A new book on the nonexistence of the soul

March 12, 2015 • 1:15 pm

I wasn’t aware of this new book, but it would seem to be a good complement to The Albatross. It’s by Julien Musolino, a professor of cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics at Rutgers, and is called The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain by Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs. It was published by Prometheus, came out on January 6, and you can get the paperback for only $13.16 on Amazon. There’s a foreword by Victor Stenger, who of course died last year.

I like it because, like a good New Atheist, Musolina takes a scientific approach, regarding the soul’s existence as a testable hypothesis. The Rutgers site gives a summary:

The soul hypothesis, Musolino contends, has had a good run for millennia, but it is time to put the idea to rest. Musolino argues that the soul hypothesis is a scientific claim that can be investigated using the tools and methods of rational inquiry. Moreover, he contends that soul beliefs, which are extremely common here in the United States, actually get in the way of progress and a more humane society.

“Belief in an immaterial, psychologically potent, and detachable soul that can function apart from the body after we die amounts to a series of claims about physics, biology and the sciences of the mind,” Musolino says, “Therefore, we should be able evaluate those claims based on science and reason.”

And for those who claim that most people aren’t dualists, there’s this (remember that Rutgers is a good school, and these are advanced undergraduates):

Musolino has probed around the edges of this question. In 2012, he surveyed students in the upper-level undergraduate psychology courses he teaches, and found that 80 percent of them believed in the soul. Seventy-three percent of those believers thought their souls would live on after they died. Experiments carried out in his lab with a broader population of undergraduate students revealed the same pattern.

The Amazon site gives blurbs by some heavy hitters like Steve Pinker, Susan Blackmore, Sean Carroll, and Pacal Boyer, so I suspect the book is worth reading.

And, at the Rutgers site, Musolino gives three reasons why it’s empowering to give up ideas of the soul. Here’s the first one:

Musolino says “three gifts” come with giving up a belief in the soul that can enrich one’s life enormously. The first is coming to terms with death. Recalling his own experience of becoming unconscious after going under anesthesia, Musolino said this deliberate turning off of consciousness “with the help of basic chemistry” is as close as we can come to death. If the state of being dead is anything like that, he says, we have nothing to fear.

Well, to me that seems like whistling in the dark. Yes, I’ve been under anesthesia, and it’s a quick and painless extinction of consciousness, but that’s not death. For one thing, you know that you’re almost certain to wake up. Second, many deaths are preceded by a long period of debility and pain. Third, there’s Hitchens’s notion that it’s not so much leaving the party that’s bothersome, but knowing that the party will go on without you. That’s what most bothers me about death: all the things that will happen that I’ll never see or experience.

The other two “gifts” are much better, and you can read about them on the Rutgers site.



h/t: Alex

79 thoughts on “A new book on the nonexistence of the soul

  1. Musolino argues that the soul hypothesis is a scientific claim that can be investigated using the tools and methods of rational inquiry.

    And then cue all the rebuttals which will scream that the soul is not a hypothesis, it’s more like love, poetry, or music which requires emotional engagement: Musolino is acting just like someone who would ask for reasons why he should love his mother, or demanding proof that his mother loves him, or something else equally chilling and damning.

    1. He may answer those points in his book; I’m looking forward to finding out! Sounds like a nice sidecar to The Albatross. My summer reading list just grew by one volume.

      My wife’s uncle is in his late 70’s and undergoing chemotherapy for the rest of his days, which will be few. He was an accomplished athlete and golfed regularly for more than 60 years, and was a pretty busy instructor for a while, but hasn’t played for close to two years because of his condition.

      Believers in the afterlife probably think he will be able to golf again on the other side. Maybe even that he’ll get to play with Eisenhower, JFK and Bobby Jones. The idea that th mind lives on without the body is absurd to us. But a lot of people, a majority in fact, believe that the body lives on without the body, replaced with some idealized version of the same body. So there is no reasoning with them and the message of this book will be lost on them I’m afraid.

      A commenter quoted Darwin’s “grandeur in this view of life” yesterday, and I’ve been pondering that since: the universe is a place of awe and wonder yet the concept of heaven, being a construct of the human mind, is so limited! What good is freedom from the prison of our bodies if the hereafter is just like the ordinary here and now. At least the Mormons (I think I heard) think we become gods with our own planets! That’s what the afterlife should be, and more, if we’re going to discuss it at all. I want to be 50 feet tall and soar with the pteradons. I want to move about the universe and witness the birth of stars.

