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Wednesday, March 20th, 2013 | ISSN 1556-5696

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Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (book cover detail)

About this week’s eSkeptic

The majority of Americans believe that the soul lives on after the body dies. How can we know whether consciousness can survive bodily death? In this week’s eSkeptic, Stephen Cave takes a look at the belief that souls exist, and reminds us that modern brain imaging technology provides scientific evidence to strengthen the case against such fuzzy notions.

Stephen Cave is a writer, philosopher and critic. He has a Ph.D. in metaphysics from the University of Cambridge and, before dedicating himself to writing, worked as a British diplomat and policy advisor. Stephen has since written on many philosophical, ethical and scientific subjects, from human nature to robot warriors. He writes regularly for the Financial Times, and has also written for the New York Times, Guardian, Wired and others. His book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (Crown, 2012) was a New Scientist best book of the year. He lives in Berlin.

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What Science Really Says
About the Soul

by Stephen Cave

Nathalie was hemorrhaging badly. She felt weak, cold, and the pain in her abdomen was excruciating. A nurse ran out to fetch the doctor, but by the time they arrived she knew she was slipping away. The doctor was shouting instructions when quite suddenly the pain stopped. She felt free—and found herself floating above the drama, looking down at the bustle of activity around her now still body.

“We’ve lost her,” she heard the doctor say, but Nathalie was already moving on and upwards, into a tunnel of light. She first felt a pang of anxiety at leaving her husband and children, but it was soon overwhelmed by a feeling of profound peace; a feeling that it would all be okay. At the end of the tunnel, a figure of pure radiance was waiting with arms wide open.

This, or something like it, is how millions imagine what it will be like to die. In 2009, over 70 percent of Americans said they believe that they, like Nathalie, have a soul that will survive the end of their body.1 That figure may well now be higher after the phenomenal success of two recent books describing vivid near death experiences: one from an innocent—the four year old Todd Burpo—the other from the opposite: a Harvard scientist and former skeptic, neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander.2 Both argue that when their brains stopped working, their souls floated off to experience a better place.

This is an attractive view and a great consolation to those who have lost loved ones or who are contemplating their own mortality. Many also believe this view to be beyond the realm of science, to concern a different dimension into which no microscope can peer. Dr. Alexander, for example, said in an interview with the New York Times, “Our spirit is not dependent on the brain or body; it is eternal, and no one has one sentence worth of hard evidence that it isn’t.”3

But he is wrong. The evidence of science, when brought together with an ancient argument, provides a very powerful case against the existence of a soul that can carry forward your essence once your body fails. The case runs like this: with modern brain-imaging technology, we can now see how specific, localized brain injuries damage or even destroy aspects of a person’s mental life. These are the sorts of dysfunctions that Oliver Sacks brought to the world in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.4 The man of the title story was a lucid, intelligent music teacher, who had lost the ability to recognize faces and other familiar objects due to damage to his visual cortex.

Since then, countless examples of such dysfunction have been documented—to the point that every part of the mind can now be seen to fail when some part of the brain fails. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has studied many such cases.5 He records a stroke victim, for example, who had lost any capacity for emotion; patients who lost all creativity following brain surgery; and others who lost the ability to make decisions. One man with a brain tumor lost what we might call his moral character, becoming irresponsible and disregarding of social norms. I saw something similar in my own father, who also had a brain tumor: it caused profound changes in his personality and capacities before it eventually killed him.

The crux of the challenge then is this: those who believe they have a soul that survives bodily death typically believe that this soul will enable them, like Nathalie in the story above, to see, think, feel, love, reason and do many other things fitting for a happy afterlife. But if we each have a soul that enables us to see, think and feel after the total destruction of the body, why, in the cases of dysfunction documented by neuroscientists, do these souls not enable us to see, think and feel when only a small portion of the brain is destroyed?

To make the argument clear, we can take the example of sight. If either your eyes or the optic nerves in your brain are sufficiently badly damaged, you will go blind. This tells us very clearly that the faculty of sight is dependent upon functioning eyes and optic nerves.

Yet curiously, when many people imagine their soul leaving their body, they imagine being able to see—like Nathalie, looking down on her own corpse surrounded by frantic doctors.6 They believe, therefore, that their soul can see. But if the soul can see when the entire brain and body have stopped working, why, in the case of people with damaged optic nerves, can’t it see when only part of the brain and body have stopped working? In other words, if blind people have a soul that can see, why are they blind?

