Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Question of the Soul

One of the basic tenets of religion is the idea that humans have souls (or spirits) that are separate and distinct from our physical bodies, integrated only during life and freed after physical death to some fate or another. It would take volumes to discuss all the dogma religions have contrived regarding souls but that’s it in a nutshell. However, “soul” is not an exclusively religious term so talking about it can result in misunderstanding. The soul is generally considered to be the unique, self-aware, inner essence of a living person. But in religion, it has a supernatural basis. It is implanted or “breathed” into the body by God. Thus it is thought by some to be part of (or akin to) the supernatural essence of God, including immortality. To avoid confusion, I will be referring to the immortal soul here and not the poetic or philosophical notion of soul unless I specify otherwise. Some of my readers have expressed a belief in reincarnation. So let me just say that the question of the soul’s existence is not affected by its possible migration to other bodies before attaining its final goal. If anything, this provides even more ways to disprove it. I don’t plan to discuss reincarnation further. If souls don’t exist, that point is moot.

The soul is generally considered to be the true basis of sapience and one’s sense of identity. In a secular context, soul is just a convenient name for these attributes. Aristotle described the soul as the core essence of a being - that which defines a being. Although he did not believe the soul could continue after death, oddly enough, he was inclined to believe the intellect was eternal. However, he didn’t have the benefit of our current understanding of the role of the physical brain in cognition, memory and reason which form the basis of intellect. Humans have long used the term “soul” in folklore, poetry, art and philosophy. It permeates our culture. While much of this is intended to be metaphorical, that is seldom clear. Considering all this, I think it’s easy to understand why the idea of the immortality of souls is so pervasive, especially since so few people are aware of the current scientific understanding of the human neocortex and its relationship to consciousness and higher brain function. But I think close examination shows that the immortal soul is a fundamental misunderstanding of what life is and, and even more importantly, what the mind is.

It is clear that humans are conscious and self-aware. Even with our advanced understanding of the brain, we still have many different theories, conceptions and misconceptions about consciousness. My view of consciousness is that it is really nothing more than perception - awareness of reality including self-awareness. I certainly agree that consciousness is a rare thing in nature. Other animals have varying degrees of consciousness but nothing like the primate ability to think in terms of “I” and “me.” Of the primates, humans have the most developed example of this kind of self-awareness. In evolutionary terms, the most significant recent development in brain structure is the highly developed human neocortex. But for all the mystery in which we shroud these concepts, the functions of perception, sensation, memory, reason and emotion as well as maintenance of bodily functions are performed by our physical brain. How else would we lose consciousness when the brain is shut down as during surgery, brain damage or simply from a blow to the head? There are volumes of information that demonstrate inconsistency in the concept of the soul. Skeptical literature often cites phenomena such as brain lesions (as in Broca's aphasia) and conditions like Alzheimer's disease as evidence that personality is material, and exists in discrete physical components, contrary to the philosophy of the immortal soul. Owing to its complexity, most people are completely in awe of the brain as an organ and consider it, and the very act of thought, significant mysteries. To discuss all of the scientific literature would turn this already lengthy article into an unwieldy project that few would have time to read. I will try to confine my discussion to the conscious and volitional part of the human brain as I think it is the key argument for the existence of the immortal soul.

It is important to note that we naturally have difficulty analyzing the nature of our own consciousness because of our perspective. We have the same difficulty as we do when analyzing the entire universe. We can't get a “bird’s eye view” or examine it under a microscope. We also can’t avoid the observer effect. We can only know that we are conscious and self-aware. It is the irreducible basis of who we are. We know we think, but we don’t really understand how we think. We can observe others from an external perspective. But then we lose the internal perspective. To view this problem circumspectly we must consider our internal perspective to be generally equivalent with that of others who we can observe externally. This is not really a problem. As I said in a previous discussion, humans vary only trivially in our genetic structure. Our physical bodies are essentially identical. This applies to our brains as well. Why wouldn’t our cognitive awareness be effectively the same from one individual to another? We may arrive at different conclusions based on different experience and other conditions but the underlying mechanisms are identical for the purpose of study.

