Guest Post: Giving Up the Soul

Note from Managing Director: Every so often, we welcome a guest post! Drew Jacob is a philosopher, adventurer and polytheist priest. Travel is his spiritual practice, adventure is his religion. He believes we can live for our ideals, chase our bliss, seek out challenge and make change in the world. He’s walking/bicycling 8,000 miles to try it out. You can join the adventure at Rogue Priest. Travel companions welcome.

This year I gave up belief in the soul.

As a priest, this wasn’t a quick decision. As a philosopher it was time. Faith alone doesn’t cut it for me: my religious views have to proceed from some rational basis. Sometimes that means revising my beliefs in response to new information.

I listened with interest as scientist friends explained advances in our understanding of consciousness. The brain, once a mystery even to doctors and surgeons, has increasingly yielded up its secrets to the current generation of neurologists. We can now explain the chemistry behind almost all of humanity’s private mental experiences. Profound phenomena like dreams, déjà vu, happiness and love can be explained without reference to anything spiritual.

The one thing that neuroscience has not explained is consciousness itself. Sure, the brain directs the body to respond to stimuli, but why would that make us self-aware? Why is there a “me” inside the machine feeling every second of it?

Even as a science enthusiast this is where I always balked. Electrons aren’t conscious, so the big orchestra of them in my brain shouldn’t be either. Neurons alone don’t explain subjective self-awareness.

So I was down with the soul.

I went to lengths to reconcile the soul with what we know about the brain. I viewed the brain as the soul’s transceiver; a lot of religious people hold this view. The brain handles our memories, emotions, cravings, stress, anxiety, fear, and pleasures—sure. But can’t the soul be the rider in the robot? Consciousness became the one topic where, privately, I indulged the immaterial. Even the supernatural.

But I was wrong.

Let me take a moment to talk about bad religious arguments. I’ll pick an easy target, Creationism. There are some good arguments for the idea that we have a creator. But many Christian ideologues instead rally around a sort of intellectual shrug: the universe is so complex, how could it not be Created?

When something is hard to explain, if the only answer you can come up with is God then you’re really just not trying hard enough.

Which brings me to my own failure. There is a scientific explanation for how consciousness happens. Unlike evolution, it’s far from well demonstrated: it is very theoretical. It states, essentially, that even though electrons and neurons themselves are not conscious, consciousness emerges from their arrangement into complex systems. Consciousness is an aggregate effect of lots and lots of tiny unconscious parts.

This is not a satisfying explanation. It’s hard to picture. While it’s easy to believe that tiny atoms are the basis of all material things—little building blocks add up to bigger building blocks—it’s harder to believe that little building blocks add up to ghosts.

So I always cast aspersions on this explanation. I used all the usual religious rhetoric: that’s just a theory, it’s not proven any more than the soul is. How could consciousness come from atoms? How could it not be some force unto itself?

Well, when something is hard to explain, if the only answer I can come up with is spirits then I’m just not trying hard enough.

So let’s try harder.

Logic tells us that when choosing between several possible explanations, the simplest one is most likely to be correct. The soul is neither the simplest nor the best explanation for consciousness. We know exactly three things about the soul, objectively speaking:

  • There is absolutely no evidence it exists;
  • All of the functions once ascribed to it, other than consciousness itself, are now known to be caused by the physical brain;
  • We can make alternate, convincing theories of consciousness without ever referring to it.

On the other hand we have the neurological theory of consciousness, the idea that consciousness emerges from neuronal activity. This theory is simpler, tighter. It refers only to hardware we know exists. Generally, it’s not wise to invent something unobserved and unevidenced if an explanation doesn’t demand it, and explaining the mind does not demand a soul.

It’s hard to imagine an experimental protocol that definitively proves consciousness arises from soulless neurons, but the leading edge of our most important medical field is building toward an answer to that question. If we can completely explain consciousness without any reference to the immaterial, then there’s no reason to postulate a spirit.

We may live in the age that disproves the soul.

I don’t expect this reasoning to be convincing to devout believers. We have an investment in our beliefs. They don’t die easy. But if the research keeps going the way it is, a no-soul-needed theory of mind will become established fact. Belief in the soul will become as antiquated as the belief that Earth is the center of the universe.

Far more interesting than the loss of the soul, to me, is what comes next. Religion is possible without a doctrine of souls, even without a belief in an afterlife. But what will it look like? Which faiths will be quick to adapt, and will they gain ground or lose it?

(Photo of Drew Jacob. Used with permission.)

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24 thoughts on “Guest Post: Giving Up the Soul”

  1. Drew, you make a convincing and rational argument in an arena which typically eschews rational thought in favour of keeping the mystery of it all. Moreover, you manage to do do in a way that maintains the beauty of the explainable parts we DO understand so far. If this is the era when we disprove the soul, its replacement will be no less beautiful for our collective ability to understand it.