So eminent a theologian as Saint Thomas Aquinas, writing 750 years ago, believed this question had no satisfactory answer.7 Without its body—without eyes, ears and nose—he thought the soul would be deprived of all senses, waiting blindly for the resurrection of the flesh to make it whole again. Aquinas concluded that the body-less soul would have only those powers that (in his view) were not dependent upon bodily organs: faculties such as reason and understanding.

But now we can see that these faculties are just as dependent upon a bodily organ—the brain—as sight is upon the eyes. Unlike in Aquinas’s day, we can now keep many people with brain damage alive and use neuroimaging to observe the correlations between that damage and their behavior. And what we observe is that the destruction of certain parts of the brain can destroy those cognitive faculties once thought to belong to the soul. So if he had had the evidence of neuroscience in front of him, we can only imagine that Aquinas himself would have concluded that these faculties also stop when the brain stops.

In fact, evidence now shows that everything the soul is supposed to be able to do—think, remember, love—fails when some relevant part of the brain fails. Even consciousness itself—otherwise there would be no general anesthetics. A syringe full of chemicals is sufficient to extinguish all awareness. For anyone who believes something like the Nathalie story—that consciousness can survive bodily death—this is an embarrassing fact. If the soul can sustain our consciousness after death, when the brain has shut down permanently, why can it not do so when the brain has shut down temporarily?

Some defenders of the soul have, of course, attempted to answer this question. They argue, for example, that the soul needs a functioning body in this world, but not in the next. One view is that the soul is like a broadcaster and the body like a receiver—something akin to a television station and a TV set. (Though as our body is also the source of our sensory input, we have to imagine the TV set also has a camera on top feeding images to the distant station.)

We know that if we damage our TV set, we get a distorted picture. And if we break the set, we get no picture at all. The naive observer would believe the program was therefore gone. But we know that it is really still being transmitted; that the real broadcaster is actually elsewhere. Similarly, the soul could still be sending its signal even though the body is no longer able to receive it.

This response sounds seductive, but helps little. First, it does not really address the main argument at all: Most believers expect their soul to be able to carry forward their mental life with or without the body; this is like saying that the TV signal sometimes needs a TV set to transform it into the picture, but once the set is kaput, can make the picture all by itself. But if it can make the picture all by itself, why does it sometimes act through an unreliable set?

Second, changes to our bodies impact on our minds in ways not at all analogous to how damage to a TV set changes its output, even if we take into account damage to the camera too. The TV analogy claims there is something that remains untouched by such damage, some independent broadcaster preserving the real program even if it is distorted by bad reception. But this is precisely what the evidence of neuroscience undermines. Whereas damage to the TV set or camera might make the signal distorted or fuzzy, damage to our brains much more profoundly alters our minds. As we noted above, such damage can even change our moral views, emotional attachments, and the way we reason.

Which suggests we are nothing like a television; but much more like, for example, a music box: the music is not coming from elsewhere, but from the workings within the box itself. When the box is damaged, the music is impaired; and if the box is entirely destroyed, then the music stops for good.

There is much about consciousness that we still do not understand. We are only beginning to decipher its mysteries, and may never fully succeed. But all the evidence we have suggests that the wonders of the mind—even near-death and out of body experiences—are the effect of neurons firing. Contrary to the beliefs of the vast majority of people on Earth, from Hindus to New Age spiritualists, consciousness depends upon the brain and shares its fate to the end. END

