Soul Doubt

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars dug up an article old article from Cosmic Variance about the physics of the soul. Conclusion: there is nothing in physics that supports the idea of a soul.

Even if you don’t believe that human beings are “simply” collections of atoms evolving and interacting according to rules laid down in the Standard Model of particle physics, most people would grudgingly admit that atoms are part of who we are. If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that “new physics” to interact with the atoms that we do have.

Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham’s razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know.

The point is similar to the one I was making in a recent post about astrology. If there exists a soul, then physics as we know it must be wrong. Yet every experiment we do seems to bear out the current theories and models.

But this will just provoke calls of “science doesn’t know everything” and “materialist!” and other such heckling. Regardless, I think even half of this argument is still damning to the case against life after death.

Perhaps there is a ghost in the machine that exists beyond all ability to detect it. Along with the ghost, we still have the machine. The machine does things, and we can prove them: stores memory, cogitates, experiences emotions and so forth. Almost everything we think of as a human’s mind comes from the machine. Take the machine away and you take the person away.

Perhaps there is some blob of spirit that will carry on, but without the machine what does it do other than simply exist? How is that blob of energy us if it doesn’t maintain our memories, personality thoughts and so forth? And it that blob of spirit isn’t us, how can we say that there is life after death?

  • mikespeir

    I’ve always thought we dismiss the “ghost in the machine” thing a little too carelessly. Of course, we have no good reason to think such an entity exists, so why suppose it does? Still, it’s plausible that the brain is merely a control panel for this “ghost.” It would hardly be surprising that the ghost couldn’t get the body to respond correctly once the control panel was no longer functions properly. That could account for some of the empirical evidence against the soul.

    But I can’t get around the whole problem of memory you mentioned. We can demonstrate that our memories reside in the physical brain. Those memories are essential to who we are as personalities. So we are pretty much driven to conclude that when the physical brain dies the personality dies with it. Sure, we could suggest, as some apologists have tried, that the soul keeps a “backup” copy of the memories so that the personality can survive death. There’s no good reason to inject such a notion into the discussion, though.

    • trj

      I think most theists believe the brain to be merely a conduit for the soul or spirit or whatever you want to call it (I’ll just call it spirit). The spirit is what actually holds our memories, our personality, everything that defines us intellectually and emotionally. In case of brain damage the conduit doesn’t work properly, but the spirit is intact.

      Of course, what this says is that there is necessarily a physical interaction between our brains and spirits. The spirit influences the atoms in our brains in a physical way. Accordingly, being a physical phenomenon, we should therefore be able to detect this interaction, yet we don’t. I can see only two options:

      1) We’re talking about a whole new realm of physics with forces outside anything we know. It seems strange that we’ve never seen any hint of this. It’s also strange this new physics only seems to work on (human) brain matter and not any other kind of physical matter.

      2) There’s no new physics. There’s no spirit, and the brain is the actual repository for our identities.

      • vasaroti

        Anyone who has watched a parent age or a child grow up should have no illusions about the permanence of personality and identity. This is just one reason why I oppose long or death sentences for teen murderers. Within a few years, or by the time the state gets around to executing the young criminal, that is literally no longer the same person.

        • Brian K

          After ten years on death row, the person may be even more damaged. :(

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Still, it’s plausible that the brain is merely a control panel for this “ghost.”

      It only seems plausible if one approaches it as a new question about which no evidence has been gathered. As you yourself point out, if one is actually familiar with the finding of neuroscience, then it no longer seems plausible. We know that various mental functions – memory, perception, cognition – can be attributed to various areas of the brain. This is not consistent with any ‘conduit’ explanation.

  • vasaroti

    Ugh. You made me think of Deepak Chopra, not a good way to start the morning.

    However, with the Halloween season upon us, now is the right time to discuss souls and their alleged survival. I confess I may watch some ghost-hunter nonsense, if the setting is sufficiently scenic. I often enjoy the “reveal” when they swear that they hear a message in electronic noise that contains zero phonemes, and think they are communicating with random snippets of commercial voice traffic. I used to have a turntable that would blurt out CB chatter whilst I was playing a symphony.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Speaking of absurdity, check out the new blog site Skeptic Ink. Here’s a sample post: Dancing in a Dream—How Buddhism Relates to Quantum Mechanics
    It’s the Dancing Wu Li Masters, related in a completely gullible fashion. Someone should be embarrassed. They should also get around to approving the comments I placed there yesterday.

    • Yoav

      They probably have your comments meditating so they can have their chakras unblocked and they can ascend to the spiritual plain of their site.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    This is relevant: What is Substance Dualism

  • Len
  • David Evans

    I think it’s possible to have a model of a soul which doesn’t contradict what we know of the brain. Suppose in a non-physical realm (or even a physical realm of a different sort) there is a set of particles which are tied to the particles of our brain by something like quantum entanglement. And suppose someone (God, the Lords of Karma, or whoever) takes and stores regular backups of that set. The, after we die, that someone can edit the backups, keeping all the memories from times when we were functioning well and discarding any affected by brain damage or dementia, and copy the result into a new improved body. Just like copying the state of an old computer into a new one.

    Of course this requires supernatural (from our point of view) intervention, but the soul is a supernatural concept anyway. My point is that it would not necessarily have been detected by any experiments we have so far made.

    • vorjack

      1.) I think you’re coming dangerously close to Frank Tipler’s “we’re all just programs in Gods supercomputer” argument.

      2.) I am shaped as much by the bad times as the good. My father’s mental illnesses are as much a part of his personality as the parts that are “functioning well.” I am a very different person now than when I was 15, 20, 25 and so on. Exactly how are you going to capture all of that and still have the new version be “me”? But if it’s not “me,” why should I care?

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Suppose in a non-physical realm (or even a physical realm of a different sort) there is a set of particles which are tied to the particles of our brain by something like quantum entanglement.

      You lost me already. Quantum entanglement is a physical property of particles. So you are saying “suppose it is just like a material property, but is immaterial.”
      .
      Other than that, Occam’s razor. What you propose does not explain our observations any better than the prevailing scientific/materialistic explanation, but it is a lot more complicated.

  • kessy_athena

    Quantum mechanics, you keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

    It seems to me that some people have a really exaggerated picture of the state of neuroscience and particle physics. While neuroscience has made great strides, realistically, we’re really still groping in the dark in a lot of ways. Correlating activation of different brain areas with different mental states is *not* the same as providing a predictive model that may provide some insight into the causation of these things. The Standard Model is in many ways highly unsatisfactory in its current state, not least because it’s a very ad hoc collection of equations and models without much in the way of unifying principles. The notion that we understand how the brain functions down to the atomic scale with sufficient precision to definitively rule out any other possible interactions at work beyond what we currently know is just silly. There’s a massive difference between studying particles in an accelerator and in a biological brain.