      The idea that we leave this plane for a shiny kitsch facsimile of this one is an argument against the value of having a soul. The author of this book does a great service to the world by knocking down this dull fantasy.

    1. In some theological world views, this actually is consistent – somewhat.

      If you’re a subjective idealist, everything is mindstuff, so either nothing is your soul or the entire universe is, both of which are sort of “not anything”. Of course, some SIs make special cases – Berkeley, most notably, has to fit in god somehow, so …

  2. “…Hitchens’s notion that it’s not so much leaving the party that’s bothersome, but knowing that the party will go on without you”.

    That makes worldwide nuclear annihilation sort of comforting, in a way.

  3. Oy! So strident and militant and angry, proposing that we can put some thought into the way the world works and use the knowledge we gain to shape the world more to our liking. Why does he hate Jesus so much?


  4. A Christian once made the ridiculous argument that the brain *only* exists to anchor the soul to the body. God gave us brains so that our souls can communicate here on earth. Yet he thinks that zygotes have souls, and are “inherently rational”, just that the rationality needs to be expressed. Once they get that brain, I guess.

    1. Here is the quote. It had me in stitches, must share:

      In fact, this argument just begs the question because it assumes that one must have a brain to be able to think. But if supernatural beings exist, there is no reason to think that they must have a brain to be capable of thought. In order to prove there is no afterlife, you have to prove that there is no immortal soul. Incidentally, it is the soul that guides one’s development from fertilization. DNA contains all the information that the organism needs to develop, but there is nothing in the human being’s DNA to run the program. The soul is necessary for that. The brain connects the soul to the body, and if the brain is damaged then the soul can’t communicate properly. But the brain controls everything, so to say that just because we need a brain to think proves there is no afterlife is short-sighted, since our thoughts are obviously not confined by our brain. If our brain is damaged a certain way, we also cannot move our limbs. But it doesn’t follow from that that our limbs are the same thing as the brain. Plus, the fact that we have thoughts proves that the soul is separate from the brain. We can think about cars, but our brain does not become a car when we think about one.

      1. Plus, the fact that we have thoughts proves that the soul is separate from the brain. We can think about cars, but our brain does not become a car when we think about one.

        I think my brain just turned into a car. This one.

      2. Reminds me of Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, which implies that the information for morphogenesis (among other things) resides not in the structure of matter but in immaterial fields. This explains why the fact of DNA being translated into structural and catalytic polypeptides is irrelevant, because the DNA sequence is really only an antenna for tuning in the morphogenetic field…

      3. “The brain connects the soul to the body, and if the brain is damaged then the soul can’t communicate properly. ”

        So The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’s soul knew she wasn’t a hat, but his brain failed to get the message. So where did his brain get the idea that she was a hat?

  5. 7% of the students believe in a soul but don’t think it persists after death. I’m curious what their belief is regarding the purpose of the soul. Perhaps they believe it is a connection between the material and immaterial and therefore not required when you die. I haven’t heard / thought about this before.

    1. It’s possible that they’re using the word “soul” to mean the basic personality of a person, particularly the aspect of the mind which loves and responds to beauty. Like “spirit,” the word ‘soul’ probably has secular versions.

      Of course, something like 5% of atheists polled say that they believe in God, which suggests you can knock that 7% figure down to 2% and assume the rest are that subset of people who have no idea what they’re talking about at all.

  6. It’s well over 40 years ago that I ditched the idea of a soul. To learn that 80% of psychology students accept it is most depressing.

    1. I was a psychology major for a while and then I realized that much of what was being taught was nonsense, so it is not surprising that pschology students accept the soul.

      1. Psychology was the one subject my father forbade me studying in college. His degree was in psychology and he said he could tell me right then that it was all bull and a waste of time.

    2. We often see polls showing that scientists are more likely to be religious than non-scientists, but I don’t recall seeing similar polls concerning the social sciences and the humanities. It would be interesting to see if there are significant trends amongst the various disciplines within each group.

  7. While I will miss what goes on after I’m dead and gone, the consolation of knowing so much about the universe is some comfort to me at least. That, and the experience of enjoying the pleasure of some fine scotch whiskey from time to time. I think Hitchens knew something about that as well… ;^)

    1. I’m not scared of death, but I really don’t want to die because there’s just so much amazing stuff I won’t get to know about or experience. If souls were real, I could at least watch what’s going on. However, I suspect I’d constantly be lobbying for possession or reincarnation so I could experience it.

