It’s Time to Abandon the Irrational Concept of a Soul January 6, 2015

It’s Time to Abandon the Irrational Concept of a Soul

While religion itself has received plenty of criticism over the past several years, the concept of the soul often gets a pass. Maybe it’s because the belief doesn’t do much damage, but it’s no more rational than a belief in God. There’s no evidence for it, you can’t sell it (I promise), and it really doesn’t weigh 21 grams.

Julien Musolino, a cognitive scientist and Associate Professor at Rutgers, has finally written a book debunking this idea that so many Americans hold dear. It’s bluntly titled The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs (Prometheus Books, 2015):

In the excerpt below, Musolino explains why the soul is a topic worth discussing:

WHEN THE SPIRIT MOVES YOU

What would possess someone to publicly blurt out, like the child in Andersen’s famous tale, that the emperor has no clothes, and worse, that he has no soul either? One of my favorite answers comes from one of my colleagues who once said, when asked a similar question: “I am paid to find out the truth and announce it!” (To be fair, this remark was probably made tongue-in-cheek, and besides, not all truths are born equal.) For those of us who are involved in the business of teaching psychology, neuroscience, or cognitive science, the soul certainly represents a perfect illustration of the proverbial elephant in the room.

We cognitive scientists routinely talk about the physical basis of mind and use phrases such as “the mind is what the brain does.” Much less often do we publicly discuss what the physical basis of mind entails for the traditional notion of personhood. This is no doubt in large part because, as Joshua Greene pointed out, the question of the soul is a touchy issue. But just because an issue is touchy doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about it. In fact, if we really are in the business of education, we should talk about such issues precisely because they are touchy and therefore rarely discussed publicly. After all, clergymen, movie directors, and politicians openly talk about the soul, so why shouldn’t scientists?

It should go without saying (but it goes even better if we say it, as one of my high school teachers liked to remind us) that the goal of such discussion isn’t to bully people who happen to believe in the soul into changing their beliefs. Rather, the objective is to create a free marketplace of ideas, where all points of views can be discussed without fear of censorship or discrimination, and to let people decide for themselves which set of ideas they find the most compelling. If teachers, educators, scientists, and writers were discouraged from discussing touchy, unfashionable, or controversial topics on the grounds that they are, well, touchy, unfashionable, or controversial, then education, like Harry and Rodrick’s world, would lose much of its value and meaning.

Ironically, fairness and the recognition of different points of view is precisely what is often called for by proponents of certain “controversial” ideas in America today. Take for example the perennial “debate” over creationism and evolution that has been raging in the United States for many decades (much to the astonishment of our European friends). One of the arguments often made by proponents of intelligent design (the latest brand of creationism) is that we should be fair and teach students both sides of the “controversy.” “Teach the controversy and let the students decide for themselves!” we often hear (sometimes from people as prominent as the president of the United States, in the case of George W. Bush). Teaching the “controversy” in the evolution vs. intelligent design “debate” would be an excellent idea indeed if there actually was a meaningful controversy in the first place. To be sure, there is a huge manufactured, and largely North American, public controversy, but it has no analogue in the scientific world (hence the scare quotes when I used the words controversy and debate).

In the case of the soul, if there is a public controversy over its existence at all, it has been a pretty quiet one, at least compared to the battles raging over evolution. Nevertheless, while a substantial majority of the American public believes in the soul and its survival after death, mainstream science has abandoned this traditional idea. So here we have two worldviews that could not be more different from one another, and if we really care about being fair and ensuring that different ideas get their share of airtime, I say it’s time to give scientists the microphone. As the psychologist Paul Bloom put it: “Such issues are too important to leave entirely in the hands of lawyers, politicians, and theologians.”