    I can say with certainty that no one here ( including me) really understands quantum mechanics, because no one anywhere understands it. Trying to understand it will break your brain, because it broke Einstein’s brain. QM is so profoundly weird that it completely overturns the conventional notions of even such basic ideas as what it means to exist. The physics community has largely given up trying to understand, and simply takes the view that the math gives you the right answers, so it doesn’t matter that much what the math actually represents.

    Saying that there can’t be new physics because we’d know about it if there were is simply rehashing the Kelvin fallacy. In the late 19th century, Lord Kelvin is reputed to have advised bright young science students not to go into physics, because all that remained was to work out a few minor details. As silly as it sounds in retrospect, from the perspective of the time, can you really blame him for not realizing that something as simple as the fact that applying mechanical forces to certain materials causes an electric charge would lead to completely overturning our notions of reality?

    It seems to me that some people are still clinging to the notion of a well determined universe that is mostly well understood. A universe that definitely *is* a certain way. That’s just not the universe we live in.

    • Norm

      Well said,thats why when we die and enter the spiritual realm a lot of people will be surprised at their new reality.Things we thought were absolute are now only relative to the physical world and no longer of any significance.

      • trj

        Things in the physical world will no longer be of any significance – that much you’ve got right.

      • Jabster

        Well said, that’s why when we die and enter the doughnut realm a lot of people will be surprised at their new roundness. Things we thought were somewhat yummy are now only relative to the coating of sugar and no longer of any calorific value.

        • mikespeir

          What’s the name of this religion of yours, and where do I sign up?

          • Jabster

            Five Day Jammists and not to be confused with the Eight Day Custardists …

            • mikespeir

              I shall henceforth have nothing to do with those hellbait Custardists!

    • trj

      Ah yes, quantum mechanics – the modern hiding place of gods and souls and vibrating water and healing energies and telepathy and many other things people really want to be true but can’t back up in any way whatsoever. And therefore also a natural refuge for ideas about consciousness which involves some spiritual or non-material component – despite that QM is strictly a material theory.

      To me, whenever someone refers to QM as an explanation for something supernatural I don’t see it as an attempt at explanation but at obfuscation. It’s a wave of the hand, a catch-all for any kind of woo: “Oh, quantum mechanics is just so weird, and nobody understands it. It’s really profound and strange, so any outlandish claim I make can be accommodated by QM’s mystical nature.”

      There’s still undiscovered physics and surprising discoveries to be made, but using this as an argument to vindicate supernatural phenomena, which have never stood up to scrutiny anyway, seems disingenuous to me.

      • kessy_athena

        Which is exactly why I was making no such claim. QM does not prove the existence of spirits or any other such thing. I was pointing out that claiming that QM proves the nonexistence of such things is equally absurd. Spirits may be a quantum phenomena, may be related to something else entirely, or may not exist at all. There’s simply no way to know at our current level of knowledge – not least because terms like spirit are still so vague. The first step in properly investigating a new topic is developing rigorous definitions of your terms – which is a decidedly non trivial task.

        Incidentally, I’m quite curious what definition of “strictly material” you use that includes QM. The only one I can think of would be, “Something that appears in a physics textbook.” Describing QM as mystical isn’t an exaggeration at all. (That doesn’t mean it has any connection to assorted occult ideas.)

        • Reginald Selkirk

          I was pointing out that claiming that QM proves the nonexistence of such things is equally absurd.

          Mmm-hmmm. And can you please point to just one example of someone here doing that?

          Describing QM as mystical isn’t an exaggeration at all. (That doesn’t mean it has any connection to assorted occult ideas.)

          Which definition of mystical are you using?

          Merriam-Webster:
          1 a : having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence (the mystical food of the sacrament)

          That gets us nowhere unless we have a definition for spiritual, which is in itself a very ambiguous word.

          b : involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality (the mystical experience of the Inner Light)

          No good, that involves the occult. Perhaps the word you are looking for is not mystical but mysterious.

          • kessy_athena

            My object is specifically to arguing that the existence of the soul is definitively ruled out by our current understanding of physics. For example, from the quotation in Vorjack’s original post,

            “… If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model…. Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments.”

            This contains a ton of assumptions that I find to be unjustified. Until you have a rigorous definition of what exactly you think a soul is, you can’t say whether or not it can be accommodated by current physics. Even if it can’t, there’s no way to tell how radical the new physics required would be until you’ve actually worked out what they are. For example, if we posit a model for the soul that involves a set of new particles that only interact with normal matter via the weak force and interact amongst themselves by a force or forces which are highly analogous to the other known forces, this wouldn’t be radical at all. It would actually fall well within the parameters of some of the most popular models for dark matter.

            I have no problem using “mysterious” instead of “mystical,” however, it seems to me that you’re overlooking that rather important “or” in the Merriam-Webster definition. “Having a reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence,” seems like an excellent description of QM to me. Unless you consider the Schrodinger equation to be obvious to the intelligence. ;)

            • Jabster

              “This contains a ton of assumptions that I find to be unjustified. Until you have a rigorous definition of what exactly you think a soul is, you can’t say whether or not it can be accommodated by current physics.”

              You can pretty much insert any mumbo-jumbo word instead of soul here.

              “Even if it can’t, there’s no way to tell how radical the new physics required would be until you’ve actually worked out what they are.”

              See above.

              “For example, if we posit a model for the soul that involves a set of new particles that only interact with normal matter via the weak force and interact amongst themselves by a force or forces which are highly analogous to the other known forces, this wouldn’t be radical at all. It would actually fall well within the parameters of some of the most popular models for dark matter.”

              See above, again.

              I’m sorry but what you seem to be saying is that we don’t know everything therefore what we may know in the future could show that I what I *want* to believe is true could be true.

              The fact is you can use your line of argument about pretty much anything, as long as you care not to define it very well, and for as long as you wish to.

              What sort of argument is I believe there’s a soul but I can’t even begin to define what that means?

            • kessy_athena

              What sort of an argument is I believe there’s definitely no such thing as a soul, but I can’t even begin to define what that means?

              And how do any of your arguments apply any differently to wanting to believe there’s no such thing as a soul then to wanting to believe there is a soul? I don’t particularly want to believe either one. My personal intuition is that there probably is something at least vaguely analogous to the idea of a soul, but I could easily be wrong. And if I find out that I am wrong, I will happily change my mind, since I’ll have learned something.

              Claiming that the existence of a soul would require a complete rewrite of physics is a positive claim, and without a proper definition of what a soul is, it’s every bit as unfalsifiable as claiming that souls definitely exist, and therefore just as much woo.

