Minds, bodies, spirits, and gods: Does widespread belief in disembodied beings imply that we are inherent dualists?

Michael Barlev, Andrew Shtulman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Belief in beings without physical bodies is prevalent in present and past religions, from all-powerful gods to demonic spirits to guardian angels to immortal souls. Many scholars have explained this prevalence by a quirk in how we conceptualize persons, intuitively representing their minds as separable from their bodies. Infants have both a folk psychology (for representing the mental states of intentional agents) and a folk physics (for representing the properties of objects) but are said to apply only folk psychology to persons. The two modes of construal become integrated with development, but their functional specialization and initial independence purportedly make it natural for people of all ages to entertain beliefs in disembodied minds. We critically evaluate this thesis. We integrate studies of both children and adults on representations of intentional agents, both natural and supernatural, beliefs about the afterlife and souls, mind transfer, body duplication, and body transplantation. We show that representations of minds and bodies are integrated from the start, that conceptions of religious beings as disembodied are not evident in early ages but develop slowly, and that early-acquired conceptions of religious beings as embodied are not revised by theological conceptions of such beings as disembodied. We argue that belief in disembodied beings requires cultural learning-a learned dualism. We conclude by suggesting that disembodied beings may be prevalent not because we are developmentally predisposed to entertain them but because they are counterintuitive and thus have a social transmission advantage. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1007-1021
Number of pages15
JournalPsychological review
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2021
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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