Another pathetic article about the existence of god and the soul

Reader Jeff ‘Hyphenman’ Hess takes one for the team and reads the neoconservative rag National Review so we don’t have to, and flags my attention to a recent article that deviates from their usual warmongering to present arguments for the existence of god and a soul. They start by saying that science is what gives evidence for the existence of souls, so you know right off the bat that this is going to be a doozy, and it does not disappoint.

The first ‘argument’ is to state, simply by fiat, that it is impossible for inanimate objects like electrons, atoms, and the like to create consciousness and a sense of self. Why is it impossible? Because they just cannot conceive of how it might happen. This ‘god/soul of the gaps’ theme persists right through the article

But then its gets even better, because the authors invoke that old favorite, Godel’s theorem, saying “His incompleteness theorem demonstrates that human intelligence exceeds anything that can be expressed in a formal, axiomatic system.” Godel’s theorem says nothing of the sort. What it does say is that a sufficiently rich axiomatic system can be neither consistent nor complete. What the lack of completeness implies is that there will be some theorems of the system that cannot be proven within the system. Religious apologists have taken that as a license to insert anything they want to believe that they cannot prove, god or soul or whatever, as one of those true statements that cannot be proven. This is simply false. The unprovable theorems are dependent on the axiomatic system. Theorems that are unprovable in one may be provable in another.

For example, Euclid initially used just the first four of his five postulates, thinking that the fifth one would be provable from the others. Using those four, he was able to prove up to 28 theorems but could not prove the fifth postulate and further theorems. He had to add on the fifth postulate as an axiom to prove the 29th theorem and beyond. The fifth postulate, known as the parallel postulate, was long thought to be an obviously true statement about the nature of space. It was proved much later that the fifth postulate could not be obtained from the other four but had to be added on as an axiom. It was later also found to not be universally true of physical space but a feature of only one class of geometries and that other classes, what we now refer to as non-Euclidean geometries, play important roles in understanding the large-scale structure of the universe.

The authors then present near-death experiences as an argument for the existence of souls.

Studies of near-death experiences indicate that large numbers of clinically dead people who were subsequently revived experienced perceptions beyond the capability of the inactive states of their brain. They see, hear, and learn things that they could only know if they possessed a conscious awareness independent of their bodies. This includes interactions with dead people in a supernatural realm. Remarkably, there have even been instances of people blind from birth, with no concept of sight, accurately describing what they saw during their clinical death.

This points to the existence of a supernatural being, one with the extraordinary intelligence and power needed to confer souls on humans and ensure the souls’ continued existence even after the body stops functioning.

But as I said in a previous post, careful analyses of such experiences finds no evidence that near-death experiences produced anything like the claims that have been made for them that suggest knowledge that could not have been obtained by the usual means.

The authors then tackle the big problem of suffering and argue that suffering must exist because to eliminate suffering would be to deny humanity of a greater good.

Somehow, suffering must not be quite as bad as it seems. It must be made right for each individual in the end, and it must be the case that preventing the suffering would impede something more important. Under the Judeo-Christian worldview, the thing that would be impeded is our free choice to want to become holy, to be reconciled to God.

That kind of thing, telling the huge numbers of people who are suffering and living lives of misery that they must suck it up for the greater good and it will all be right for them after they die is the big con that has been perpetrated by religion on suffering people throughout history. It is an exercise in self-indulgence on a massive scale by those who have no idea of the suffering that others go through. They also say that the desire to be reconciled with god that makes humans exceptional and not like other living things.

This article is really quite pathetic. The only thing that I can say in favor of it is that is reduces the space in the magazine that might have been used for promoting wars.


  1. jazzlet says

    While I agree that suffering now for a reward in heaven/another life is the big con mny religions inflict on their believers I do not agree that those who push it have no idea of the suffering that others go through. One of the most odious things about Mother teresa was that she did know what she was putting the people she ‘helped’ through and she crtainly isn’t an isolated example, just a famous one.

  2. says

    “reduces the space in the magazine that might have been used for promoting wars”
    I’m not sure that I entirely agree with you there: belief on gods has been a great begetter of wars throughout history.

