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Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul

Got soul
I spend a lot of my time in this blog arguing why I don’t believe in God. Today I want to do something a little different. I want to talk, not about why I don’t believe in God or gods, not about why some particular religion’s belief in God is mistaken or contradictory… but about why I don’t believe in the soul.

A lot of people who don’t believe in God per se still believe in some sort of soul, some sort of metaphysical substance or animating spirit that inhabits people and other living things. And I think this is mistaken. I think it’s every bit as mistaken an idea as God is.

And today, I want to talk about why. I want to talk about why everything that we think of as the soul — consciousness, identity, character, free will — is much more likely to be a product of our brains and our bodies and the physical world, than a metaphysical substance inhabiting our bodies but somehow separate and distinct from it.

Much, much, much more likely.

Brain question mark
Here’s the thing. I know that there are enormous unanswered questions about how the mind works, and indeed what it is. The questions of what consciousness is, how it’s created, how it works… these are questions that we don’t really have answers to yet. Ditto identity and selfhood. And we’re not sure that free will even exists, much less how it works. The science of neuropsychology, and the scientific understanding of consciousness, are very much in their infancy. In fact, I would argue that “What is consciousness?” is one of the great scientific questions of our time.

But infant science or not, there are a few things we know about consciousness, identity, character, the ability to make decisions, etc.

Prozac
And one of the things we know is that physical changes to the brain can and do result in changes to the consciousness, the identity, the character, the ability to make decisions. Changes caused by injury, illness, drugs and medicines, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, oxygen deprivation, etc., can and do result in changes to everything we think of as the “soul.” Even some very small changes to the brain — small doses of medicine or drugs, injuries or interventions to just a small area of the brain — can result in some very drastic changes indeed.

In some cases, they can do so to the point of rendering a person’s personality completely unrecognizable. Physical changes to the brain can make people unable to care about their own families. They can make people unable to make decisions. They can make smart people stupid, anxious people calm, happy people irritable, crazy people less crazy. They can render everything we know about a person, everything that makes that person who they are, totally null and void. Read Oliver Sacks, read V. S. Ramachandran, read any modern neurologist or neuropsychologist, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s fucking freaky, actually, just how fragile are mind and self, consciousness and character.

Gravestone
And, of course, we have the rather drastic change to consciousness and character and coherent identity and the ability to make decisions, known as “death.”

Simply cut off oxygen or blood flow to the brain for a relatively short time, and a person’s consciousness and self and ability to take action in the world will not just change but vanish — completely, and permanently. (Attempts to find solid evidence supporting life after death have been utterly unsuccessful: reports of it abound, but when carefully examined using good scientific methodology, they fall apart like a house of cards.)

Now.

Force
Think about any other phenomenon in the world. When Physical Action A results in Effect B, we think of that as a physical phenomenon. Apply heat to water, and get steam; apply force to an object, and get motion; apply electricity to metals in certain ways, and get magnetism; apply vinegar to baking soda, and get gobs of rapidly expanding foam. These are physical events, every one. Only the most hard-line religious believers insist that God’s hand is in every physical action that takes place everywhere in the universe. Most rational, reasonably- well- educated people understand that the physical world is governed by laws of physical cause and effect.

So.

We have a phenomenon, or a set of phenomena: consciousness, selfhood and identity, character and personality, the ability to make decisions. There’s a lot we don’t know about these phenomena yet, but one of the few things we do know is that physical changes to a person’s brain will result in changes to the phenomena. Small changes or drastic ones, depending on the stimulus.

Doesn’t that look like a biological process?

Doesn’t that look like phenomena that are governed by physical cause and effect?

Even though we don’t fully understand them, don’t these phenomena have all the hallmarks of a physical event, or function, or relationship?

Gravitation-Solar_sys8
I mean, even when we didn’t know what gravity was (which, if I understand the science correctly, we still don’t fully grasp), once we got the idea of it we understood that it was a physical phenomenon. Once we got the idea and began studying and observing it, we didn’t try to explain it by invisible spirit- demons living inside objects and pulling towards each other. We could see that it was physical objects having an effect on other physical objects, and we understood that it was a physical force.

In other words, we don’t need to completely understand a phenomenon to recognize it as a physical event, governed by laws of physical cause and effect.

And when you start looking at the “soul,” you realize that that’s exactly what it looks like, too.

Bell_brain_cut
Everything that we call the “soul” is affected by physical events in our bodies, and those events alter it, shape it, and eventually destroy it. Apply opiates to the brain, and get euphoria; apply a stroke to the brain, and get impairment in the ability to understand language; apply vigorous physical exercise to the brain, and get stress reduction; apply repeated blows to the brain, and get loss of memory and intelligence. Apply anesthesia to the brain, and create the temporary obliteration of consciousness. Remove blood or oxygen to the brain, and create its permanent obliteration. It looks exactly like a physical, biological process: a poorly understood one as of yet, but a biological process nonetheless.

And there’s no reason to believe otherwise. The theory that the soul is some sort of metaphysical entity or substance has no solid evidence to back it up. Just as with life after death, attempts to find evidence for a spirit or soul have consistently withered and died when exposed to the searing light and heat of the scientific method. And there’s never been any good explanation of how, exactly, the metaphysical soul is supposed to influence and interact with the brain and the body.