I think the brain/body dichotomy seems obvious to us because we understand and relate to the brain and body in different ways. To us, our consciousness seems to be completely separate from our physical body. They appear to be in totally different categories. One is obviously material and the other seems ethereal. The body is measurable. Consciousness is as nebulous as thought. Furthermore, we cannot see a connection between our brain and our consciousness. We don’t feel ourselves think. We know our brain is connected to our body because we receive the messages of our sense organs. But even with the greatest effort of will, we cannot sense that consciousness is a mere function of our brain. It is more difficult than trying to look at the inside of our own eyelids. So it is natural to speculate that it might be something different and special. We are clearly more than the sum of our parts. So, when we hear about spirits, it seems to make sense. We begin to think that maybe the mystics are right. Maybe there is such a thing as an immortal soul. After all, it is intangible and mysterious but definitely real. It doesn’t seem to get hungry or thirsty like our body. And perhaps it has a supernatural existence independent of the old “mortal coil.”

Our brain does some things that appear magical or mystical until they are understood. For instance, in the eyes of vertebrates the photo-sensitive cells called rods and cones lie behind the optic nerves and a layer of blood vessels resulting in loss of visual acuity. These nerves and blood vessels must emerge through the back of the retina, leaving a hole in the organ with no light-sensitive cells, and forming a blind spot. But our mind compensates for these blind spots by extrapolating and filling in the missing data. We don’t do this consciously but completely without thinking about it. Our mind does this in other circumstances, also without conscious effort. In any scene of our experience there are many elements including visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory. And these are not all on one level. There are background elements and foreground elements as well as peripheral elements. There are also conditions that affect the amount of information received such as the level and intensity of each stimulus. If anything in the scene is incongruous or essentially missing, our mind can and usually does fill in the scene with what seems most likely based on our experience and expectations. If, for some reason, we are concentrating on certain specific details and don’t think about others at the moment of the experience, our memory may be a bit patchy on some details. But our mind helpfully fills in those details and sometimes when we recall the scenes for reexamination, we get the filled in details and cannot reasonably tell them from the clearly perceived data.

The cold hard fact of the matter is that when we die, our brain ceases to function. This is an observable and verifiable fact. We may be able to revive a dead body if we get to it soon enough, but dead bodies decompose rather rapidly if not preserved. Sometimes we can revive a dead body even after decomposition has started. But when we do this, we invariably find there is a significant loss of brain function. All victims of brain damage are observably not the same person they were before. The point is that all of our sensations, feelings, thoughts, memories and dreams are due to brain function. When that is damaged, there is often little left of the person we were. When we die, the body, the brain and the whole universe of matter continue to exist but the personality, intellect and consciousness of that person is gone. It is easy to see that a dead body is incapable of being aware of anything much less being self-aware. The more difficult concept to grasp is that a disembodied soul could not be self-aware. That is simply because it would have no self to be aware of. The question is: Why is this disputable? There is the notion promoted by such stories as the recent “Matrix” movies that say the mind retains a residual self-image. However, if the mind is the function of a physical brain, there is nowhere for this residual self-image to be retained. Even if we imagine a spiritual body, why can’t we detect the function of such bodies? For any information to be stored and processed requires power and substance. Where is this power and substance that allows a soul to perform the activity originally managed by the brain? If a spirit is invisible and immaterial, it cannot do what a brain can do. If it could, why would we need a brain in the first place?

I’m sure some will bring up the idea of Near Death Experience (NDE) and Out of Body Experience (OBE). Sometimes people who die are revived before any significant brain damage can occur. And some people report the ability to move their “soul” out of their body. Under these circumstances, odd things have been reported to occur. If you read the anecdotal evidence about these things, it can sound rather convincing. People are said to report all kinds of things they “couldn’t possibly have known” that occurred during their “death” or in remote locations. But all serious scientific studies into NDEs and OBEs have shown that the reported phenomena are fabrications, guesswork or otherwise easily explainable. If you believe in these claims, I suggest you read both sides of the issue and use critical thinking. If you are one who contends there is some kind of conspiracy on the part of scientists to cover up such real events, you don’t know much about scientists. Such a discovery, if sufficiently validated by double blind studies, could make the career of a scientist. It would be big news and guarantee the fame of anyone who proved it. But consider the incentives of profit and fame that might motivate the purveyors of such claims. Many people have made lucrative careers out of writing books and lecturing about this kind of thing. They are hucksters preying on the gullible and the hopeful people of the world. The idea of the soul as a separate ghostly occupant inhabiting the body also gives rise to other notions like haunting and demonic possession. I think it is obvious that we need to develop what Carl Sagan called a “Baloney detector” that will allow us to use knowledge and critical thinking skills to relegate these absurd ideas to the category of mystical quackery and pseudoscience where they belong.