              If you’re looking for certainty, the only place you’re going to find it is in arbitrarily deciding to be certain – in other words in faith. Choosing to believe in a “scientific” dogma as How Things Are is every bit as much faith as choosing to believe in a religious dogma.

            • Jabster

              “What sort of an argument is I believe there’s definitely no such thing as a soul, but I can’t even begin to define what that means?

              And how do any of your arguments apply any differently to wanting to believe there’s no such thing as a soul then to wanting to believe there is a soul?”

              That doesn’t even make sense … you’re the one saying that a soul may exist yet you freely admit that you can’t define what it is. Don’t you see the problem with that?

              “Choosing to believe in a “scientific” dogma as How Things Are is every bit as much faith as choosing to believe in a religious dogma.”

              So you’re saying that believing in say evolution has every bit as much faith as believing in young Earth creationism, because that’s what it sounds like you just said?

            • kessy_athena

              Aaaaand you completely miss the point. Dogmatic thinking is not about what you think, but how you think about it. Substituting one dogma for another isn’t really making progress, even if your new dogma is more factual then your old one. You’re still essentially saying that, “If I don’t understand it, it can’t possibly exist.” Believing in evolution as an inflexible article of faith is as bad as believing in young Earth creationism as an inflexible article of faith, because science inevitably marches on, and any rigidly held belief will at seem point come to be silly.

              You also seem to be confusing something that *hasn’t* been rigorously defined with something that *can’t* be defined at all. There’s a difference. The former is simply a statement about the current state of affairs. The latter is (a rather silly) statement about the inherent nature of something.

              I am not arguing positively that souls do exist, I am arguing negatively that the case that souls definitely don’t exist is far from being made. It is neither necessary nor particularly constructive to take an attitude that you have to take a position that yes, X is definitely real or that no, X definitely doesn’t exist. The real world is far more nuanced, uncertain, and confusing then that.

            • Jabster

              “So you’re saying that believing in say evolution has every bit as much faith as believing in young Earth creationism, because that’s what it sounds like you just said?”

              Well that’s a yes then …

              “I am not arguing positively that souls do exist, I am arguing negatively that the case that souls definitely don’t exist is far from being made.”

              … and I’m arguing (using the same logic you’ve used in this thread again and again) a tri-field meter may be able to detect ghosts yet as that doesn’t fall within in your version of woo then somehow, not that you can explain why, doesn’t count.

            • kessy_athena

              No, Jabster, that’s not a yes. Faith or irrationality are not about what you believe, but how you believe it. How am I not making this clear to you? I assume you’ve heard the story about the woman who was being treated for delusions by her psychologist because she believed that the FBI was following her everywhere, except that it turned out that the FBI really was following her? 500 years ago, it would have been entirely rational to believe in young Earth creationism, based on what was known at the time. And clearly a large number of fundamentalist christians at that time believed in a way that is every bit as irrational as their counterparts today. In the same way just because it’s rational to believe in evolution today does not mean that everyone who believes in evolution is doing so in a rational manner. If you adopt evolution (or anything else) as an inflexible dogma, that is irrational thinking.

        • trj

          My point was simply that QM has a tendency to attract woo peddlers. Or, if you like, people who think QM is mystical (as opposed to simply mysterious). Which was also the reason I stressed it’s a material theory. In this regard it’s no different from any other physical theory, except the woo peddlers (among them various theists) tend to ascribe QM pseudo-magical abilities, which they don’t for most other areas of physics.

          • kessy_athena

            That’s true that QM does attract woo, but so do other fields. I’m thinking of self styled “ghost hunters” running around in the dark with “tri-field meters” that in reality are little more then toy radios with fancy lights and whistles that pick up nothing more then background EM noise. And let’s not even go near Egyptology… LOL

            • Jabster

              … and how do you know that these “tri-field meters” aren’t using part of physics that we are yet to understand?

              “For example, if we posit a model for a ghost involves a set of new particles that only interact with normal matter via the weak force, which a tri-field meter can detect, and interact amongst themselves by a force or forces which are highly analogous to the other known forces, this wouldn’t be radical at all. It would actually fall well within the parameters of some of the most popular models for dark matter.”

            • kessy_athena

              Because I know what a tri-field meter actually *is*. It measures radio frequency EM radiation. In other words it picks up noise from anything that uses AC power or RF. They’re useful if you’re looking for electronic interference, not so much if you’re looking for ghosts.

            • Jabster

              No that’s what current physics says it is … how do you know what we discover in the future.

              Remember this has been your line of argument for the possibility of a soul.

            • kessy_athena

              General Relativity didn’t make planets suddenly stop following elliptical orbits, Quantum Mechanics didn’t make changing electric fields suddenly stop producing a magnetic field, and future physics won’t make a tri-field meter be anything other then a toy radio.

            • Jabster

              … but how do you know that?

              You seem to make somewhat conditional statements on what physics may or may not discover depending on whether it agrees with what you wish/hope is true.

              “Well, like they say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. Just because an idea is embraced by a bunch of crazy fluffybunnies doesn’t automatically mean it’s completely wrong.”

              That is your quote isn’t it – so why doesn’t it apply in this case?

            • kessy_athena

              (Sigh) Still desperately searching for absolute certainty, are you? As I said before, the only place you’re going to find that is in your own imagination. You aren’t going to be able to banish the uncertainties of this universe by completely ignoring any sense of nuance to produce absurd results.

            • Jabster

              Which does at all answer the question of why you apply your ‘logic’ conditionally dependent or what you hope/wish is true.

            • kessy_athena

              Which is predicated on the assumption that I hope or wish anything about the existence or not of the soul. I really don’t care. Things are the way they are, I just want to understand what’s going on better.

            • Jabster

              Which doesn’t answer the question again so I’ll put it bluntly for you …

              Why is your version of woo more rational/believable than another person’s version of woo?

            • kessy_athena

              And what exactly do you think “my version of woo” is?

              Since you seem to be insisting on a detailed run down on how EMF meters are different from human brains, well, here you go.

              An EMF meter is a fairly simple electronic device – essentially a circuit with a few dozen components. For example, see the circuit diagram here: http://www.zen22142.zen.co.uk/Circuits/Testgear/emmeter.htm
              They are devices created by humans, based on principles that have been extensively studied for a century and a half, with fairly simply behaviors that are pretty well understood and extensively documented.

              A human brain is none of these things. It is one of the most complex structures in nature that we know of. It has something like 80 to 120 billion neurons. It operates on principles that are not well understood, that is still the subject of leading edge research. It exhibits extremely complex behaviors, many of which are still quite mysterious. We do not understand how the brain works, we do not really know what consciousness even is, and we do not know how those two relate to each other.

