Sean Carroll: We don’t have immortal souls

May 26, 2011 • 1:49 pm

Can you prove a negative? I’ve argued that this is the classical last-ditch defense of God, and, beyond the existence of a deity itself, nowhere is that argument more salient that when comes to the soul and the afterlife.  How could we possibly get evidence against a soul, or against its immortal survival in regions above?  This question also relates to the frequent claims of accommodationists—employees of the National Center for Science Education come to mind—that you can’t test the supernatural.

Well, you can under one condition: if the supernatural is supposed to leave traces in the material world but doesn’t (rain dances and prayer are two examples).  A subset of this occurs when  “supernatural” claims posit phenomena that are totally incoherent or nonsensical according to what we know about the universe. (Remember, conclusions about the absence of God and his workings are, like all scientific conclusions, provisional. There is evidence for a deity that I would accept; I just haven’t seen any.)

Over at Cosmic Variance, physicist Sean Carroll claims that we already know enough to dismiss the idea of an immortal soul as a scientific possibility (that is, a thing that has a real existence)—and I agree.  His post from Monday, “Physics and the immortality of the soul,” has already stimulated a huge number of comments (I haven’t read them).   His argument is simple, and based on physics:

Admittedly, “direct” evidence one way or the other is hard to come by — all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences, plus a bucketload of wishful thinking. But surely it’s okay to take account of indirect evidence — namely, compatibility of the idea that some form of our individual soul survives death with other things we know about how the world works.

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren’t any sensible answers to these questions. Of course, everything we know about quantum field theory could be wrong. Also, the Moon could be made of green cheese.

Among advocates for life after death, nobody even tries to sit down and do the hard work of explaining how the basic physics of atoms and electrons would have to be altered in order for this to be true. If we tried, the fundamental absurdity of the task would quickly become evident. . .

But let’s say you do that. How is the spirit energy supposed to interact with us? Here is the equation that tells us how electrons behave in the everyday world:

[it’s the Dirac equation.]  . . . As far as every experiment ever done is concerned, this equation is the correct description of how electrons behave at everyday energies. It’s not a complete description; we haven’t included the weak nuclear force, or couplings to hypothetical particles like the Higgs boson. But that’s okay, since those are only important at high energies and/or short distances, very far from the regime of relevance to the human brain. If you believe in an immaterial soul that interacts with our bodies, you need to believe that this equation is not right, even at everyday energies. There needs to be a new term (at minimum) on the right, representing how the soul interacts with electrons. . .

. . Nobody ever asks these questions out loud, possibly because of how silly they sound. Once you start asking them, the choice you are faced with becomes clear: either overthrow everything we think we have learned about modern physics, or distrust the stew of religious accounts/unreliable testimony/wishful thinking that makes people believe in the possibility of life after death. It’s not a difficult decision, as scientific theory-choice goes.

Indeed!  Those who specify the existence of souls and afterlives in this scientific era must do more than issue fuzzy-minded gobbledygook.  They must specify more precisely what they’re talking about, and how it’s supposed to work.  If we’re supposed to survive after death, what part of us survives, and how?  And what is this soul, exactly?  We’re no longer in the Middle Ages, so theologians who make empirical claims must be empirically specific.  As Sean notes, there are biological questions as well.  The first ones that occurs to me are these: where, exactly, in the human lineage did the soul emerge? (Or do other species have souls?)  Was it put into that lineage by God, or did it evolve? If instilled by God, when?  And where in our body does it reside? If we retain our memories and personalities in the afterlife, how do they exist without neurons?

Of course theologians will respond to all of the above like this, “We don’t have to tell you what souls are, or in what form you survive after death.  We just know it’s true because we just know that there’s a God and that he allows these things.”

The proper answer to that, of course, is Hitchens’s Dictum: “What can be asserted without evidence. . .”

It’s time to make theologians get specific.  For too long we’ve let them get away with fuzzy-mindedness.

And Good for Carroll.  He’s a nice guy—the kind of guy whom you don’t expect to be be stirring up this hornets’ nest—but he loves truth more than he loves adulation. (There’s no easier way to gain public approbation than by coddling religion.)

There’s a lot more than this in Sean’s post, so go read it.

67 thoughts on “Sean Carroll: We don’t have immortal souls

  1. That there is no Afterlife is the sharp scalpel that pops every balloon that represents every religion. No need to confront or examine the “meticulous” thinking, the logical constructs of Christianity, Islam, et. al. I believe in two decades people will be examining the wreckage of religious belief, and wondering why, when it became apparent, with the advent of chemical anesthesia (1847) that demonstrated the lack of a soul (why did the soul not stay awake??) that the wane of religion did not begin in earnest in the 19th Century.