  3. alkaloid says

    I know this is an off topic question but you seem like a good person to ask this about wrt mathematics. Is it possible to construct a three-dimensional geometrical object like a sphere that would have only latitudinal paths but no longitudinal, parallel paths, or vice versa?

  4. mnb0 says

    ” to eliminate suffering would be to deny humanity of a greater good”
    I always giggle a bit when a frigging christian uses a utilitarian argument.

  5. busterggi says

    Faith -- obviously not very effective for believers or they wouldn’t need constant reassurance.

  6. says

    @alkaloid No. 5,

    Sure, since latitudinal and longitudinal paths are artificial constructs—there is no bright white line running north-south through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, nor a similar line running perpendicular to that imaginary line 90 degrees from the north and south poles—there is no requirement to draw such lines, unless you really feel a want to. : )



  7. Mano Singham says


    I don’t think I quite understand your question. How would such an object differ from (say) a sphere like the earth with its parallel latitudes and non-parallel longitudes?

  8. leftygomez says

    Just to be precise, the Incompleteness Theorem says that a formal system (sufficiently rich for basic arithmetic) can NOT be BOTH consistent and complete; such a formal system could be consistent and incomplete, or could be complete and inconsistent.

  9. colinday says


    Arcs of longitude are not human constructs, nor are the axial poles or the equator. The choice to use Greenwich as 0° longitude is a human construct.

  10. Mano Singham says

    leftygomez @#10,

    As I understand it, Godel showed that neither completeness nor consistency was possible, not that you you can have one if you forego the other, as stated in the Wikipedia article on it.

    The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an effective procedure (i.e., an algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the arithmetic of the natural numbers. For any such formal system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that the system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.

  11. leftygomez says

    Mano, the first sentence says “no consistent system can be complete”, not that a system can be neither consistent nor complete. For example, Peano Arithmetic is (almost certainly) consistent, but can’t one complete.

  12. alkaloid says

    @Mano Singham, #9

    Such an object would lack the parallel latitudes entirely but it would still be three dimensional. I’m not sure if I’m phrasing this particularly well either.

  13. says

    Mano Singham @14,
    Godel’s incompleteness theorems do allow for a consistent system of axioms, it’s just that the axioms cannot prove their own consistency--unless the axioms are inconsistent or “ineffective”. Inconsistent systems of axioms are necessarily complete, because you can prove everything via the Explosion Principle.
    The National Review’s argument is just wrong on multiple levels, and as a math geek it pains me to address any of it while leaving the rest of it uncorrected. I will say this though:

    In math, there’s a distinction between a “theory”, which is a set of axioms and all theorems that can be proven from those axioms, and a “model”, which is an interpretation that tries to satisfy all propositions in the theory. If an axiomatic theory is incomplete, that means any model contains additional true statements that cannot be proven within the theory. Arithmetic, as we usually understand it, is a model. And there is no complete, consistent, effective set of axioms for it.

    So, when the author claims that physical systems are a formal, axiomatic system, that’s flatly wrong, because not even arithmetic is a formal, axiomatic system. Also, I’m amused that if you take their argument to its logical conclusion, it says that arithmetic cannot be explained naturalistically, and thus must also have a soul.

  14. Owlmirror says

    @alkaloid: I was thinking about your question, and I am wondering if you have your terms right. Latitude and longitude follow the shape of the Earth, but they don’t cause the shape of the Earth. Latitude and longitude are a coördinate system, which follow from the Earth’s shape, and the fact that it is rotating with respect to the sun and stars; one set of the coördinates follows the axis of rotation, and the other is at right angles to the axis of rotation. You could have a different coördinate system based on choosing some other arbitrary points and making a different grid, or maybe even something that isn’t a grid (like maybe a system of triangles, like a fractal wiremesh frame, anchored at some chosen points), although I think a grid is probably easier to work with.

    A different shape could still have latitude and longitude if it were rotating and the coördinate system aligned similarly with the axis of rotation, or a different coördinate system could be used.

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