Not to mention why it can be so drastically altered when the body alters.

Is there energy inhabiting our brain and our body? Yes, of course. There are electrical impulses running through our brains and up and down our nerves; there are chemical signals being transmitted through our muscles and guts; we consume food energy and radiate heat.

But is there some sort of non-physical energy inhabiting our brain and our body? Is there some sort of non-physical energy generating our consciousness, our personality, our coherent identity, our ability to make decisions?

There’s no reason to think so.

We have an enormous amount yet to learn about self and will, consciousness and character. But everything we know about them points to them being physical phenomena. And the more we learn about them, the more true that becomes.

Other posts in this series:

“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant On What Consciousness And Selfhood Might Be
A Lattice of Coincidence: Metaphysics, the Paranormal, and My Answer to Layne
How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist: Part 3

Comments

  1. says

    I had a stroke 10 years ago that radically altered my personality. It left me in constant pain, it made me unable to care about anything. I had to be trained how to walk again because I could not remember how. And it killed the part of my mind that embraced faith and allowed me to be a believer. I was a gung ho Christian for 20 years but the stroke wiped that out like it was nothing. All of my priorities were either altered or eliminated. In fact, I changed so much I changed my name. All of that because of a few seconds of oxygen deprivation to a certain area of my brain. A soul? No. Haven’t got one, never did, despite thinking to the contrary previously.

  2. Mike says

    This post of yours reminds me of what I consider Ebon’s best essay on his atheism pages:
    http://ebonmusings.org/atheism/ghost.html
    It goes into much greater detail and really develops a robust, thorough argument against the existence of the soul. So readers of this blog post might find Ebon’s essay quite interesting. It was certainly the most compelling essay I read when I was struggling with faith. Fascinating and thought-provoking stuff.

  3. Valhar2000 says

    Frank DN: I’m sorry to hear that; it can’t have been pleasant.
    What sort of evidence have people proposed in favour of the idea of “a soul”. The only thing I’ve ever seen is people’s desire for there to be a soul, and there sharp annoyance when the vapidity of this idea is pointed out.

  4. says

    What I’m truly looking forward to is the day we have real, scientific explanations for exactly how the architecture of the brain produces the sensations of consciousness. It’s a hard problem, probably the hardest one we’ll ever tackle, but I don’t think it will prove insoluble. As complex as the brain is, ultimately it’s just an issue of engineering. And though it may seem incredible that we could ever understand how neural firing could produce, say, the sensation of red, I think our understanding is so rudimentary that we don’t even know the right questions to ask.
    Carl Sagan speaks of “the great demotions” – the Copernican realization that humanity was not the center of the universe, the Darwinian realization that we’re not the miraculous pinnacle of creation. I think the scientific understanding of the mind is going to be the last and most conclusive of those, the one that shows the mind has a natural basis and that we are fundamentally physical creatures. The forces of religion haven’t even felt this blow yet, but I don’t think it will be much longer.

  5. Kagehi says

    Sadly, when that day comes its going to be a “case study” or “one” consciousness, and the soul people will still be babbling about how it doesn’t prove anything, because just because you can explain “one” result, doesn’t mean you can explain all of them. Its not going to be something clear, cut and dried. Its going to be more like the fossil record, where you have the “end result” in clear, sharp and distinct detail, some prior forms in clear, but less distinct detail, and a lot of fuzziness the farther you go back into the past of a person to try to project how the specific pattern resulted. While the “artifacts” of all the data will be there, the causation of the artifacts and the entire data set that generated them, will, based on what I have seen, be only statistically definable, not concrete. Most of the data was either never recorded in early development/childhood, when pathways and function was getting layed down, but not clear memory, or will have been so severely distorted by a constant flux of fading or amplification, that, at best, the most we could ever say is how you could produce the same “mind”, more or less, while never the less, skipping 10%-20% of everything that ever happened to them (at a guess), and instead introducing things that generate the same connections, from experiences that the original perhaps never had at all.

  6. says

    There is a single celled organism who lives out its life in the bloodstream of rats. But it can only reproduce itself in the stomach of a cat. A cat eats an infected rat and the organism reproduces in the cat’s stomach. Then the cat poops it out and a rat comes into contact with the cat feces and gets infected.
    The problem is that rats are naturally afraid of cats and do their darnedest to not get eaten by them. This would seem like an evolutionary flaw on the part of the organism. But the organism has a solution for this.
    The organism actually reprograms the rat’s brain to make it not afraid of cats. This allows the rat to get near enough to a cat that the cat can eat it and continue the organism’s life cycle.
    Now here’s the scary part. This organism affects human brains.
    This organism is responsible for Crazy Cat Lady syndrom, or cat hoarders. It has long been established that there is some kind of mental instability in the “hoarders” – people who live in squalor and filth to collect cats. The people AND the cats’ lives are in danger because of the filth they are forced to live in. We’ve known they were mentally unstable for years.
    What we didn’t know was that this mental disorder was artificially created by another organism.
    A single-celled organism can actually reprogram a human brain.
    And a human with this new programming will drastically alter her personality because of a tiny, microscopic, unthinking cell.
    If our “souls” were somehow apart from our bodies, something metaphysical, something greater than biological, this would not be possible.
    The very essense of who we are can be altered by the mere presence of a single cell.