    The momentum of existing society and social habits, of course.

  2. I sort of argued this a while ago. How can the immaterial interact with the material without violating the 1st law of Thermo. One of our regulars pointed out that extra energy can be added due to relativity. But it still didn’t address the fundamental problem that only enery interacts with energy and energy (or matter: e=mc^2) is material.

    1. I once made a similar argument, not based on relativity, but on Maxwell’s Demon.

      In short, souls are seen as entities that aren’t made up of matter and / or energy but which nevertheless are capable of causing our bodies to act in different ways. For example, it’s your soul that decides whether or not you should utter the Sinner’s Prayer.

      Maxwell’s Demon separates a gas (liquid, whatever) of uniform temperature into two chambers of hot and cold by examining all molecules and switching a gate based on the molecule’s speed: if above the average, it goes into the hot chamber; below, the cold chamber. As we all should know, it’s trivial to extract usable energy from a temperature gradient.

      Maxwell’s Demon is a thought experiment to demonstrate that any such sorting must consume at least as much energy as it “creates” by separating the gas — typically by slowing down every particle and thereby creating waste heat. However, if a soul can cause your body to do stuff but it isn’t itself made of matter and / or energy, then it could cause you to press the button that opens and closes Maxwell’s Demon’s gate at exactly the right time — and it wouldn’t use any energy in so doing. Ergo, your soul could power a perpetual motion machine.

      So, at the end of the day, only one of three possibilities must be true:

      * souls are entirely material entities, subject to the laws of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, relativity, and all the rest;

      * perpetual motion machines are possible;

      * or souls are purest fantasy.

      Of course, those three options apply equally well to all “spirit forces.” If there are any entities vaguely gods, either they’re material entities or they can construct perpetual motion machines.

      Note: a perpetual motion machine would be consistent with a Matrix-style computer simulation, so it wouldn’t constitute proof of divinity. But, if the entity in question can’t whip up a perpetual motion machine on the spot, you can be damned certain it’s not a god.



      1. Note also that an early version of this objection was raised against Descartes. This was especially to the point (ad hominem in the good sense), since Descartes held a view about what we would call a conservation law (of momentum, but it doesn’t matter). Descartes seems to have reacted almost as if the objection were fatal, save for the fact he did not know that the conservation law was, in fact absolute. That is, he held that only the magnitude was conserved, and says the soul can be used to change direction. Oh well. 🙂

        As for energy, once again, E=mc^2 says that energy and *mass* are exchangable (in some cases – see the rest of the theories which have this as a theorem). *Maxwell* pointed out well Einstein’s discovery that dimensional analysis shows that energy is a property, not a stuff.

        1. So matter is stuff and energy is matter and vice-versa (e=mc^2) is an identity relation (reflective, transitive, and symmetric) but energy is a property not stuff. Sounds like arguing the trinity which is also an identity relation but isn’t. 🙂

  3. Of course theologians will respond to all of the above like this, “We don’t have to tell you what souls are, or in what form you survive after death. We just know it’s true because we just know that there’s a God and that he allows these things.

    I asked Brandon from the Siris blog the same question and got what I call the homeopathic* response quoted above. We don’t know how, we just know it does because we experience it. I replied that what we experience fits nicely into physical phenomena and no need to posit non-material phenomena. I’m not sure where the conversation went after that as I was progressively getting drunker and got sick of the the theology…..

    *Homeopaths and acoloytes don’t know how it works, they just know** it works.

    **For differing values of know.

  4. I expect the response of theologians to be a patronizing smile and “oh, you silly scientists. Next you’ll be asking what number ‘love’ is on the periodic table.” Perhaps with the traditional Shakespeare quote about “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

    Of course, these same people are more than delighted to cite (their misinterpretations of) quantum physics when they think it supports their particular brand of woo.

    1. For fun, you can ask someone who compares souls and God to “love” to define what they mean by “love.” If they can do it without turning it into either a spirit or a spiritual force — then it’s not a very good analogy, is it?

      And if they do think of “love” as a spirit/spiritual force, then we’ve got a good handle on where their thinking starts to go off the rails.