This book is the rejoinder to the growing number of popular books that have surfaced in recent years, trying to make the case for the soul on scientific grounds. Examples include Life after Death: The Evidence, by conservative writer and Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza; Life after Death: The Burden of Proof, by New Age author Deepak Chopra; The Soul Hypothesis: Investigations into the Existence of the Soul, by linguist Mark Baker and philosopher Stewart Goetz; The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and journalist Denyse O’Leary; and Proof of Heaven, by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander. Here’s a revealing passage from D’Souza’s book:

To reclaim the hijacked territory, Christians must take a fresh look at reason and science. When they do, they will see that it stunningly confirms the beliefs that they held in the first place. What was presumed on the basis of faith is now corroborated on the basis of evidence, and this is especially true of the issue of life after death. Remarkably, it is reason and science that supply new and persuasive evidence for the afterlife — evidence that wasn’t there before.

So, according to D’Souza, science itself provides persuasive evidence for the immortality of the soul. If so, one might wonder why mainstream scientists themselves are not convinced by the kind of evidence that D’Souza claims exists. In fact, the scientific consensus goes precisely in the opposite direction: away from the soul and the afterlife — as we will discover in chapter 2. And it’s not that D’Souza’s fellow Christians failed to notice these developments. Consider, for example, the following passage from the back cover of a 2004 book titled What about the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, edited by the theologian Joel Green:

Everyone knows about the rocky relationship between science and theology brought about by the revolutionary proposals of Copernicus and Darwin. Fewer people know about an equally revolutionary scientific innovation that is currently under way among neurobiologists. This revolution in brain research has completely rewritten our understanding of who we are. It poses fundamental challenges to traditional Christian theology. According to the scientific worldview that now dominates, it is no longer necessary to speak of a soul or spirit as distinct from the functions of the brain.

Contrary to what D’Souza and others have claimed, I passionately disagree (perhaps I should say that I rationally disagree) with the conclusion that science supports the notion of an immortal soul. As I will argue in the pages ahead, the current scientific consensus isn’t simply a fad, nor is it fueled by antireligious sentiment (as Baker and Goetz suggest in their book). Instead, scientists have abandoned the soul because reason and evidence — the tools of their trade — compelled them to do so.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

Although the world rarely comes neatly prepackaged into clearly delineated categories, and contains many shades of gray, I have come to see that people fall into roughly three categories with respect to the question of the soul. At one end of the spectrum are my colleagues and fellow scientists, for whom the conclusions I will reach in this book will not be particularly surprising. At the other end of the spectrum, we find people who are intimately convinced that human beings have souls and who will not consider, even in principle, that this may not be true. I’ve often heard them politely tell me that scientists can present all the evidence they want, no amount would ever convince them to change their minds. Just like Agent Mulder in The X-Files, they want to believe. Period.

There is also a third category. These are people who sit on the fence regarding the existence of the soul, although they may be leaning one way or the other. At the heart of their dilemma lies the massive asymmetry that we find in a country like the United States — for every bit of information that is released from the ivory tower and reaches the general public on the topic of the soul, there are ten gigabytes of countervailing information pouring out from all corners of popular culture. So those undecided souls (here’s an example of usage that does not carry any metaphysical implications) end up being immersed in the traditional view, but they are only vaguely familiar with the details of the scientific view. I have met many of those people myself and come to realize that they, unlike the people in the previous category, are in principle willing to change their minds if someone takes the time to carefully explain to them why it is that mainstream scientists no longer believe in the soul. Sometimes, a little rational push is all it takes to awaken the Agent Scully within.

This book is equally suited to readers who fervently believe in the soul and will not change their minds, but who are nevertheless curious and would like to try to understand why there are people who do not believe in the soul narrative. As for the choir of colleagues and fellow scientists to whom I would be preaching, I am reminded of my own experience with ideas that I already accept. For example, I do not need to read any more books to convince myself of the validity of evolution, but I still read books on this topic because I find the details fascinating. I am also a big sucker for analogies that help convey complicated or important ideas (or both) in simple and compelling ways (the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls these intuition pumps, and I will use several of them throughout the book). So if other academics are like me in this regard, and I suspect that many are, I am sure there are many aspects of this book that they will enjoy too, even if the denouement is a forgone conclusion.

The Soul Fallacy is available online and in bookstores beginning today.

Reprinted from The Soul Fallacy, (Prometheus Books, 2015) with permission from the publisher


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