This issue was by far the hardest to write for The Allowed up to now. It’s about a topic that can be complex, confusing, and vague; and it’s been a long job to untwist all the different parts into something that (hopefully) makes some kind of sense. So we’ll begin with the very basics.
I’d like to start Issue #4 of The Allowed by introducing you to somebody I know very well: me.
Except I guess that’s not really me yet; it’s just a few pieces of basic information. I’d like you to properly know who I am.
I suppose I could go into a bit more detail.
So is that enough detail for you? (I’m not drawing every body part.)
I’ve told you a few facts and shown you a few details, but I still don’t feel like you know the real Jon Headley yet.
I could show you a few things from my life. For example, these are the books I’m reading right now (and a half-eaten bag of Mini Eggs):
This is my dog Max, looking sad because he sees some food that isn’t his:
And this is a picture of my favourite Welsh mountain:
I feel like we’re getting a bit closer to who I am now, but it still feels like pretty surface-level stuff.
Maybe I could tell you about a few of my interests: for instance, I’m a musician and composer. I can do better than that, and actually show you a video I created for one of my songs:
I could tell you that I love nature and walking in quiet places, I enjoy writing and do a lot of reading, I watch as many films as I can and I occasionally dabble in a bit of running.
I could tell you that I’m a pretty crap cook, that I’m currently trying to learn the Polish language (dzień dobry) or that I don’t enjoy playing team sports.
Or I could share some stories, like the time I went on a long walk alone through the Yorkshire moors for a week, or the year that I forgot my own brother’s birthday, or my excitement when I received my first paycheque for writing music, or the guilt I felt as a kid after accidentally swearing at school.
But I still feel like I’m coming up short. I really want to introduce you to who I am, not just tell stories about me.
Maybe I just need to go deeper. OK, here we go, confession time:
I have a naturally optimistic and hopeful perspective on life, but on bad days I feel like I might just be naive. I struggle with some nasty self-doubt issues every once in a while, leftovers from a bunch of shitty experiences when I was young. One of the things that makes me most angry is when religious authority is used to control people and keep them small, and I’ve seen it happen a lot. I consider myself a spiritual and open person, with a science-loving and skeptical mind. I’m an introvert, which is fun for me but might make me seem antisocial and boring at times (but I care less and less about that).
This is all painting a more detailed picture, but honestly I’d say that it still doesn’t come close to the full story of who I am.
What does it take to really know a person?
I feel like I usually have a pretty good grasp on myself. I know what makes me tick, I know what interests me, what puts me in a bad mood and what makes me relax. I have a particular way of seeing the world and a certain perspective that is my own (even though it is constantly changing).
But then there are other days when I feel like a complete stranger to myself; days when I feel confused, or frustrated, or down, or way more hyped up than usual; days when I’m full of self-doubt, days when I’m worried about the future, days when I act in ways that are surprising to me.
There are even aspects of myself that I dislike, which is the weirdest thing; how is it possible that I can perform an action, and at the same time judge that action as wrong? I want to go for a run, and I know it’s the best thing for me to do, but still I decide to sit down and watch Netflix instead. It feels sometimes like I’m stood outside of my own actions, watching them from an audience perspective.
How can I possibly explain myself to somebody else, when I can’t even understand myself myself?
I’m this complex mixture of atoms and neutrons and hopes and dreams and tastes and genes and fears and skin and bone and blood and memory and thought and faith and doubt and chemicals and physics and belief and perception and pleasure and pain and nerves and organs and hobbies and contradictions and blind spots and brain tissue and…
…all of this leads me to that famous question…
…who am I?
This is getting twisty pretty quickly. And we’re only in the introduction. But let’s not stop here. In this fourth issue of The Allowed, we’re diving into the mind-bending question of what it means to be a ‘self’. We’ll journey through ancient thought-experiments, deconstruct religious ideas, ask questions of neuroscience, and visit supercomputers, robotic worms, and piraña fish along the way.
To quote one of the best films ever made:
ROCKS, CELLS & PIRAÑAS : AM I JUST A BODY?