  7. says

    Joreth, that is fascinating. I’d heard of the organism that makes rats not afraid of cats — it’s fascinating, and it’s important for people who are interested in evolution to remember, when considering questions of “What’s the evolutionary value of X?” But I hadn’t heard about its effect on people.
    I’m curious — where did you find this out? And how can they be sure of the causation? It seems to me (actually, Ingrid pointed this out) that a cat hoarder would be exposed to a lot of cat diseases, including this organism. So being a cat hoarder might be the cause and not the effect. Why do they think that it’s the other way around?

  8. says

    I don’t believe in the soul because the soul is not an “object” that can be transported to heaven, hell, sheol … what ever. The soul is a process and such, ceases upon death.

  9. terry d. says

    A view of neutral monism seems more likely to me than materialism; matter can be reduced to energy, and some fun studies about quantum particles filling in all that mass in atoms and molecules from the energy they release as they move back and forth from elsewhere to thiswhere have come out in the past year. Granted I’m a laymen and the math is beyond me, but with that and relativity, raw energy, sometimes so much of it that it attains material form to store it, seems to be the basest element of all reality to me, so while everything you say makes a great deal of sense, I think the material interactions of neurons will one day be reduced by far better minds than mine to the energy that creates their physical mass in the first place. Because of this I think the term “materialist view of life” could end up limiting what is obviously a worldview you have spent a great deal of time and intellectual effort to cultivate, but I am just waxing ontologically here. Materialism also has a great deal of politically slanted ties to 20th century Soviet philosophy, as dialectic materialism was the underlying principle they tried to stretch across several scientific disciplines to tie more and more areas of inquiry into a supposedly overarching ideology, which seems to be to be the opposite of free thought. Thanks for writing

  10. anonymous says

    if this is true how do you explain the paranormal things that happen such as evp, apparitions, and physical encounters people have, such as the time i went up a flight of stairs and was violently shoved back down when nothing was at the top?

  11. says

    anonymous:: I explain those things by the weird ways our minds work. Our perceptions aren’t always accurate; our minds can be easily deceived; and we are more likely to “perceive” things that we expect to perceive, or that we want to perceive.
    That’s why we have the scientific method: to double-check our perceptions and make sure they’re accurate. And every single time that supposedly paranormal events have been rigorously tested using a careful scientific method, they have been found to be not paranormal at all.

  12. Eclectic says

    Another one out of the park! Everyone should acquaint themselves with the story of N-rays (and Robert Wood’s debunking of the widely-reported phenomenon) to see how well people can fool themselves.

  13. Eclectic says

    Here’s a reference to the T. gondii theory about “cat lady syndrome”: ‘Cat Lady’ Conundrum, The.
    However, that is strictly a conjecture. “That idea doesn’t seem completely crazy,” Sapolsky says. “But there’s no data supporting it.”
    If there has been further research supporting the idea, I haven’t found it. It has nonetheless been transmogrified from “interesting idea” to “fact” in various blog posts.
    An opposing observation is the fact that animal hoarding is observed with many non-cat species.

  14. says

    The argument you are trying to show is false:
    A: The soul is immaterial reality.
    You attempt to argue:
    B: The soul is nothing more than a material reality based on X,Y,Z which are material whose effects can be observed.
    Therefore, an immaterial reality does not exist.
    However, it seems that your argument is simply circular. Your argument states that materiality is ultimate and then you use material evidence to argue your case.
    You try to make a jump to say that an immaterial soul does not exist from the observation of material effects which makes your argument less than reasonable.
    The logic is neither valid nor sound.
    Your argument as presented actually seems to undermine your overall argument.
    First, free will cannot exist for an atheist if everything is in fact due to cause and effect relationships as you stated.
    I consider this a good test for atheism. If you think you are a robot, then you might be an atheist. If you think you have free will, you most likely are a Christian. You appear to recognize this in your argument which destroys your argument.
    Second, you claim that you and science itself is really ignorant about the mind. You have a few circumstantial observations; however, no one can doubt their own experience which is the essence of the soul. No one disagrees that we have a material composition made up of physical processes.
    As a result, it appears that you would rationally have to doubt your own experience as an atheist which every honest person knows cannot be done. Atheism leads to a denial of experience itself which everyone knows is false.
    Of course, everyone has physical makeup that can affect us; however, it does not affect our experience which still takes place regardless of our physical condition.
    Third, how would you know the limits of experience? Experience takes place in life, in dreams, and many people have had experiences in life after death experiences. It seems you have to deny all of this experience in order to demonstrate that your view is true; however, in the process of demonstrating it, you simply have disproven your argument.

