More on the Soul

Thud challenged that my comment “The belief in a soul becomes increasingly more difficult to maintain in the light of evolutionary psychology and advances in cognitive science” is “an unfounded assertion”:

How does it become increasingly difficult to believe in a soul? It may be increasingly difficult to believe that one’s sense of self is entirely separable from the physical form, but that doesn’t mean there’s no soul. There’s an enormous chasm between saying “who we are is changed by what we are” — I think that’s a safe statement — and saying “we are nothing but meat.”

It’s increasingly difficult because there are increasingly fewer things we can attribute to “the soul.” Thud himself admits “who we are is changed by what we are,” but how is that logically possible if who we are intrinsically is spiritual? How can the physical affect the spiritual? The supposed miracles of the Bible show the reverse is generally the accepted view, but the belief in the soul requires the opposite to be true. A few questions then:

First, how could the soul be affected by the body? Simple — memory. Memory and memory alone is what makes human identities possible, and if the soul is in any way equated with our “identity” (and if it’s not, what’s the point?), the memory will be a necessary component. So neurons firing a certain way in the hippocampus, the amygdala, or the mammillary somehow deposit a copy of activity in the soul? The soul is a all-in-one card reader? How does it work without stepping outside the boundaries of logical and basic scientific principle?

Second: we’re talking about the soul without even considering where it came from. If we believe in a God, then we’re his creation; if we believe the theory of evolution is a better explanation than the Book of Genesis, then we’re the products of millions of years of cosmic chance; if we want to hold both beliefs at once, we call ourselves proponents of intelligent design. I hold to option two. It’s the option that has the most scientific evidence. Now, if I hold to that option and assert that there’s a soul, then where the hell did it come from? How did millions and millions of years of cosmic bumper ball create something spiritual?

Third: What affect do sudden changes in a person’s identity have on the soul — indeed, how is that even possible? What sort of “sudden changes” do I have in mind?

Phineas Gage, with his famous three-foot-seven-inch railroad spike through his head.

Some months after the accident, probably in about the middle of 1849, Phineas felt strong enough to resume work. But because his personality had changed so much, the contractors who had employed him would not give him his place again. Before the accident he had been their most capable and efficient foreman, one with a well-balanced mind, and who was looked on as a shrewd smart business man. He was now fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane, showing little deference for his fellows. He was also impatient and obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, unable to settle on any of the plans he devised for future action. His friends said he was “No longer Gage.” (Source)

But we don’t have to look to 19th-century tragedies. Think lithium, anti-depressants, Prozac. I recall meeting with my grad school adviser and discussing this. “How many Kierkegaards have we destroyed with Prozac?” Indeed — Kierkegaard, Mahler, and how many other manic-depressives would never have created their classics if they’d been born in the late twentieth century.

All the way back in 1979 there was an article about this. The abstract:

Twenty-four manic-depressive artists, in whom prophylactic lithium treatment had attenuated or prevented recurrences to a significant degree, were questioned about their creative power during the treatment. Twelve artists reported increased artistic productivity, six unaltered productivity, and six lowered productivity. The effect of lithium treatment on artistic productivity may depend on the severity and type of the illness, on individual sensitivity, and on habits of utilizing manic episodes productively. (Source)

But we don’t even have to look at medication for drastic changes. Watch some of your friends when they’re drunk.

So it’s not that I’m suggesting that there isn’t a soul. I’m simply saying that logic and science combine to show that there are, as Steven Pinker expressed it, fewer and fewer hooks on which to hang the soul.

6 thoughts on “More on the Soul

  1. You say “I’m simply saying that logic and science combine to show that there are, as Steven Pinker expressed it, fewer and fewer hooks on which to hang the soul.”

    That conclusion rests on one whopper of an assumption: that Science knows most of what Science is going to know. Otherwise how do you know we are running out of soul-hooks, or that the loss of those considered logically/scientifically inconsistent is significant enough to be statistically relevant?

    Those aren’t the only assumptions you’re making: you assume that since you do not understand how information could be shared with a soul then it probably isn’t happening. You assume that since you cannot explain how a soul might have evolved, that a soul most likely did not evolve. And you assume that since a soul (of a specific and to my mind unusual character) cannot exist, then anything similar cannot exist.