Let’s take this back a step, because things could get complicated and we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Let me ask you a couple of morality questions:
Q1. Is it morally acceptable to tie up Jon Headley and throw him into a lake?
I hope to God you answered ‘no’ to that question. (If you answered ‘yes’, please leave your details in the comments so I know who to look out for).
Q2. Is it morally acceptable to tie up a rock and throw it into a lake?
I would make a confident guess that your answer to this one is ‘yes’ unless you’re some kind of extremely hard-core vegan or something.
So what’s the difference between Jon Headley and a rock?
As you can see, there are plenty of differences here; but the one that I think causes the moral distinction is that Jon Headley is alive, and the rock is not.
I hope you’re able to follow along so far.
This leads us to another question: what does it mean to be alive?
If we took an extremely powerful microscope and looked again at Jon Headley, we’d see a very different picture:
Cells like the one above are the building blocks of all living beings (although as we saw in the last issue, they are made up of even smaller sets of building blocks). There are 37.2 trillion of these cells in an average human body, and if you lined all of your cells up in single file, they would reach to the Moon and back.
Cells are amazing things: they each have a specific job, sense and react to their environment, take in energy to fuel themselves, and reproduce. They do all the things that we associate with life.
But is a cell really alive?
Well… no single part of a cell is alive: it’s dead matter reacting chemically with other dead matter, causing a series of reactions. Actually, in one cell there are millions of chemical reactions going on every single second. It’s a busy place to be, but it’s essentially a tiny robot, ruled by the laws of the Universe.
One day, you were a single cell. You grew as that cell split and reproduced, until eventually you became the 37.2 trillion-ish cells that you consist of today. Do you realise how insane this is? You once looked something like this:
Over nine months in the womb, you split and multiplied again and again, and different cells somehow knew where to go and how to do different jobs. Some became bone cells, some became nerve cells, some brain cells and blood cells, and they all arranged themselves into the positions necessary to build a human being.
If that doesn’t make you say
then you’re on the wrong website.
So here’s my question. If, at a basic level, I’m a collection of trillions of robot-like cells, where does my consciousness come from? In other words, why do I feel like one whole person, one self, rather than feeling like 37.2 trillion cells mashing against each other?
There seems to be more going on here than just my physical ingredients. I feel like more than a body. In fact, most people feel like they are inside their body, using it like some kind of flesh-vehicle to get around.
We enjoy our bodies, but we don’t necessarily feel like we are our bodies; at least, not completely. We can see this more clearly with the help of a few thought-experiments:
#1 When I cut my fingernails, I don’t go through a mourning process. I don’t gather my friends to tell stories about my old fingernails and the good times we shared. I don’t bury them in the garden inside tiny little fingernail coffins.
Why? Firstly because I’m not (that) crazy, and secondly because I don’t feel like I’ve lost any part of myself. Even though my fingernails are technically part of my body, and I have physically changed when I cut them, I don’t feel like a different person in any way.
#2 So let’s go slightly more drastic: what if I was in a terrible shark-related accident (God forbid), and my right arm was bitten off?
This would obviously change my life in certain ways. I’d have to learn how to do everyday tasks with one arm instead of two. I’d maybe have some changes in my personality as a result of the traumatic experience. But I don’t think it would take away from who I am: I think I would remain basically myself.
#3 Let’s say we escalated the situation, and instead of a single shark attack, I’m the victim of a horrific piraña-fish feeding frenzy. They really go crazy on me, eating up every part of my body one by one. Let’s say that I’m somehow kept alive through this vicious attack, watching my body slowly disappear as the ravenous fish eat it up. At what point do I lose my ‘self’?
When I think about it, I would naturally think that I could lose every part of my body without losing my ‘self’; right up to the head. If I was somehow kept alive as a head in a jar, my natural feeling is that I would still be me.
#4 Actually, we don’t need to think about shark attacks or piraña-related tragedies. The truth is that almost all of the cells in your body are constantly being replaced. You are literally not the same person you were ten years ago.*
*(By the way, the popular idea that our body completely regenerates every seven years is an over-simplification; different cells are replaced at very different rates, and the neutrons in your cerebral cortex are never replaced. Once they die, they’re gone for good.)
