Is there a soul?
This is a question I have been mulling over for the past eight or so weeks and I’ve come to the realise that there is no definite answer, no ‘Eureka!’ moment. But that the answer lies in your own opinions and belief system, it depends on what you want the answer to be.
Firstly, let’s define the soul; what exactly is it? The online oxford dictionary describes it as ‘the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.’
The soul is portrayed throughout many aspects of all our lives, in books, movies, newspapers, maybe a few conversations. To name a few, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ ‘Gilmore Girls’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Jekyll and Hyde’.
The soul is a common subject widely known by most, whether belief in it is present or not. Could you please raise your hand if you believe you have a soul as well as a physical body?
This is interesting as your answers are (not) similar to a survey conducted in April to August in 2017 by the pew research centre. They were interested in attitudes toward spirituality and religion. They concluded that majorities in most western Europe countries believe they have a soul. To me, this is surprising as I thought there has been a growing belief in atheism due to major advances in science, such as the internet, robotic body parts, evidence of water on mars, existence of dark matter and so on.
So, why do we as humans cling to the idea of the soul, why are all so willing to believe in it? But my most aching question is, does this all mean that the human soul exists?
At first, I turned to the idea of whether the existence of a human soul can be proved by natural science. I came a across an experiment completed by Duncan MacDougall. In 1901, he tried to answer this question. MacDougall believed that, if the soul were real, it should have measurable weight. Therefore, he attempted to compare the weights of patients before and after death. After testing six patients dying of tuberculosis, he concluded each body had measurable loss of ¾ of an ounce (around 21 grams) – ‘the weight of the soul’.
However, Duncan MacDougall’s investigations were flawed at many levels. When his results were first published, critics argued that the weight loss could be explained by physiological factors, such as evaporation. Furthermore, his report failed to mention several patients in whom he found no weight loss. Also, subsequent attempts to reproduce his results failed to find any weight loss. Indeed, MacDougall’s vision may have been clouded by confirmation bias, the tendency for investigators to see what they expect.
This may show that an existence of the soul cannot be proved by science experiment, but is the soul even a scientific idea? Perhaps a soul is from a supernatural origin, thus not a part of nature, meaning science cannot measure it in any fashion. Maybe a scientist thinking he can weigh or photograph a soul is just completely foolish.
It could be seen that the soul exists because of free will. Free will involves the freedom to make choices that are not determined by prior causes. Therefore, free will is itself a cause and not an effect in its interactions with actuality. So, if free will is to exist, its basis must be insubstantial.
Since it is the self that causes the actions (the basis of the free will), and if the basis of free will is necessarily insubstantial, then the basis of the self is also insubstantial. Since the essence of the self is called the soul, then if free will exists the soul must exist also. If free will exists, therefore the soul does too.
In his book Emotions Are Biological: How Biochemistry and Neurology Account for Feelings Vexen Crabtree said that “our emotions are physical in nature. Biological effects can have deep and profound effects on our true selves. Degenerative diseases of the brain can erode personality, brain damage can cause sudden changes in character, tumours can alter our feelings and biochemical imbalances radically swing our moods. Neurologists have delved deep into the brain and discovered that depression, love, niceness, politeness, aggression, abstract thinking, judgement, patience, instincts and memories have turned out to have biochemical causes, not spiritual ones, and can all be radically affected by brain damage and brain surgery. This is all only possible if consciousness and emotions are all physical, with no need for soul theory.
If there was a soul, brain damage could not also damage our emotional feelings: but it does. Electrical stimulation of the brain causes actual desire to arise instantly. If memory, behaviour and emotions are all controlled by the physical brain, what is a soul for? Any free will it exerts is promptly overridden by biological chemistry hence why so many diseases have an uncontrollable effect on personality. Modern science proves that the idea of souls is misguided. Everything is biological.”