  15. says

    zdenny: First, I’m not starting with the assumption of materialism. In fact, I used to believe in an immaterial soul — and these arguments convinced me that it was unlikely. What I’m starting with is a massive body of evidence showing thought and consciousness to be caused by physical, biological processes… and no good, rigorously gathered and tested evidence whatsoever suggesting that any other process is going on.
    Second: I have every reason to doubt my own experiences. Personal perception and intuition are demonstrably flawed, and often lead us to mistaken conclusions. That’s the whole purpose of the scientific method: to test our personal perceptions and experiences and see if they jibe with reality. If you’re going to argue that consciousness is immaterial because it just seems that way to our experience… well, it seems to our experience that the sun orbits the earth, too. That doesn’t make it true. What seems to be true isn’t always true.
    And your arguments about dreams, near death experiences, etc. are not convincing. We have every reason to think that these experiences are just another part of the way our brains function.
    Finally, as to free will: I don’t know what free will is, or even if it exists. I think it’s entirely possible that it doesn’t exist, and that it’s an illusion. I also think it’s possible that it exists, but that we don’t understand it correctly. But what I don’t see it how spiritualism solves the problem. If there’s an immaterial soul animating our consciousness, isn’t that just another link in the chain of cause and effect? If our choices are affected by an immaterial soul in addition to a physical process of evaluating information and options, how does that make us more free?

  16. Paul says

    however, no one can doubt their own experience which is the essence of the soul.

    What does that even mean? I doubt my “experience” all the time. Are you even aware of the studies showing that memory is re-constructive, not some sort of ethereal recording? Every time you recall an event, you are re-constructing it in your mind, with the chance for small cumulative alterations (think of the kids’ game Telephone for how small changes can completely alter an idea). “Experience” is firmly in the realm of things a skeptic should doubt, in the absence of corroborating evidence or at the very least believability.

  17. says

    Greta: “First, I’m not starting with the assumption of materialism.”
    ZD: You then turn around and say, “massive body of evidence showing thought and consciousness to be caused by physical, biological processes”
    This is by definition circular thinking.
    Greta: “I have every reason to doubt my own experiences.”
    ZD: You may have reason to doubt your experiences of reality; however, you cannot deny your experience. You are confusing categories.
    Greta: “Personal perception and intuition are demonstrably flawed, and often lead us to mistaken conclusions.”
    ZD: No one is denying that our perception of reality can be doubted. However, it is not possible to deny your experience itself.
    Greta: “And your arguments about dreams, near death experiences, etc. are not convincing.”
    ZD: The bottom line is that I am not arguing that experiences can be subjective; however, you cannot deny your experience itself. You simply are confusing categories again.
    Greta: Finally, as to free will: I don’t know what free will is, or even if it exists. I think it’s entirely possible that it doesn’t exist, and that it’s an illusion. I also think it’s possible that it exists, but that we don’t understand it correctly.
    ZD: Now you are being honest because it fits your worldview.
    Greta: “But what I don’t see it how spiritualism solves the problem. If there’s an immaterial soul animating our consciousness, isn’t that just another link in the chain of cause and effect? If our choices are affected by an immaterial soul in addition to a physical process of evaluating information and options, how does that make us more free?”
    ZD: Your argument basically justified murder and every other evil that exists on the planet. Without free will, there is no responsibility either. If man is not ultimately spiritual being locked into cause and effect relationships, he is also not responsible for the evils and crimes he commits against humanity.
    It just seems to me that you are avoiding the issues and it even appears that your viewpoint can be used to justify horrific crimes against humanity.
    Thanks for the discussion

  18. Paul says

    ZD: Your argument basically justified murder and every other evil that exists on the planet. Without free will, there is no responsibility either. If man is not ultimately spiritual being locked into cause and effect relationships, he is also not responsible for the evils and crimes he commits against humanity.

    Justified to whom? Responsible to whom?

  19. Paul says

    In the interest of furthering conversation, and so as to not be taken as a troll, I’ll elaborate a little bit with an example (although I would really like to see your answer to the previous post).
    Is Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum justified when it causes Syphilis in humans? Or is it an ultimately spiritual being locked into cause and effect relationships? Is it not responsible for killing or maiming people?

  20. says

    ZD: You then turn around and say, “massive body of evidence showing thought and consciousness to be caused by physical, biological processes”
    This is by definition circular thinking.

    ???
    How is it circular thinking to base my conclusions on evidence? If there’s good evidence of the supernatural, I’ll change my mind. So far, you haven’t shown me any.

    ZD: No one is denying that our perception of reality can be doubted. However, it is not possible to deny your experience itself.

    I don’t deny my experience. I just question what that experience means, and what it says about reality. Yes, I experience my consciousness as if it were immaterial… but that doesn’t mean that’s the correct interpretation of that experience. I also experience the sun as if it orbits the earth. But careful examination of the evidence has shown that not to be true. And careful examination of the evidence is showing that consciousness is almost certainly not immaterial.

    ZD: Your argument basically justified murder and every other evil that exists on the planet.

    It does nothing of the kind. And shame on you for using one of the most common and most ugly canards against atheists and materialists — namely that we have no basis for morality. We can see morality as being a result of the wiring of the human brain brought about by millions of years of evolution as social animals… and still take it seriously.
    And you didn’t answer my question. I acknowledge that the question of free will and responsibility is a tricky one. But how does spiritualism solve it? Wouldn’t the immaterial soul just be another link in the chain of cause and effect? Even if we do have immaterial souls, how does that solve the question of freedom in a cause and effect world?

