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Oct 03 2012

The Absurdity of an Immortal Soul

This is an older article by Sean Carroll (the physicist, not the paleontologist) that I recently read in Free Inquiry and wanted to link to here. He lays out the reasons why the idea that humans have an immortal “soul” (whatever that is; I’ve never seen anything even remotely like a coherent definition of it) is never actually turned into a scientific hypothesis:

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.

Even if you don’t believe that human beings are “simply” collections of atoms evolving and interacting according to rules laid down in the Standard Model of particle physics, most people would grudgingly admit that atoms are part of who we are. If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that “new physics” to interact with the atoms that we do have.

Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham’s razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know.

I don’t know of any advocates for an immortal soul that have even attempted to provide a scientific account for how this non-material “spiritual” (again, whatever that might mean) interacts with our material brains and bodies. Instead, they rely on the purely negative argument that science can’t prove that there isn’t one. Well sure, but Occam’s razor does have something to say here, doesn’t it?

It’s like positing that the rain happens whenever an invisible leprechaun gets angry. Sure, we have good scientific models that explain why the rain happens and can predict it with a high degree of accuracy, but that doesn’t prove that the invisible leprechaun doesn’t exist, does it? Such a possibility can never be entirely disproved, especially when the actions of the supernatural agent can never be distinguished from purely natural events.

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  1. 1
    Cuttlefish

    Oh, pish and tosh. Rain is angel piss, and you know it.

  2. 2
    Ace of Sevens

    What about Deepak Chopra? It’s a quantum soul!

  3. 3
    richardelguru

    Ah Dear old Ocky Bill:
    “Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate”

  4. 4
    busterggi

    Its all faith you see.

    Just like unicorns.

  5. 5
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    Theists can’t disprove my claim that I have an anti-soul.

  6. 6
    otocump

    I’m still wondering why all these ‘near death’ and ‘life after death’ experiences also have remarkably human sense of sight and sound….but lack the organs to do so. How strange that.

  7. 7
    katkinkate

    I’ve been half expecting someone to offer up dark matter or energy as an explanation of spirit or the soul, but the religious seem to be keeping their distance. Even the new age people are ignoring the infinite possibilities in 3/4 of the universe being a mysterious unknown stuff they could claim for themselves.

  8. 8
    Modusoperandi

    …they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV.

    So…lots of failing to signal, blowing through stop signs and frazzled rage?

    “Sure, we have good scientific models that explain why the rain happens and can predict it with a high degree of accuracy, but that doesn’t prove that the invisible leprechaun doesn’t exist, does it? Such a possibility can never be entirely disproved, especially when the actions of the supernatural agent can never be distinguished from purely natural events.”

    You know the ‘margin of error’? That is the supernatural. Magic is the statistical noise that prevent the clockwork universe from working properly.

    Wait, that sounded like it’s a bad thing. Give me some time. I’m sure I can Theology the bad out of it.

  9. 9
    Wes

    Rene Descartes did attempt to explain how an immaterial soul interacts with the body back in the 1600s. He claimed that the penial gland acts as a kind of “antenna” that receives messages from the soul. Suffice it to say, he was wrong, and no one that I’m aware of has come up with a better idea ever since.

  10. 10
    slc1

    I’m sure that Prof. Carroll’s colleague at Christopher Newport Un. will be along to take issue with this claim.

  11. 11
    Reginald Selkirk

    (the physicist, not the paleontologist)

    Not the evolutionary developmental biologist either.

  12. 12
    lancifer

    katkinkate,

    You knew ol’ Depak wasn’t going to let the unknown nature of dark energy and dark matter escape his facile tautology.

    “I’m understanding the nature of dark matter, dark energy and how stardust, space/time and consciousness come together to create luminous stardust beings called humans. ”

    The man can toss a mean word salad.

  13. 13
    Gretchen

    Brain damage.

    That’s what I always consider when thinking about the soul. Not accusing people who believe in it of having brain damage (that would be both unkind and unfair), but of what happens to a person when you do something to that person’s brain.