  5. As a simple exercise in reason, I posit that actions in a supernatural world and a natural world cannot share mutual phenomena. Consider as an analogy, a world of gaseous atmosphere, “air”, (the supernatural world) and an underwater world (the natural world). Since water is 1000 times more viscous than “air”, the thousand-to-one ratio of viscosity is a decent enough approximation of the effects of a world where time is a one-way arrow (the natural world) and a place where time is infinite, has no meaning (the supernatural world). Just as an example of what can be done in the supernatural world, yet cannot be achieved in the natural world, a lightweight sphere at the end of a string can be whipped around in a circle in the supernatural world, but is impossible to perform this action in the natural world. In fact, the sphere in motion cannot keep its motion consistent if one attempts to transfer the moving sphere from the supernatural world into the natural world. It either bounces off the interface, or makes very little entrance before leaving.

    I have half-a-dozen other examples, but, I’m certain others can create better ones than I have.

  6. Unfortunately, Sam Harris is right when he says that, for someone who does not respect evidence, there is no evidence you can present to convince them that they should accept the validity of evidence.

  7. I do wonder about where the soul goes after death, just like I wonder about where those angry birds go when I turn off my iPad 😉

  8. I’m not in a position to comment on the physics of immortality, but the one thing that has always convinced me that there is no “afterlife” is the fact that people die as persons very often long before their bodies die. (I grew up as a child terrified of hell, and when I became old enough to realise that a god who would make a hell would be a monster, I abandoned belief in hell and in an afterlife. Even as a priest I did not believe in life after death, though I would have given that a “theological” meaning then. Now, I can’t imagine what I was thinking!) Now, theologians talk about life after death, and yet they never deal with the whole idea of dying while remaining alive, so presumably they do not think that “people” with advanced Alzheimer’s are dead. But there is no person there that is living on. It’s a dream, folks, even if the physics didn’t prove it.

    1. Never mind Alzheimer’s. What about alcohol? What’s the mechanism whereby your soul is altered by your BAC by the exact same amount as your central nervous system is? Does alcohol cross the material / spirit barrier as easily as it crosses the blood / brain barrier?



      1. A friend of mine joked, “I don’t know what consciousness is made of, but I know it’s soluble in ethanol.”

    2. Now, theologians talk about life after death, and yet they never deal with the whole idea of dying while remaining alive, so presumably they do not think that “people” with advanced Alzheimer’s are dead.

      It’s even worse than that! That child you were, the one who was terrified of hell – that child is as dead as Abraham Lincoln. Yes, the body that child inhabited is still around and kicking, the neuronal substrate on which his terrors played out is still active, but the person inside of it is completely different.

      Heck, one could even argue that the Eric MacDonald of five seconds ago who had not yet read this argument is dead, and in his place is the Eric MacDonald of right now who is thinking to himself “what a dumb argument!” 🙂

    3. I find it fascinating that you didn’t believe in life after death when you were a priest! I’ve often wondered if religious people would persist in their belief in god if they could be convinced that there was no afterlife.

  9. Steve’s reasoning is quite sound, and as Brian, Ben and many others have reasoned the physics and biology don’t add up to evidence of a soul or spirit world.

    To add my own perspective, I am a software engineer, so naturally everything looks like a software engineering problem, or a systems problem. The systems problem of the soul is the interface: A soul is affected by events that take place with the body and mind, otherwise how can a soul accumulate knowledge of the physical world, or accumulate karma so that its value can be measured for the afterlife? Either there is an interface, where the physical matter or energy meets the soul, or there is no interface, in which case there is no need to have a soul.

    Another point about souls being massless, energyless entities: they would not be bound by electrical energies or by gravity, so there is nothing that would prevent them from flying off into space, relative to the Earth 🙂

    1. Or, being awake all the time, while your physical body slept. What cues a “soul” to re-animate? Chemical? Like waking up? Sounds like the “soul” will be as asleep as last night, when you die. No more chemical reactions to awaken it.

  10. “We don’t have to tell you what souls are, or in what form you survive after death. We just know it’s true because we just know that there’s a God and that he allows these things.”

    “We don’t need your pathetic level of detail!”

    -William Dembski

  11. I don’t believe I have a soul that could survive after my death and I think that most people -whatever they say- don’t believe it either. Because of suicide. People commit suicide because they have a 100% conviction that it will be the end. Not because they think they are going to hell.
    The act itself is not too common, but the idea of it is far from rare.

    1. Um, I don’t think this works. People who commit suicide probably have a 100% conviction that it will be the end of life in this world, granted. But they could also believe they will go to a better one — one which will sooth their pain and fix their problems. Not all theists believe suicides go to Hell.

