When a priest decides there is no soul, the fan mail is not always fun to read.
Luckily I’ve had plenty of practice. For two years I mused about whether the state of neuroscience is far enough along to suggest that there truly is no such thing as a soul. And in such musings, with wise and spiritual people in several different countries, I’ve seen a lot of reactions.
To recap: science has by no means proven, in the full sense of that word, that we exist sans soul. But we have a very strong body of evidence that consciousness arises entirely from the brain – and a workable model of how. As I’m fond of saying, we may be living in the century that disproves the soul.
It’s unsurprising that other religious people disagree, but the responses can be acidic. Questioning the soul seems to be a trigger, even for people who easily navigate interfaith dialogues and pluralistic communities.
To me this is problematic: if we have a good source of information about what happens after death, I consider that to be critically important. Any spiritual person should be fascinated by such data. But when something challenges long-held beliefs, it’s natural to go on the defensive.
And in this case, the defensive is predictable.
When you present a believer with evidence indicating there is no soul, you will get one of four responses. These are knee jerk replies; the same people, after reflecting, may come up with much more thoughtful and eloquent points. But the knee can jerk with such fervor, even anger, that I believe anyone who thinks philosophically about the soul ought to be ready for it: soul-doubters, to better explain the evidence in the face of these objections, and soul-believers, in order to look deeper at their own beliefs and their reasons for holding them.
Notably, I cannot claim to be an authority on neuroscience, nor on any theology outside of polytheism. The only reason I can write this article at all is because I have spoken or corresponded with so many people of different religious stripes on the matter of the soul. I’ve seen the reactions over and over, and from my own limited vantage point I’ve noticed a pattern.
So here are the four replies I’ve gotten repeatedly – and how I’ve learned to respond to them based on what we know about the brain.
Reply 1: Attacking Science
This is by far the most common response I get. I believe that religion and science can coexist side by side, but only when the religious are willing to adapt and change our beliefs in the face of new evidence. For many religious people that makes science into a threat, rather than a tool for studying the world.
Common variants and how I try to respond:
1. Science can’t study souls.
This is a very good point. If souls exist, they aren’t material, and scientists can’t observe or dissect them. However, science is very good at studying things it can’t observe. For example, we cannot directly observe black holes – but we know they’re there because of the gravitational effects they exert on things around them. Similarly, if souls existed we would expect certain material effects. We would expect the brain not to be capable of creating consciousness, because under such a theory it is a mere transceiver. It turns out that the brain likely does create consciousness, no soul needed, which strongly implies there is no soul behind it.
2. Science doesn’t always have the answers; or, neuroscience has not definitively proven anything yet.
Science is always willing to show us what evidence it has so we can make an informed decision. In the case of the neural explanation for consciousness, the evidence just keeps stacking up. We can use a brain scan to tell what someone is thinking about, and damage to different parts of the brain modulates and changes consciousness itself. Science has very good answers on this question, even if it’s sometimes silent on other important questions.
Ultimately, of course, if someone isn’t willing to credit science as a useful tool for learning about the world, then they really aren’t engaging the question at all – they are effectively stating that they are uncomfortable looking outside of their beliefs, and that they prefer to relish those beliefs even at the cost of becoming more informed about the world.
This is not something you can talk someone out of. If they push the anti-science angle very hard, there’s really no theological conversation you can have with them.
Reply 2: Personal Experience
A person’s private spiritual beliefs may be based on what they have experienced during prayer, meditation or other spiritual moments. This is how my own beliefs evolved. When you’ve had a profound spiritual experience, you will seek out a belief system that validates and supports it.
Thus, many people believe in a soul because they have communed with a dead relative or gone out of body. Or maybe they have memories of past lives. If these experiences were vivid and meaningful, they need to be respected – but do we have to treat them as literally true?
I never start by attacking the person’s experience. Doing so instantly shuts down communication, and it only reinforces their distrust of people who question spiritual beliefs.
I’m fortunate enough to have had these kinds of vivid spiritual experiences myself (most recently in my Vodou initiation). I can refer to my own experiences, and show how I still value them:
These experiences are precious and life-changing. But as I’ve given up my belief in the soul, I’ve been able to imagine other explanations for them. I had to admit that there were other possibilities besides my own beliefs. But I think the value of these experiences remains, no matter what causes them.
It should be clear that a private, subjective experience inside an individual does not prove the existence of an objective, external force like the soul. But to many people, believing that our private experiences signify something objectively real is crucial to validating that experience. Only by validating it in other ways can you foster a dialogue re-thinking the explanation.
Reply 3: The Moral Reply
Sometimes we’re so wedded to our beliefs that we will employ any tactics to promote them. Ironically, this can take on a moralistic tone – as if the world will be a worse place if our beliefs are not enshrined.