References
  1. What People Do and Do Not Believe In, The Harris Poll, December 15, 2009
  2. Burpo, T and Vincent, L. 2010. Heaven is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. Thomas Nelson Publishers; Alexander, Eben. 2012. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Simon & Schuster.
  3. Kaufman, L. 2012. “Readers Join Doctor’s Journey to the Afterworld’s Gates.” The New York Times, November 25, page C1.
  4. Sacks, Oliver. 1985. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  5. Damasio, Antonio. 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam Publishing.
  6. Descriptions of heaven also involve being able to see, from Dante to Heaven is For Real, cited above.
  7. Aquinas’s views on the soul can be found in his Summa Theologica and elsewhere. Particularly relevant to the question of the soul’s limited faculties are Part 1, question 77, article 8 (“Whether all the powers remain in the soul when separated from the body?”) and supplement to the Third Part, question 70, article 1 (“Whether the sensitive powers remain in the separated soul?”), in which he writes: “Now it is evident that certain operations, whereof the soul’s powers are the principles, do not belong to the soul properly speaking but to the soul as united to the body, because they are not performed except through the medium of the body—such as to see, to hear, and so forth. Hence it follows that such like powers belong to the united soul and body as their subject, but to the soul as their quickening principle, just as the form is the principle of the properties of a composite being. Some operations, however, are performed by the soul without a bodily organ—for instance to understand, to consider, to will: wherefore, since these actions are proper to the soul, the powers that are the principles thereof belong to the soul not only as their principle but also as their subject. Therefore, since so long as the proper subject remains its proper passions must also remain, and when it is corrupted they also must be corrupted, it follows that these powers which use no bodily organ for their actions must needs remain in the separated body, while those which use a bodily organ must needs be corrupted when the body is corrupted: and such are all the powers belonging to the sensitive and the vegetative soul.”

Our Next Lecture at Caltech:
DR. ADAM GRANT

Adam Grant (photo by Michael Kamber)
Give and Take:
A Revolutionary Approach
to Success

with Dr. Adam Grant
Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 2 pm

IN THIS LECTURE, based on his book on the psychology of human interactions, organizational psychologist (and the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton Business School) argues that as much as hard work, talent and luck, the way we choose to interact with other people defines our success or failure. Give and Take demolishes the “me-first” worldview and shows that the best way to get to the top is to focus not on your solo journey but on bringing others with you. Grant reveals how one of America’s best networkers developed his connections, why a creative genius behind one of the most popular shows in television history toiled for years in anonymity, how a basketball executive responsible for multiple draft busts turned things around, and how we could have anticipated Enron’s demise four years before the company collapsed—without ever looking at a single number.

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    Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 2 pm
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34 Comments »

34 Comments

  1. Dr. P K Narayanan says:

    The soul that sustains life?

    Is there soul or spirit that keeps a person alive? If so, from where and how does the soul enters the uterus of a woman at the time of conceiving a child?

    The answer to the question of existence of soul or spirit to keep a person alive is in the negative. The living organism, including the human being, lives because of the bio-chemical, bio-electric processes that take place in the body. These processes help bronchi-cardiac-ingestion functions to sustain and to help body and nerve cells to get necessary oxygen and nourishment for energy, for growth and sustenance. It is not an unknown and unknowable soul that helps the cells to live and to grow. Death is the result of stoppage of the stated functions in the body and not the escape of a non-existent soul from the body.

  2. Patrick Snyder says:

    Belief in the soul is a matter of faith, not science. For the believer, evidence is irrelevant. For the scientist or skeptic trying to talk to a believer, discussion is futile.

    • Bob Pease says:

      Evidence??
      Evidence??

      We don’t got to show you no steenkin’ evidence !!!!

      Definition:
      Unbeliever

      1. Rat Bastard Pinko Commie Wiseguy

      Dr.S

  3. Bob Pease says:

    I am disappointed at the depth of this weeks offering.
    It amounts to a fiat or two, several anecdotes and a thin list of references.

    For a start I would Recommend the works of Douglas Hoffstadter ,
    Particularly “Godel Escher and Bach” for a starting point .

    Dr. S

  4. Brian says:

    As a nonbeliever I agree with the last two comments above. I can immediately anticipate the response to this piece from believing friends.

    Example: The physical body is built on an astral template. In the case of brain injury it must wait for death to fully restore its integrity currently prisoner to the physical body and earth plane. For all we know the “dead brain-dead” (gad) DO have the same after-death experience as the so-called unimpaired. No longer restrained by their physical vehicle they are made whole but can’t come back and tell us directly once they pass into “the Light”. If they do return like the “near-deathers”, they return to their impaired bodies and states.

    No converts to the choir based on this article, I’m afraid.

  5. Henk Meevis says:

    In response to; “What Science Really Says About the Soul”
    by Stephen Cave.
    I attach an excerpt of words by my pen, written on the subject, a short time ago.

    In previous articles I have stated that we are, however complex this approach concerning a soul in an afterlife may seem to be, merely a chemical composition. This composition has evolutionary developed over eons, in what humankind, animals as well as plants, in short anything living anywhere, have become until now and will continue to evolve in future time. I propound that everything is a chemical. Chemicals make up the entire world. Our own body comes down to a composition of chemicals. And here I state; our particular chemical mix is, as far as we now know, a composition which creates a mind. A mental power which makes us a thinking substance of unique appearance, called Homo Sapiens. Far reaching? Not if compared to the god believe, as well as the not believing indoctrinated god delusion idea. i.e. Believers in deities vs. Atheists not believing in them.