      1. I think you’re correct on this. Many murder/suicides occur IMO because the perpetrator wants his wife and kids with him in the Afterlife. The wife sez she’s leaving, taking the kids, and the egomaniac husband thinks “God” is on his side on this one (esp. the drunken wife-beaters).

        I examine these stories in the newspapers very carefully. Moreso now, there is a fear of “copycat” action, so there is less of the “we’ll all be together in heaven” quoted from suicide notes into the press releases.

  12. In fact, Dirac equation is not required here. Existance of immaterial soul wich can affect our material body will violate principle of the conservation of energy. And Paris Academy stopped accepting projects for perpetual motion machines in 1775, which we can use as a date when this principle was accepted as completely proved by science.

    I first read that idea in Daniel Dennet’s Consciousness Explained.

    Ben Goren above seems to have some other way to arrive to the same conclusion.

  13. “…if the supernatural is supposed to leave traces in the material world…”

    Anything supernatural that does not leave traces in the material is of no consequence and is equivalent to not existing at all.

    If it does leave traces in the material world then it’s not supernatural and can be studied through the application of science.

    Which is why the supernatural is bollocks.


  14. I found the comments on Sean’s piece to be very puzzling. His whole post is saying that if there is a soul, it needs to interact with matter. That interaction must have some real-world consequences and must show up as, at a minimum, a previously unrecognized force. He goes on to ask a few very basic questions about what this force looks like (“So any respectable scientist who took this idea seriously would be asking — what form does that interaction take? Is it local in spacetime? Does the soul respect gauge invariance and Lorentz invariance? Does the soul have a Hamiltonian? Do the interactions preserve unitarity and conservation of information?“)

    Simple. Clear. Specific.

    And what do we see in the comments? Babbling nonsense, hand-waving, woo woo talk. It’s like they haven’t read more than the first paragraph. I can understand if they don’t fully understand these questions – indeed, I think this is why JAC cut them out of the quote above – but that’s the point! If you know so little about how matter behaves, how can you go about confidently asserting that everything we know is wrong?

    Sean shows that, if there is a soul, everything we think we know about physics is wrong and, as he says so well “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood” (the post where he elaborates on this point is also well worth the read). The commenters don’t even bother to respond to any of this. To my mind, this shows how frivolous and delusional they are. That may be somewhat excusable if we’re taking a sampling of opinion of random church goers, it’s far less so when we’re talking about respectable physicists (or even biologists, heh).

    Sean singles out a couple people who should know better but I know we can go further.

    1. This is what annoys me most about people who make confident assertions about souls, afterlife, gods, etc. What they’re really saying is, “You physicists are so stupid, you really need to fix up your equations and your countless thousands of carefully performed experiments. And you chemists and biologists are equally stupid. What is my evidence for this? Lots of wishful thinking. And by the way, it really irritates me how you scientists are so arrogant, thinking you know everything.”

  15. Carroll is responding in part to Adam Frank, whose response is:
    You And Your Brain. On Agnosticism And Consciousness.

    I don’t think we are close to understanding consciousness…
    There are lots of great ideas for sure. But a theory of consciousness? A theory of subjectivity?

    We do not have a thorough scientific understanding of consciousness, therefore there is still room for magic. I think this is a textbook example of an argument from ignorance.

    1. Yeah, the immaterial mind and the immaterial soul are pretty much the same concept. I’m suspect that most who believe in one also believe in the other.

      1. I was talking to my wife and her parents about this article last night, the issue of brian/mind dualism popped up. I said something along the lines of “Anyone saying we know how the brain works but not the mind is practically saying the same thing as we know how the heart works but not the beat.”

  16. It’s time to make theologians get specific. For too long we’ve let them get away with fuzzy-mindedness.

    Sorry but that is self-defeating. The reason for “going all fuzzy” is to run away from specificity. It’s the lack of there being no “there there” which makes them “go fuzzy”. It’s the theological equivalent of “going postal”. The theologian will “go all fuzzy” instead of “going postal”.

  17. Soul is part of the story or mythology for theistic belief, isn’t it? It’s one of the hooks among all the other hooks, that circle around each other into the delusion that is theism. All those hooks added together form the delusion, and you can’t get them to drop that delusion by tugging at just one of the hooks, because the others only reinforce it.