      1. I know exactly what you mean. I’ve just read on the Science & Environment page of the BBC website that it now looks pretty certain that Jupiter’s moon Ganymede has a subsurface ocean, like Europa, and thus is another potential habitat for life in the solar system. A European space probe is planned to go into orbit around Ganymede in 2030. On reading that, my first thought was “2030?? If I’m still around, I’ll be 69 or 70 by then. Can’t you do it quicker??!!” Among many other things, I really want to know if extra-terrestrial life exists, and it really irks me to think that I might die before we find any.

        I also agree with the sentiment that the standard religious conception of heaven is a reason NOT to desire eternal life. The most attractive afterlife I can imagine is having the freedom to roam at will, Dr Who-style, across all of time and space, never running out of extraordinary things to see and experience (and if I could take Jenna Coleman along with me, that’d be an eternity I could really look forward to!)

      2. You don’t find death, the actual cessation of consciousness, the idea that you will just stop, frightening? I accept it completely but I also find it a yawningly awful thought.

        I work all day and get half-drunk at night/
        waking at four to soundless dark, I stare/
        in time the curtain edges will grow light/
        ’til then I see what’s really always there/
        unresting death a whole day nearer now/
        making all thought impossible but how/
        and where and when I shall myself die/
        arid interrogation: yet the dread/
        of dying, and of being dead/
        flashes afresh to hold and horrify/

        the mind blanks at the glare, not in remorse/
        – the good not done, the love not given, time/
        torn off, unused – nor wretchedly because/
        an only life can take so long to travel/
        clear of its wrong beginnings and may never;/
        but at the total emptiness for ever/
        the sure extinction that we travel to/
        and shall be lost in always. Not to be here,/
        not to be anywhere/
        and soon, nothing more terrible, nothing more true/

        this is a special way of being afraid/
        no trick dispels. Religion used to try/
        that vast moth-eaten musical brocade/
        created to pretend we never die/
        and specious stuff that says ‘no rational being/
        can fear a thing it will not feel’ not seeing/
        that this is what we fear – no sight, no sound/
        no touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with/
        nothing to love or link with/
        the anaesthetic from which none come round/

          1. I wish:) Aubade by Philip Larkin, minus the final two verses. He was very honest and unsparing in the way he wrote about death. Horrible man though.

        1. Funnily enough I don’t find it awful at all. I rather ike that Futurama cartoon where there are telephone booths on the street where people can go and pop themselves off when they have had enough. That seems reasonable to me.

    1. It has always stumped me how general anesthesia, or even the existence of any completely unconscious state (passing out – complete loss of time) isn’t considered by most people to be proof positive that dualism is complete bunk. To believe otherwise means that souls are frequently unconscious – or that souls need to sleep, etc. And this belies most people’s ideas about souls and the afterlife or spirits, angels, etc.

      Even when this is brought up to “not-religious-but-spiritual” people, my experience is that they dismiss this line of thought completely out of hand, no explanation needed. (and usually with a patronizing attitude)

  8. I’ve had general anesthesia several times. the first, at age 10 was for oral surgery, under ether.

    Ether is infamous for being a hallucinogen in twilight sleep. It was once a recreational drug. Unfortunately, some people forget to breathe, which is why we have anesthesiologists.

    Sixty years later I still have fairly vivid visual memories of the ether experience. I wouldn’t describe it as out-of-body, so much as out-of-universe. Not entirely unlike media player visualizations.

    The other times are simply gaps in consciousness. Do they use something to block memory formation?

    1. Well, not even a gap really. One instant I was still counting down, the next, awake in bed in a different room with blood caked around my nose (I’d had my wisdom teeth out).


      1. I remember the counting down, and then their telling my mother she coukd leave at about 5 and my freaking and saying I’m not ouuuuuuuutttttt.

  9. The experience of anesthesia as a sort of preview of death occurred to me long ago, and I’ve found that it does indeed help me realize that Epicurus was right that we never experience death because “when we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not.”


    Your objections seem to refer mainly to coping with the threat of death, which must certainly be a tremendously unpleasant experience unless it’s totally unexpected and quick, but if Musolino is talking about “the state of being dead” then that’s an entirely different subject. I see no “whistling in the dark” there.