    Admittedly, assumption is, necessarily, a part in my reasoning. In assuming that we are just a chemical composition, an example however may support this assumption.

    Take a very healthy person and simply remove the component water from the mixture, and what is the result? The person will die. Or; inject, for instant, air in his bloodstream, upsetting the mixture and the same will happen. A cocktail of chemicals is supposedly healing HIV not to speak of fully blown Aids. It is merely a chemical adjustment to the unhealthy mix of an HIV effected person and is, hopefully, intended to prolong life. Numerous examples are possible to prove that if the chemical mixture of us or of anything on earth is fundamentally interfered with, grave results become fact. No believer or unbeliever has ever come forward to prove otherwise.

    Dr. HLJJ Meevis

    • Brian says:

      Like Henk, I am that often maligned (usually for “lack of “nuance”) mechanistic materialist. In fact, I am very much in sync with the author of the Chthulu Mythos (H.P. Lovecraft) cited by Bob Pease above, a kind of “cosmicist”. Also like Lovecraft, I say “So what”? And get on with living the best life my chemical components allow for.

      I’m not big on the ‘god delusion’ being some kind of alternative ‘faith’. Atheism as just another religion is a kind of believer’s word game, IMO.

      For me the simple fact is I have never in my 55 years encountered a situation where a person who was converted to ANYTHING was not already predisposed to being convinced. It does not matter whether we are discussing the truths of science or the idiocies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

      The upside is the current zeitgeist seems to be moving in favor of, if not science, at least indifference to religious belief among the younger generation. I have encountered many young people for whom religion is no part of their world-view and who give no thought at all to gods, magic, or life after death. Hope it remains the trend.

  6. ullrich fischer says:

    Debate on matters of faith is far from futile. There are numerous former true believers who were slowly pried away from their faith-addled state to become skeptics and free thinkers by arguments such at those presented in Stephen Cage’s excellent article in this issue. There may not be an immediate “ah-ha” moment for very many, but some will add the information presented here to other questions which inevitably arise re the inerrancy of their faith. As faith-heads then read their holey (sic) texts more carefully in a doomed effort to refute arguments such as Cage’s (and Thomas Aquinas’), they find that their efforts to seek refutations to rational thinkers’ arguments, far from leading to such refutations, merely raise more, and more difficult to answer questions, until the whole house of cards of their belief system crumbles.

    • Bob Pease says:

      Stephen Cage’s “excellent” article is too thin in scope and depth for this venue.

      As skeptics, we have to be selective as to whom matters of faith are discussed.
      Clearly there are those whose house of cards has started to crumble, but from the viewpoint of Believers , Satan’s workers are sneaking about with cans of solvent to start the house-glue dissolving.

      I “believe” that most Believers are scared or forbidden to entertain rationalist attacks upon their “TROOTH(TM)”, and that only a small minority are in danger of “Losing the Faith”

      Dr.S

    • Brian says:

      Yes, I agree with you, Ullrich Fischer. With one caveat. Your argument applies to those who are already “on the fence”, people willing and able to entertain doubts. This is where Patrick Snyder is correct. Nobody who is “unconvinceable” (sic) will even be willing to consider the evidence. Their faith prohibits it and even makes them blind to their refusal. They think they ARE listening and honestly evaluating your evidence. None of your counter-arguments or revelations concerning their inability to think a thing through will reach them.

      This is a fine article for the “convinced”.

  7. skeptic says:

    If we want to better understand our consciousness we need to open up for more research on psyhcedelics. The research regarding DMT is extremely fascinating and can explain alot of ufo abductions / religious awakenings etc.

    Our mind can do wonderful things on these substances, why are we so afraid to explore our minds?
    I firmly believe all religious / spiritual beliefs comes from these expereinces, and we need sceintists to also have these experiences to look at them from a sceintific point of view.

    • Bob Pease says:

      During a Long and frequent association as a Personal Friend of
      Terence McKenna , i declined the opportunity to Shroom out.
      If the eschatology is really machine-elves, I’m lucky to want to leave that unresolved.