  21. Eclectic says

    Greta’s point about subjective experience not being the same about reality is spot-on. Thousands of optical illusions show the possibility.
    The problem is that when I say “what you perceive is not what’s really there”, many people take it as a personal attack: “you’re (deliberately) lying”.
    This is not the case at all.
    As an example, I’d like to give drawing in perspective. For hundreds of years, flat art had made no attempt to show perspective, because people thought it was impossible: to look further away, things had to actually be further away.
    But this is because a person’s brean stubbornly insists on “fixing” the apparent relative size of things. Even when the results make no sense.
    Then, in the early renaissance, artists learned how to draw things in perspective. If you’ve tried it yourself, you know it takes a lot of practice to get it right. Early artists would look through a grid of wires so they could understand the actual apparent size of things.
    All to achieve the apparently simple task of drawing what your eyes are actually seeing!
    What is frustrating is that a brainless thing like a camera can do it perfectly every time. Precisely because it hasn’t got a brain which keeps trying to “fix” things.
    When I say that someone is not accurately reporting their experiences, I mean that they haven’t got the perspective right in their drawing, not that they’re trying to mislead me.
    Only if someone insists that what they think they see is actually there do I get a bit impatient. It’s quite common to see things that aren’t actually there, and other people are just as prone to it as I am.

  22. Gayla says

    I’m as appalled by religion as anybody, but I totally disagree with this post. The author has mistaken personality for soul. She should perhaps go take some shrooms, get in touch with the part of herself that exists independently of anything physical. You’ve heard the body is your temple, that’s because it’s where your soul hangs out on Earth. We’re physical beings channeling God consciousness. The God consciousness doesn’t die when our bods do. Whether it retains any ‘personality’ after death is another question, but it doesn’t die.
    Changes to the brain only affect the soul’s “front end” — affect our ability to have our body be an effective temple and conduit for soul. Shrooms, for instance, help unlock pieces of brain that connect our souls, our essences, to other worlds. Brain injury, on the other hand, may impair our ability to express the soul. As Wayne Dyer says, “We are spiritual beings having a physical experience.”
    I clearly remember when I was 6 or 7 years old sadly deciding to hide my soul away since it got no nurturing or recognition in my family.
    I have felt light in my spine, and it made it clear to me that light, truth, and God are one and the same, and that it’s a cosmic energy, chi, running through us insofar as we’re open to it. That part of Light we have in ourselves is our soul. imo.

  23. says

    Gayla: Do you have any actual good evidence for any of this?
    In this piece, I have made an actual argument, bolstered by hard evidence, that consciousness and volition and everything else that we consider to be the “soul” is actually a biological product of the brain. And I have pointed out that persistent attempts to show otherwise have consistently proven futile.
    All you have done in this comment is re-assert your position, without any evidence to back it up. (Except, of course, for “I felt it” — which, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is a terrible argument for anything, and especially for religion. Our feelings and intuitions are important, but they are far too flawed, far too subject to biases and cognitive errors and wishful thinking, to be taken as the sole source of evidence for anything.) All you’ve done is say “This is what I think is true” — without giving us any reason why we should be persuaded.
    And for the record: I have taken ‘shrooms. Interesting experience. But it’s still a physical experience: an alteration of consciousness brought on by altering the physical chemistry of the brain. If anything, drug experiences and other physically altered states of consciousness bolster my argument, not yours.

  24. Rigasche Rundschau says

    There can be a serious rational argument in favour of assuming something like a soul (I mean here – consciousness not fully determined by physical factors), even despite evidence in favour of the contrary being stronger.
    I mean – one is forced to assume he or she has free will; in case of the contrary there is no sense to care about anything, with our (and everybody else’s) thoughts and actions being independent of our inexistent choices.
    As Dr. Jerry Coyne wrote (seemingly agreeing with it): “the reason why most people think it [determinism]’s irrelevant: because we have no choice than to act as if we have the capacity to make free moral choices: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/08/08/another-sweating-professor-egginton-on-free-will-again/
    In the same post he concludes his review of what science says on free will “it seems (..) there is no way that we can make decisions that are truly free”.
    If we are forced to consider ourselves free and if a materialistic picture of the world shows no evidence of it, doesn’t it mean that we have to make some concession to idealism? Idealism or dualism can be wrong – but doesn’t monistic materialism means all our search for truth being meaningless, for our very thoughts are determined, even if technically not predictable?