              So in short, asking, “If souls might exist, then why wouldn’t trifield meters be able to detect ghosts?” Is rather like asking, “If there could be habital planets in other solar systems, they why couldn’t Earth’s twin planet exist on the opposite side of the sun?” The one in no way follows from the other.

            • Jabster

              “So in short, asking, “If souls might exist, then why wouldn’t trifield meters be able to detect ghosts?” Is rather like asking, “If there could be habital planets in other solar systems, they why couldn’t Earth’s twin planet exist on the opposite side of the sun?” The one in no way follows from the other.”

              No it’s not … you argument is science doesn’t know everything, we may discover new things in the future especially with all the weird quantum stuff therefore souls may exist – we just can’t know. I’m using the same argument for a tri-field meter and ghosts.

              So what that you *think* you know how it works maybe some quantum thing-a-ma-jiggly means that it really does work – maybe the blind squirrel got this one right?

            • kessy_athena

              You are committing the logical fallacy of taking the proposition that science doesn’t know everything to imply that science doesn’t know anything, which is silly. All I can do is restate that you aren’t going to be able to banish the uncertainties of this universe by completely ignoring any sense of nuance to produce absurd results. I think we’ve gone from blind squirrels to a dog with a bone.

            • Jabster

              “You are committing the logical fallacy of taking the proposition that science doesn’t know everything to imply that science doesn’t know anything, which is silly.”

              lol … you’re the one claiming that science doesn’t know everything therefore souls may exist yet at the same time claiming that in a different case science is spot on.

              “All I can do is restate that you aren’t going to be able to banish the uncertainties of this universe by completely ignoring any sense of nuance to produce absurd results.”

              Yes off course but those uncertainties only count when you want them to don’t they.

              “I think we’ve gone from blind squirrels to a dog with a bone.”

              No, I just find it amusing when people put forward one argument in support of X and then say the same argument is totally wrong for Y. Strange thing is they can never quite explain why that should be …

            • kessy_athena

              So you’re saying that you think that science does know everything?

              So you’re saying that you honestly see no difference between postulating currently unknown phenomena for the human brain and for a tri-field meter?

            • Jabster

              I see no difference in playing the quantum woo card to support one woo position to playing it to support a different woo position.

              You obvious feel that quantum woo should only be used in support of a sub-set of general woo.

            • kessy_athena

              So now you’re saying that for an argument to be valid, it has to be equally applicable to all situations in the entire universe? Is it just me or does that sound suspiciously like saying that the Bible is applicable to all questions in life? In fact, that sounds like a pretty decent description of dogma. And I have news for you, Jabster – all dogma is woo, by definition. You may have rejected the trappings of christian belief, but you seem to be embracing the mindset wholeheartedly.

            • Jabster

              “Is it just me or does that sound suspiciously like saying that the Bible is applicable to all questions in life?”

              No, it’s just you …

            • kessy_athena

              You’ll forgive me if I don’t take your word for it. :P

            • Jabster

              … well, that’s up to you.

  • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

    I can’t help but think a lot of people are putting far too much thought into this. Of course a soul doesn’t relate in any way to the physical realm or the Standard Model: it’s a supernatural entity created by a bigger supernatural entity who can (according to those who believe in it) do whatever it likes whenever it likes. Why would we even begin to look at the material universe’s rules for an argument about whether or not such a thing exists? Supernatural things, by their nature, don’t correspond to or obey natural laws. You don’t have to posit a new realm of reality or a new mode of physics, you just have to say “god did it”.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      People used to say “God did it” to explain human illness, and the orbits of the planets, and chemical reactions.

      • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

        Yes, I know, but we actually know planets and illnesses exist. They’re part of nature. We’re talking about something supernatural made by something else supernatural. I think you’re misunderstanding my point – I never said this was a good excuse, but it’s pretty much all a theist ever needs to say because that’s the nature of the supernatural.

    • trj

      It’s an inescapable fact that our brains control our behavior, even if it’s merely a conduit to the soul, as theists claim.

      If the brain is a conduit then the supernatural realm is necessarily having a physical effect on it. In theory this effect should be measurable – anything else would be illogical. You can’t have a physical influence that isn’t physically measurable.

      Theists can therefore at most claim that we simply haven’t detected this influence yet. They can’t logically claim it is strictly imperceptible in our physical realm (although they often claim just that anyway). It is with this basis in mind that we can begin to have a more fruitful discussion of how the influence occurs – what possible physical structures must exist in the brain to make it a conduit, what kind of physical forces (and energy levels) are we’re talking about, etc. Or, it is at this point one decides to disregard the conduit idea as unsupported hogwash and wishful thinking. But if you do subscribe to the conduit idea you can’t escape the logic that there has to be some physics involved.

      • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

        See, this is what I’m talking about. You guys grew up a little too much to understand the mindset that a supernatural omnipotent thing can do or be whatever it wants and doesn’t have to follow any form of logic or physical law.

        “If the brain is a conduit then the supernatural realm is necessarily having a physical effect on it”
        Not if god doesn’t feel like it. It’s that simple.

        “But if you do subscribe to the conduit idea you can’t escape the logic that there has to be some physics involved.”
        If you subscribe to the idea that an all-powerful being created the universe and all eternal souls in it, you don’t have to acknowledge logic or physics at all.

        This is really simple: it’s fucking magic. It might be interesting to hypothesise and speculate about the physical properties of a soul, but the idea that souls are a non-starter because they don’t conform to real-world physics is completely missing the point and is kind of an asinine argument. It’s like trying to argue people who believe in dragons have got to demonstrate the biological mechanism which prevents them all dying of lung cancer.

        • kessy_athena

          Well, like they say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. Just because an idea is embraced by a bunch of crazy fluffybunnies doesn’t automatically mean it’s completely wrong.

          • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

            It doesn’t mean the idea is automatically wrong, but it does mean their foundation for having that idea is unsupportable and it cannot be used to extrapolate anything remotely useful. Just because a blind squirrel can find a nut doesn’t mean you should ask it to guide you across the street. If theists have magically guessed at the existence of things for which there is no evidence and cannot be evidence by their nature, all that makes them is good guessers.

            • kessy_athena

              If you’re primarily concerned about opposing certain groups of people, you’re talking politics, not science. Personally, I think it’s best to try to keep the two of them separate.

            • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

              That has nothing to do with what I said. Are you replying to the wrong person here? I’m not talking about politics or opposing anyone, I’m talking about knowledge, and you can’t get knowledge by guessing. Even if you guess right, you just guessed, you did not arrive at the knowledge through any framework that allows you to reach further knowledge.

            • kessy_athena

              You do recall that a hypothesis is an educated guess, right? Guessing is an integral part of the scientific process. If you only ever sail between the ports you already know and never strike out into the unknown, you’ll never discover new lands.