    1. My concept of death is informed by that experience and also by the suggestion of a smart person (Mark Twain? Will Rogers? Thomas Payne? Not sure): I think about how I felt before I was born. Which was …

    2. Well said. If being dead is like being under anesthesia, what would there be to fear? It’s just oblivion. When you are anesthetized, you feel and think nothing. In a sense, you don’t exist! As a non-believer in religion (but not atheist/theist/agnostic)
      people sometimes ask “What about an afterlife?” Simple: If there is one, there is, if not, there’s not. You’ll find out when you die! Meanwhile, live.

  10. “Belief in an immaterial, psychologically potent, and detachable soul that can function apart from the body after we die amounts to a series of claims about physics, biology and the sciences of the mind,” Musolino says, “Therefore, we should be able evaluate those claims based on science and reason.”

    The weakest of this “series of claims” involves the question of causality. If the soul is immaterial/non-physical, it cannot interact causally with the brain — and the brain can’t connect or communicate with it. Immaterial soul and material brain are non-overlapping entities.

    The general anesthetic agent propofol acts on the brainstem to induce a reversible COMA in a surgical patient. We therefore have good reason to identify consciousness as a naturalized biological phenomenon with an exclusively naturalistic explanation. The soul is utterly redundant/superfluous.

  11. I think, Jerry, that you conflate ‘process of dying’ with the ‘state of death’. The first one is unpleasant one, definitely, and in effect leads to the latter one. However anesthesia is the way to rapidly get close to the state of death without dealing with nuances of natural process of dying. I think that was what had Musolina in his mind.

    On the personal side, I had exact conclusions with Musolina after my experience with full anesthesia. I was surprised how the switch (off) happened and how painless it was. And there was no other side or even any visions.

  12. For anyone interested, there are two good Youtube videos about the effects of general anesthesia in inducing loss of consciousness (or, more precisely, reversible COMA). They feature Dr. Emery Brown, one of the world’s foremost experts on anesthesia; he’s a professor of anesthesiology at MIT and Harvard Medical School, and chief of anesthesiology at Boston General Hospital.

    See: “A Look at the Unconscious Brain Under General Anesthesia”
    “General Anesthesia”

    1. That’s Jerry’s nickname for his new book Faith Vs. Fact, which is pictured on the upper right of the page. I presume it refers to the phrase “an albatross around the neck” and/or references the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It means a “burden” — in this case a pain to write, a nagging concern of work. I guess.

  13. The idea of a soul is really the most bizarre idea in religion, besides the resurrection. They had to make this one up otherwise your carcass or what’s left of it goes off to la la land. It is the escape piece that you cannot go without. Why not just beam us up?

  14. http://xkcd.com/659/
    If we have souls, presumably our ancestors did too, but how far back? Homo erectus, Australopithecus, root hominid, root ape, root mammal, fish, worm? Presumably the dividing line is sometime after cells absorbed endosymbionts, otherwise our mitochondria – and plant chloroplasts – would have souls. The people who posit souls ought to suggest where they think the dividing line is, and why. personally, I have no need of that hypothesis.

    1. The RCC is pretty clear on where it thinks the dividing line is: it’s Adam and Eve, the first creatures God thought worthy of ensoulment.

  15. Somehow these people always forget that the scientific method will fail to find others’ *minds* let alone souls. If my belief in my neighbor’s mind is a testable hypothesis… to make a long story short, at the end of the day you come up with no proof – especially if you believe neuroscience generates all of your neighbor’s behaviors, then consciousness is neither something you can observer in your neighbor nor is it something that is needed to postulate in order to explain the observed behaviors. In short, belief in other minds is a bothersome superstition, and much peace and efficiency will be added to your life if you just let go of all that flummery.

    1. Depends on what you mean by “proof”. You have just provided *evidence* of your mind by composing that message. I just did likewise by composing this one. Sure, we could spin crazy hypotheses all day (everyone else are automatons, for example), and say that other minds are not directly *proven*, but then we’re off in zombie territory. What’s the point in that? Not sure what you’re on about…

      1. Funny. I guess you guys never heard of physics. No mind is required for thunderbolts. No mind is required for volcanoes. Why would a mind be required for human behaviors (including reports of consciousness). Is it “like” something to be a neuron? These informal lines of reasoning that lead to the conclusion that there must be human consciousness are like the informal reasoning that God must have created the universe. They are not the result of an application of the scientific method.

        1. Why would a mind be required for human behaviors

          Because we directly experience having minds & consciousness and behave by using them. We also interact with others having minds and consciousnesses. Any other blindingly obvious questions you’d like answered?