    1. Thank you D.! The human mind indeed inspires wonder in me, no less so – perhaps more so – for it being made of this-world stuff. One mystery is as grand as another.

  2. Veeery interesting, Drew! Question though; if there are no souls, how do you explain men like the Dalai Llama, who’s soul has been reincarnated over many lifetimes? Or people like me who can read past-lives through tarot?

    1. I have to be careful to specify that even though I have good reason to believe there’s no soul, that does not mean I have a good answer to questions like these.

      And that doesn’t make the evidence against the soul any less convincing. The day we invented fire, no one imagined the rocket ship; science sometimes progresses slowly.

      With that said, my tentative answer is this. If we prove there is no soul — which is not proven yet, but it remains our very best theory — then we need to dismiss soul-based explanations of other phenomena.

      In other words, what if the Dalai Lama has never reincarnated, not even once; and what if your readings help people even though they have no past lives?

      Can you imagine other reasons why the Dalai Lama, and your readings, are so meaningful to so many people?

      I say this with respect, because I find great guidance from oracles and I think that work has tremendous value, with or without souls.

  3. I am surprised by this post Drew. Our souls are the mysterious something that animates and makes us us.

    How can someone working with magick suggest it all comes down to explainable peptides and functions of our physical form?

    Your words suggest we may as well be robots. It was like reading the review of a great piece of art by someone that only saw slabs of oil strokes on a canvas. Is this how you see humanity?

    I don’t have the answers, but I hold out for more than us being simply intelligent machines.

    1. Setken, thanks for this reply. I see you making two points here: one about my practice of ritual magic, and one about the world being less wondrous if it’s viewed as without-soul.

      I’ll do my best to talk about both of those. This is just my own view, and it’s still very much in its infancy. I’m still thinking through all the repercussions on my beliefs.

      On magic, I continue to practice ritual magic and believe it often gets the desired results. As you know from my writing about magic spells, I have never claimed that it works by supernatural means. I have always been open to the idea that it is primarily a psychological medium, and that the spirits are not “out there.”

      Magic ritual is an art and a technology. Learning improves our arts and technologies, it does not harm them. This includes learning about the mind.

      In other words, even if we know that magic ritual sometimes has profound effects, scientifically, we need not assume those effects involve spirits — and if we ascertain the true mechanism, we can make the effects even more profound.

      Now for your second point. Many people feel the world is somehow less beautiful if we don’t have souls. But why?

      There is nothing “robotic” about consciousness emerging from neuronal activity. It is a breathtaking and perspectival occurrence. Look at your computer screen: beautiful art, hilarious videos, the words of a friend, the thoughts of great philosopher — all of these appear to you even though they are made of simple dots of light on a screen. They arise in abstraction from meaningless dots.

      This is how the mind arises from neurons.

      “Robot” implies programmed, no will, no feelings, no heart, nothing important. We are not robot, we are Mind. We are dynamic, creative, living beings with feelings and love and fear. We have the greatest physics simulator in the world inside our heads and we use it a thousand times a second.

      The soulless world is a beautiful world, my friend. We don’t exist in the peptides — we exist in the abstraction.

      So I agree with you: we are much, much more than just neurons. But it is extremely likely that our “much, much more” will vanish when the neurons break down. It won’t go anywhere else and it cannot be brought back.

      That’s a heavy truth, but if it’s fact then it is, I believe, worth knowing.

      1. That is a very well put response.

        It is normal I think that we would try and understand the phenomenon of the soul with the mode that we are comfortable with and good at: the rational.

        At the end of the day, I do not think we will find that the life force that animate us – and the anatomy that goes along with it (if you want to call it soul, spirit, consciousness) – is that easily explainable.

        I think we need to take our cue from the ancients – the technology that they possessed that obviously included magic (with or without spirit forces) still eludes our modern understanding, and my money is on the clues to the answers being found there in our ancient past.

        1. I guess I see no reason to believe that.

          I mean, we understand the mind better than we’ve ever understood it before. Not 100%, but more and more every year.

          As we come to a complete understanding of the mind through science, why should we suppose that there is some “other” aspect?

          And if there is some other aspect, something non-physical, science could study that too. If it exists and it affects our lives, obviously it would have an observable effect, and that means it can be studied rationally.