    There is a simple test for delusion: If you can accept that our existence is at root extremely large bag of atoms or particles, if you can accept that as a basic truth, then congratulations you’re free from delusion.

    It’s an awful truth, but once you get past it, you can move on to the more human stuff.

    1. It’s an awful truth, but once you get past it, you can move on to the more human stuff.

      We are star stuff harvesting star light. Our lives, our past and our future are tied to the sun, the moon and the stars. [We are]…star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of ten billion, billion, billion atoms, contemplating the evolution of nature, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet earth, and perhaps throughout the cosmos.

      Doesn’t sound so bad coming from Carl Sagan. 🙂

  18. Interestingly, there are a fair number of xian theologians who would agree with Carroll in discarding the notion of a soul – Nancey Murphy comes to mind.

    1. Spinoza thought we had a soul, but it was not immortal. Today, he’d probably term the ‘soul’ human consciousness and not come to a conclusion with regard to god that was exactly opposite of what he argued (ie, he concluded there was a god, albeit not an intercessory one.)

      So, it’s not really that modern of an argument.

  19. “If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?”

    1. It’s Dark Matter!

    2. We don’t understand it yet – Dark Matter remains somewhat mysterious at this point in time.

    3. Dark Matter as far as we know at this point, only interacts via gravitational attraction. It does not seem to collide with familiar matter nor does it emit radiation.

    So obviously the Dark Matter in a person’s brain (it’s what makes the Gray Matter gray rather than white) separates at some point in the decomposition (or incineration) of the corpse and floats around the universe causing cosmologists to argue about its existence.

    Is that sufficiently like something that D’Souza or Chopra would spout?

    Getting back to reality, people have wondered what happens after they die – does the mysterious force that governs the body vanish, wander the world aimlessly, or inhabit other bodies? Now that the mysterious force is not so mysterious, we know that this ‘spirit’ simply vanishes as if it were snarked.

    Hadrian’s Farewell demonstrates the concept of the wandering spirit:

    Animula vagula blandula,
    Hospes comesque corporis,
    Quae nunc abibis in loca?

    In the Norse mythology the spirit of great warriors continue to exist in a magical place (I don’t know what happens to everyone else).

    In the Hindu mythology the spirit continues to inhabit new bodies until it somehow attains the magical state of nirvana and no longer endures earthly suffering.

    In the christian mythology, as in the Greek, all souls go to hell – except that the christian hell is an all around bad place, unlike the Greek and Roman versions. Of course the christians have heaven, but going by their rules no one ever gets to go there.

    1. The problem with gravitational interaction is that we can already detect and measure gravity and it’s so weak that the other forces at work in our brain will drown it out by several orders of magnitude.

      As a test, we could examine those people who regularly work with large, dense material like gold or lead and see if their soul is affected. Actually, now that you mention it, if we get too much lead our thinking *is* affected and everyone says that having too much gold will make you soulless. Perhaps there is something to this after all!

  20. The idea that there is some mysterious force that we haven’t yet discovered is not too out of the ordinary – the history of science has plenty of examples of discoveries of such processes.
    The problem with the idea of the ‘soul’, however, is that once you link it with the consciousness of the individual in question you are left with the dilemma of how it connects and interacts with the physical brain of the individual. Neuroscience has made it clear that the conscious mind is explainable as a function of the brain. We have no need of the hypothesis of a non physical mind, the evidence suggests that consciousness is simply the workings of a meat computer made up of neurons.
    If the brain is not interacting with an external force then it cannot recieve or transmit information, thus when the brain dies all the information, memories contained, tastes and emotions are ended.
    The soul – even if real – will not contain the memories and experiences of the individual.
    Funnily enough, the most logically coherent religious explanation for what happens to the memories of the person when they die was suggested in an interview with one of the people who believed Harold Camping and was preparing for the end of the world on the 21st of May.
    The man in question was married and his wife was due to give birth a few days after May 21st.
    The interviewee firmly believed he and his wife would be raptured on the 21st but said they were sad that they would never get to know their unborn child – for the simple reason that they believed the soul does not contain earthly memories. In other words their soul would go to heaven but would remember nothing of their life – presumably the souls of the couple wouldn’t even remember each other or that they had been pregnant!
    This reduces the soul to something like a social security number – a marker for an individual but containing nothing personal in itself.
    Crazy and unbacked by scientific evidence this idea may be but that definition of a soul is more logical than the traditional ‘ghost in the machine’ version.
    By the way, Carrol’s point about explaining the scientific forces involved also applies to the resurrection. I’ve made the point before that being dead for three days (or even for three hours) results in huge amounts of irreversible biochemical modifications to every cell in the body. Coming back to life is not like flicking a switch, Frankenstein style, its more akin to unbaking a cake. If you want to prove that the resurrection happened why start with passages from the bible and appeal that they must be true – why not demonstrate the physical forces required to unbake Jesus.

