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Jan 28 2014

Neuroscience suggests that there is no soul

Neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss with the host some of the latest developments in neuroscience and what they shed on old philosophical questions. She had to break the news to him, a practicing Catholic, that he has no soul (because none of us do) and that our moral sense arises from the circuitry and chemical activity of the brain. It is a good interview. He actually asks some sharp questions, dealing with the kinds of concerns a religious person would have, and gives her time to respond rather than taking up a lot of the time which can be a failing of his.

The Colbert Report
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(This clip aired on January 23, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Marcus Ranum

    The absence of a theory of a soul suggests that there is no soul.

  2. 2
    Nathair

    there is no soul.

    Tell that to James Brown.

  3. 3
    kraut

    Ahh – now that is news…or not.

  4. 4
    DBP

    @ Kraut
    It isn’t news to the regulars here, but how many Colbert viewers learned something?

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    Neuroscience refutes many theories of the soul. We need to wait a minute and maybe someone will offer a theory of ensoulment that isn’t immediately refuted by modern physics and neuroscience. I’m sure one will come along. Right? Right? (crickets)

  6. 6
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Perfectly simple, MR: the soul (or the mind, depending on your emphasis) is that aspect of human identity and individuality that isn’t immediately refuted by modern physics and neuroscience.

  7. 7
    lanir

    The idea of the “soul” and the more touchy bits of self-identity we have, the things we believe make us different, make us better people… All of that has some basis in physiology as we learn more about how the our bodies function. It’s sometimes a bit difficult to take it all in though, no matter what you think about religion.

    For example, I’m not any more comfortable when first hearing that the idea of free will doesn’t really work how we think it does, that my actions and thoughts all have a chemical basis than any religious person. But I don’t assume that my sense of discomfort is a magical truth compass that always tells me how the universe really works. I know that feeling is only reliable when the evidence backs it up. But if you fully accept religion which does not have any evidence to back it up and which is increasingly proven to be more wrong as time passes, you may hold that feeling in much higher esteem. The concept of “soul” is just another example of this.

  8. 8
    jonP

    I think neuroscience is much more damaging to the validity of religious beliefs than evolution and geology. Religious people may not realize this, because unlike the other examples, neuroscience does not directly refute the details of the stories. Instead it invalidates the key concepts underlying most people’s ideas about god and religion, especially the soul and free-will.

  9. 9
    Marcus Ranum

    I’ve done the epistemological challenge dance with soul-believers (not, unfortunately, James Brown) and it can be tremendous fun. Ask questions like:
    What is your theory of ensoulment? How do souls power themselves and how are they undetectable while doing so?
    If a soul is “energy” what’s its frequency?
    If a soul is jn an “alternate dimension” which one? And since it’s unmeasurable using any mechanism known to science, how do you know it exists at all? (The definition of “exist” means ‘measurable’)
    Does having a stroke affect the soul?
    Have you considered that your brain lies to you about all kinds of things like 3d vision and continuity of existence when you blink, how can you dismiss the possibility that your perception of a soul is just another lie your brain tells you?
    Have you considered the possibility that you’re a meat robot that’s programmed to think it has a soul and free will, when in fact it does not? A robot programmed in such a way might behave exactly the way humans do, following its programming, even to the point of refusing to accept data contradicting its programming.

  10. 10
    birger johansson

    Marcus,
    Souls power themselves as heat engines using the temperature differential between our dimensions and theirs. -The temperature in their domain is close to 3 K which is why it feels chilly whenever a ghost has made an appearence. I find it more difficult to explain the metabolic quirks of vampires, ghouls, zombies etc.

    The scarcity of free energy explains why gods constantly fight each other over turf. Larger deities try too absorb smaller ones, just like predators in any other ecology. Yahweh and Allah are the big bull deities across most of the world and make it almost impossible for new ones to grow in size to a point where they can become commensal organisms plugged into entire peoples.

  11. 11
    jonP

    birger,

    I find it more difficult to explain the metabolic quirks of vampires, ghouls, zombies etc.

    and resurrected Jesus. That’s what I’d like to know.

  12. 12
    dogfightwithdogma

    @9 Marcus Thanks for that set of questions. They will be very helpful next time I find myself in a debate about the existence of the soul.

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