Probably the main attraction of the notion of immortal souls is that it is comforting to think of loved ones continuing to live on in some peaceful way after their bodily death. This is perfectly understandable. When we lose a loved one, it’s natural to grieve and wish that things were different. Even the desire for personal immortality is natural. But wishing and hoping for things doesn’t make them happen. There is no correlation between desire and actuality. Facts are facts. We can’t change what is. The healthier thing to do is to come to terms with mortality. We all die. Life is too short. It sucks. Get over it. Sometimes we are left alone. Sometimes children die. It is heartbreaking, but it is reality. Besides, I think the notion of an afterlife causes people to put things off assuming there will be time later in another place to do things. Fortunately, they will never have the opportunity to regret this waste of their lives. But their children and friends might.

Personally, I find the whole idea of life after death to be demeaning to actual life. One of the worst examples of this is the idea that if you kill someone, it isn’t really that bad. That is how tyrants and terrorists can justify killing innocent people. They can just say that God knows his own and will give them a new life in heaven (or the paradise of your choice). It is actually an insidious rationalization. Religions sometimes even encourage this kind of thinking especially when it applies to unbelievers. The witch hunts are a good example. Ironically, this quick path to paradise doesn’t generally apply to suicides. This has to be a serious sin that would keep you out of heaven. The churches want you to believe in a glorious afterlife, but they don’t want too many people trying to take the short way out. That would seriously curtail their revenue if it got popular. They also depend on numbers of believers to give them power. Dead believers aren’t as useful as live ones. They can’t vote or protest or proselytize.

Most believers in the soul think of it as completely spiritual, supernatural and immaterial. However there have been those who think it has some material component. Some have even tried to establish mass or weight of the soul. Many of you may have heard it said that the weight of the soul is 21 grams. This was the inspiration for the title of a 2003 movie. The origin of this 21 gram weight comes from the work of one Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill Massachusetts in 1903. Believing the soul must have some sort of corporeal mass, Dr. MacDougall conducted a series of experiments to determine if the moment of the soul’s departure could be detected. He never concluded that the weight of the soul was 21 grams. In fact, he admitted that his experiments could not be considered conclusive of anything and no one has been able to duplicate his results. But 21 grams was his measurement of weight loss at the moment of expiration of his first test subject. While this is an interesting story, it clearly doesn’t help our understanding of the question of the soul. It also goes to show you that even if you rely on the claims of scientists, you still need to use critical thinking.

Of course, the only way to believe a God that is pure consciousness could give rise to the entire physical universe is to believe that consciousness can exist outside of a living body and is itself able to be a cause. First of all, we have no experience of such a thing. Every conscious being ever known is a living being. To the believer, disembodied souls are considered invisible and immaterial. In essence they are thought of as a force of some kind. But force is not a cause, it is an effect. Just like the mind is not a cause but an effect. The law of causality is how the universe works. You can’t have a cause, without an effect or an effect without a cause. No matter how attractive or popular these ideas are, they have no basis in fact.


Dragnet said...

This is a good article. I wonder if you could expand on one of the many pseudo science ideas that have been expounded by some.
I was having a conversation not long ago and someone brought up one of the laws of thermo dynamics where in, as he explained it, you can't destroy energy, it just goes on forever.
I was not very good at arguing it but I tried to explain it as you would tossing a stone into water, the ripple effect. For a time you can see the ripple and even find it's point of origin. Over time though it will disipate to the point where it is all part of te natural flow of water and at some pint it is completely overwhelmed by another larger ripple. It does disappear and it does for all intents cease to exist. Over time even if there was a witness to the event all memory of the exact nature of the event will also cease to exist. So it goes with people. They are here and then they are not.
We remember them so they tend to exist in memory for a time but eventually they are replaced by someone else the memories will dissipate over time and those who knew them will be gone and all we have is a story of them tossing a stone in to the water and causing a ripple. They are no more.