    1. The idea that there is some mysterious force that we haven’t yet discovered is not too out of the ordinary – the history of science has plenty of examples of discoveries of such processes.

      But we aren’t at just any point in our history. As Sean Carroll showed (and linked to in his article), the laws of physics for our everyday lives are completely understood. There aren’t any known events or interactions which need explaining.

      That isn’t something that could be said at any other point in history, certainly not when new forces were discovered. This means that if there are new forces, they will either be so weak as to be undetectable at our day-to-day level.

      Not to take anything away from your argument, but this was the entire point that Sean was making and it sounds like it flew over the heads of most people.

      1. I’m not disagreeing with Sean Carroll. We don’t have any mysterious unexplained effects specific for aspects of our everyday lives. It would take the discovery of unexplained actions or forces for us to require changing our current models.

    2. Of course, theists answer with the trivial point that by definition, a miracle is the violation of natural laws, and that god, being the author of those laws, can violate them any way she sees fit.

      As for myself, the most damning evidence against the “miracles” described in the bible is not the inherent power over the laws of physics — it’s the mind-numbingly stupid way in which those powers were invoked. Water into wine … really? Walking on water in front of a half-dozen people … seriously? Loaves and fishes (TWICE) … no kidding? Healing someone at a distance (and at least one case of unintentional healing from someone who merely touched Jesus’ robe!) … are you kidding me?

      It’s almost as if the miracles were a demonstration of a Bronze Age understanding of science … quelle surprise.

      Along with the fact that those powers as used left behind not a single trace that future generations could study and confirm that indeed it was outside of our understanding.

    3. That’s fascinating – not least because it removes all the motivation for believing in such a thing in the first place. If all your memories are wiped – well as Eric pointed out, that’s being dead, so what good would an afterlife be?

      1. Yeah. That may pass for “sophisticated” theology, but that’s not what 99.9999999999999999% of theists believe.

        They believe they’ll see their Auntie Em and she’ll will have baked a nice apple pie.

        Heck, I had one theist firmly declare that he was going to ride his favorite horse to heaven. And the other theists in the room at the time were firmly nodding in agreement with him that this undoubtedly would be the case.

  21. theologians will respond to all of the above like this, “We don’t have to tell you what souls are

    Christians are commanded by God to make believers of all men. Demonstrating the existence of a soul would go a far way in showing us that we need fear God’s eternal torture after we die, and would undoubtedly Save many people.

    That brain function is determined by very well-understood and accessible physics means that Christian have an immediate moral responsibility to support and conduct brain research that proves scientifically the soul’s existence. This, for Christians, should be an easy research program, both to justify, and to carry out because the physics and much of the biology is all there.

    Yet no Christian church ever tries to prove the soul’s existence. The conclusion is that they know that the inevitable negative result undermines faith, and are therefore afraid to put their own doctrines to the test.

    1. “The conclusion is that they know that the inevitable negative result undermines faith …”

      That would be a faulty conclusion. A more likely scenario is that the faithful simply do not have the necessary skills to demonstrate or refute the existence of this ‘soul’.

      I am not happy with Carroll mentioning the Dirac equation since in my opinion it doesn’t have much bearing on the matter. The Dirac equation is a great description of the behavior of electrons as determined from experiment – but of course no detailed experiments have been done on the behavior of electrons ‘in vivo’ within the human brain (nor do I believe such experiments are possible to design). For me, what makes the religious claim implausible (I would even dare say impossible) is that the religious folks have no evidence whatsoever for their claims of a soul and that we must also take religious claims ‘in toto’ – so many religious claims have in fact been falsified (intercessory prayer, young earth creationism, Noah’s Flood) that it is clear the religious people have no idea what they’re talking about – why should the claim of a soul be different?

      1. I think the lack of evidence for the laws of physics behaving differently inside the cranium is actually a much better argument than “Well, these are people who’ve been wrong before!” Stopped clock, etc.

  22. On the rare occasions I get into a discussion about ‘life beyond death’ I usually ask my interlocutor to suggest exactly what part of themselves they like will survive?