    This tells me that the brain has something to do with you. Like, you being you. Your brain does that. Your brain is why you’re you. If I took part of your brain away or altered it, you would be a different you.

    What if I took your brain away entirely? What in the hell makes you think there would still be a you?

  14. 14
    Chiroptera

    Gretchen, #13:

    I had similar thoughts back when I was Christian, only it wasn’t brain damage but narcotics and alcohol. And how these affect the emotions and personality of the person, the very things that supposedly require the soul to explain.

    Even back when I was a kid, the physiological effects of most drugs on the brain were well known, and I was beginning to wonder why the hypothesis of an immaterial soul was necessary.

  15. 15
    DaveL

    @13 Exactly. I start by contemplating that people generally have no problem admitting that our external senses are dependent upon certain physical sensory organs. We know that if your eyes are put out you cannot see. We know that if your ears are destroyed you cannot hear. It makes no sense therefore to suppose that once those bare rotted away or cremated we would be able to see or hear. We know that a blow to the head can deprive us temporarily of consciousness. It makes no sense to posit that a blow sufficient to destroy our head entirely would result in us retaining conscious thought. We know of degenerative brain diseases that rob us of our memories – why should we retain them when the entire brain has withered to dust? We know that a temporary deprivation of blood to parts of the brain can drastically change personality. Why should we believe a permanent deprivation of blood from the entire brain would leave our personalities intact?

    So, if nothing else, we can be sure that if there is life after death, we will retain neither our senses, nor our memory, nor our personality, nor even consciousness.

  16. 16
    wordsmatter

    Give me one moment to don and adjust my “I used to actually believe this stuff” hat, I call it the “Credulity Cap”…

    OK, the Credulity Cap is adjusted and I am ready. Here we go:

    “The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms?”

    Well obviously, it is a form of energy beyond our understanding, and very likely will remain beyond our understanding forever so long as we are constrained by the physics of our mortality, which is only one facet of consciousness. You are filled with the pride of materialistic philosophies. Get humble and just admit that there are things you don’t know and probably never will know. You’re not so smart. We know the soul exists because of the way we feel when we pray or when we watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Chimpanzees don’t tear-up to movies with angels in them, nor do they pray. Hence, they have no souls, and we do.

    And btw; you’re going to hell. Neener neener.

    (Takes Credulity Cap off)

    Face-palm

  17. 17
    Johnny Vector

    busterggi @4: Unicorns! Gah! I hate those things!

    (Well anyway, I’m a lot less keen on unicorns after watching The Cabin in the Woods.)

  18. 18
    thisisaturingtest

    Well, anti-rationality is kind of the point of religion, isn’t it? You posit your angry invisible leprechaun (now I’m seeing god as the Lucky Charms guy with a perpetual scowl on his face); you give him magical properties to escape the necessity for answering to objective, testable reality; you build up a wall of unquestionable dogma around him (and his priests); you feed all this to children while they’re still too young to understand the need for objectivity, but old enough to understand and fear death; and, finally, you claim faith as the ultimate morality; and, bang! there you go. Got yourself a completely self-referential belief system that eschews rationality while pretending to it.

  19. 19
    Reginald Selkirk

    @#14: as it was put to me: “I don’t know what consciousness is made of, but I know that it’s solutble in alcohol.”

  20. 20
    baal

    Well, Ichigo from Bleach and Goku from DragonBall Z both can see, draw on and use spirit energy and particles. Most magic in anime draws on Chi flows in one way or another. Since we have examples of ‘soul energy’ in more than one culture, it must be true! Otherwise, you can’t explain that.

    (the ‘fiction is fiction’ part of the story never seems to get in there though when the apologists are talking)

  21. 21
    Pierce R. Butler

    Way back in the good ol’ days (we’re talking 1600s here), the exact same question was raised in different terms.

    This was, in western Europe anyhow, the age of “inner space”, when anatomists were making systematic attempts to explore and understand the human body, with crowds of the well-educated flocking to lectures accompanied by public dissections.