This echoes a famous thought-experiment called Theseus’ Paradox. Plutarch, an ancient Greek historian, told the story of a famous ship belonging to Theseus (the mythical king of Athens who defeated the Minotaur), which was preserved as a memorial.
Over time, as different parts of the ship grew old and decayed, they were replaced with new timber. Plutarch asked what would happen if, eventually, the entire ship was replaced with new material. The shape and design of the ship would remain the same, but the material would all be new. None of the parts that originally made Plutarch’s ship would be left, but the process would be gradual and piece-by-piece.
So, would it be the same ship? Or a completely different one?
Let’s go back to the human body. Almost all of your physical self has been replaced, maybe multiple times, since you were born. So are you the same person?
My natural response (and I suspect yours too) is that you are the same person. You don’t feel like a few different versions of a person; you feel like a continuous life, growing and changing over the years, but with one single thread running through it all. The parts may change, but the thread remains. This thread is your feeling of having a self.
But how is this possible? How can a group of trillions of ‘robotic’ cells group together into one person that feels emotions, makes decisions, and writes articles about what it means to be a self? How is ‘Jon Headley’ even possible in the first place?
I know how I used to see it.
I believed in something called
The soul is one of those vague, floaty ideas that we are all aware of but don’t necessarily understand. If I was going to draw a picture of the soul (which I am), then it would look something like this:
Floaty, ghostly, airy, without form. That pretty much describes this whole idea of ‘the soul’ in my mind.
I grew up in church, and Christianity (among many other religions) teaches that the soul is a real thing. Rather than my human body and trillions of cells, the soul is my true self: my eternal essence, the ‘me’ that existed before my physical birth and that will continue on for eternity when my body dies.
And it isn’t just religion that talks about the soul: it’s an idea that pervades our culture, our music, films, and literature. It’s embedded in our language: think about phrases like ‘soul mates’, ‘soul music’, ‘soul connection’, ’soul food’, ‘old soul’, ‘weary soul’, and ‘life and soul of the party’.
But what is the idea of the soul actually based on? What does a soul really look like? Is it something I have or something I am? Where does my soul end and my brain begin? How do we explain what happens to the souls of the mentally ill or people with dementia? Do animals have souls?
When it comes to the question of the soul, most people fall into two basic camps.
You have the dualists, who believe that there is a split between our physical substance and our mind (or soul). In this view, even if the body or brain is completely destroyed, the essence of the person continues on somehow, whether in a kind of afterlife or through reincarnation.
Then you have have the physicalists, who argue that the mind is nothing more than a set of physical reactions, just as the rest of the body is. What we call the soul is just an illusion, a by-product of neural connections in our brain. If the brain is destroyed, the person is completely destroyed along with it.
As I’ve been thinking about this article, I’ve found myself switching back and forth in my own opinion. Is ‘Jon Headley’ just some kind of illusion created by my brain, or is ‘Jon Headley’ really an immortal, spiritual being living in a human body?
There are some moments where I feel sure that I am an eternal soul, spiritually connected to Truth and God and the Universe and Everything:
And then there are other moments, those times where I feel completely drained and soulless and mechanical, and I’m convinced that I am nothing but a machine:
I change my mind so often that it’s worth asking: does this even matter? A lot of smart people have spent their entire lives thinking and writing about these ideas, and it can seem unbelievably dense and even pointless from the outside. Who cares who I am? I am me. Thinking about the rest of it is just pretentious.
But the more I’ve thought about it recently, the more I’ve realised that this is important.
For one thing, the idea of a ‘soul’ that lasts after our death is actually a central part of many people’s beliefs. Actually, when I started researching for this article I didn’t even consider how controversial it may be; now I realise how essential it is to many of our belief systems and world views. For example, take this quote I found from a Christian blog:
‘Christianity is false, period, end of issue, end of story, if we have no soul. If there is not a substantial human rational soul, a “you” that is not your body, but interacts with your body, controls your body, has a deep unity with your brain, but is not the same thing as your brain… then it is all over for Christianity because all of Christianity is dependent on the notion that you survive the death of your body and that you, as a substantial soul, have to answer for the deeds done, as the Scriptures say, in the flesh.’
