Thursday, May 17, 2012

Is God Just a Human Invention - Chapter 8 Has Science Shown There Is No Soul?

As mentioned previously, I am following a book club type format for this book over on another blog. I was going to just participate over there but I have a lot more to say than I want to shove into their comments, so I figured I'd do a normal long form post over here and then just talk about 1 or 2 main points over there. I'm sticking to my normal format of bold for section heading, regular text for summary, and italics for my commentary.



This chapter starts with an anecdote about a student who was laughed at in a college English class on the first day of the term for believing in a soul. I hope this is either exaggerated or fabricated. If not, the teaching in the story is a horrible teacher and an asshole.

To the new atheists, the evidence for a soul is so miniscule as to be laughable. Just as God is a delusion created by humankind, the mind is an illusion created by the brain.

I don't know if I would use the word 'laughable', but I agree with the sentiment. As have never seen any evidence for a soul. I'm curious what will be thrown at us here.

Admitting the Obvious

"The thought that the mind is an illusion of the brain runs contrary to the way we naturally think about ourselves."

Is this seriously the way we are going to start out? This is completely irrelevant. A lot of things that are true are counter intuitive. Does it seem intuitive that being near a gravity well changes how fast time goes by? Sure seems strange to me, but it is true.

The author once heard an outspoken atheist say that he didn't believe in a soul, but his language implied the existence of a soul.

again, irrelevant. Sometimes language is imprecise and we have to do what we can with what we have. 

Virtually all cultures throughout history have believed in life after death.


Can the Soul Survive Death?

Some people have near death experiences, so the soul must exist.

Or they reconstruct things later. I don't know all that much about NDE's, but from what I have read the claims of them seem to be overblown. Also, there are doctors that hide notes on the top of bookshelves and people never see those, only what they expect to be there.

Are Your Choices Really Free?

It has been argued that if the mind is simply a product of the brain then we don't have free will. We agree, but it is so obvious that we have free will there must be a soul.

What the hell kind of arguing is this? It seems like we have free will, so we do, so a soul exists? This is complete garbage. BTW, if you want to read something about free will, this book is supposed to be good. I haven't read it yet but it is on my reading list. I wish I was reading it right now.

"if a stranger stops to open the door for us, we might describe his thought process by saying, "The nice man made up his mind to stay a moment longer and hold the door open for us." We would not say, "the circuitry in his brain caused him to turn around and hold the door open."

Again, talking about the language we use, this is MEANINGLESS. When I talk about opening an email on my computer do I describe what the CPU and hard drive are doing? Do I explain how my video card is displaying it all for me? No, I say "I clicked the icon". All that other crap is happening in the background. By his logic I could argue that those components are not there. (I'm trying not to be so negative, but reading this is infuriating, we really need to teach basic logic in school so no one falls for this kind of argumentation. Even if you agree with the author's position on this you should be pissed at how terribly he is presenting his arguments)

Are You the Same Person as Before?

If you were to take apart a table one piece at a time slowly over time and replace it with new parts, and you eventually wound up with every part replaced, it is the same table you started with? If someone else took your original parts and made a new table, who has the original, you or the other person? This raises an interesting question as the atoms in our body get replaced over time. So are you still the same you from yesterday or from years ago? "Something nonphysical must account for the sameness of identity over time."

This is actually a really interesting question. Back to the table analogy, if you replace 1 leg of the table is it the same table? We would probably generally say yes, but once every part has been replaced we probably generally say no, but at what point is it not the same table? This is a difficult question to answer. 

When it comes to people it is still a very interesting question, if a skin cell replaces an old one are you a different person, I imagine pretty much everyone would agree that you are the same person. If every time a cell replaces another one it learns to act like the old one, that might explain the consistency over time. I would also point out that we subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) change over time. Perhaps this change of components is part of that process. Honestly, that last bit seems like a stretch to me but it could be I guess.