    Several theorists hypothesized the (ahem) missing link between soul and brain was the pineal gland. No observations then or now have detected any immaterial influence on said gland, but if Dr. Carroll’s comments reach the ears of the creationist cadre, expect to see the same conjecture resurrected.

    Carl Zimmer’s Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain – and How It Changed the World provides a good history of such ideas and their evolution.

  22. 22
    justawriter

    i never ran across any of this ectoplasm that sir arthur conan doyle tells of but it sounds as if it might be wonderful stuff to mend furniture with

    Archy the Cockroach

  23. 23
    Forbidden Snowflake

    Reginald:

    “I don’t know what consciousness is made of, but I know that it’s solutble in alcohol.”

    Better, no?
    I was recently amused to learn that the double meaning of the word ‘spirit’ works the same way in German (‘geist’) as it does in English.

  24. 24
    Paul W.

    Anybody seriously interested in what it means for something to be a soul, or to be supernatural, should read Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained, and Richard Carrier’s articles on what it means for something to be “supernatural.” (They’re closely related questions.) Boyer is a cognitive anthropologist and I think he’s better than Carrier on this, but they’re saying very similar things.

    A supernatural or spiritual entity is basically one that has irreducibly mind-like or teleological properties—it’s something that can just do something interesting, because that’s just the kind of thing it is.

    So, for example, consider a Love Goddess, who can make people fall in love. She can basically create some love, which just is love in an unexplained way. That’s often an unexamined way, but one which is ultimately inexplicable in mechanistic terms. (It’s inexplicable, but the inexplicable nature is not generally problematized; it’s simply assumed to be there and be what it is, and to work reliably with no moving parts.)

    One of Boyer’s main points, from his anthropological study of a variety of religions around the world, is that religion is generally not about ultimate explanations, as sophisticated theologians like to say… that is not typical of religions at most places or times, or in most believers heads anywhere at any time.

    Religion is about proximate explanations in terms of high-level entities that are simply assumed, and assumed to be able to do interesting things with no explanation needed.

    Consider the love goddess, who can make people fall in love. She has an irreducible essence somehow fundamentally related to love, and love likewise has an irreducible essence. Deeper explanations not only aren’t needed, but can’t work.

    If we find out about actual love, scientifically, and explain it, and explain how our love goddess can make people fall in love, we have to reduce it in a way that makes it not seem supernatural any more.

    We now know that love is a high-level phenomenon that depends on information processing in the brain, which in turn depends on neural wiring.

    We might explain some mysterious person’s ability to make people fall in love in terms of her being able to scan and interpret people’s neural wiring, and rewire it to create beliefs and attitudes about another person.

    But that wouldn’t make her a love goddess; to the contrary, it would disqualify her, and make her a superscientist or a superpowerful alien with a natural gift for brain fiddling, or something like that.

    Or suppose we find out that our love goddess uses something like pheromones to subtly alter people’s brain functions and make them prone to falling in love.

    That wouldn’t be goddess-like either. It’d be more like a date-rape enabler slipping people drugs.

    Both Boyer and Carrier claim that if you can explain it in non-mentalistic terms, it doesn’t count as supernatural anymore. (That is, people intuitively recognize it as not supernatural, though they don’t generally know what makes them think something is “supernatural.”)

    Supernatural entities always have some irreducible connection—and generally a very direct and reliable connection—to very high-level humanly-interesting things like Thought, Life, Truth, Love, Skill, Goodness, Justice, Lust, Well-being, and so on.

    We now know that those things are actually complicated things with many interacting parts—they’re not like simple substances (or energies or vibrations or essences) that just are those things, and just do things we care about.

    That means supernaturalism is wrong, scientifically speaking. It tries to give superficial (proximate) explanations for things that we now understand (in a general way) at a deeper level. It’s obsolete, and built on obsolete concepts of irreducible essences that it’s pretty clear do not and cannot exist.

    For example, given that we know what actual love actually is, in at least a general way, we know that a supernatural essence of love wouldn’t really be love at all—it’d be something else which is not what we have that we’ve named love.

    A good example of that is Life. It used to be assumed that there was a life force that “explained” how people and other living things were alive. If you’ve got the life force, you’re alive, end of story.