Crap, now I’m thinking that I’ve accidentally stumbled into another Hell-grade issue.
It seems sad to me that, for some of us, the whole point of religion is to give us a potentially better life after this one, instead of valuing and enjoying the life we have right now. I wonder how many of us put up with average or frustrating circumstances because we are just waiting for the afterlife that religion has promised us, instead of finding the value and the beauty in what we have and the strength to make changes now; and I wonder whether teaching about the eternal soul can subtly keep us in that mindset.
But even for the non-religious, the idea that I am more than just a body is something that many of us feel strongly. We don’t like to be reduced to ‘mere machines’, or to think that everything we experience basically comes down to chemical reactions; and I can understand why. I like being a person, and it seems demeaning to describe me as basically just a walking bag of meat driven by a set of incredibly complex physical events going on inside of me. Those trillions of cells just don’t seem enough to make sense of the way I perceive myself.
Our beliefs about the soul affect our views on all kinds of other things; like abortion or euthanasia or animal cruelty or the afterlife (to name just a few completely uncontroversial topics).
Even without those reasons, I think that it’s good for us to consider things that expand our minds and take us to higher places in our thinking.
So keeping that in mind, let’s go a little bit deeper.
Story Of The Soul
‘You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.’ – Unknown*
*(By the way, this quote is often misattributed to C.S Lewis, who DID NOT SAY IT!)
People have been talking about the soul pretty much as far back as we can see. It’s an idea that seems to live in almost all cultures, from Ancient Egypt (their idea of ka) to the Greeks, from Hinduism to modern day Christianity, and according to Encyclopaedia Britannica :
‘There is evidence even among prehistoric peoples of a belief in an aspect distinct from the body and residing in it.’
As I said before, my ideas of the soul came primarily from Christianity; and if you’re reading this in the Western world then it’s a good chance that your ideas have been formed from the same ground. So let’s start there.
VERY SPECIFIC & MAYBE UNIMPORTANT SECTION THAT MOST OF YOU CAN PROBABLY SKIP WITHOUT MISSING MUCH :
OK, we have to deal with something quickly. In my church background I was taught an even more complicated explanation of the self: that every human being was made up of three parts; body, soul, and spirit, as shown extremely clearly in the diagram below (not mine; I found it here):
Which makes things even more vague, and leaves us with even more questions.
Like, if I’m three parts then why do I feel like one? Is it possible for the soul and spirit to disagree on something? Where does the soul end and the spirit begin? Where do the body and brain give way to the soul? Is the spirit in my heart, or in my soul, or is the soul located in the spirit part of the brain?
Blargh, I’m getting mixed up.
I tried to figure out where this three-part explanation originally came from, and it basically comes down to two verses in the Bible. I’ll lay them out for you here…
‘Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again.’ – 1 Thessalonians 5:23
‘For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit…’ – Hebrews 4:12
…and that’s it.
It’s not even clear that the author is intending to talk about a literal truth here; he was simply writing letters to people in the ancient world, trying to get a specific point across in a powerful way.
Actually, many Biblical scholars will tell you that the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are pretty much interchangeable in many Bible verses, so a two-part view is actually better: ‘body’ and ‘soul’.
It’s a strange (but now familiar) feeling to find that a belief I just took for granted, about the very essence of every human being, was simply based on two vague Bible verses. Even so, this is one of those beliefs that people have grasped onto. I found this quote from one Christian Answers website:
‘What we can be certain of is that the human nature is comprised of a body, a soul, and a spirit.’
Certain? Really? Ah, this is exactly the thing that winds me up about religion. But let’s not go there right now.
For the sake of not complicating this article any more than it needs to be, I’m going to stick to tackling the slightly more simple dualistic view, and I’ll ignore the split between ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ (apart from one tiny bit at the end).