      There may be chemical assistance to enlightenment , but it may also be a trick
      by Cthulhu looking for a tasty morsel

      RJP

      • skeptic says:

        I don’t think these experiences actually have anything to do with real entities people are contacting, that seems too far fetched and should not be the working theory. However I see these substances as a way of connecting to our subconsciousness and the part of our brain that constructs dreams etc. It seems like accessing these parts of our brain can help people feel more empathy towards each other, and might be the key to why we have developed a sense of moral as well.

        Fact is we know too little about these experiences now, and I would love for this to get more scientific recognition and that scientists also explore these experiences as they will have a better judgement on how ‘real’ these experiences are and not jump on all these crazy theories about mechanical elves in outer space.

        • Bob Pease says:

          what is really up is that Scientists are actually a gang of PREverts who sneak around and do PREversions in telephone booths!!!

          Check out Keenan Wynn in “Dr Strangelove”

  8. Oliver Carter says:

    I enjoyed the article. Considering space allotment (which will always come into play in such mediums), I find it well presented–even if, as mentioned once above, it could use some more citations. Of course, all interested could do their own searches. Carter’s “Mapping the Mind” is one good, general reader source, but one could see Sack’s “Illusions” as well, even Ganzzaniga’s “Human” (near end of chapter 5), among many other works. Of course a number of studies published in the likes of “Science,” “Consciousness and Cognition,” and “Cortex,” quite convincingly demonstrate the better understanding.

    If I have misread, please do forgive me, but I think I recall only having seen the word ‘consciousness’ near the end of these comments. To the best of my knowledge and understanding, what this neo-Platonic ‘soul’ idea will boil down to, is the matter of having consciousness. Sure, it’s an extremely complex, difficult to image and piece together thing, but it is being worked on; and for those of us who keep up with it, slow, but ever sure progress is being made. The substrate which is necessary (in lack of the developed AI at present, at least) for the dynamic, reentering processing that amounts to the state of consciousness, is that found only in (more evidently) mammal brains; for the most part. (Think of Alex, the African Grey Parrot, here.)

    One thing I wish to be allowed to mention, is that I find it strange that folks often bring in the concept of “God,” or a god (or goddess), when talking about the matter of a ‘soul.’ That’s surely telling, is it not? The Tanakh didn’t give us the later, early Christian neo-Platonic overhaul. The ‘nephesh’ is the whole of the animal, and perishes. That is why the earlier, early Christians had the resurrection, as can be seen hinted back at by Aquinas, in the present article.

    The better understanding is quite clear, despite the misgivings of even a ‘neuroscientist,’ consciousness is the result of a certain, and above-threshold processing within, and of, a neuro-glia matrix which is of the tissue that is found in brains alone. When all those little cells either disconnect, or brake up, ‘poof,’ it’s gone. Keep up the good work, folks !

  9. Dan Sumners says:

    I agree with the comments regarding the failure to counter the arguments of believers in this article. If one believes in something as mysterious as a soul, one can of course continue to state the link between it and the body is also mysterious. An analogy with a television set is hardly going to convince anyone.

    Rather than responding to the substance of claims made by believers, a simple answer to Dr Alexander would have sufficed: “No one has one sentence worth of hard evidence that the spirit exists”.

  10. The Other John Mc says:

    The best lines of evidence against the idea of a soul, some of which the author rightly emphasized, are:

    1) correlational brain imaging data showing that specific brain regions (modules) are associated with specific sensory, perceptual, and cognitive activity. All such activity has historically been associated only with an immaterial life-force or soul.

    2) correlational brain imaging and neuroanatomy showing that specific brain regions (modules), when damaged, are associated with specific sensory, perceptual, and cognitive deficits.

    3) experimental brain stimulation techniques that can suppress, enhance, or otherwise alter specific sensory, perceptual, and cognitive functions; these basically always rely on and corroborate findings from (1) and (2) above.

    4) ability to mathematically and computationally model sensory, perceptual, and cognitive functions to often remarkable degrees of fidelity.

    5) ability to experimentally confirm that ensembles of real neurons in humans’ brains and other organisms’ nervous systems, are wired and connected as our theories/models would predict.

    6) Genetic data correlated with sensation, perception, cognition, and personality characteristics, suggesting such capabilities are at least partly explainable by physical genetic (as opposed to non-material) factors

    7) Points 1-6 above eliminate the need for the soul as an explanation of most and probably all aspects of sensation, perception, and cognition.