Soul supposedly is something immaterial and immortal, something that exists independently of the brain, perhaps souls do not exist. This is old-fashioned for most psychologists and philosophers. The rejection of the immaterial soul is unintuitive, unpopular, and, for some people, downright repulsive.
Clearly, at some point, humans had moved beyond solving how to find enough food and began using their excess brain power and leisure time to think of other things. In that sense, the idea of a soul, or any kind of human spirituality, might simply be the product of too much brain and too much free time.
It might also be an evolutionary strategy that takes us away from the anxieties of self-consciousness. Once fully modern humans knew they could die, it probably made sense to pretend that no one really died but that some part of us lived on. Given the vagaries of ancient life, it probably also made sense to invent souls that had the power to haunt and cause harm to explain all the bad stuff in life.
In fact, every culture, even today, has some concept that separates the spirit from the body, confirming that humans seem compelled to think of themselves as something more than the sum of our biological parts, even if that belief makes us do irrational earthly things.
Traditionally, science has dismissed the soul as an object of human belief, or reduced it to a psychological concept that shapes our cognition of the observable natural world. The terms ‘life’ and ‘death’ are thus nothing more than the common concepts of ‘biological life’ and ‘biological death.’
While neuroscience has made tremendous progress illuminating the functioning of the brain, why we have a subjective experience remains mysterious. The problem of the soul lies exactly here, in understanding the nature of the self, the ‘I’ in existence that feels and lives life. But this isn’t just a problem for biology and cognitive science, but for the whole of Western natural philosophy itself.
Life and consciousness are central to this new view of being, reality and the cosmos. Although the current scientific theories are based on the belief that the world has an objective observer-independent existence, real experiments suggest just the opposite. It is thought that life is just the activity of atoms and particles, which spin around for a while and then dissipate into nothingness. But if we add life to the equation, we can explain some of the major puzzles of modern science, including the uncertainty principle, entanglement, and the fine-tuning of the laws that shape the universe.
Consider the famous two-slit experiment. When you observe a particle go through the holes, it behaves like a bullet, passing through one slit or the other. But if no one observes the particle, it exhibits the behaviour of a wave and can pass through both slits at the same time. This and other experiments tell us that unobserved particles exist only as ‘waves of probability’ as the great Nobel laureate Max Born demonstrated in 1926. They’re statistical predictions – nothing but a likely outcome. Until observed, they have no real existence; only when the mind sets the scaffolding in place, can they be thought of as having duration or a position in space.
Many scientists dismiss the implications of these experiments, because until recently, this observer-dependent behaviour was thought to be confined to the subatomic world. However, this is being challenged by researchers around the world. In fact, just this year a team of physicists (Gerlich et al, Nature Communications 2:263, 2011) showed that quantum weirdness also occurs in the human-scale world. They studied huge compounds composed of up to 430 atoms, and confirmed that this strange quantum behaviour extends into the larger world we live in.
Importantly, this has a direct bearing on the question of whether humans and other living creatures have souls. As Kant pointed out over 200 years ago, everything we experience – including all the colours, sensations and objects we perceive – are nothing but representations in our mind. Space and time are simply the mind’s tools for putting it all together. Now, to the amusement of idealists, scientists are beginning dimly to recognize that those rules make existence itself possible. Indeed, the experiments above suggest that objects only exist with real properties if they are observed. The results not only defy our classical intuition, but suggest that a part of the mind – the soul – is immortal and exists outside of space and time.
To conclude, I am not concerned here with the radical claim that personal identity, free will, and consciousness do not exist. As I know that I, myself, exist. However, I do not believe in the idea of the soul. This is mainly because of the inability to prove its existence with science instead of spirituality and I strongly agree that its concept is a result of brain boredom. However, probably like most people in the world I hope that it exists to help fight the scare of no longer existing. “The hope of another life’ wrote Will Durant ‘gives us courage to meet our own death, and to bear with the death of our loved ones; we are twice armed if we fight with faith.’