Your Soul and “the Corrosive Reach of Science”

Brace yourself, it’s not looking good

Growing up in a naïve version of Christianity—we heard little about the Crusades, the Inquisition, and certainly nothing about the horrors of the Thirty Years War—I had little trouble embracing the assurance that God is love. I heard it from the pulpit, from my mother, and it could be carefully teased out of scripture that actually disconfirms it.

It never crossed my mind to wonder where the idea that God is love came from, nor, of course, to doubt that it was true. Faith was the guarantor. Christianity would be in jeopardy, of course, if the folks in the pews mustered the curiosity to probe: Indeed, where does this idea come from? Preachers and parents in the Christian tradition have heard forever the bedrock article of faith God is love and passed it along.

But there had to have been someone who came up with this idea for the first time. So it’s fair to ask: did this insight come to that very first person via revelation, imagination, or hallucination? Unless there’s some way to know that, you’re lost.

“I know it in my heart” isn’t good enough, because vastly different, contradictory faith statements are sincerely believed. What you feel doesn’t matter. There are thousands of different religions—and thousands of different Christian brands—because people know in their hearts what gods are like…and they can’t all be right. Indeed, most are wrong. This isn’t hard to figure out. Why aren’t the faithful skeptical about so much of what they believe?

One of the most ubiquitous religions certainties is the existence of the soul. Belief in the soul probably antedates belief in gods, and it has had extraordinary staying power. Cognitive scientist Julien Musolino has analyzed this phenomenon in his essay, “The Soul Fallacy,” in John Loftus’ 2016 anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion. The link to Dr. Musolino’s book, The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs, is here.

A reminder: the new Loftus anthology, The Case Against Miracles, will be published in November. Christianity in the Light of Science is the fourth.

The other three are:

The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (2010)

The End of Christianity (2011)

Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails (2014)

If there is anything that smacks of superstition and folklore, wouldn’t it be ghost stories? …which are tales of souls deprived of their bodies, and commonly up to no good. Musolino presents the evidence that superstition and folklore have not retreated:

“Many people find the idea of a soulless person unnerving, if not utterly horrifying. In my own research, I have asked Rutgers undergraduates to tell me what they couldn’t do or be if they didn’t have a soul. Students responded that they would lack feelings, compassion, the ability to love, the inclination to behave morally, and the capacity to make decisions. Some have even asked me what the point of living would be if we didn’t have a soul.” (p. 201)

Most of these Rutgers students have probably been schooled in soul folklore from an early age in Christian contexts. Musolino notes that,

• “According to a 2009 Harris pole, 71 percent of Americans believe in the existence of the soul and its survival after death.” (p. 190)

• “The Gallup organization ran polls between 1997 and 2004 and found that belief in heaven among Americans ranges from 72 percent to 83 percent.” (p.190)

But the situation appears to be different in other contexts, for example in northern European countries (e.g., Scandinavia, France, Belgium, Germany, Holland). “Today, between 30 and 50 percent of respondents in these countries report believing in the soul and the afterlife.” (p. 191)

We can suspect that God-is-good theology suffered this major setback in the wake of two world wars that claimed 90 million lives. But still, superstition is hard to defeat. Musolino: “In his book Immortality, philosopher Steven Cave concludes that the overwhelming majority of the world’s population subscribes to the soul narrative.” (p. 191)

Isn’t it strange, however, that people don’t question the soul narrative? That they don’t ask, “Where did this belief come from?” “Should this be taken seriously?” How do they know that, without a soul, “they would lack feelings, compassion, the ability to love, in inclination to behave morally, and the capacity to make decisions”? If the soul has so much impact, then it is testable.

“…in order to perform its putative function,” Musolino points out, “the immaterial soul should be able to casually interact with the physical matter in our brains.” (p. 193) We would need evidence for that, just as we need some kind of evidence that God-ideas are based on revelation instead of imagination or hallucination.

“If the elementary particles in our brains faithfully behave in accordance with the laws of physics, then their behavior is determined by the laws of physics and not by the soul. On the other hand, if the soul could somehow nudge the elementary particles in our brains to push our buttons, then these particles would not behave as predicted by the laws of physics, with detectable consequences. Claims about a psychologically potent soul are therefore claims about physics. (pp. 193-194, emphasis added)

Thus Musolino states the two competing hypotheses “regarding the functioning of the human mind,” and it’s a sure bet that folks who champion the “soul narrative” don’t give much thought to the issue:

The Dualistic Hypothesis, i.e., we have bodies and “an immaterial, psychologically potent, and immortal soul. Body and soul are distinct entities and the soul can continue to exist and function after we die.” (p. 194)

This is the product, soul/afterlife, that the church has sold forever. Well, truth be told, this is the gimmick, fully fleshed out with vivid descriptions of the differing fates that await those who do, or do not, measure up.