    Now that we know that life is bascially a bunch of mechanistic feedback loops at several levels, and there’s nothing left for an irreducible magical life force to do. Organisms will self-regulate and propagate and so on just fine without it, so it simply can’t be a life force. The life force is out of a job, like the love goddess.

  25. 25
    screechymonkey

    katkinkate@7:

    I’ve been half expecting someone to offer up dark matter or energy as an explanation of spirit or the soul, but the religious seem to be keeping their distance. Even the new age people are ignoring the infinite possibilities in 3/4 of the universe being a mysterious unknown stuff they could claim for themselves.

    I stopped reading him a while ago (mostly because of pretentious crap like the following), but Gregg Easterbrook was fond of inserting digressions into his NFL column to the effect that, ok maybe science hasn’t found any evidence for God yet but gosh, those silly scientists don’t even know what 95% of the universe is made of … ergo Jesus. Basically just another God of the Gaps argument.

  26. 26
    Sastra

    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.

    Ah, but that’s the advantage of being a Nonreductive Nonmaterialist, and using nonreductive nonmaterialist nonexplanations. What is spirit? It’s spirit. What’s it made out of? Spirit. How did it get that way? Was spirit. How does it work? Spirit power. How does it interact with matter and energy? Spirit force. How do we detect it? Spiritually.

    Damn, but that is easy. No actual work — but it’s supposedly “deep.”

    All forms of spiritual “energy” or spiritual “beings” could, in theory, one day be detected by some sort of instrument. If scientists were to say “Holy cow! We USED to think that mystics/healers/mediums/psychics/priests/dowsers were just making this “spirit energy” stuff up — but here we have the PROOF that we were mistaken! How can we ever grovel sufficiently for our previous error?” — then the Spiritual would just eat that up. “We told you so!” they’d crow. In a heartbeat.

    Spiritual claims like the “soul” are not fundamentally outside of scientific analysis or beyond scientific criticism. That’s an immunizing strategy, assumed in the face of failure, and quickly discarded if no longer necessary.

  27. 27
    jtdavi3

    Ah, the good ol’ Russell’s Teapot argument.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell%27s_teapot

  28. 28
    Margaret

    We know the soul exists because of the way we feel when we pray or when we watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

    We know the soul exists because of boredom?

  29. 29
    mudpuddles

    @ Zinc Avenger, #5

    Theists can’t disprove my claim that I have an anti-soul.

    What would happen if I played you some James Brown? Would you blow up? Be careful out there! You could be on a bus or something and anyone out there could start humming “Popcorn!”… I worry!

  30. 30
    mudpuddles

    Many years ago, I sat in a pub in Dublin with my bezt friend and a few others, and in the course of a ocnversation she told me she did not believe in life after death. I was a little aghast and told her so: “Oh no! How can there not be?! Listen: look at you, me, Bob, Pat and Brednan here, sitting around this table. Think about all the people you know. All the people I know. All the connections we have, with them and through them. All the ocnnections they have – people they know, experiences they have, lives they interact with and experiences they share. Think of this massive network of human experience, the random interactions and intimate connections that just loop on and on forever. Think of how wonderful that is! I think that must go on. I don’t think that can end.”

    In other words, I was full of shite. Only some of it was because of Guinness.

  31. 31
    mudpuddles

    (sorry for the awful spelling – I hit “submit” instead of “preview”…. damn!!)

  32. 32
    Marcus Ranum

    Here’s the problem – for a “soul” to have inertia (or any other means of being connected to the body) it would have to actually have the properties of things that exist. I.e., it would have mass or energy: both of which are detectable and would be detected as violations of conservation laws in any physical experiment performed in the presence of a person with a soul. We’d know all about them by now, in other words. Or, if souls didn’t have mass or anything else which we’d consider properties of things that exist, then there would be no way for them to interact with bodies, nor would they stay with our bodies – we’d fly through space and leave our souls behind as Earth orbits The Sun and the universe expands and the milky way galaxy rotates.