  25. John says

    Life is Eternal, Death is just moving from one frequency of existence to another. Don’t be afraid, Death is not the End.
    The Scalpel and the Soul
    Encounters with Surgery, the Supernatural, and the Healing Power of Hope
    by Allan J. Hamilton, MD, FACS
    A Harvard-educated neurosurgeon reveals his experiences-in and out of the operating room-with apparitions, angels, exorcism, and after-death survival, and shares the lessons he learned.
    A young burn victim remains in a coma until a ghost appears.
    A doctor discovers he can predict when a patient will die.
    A clinically dead patient later recounts extraordinary details about the private lives of her caregivers.
    A physician needs the help of a Navajo shaman to exorcise the spirit of his dead patient.
    These things really happened-and neurosurgeon Allan J. Hamilton was involved in every one of them, and many more. Based on thirty years of medical experience, The Scalpel and the Soul tells the unspoken stories behind remarkable patients and strange events, and shares the moral and spiritual lessons found in them.
    For physicians, supernatural inklings and intrusions are disturbing. Doctors cannot be candid with colleagues or patients because they are trained to disregard the inexplicable and unbelievable. They’re taught to discount elusive, evanescent powers of the soul. Superstition, omens, and divine spirits smack of madness.
    But patients have the same experiences. Life-threatening illness or surgery frequently brings dormant spirituality to life. The soul often needs more than intensive care alone can give. The Scalpel and the Soul explores how premonition, superstition, hope, and faith not only become factors in how patients feel but can change outcomes; it validates the spiritual manifestations physicians see every day; it empowers patients to voice their spiritual needs when they seek medical help; and, finally, it addresses the mysterious, attractive powers the soul exerts during life-threatening events.

  26. Speak the Truth says

    Attempts to find solid evidence supporting life after death have been utterly unsuccessful: reports of it abound, but when carefully examined using good scientific methodology, they fall apart like a house of cards- Major Baloney Alert Greta. Please stop misleading people with your lies.Carefully controlled studies have shown that Telepathy, Remote Viewing, Mediumship and Near Death Experiences are real.
    Since psychic phenomena such as mediumship, Out of Body Experiences, Near Death Experiences, Remote Viewing, Materialisations, Proxy Sittings, Poltergeists, Electronic Voice Phenomena, Instrumental Transcommunication have been and are producing positive results, then it inevitably follows that the same evidence can be used for supporting the separation of the MIND and the BRAIN.

  27. Maxx says

    Good evening;
    Just a couple of questions based on what is not known, if I may?
    First – the movie “Avatar” may have been attractive, but science has not in any way, isolated a ‘conscious.”
    Yet, if materialism holds true, the mind is simply a flow of atoms.
    Fine. Where? Where is it? Can we observe it? What color is it? How much does it weigh? What does it taste or smell like?
    If materialism is true then science should, theoretically, be able isolate the organism and test it – but they have not.
    From Freud to now, it’s all simply speculation.
    Where is the proof?
    Thank you

  28. Eclectic says

    “Flow of atoms” is not *quite* correct. It’s in the structure of the neurons in the brain. It appears to persist even of the neurons are temporarily halted, so “flow” isn’t necessary.
    Most of our understanding comes from various forms of modification or damage to the brain. The writings of Oliver Sacks show how spectacular the effects of brain damage can be.
    It’s theoretically possible to understand it, but this process is far from complete today. The important thing is that what we do know does not suggest that there is any fundamentally different mechanism lurking in the part we don’t yet understand.
    The most obvious limitation on research in the area is an ethical one: it’s not permitted to tinker with people’s brains to see how it affects their personalities unless the change is either temporary (psychoactive drug and electrical/magnetic stimulation experiments), or in the person’s own interest (some kinds of brain surgery).
    We know about the motor and sensory homunculi, we’re figuring out ways to damp down phantom limb illusions in amputees, we’ve studied optical and other sensory illusions… there’s lots of research in the area.
    Functional MRI, showing which parts of the brain are active during different mental activities, is the latest exciting tool.
    As for what color it is or what it smells like, those are nonsensical questions. They do not apply to consciousness any more than astronomy has a smell or mathematics has a color.
    The human brain weights about 1.5 kg, although assigning a weight to “consciousness” proper is problematic. What is the weight of a novel, as opposed to that of the book it’s printed in?
    It looks like you’re starting down the “god of the gaps” argument regarding consciousness: we don’t currently understand it, therefore we never will understand it, therefore it is fundamentally incomprehensible. (In the theological version, the final step is “therefore, goddidit.”) Each of those deductions is, however, quite contrary to available evidence.

  29. Locutus7 says

    Another great post, Greta, with the predictable dissenting responses.
    I would ask all of the responders who believe in the Soul or the supernatural: how did you come to believe it. I mean, think back, when did you first learn that people had souls?
    If you are honest, you will admit that it was as a child, either in church or from your parents. And all of the rationalizations and “proofs” are simply a superstructure standing upon the foundational presupposition that there is a soul, and a god, because you learned it as a child.
    We are asking you to question your presupposition.

  30. Maxx says

    Good evening:
    This post is almost too funny to address, but I might try.
    “Eclectic”, Buddy, I am also a psychology major; what in the heck are you rambling about? You’ve merely proved my point.
    Current science cannot neither prove nor disprove a “conscious” nor self-conscience. If the mind is a physical entity, why have we not found it and why can we not extract it and implant it in something else? Where is it exactly in ref. to neuroscience?
    You are merely looking at an effect without understanding a cause. You can look at a house in the dark and determine that lights are on in the windows, but that tells you nothing about what is happening inside.
    For “Locutus7″ – loose the cultural relativism thing. Even psychology cannot prove your point. Neither can you. Turn your own argument on your atheism – when did you learn you had no soul – If you admit that it was as a child, either church or from your parents… Do you see the dichotomy of your fallacious argument?
    Did you really “learn” your atheism as a child?
    Thank you