The Materialist Hypothesis: “The mind, the domain of the soul, cannot function separately from the body for the simple reason that our mental experiences are caused by physical activity in the brain. What we call mind is nothing but a description of the functioning of the brain…” (p. 194)

This is not rocket science, but it is brain science, and as this field has progressed, most of the faithful are unaware. Why bother, actually? If you want to see mother again in heaven, just settle for assurances from the priest that souls are real:

“A good recipe for writing a bestseller is to use the word heaven in the title of the book and offer evidence for the existence of the soul. Books such as 90 Minutes in Heaven, Heaven is for Real, and Proof of Heaven are but a few of the examples of a larger trove of publications aimed at convincing the masses that human beings have much in common with angels.” (p. 195)

The hunt for soul-impact on the brain has come up empty:

“The scientific case against the soul, our dualistic hypothesis, is overwhelming. The key to understanding why the soul cannot be reconciled with modern science is the notion of consilience, the idea that evidence from multiple, unrelated sources converges to support strong conclusions….the soul has shrunk as scientific understanding progressed.” (p. 194)

“There is no formalism, apart from trivial analogies, that describes the immaterial soul substance. There is no objective empirical evidence supporting the conclusion that consciousness can operate separately from the brain. Souls fly in the face of what we know about modern science…the soul, like the emperor’s new clothes in Anderson’s famous tale, has exactly the set of properties that it should have if it didn’t exist.” (p. 194)

Our privilege of being alive, of course, is highly cherished. How can we cling to that? Musolino speculates on the deep roots of soul belief:

“What special property is associated with being alive? And where do our thoughts, dreams, and emotions come from? Can the matter in our body really feel, think, and make rational choices? To answer these mind-bending questions, our ancestors proposed that different souls are responsible for biological and psychological phenomena. This suggests that ignorance of nature’s ways, coupled with a penchant for certain kinds of explanations, gave birth to our cherished soul beliefs.” (p. 189)

“…as scientific understanding progressed, the different souls started to melt away like snow in the sun.” (p. 189) “Worse for Christianity, and religion more generally, modern science gives us every reason to believe that people do not have souls.” (p. 188)

But, but, but…what about Near-Death Experiences? Aren’t they proof? Many people have stepped into the beyond, if only for a few minutes, and have reported what they’ve seen. In a four-page section of the essay, pp. 195-198, Musolino evaluates several arguments advanced for the reality of souls, and indeed he acknowledges that the NDE “…phenomenon is undoubtedly real and been experienced by millions of people in the United States and around the world.”

But the crucial factor is that brain death had not occurred. “Neuroscientists have shown that the relevant experiences can be linked to well-established neuropsychological processes in the brain.” It would seem that the brain is tricking you not to panic.

Heaven sure looks like it is within grasp, which might give Christian apologists pause as they cheer about NDEs. Many people who haven’t accepted Jesus as their lord and savior seem to have qualified for admission to heaven.

Musolino quotes Sean Carroll: “The choice you are faced with becomes clear; either overthrow everything we think we have learned about modern physics, or distrust the stew of religious accounts/unreliable testimony/wishful thinking that make people believe in the possibility of life after death. It’s not a difficult decision, as scientific theory-choice goes.” (p. 198)

Religious accounts. Unreliable testimony. Wishful thinking. These are the roots of the soul narrative. Musolino notes, early in the essay, that “soul is a philosophical, metaphysical, or religious claim, we are often told, and so it is safely insulated from the corrosive reach of science, and cannot be affected by discoveries in biology, neuroscience, or physics.” (p. 188) But in his essay he make the case that this is no longer true, and in the final pages he explains why we’re better off without the concept of soul.

After all, isn’t it better to face the world, and our ultimate fate, honestly?

“…the facts about human biology and psychology are here to stay. People will continue to fall in love, be moved by beautiful music, and be jealous of their neighbors, regardless of whether we believe that their soul or the neurochemistry of their brain is the relevant factor. In letting go of the soul then, we lose only a potential explanation, and none of the facts that we hold dear.” (p. 202)

A potential explanation that fails, by the way. My mother was a devout woman, and if it was her soul that animated her brain and personality, then it wore out. What good is a soul that wears out? Alzheimer’s disease ruined the last few years of her life; if the “immaterial soul substance” animates the brain, how could that have happened? Which alone, I suspect, falsifies soul—at least the role imagined by theologians. At one point, Musolino notes, “I do not really care about theological accuracy”—as if there really were such a thing!

Theologians striving for accuracy would do well to engage fully with the findings of science and throw in the towel: No, our species doesn’t have a privileged status in the Cosmos. We don’t get to live forever, sneaking into eternity via our souls; everything dies—finally dies, dead—whether it’s flowers, people, or stars.

That’s just part of the price of getting to live at all, for however long any one of us enjoys that status. The soul narrative gives a morale boost—well, unless you happen to be hell-bound—and that’s what churches trade in. We can be pretty sure religious bureaucracies aren’t about to admit that they really don’t have the product they sell.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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