Consciousness / mind · Religion

The Soul?

Soul believers are incredibly common – maybe it’s fair to treat it as the overwhelming majority opinion among the US population. But, as with any other topic, a ‘taken-for-granted,’ widespread, non-trivial belief tends to be wrong, unsophisticated, or both. So what do I treat ‘soul believers’ as accepting? Here are some characteristics:

(1) Immaterial. The soul is not part of the material world.

(2) Separable. The soul is separable from the body.

(3) Human-like. IE, people see themselves as, after death, moving past the physical world to be judged, interact with old family members, or even just floating around as a ghost.

This is pretty uncontroversial and, while there are plenty of attributes that can be added on, this is the core of what most Americans see the soul to be. If you do not believe this to be the common view… you can change your mind by looking at the success of Near Death Experience (I went to heaven and came back!) books – all of which involve this sort of treatment of the soul. This seems like an apt moment to bring up my absolute distaste for Eben Alexander and his fairy tale Proof of Heaven. I can get over the lack of sophistication, that the only things he ‘learned’ were vacuous platitudes (‘you are loved,’ etc), but what really gets to me is that the verifiable details of his story are false and that the author has a documented history of fabrication. The sort of fabrication that is altering medical records in an attempt to avoid malpractice suits. Yea, great guy. Anyway, despite my complaints about that asshole making an enormous amount of money by lying, this is the version that we will talk about.

The most common arguments against the soul is the deep difficulties there are in accounting for a mechanism of interaction that does not result in overdetermination or a violation of causal closure. However, I am going to grant the first two points as being true for the sake of argumentsince I want to take strong issue with the third point – the idea that an immaterial, separable, persistent consciousness would be of the sort that allows for not just human experiences but human experiences that can be “brought back” and understood. So with that lead in the central question becomes…

What is required for human experience? 

I am going to make the very strong case that our conscious experience, immaterial or not, requires a physical body. Even a tiny bit of self-reflection should make this obvious – what we experience and what we can cause ourselves to experience is wholly determined by our interaction with the environment. My body interacting with a hot stove is what brings forth my experience of pain, and this experience of pain is what motivates me to take action and move my body away – which brings forth a different experience. There are all kinds of specific examples even if we treat this interaction more passively. You hit your head on a rock and your conscious experience is changed – you feel dazed, confused, and in pain. Maybe if you are particularly unlucky you feel a strange tingle along your neck that you realize to be a stream of blood. You find your lover fucking a horse (why do people always want to use the most boring examples possible for this sort of thing?) and have some combined experience of surprise, horror, jealousy and arousal. The latter two elicit more surprise… and perhaps some self-loathing and shame. And these are all examples where the outside world is something that happens to us. Combine this with the incredible number of senses that ground us and make sense of the world – taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight, orientation, location, etc etc etc. Just a little change in gravity will radically alter our experience!

But let’s go further. Maybe you can accept that all of our feelings – those sorts of things – require a body. But maybe there is still room for a central core that allows for our thinking. Our rationality. Time for a little more self-reflection: your thoughts have the same intimate relationship to your feelings and environment. When someone is depressed they do not just feel a certain way, they perceive the world in a different way. What they once saw as a dress belt is suddenly seen as a noose instead. What used to be a small pouch of fat is proof that one is a disgusting human being. Or maybe powerful emotions like lust. Does it really need elaboration on how lust changes your thinking and rationality? There is data showing the tactile experience of non-electronic reading results in better engagement and retention. Or perhaps we can look at the sad medical cases where brain tumors cause erratic behavior and different brain structure causes bipolar disorder and differently sized amygdalas impact emotional regulation. A little introspection on, say, what it might be like to be a batreveals our total inability to picture the experiences of other animals with even slightly different senses. If a lion were able to speak we could never understand him.

And we can go even further. I’m going to play a little bit of [citation needed] paraphrasing, but there is research that shows things like children making spatial gestures while talking allows them to better think about and explain spatial concepts.

Alright that’s enough. I’m hungry, my eyes are closing themselves, and the point should be made. Even more than the enormous hurdle a soul faces with the problem of interaction, it is an even larger hurdle to argue that a persistent soul would be anything remotely resembling human experience. A very strong argument is required to take that concept seriously rather than a byproduct of our awareness of death. After all… by the time you have actually created a brain in a vat you have created a body and circulation system with it. Good Lord this was a casual vomiting of words.

TLDR: disembodied human consciousness would not be anything like a human.

OK bye!


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