Ethos Education

The Zero Theorem: What is a soul?

Leave a comment

Learning Objectives:

  • Understanding Christian beliefs about the soul and the body.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon their responses to an online philosophical game.
  • Analyse a film clip and reflect upon statements made about the nature of the soul.
  • 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 critical assessment of the three theories about human consciousness explored in this lesson.


During the lesson, you will introduce three theories on the relationship between body and soul. 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.

This lesson takes its starting point from the online game Staying Alive, on the Philosophers’ Magazine website The game is concerned with the question of identity, and in particular what part of our existence we consider to be ‘us’, or the soul. This game does not reflect Christian thinking in particular (indeed neither of the options provided for the final question fit comfortably with orthodox Christian belief). Nevertheless, it is still a valuable discussion starter for the class. If you have internet access, start the lesson by letting the students play the game online (it only takes a few minutes). If you do not have internet access in the lesson you could either set the game as homework at the end of a previous lesson, or visit the site thoroughly yourself and recreate it yourself in the classroom.

To play Staying Alive click on the link below:

Once everyone has had the chance to play the game, discuss their progress with the class. You might like to compare the different answers that everyone gave, and whether the feedback indicated that they had consistent views of what part of them had to remain intact for them to have survived the different scenarios.


Introduce the clip from the film The Zero Theorem (Sony, 2014, certificate 15). Click here to buy the DVD online. Explain that throughout the film, Qohen (Christoph Waltz) has been searching for the point of his life, waiting for a mystical phone call which will explain what he is meant to do. His friend Bob (Lucas Hedges) doesn’t believe there is any purpose to life, but nevertheless has come up with a way for Qohen to find some answers. Ask the students to pay particular attention to what Bob has to say about the human soul.

  • Start time:       1.10.17 (in chapter 12 of the DVD)
  • End time:         1.12.41
  • Clip length:      2 minutes and 24 seconds

The clip starts with Qohen sleeping. The first line is Bob saying, ‘All right, prototype soul searching device.’ The last line is both characters asking each other, ‘Did you order pizza?’ Please note that this clip includes one mild instance of swearing.

Ask the students how they would answer Bob’s observation about the many different aboriginal tribes who independently came up with similar theories about the location of the human soul. Where do the students think that the idea of the soul comes from? Draw out that the idea of the soul helps to explain why human beings are different from other forms of life on earth. Many secular thinkers today prefer to talk in terms of human consciousness, rather than using the spiritually loaded phrase ‘soul’.

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 to 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 critical account of all three theories of the soul that they have looked at in this lesson. Each theory should be assessed for its strengths and weaknesses, with the three being compared and contrasted with one another as appropriate. Students may choose to include a final comment indicating their own views on the nature of the soul/human consciousness.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s