    These assumptions are not the problem, by the way. You are welcome to them, although the “there are no big breakthroughs to be made” position has made a fool out of more than one generation of scientists. The problem is you are loaning to your assumptions the weight of the authority of Science when those assumptions have not had the rigorous testing Science demands. Science cannot and does not make claims about how much there is left to know. It cannot and does not make claims about whether the soul evolved or is pre-existing. It can not nor does not make claims about the nature of the soul and the rules under which a soul must operate. Some day it may be able to do all of these things, but right now it has its hands full trying to grok DNA and string theory.

    You can say you don’t concern yourself with things that Science cannot test, or that you are more concerned with the work that Science can do now than you are with untestable celestial fantasies of dubious quality. You can say there is nothing in Science to suggest there is a soul. You have no reason to believe, in other words. But you cannot say that Science suggests or implies there is not a soul. Science is silent on that matter.

  2. I knew you wouldn’t let me down, Thud! Down to business…

    You say my conclusion is based on “one whopper of an assumption: that Science knows most of what Science is going to know.” Indeed, I do not. Science could very way discover and dissect (sorry, couldn’t resist) the soul. All I meant was that science is indeed chipping away at and explaining what we’ve always considered the things the soul is associated with: memory, personality, identity, consciousness, etc. Once they’re all gone, where do we hang the soul?

    I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating: if it some point science is able to create an artificial intelligence that is completely self-conscious and autonomous, it will have either done it without a soul or somehow created a soul, in which case “soul” will need some drastic re-definition.

    Obviously, we haven’t reached that point, and neither you nor I nor possibly our children will see it, but every indication is that such an advance is approaching.

    Bottom line, though — regarding that and my other “assumptions,” I think you’re reading more into them than is there. I am not saying that because we can’t understand how thus and such works, it’s therefore not possible. I’m simply saying, as you said at the end of your post, that “there is nothing in Science to suggest there is a soul,” and that in my opinion, the advances in science make that less and less likely.

    I guess we’ll see who’s right when we die! Rather, we’ll know for sure if you were right. If I’m right…

    Oh, fie on being a materialist!

  3. Of course you can count on me, Gary. This is far more fun than singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in drafting class.

    You say Science has done serious damage to notions of memory, personality, consciousness, and identity. But these again are your interpretations of more specific Scientific claims. How a certain drug affects us, how memories are stored, and so forth. Science has really done no harm to the basic notion of an animating force.

    What I am saying is this: you say you want to believe, or that you think believing might be nice. But you already believe something that is not supported by the known facts. And you no doubt believe many things Science has told you that I doubt you can defend or support. You are not doing science, you are doing belief.

    And you cannot call belief Science—which is what it sounds like you are doing when you say things like “Science makes it increasingly difficult to believe in a soul.” You have to say “I think it’s unlikely,” not “Science makes it unlikely.” You have to own your assumptions for what they are.

  4. I do think we are now barking about semantics.

    Using science to help formulate beliefs is not “doing science,” and I understand that. When I say “Science makes it unlikely,” I do indeed mean science as I understand it. How about this?

    Based on the scientific data available now and my scant, woefully inadequate understanding of it as well as my own observations, I think it’s unlikely that an animating force known historically as “the soul” is an unlikely proposition.


    Now get back to rehearsals—the Melvinmeister will accept nothing short of perfection from you bass voices.

  5. I think it’s unlikely that an animating force known historically as “the soul” is an unlikely proposition.

    Hah. I think you overextended yourself syntactically, G. By which I mean you gots yourself a double-negative, and have duck-seasoned yourself into agreeing with me.

    I tend to think there is a significant difference between belief and scientific theory. I also think that the distinction is not a slight academic one but the primary issue facing public school districts as ID nuts try to blur the line between the two. It has, perhaps, made me hypersensitive to claims of personal belief being phrased as well-founded scientific theory. In that case, I am very sorry to have barked at your semantics.

  6. Drat you! See, that’s what happens when you’re simultaneously working on two drafts of the same sentence in your head and then…

    Oh, you win.

    At least we agree on the ID nuts, as you aptly called them.

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