              My impression so far has been that you seem to be primarily concerned with illustrating the irrationality of some of the people you disagree with. That’s a political argument, not a scientific one. Not that I particularly take issue with that political argument, but that’s that and this is this.

            • blotonthelandscape

              A scientific hypothesis is a testable statement. Guesses (educated or otherwise) need not be testable, so do not qualify as a scientific hypothesis, and as a result of this difference do not rank as highly when it comes to statements about reality. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothesis.

            • kessy_athena

              Point taken, Blot. Can we agree that an hypothesis is a type of guess?

        • trj

          Well, if you believe your god can create a square circle or can make 2+2 equal 5, then yes, you obviously have no consideration for logic. I presume most theists, in so far as they’ve given this any thought at all, believe God can effortlessly circumvent logic.

          In my mind this reeks of denial. The kind of paradoxes this creates (like: can God create a rock so heavy he can’t lift it?) is a strong hint that your god assumptions are fatally flawed.

          Having a discussion based on rational arguments with these people is impossible since they’ll just default to “God can do anything”, no matter how illogical or far-fetched the scenario. More honest theists will grant that logic dictates that physical effects must have certain physical attributes, such as being physically measurable. I suppose one could have a “brain conduit” discussion with them, although in practice I seriously doubt it’s worth the time. I don’t believe the theist will have anything substantial to offer, and the atheist doesn’t even share the theist’s premises of mind duality to begin with.

          No, let’s leave this one for science to find out (as usual). At some point I believe we’ll have a functioning, capable synthetic mind. While this won’t refute the concept of the soul it’ll at least demonstrate that mundane physical processes are sufficient for a mind’s existence.

          • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

            There you go again, expecting theists who believe in an all-powerful superbeing capable of doing anything to put limits on it, like logic. Why would that do that? I don’t know how to explain it any more simply: it’s fucking magic. Why are you leaving it to science to find out the magical properties of a magical thing made by a magical being?

            “Having a discussion based on rational arguments with these people is impossible since they’ll just default to “God can do anything”, no matter how illogical or far-fetched the scenario.”

            No shit. That’s my entire point. This post and many replies seem to be cheerleading the concept of having sunk the theist’s battleship that is the soul, but so many seem to miss the fact that the theist (‘honest’ or otherwise) doesn’t have to give a crap because they believe in a magic man that walks on water.

            • trj

              I wasn’t suggesting science will build a mind to find out it’s magical properties; on the contrary I was suggesting science will build a mind that works by ordinary physics, thereby showing magic to be unnecessary.

              And I’m well aware that most theists won’t have an honest rational discussion. The underlying motive for my posts was in fact to illustrate this, by showing how most of them resort to “goddidit” whenever it’s convenient, despite it being logically dishonest. It’s a point that bears repeating, wouldn’t you say?

            • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

              You’re still not really getting what I’m saying even though you agree with it, and what’s all the more confusing is you seem to be trying to disagree with me at the same time. We may be somewhat miscommunicating here.

              The point I’m trying to make is that no matter what rationale you come up with, it can be so easily dismissed with “god did it anyway” that it doesn’t seem worthwhile as an argument against theists, whether or not they are intellectually honest. I don’t think it is intellectually dishonest to proclaim a belief in a being that can suspend the laws of physics to make the sun stand still and then also believe that this being can create a substance that has no physical properties and does not interact with the material universe but at the same time is our spiritual essence. That’s what being omnipotent is all about. You can argue about whether or not an omnipotent being can achieve logical impossibilities, but all they have to say, if they believe in it, is “yes he can”. Then you can’t really argue with them about science finding out exactly how a brain functions and demonstrating it can do it without being a god. All you’re doing now is showing off your knowledge of physics and not impressing anyone who thinks god made physics and he can break it.

              And I know you weren’t suggesting science will build a mind to find its magical properties – my point is that theists will argue those magical properties you don’t demonstrate (that they believe in and are conveniently vague) cannot be demonstrated, so even if it works 100% as a functioning mind, you can’t prove humans don’t have souls because those magical properties are ineffable and unrelated to the function of the mind. You can take a horse to water, but you prevent it from believing the invisible, intangible, non-interacting Loch Ness Monster is possibly going to eat it if it takes a drink.

    • Kodie

      I tried to decide whether to come up front and say this, but I used to believe souls (and ghosts and a few other things) MAY BE POSSIBLE in a scientific context. I wasn’t raised with religions so I didn’t always know what things belonged in the same basket together. In the question people often ask “do you believe in ghosts”? of course some people say “oh my yes” and some people say “no, that’s trash” and for a long time, I would think but why not? Not that I believed (or understood very well) in a spirit in relation to the supernatural, but that some things were mysterious, and in some cases to some people, evident. I believed that if there was something to that, science would discover what it was, and if it had anything to do with Jesus or heaven or whatever, I already understood it to be false.

      I think I said this a few weeks ago about astrology (I might not have actually come out and posted my thoughts, but hey) – I think most people are about as rational as they know how to be and still have so little knowledge about stuff like stars that properties of stars like fortune-telling seem to have some scientific basis. I didn’t say they were smart or right, but the less you know, the weirder things associate with actual science because they seem to belong in the same basket. And not a Jesus basket. How do stars work? How does the brain work? Being “psychic” seems like it could be a naturalistic property of the brain’s mysterious workings, dream analysis, shit like chakras alignment. I know that sounds berserk, but people don’t really think about it and neither did I. No, I don’t think it’s so easy to dismiss souls because souls are always supernatural. I don’t think that makes a natural assumption for the atheist skeptic, depending on what they know.

      Once it was pointed out to me that a spiritual entity would lack the physical means to see, scream, move objects, and actually think with its brain that’s not there, I was definitely off the fence. It’s embarrassing that I didn’t see it that way, but you can’t just say “shut it down, it’s wiggy.” I had to be confronted with how ridiculous it is within the context of science where I already allowed it a contingent plausibility. It had no plausibility in the supernatural realm because I don’t believe any of that shit.

      Does that make any sense?

      • DMG

        Makes good sense to me.

        It reminds me of the opening to The Demon-Haunted World, where Sagan describes his encounter with the chauffeur. The man has so much curiosity, and so many pressing questions about “science” like UFOs, or Atlantis, or ESP…

        Unless you have some background in the topic at hand, it’s hard for anyone to tell the difference between two people with fancy titles or confident voices saying, “I have spent years studying , and have discovered .” Our first response, charitably enough, is to take them at their word, and we’re likely to continue doing so as long as they keep saying things we like hearing.

        So yeah, unless there’s some aspect of “the soul” that bears unpleasantly on our day-to-day life, there’s not much cause for anyone to seriously question it or think deeply about its implications.

        • DMG

          Bah, no auto-escaping of angle brackets?

