What do you think about the idea of souls?

How do you respond to the following claim: When a person dies they lose their life force, call it soul. This energy – the life force, this “lifeness” – lives on in some yet undiscovered way. Someday it may be discovered just like radio waves or electricity were.

Posted: December 2nd 2007

flagellant www

When I was young, I had a very religious friend who would always talk about 'mind, body, and soul’. The concept of 'soul’ made me wince even then. Now, I tend to reach for my blue pencil. I can see little use for the word, except perhaps as a description of a state of mind.

The word 'soul’ traditionally denotes something supernatural. Idiot clergymen and politicians refer to 'the soul’ as being something divine that enters into humans at some stage during their development before birth and leaves on death. In 2001, George W. Bush famously received Pope John Paul II’s opinion on when the soul enters the body. This led to the rejection of public funding for stem cell research in the US. In talking to the Pope, he was bound to get (and got) the same ill-informed answer that he would have done 400 years earlier.

The distinction between mind and body is a useful one to make. However, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his fascinating but difficult book The Concept of Mind suggests that there are philosophical problems with dealing with the mind separately from the body. There may well be physiological problems, too. My personal opinion, based on some – but not comprehensive – reading, is that there is no 'Ghost in the Machine’. There is certainly no soul, nor even a mind, that could survive the body. Given the Principle of Evolution, it would be nonsensical for such an entity to exist in primitive life forms. For it to have evolved in homo sapiens alone is equally unthinkable.

However, metaphysical speculation is fascinating. You compare 'the soul’ with radio or electricity. In both established cases, there were hints before experimental verification. Electricty was known more than two thousand years ago; Maxwell predicted radio waves before Hertz demonstrated them experimentally. Your proposition, that some life-force might live on, seems so unlikely that I would dismiss it out of hand. To my knowledge, no scientist has discerned the slightest hint of a 'life-force’.

Posted: December 4th 2007

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vjack www

The idea of souls is certainly appealing, and I can understand why people would want to believe that there is life after death. Unfortunately, this is simply a matter of wish-fulfillment. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that souls exist, so I have no reason to believe that they do. That I might want them to exist takes me no closer to their actual existence.

How do I respond to the claim that there is some mysterious life force that survives bodily death? I would respond as I would any other extraordinary claim; I would ask for the evidence supporting it. In this case, I find none, making it rather easy to set the claim aside. Should evidence someday emerge, I am ready to reconsider the possibility.

Posted: December 4th 2007

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brian thomson www

One problem with the idea of souls, like religion in general, is that it starts with us, and our wishes. It doesn’t originate from evidence that stands up, independent of human interpretation and our wishful thinking.

It is comforting to us to think that someone we’ve lost is still with us in some measure, however intangible. For you to say “it may be discovered” is also a wish, based on human nature; there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I think it’s healthy to understand where it comes from: us, not nature.

I’m not saying that the idea is impossible – that would be daft – but good science has to start with evidence from the natural world, before we can say anything useful about a phenomenon. Compared to what’s out there, in the wider universe, our wishes for ourselves are are small and unimportant.

Posted: December 4th 2007

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SmartLX www

If the claim that souls may someday be proved were used as an argument for their existence, I would respond:

“And one day we may look in a cave and find GOD WAS HERE etched in 3-billion-year-old letters, in English. That would prove God exists, or at least existed 3 billion years ago. Thing is, there’s still no evidence for either one, and believers have been looking long and hard.”

The soul as an ethereal entity existing separate from the body and the brain, and persisting after the death of both, goes into the category of supernatural phenomena which I will not believe in without evidence. The description of the soul in the question is simply an assertion, with nothing to back it up except the possibility of future proof. You can promise that for anything.

For an example of past research into the presence of the soul, read about “Dr Duncan McDougall”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duncan_MacDougall_%28doctor%29 and his claim that the soul weighs 21 grams. It turned out to be pretty shoddy.

Death, incidentally, is defined in strict medical terms, though these are disputed sometimes. “Life force” is, at best, a metaphor.

Posted: December 3rd 2007

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