    Obviously not the body (duh!). Maybe the mind? Ok, what aspects? Memories? But we know these are encoded in the physical structure of the brain that you don’t take with you. And which memories? Your present ones? What about those you forget between now and death?

    What about personality? Which one? Surely you’re not the same person at age 5 and 50. And without your memory exactly how are you the same person? And your personality is governed by the physical world – hormones, drugs, … Is there some part of you that is invariant to age, chemical and physical influences? What is it? Abilities? But these are also connected to personality, brain ‘firmware’ and memory which we know you lose. And so on…

    Without too much further rambling we both reach the conclusion that whatever it is that survives death has little or nothing to do with the two people talking now. Then you throw in the issue of how this ineffable, invariant essence interacts with the physical you. If it does not interact at all – in what way is it anything to do with you? In fact, in what way does it even exist? Perhaps it interacts weakly in only one direction (physical you is influenced by spirit you, but not vice versa). But from basic physics we know this interaction must be really weak. And that implies nothing you do in this world makes any difference to your ‘spirit’.

    Not much left to talk about – except my favourite argument: free will. So often ‘free will’ is used as a defence against the ‘argument from evil’. Man has free will (a gift), and the price for this is a certain amount of suffering (evil). Ignoring the fact that this doesn’t really cover naturally-caused suffering (e.g. earthquakes, flu outbreaks, strokes, …) I like to ask whether there is ‘free will’ in the afterlife? If yes, then it must be possible to realise free will and zero suffering. Either that or there is also suffering in the afterlife. The other horn of the dilemma is there is no ‘free will’ in the afterlife.

    So what’s left of you in the ‘afterlife’? Something that is almost no way resembles the actual person you are now, upon which your life has no effect, and that has no free will. There’s nothing meaningful left that can be discussed.

    Wittgenstein: “A nothing will do as well as a something (that is, a prediction) about which nothing can be said.”

  23. I have had this debate with theists for years. And you are right, It sounds totally daft when you say it out loud.

    Most theists answer along the lines of, “ah well, the soul exists in the metaphysical and you can’t test for that using science. Science can only test for the physical/natural, not the supernatural”.

    Apparently I am being closed minded and reductionist (they use the word reductionist as an insult) to think that everything boils down to the physical.

    Again, Hitchens: “anything that can be asserted …”.

    1. Heh … metaphysical was the term used to describe the interaction between the natural and supernatural.

      Seems to have been abandoned lately. Once theists figured out that any interaction with the physical world would, of necessity, be measurable.

      No measurement — no metaphysics.

      1. Interesting. I always assumed that the word metaphysical and supernatural were interchangeable. I didn’t realise that metaphysical was the interaction. Thanks!

  24. “Over at Cosmic Variance, physicist Sean Carroll claims that we already know enough to dismiss the idea of an immortal soul as a scientific possibility (that is, a thing that has a real existence)—and I agree.”

    He hasn’t though. As is subsequently explained the hypothesis is too vague, fluffy and prone to change with the weather that it cannot be approached empirically in the first place. This is a waste of time, chaps. We can press these kinds of superstitions to the very boundaries of the material world as we understand it (and we should), but there’s no going beyond that to smoke them out of the realm of Descartes’ Demon.

    “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood”

    Such a brave statement! Unfortunately, just because the NPCs in a sophisticated computer program can fully understand the manufactured physics underlying their created world, it tells them fuck all about the real physics of the programmer’s world, and does not necessarily give them any means to predict whether or not such a programmer exists and is currently fucking with them.

    The problem with skeptics constantly being drawn down these fallacious lines of argument is that they end up looking as daft as the idiots they are, too enthusiastically imho, trying to discredit.

    Trying to stop people brainwashing our kids with stories of sky fairies is a worthy cause. Trying to prove sky fairies don’t exist, and butchering reason in the process, is not.

    1. Unfortunately, just because the NPCs in a sophisticated computer program can fully understand the manufactured physics underlying their created world, it tells them fuck all about the real physics of the programmer’s world, and does not necessarily give them any means to predict whether or not such a programmer exists and is currently fucking with them.

      We’re either brains in vats or we’re not. If we are, we can either figure it out or we can’t. Follow any of the three branches through that tree and you’ll find we’re in just the same position we started in: trying to find the underlying principles behind our phenomenal experience however we can.

