Ethos Education

Doctor Who: Asylum of the Daleks: What is a soul and does it exist?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understanding Christian belief about soul and consciousness.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon what defines their sense of self.
  • Reflect upon the possible existence, purpose and significance of the human soul.
  • Evaluate the following points of view – materialism, idealism and the biblical Christian explanation of the link between soul and body – as they relate to the issue of human consciousness.
  • Synthesise learning by writing a discussion between representatives of three different perspectives on the nature of human consciousness.


Ask the students to write down three things about themselves that they feel help to define who they are. They could be to do with where they were born or grew up, with their family circumstances, with the things they like doing or the things that they are good at doing, or anything else that the student feels is important. You might want to warn them that they may have to reveal what they write down to others before they start writing down their deepest, most embarrassing secrets.

Ask one or two students to share what they have written with the rest of the class. Ask if the revealed facts make that person unique? If those are the things that define who you are, what would it mean if someone else was also able to make exactly the same claims? What else makes a person uniquely themselves? Students may bring up biological issues such as DNA. Ask them what that says about twins, particularly identical twins. What defines twins as people, particularly what defines them as unique and distinct from their twin?

Explain that in today’s lesson you are going to be thinking about the idea of the soul, a key concept in the Christian faith.


Introduce the first clip from the Doctor Who episode Asylum of the Daleks. This is available on the DVD Doctor Who: Series 7 part 1 (BBC DVD, 2012, certificate 12). Click here to buy a copy of the DVD online.

Explain to the students that the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy (Karen Gillan) are on a planet used by the Daleks as an asylum for insane Daleks, survivors of Dalek battles who have been driven mad by their experiences. The planet is protected by a cloud of nanobots which rewrite organic matter, turning anyone who spends too long there into a Dalek-controlled puppet. The Doctor and Amy have both been given wristbands which protect them from the nano-cloud, but Amy has lost hers in a struggle with a Dalekified animated corpse. As you do. Ask the students to pay particular attention to the instructions the Doctor gives Amy to hold off the process of having herself rewritten.

  • Start time:       0.26.11 (beginning of chapter 8 of the DVD)
  • End time:         0.26.52
  • Clip length:      41 seconds

The clip starts with Amy saying, ‘So tell me, what’s going to happen to me?’ It ends with the Doctor saying, ‘Hold onto scared: scared isn’t Dalek’.

Ask the students what the Doctor sees as the essential differences between the person Amy is and what the nano-cloud is trying to turn her into. Draw out that while the rewriting process is targeting her memories and experiences, the Doctor sees her experiences as the key to her retaining control of her own identity.

Introduce a second clip from the episode. In this clip, the Doctor finally comes face to face with Oswin, a shipwrecked human who has been hacking into the Dalek’s computer systems and helping the Doctor. Ask the students to pay particular attention to her response to the discovery that the Doctor helps her to make.

  • Start time: 0.40.46 (beginning of chapter 11 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.45.24
  • Clip length: 4 minutes and 38 seconds

The clip starts with the Doctor saying, ‘I’ve tried hacking into the pathweb and even I couldn’t do it.’ It ends with Oswin saying, ‘Run, you clever boy, and remember’ and the Doctor running through a series of explosions.

Ask the students whether Oswin is right to claim that she is human, or whether the Doctor is right to say that she was human when she crashed, but is now a Dalek. What determines an individual’s identity – is Oswin’s identity determined by her physical form (now Dalek) or by her consciousness which clings to the notion of her humanity?

Explain that for the remainder of the lesson, you are going to look at three contrasting points of view concerning the human soul and consciousness. The modern scientific materialist view, as advanced by Francis Crick, concentrates on the processes of the body and denies the soul. The philosophical view of Descartes concentrates on the human thought process and denies the body. Finally, the Christian view unites body and soul, with an emphasis on their interdependence.

According to materialism, the human being is a machine that has no user, and our feelings of being a unique individual are false; we are simply at the mercy of our bodily and mental functions. This perspective is sometimes described as ‘nothing buttery’, not because of any aversion to dairy spreads, but because it says the mind is nothing but the physical component parts.

Read the following quote from one of the discoverers of DNA, Francis Crick:

‘Your joys, your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their assorted molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ”You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”’ (Taken from Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis)

Ask the class to discuss in groups how they feel about this theory.

  • Do they accept the idea that they are nothing more than a machine?
  • How would they explain their thoughts and emotions?
  • How could they use this theory to explain why they didn’t do last week’s homework?

Introduce the second theory on the nature of being: idealism.

Ask the pupils if anyone has heard the phrase ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think therefore I am’). Do they know what it means? Explain that it was coined by the philosopher Descartes. He doubted the existence of the outside world, but he could not refute his own doubting and therefore deduced he must exist to be thinking these thoughts. For Descartes the world of thoughts and reflection was more important than the material world. For example, Descartes did not believe animals could feel pain as they had no rational thought – he would have made an unlikely advocate for animal rights!

Descartes’ theory – idealism – is opposed to the materialism of Crick. For him the human spirit, particularly reason, is our reality. To claim that we are nothing but machines is a denial of the human experience we share.

Ask the class how they respond to Descartes’ ideas. Which theory do they prefer – materialism or idealism? What shortcomings can they see with either theory?

The third view point is the biblical, Christian perspective. The Bible provides a view of a person as being both body and soul. This is not to say that there are two versions of people. Rather, Christians believe they have a body but that they are the soul. A complete person is an embodied soul – and in heaven Christians believe they will still be embodied souls, although the nature of the heavenly bodies will not necessarily be the same as earthly bodies.

Divide the class into pairs and ask them to look up the following Bible references. What evidence is there in these verses for the Christian view of the importance of both body and soul?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
(Deuteronomy 6:5, NIV)

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.
(1 Corinthians 6:19-20, NIV)

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
(Matthew 10:28, NIV)

I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.
(Romans 12:1, NIV)

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
(Philippians 3:20-21, NIV)

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
(1 Corinthians 15:42-44, NIV)

Allow five-ten minutes for this activity, then ask for feedback. Throughout the Bible reference is made to body and soul – both are described as being part of God’s design for humanity, for this life and for eternity.


As a final exercise, ask the students to write a discussion on the cases of Amy and Oswin between three people, one to represent each of the three perspectives on human consciousness examined in this lesson.


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