Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why Souls Do Not Exist

Poem of the Soul by Louis Jammot
The idea of a "soul" was one of the last things I clung to as I drifted away form the Presbyterian religion. After I realized an ethical god couldn't torture someone for not believing when he's conspicuously absent, and a much more ethical judgement would be based on the values of a person's life, I began to question whether my consciousness would survive my own death. I now firmly believe such ideas are bogus myths for three main reasons:

  • The idea originated in a time when thinking mechanical machines were unimaginable.  Today, cell phones are miniaturized, portable, and carried in most people's pocket.
  • Any connection to a non-physical world must violate conservation of mass, momentum, or energy
  • Studies of brain damage by injury and stroke show that all parts of your person can be affected: memory, emotion, cognition, personality, and values. 
It's easy to understand why someone would like to believe that their consciousness will continue beyond their own death -- even though it clearly didn't exist before their birth.  The problem with comforting or pleasant ideas is that we have a tendency not to question them. But upon a deliberate and rational review of what we know, it's clear that the concept of a soul is very unlikely to be true.  Below, I will discuss each of the three main points.

In the days of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, they believed it was not possible for something mechanical to think.  The psyche was conceived as a model which could explain the apparent problems. The psyche was split into three main parts to explain our ability to both desire and abhor something at the same time (e.g. stealing a toy).  With the advent of modern computers and information theory, it is becoming more and more clear that mechanical (or electrical) things can INDEED think. Modern pharmaceuticals can alter emotions, suggesting these parts of our "soul" are within our bodies.

Landauer's principle states that the minimum amount of energy necessary to erase a bit of information is kT ln 2, which is roughly 0.017 eV at room temperature. Recently, some have suggested that information could be created or destroyed by transfer of angular momentum without affecting energy.  Still, a conserved quantity must be altered.  Now, suddenly, if the "soul" is to convey information in the form of feelings or thoughts or actions, it must also alter our world, seemingly the laws of conservation in of physics to do so.

Finally, it's clear from the medical research into patients suffering brain damage that all parts traditionally thought of as "soul" are affected. What more is there to our consciousness than our memories, personality, emotions, and thinking abilities?  Yet each of these faculties are affected by brain damage int he right location.  I personally watched my Grandfather lose his mental faculties after his stroke. He didn't remember my name. He had been very conservative but was suddenly uninhibited.  He was definitely not thinking clearly, needing a lot of help.  

Medical researchers have also determined that a strong magnetic field can disrupt mental activities in a specific portion of the brain. Finally, functional MRI scans help confirm the linkage between brain damage and specific regions of the brain where aspects of our persona are handled. If our personality were somehow stored outside our bodies, how could it possibly interact with us? Why would loss of certain aspects of our "soul" map to particular areas of brain damage?

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