END OF VERY SPECIFIC DETOUR, AND BACK TO THE MAIN ARTICLE.
To find out where Christian beliefs in the soul came from, I thought the Bible would be a good starting point.
Whenever you read the word ‘soul’ in the Old Testament (the Jewish part of the Bible) it’s a translation of the Ancient Hebrew word נפש ‘nephesh’. The literal translation of this word is ‘living being’. The first four times the word appears, it is talking about animals: sea life, birds and land creatures.
In fact, the same word ‘nephesh’ is translated to mean different things in the English language. For example:
The surprising fact (for me at least) is that the immortal soul isn’t a concept that the Jewish people had at the time of the Old Testament. In fact, according to Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words:
‘(Nephesh is) the essence of life, the act of breathing, taking breath … The problem with the English term ‘soul’ is that no actual equivalent of the term or the idea behind it is represented in the Hebrew language. The Hebrew system of thought does not include the combination or opposition of the ‘body’ and ‘soul’ which are really Greek and Latin in origin’.
Nephesh, for the Jews, meant that the body of a human being is the soul of a human being. There is no dualistic split between our physical selves and our true selves.
So let’s go to the New Testament instead.
The main word to be aware of here is ‘psuche’; this is the word that the Greek writers used to translate the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’ and is used 105 times in the NT. It can be translated as ’soul’, ‘life’ (an animal or a human), ‘mind’ or even ‘heart’ to describe the full force of someone’s being. It’s use varies and is far from a clear and distinct teaching.
There’s some talk about immortality and eternal life in the New Testament, but nowhere does it mention that the human soul is immortal. Paul, one of the main authors of the NT, talks instead about death being like ‘sleep’.
So, if we can’t find a strong picture of this immortal essence of a person within the Bible, why do we find the belief in souls among both Christians and Jews today?
For example, this is from a Jewish website:
‘The soul is the self, the “I” that inhabits the body and acts through it. Without the soul, the body is like a light bulb without electricity, a computer without the software, a space suit with no astronaut inside. With the introduction of the soul, the body acquires life, sight and hearing, thought and speech, intelligence and emotions, will and desire, personality and identity.’
Sure sounds like Judaism includes a belief in the soul. So what changed?
Well, as with many beliefs in our modern culture, you can largely trace it back to those cheeky Ancient Greeks; especially two of the most influential thinkers of all time, Socrates and Plato.
Socrates, who lived 400 years before Christianity began, taught about the existence of the immortal soul, and that when it was set free from the physical body after death it would be rewarded for good deeds or punished for evil ones (sounds a lot like Christian beliefs about the afterlife to me).
Plato, who lived 350 years before Christianity began, taught the dualistic view of humanity. In his perspective, every person has a body which is inhabited by an eternal soul, which existed before physical birth.
Actually, Plato had an interesting theory that the soul had three distinct parts, and he compared them to a chariot driver controlling two horses:
This idea makes sense to me: it seems to describe the way we often feel, that we are not completely in control of our feelings or desires, but are simply trying to keep them in check and do the best that we can with what we have.
It reminds me of the Christian teachings about ‘the flesh’: that we have a spiritual side that is good, and a ‘flesh’ side that wants to give in to temptation and must be kept under control. This also reminds me of the ideas of Gnosticism, a belief system that grew in the 2nd century within Christianity. Gnosticism taught that the physical world was inherently bad, while the ‘spiritual’ world of the soul was good; the human body was a kind of prison that we had to escape from. Michael Gungor wrote about this in his book ‘The Crowd, The Critic & The Muse’:
‘Gnosticism taught a salvation of the soul from the material world… The soul or spirit was good, the material world evil. The early church called it heresy.’
Both Judaism and Christianity became immersed in and influenced by the Greek ways of thinking; for example, in Judaism by the first century you hear the Jewish philosopher Philo teach that:
‘The death of a man is the separation of his soul from his body…’
As we move along in time, we can see the idea take a firmer hold within Christian belief:
For example, in the 4th Century, a monk called St Gregory of Nyssa wrote a famous and influential dialogue called ‘On The Soul and the Resurrection’, which discusses the philosophy of the soul and resurrection (obviously) and how it relates to Christianity.