          That should have been:
          “I have spent years studying [subject outside of day-to-day experience], and have discovered [surprising conclusion that raises exciting possibilities]“

        • Kodie

          That, and for all we never talked about religion in the house, we sure watched the shit out of In Search Of….

  • Keulan

    This essay explains how the soul almost certainly doesn’t exist: http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/ghost.html

  • DMG

    I think the best evidence against the existence of souls comes from people whose personalities have been radically altered following an injury or surgery, even in some cases split into two distinct individuals with separate likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams. Not the same person with a disability or a new outlook (as may be suggested by the conduit/control panel model), but fully functional, new & unique individual.

    There are three answers a believer in the soul might offer:
    1. The change in the brain (or event that caused it) changes the soul itself. This is consistent with the evidence, but if I can become someone completely different through a non-lethal injury, why would I expect my sense of self to survive a lethal one?

    2. A new soul, or second soul, inhabits the body after the injury. This causes some theological issues, since most conventions hold that we are only imbued with a soul upon creation, so where did this second soul come from? One could claim it’s a demon, but that seems most uncharitable to a good.person just trying to rebuild their life following an injury or illness. You could sweep it under the rug with a “god works in mysterious ways,” but if you’re willing to abdicate curiosity to that degree then we probably don’t have much to talk about. ;)

    3. The new personality is an illusion created by the malfunctioning brain, and does not represent a new or changed soul. But if the brain can create a personality and identity all on its own, so convincing that we can’t tell the difference, then we can explain all identity with this phenomenon, without need to bring souls into the discussion at all. :)

    • kessy_athena

      There is no you, no ego. All things are empty and without a self. That is, unreal, without substance or real existence. This is one of the most basic tenets of Buddhism, and in no way contradicts belief in a soul (though perhaps not quite in the way christians typically think of it) or in reincarnation. The self is not the same as a soul. A sense of identity is simply a psychological construct, and is a fleeting and ephemeral thing. We tend to think of very superficial things when talking about a self or identity. We tend to think that the conscious mind is all we are. This is simply not true. The conscious mind is simply that facet that happens to be catching the light at the moment. We are both more and less then such a view allows. We all have within us the capacity to be all sorts of things, across the entire range of human experience. We all have the capacity to be people with completely different ideas, beliefs, tastes, tendencies, memories, and preferences. We all have the capacity to be monsters and saints, geniuses and fools, leaders and followers. none of this tells you anything at all about the nature of consciousness, or about what happens to us when we die.

      • DMG

        So what is it that allegedly survives our deaths, if it has none of our “psychological constructs” like a sense of identity, personality, hopes, memories, etc? In what sense is it “us”?

        • kessy_athena

          I don’t think I’m really competent to answer that. Sorry, but I’m still a student myself, and don’t completely understand all the concepts. At least not to a degree that I can explain them verbally in an intelligible fashion. If you’re really curious, I’d suggest you try reading up on Buddhism.

          • DMG

            Allow me to offer the alternative hypothesis that the soul is really a “wizzle-wozzle,” which is like a soul except that it doesn’t have any of the properties traditionally ascribed to souls. It’s actually kind of complicated so you might first want to read up on my religion of Wizzle-Woozlism to get the idea.

            Defining terms so vaguely that they can’s be discussed coherently – for or against – outside of a the context of a particular relgious doctrine is fun! :D

            • kessy_athena

              Well, unlike some people, I have no problem admitting that there are things I don’t understand and I feel no need to try to force everything in the universe to conform to my pre-existing ideas.

            • DMG

              @kessy_athena:
              You’re forcing the universe to conform to your pre-existing idea that something called a “soul” exists. We’re just questioning that assumption.

              Nice attempt at an ad-hominem, but you’ll note that nobody in this thread has actually claimed that there is nothing they don’t understand. Quite the opposite, in fact. But lacking a complete understanding of everything is no reason to say, “well, I’d better believe in unicorns and fairies until I understand everything, just in case they really exist” – an incomplete understanding can still be a basis for an opinion, as long as you’re willing to hold that opinion provisionally. From what we do understand so far, the evidence for souls appears to be non-existent. That could change, and I’ll gladly recant what I’ve said here if it does – that would be a fascinating development! But if you ask me today, I wouldn’t bet on that ever happening.

            • kessy_athena

              And you’ll note that I have always said that I don’t know if souls exist or not. And I’ll be willing to bet that if they do, they’ll turn out to have some very different properties to the usual concepts in circulation now.

              There is no such thing as a complete understanding of anything, and all opinions should be provisional. However, if you say that you’re holding an opinion provisionally, but you’re completely dismissive toward any other ideas (whether you actually understand what those ideas are or not), attack those who put forward such ideas, and treat any idea that might challenge your current opinion with utter contempt, your actions bely your words.

              As for unicorns, I assure you that narwhals are quite real. You see the dangers of making definitive statements about things that haven’t been rigorously defined?

            • DMG

              I have made no definitive claim. All I said was “here is some evidence against the idea of the soul” and “so far, the evidence of souls appears to be non-existent” – these are provisional statements founded on current evidence.

              You’re making the unfounded assumption that the non-existence of souls is a pre-existing idea of mine from which I’m refusing to budge.

              That’s not the case. I actually started off believing in souls. Then I examined evidence like that listed by myself and others above, and revised my opinion to now say that soils probably do not exist, on these grounds. I accepted evodence that challenged my beliefs once and I’m willing to do it again, if you have any evidence to present.

              Neither I not anyone here has “dismissed” or “attacked” you for suggesting that souls exist. We’ve simply pointed out, repeatedly, that you have thus far shown no evidence to support this hypothesis, leaving the sum total of evidence in this discussion stacked heavily against the existence of souls.

              An expectation of evidence, and skepticism until it is presented, should never be construed as an attack or an unwillingness to consider other views. We’ll gladly consider anything you can articulate and support with evidence.

              So far all that you’ve offered are empty assertions about the nature of the soul, appeals to uncertainty (which as others have pointed out can be used to support virtually any proposition), and wordplay.

              On this last, you’ll note that nobody ever claimed that narwhals do not exist. To suggest that you honestly thought that was what I meant by “unicorn” seems disingenuous at best.

            • Yoav

              As for unicorns, I assure you that narwhals are quite real. You see the dangers of making definitive statements about things that haven’t been rigorously defined?

              I knew a guy in highschool who had to have all his shoes ordered specially since all the regularly stocked sizes were too small. However I wouldn’t consider the fact that he displayed one of it’s traditional attribute (possibly 2, he was also quite hairy), to be in any way evidence to the existence of Sasquatch.

            • kessy_athena

              DMG, looking back on this part of the thread, i think I may have been mentally conflating some of the things you said with the tone of some of the other folks in the thread, in which case I owe you an apology for being overly snarky. Sorry about that.