In another direction the person was talking about some sort of math related to the number of people in the world counting backwards there was some way to know by calculating all of the number of humans could only go back so many years and with this you could prove that the time line of the bible was accurate.
Well I have a very limited understanding of math so I can't test the numbers but thought I would try to get someone who might read this with good enough skills to perhaps tell us this theory and show me the numbers.
I can add and subtract well enough but I don't know the material from where such a claim might have come.

anyway there it is my contribution to the discussion.

Will Friday said...

Regarding your first question, I think what this person was trying to tell you is that the first law of thermodynamics applies to souls. This is a misapplication of the law. What this law states essentially is that energy cannot be created or destroyed. The total energy of the universe remains constant. This is an oversimplification but it will do for now. The problem comes in implying that the soul is a source of energy. If that were true, there might be some relevance to this discussion. But in my article I said that a soul is not a force (energy) but an effect. As I'm sure you know, the body is a sort of factory. We take in fuel and convert it to energy to perform our various functions. Since what we call a soul is nothing more than the effect of a variety of functions of the physical brain, it is not itself energy. As in any kind of process, the energy expended is effectively exchanged with the environment. The effects created by this exchange of energy exist only as long as the process continues. When the body ceases to convert fuel to energy, the elements of the body become inert and the effect we call "soul" is no longer being perpetuated by the brain and thus ceases to exist. It is no different than any mechanical or chemical process. For instance, when we speak, we use energy to produce utterances. Those utterances do not continue into perpetuity. They are not forces (energy). They are just effects. They do not exist in a physical sense beyond the fact that they are vibrations via the medium of air. They dissipate over time and the energy is thus exchanged with the environment. Our mental construct of consciousness is a little different in that it is coded on neurons in our living brain for our own use. But when these neurons decompose, this information is not retrievable. At this point there is no consciousness and thus no "soul."

The second question appears to me to be referring to one of the various mathematical calculations used by some theologians to show that the population of the earth today is precisely what it should be if the human race is descended from Noah’s family 4,500 years ago thus validating the biblical timeline. It is sometimes done using Adam and Eve and assuming the flood story was a metaphor. Similar calculations are sometimes used to claim that humans could not have been around for a million years because in that time the human population should have grown beyond the capacity of the earth. I've heard many such arguments before. But population is not something that can be calculated with simple math. There are too many unknown variables. You have to know average life expectancy, reproductive age, family sizes (including only children living to sexual maturity) and so on. These things can fluctuate based on factors affecting health and development as well as culture. Then you have to take into account causes of population decrease such as wars, crime, famines, draughts, disease, infestations, animal attacks, and disasters. Generally this kind of argument is overly simplistic and ignores many of the variables. They sometimes work backward and sometimes forward but all such arguments are just contrivance and speculation. Refuting this sort of argument is simply a matter of finding where they threw in numbers randomly or where they left out factors.

David said...

It is a good article. The questioning of something as primal, as basic as 'what is consciousness?' is a question often either fudged or flicked away with pat answers by both atheists and fundie fools alike.

Anonymous said...

I have a lot of reading on your blog yet to do to determine how much of your views are similar to mine but so far of what I read ( a few sentences of 2 different posts), I seem to have similar views. I once was a Christian and the reason Christians can't believe that atheists along with some other groups can be moral is because the Bible dictates to them that the heart is deceitful, therefore they do not trust their own hearts unlike us logical reasoning folk who can only trust our own heart above outside data.

Thom said...

teejay, I am a Christian. I do believe that atheists (and anyone who is not a Christian) can be moralistic. I believe that the 'way' we 'should' live our lives is written within all of us just as DNA is written within us to tell our bodies how to form and function. I will say that not all folks are equal, but we as humans in general have a tendency to be self destructive for what ever purpose. Just some insight from this side of the house. -tg

Will Friday said...


I discussed morality at length in another post. Have you read that one yet? I agree that most of what makes us act morally is written inside us. But it is not "like" our DNA. It is literally encoded in our DNA. Our natural tendencies and instincts are written there, just like our eye color. It isn't anything mysterious or supernatural. Through the process of natural selection, cooperative people with a sense of social responsibility are more likely to have progeny that survive.