  31. k says

    If all human brains are alike in their functioning, I would like to know if two persons who are hit on an identical area of their brains with the same force under exactly similar conditions would, after getting hit, become effected in exactly the same way. I would be surprised if the answer is ‘yes’. As an example, put two newly born children, say on day 1 of their birth, in a room and play a loud sound. Would both the children react in exactly the same way? You need not try this to know what the answer would be. If this is just a cause and effect, then it must follow that for an equal cause, there should be an equal effect.
    “Many lives, many masters” is a book written by a doctor, please read it for some of the ‘evidences’ that you want. An appropriate title for your article should be “I don’t know whether the soul exists” rather than “The soul doesn’t exist”, you don’t have any evidence on this either. What is the evidence that your great grandfather’s grandfather even existed? How can you prove that he was not deaf? Can you give me an evidence to this when you have never seen him? There are a lot of things in this universe which exist beyond our logic and perception. It is safe to say “I don’t know” rather than saying “I know it doesn’t exist.”
    Thank you.

  32. marienka says

    Hi Greta,
    I’ve just found your blog and I’ve been fascinatedly clicking around from one post to the next–always great food for thought even when I disagree. :-)
    A few brief comments….I was raised a very strict atheist, and currently consider myself some vague sort of Deist. My parents both hold PhD’s and I grew up in an extremely academic and scientific environment–the rules of the scientific method were my own earliest catechism. Logic and rhetoric came along with that, eventually philosophy itself.
    One of my dad’s lessons that has stuck with me the most was: A real scientist knows how and when to say “I don’t know,” and will always include, at least mentally, as the last possible option in a list of hypotheses that it could be A, B, C, “or something I haven’t thought of yet.” The lesson that went along with this was the axiom that a lack of evidence to support something cannot, necessarily, be interpreted as evidence for the absence of that thing. (Einstein put it nicely: “I like to think the moon is there even if I’m not looking at it.” The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle probably also applies somehow…)
    Throughout all the “atheism”-tagged posts of yours I’ve read, your refrain is: “I haven’t seen solid evidence that God/the soul/the afterlife exists, ERGO, I cannot believe that it exists.” But, have you seen conclusive, fact-checked, peer-reviewed, double-placebo-tested evidence that God DOES NOT exist? You’re perpetually mistaking a lack of evidence to support an argument for solid evidence countering it. No, I haven’t seen uber-conclusive proof that God exists–I also haven’t seen uber-conclusive proof that he doesn’t. The scientific, and intellectually/logically honest response to this kind of situation is not “GOD DOES NOT EXIST, FULL STOP” but, “WE DON’T KNOW.”
    My own beliefs, in the interest of full disclosure, are very vague. I am not one for organized religion. I do believe, I think, in some sort of God-like entity, a spiritual dimension to things, possibly the immortal soul. (Law of conservation of energy might come into play here.) But, contrary to one of your earlier comments, I was NOT raised to believe in God or the soul. In fact, I was raised expressly to NOT believe in them one iota. Then around my mid-teens I started having this immense crisis of non-faith–basically I felt (yes, felt!) an immense conflict between what I’d been taught and what I was starting, basically, to feel or perceive. Yes, it’s the intuition thing you hate so much–but, yes, I did feel a spiritual pull and a sense that there is actually *something* more out there. (What is it, exactly? No clue.)
    The thing with your categorical dismissal of the “I feel it in my heart!” argument is….when I think about it….it seems like for the majority of human history, the large majority of the population has had similar inclinations towards believing in the spiritual/divine in some or another form. Sure, maybe they were all delusional or inventing odd stories to cope with a fear of death. But another possibility occurred to me–we have eyes to see, ears to hear, isn’t it possible that this sort of “intuition” is, in a quite literal meaning, a sixth sense? That is, another way by which we humans in our earthly bodies perceive the wider natural world? (Yes, natural–the “supernatural” cannot exist, because what is IS and what is is in Nature–if God exists, she is or is part of the natural order of the universe.)
    I’m not trying to prove you wrong–I’d have to be convinced I was right to do that, and honestly, I have no idea. I just wanted to put some of my perspectives out there…and please do bear in mind that this is not mindless repetition of Christian dogma or Woo silliness or something that anyone else has fed me. Almost all of my thinking on “spiritual” matters is the result of me cranking things around in my head on my own and somehow crapping out arguments that make some sense to me. Looking back over what I’ve just written, I feel a bit like an unholy collision of Hume and Kant (skepticism + wonky empiricism) but….well, there you have it. Enjoy demolishing me point by point. ;-)