    If you want to have fun, ask Catholics about “ensoulment theory.” Now that the catholic church has grudgingly admitted that evolution is true, then we can ask about how they see the evolutionary path that led to souls. Or we can ask about the physical properties of souls (now that we’ve mapped the electromagnetic spectrum completely, we could ask “what is the frequency of a soul?” and “how do you know that?”) If it’s {invisible&undetectable&massless&energyless} then it’s “not real” literally, which means it’s impossible to know anything about it. So people claiming to know souls exist must be claiming they know something about some real-world measurable property of the soul. Good luck with that, creos!

  33. 33
    Marcus Ranum

    What is spirit? It’s spirit. What’s it made out of? Spirit. How did it get that way? Was spirit. How does it work? Spirit power. How does it interact with matter and energy? Spirit force. How do we detect it? Spiritually.

    Oh, that’s easy. “Show me.”

    Does a dog have a soul? What about Terry Schiavo? If “spirit power” is not on the electromagnetic spectrum, then how can you say it “exists”? It sure as hell isn’t energy because in Einsteinian space energy can’t hide.

  34. 34
    d.f.manno

    @ mudpuddles #29 says:


    @ Zinc Avenger, #5

    Theists can’t disprove my claim that I have an anti-soul.

    What would happen if I played you some James Brown? Would you blow up? Be careful out there! You could be on a bus or something and anyone out there could start humming “Popcorn!”… I worry!

    No problem. He has a soul containment field.

  35. 35
    Matt G

    If memories are stored in the brain (and they are), how do they survive death? Aren’t we supposed to reconnect with our loved ones in heaven? How will we recognize them?

  36. 36
    heddle

    I never understand this kind of argument. It is simultaneously

    a) too small
    b) non controversial

    It is too small because it tacitly sidesteps the mother of all supernatural events postulated by theorists: creation– by whatever means only requiring that god is responsible, and instead pecks about the periphery. Virgin births, walking on water, talking snakes, immortal souls–these are all in the noise compared to creation of the universe.

    And it is non-controversial because we accept the supernatural which by its very definition is that which science can’t explain–or ever hope to explain. It is why we call them miracles, not parlor tricks. The fact that they cannot be explained is a feature, not a bug.

    Who are they aimed at? Are there very many people who think that a) we have an internal soul and b) there is a scientific explanation?

    I think not. I think the target audience for this kind of argument is more or less the empty set. Rather arguments like this are “duh” for atheists who deny the supernatural and “duh” for theists who accept the supernatural.

  37. 37
    Sastra

    heddle #36 wrote:

    And it is non-controversial because we accept the supernatural which by its very definition is that which science can’t explain–or ever hope to explain. It is why we call them miracles, not parlor tricks. The fact that they cannot be explained is a feature, not a bug.

    The issue isn’t whether science can explain the supernatural by reducing it to nonmental components: it can’t (see Paul W.’s post at #24.) The question is whether “the supernatural” is something which can — and should — be analyzed and approached objectively, in light of modern discoveries in science, in order to form a coherent picture of reality.

    The “feature” of faith is not a feature of the theory, but the sense of specialness granted to those who believe in the absence of sufficient evidence — and get it right! Should sufficient evidence become available, however, the evidence would not be rejected by believers. Instead, the demand would be that NOW the skeptics HAVE to believe. And they don’t get credit for being special.

  38. 38
    Gretchen

    And it is non-controversial because we accept the supernatural which by its very definition is that which science can’t explain–or ever hope to explain.

    1. Not by my definition, and not by that of probably most people who believe in it. Most people treat the supernatural as at least in part an empirical matter.

    2. Let’s say it’s beyond science– is it beyond logic?

  39. 39
    robb

    i find your lack of faith disturbing.

  40. 40
    Winterwind

    What would happen if I played you some James Brown? Would you blow up? Be careful out there! You could be on a bus or something and anyone out there could start humming “Popcorn!”… I worry!

    You could be on to something here. We could hook Zinc Avenger up to a turbine and continously play James Brown. When the soul music reaches Zinc Avenger’s anti-soul field, the particles will eliminate each other and release energy. We could generate limitless amounts of clean power for everyone.