I got a chuckle from your comment, "I do believe that atheists (and anyone who is not a Christian) can be moralistic." You can't seem to even bring yourself to say that we can be moral. You have to use the contrived term "moralistic." It's like you are saying we can emulate morality or that we are similar to moral people. Is this your prejudice showing? Would you refer to Christians as "moralistic" or would you just refer to them as "moral people"? Maybe it was just a poor word choice. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.

I would like you to expand on your claim that humans generally have a tendency to be self-destructive. Is this based on your own observation or is it something you gleaned from pop-culture? Personally I think people are just struggling to survive and be happy. When I see self-destructive behavior it seems to be in response to things that stifle people's natural drive toward self-fulfillment and happiness. I think religion is one of the major impediments to personal happiness. So my guess would be that much self-destructive behavior is motivated by religion.

Thom said...

Will it is so good to hear from you. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond.

I’ve been 36 hours straight without sleep; so I’m just going to hit the highlights here.

Yes, I believe I did read that but probably not before posting this and at this particular moment in time I can’t really recall much of what I read.

I could accept the notion that all pre-set facets of our behavior exist within out DNA, however it is not proven fact - the right and wrong gene has not yet been discovered / isolated. So as just a possibility, yes, I can work with that – there is nothing about that notion that upsets the balances of religion.

The concept of natural selection I concede to as being to some level observable, but as to any connection to a moral society, I don’t believe there is a strong enough connection worth mentioning since natural selection is just as likely to support genocide as it might humanitarianism.

Thanks for the chuckle - and for the benefit of the doubt. What I mean by that is that I believe Christians to be exactly the same as any other person on this planet in regards their personal capability to live a moral life. I only hope that I am very clear in what I’m saying by that.

There are certainly a number of people who are affiliated with some religion that are or have at some point displayed destructive behavior - I have personally observed that. [depending how you want to really define religion, anyone - including you - can be considered religious] There are people without any religious affiliations that also have displayed destructive behavior – personally observed. There are people who have left religious affiliations (like you did) and then eventually moving towards a self-destructive lifestyle (I don’t mean sinful – I mean physically destructive – and I don’t mean like you did [self destructive] – I only mean like you did [left your religious affiliation]) – also personal observation. So based on my personal observation scientifically I can conclude that a self-destructive behavior could be just as pre-written in our DNA as ‘morals’ and that it is more likely for a person to experience a self-destructive phase at least in some point in their life than to never experience one at all (hence the statement generally all humans have a tendency to be self-destructive). Of course that just based on my personal experienced scientific deduction coupled with the personal experiences of my colleagues coupled with some minor book work.

On a side note here – I feel that it could be also said that, in conjunction with self-destructive behavior as the response to things that stifle the pursuit of happiness, the self-destructive behavior itself could be the only thing stifling ones pursuit if happiness, subconsciously or otherwise. (kind of goes back to the DNA thing – which to this day is still not completely understood or fully discovered)


Will Friday said...


Why are you going 36 hours without sleep? Are you trying to induce a mystical experience by sleep deprivation or are you just trying to prove your point about people being self-destructive? I’m joking with you. Let me get down to business.

You said, “I would accept the notion that all pre-set facets of our behavior exist within our DNA, however it is not a proven fact.” What is the point of accepting it if you are just going to try to make it sound like a pathetic guess? You apparently want to diminish this entire field of research by saying it is “just a possibility” while you personally believe things that are extremely improbable. I always find it very amusing when religious people balk at accepting something on the basis that it isn’t a “proven fact.” Pardon me for laughing but it is funny considering that you believe a whole host of things that have absolutely no factual basis and are far from “proven.” You theists seem to want to have it both ways. You will accept religious dogma without the slightest proof but much more rational and reasonable propositions have to have iron-clad documentation and validation. I have no idea what you mean by saying that all this does not “upset the balances of religion.” What is balanced about religion? If you mean that it isn’t contrary to your religious beliefs then I must presume that you are one of the liberal Christians who don’t take the Bible literally. These days a lot of religious people find it convenient to relegate the Bible to a minor role in their belief system when it comes to talking about reality but they consider it the absolute validation of their beliefs at other times. Again, we see the desire to have it both ways.