    8) The “soul theory” has no plausibly proposed mechanism of action, to explain why or how the brain or body might be some kind of “conduit” to a soul, or how such an immaterial soul is able to interact with the physical matter of the brain/body and yet still remain undetectable by scientific investigation.

    9) The inability of the “soul theory” to answer simple questions like:
    – Why don’t we remember being souls before our bodies were born?
    – or, as observed by the author,why can’t a blind person’s soul see?
    – or if souls are immaterial, why do they require brains/bodies to interact with the world?
    – what is it about brains/bodies that allow them to interact with souls, and why could we not replicate this capability in another medium?
    – if brains are all that is required for souls, then all animals with nervous systems have souls? Birds, insects,

    As a theory, the idea of a soul just has no compelling evidence in support of it; no explanatory or theoretical mechanism as to how or why it works; and libraries full of correlational, experimental, mathematical, computational, and genetic evidence that seem to directly refute the “theory.” The scientific conclusion on this issue is therefore straightforward: there ain’t no soul, and if there is, prove it.

    • Bob Pease says:

      My last shot…..

      “As a theory, the idea of a soul just has no compelling evidence in support of it;”

      one more time..

      *************
      “evidence?
      “evidence ??”

      We don’t got to show you no steenkin’ evidence!!!
      ***********

      parody of a line from “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

      i.e. preaching to the choir here again

      Good luck

      Dr. Sidethink Hp.D

    • JC2013 says:

      The above article still hasn’t proven that there is no soul. Proving a negative is a quite difficult thing. Rather it has just confirmed what we would already expect if the soul did exist, namely that it likely can’t be measured using material science and that it acts in ways we will never understand.
      If thoughts are only chemical reactions in the brain where do they come from? If we live in a closed material universe where metaphysical things like souls don’t ever intersect with us, what then causes me to have thoughts? A purely natural universe implies a massive string of causes and effects for an explanation of all things. But it seems to me we don’t see a chain of cause and effects for the source of thoughts. Even if we did, this would not require that our thoughts (as caused by some chemical reaction in the brain) would have to correlate to reality. But in general we think and generally experience that our thoughts do. Thoughts are special events in that they are ‘about’ something other than themselves and can be true or false. Chemical events are not ‘about’ anything and can’t be true or false—they just are themselves. As J.B.S Haldane published in Possible Worlds in 1928, “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true . . . and that hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” By the author believing there is no soul it shows he likely believes in a pure materialistic naturalism. How did this historical process of unintelligent accidents produce a mental behaviour that can find truth? How did we humans, if only mere animals, develop the unnecessary ability to make inferences and discover reasons and connections. It is quite conceivable that our psychological responses to our environment could have improved indefinitely (biologically speaking) without ever becoming something more than a simple animal psychological response. We would have survived all the same. When, where, how, and why did our trustworthy cognitional abilities come to exist?

  11. Ron says:

    This is going to be a futile argument until the mystery of consciousness is elaborated in scientific terms a normally intelligent person can follow. This has yet to be done, and perhaps is inherently impossible.

    • The Other John Mc says:

      You are probably right, explaining consciousness might be near-impossible or just impossible. Instead, demonstrations will be in order. When we have computers/machines/programs/etc. that can demonstrate something most people would recognize as consciousness (i.e., a Turing Test equivalent), then the masses will be swayed. I would think this will come before an easily understandable explanation of how or why it works.

  12. Henk Meevis says:

    Hi Ron. Conciousness is not an inherently impossible position when the chemical composition of a body, be this mammal or plant, is actually functional at and for any given time period.

    That means that at a given moment the exact critical mixture balance of chemical components exists and is capable to create mind.

    Here mind means soul, a natural result and function of the composition until such time the balance thereof is disturbed and therefore unable to continue its natural function.

  13. Henry Ortland says:

    It is the nature of things that in every argument there is a hole. Neither side can definitively solve the puzzle.

    Both sides may be right. There may be a soul and the brain loses personality with injury. You can break a TV so you lose the sound or the picture or the picture is distorted. But, that does not mean the show disappeared.