  41. 41
    democommie

    I’ve never much given a fuck about whether people believe they have an immortal soul or a special celestial pal. I give very much a fuck about how their beliefs inform their actions. The track record for organized religions v rational inquiry is not a good one where things like wiping out those who disagree with you is concerned.

  42. 42
    heddle

    Gretchen,

    Not by my definition, and not by that of probably most people who believe in it. Most people treat the supernatural as at least in part an empirical matter.

    As do I. I never said it was beyond empirical. If you were at the Sea of Galilee at the correct time with the correct equipment you could have photographed Jesus walking on water. To the extent to which such tests are conclusive you could have tested Mary’s virginity. I fully expect you could bring the entire scientific machinery to bear to observe, study, and test any supernatural event you happened to encounter. It just isn’t likely, in my opinion, that you’ll encounter one. And if you did, given that it is supernatural, a scientific explanation would not be forthcoming–that’s the feature. But nothing would stop you from trying. Detectors would detect.

    2. Let’s say it’s beyond science– is it beyond logic?

    No. Not in my opinion. My theology postulates a transcendent god who can (but seems to have ceased) set aside the laws of physics. But it doesn’t postulate one who can violate the rules of logic. He cannot, for example, violate the law of noncontradiction.

  43. 43
    Sastra

    The ethical problem which comes along with the epistemic problem of positing that human beings have invisible, untestable, imperceptible “souls” which give them value and make them human is that it then becomes just too easy to decide that not everyone has a soul, or has the same sort of soul, or keeps it up properly so that it does not lose its worth.

    A friend of mine who believes in auras once came back from a visit to her naturopathic chiropractor visibly shaken and upset. It seems that her “doctor” had thrown her out of the office and refused to work on her, telling her that her aura was black — and the negative energy was making her (the chiropractor) sick. My friend said hadn’t been feeling particularly bad beforehand. Now, though, she felt hurt, rejected, and helpless. How could she demonstrate or prove that no, her aura wasn’t black? She wasn’t sending out evil vibrations, she didn’t need to be yelled at and hustled out as if contaminated. Didn’t the doctor know that made her feel bad?

    She was also a bit scared. Was her aura really black? What would that mean?

    I told my friend she was lucky this wasn’t the Middle Ages, and she wasn’t accused of being a witch. This is the down side of having “special ways of knowing.” There is no defense when and if you’re suddenly no longer on the inside sneering at those who guide themselves by science and a foolish dependence on evidence, reason, and coherency. There’s no way to check supernatural measurements. There’s no guarantee they will work in your favor.

    I have no soul. Black, or otherwise.

  44. 44
    dingojack

    “If you were at the Sea of Galilee at the correct time with the correct equipment you could have photographed Jesus walking on water”.

    Could you? You could absolutely guarantee this?

    Dingo

  45. 45
    lancifer

    Heddle,

    “If you were at the Sea of Galilee at the correct time with the correct equipment you could have photographed Jesus walking on water.”

    Oh, fer Christ’s sake, seriously?

    And if I had been on the Isle of Crete at the right time I could have photographed Rhea handing Cornus a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes to swallow thus sparing the “one true god” Zeus.

    Damn, I could probably sell that photo to the Enquirer for some real dough.

  46. 46
    lancifer

    Oops, I have blasphemed the name of almighty Cronus. I blame the demons in my keyboard.

  47. 47
    heddle

    lancifer,

    And if I had been on the Isle of Crete at the right time I could have photographed Rhea handing Cornus a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes to swallow thus sparing the “one true god” Zeus.

    Sorry lancifer–you seem unable to grasp the single additional level of abstraction. Take Gretchen. Like you and virtually everyone else here, she does not believe Jesus walked on water. But she, like everyone else commenting here except you, is not discussing its reality, but whether, upon accepting for the sake of argument such things did happen, would they not be accessible to science?

    If your response is simply “this is nonsense why discuss it?” (which more or less was my response in #36) then it should be directed at Ed, Sean Carroll, and most of the other commenters as well.