              My original intent in discussing Buddhism was to point out that your original set of points were predicated on some pretty specific assumptions about what a soul is, and that those assumptions are neither universal nor representative. So while you made some excellent points arguing against one particular version of what a soul may be, they do not necessarily apply to the more general concept.

              I have made appeals to uncertainty because I personally feel that uncertainty is a vital part of a balanced world view. I think that the best approach to any subject is to begin with uncertainty, and only to move to either belief or disbelief when there is a sufficient weight of evidence to positively support either position. I think that starting with a default position of active disbelief until evidence to the contrary is presented is as unhealthy as starting with an assumption of active belief. I’m really making a more general philosophic argument.

              The comment about narwhals was meant as a tongue in cheek illustration of what can happen when you don’t rigorously define your terms. Narwhals *are* often referred to as the unicorns of the sea. A rhinoceros could also quite well be considered as fitting the description of a unicorn. If you plucked a peasant from the English countryside of about 1200 or so and showed them a rhino, how do you suppose they’d describe it? In modern Japanese, a tapir is referred to as a baku, even though a baku was originally a mythological creature.

            • DMG

              I appreciate your apology, thank you. :) No hard feelings – I know how tough it can be to keep track of a sprawling discussion like this (even worse on my phone’s little screen)

              I agree it’s important to recognize uncertainty, but as I’ve pointed out, uncertainty is in no way incompatible with having an opinion or expectation.

              I don’t see any evidence in the threads above that anyone here has started from the position of “active disbelief” in souls you seem to decry. Each comment is compatible with someone beginning from a position of uncertainty as you recommend, and refining that position toward provisional disbelief under the weight of evidence, such as that described above.

              Given that we have on this page a compelling amount of evidence against the existence of a particular conception of souls, and no evidence in favour, this provisional disbelief strikes me as an entirely reasonable position. Demanding that we remain vocally indeterminate sounds like the logical fallacy of Argument to Moderation – claiming that the only reasonable view must be intermediate between two extremes. Sometimes one extreme is actually the truth, so the middle ground is not a privileged position.

              To make further discussion a bit more concrete (if anyone wants to continue – I know it’s run long already!), I’d like to propose the following definition for an “Immortal Soul” (to distinguish it from other conceptions of “soul”):

              1. Lifelong Association
              A single immortal soul is associated with each human being from birth until death. Other items beyond this minimum may also have immortal souls, depending on the tradition. (If a definition of “soul” does not meet this criterion, then the phrase “my soul” is potentially undefined- “I” might not have a soul at the time, or may have several)

              2. Observable Uniqueness
              My immortal soul possesses some property that is unique to me, such as my conscious awareness, my memories, my personality, etc., which you may determine by observing or interviewing me in some way. By performing this observation on two distinct individuals, you can confirm that they have two distinct immortal souls. (If a definition does not meet this criterion, “my soul” is ambiguous, because “my” soul may have no falsifiable distinction from “your” soul)

              3. Immortal Persistence
              After my death, my immortal soul persists arbitrarily far into the future, or reappears in another place/host, with the unique property it had under me preserved. A hypothetical observer in that time/place can verify that the immortal soul observed there possesses the unique property that mine did (using criterion 2), confirming that “my” soul persisted beyond my death. (If a definition does not meet this criterion, it could refer to any mundane property of me that dies with me)

              I think that any definition of soul meeting these three criteria has the problems I outlined in my first post, namely that the observed cases of radical mental changes/splits suggest:
              a) fully malleable souls, where a given property is not guaranteed to last a lifetime, let alone beyond (fails point 3 – Immortal Persistence)
              b) souls added/swapped “on demand,” which conflicts with point 1 – Lifelong Association
              c) illusory souls, obviating the need for “real” ones to explain our observations

              So, that raises what I see as three useful questions for further discussion, if you are interested:

              i) Is there a well-defined formulation of the soul that meets these criteria, but is consistent with the observed evidence of neuroscience?

              ii) Is there a well-defined formulation of the soul outside of these criteria which should be considered? (Perhaps pointing the way to better criteria?)

              iii) Is there any independently-verified positive evidence of property 3 – Immortal Persistence? (Since so far the discussion has centered on negative evidence)

            • Jabster

              @DMG

              Unfortunately I’m with JohnMWhite on this one. Pretty much by definition any conversation about souls has some supernatural element as part of it. Therefore is very easy to claim in support of souls anything you care to make up and in particular “goddidit”.

            • DMG

              @Jabster
              Point taken, although thus far my debating partner has not resorted to such a dodge.

              I wrote the above more to demonstrate a different point: that one can either gripe about how others are lacking an explicit definition, or one can move the discussion forward by proposing one. ;)

            • Jabster

              @DMG

              I would say your debating partner in mentioning QM, it’s a bit weird fits into the making it up as you go along department.

              As for the definition of what a soul is … well, keeping it ill defined and stating we don’t really know what it is leads the debate open to, well it could be this the couldn’t it. To me it seems the same argument as trying to keep the definition of god woolly and then using the fact that you can’t say this god doesn’t exist to mean therefore my god does exist.

              Finally, moving the discussion forward would seem somewhat a waste of time much as trying to define what a ghost is. Of course it’s your time to waste!

            • kessy_athena

              So tell me Jabster, what exactly is the difference between a fundie christian holding up a bible that they obviously haven’t read thoroughly and don’t understand the contents of saying, “This has *all* the answers, so I have no need of critical thinking or evidence based discussion,” and you doing the exact same thing with a Physics textbook that you obviously haven’t read or understand the contents of?

            • Jabster

              “so I have no need of critical thinking or evidence based discussion”

              Well that’s the bit you seem to apply but only when it suits you …

              p.s. So no reply to DMG then?

            • kessy_athena

              @DMG

              I agree that your definition of an immortal soul is implausible. However, just as an appeal to moderation is a logical fallacy, so’s a false dichotomy. I’m not sure if it’s your position or not, DMG, but at least some of the posters here seem to imply that their preferred alternative hypothesis to the existence of a soul is that all of the things normally attributed to a soul, such as consciousness, personality, memories, cognition, etc, are entirely biological functions of the brain. There are lots of other possibilities, so refuting one hypothesis does not automatically support the other.

              There *is* evidence that argues against the strictly biological functions of the brain hypothesis. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few things. There are instances of near death experiences where the person reports experiences occurring while there was no brain activity, and out of body experiences where the person reports witnessing events or details in the room that are difficult to account for them knowing – conversations that occurred while they were unconscious, details of objects that would not normally be visible from the person’s point of view, things like that.

              There are also instances of people receiving organ transplants and then later developing personality changes that reflect the personality of the organ donor, such as tastes, preferences, and interests.