  33. cosmopolite says

    Marienka, I would like to get to know you.
    When sperm meets egg, an immaterial entity called the soul is created. That soul is bound to the body as long as the body is living. Upon death, the soul continues to exist forever in an Altered State called “the afterlife”. The soul can experience pleasure or pain, even though it has no body or sensory organs. The afterlife takes multiple forms. What form a soul experiences is determined in good part by the moral quality of one’s finite earthly life. This is taken as the fundamental reason for leading a good life; absent a good life, one’s soul is at risk of a miserable afterlife.
    The preceding paragraph describes the central myth of what I call middle eastern monotheism. European outmigration has spread this myth to most of our species except China and Japan, and Christianity is doing well in China.
    Unless one gives the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross the benefit of the doubt, there is not one shred of scientific evidence in support of any of the above. This fact, and not theism, I deem to be the Achilles Heel of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. I have had grave doubts about the soul and the afterlife since I was about 12. I shocked some of my college friends when I told them I had no difficulty with the prospect that one my health would fail, I would become unconscious, my brain would stop functioning, and I would never think another thought or process another sensation. That would be the end. The only immortality I seek is through my published scientific work.
    That our planet and solar system are friendly to macroscopic life is not a puzzle, because there are so many stars in the universe. Evolution pretty much explains the path from simple bacteria 3.5 billion years ago to us. It does not yet explain the path from inorganic chemistry to the earliest bacteria, especially given that the surface of the earth was re-liquified 3.85 billion years ago by an asteroid bombardment that probably reset everything to zero.
    We have no explanation for why the laws of physics are friendly to there being some places where life can emerge and evolve. Evolution cannot explain this, because as best as we can tell, the universe around us is All There Is. Hence there is only one physics. Why did the universe begin with a very low entropy? Why was the violence of the Big Bang just right? More violent, and the universe would be filled with cold hydrogen; less violent, and it would have re-collapsed by now, or be filled with black holes. Why does the relation of the nuclear forces (governing protons and neutrons in nuclei) to electromagnetism (governing electrons and their attraction to nuclei) allow (bio)chemistry to be an extremely rich subject? Unlike Greta, I agree with Paul Davies when he writes of our universe being a Goldilocks Universe. And that assuming a higher order of reality is as good of an explanation as any other.
    But the existence of a God who superintends the universe in no way implies that that God values our worship, or that we humans have souls, or that there is an afterlife. Middle Eastern monotheism assumes far more than can be grounded in natural theology.

  34. Spencer Griffin says

    Though I don’t believe in a heaven or a hell, per se, I do believe SOMETHING happens to us after (or when?) we die. How come I was born in 1987 and not at the beginning of time? (assuming there was a “beginning” in the first place) How come people have dreams, and the dreams can seem as real as life itself? If everyone was born at the same time (humans and non-human species alike), then having nothing happen after death would make sense (at least a little bit). The fact that organisms keep getting reproduced seems to suggest that the energy that was once in one being can transfer to another (though not necessarily of the same species). What was life like BEFORE I was born?! (or anyone, for that matter, before they were born) If science can answer THAT question (which it might have, I’m not sure, but probably not), then it would most likely make it easier to find out and/or answer what (if anything) happens after we die. Not trying to convince anyone that I’m right – I don’t even know if I’m right – I’m just asking questions here, that’s all.

  35. DSimon says

    “How come I was born in 1987 and not at the beginning of time?”
    Because you were conceived in 1986 (or early 1987), not the beginning of time minus one year.
    “How come people have dreams, and the dreams can seem as real as life itself?”
    ‘Cause our brains work that way. Ask a neurologist, they’ll explain in more detail.
    “The fact that organisms keep getting reproduced seems to suggest that the energy that was once in one being can transfer to another[...]”
    No, it doesn’t. Just because one thing dies and another thing is born doesn’t imply a direct transfer of energy between the two, let alone any kind of weird “soul” energy.
    “What was life like BEFORE I was born?!”
    Ask a historian. Or your parents.

  36. Tussilago says

    I read this post, and the one from 2007 named “A Relationship Between Physical Things”, and I started thinking about why many people don’t want to believe that consciousness is something physical.
    Many seem to think that would mean that we are like robots, reacting automatically to stimuli instead of thinking, making interpretations of our perceptions and acting on those. I used to think there was a contradiction between the idea that consciousness is physical and the idea that we make interpretations of what we perceive of the world (mostly based on earlier experiences). Therefore, I didn’t want to think of consciousness as physical. But lately I’ve realized that there is no such contradiction. If the thought process is physical, that means that the interpretation is a physical process – not that it doesn’t happen.
    For example: We get adrenaline in our blood when we are frightened, to be ready to fight or flee, which has been helpful for survival. It’s a chemical process. But it’s not an automatic reaction to something outside us. If I think I’m in danger but I’m wrong, then I still get adrenaline in my blood, and if I am in danger but haven’t realized it, then I don’t get it. So it happens because of my interpretation of the situation.
    Another reason why people don’t want to believe consciousness is physical could be that the evidence is so much connected to brain damage and diseases. It’s understandable, because it’s good evidence from a logical point of view – but it looks pretty depressing, a bit like “See how helpless your consciousness is against physical forces from outside!”, so emotionally people don’t want to hear it.
    Maybe we could try to remember the positive parts too. I’ve read that with some brain injuries, people can compensate by learning to use other parts of their brains, which should mean that the brain is like a set of muscles that can be trained. I’ve also heard from a psychotherapist (haven’t read about it myself, so I don’t know much about it, but want to mention it anyway) that thinking makes some kind of physical tracks in the brain, which means you easily fall back into old thinking habits whether they are good or not – but it also means that what you’re thinking has an effect on what happens to the brain physically, not only the other way round. This shows the “not helpless” side of the same thing.
    And I haven’t even gotten into the “no afterlife”-implication, since I had already more or less stopped believing in that.

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