And then we have our old friend from Issue #2, St Augustine himself. Say hello, St Augustine!
Still busy looking serious and dreaming about Jesus I see.
As we mentioned last time we saw him, Augustine was one of the most influential and respected church fathers, and many of his teachings became firm foundations of Christian belief itself. Augustine followed many of the teachings of Plato, and wrote about the immortality of the soul. He described it as:
As you can see, his ideas were influenced by Greek thinkers, and in turn further influenced Christianity to take on those ideas for itself.
As the centuries pass, many big-name thinkers talked about the soul and further shaped the idea in public thought; people like Spinoza, Kant, William James, & Rene Descartes (who thought that the soul was located in a tiny part of the brain called the pineal gland).
I’m aware that I’m rushing over a lot here, leaving some great stuff out, and focusing on Western ideas of the soul; because it would be impossible (or at least really, really boring) to go through all the various teachings about the soul through history.
What’s important for me though is to look back and see the mixing of different cultures and belief systems over time; rather than one distinct and obvious truth, there is a growing and changing idea that shifts and expands as more people talk about and add to it.
Here’s my point:
The soul is not a Christian idea; it’s a human idea. It seems to have come from a multitude of sources, and on the surface it seems pretty reasonable. I feel like a soul, like I’m more than just a body walking around. It seems kind of insulting to suggest that I am less than a soul. It’s understandable that people across all cultures would develop this idea; it seems to be hard-wired into humanity.
Like we discussed in the Science & Evolution issue, the idea of the soul is common sense. But as we also discussed in that issue, common sense isn’t always a good guide towards truth.
The idea that the Sun revolved around the Earth was common sense for a long time; it took a lot of hard work to convince us that the opposite was true. The idea that you are a soul temporarily living inside a physical body is a much more difficult idea to challenge, because it involves rethinking everything about who we are at the core; and that’s possibly our most strongly held idea.
So let’s go take a dig around shall we?
My next question is this: following the scientific method, is there any evidence to back up the existence of the soul?
Well, when I first started researching for this article and mentioned it to some friends, a few of them told me about an experiment that I’d never heard about before. Apparently it was conducted to prove that the soul exists, and it had been successful. A scientist had discovered that the exact weight of a human soul was 21 grams.
This seemed like it would be worth looking into, and so I’d like to introduce you to Dr Duncan MacDougall:
What is the doctor up to? Well, MacDougall reasoned that if the soul existed, it must be measurable in some way. He wondered whether he might be able to measure the soul by weighing a human body before and after it died: the difference in weight could account for the soul leaving the body at the moment of death, flying off into the next life.
So in 1901 he set up a special bed with carefully measured scales underneath, and brought in six patients who were close to death, recording their weight throughout the process. He discovered that, upon death, there was a sudden weight loss in the patient:
MacDougall looked at other explanations, but none seemed to hold up: for example, it could be the oxygen escaping the lungs, but when MacDougall measured himself and exhaled as far as he could, there was no weight difference; and a sudden bowel movement at death wouldn’t explain the weight loss either, as any material would still be weighed on the bed.
In conclusion, he suggested that this weight loss might be the ‘soul substance’ leaving the body in the instant of death, and the weight of the soul substance was three-quarters of an ounce, or 21 grams.
It’s a fascinating study, intriguing and almost tempting to believe. But by looking closer, we can quickly see that it’s just a great example of terrible science.
A good scientific theory needs to make accurate predictions that can be replicated. How does that apply to Dr MacDougall’s work? Well, Dr MacDougall* used six human bodies for his experiment; let’s see his full list of results:
*By the way, it doesn’t help his case that every time I write his name I think of Father Dougal, the dense and childlike priest from Father Ted.
BODY #1 – ‘[S]uddenly coincident with death . . . the loss was ascertained to be three-fourths of an ounce.’