          Nevermind — you really seem like a very confused person. I don’t think I really care to degenerate into psychobabble.

          1. 1977ub is not “confused,” nor is he or she an atheist. They’re using the standard and threadworn greedy reductionist argument against atheism.

            If Consciousness/Mind doesn’t exist on every level, then it can’t exist on any level at all. Plus, it takes an enormous amount of “faith” to believe that other people are not meat robots and only your special, special self is totally different.

            1. That is what I meant by “confused”. (also was seemingly correct on “anti-scientismist”, though 1977ub appeared not to have gotten the reference. The confusion comes from this insistence on “required” & making a caricature out of reductionist logic. Add some non sequiturs to the mix, and a misplaced concept of scientific “proof”, and it equals word salad – railing against “scientism”.

    2. nor is it something that is needed to postulate in order to explain the observed behaviors.

      If the observed behavior includes talking about what it feels like to be conscious, I don’t see how you can plausibly explain that without postulating an actual experience of being conscious.

        1. Yes and no. I just don’t think that people realize the depth of the issues here. People are happy to accept human intuitions about other minds and not worry about the clash with what comes out of (or what could ever come out of) reductionism / determinism, and the successes of the scientific method.

          1. No, we know the argument. Plantinga, among others. Many others.

            Our belief that people who behave AS IF they have minds probably do have minds is not (just) an “intuition,” it’s also a rational working hypothesis For one thing, the alternative entails inexplicable inconsistencies and absurdities.

      1. I can totally relate to what you are saying. What I wonder is whether you realize that reductionism / determinism actually offers an alternate explanation for human behavior, one which is not necessarily compatible with what you are saying. There is the problem of overdetermination to contend with. If physics completely describes the motions of planets in the solar system, what need to we have for consciousness to explain them? Consciousness is not directly observed – nor is it required to explain human behavior if neuroscience turns out to be able to completely do so. Therefore human consciousness is not required by science and more to the point, not capable of fitting in the scientific world view, anymore than thunderstorm or volcano consciousness. You see?

        1. Neuroscience involves the explanation of consciousness, not the elimination of it. You’re not thinking in nuances and dealing with specifics.

          Many agents — goal-directed living things — don’t seem to be conscious. Worms, for instance. They have no need to model complex social systems which require an inner model of themselves in order to negotiate within their environment. Their brains are very simple.

          The more complex the brain, the more likely its holder is to be conscious. We can also see distinctions between conscious human beings who can answer questions and human beings who don’t answer questions because they are asleep, in a faint, in a coma, or brain-dead.

          The idea that consciousness is “not required” to explain these facts because only the atomic (or subatomic) level “matters” is both simplistic and wrong. It’s also driven by an agenda.

        2. Your position seems to be similar to that of Alex Rosenberg on this – that physics fixes the facts. Well there are plenty of people who’ve read that book here and who’ve considered the consequences of taking proper scientism seriously. You need to set your position out a little more clearly and then I think you’ll find your views aren’t quite as surprising as you think.

          I’m perfectly open to the idea that consciousness is an unnecessary add-on. A related question that’s always bugged me is why self-awareness should evolve in a universe without free-will – what would be the adaptive advantage? – but your original post was too immediately close to the usual anti-rationalist religious apologetics for anyone to figure out exactly what you were trying to say. I’m rather partial to the idea of reclaiming scientism and looking at things with as little common sense as possible – I’ve always been very good at the latter anyway.

        3. I wonder if you’ve thought about this:

          Suppose you’re right, and human behavior, including reports of consciousness, can be fully accounted for without invoking consciousness. That leaves us with the rather remarkable coincidence that we actually are conscious, and that our experience of consciousness corresponds closely to what we say about it, despite your claim that consciousness plays no role whatever in generating such speech.

          How does your greedy reductionism explain that? Isn’t it more parsimonious to assume that consciousness is a real physical phenomenon (one that we don’t fully understand yet) that does play a causal role in behavior?

  16. Didn’t Julian Baggini write something similar a while back? Something about ‘pearls’ and ‘bundles’. I liked it but I don’t remember anything else.

  17. “That’s what most bothers me about death: all the things that will happen that I’ll never see or experience.”

    Despite what Pinker claims in his book (that everything is getting better), I am beginning to worry that I will live to see some terrible things. I often get the feeling that people who died prior to September 11, 2001, were lucky.

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