      Dr. Carroll is essentially pointing out that talk about souls doesn’t help this process out at all unless it’s made precise in such a way that it would contradict the stuff we already think we know. Could the stuff we already think we know be wrong? Of course. We could be brains in vats. But we have no way of figuring that out besides leveraging the stuff we already think we know; if it’s wrong, we would still have to figure out why it’s wrong.

      In short, I disagree that Dr. Carroll’s line of reasoning is “fallacious” and that it “makes [him] look daft.” I think it’s very important to think about what we think we know and why we think we know it.

      I’d also suggest actually reading the post where Dr. Carroll defends the claim “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood”. He’s probably making a somewhat weaker claim than you seem to assume.

    2. Thank you–this is a good point. There is always a way to suppose another world to exist if this one is merely a simulation.

      If the true location of our brain is plugged into a mainframe somewhere–then when we die here there is the chance of waking up in a new simulated body, or waking up in the real world, unplugged, memories of this dream intact. No need for a soul in that scenario–just a single mind and its simulated life.

      But since we can’t seem to detect or alter our simulation (i.e. break physical laws) we need to live as if there is no tomorrow and make this world as good as possible for those in it.

      We can hope that the nightmarish bits of this life will somehow turn out to be no more than a bad dream. There is something noble about persisting in holding out such hope for those in pain and beyond physical succor. But we cannot allow the conclusion that we can be cavalier about pain and death in this world–nor perversely hope for more of it. Any hopes for an afterlife must be based on compassion and lead to more compassion.

  25. Look, I’m a Christian that believes in the afterlife, but I’m not gonna go calling you scientists “dumb” or whatever. All your arguments made a lot of sense and actually made me doubt the afterlife for a bit. But look at it this way. What I got from this article is that it was saying that the spiritual world can’t come in contact with this world because the physics don’t add up. I’m not gonna tell you that you’re wrong there, but what I will say is that we don’t believe we will be in contact with this world. We believe that our spirit goes to a place beyond this world, that doesn’t exist to the physical world. I don’t think any scientific evidence will ever prove such a thing true or false. The next big argument here is how memory is a physical thing, therefore if there is an afterlife, we won’t remember the people we knew on earth etc. I know you’re going to dismiss me as a crazy, Christian loon, but, who’s to say our invisible soul doesn’t carry it’s own invisible memory? Thousands of brain-dead people of all ages, races and cultures have recalled having all strikingly similar experiences before being brought back to life. If the brain is flat-lined, shouldn’t it then be impossible to see loved ones in these “hallucinations”? Seen as how memory dies with the brain.

  26. “The proper answer to that, of course, is Hitchens’s Dictum: “What can be asserted without evidence…”

    Apart from a cringe worthy pompousness and arrogance, statements like that are what relegates Hitchen’s thoughts into the trash heap. ‘Evidence’ is argued for and what things granted that title are ultimately dependent upon opinion. There is no arbiter of truth to decide what constitutes evidence. For example, lets say I pray to Allah for riches and moments later I win the lottery. That could constitute evidence for Allah’s existence among other things. Of course, deducing Allah’s existence from that example would be fallacious. That the event could be attributed to chance or anything else is irrelevant because one can always drum up alternative explanations. So to argue the lottery win is evidence of Allah is perfectly logical. Of course that is weak evidence given we haven’t observed immaterial entities. My point is that, to believers, there is plenty of evidence for God. Applying a modest amount of skepticism can put a damper on most evidence for God but the amount of skepticism to apply is based, once again, ultimately upon opinion. Apply enough skepticism and we can reject anything. My point is not that God exists but that Hitchens and other anti-theists make it look like the vast majority of people to ever exist (i.e. believers), arrive at conclusions about supernatural entities without evidence. This is flat out wrong and absurd.

  27. I think some comments here are misleading. First of all no one knows from what memories are consist of. Neither where they are stored. The fact that we have memories is because space and time so it is enough “metaphysical” because no one knows if yesterday or tomorrow truly exist.
    People with amnesia doesn’t lose their memory, they just can’t have accept to them.

    What we get in the afterlife?
    Well Heaven and Hell are NOT material places, they are states of your Consciousness which is immaterial.

    You must read the work of Dr Penrose and Hameroff about a quantum soul.

    I never thought that our minds are the same as our brains and thats because 2 human brains are really different with each other and this is the biggest proof for the existence of the Free Will, to modify even your brain so the source must come from something else and the brain is an organ only. If our brains were our minds then brains should be solid but this doesn’t happen, We have even patients with 97% of their brains filled with fluid and the mind adjusted there without any problems.

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