  4. The one thing I’ve always found fascinating and truthful, and some would even call it fact is the mind achieves what it conceives. In all I have learned and study we get what we believe in. The Laws of Attraction are also used as a “theory” of this. No facts for proof just like the spirits, etc. but there’s reasonable views, just as their is in all religions. With all that said about both sides, I’ve learned we get what we believe in. If one believes there’s not spirit or life after death, they get what they want, if one believes in another life, they get what they want :-] It’s a theory, and sometimes I say I have a silly theory, but at the end of the day, a theory needs no proof since it’s just a belief and not fact :-]

    1. Brandon, a theory does require evidence, and by definition it’s different than a belief.

      “Theory” is generally used as a label for beliefs with a strong body of evidence behind the — such a strong body of evidence that, although not proven, they are our very best (or most likely) explanation for something.

      I would not use that label for the belief you’ve expressed here. There is good evidence that belief or positive thinking influences what we’re able to achieve in our lives, but it doesn’t change the laws of physics.

      If indeed our consciousness arises purely from our neuronal activity then the consciousness dies with the brain, full stop. It could not, in that scenario, continue to live on no matter how much you believe it will. The belief would die with the believer.

  5. So, no souls, maybe no spirits. Yet I know you honor gods and ancestors in your rituals; you’ve just been writing about them on your Celtic Recon blog. Why? Hedging your bets? Just being traditional? The ancestors would mean very little if everything stops along with neurological activity.

    1. I believe that a relationship to the gods is a beautiful and meaningful thing even if, hypothetically, the gods are only subjective ideas.

  6. Wonderful post Drew. A subject that I have never really put much thought into.

    As a tongue-in-cheek reply: Looks like we are one step closer to creating Cylons.

  7. Drew, I must admit first that I have not read all the comments, so you may have already addressed this.

    That being said, I think your premise fails because the statement, “electrons and neurons themselves are not conscious” cannot be proven. It is an assumption.

    Science does not know everything, any more than aspects of Spirituality can claim to. To follow science blindly makes a new religion of it, no matter how much it is studied, or how much ‘fact’ is put forth.

    1. Jade, let’s imagine that electrons and neurons are conscious. Does that give us back the soul?

      Not at all.

      The fact that our consciousness arises from complex arrangements of neurons stays the same, whether those neurons are conscious or not. And that means that the destruction of our brains will still, irreversibly, end the consciousness that was once “us.”

  8. Hi Drew,

    “Unlike evolution, it’s far from well demonstrated… Consciousness is an aggregate effect of lots and lots of tiny unconscious parts.”

    When reading this part I couldn’t help but think that consciousness is like evolution in that they both begin with lifeless chemicals that somehow become life and consciousness. Both evolution and consciousness don’t yet have the answer to their beginnings, and both have much else already explained.

    Arguably what I’m doing is religion without souls or afterlife. Whether or not it is a religion is up to each person to determine for themselves. I personally don’t really care whether it is or isn’t, I just enjoy what I do. Either way, I still operate well without souls or afterlife. In fact, I haven’t felt more freed. Because, without soul or afterlife, that means I can do as I please without judgement or suffering in an afterlife. You are truly free to live by your own bearings. I find great satisfaction in that.

    1. That’s interesting, Rua, because many atheists make precisely the opposite argument: not believing in an afterlife in no way frees you from responsibility or judgement. A common critique of atheism is that it doesn’t have moral bearings because there is no belief in Heaven/Hell/Judgement, etc. and atheists have worked hard to show that, nonetheless, there are very good reasons to follow ethical rules and obligations.

      1. I didn’t mean to imply no responsibility, I didn’t even mention that. When I say judgement I am referring to Judgement from some ‘higher being’ of the supernatural kind. Judgement from peers is always there regardless, and still do impact how you go about things.

        For those who argue that without Heaven/Hell/Judgement, etc. you won’t have morals, I question them. Because if you think that, what do you think you’ll do if that wasn’t there to enforce it then? It makes it sound like they themselves would go wild if it wasn’t for such harsh punishments or great rewards.

        Without afterlife, the now becomes the focus, making it valuable and all the more important to ensure that it is well lived. With that being the case, what do these naysayers think living well is about? We all want a good life, and many wish the same for others. The more people living healthy happy lives the better it is for everybody – its a net gain. That’s all there is to it. If they can’t get that, then there may be a bigger problem that they themselves have to deal with.

  9. Well I did enjoy the article Drew. For me personally, I am inclined to agree with you. There is no soul, at least not the soul people like to consider. I certainly do not believe in the ‘afterlife’, I believe in this life and I have no reason to believe it ends. I think that I am a creation and what created me is independent of its creation. While it is unusual, I do believe the creator can become animate. I believe it wants to but the creation must allow it. So long as we imagine we own anything this can not happen. Should we own nothing our creator can be present. Time itself needs to be dismissed. Nothing happens in the past or the future. All of creation emanates from the moment, now, and the past and the future are made to comply.

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