mitochondria are in the liver, with some cells containing 1-2k in each cell. If there was one part of the body most associated with the soul in your universe, it would be the liver. You could even say that, by attaching to the mitochondrial genome, the cell subtly shifts the function of mitochondria, and therefore you CAN predict the future, or do other divination, with the liver because the souls can communicate with each other and (intentionally or unintentionally) modify the cells they are attached to.

An emotional extrapolation: it's well known that, when a married couple has been together for decades and one dies, the other one seems to have trouble carrying on. Perhaps their souls really have become intertwined, with each soul attracted to their mitochondria as a whole. Perhaps, when one dies violently, or of natural causes, when their soul departs, it literally leaves a "hole" in the other partner's makeup, and perhaps losing the anchor on the other body makes it easier for the survivor's soul to escape.

One final thought on this: Souls are attracted to the DNA of mitochondria, so any life form with a massive amount of mitochondria would attract souls. It would be possible, in your universe, for a soul to be attracted to a mutant animal, who's mutation encourages higher densities of mitochondria in it's cells. This may have repercussions...


The soul is also our subconscious mind, which regulates when we breath, blink, think and (sometimes)act, it does make sense that if "half" of us was yanked out we died, our lungs would be on manual mode, binking too, everything we take for granted about how the body manages itself would be gone, i dont think in any reality anyone would survive if part of them shuts down suddently.

Also it could help to think of them as blueprints for smaller life forms, do we really belive a clump of cells evolved into a human without any help ?(not an actual question)The soul could be what makes us us, mold the body and mind to fight the inhospitable world and tame it, for all i see the soul your discribing is WILL, without any control (Soul) the cells(dumb organic matter) will have no ideia what to do and will act erractously ending up in a somewhat quick death.


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