  14. doug says:

    re brain and soul….

    the basic error in this analysis is the fact that the brain lives in a very limited world with 3 dimensions and time… since we have very little if any idea about the total consist of our universe, approx 95% is unknown… dark matter or energy…. then it is illusory to conclude that the NDE phenomena are simply neurons wildly firing away….

    there are sufficient cases we do not understand, which allow more than just speculation, that other dimensions do exist, including those seen in NDEs…. how many blind mathematians wearing sunglasses are there searching for black cats in a dark room?? how many unknown dimensions are there?? ”scientists” speculate continously on this question…

    it would be more honest and productive to admit the possibility that WE DO NOT KNOW!!!

  15. Henry Ortland says:

    It has occurred to me that it might be that if we really answered any of these questions, it would mean the end of us.
    I am firmly convinced that the meaning of the Universe is the realization of infinite potential. With out cause and effect and a list of unanswerable questions this potential can not be realized. Furthermore, if we knew all of these things life would quickly become boring. We would run out of things to do and the desire to do them.
    I am convinced that the Universe both small and large will confound us forever. But, by design we must continue to question and try.

    • doug says:

      the ”end of us” could be translated into meeting your maker….

    • doug says:

      and realization of potential cannot be infinite if the universe is not infinite… which is supposedly the case according to current cosmology… yes, the universe will confound us for a long, long time…

  16. who'dathunkit says:

    And with everything written here, a good Skeptic would say, well… “you didn’t disprove the soul either”..

    Keeping a healthy skeptical, yet open mind is what will move us forward in research. May all keep this in mind. Modern Medicine.. What major diseases have they cured? Not talking about vaccines that are a “hit and miss”.. I said Cure..

    I think their time would be better spent elsewhere..

  17. Terry D. says:

    As an actual scientist, I can tell you being skeptical is only half of what’s required. The other half is being humbly aware of what you don’t know. Just as you don’t “know” something is true until it’s proven, neither do you “know” something is not true until it’s disproven. It’s been less than a hundred years since we realized that more than three quarters of all the substance of the universe and one quarter of its energy must be comprised of some mysterious matter we cannot even perceive yet except by inference. The Greeks used to think consciousness was located in the belly. Is the brain the ultimate source of consciousness? I don’t know, and neither does the author of this piece.

  18. JC2013 says:

    So his thoughts on the soul are very interesting. My question to him and others then is how did consciousness and rational come into existence exactly? What about beliefs and values? Why do some believe/value certain things, for example about morals or ethics, and other don’t? How is it if we don’t have a soul but rather just have a brain that is worked by mechanistic cells (that were developed in all of us the same evolutionary process) have very different thoughts, emotions, and values? Could naturalist evolution really produce these amazing things?

    • doug says:

      speaking of evolution, punctuated equilbrium comes to mind… short punctuated periods of specie proliferation followed by long periods of specie selection and extinction… what actually happens during the short periods of proliferation that produces new species??

  19. Arturo del Castillo says:

    The skeptic community, and the scientific community in general, has to be careful no to fall in a false dilemma when dealing with the soul/conciousness/mind issue.

    Both the article and the comments assume only two options: the “materialistic” point of view versus the existence of a western-christian based idea of a soul.

    I don’t intend here to get into other conceptions, but I would like to suggest to those really interested in the subject to explore alternative points of view, if anything, just to broaden your views.

    For example, in the Buddhist traditions, which have been devoted to the systematic study of conciousness for more than 2,000 years, what we regard as our identity is only the most superficial layer of a very complex structure of conciousness; when the human body dies, this layer disintegrates but the essential remains as an interconnected continuum of which the human body/life was just a temporary figment (not even a central one!). The key concept is what is called “the void”, of which the best definition in western words that I have found is: we are the momentary expression of an ever changing unity with no center.

    I’m sure every skeptic will enjoy exploring these views, and will probably find enriching material to keep building their conceptions of reality.

  20. Gordon says:

    There is a new Christian concept of the spirit that even many atheists could accept! It is the concept that one’s personality is a holographic-like software that develops in his hardware brain. Software is immaterial, and is listed among immaterial assets of major companies. Software can be transferred from one computer to another. Similarly, your personality software (spirit) can hypothetically be transferred from your hardware brain to either New Jerusalem (Heaven) or the Place of Torment (Hell). This “new” concept is actually in the ancient Bible Greek and Hebrew in verses that distinguish between “spirit” and “soul.” The soul is mortal and animals also have souls (thinking brains). However, the spirit is immortal and animals lack spirits. Just as software can move through a network, a spirit can move through the universal neural network called the Logos.

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