  48. 48
    heddle

    DJ,

    Could you? You could absolutely guarantee this?

    I don’t know if your question was serious or sarcasm, but I’ll answer anyway. Of course I can’t guarantee that jesus walked on water or that he even lived. Nor can I guarantee that if he did live and did walk on on water you could photograph it, assuming you had a camera. My assumption is based on the fact that the relatively few miracles in the bible are not portrayed as hallucinations. They are portrayed as actually incursions into the physical. Take the resurrection–it is portrayed that Thomas actually touched jesus and that jesus ate. To me that would indicate that you could have videoed the resurrected christ or, in other words, his suddenly animate body would have been accessible to every form of scientific test imaginable.

  49. 49
    eric

    Heddle:

    He cannot, for example, violate the law of noncontradiction.

    God is incapable of fuzzy logic? Three-value logic? The problem with statements like this, Heddle, is that they basically amount to “God can’t do what I, in my personal experience, don’t think he can do.” Your distinction is not really valid, its just a form of argument from incredulity. (This argument isn’t really going anywhere, I include it more as an amusing aside.)

    Earlier Heddle:

    It is too small because it tacitly sidesteps the mother of all supernatural events postulated by theorists: creation

    Complete dodge. ‘Your point about souls is irrelevant until you address the problem with creation’ is a fail. Carroll’s argument is very relevant to what theologians say about souls, regardless of the issue of the creation of the universe, and it can be made prior to our understanding of that event. Moreover, critics do not have to address theological claims in the order you, the pope, or anyone else specifies.

    I think the target audience for this kind of argument is more or less the empty set. Rather arguments like this are “duh” for atheists who deny the supernatural and “duh” for theists who accept the supernatural.

    Yeah, that must be why this catholic organization published a 5,000 word essay on the reality of the soul, which begins “The question of the reality of the soul and its distinction from the body is among the most important problems of philosophy.” And that was just with my first google search. I wasn’t even really trying to be precise with my search terms.

    Look, I’m sure there are people who agree with you. But the set of those who find such questions is hardly empty. Go look on the internet for discussions of the reality of the soul and you’ll find lots of christian articles about it.

  50. 50
    DaveL

    Like you and virtually everyone else here, she does not believe Jesus walked on water. But she, like everyone else commenting here except you, is not discussing its reality, but whether, upon accepting for the sake of argument such things did happen, would they not be accessible to science?

    So basically, they would be if they did, but they don’t so they aren’t.

  51. 51
    Michael Heath

    heddle writes:

    If you were at the Sea of Galilee at the correct time with the correct equipment you could have photographed Jesus walking on water. To the extent to which such tests are conclusive you could have tested Mary’s virginity. I fully expect you could bring the entire scientific machinery to bear to observe, study, and test any supernatural event you happened to encounter.

    How does one argue such without committing a fatally defective logical fallacy? That of circular reasoning; what is your independent validation reference? Personal divine revelation?

    I understand that you believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, so this happened. But I’m sure you realize that just because some passages in the Bible assert such doesn’t provide a credible validation point, it’s merely a circular argument. So what is that validation source? I’m not asking it be empirical, just logically coherent, e.g., God personally told me so.

    heddle writes:

    It just isn’t likely [observe a supernatural event], in my opinion, that you’ll encounter one.

    This is a really weak argument unless you also assert God is currently hiding from effectively all of humanity, or is powerless to reveal himself to us. The further back in time we go the worse our observational skills are reconciling to reality. That fact strongly correlates to the increase in volume of supernatural claims. If we considered the rate of people during bible times who were reported to have observed supernatural events, we’d project a high rate of supernatural observations now given our ability to record much of what we observe. And yet our record is zero validated supernatural observations.

  52. 52
    hunter

    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.

    Sorry, but my first reaction to this is, “Why should they have to?” That’s also my second reaction. My final reaction is “Who cares?”

  1. 53
    Soul Doubt

    [...] document.getElementById("fb-root").appendChild(e); }()); Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars dug up an article old article from Cosmic Variance about the physics of the soul. Conclusion: there [...]

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