This tendency runs across religious lines. It is not only a Christian tendency. But the form that it takes varies tremendously with religion. Here are two variations:
1. If people don’t believe in an afterlife (or karma) they have no incentive to behave ethically.
2. If people don’t believe in the spirits of nature they have no incentive to treat the environment with respect.
As you might guess, the former objection came from people of varying religions, while the latter came from Neo-pagans with an animistic bent.
In either case, this is propaganda, and it makes me deeply uncomfortable. People making these moralistic arguments are as much as saying that the accuracy of their beliefs doesn’t matter as long as everyone has to believe them. They assign a utilitarian value to seeing large numbers of people share their beliefs, and promote the beliefs essentially as part of a social agenda, to keep people in line.
Thankfully, most of the time they don’t mean that.
When people give this kind of reply I almost always get the feeling that they just crossed a line they didn’t mean to cross – and they feel it too. There’s usually backpedaling, sometimes within the very next breath.
The reality is that, for most people, this is an accidental response. Their mind is casting about for reasons why their beliefs must be right, and suddenly they find themselves practically admitting the beliefs are only a useful fiction, which is of course not what they believe at all.
I think it’s important not to engage this response, for two reasons. First of all because, as noted, people who argue like this are going to realize what’s wrong with it and take it back quickly. It doesn’t need to be refuted. But secondly because those few people who actually stand by this line of reasoning are essentially suggesting something deeply unethical: that we should lie to people to control them. This brings the conversation to a standstill and necessarily prevents any fruitful theological dialogue. They are not interested in uncovering truths, only bolstering their position.
If I need to reply to these arguments at all, I am very direct:
You’re implying that your religious beliefs are inaccurate, but are useful for getting people to act the way you want. I don’t think that’s really what you wanted to say.
In any case there are many pragmatic, humanistic reasons to behave ethically, participate in society and respect the environment. Spiritual beliefs add an extra dimension of meaning for many people, but even in a world without spirituality we would still benefit from acting ethically toward each other and preserving our environment.
Reply 4: The Nature of Matter
The evidence-based argument against the soul is that consciousness arises from an arrangement of neurons, made of physical matter. However, this scientific model is open to philosophic interpretation. It’s surprisingly common for spiritual people to accept the scientific evidence at face value, but then hypothesize other possible discoveries that would put the afterlife back on the table.
I’ve seen this take two variations:
1. Matter could be alive. The electrons running through our brains could themselves be conscious.
This is possible, and this idea is called panpsychism. It suggests that consciousness is an inherent quality of matter, rather than something that emerges strictly from highly organized systems such as brains. If that were true, our individual particles would keep on being conscious after we die – but we, ourselves, with our personality and memories and awareness, would not. This does not give us back the soul.
2. Matter is never destroyed. After we die, the material in our brains goes back to the elements and, eventually, back into living beings.
That’s a good point. The particles that make up our brains may be recycled into other brains some day – but the unique consciousness that is us will not be resurrected when it happens. Imagine taking a vase, pulverizing it into powdered clay, mixing it with water and sculpting a new vase. The same particles are re-used, but the original vase is lost forever. The same is true of our individual consciousness.
As philosophic speculation, I find these types of ideas fascinating. But it’s important to remember that, intriguing as they may be, they don’t imply in any way that we will actually remain conscious after our deaths, or reincarnate, or anything similar. I think it’s possible to give credit to these interesting ideas without slipping back into belief in an (un-evidenced) afterlife.
The Fifth Sacred Thing
I said there were four common responses and that’s true. Almost without fail, you will get one of the responses above. However, there is a less common fifth response – one which often comes after one of the first four, if the discussion stays alive.
It has to do with beauty.
To many people the beauty, wonder, and greatness of the universe is tied up in the existence of its spiritual side. The idea that there is more here than just dust and sand, more than blood and peptides, gives a grand scale to the cosmos that captures our imagination.
Thus, you will sometimes get a reply like this:
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?
To which the only reply is to affirm my wonder:
Consciousness is breathtaking and perspectival. Look at your computer screen: beautiful art, funny videos, the words of a friend, the thoughts of great philosophers – all of these appear to you even though they are made of simple points of light on a screen. They arise in abstraction from meaningless dots.
This is how the mind arises from neurons. In fact, it’s how great art arises from slabs of paint.
“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 like love and fear. We have the greatest processor in the world inside our heads and we use it a thousand times a second.
The soulless world is a beautiful world. We don’t exist in the peptides — we exist in the abstraction.
Awe and wonder are, I believe, where the conversation about the soul needs to go. The four basic replies above are just foils; they’re a quick attempt to bat aside new information that undermines old beliefs. But the fifth response addresses the beliefs directly: it says here is why I am in love with the soul and what will I do if I lose that love?
It hints to us that there is more to belief in the afterlife than simple fear of death. There is a vision of a universe that is buzzing, deep, and alive.
The universe may not be everything we see in that shamanistic vision. But it is, indeed, a place of enchantment. The world revealed through the lens of science is still, I believe, sacred; and without a sense of sacred awe the value of our discoveries is terrifically diminished.