BODY #2 – ‘The weight lost was found to be half an ounce. Then my colleague auscultated the heart and found it stopped. I tried again and the loss was one ounce and a half and fifty grains.’
BODY #3 – ‘My third case showed a weight of half an ounce lost, coincident with death, and an additional loss of one ounce a few minutes later.’
BODY #4 – ‘In the fourth case unfortunately our scales were not finely adjusted and there was a good deal of interference by people opposed to our work . . . I regard this test as of no value.’
BODY #5 – ‘My fifth case showed a distinct drop in the beam requiring about three-eighths of an ounce which could not be accounted for. This occurred exactly simultaneously with death but peculiarly on bringing the beam up again with weights and later removing them, the beam did not sink back to stay for fully fifteen minutes.’
BODY #6 – ‘My sixth and last case was not a fair test. The patient died almost within five minutes after being placed upon the bed and died while I was adjusting the beam.’
So the drop of 21g only occurred once out of six tests. Of the other five, the results were pretty varied: two had to be discarded; one dropped, returned to normal, and dropped again; and two dropped gradually in different amounts.
The measurements were imprecise, the sample size was too small, and the results were inconclusive. To explain away the two results with gradual decrease in weight, MacDougall even suggested that those particular souls had a ‘sluggish temperament’.
Nevertheless, to further test his claims, MacDougall performed the experiment again, this time on fifteen dogs. In this test, he found that there was no weight loss upon death. Funnily enough, instead of challenging his theory, MacDougall took the results as proof to back up his 21gram soul: he believed that only humans possessed souls, so it was only to be expected that there would be no weight change in animals (confirmation bias in action).
Other scientists at the time refuted his theory with other valid explanations of the weight loss, and Macdougall admitted that there would need to be many more tests to make any real scientific claim, yet he never investigated it further. So, if you’ve heard about the 21gram theory, now you know: it’s based on literally one measurement.
So this particular study was discredited. But that doesn’t disprove the existence of a soul. Actually, since Plato’s time the soul had been described as immaterial and weightless; so of course it couldn’t be measured using weighing scales. That’s just ridiculous.
One more great fact about Dr MacDougall for you. After these experiments were finished, he turned his attention to more serious matters: trying to find a way to photograph the soul as it left the body.
Nope, he never succeeded.
ANIMALS & CONSCIOUSNESS
‘You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.’ – Francis Crick (codiscoverer of the structure of DNA)
So, is there any other scientific evidence to prove the existence of the soul?
Well, I looked for it.
And I couldn’t find any. I found stories of out-of-body experiences, interesting (and currently unfounded) attempts to link the soul with quantum mechanics, and stories of people who claimed to remember past lives; but absolutely no observable and repeatable evidence.
What does this mean? It means that the soul currently has no backing in science. That doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist; but according to the scientific method, we place confidence in an idea according to the amount of evidence there is to support that idea. And for the soul, there is no evidence.
Still, there’s this very strong and convincing feeling inside me that I am more than just my body. So what’s going on?
There’s another word we could use for everything that we’ve described as the ‘soul’ so far; the mind, the will, the emotions, that extra something that makes us feel like more than just physical bodies; and the word is consciousness.
This is pretty vague and airy again, so let’s bring it straight down to earth.
Consciousness simply means the state of being aware of and responsive to your surroundings. In the words of neuroscientist Sam Harris:
‘Consciousness is what it’s like to be you.’
This is a big deal. Without consciousness, you would feel nothing, think nothing, and experience nothing. You’d be a kind of zombie, driven by instinct alone, unaware of anything that happened to you. To go back to our earlier example, Jon Headley is conscious while a rock is not. The soul and consciousness seem to be closely related.
Human beings have consciousness, but we still don’t really understand why we have it or how it came to be. But do other creatures have consciousness? It reminds me of a question I often had as a kid back in church: Do animals have souls?
Of course, there’s a wide variety of answers to be found.