I realize it sounds condescending but I have a feeling you don’t really know much about DNA and which genes have been mapped. Making statements about what is or is not known about the human genome requires a lot of knowledge about the current state of research on the topic. Do you intend to represent yourself as a genetics expert? Can you talk about specifics? I don’t claim to be an expert but I bet I have researched it much more extensively than you have. At any rate, actual mapping of behavior to particular genes is not required in order to understand that most behaviors are a product of nature and not nurture. We can look at the fields of psychology, biology, sociology and anthropology as well. There are thousands of years of human history to analyze. The theories of genetic scientists are validated constantly by the accuracy of what they predict in all these fields.

Another funny statement of yours is, “natural selection is just as likely to support genocide as humanitarianism.” There are too many things wrong with this statement to enumerate but I’ll just say that if genocide could be selected for then we would all be dead. Do you have any idea how natural selection works? I suppose you probably mean to say that cooperative behavior and antisocial behavior would be just as likely to be selected. But even that is ridiculous. Our ancestors evolved as tribal or social creatures because the environment was too hostile for individual humans to survive. The rest of the animal kingdom has many physical advantages with which we could not compete. In groups we were able to survive. Those antisocial individuals would put the group at risk. They would most likely be ostracized and probably die along with any progeny they might have. That’s natural selection at work. For you to claim that there is not a “strong enough connection” between natural selection and moral behavior demonstrates the extent of your ignorance on the subject.

I think I understand what you mean by saying you “believe Christians to be exactly the same as any other person on this planet in regards their personal capability to live a moral life.” But historically I don’t think this is borne out. Christianity has been directly responsible for so much death and misery that I think people of your faith who can live peaceably with the rest of the world is something of a new development.

You are just a laugh a minute today. This one is a real hoot although I’ve heard it before and I know where you want to go with it. You said, “depending on how you really want to define religion, anyone - including you - can be considered religious.” One of the trends in religious argument is to find ways to define rationality as faith in something or another, usually science. If you want to go there - be my guest - but I should warn you that it won’t work. I know the difference between religious faith and rational analysis of the facts at hand.

Thank you for elaborating on your odd statement. You said: 1) “scientifically I can conclude that a self-destructive behavior could be just as pre-written in our DNA as ‘morals’” and 2) “that it is more likely for a person to experience a self-destructive phase at least in some point in their life than to never experience one at all.” It is clear to me from your first statement that you are a bit fuzzy on what science really is. It is not scientific to deduce a general trait of a species from your limited personal experience. I’ve already pointed out why such negative behavior is not likely to dominate in the selection process. Not only do I disagree with the second statement but I see nothing in your posts that would support such a claim. It’s like saying, “I’ve seen people who are vegetarians so I think more people go through a vegetarian phase than do not.” Look up the term “non sequitur” and get back to me on this. You claim that your “colleagues” agree with your findings which I find hard to believe. Perhaps they are just humoring you. You also said you have done some “book work.” What book(s) are you referring to? I read a lot of books. Maybe I’ve read some of it.

I completely agree with you that many religious people are self-destructive as well as antisocial. I didn’t think you were trying to point out the faults of religion so forgive me for not catching on right away. As for your insinuation that my behavior is in some way self-destructive, I think you are way off the mark. If you define leaving religious nonsense behind as self-destructive then I can see why you might think so. But let me assure you that religion was the destructive force in my life and my departure from it was the exact opposite of self-destructive behavior. It was the best possible thing for me personally. From my personal experience and observation I would have to say that religion is designed to destroy the self. Christianity is particularly bad about ruining self-respect and dignity of the individual. But most Judeo-Christian religions preach that human nature is evil. I will agree that we are, by nature, self-centered but that is by necessity. No one else is likely to look out for our interests.

Your final humorous bit was this: “kind of goes back to the DNA thing – which to this day is still not completely understood or fully discovered.” Nothing in human experience is completely understood and one of the basic tenets of science is that all theories are subject to change upon the discovery of further information. So to make such a statement seems likely to be a regurgitation of anti-science propaganda ala the religious fundamentalist crowd. But if you are a fundamentalist, how can you also be liberal about the Bible? “Curioser and curioser said Alice!”