Neuroscientists to the Rescue

If you saw a news report that said we could hook someone up to a machine and read their thoughts would you believe it? No, you wouldn't, because such a thing is impossible because even though brain states can be scanned, thoughts are uniquely available to a person.

He states this as if it is fact. As if it is known, it is not. It is something to be proven. It is possible that he is right, but he could also be wrong. Perhaps one day we will be able to read people's thoughts with machines. How can he just claim such a thing is impossible with no proof? 

Mental and Physical States

There are several things that are true of mental states that are not true of physical states, one example is that mental states cannot be described in physical terms. For example, it makes no sense to ask how much a thought weighs.

I would say that a thought is an arrangement of brain matter. I would agree that I don't know if it makes any sense to ask how much a thought weighs, but I would similarly ask how much a computer program weighs. Does that mean that my internet browser has an immaterial component to it? 

An Insuperable Dilemma

It is hard to see how consciousness could be the result of purely material things. Even Dawkins admits that the origin of consciousness may be a gap as improbable as the origin of life.

This doesn't mean it didn't happen. It also doesn't mean that there must have been a mind doing it.


  1. The "are you the same person as before?" section addressed physical replacement of atoms. What about replacements in the mind. As you live, you make new memories and forget old memories. (although I've read the memories are still there, we just can't access them) Our point of view changes. It could be said I'm not the same person mentally as I was ten years ago.

    If there was an afterlife, I wonder which version of me goes to it.

  2. That is a really good point Grundy. In many ways our mind changes over time. Think about what you were like 10 years ago even, in a lot of ways I would say that I was a completely different person. I have changed a lot since 2002.

    It reminds me of a book I read a few years ago, The Sparrow. One of the main characters said that he had been married to several different women over the years, they all just happened to inhabit the same body. Over time people change so much he considered her to effectively be a different person. It was just a small detail at the beginning of the book, but it clearly caught my attention as I still remember it :)

    1. Often, by the time we die, we have some version of senility or dementia or alzheimer's. Is that supposed to carry over to the afterlife? Or is the imperfect person we are near death wiped away post-death?

      I doubt anything is carried over post-death. Losing memory or even perception of reality is a symptom of the brain misfiring. The brain is all we are. Many people think this is depressing, but that isn't a reason why it isn't true.

      It's never depressed me. Not sure why. Maybe it will when I'm old.

    2. That is also a really good point, although I'm guessing they would say that the mind is repaired when you get to the afterlife or something. This way they don't have to wipe away the end of your earthly existence but you don't have to be broken in heaven either. Then they can have it both ways.

      It also makes me wonder if you have all of your memories in heaven. Some of my memories are quite painful, do I get to keep those in heaven? I don't want to lose those memories, they are part of what makes me who I am, but there isn't supposed to be pain in heaven. Just another way that heaven only makes sense if you don't think about it too much.

  3. The thing that stands out to me is his assertions, or as you would call them "common sense arguments." The statement about the brain scans is bull. While we are still learning about the brain, significant advances have been made in terms of technology for brain scans. Here and here are just two examples of advances being made in the field. While it's impossible to say for sure, I'm pretty confident that one day we will be able to scan brain thoughts.

    Also, Sam Harris' book on Free Will is an awesome quick read. He cites a lot of studies and projects. Scientists have been able to determine with brain scans about what decision you will make a significant time (in terms of brain function) before you are aware of it.

    Great dissection of a pretty bad chapter of this book.

    1. yeah, I agree about the brain scan. The thing is, I suppose it is possible that there are certain things about people's thoughts that we will never be able to figure out with a brain scan. (I don't think this is true, but it could be). The problem is, he just asserts it as fact with no evidence whatsoever.

  4. I forgot to add that the burden of proof is on those who assert that a soul exists. They need to present evidence for their claim. This is the kind of mentality that makes religious people say stupid things like "atheism is a religion/belief system etc" or "it takes faith to be an atheist."


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