              And there’s the question of memories of past lives. Obviously, such memories recovered through hypnosis should be excluded. But there are plenty of instances of young children having knowledge and memories that seem to be memories of past lives that are difficult to account for otherwise. The case of James Leninger is one of the better known contemporary cases.

              And yes, I know these are anecdotal, and I know they’re not rigorous evidence. That’s equally true of the argument presented by DMG about people having large changes in personality after traumatic events. If this subject had been rigorously documented and investigated, we’d most likely have definitive evidence based answers already and we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.

              Creating a rigorous definition is not a trivial thing, and is an evidence based endeavor. You can’t just pull a definition out of thin air, find it doesn’t work, and say that settles it. As far as I understand it, it seems to me that the definition you presented fails primarily because of the idea of the soul being immutable. Allowing the soul to change and evolve over time will bring the definition much closer to the observed evidence. An ad hoc definition is the beginning of the process, not the end.

            • DMG

              Recall that the question at hand is whether or not our available evidence supports the notion of an immortal soul that survives our deaths (see the original blog post waaaay up there, and my comment at the beginning of this thread).

              In light of that, to dismiss my proffered criteria and questions as presenting a false dichotomy, on the grounds that they fail to rule out *every* non-biological/material explanation of mind, constitutes shifting the goalposts. I made no claim that a pure biological explanation is the only correct answer – this much larger question is outside the present scope.

              You’re correct that my argument against the immortal soul hinges critically on some persistent observable property of the soul. The soul is permitted to change under these criteria, but not to such an extent that it becomes unrecognizable as its prior incarnation.

              This is not an arbitrary choice to stack the argument in the favour of a particular conclusion, but a necessary condition to be able to speak meaningfully of the “immortality” of souls. If we have no property that remains recognizable after death, then we have no way to verify that “this” soul is the same as “that” previously-observed soul, whose owner had since passed away. Any formulation of the immortal soul hypothesis that lacks a falsifiable definition for when two observations are of the same soul is not a legitimate hypothesis, since no amount of evidence could ever settle the debate.

              It’s also not strictly true as you suggest that definitions must be built from evidence. Take the problem of the velocity of the Voyager probes deviating from expectations. Two prominent hypotheses might account for this: dark matter, which posits that there’s extra mass out there we can’t see; and modified Newtonian dynamics (or MOND), which posits that the laws of acceleration are different outside of a gravity well. Both of these hypotheses (and more) have been defined “out of thin air” – we have no experimental evidence of either. But those definitions can now guide the design of experiments and observations to test the predictions of each, to see whether either is correct, or if a third theory better accounts for the data.

              In just the same way, my definition of an immortal soul can help us narrow-in on what kind of evidence we should look for to support or reject the hypothesis. Other hypotheses are of course possible, but since this is the only one we have in concrete terms so far, I’m going to proceed with this definition in mind. You’re welcome to present others that are similarly specific.

              The points you raise about remembered experiences following periods of unconsciousness are not evidence of an immortal soul, because they do not demonstrate anything persisting beyond the individual’s death. They’re also easily-explained by known phenomena such as hallucinations, dreaming, confabulation, and as you point out, hypnosis and other less overt forms of guided story-creation. Any of these could occur between the event and the recording of the report (much like the memory of days worth of dream time can be created in the instant before you wake), and are not evidence of cognition happening “elsewhere” when the brain is ostensibly inactive.

              These stories also suffer from a tendency toward rationalization and embellishment after the fact. The most famous example I’m aware of, that of the shoe on the hospital window sill, wasn’t published until years after the event, by a third party, the story having been refined and exaggerated in the intervening years.

              The notion of memories of past lives is more promising, since it follows after the death of a previous life, and so could potentially shed light on the immortality question. However, we need to be disciplined about what qualifies as evidence. Simply remembering experiencing another’s perspective – especially if the person is a celebrity, popular historical figure, or talked-about family member – is not beyond the capacity of human imagination. I’m sure anyone reading this can remember having dreams of being someone else (someone living, or fictitious, to distinguish from potential past-life recollections), and we’ve all (especially as children) had experiences that we can’t quite pin down as being memories of our lives, or of our dreams.

              What we should look for in these claims are verifiable specifics that the individual would not have had access to in this life. For instance, being able to recount private information contained in a diary the individual has never seen in this life, but that an investigator can compare against.

              The one case you cite, James Leninger, does not show this type of evidence. He began having nightmares of a crashed WWII-era plane after having visited a WWII aviation museum, which certainly would have had photos or videos of planes crashing. (He later made reference to “drop tanks” which were also shown at the museum) He initially referred to the pilot in the crash in the third person, not the first. He doesn’t appear to have made any suggestion that it was his own memory until his grandmother suggested the idea of past lives. Subsequent details in his account came from guided sessions with a therapist who promotes reincarnation (guidance which has many of the problems you alluded to with hypnosis), and with his father walking him through WWII books where he’d point at pictures. One could throw darts at such a focussed piece of source material and come up with data points clustered enough to form a coherent story. ;)

              Even the occasional “startlingly specific” piece of information is not enough. We’re on a planet of 7 billion people. If only one in a thousand of those people thinks they were reincarnated, and only one in one a thousand of those gets someone to listen, and only one in a thousand of those makes a single lucky guess over a ten-year period, we should expect a story about “proof positive of past lives” almost every year. The real question is, can it be repeated? If someone’s memory of a past life is clear enough to give one shocking detail, can they produce another verifiably accurate recollection when asked? That distinguishes the lucky hits from something more interesting.

              Lacking high-quality evidence of this type, and with the aforementioned negative evidence, I currently consider the null hypothesis, “there does not exist an immortal soul,” to be a more parsimonious explanation for the available data.

            • Nox

              If you approach the question as “can we ever prove that nothing which could be considered a soul might exist?”, that falls under proving a negative. But if you approach the question as “why did anyone ever think there was such a thing in the first place?”, it sort of can be disproved. The idea of the soul is derived from a fear of mortality, and an archaic understanding of the relationship between the brain and the body.

            • Jabster

              @DMG

              With reference to the ‘Voyager problem’ are you not thinking of the ‘Pioneer problem’ and if so that has been solved – if not what is the Voyager one?

            • DMG

              @Jabster: oops, you’re right, sorry about that! I was typing this up late last night and got a bit sloppy.

              I didn’t realise it was solved just last year. Looking forward to reading more about that in a moment – thanks for pointing me at it!

              In a way it makes an even better example now. We invent “from thin air” multiple hypotheses that could explain a phenomenon – including the null hypothesis that no new phenomenon is observed (which is not based on the new evidence at all). Rigorous investigation of these specific hypotheses lets us determine that one of them fully-accounts for the data: the null hypothesis, and we have our answer. The system works. :)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X