There’s Thomas Aquinas, a highly influential Christian thinker, who said that all animals have souls, but only humans have immortal souls. Then you have Hinduism, which says that even animals have immortal souls. And on the far end you have Animism, saying that all entities, even rivers and mountains, have souls.
When I think of my dog Max, or see pictures like the one below, I am convinced that some animals must have souls:
But when I see this fish, there doesn’t seem to be much going on behind the eyes:
I have to really imagine hard to see anything resembling a soul in one of these beasts:
And then of course you have cats, which as we all know steal souls to feed to their children.
But let’s swap the word ‘soul’ for ‘consciousness’. Are animals conscious? It’s a question that is endlessly debated, and has no definite consensus. But I know what I think about it.
My instinct tells me that different animals have different ‘levels’ of consciousness. For example, I see more consciousness in an elephant than I do in a woodlouse. I imagine more awareness in a dolphin than a jellyfish. And I would put a cactus on a far lower consciousness level than a chimpanzee.
Having a soul is an either-or option; in other words, either you have a soul, or you do not have a soul. But maybe consciousness is not a simple on/off switch; maybe it’s not something that you simply do or don’t have. Maybe consciousness is more like a spectrum. Let me explain with a handy diagram:
In our spectrum we move from a rock (no consciousness), to a thermostat (the most basic level of consciousness possible, as it’s simply aware of the temperature) to plants and insects, all the way through to dolphins, apes and humans* at the far end. Of course this isn’t based on any objective measurement; I’ve just used rough examples to make my point here.
*(It’s interesting to imagine what it would be like if another creature existed that was higher on the consciousness spectrum than humans; an animal that was as far above us as we are above dogs. Imagine how that would change our perspective on life: trying to understand that creature would be like dogs trying to understand the Internet.)
Before the theory of evolution, we used to think of ourselves as inherently separate from the rest of nature: we had some kind of magical extra ingredient that set us apart. Religion tells us that’s our soul, or the divine spirit, or the breath of God. But evolution taught us that we are actually connected to nature, related in one great web of life.
Maybe the more highly developed a creature is, and the more powerful its brain, the more conscious it is; and the more it displays characteristics that we associate with something called a soul. As evolution did it’s work over an insane amount of time, the simplest of life-forms began to develop greater complexity. Single-celled life became multi-cellular life, sponges became fish, and the first creatures walked on land. Eventually, simple brains evolved. Scientists believe that the first brain system appeared in worms over 500 million years ago. These brains adapted and grew, becoming more and more complex as time went on, until eventually we arrived at the high end of the consciousness spectrum, the human brain: the most powerful computer on Earth.
Now I can hear some objections: ‘A brain is impressive, but it’s still just a physical object: a part of me, but not really who I am. I use my brain, but it couldn’t be the source of all my personality and emotions and the complicated web of stuff that makes up my self. That’s not enough to explain who I am.’
I don’t think you realise how powerful your brain is.
In 2014, a massive supercomputer in Japan called the K supercomputer* accurately mapped 1% of one second of human brain activity. It took 40 minutes.
*(it has over 700,000 processor cores and 1.4 million GB of RAM if that sort of thing interests you)
Wait wait wait. Don’t rush past this point.
Something that looked like this…
…took 40 minutes to do 1% of what your brain is doing every second, without even being aware of it. Look at you!
Your brain is incredible.
Advances in science in the last few decades have started to uncover a vast amount of information about what happens inside your skull; information that many of our greatest thinkers, from Plato to Augustine to Descartes, had no idea of at the time. If they did, maybe it would have changed their mind on the immortal soul.
Your brain contains 100 billion neurons (nerve cells that are specialised to carry messages) connected via trillions of synapses. Its size and complexity allows it to build ideas, recognise patterns, learn and acquire skills, filter through memories and survive extremely well.
We find it hard to imagine that a physical object like the brain can be responsible for our emotions or personality, but here’s a small sample of discoveries that show us that it just might be in charge: we’ve identified parts of the brain related to empathy, fear, romantic love, hunger, physical and emotional pain, religious beliefs and even found a link between glucose levels in the brain and our ability to resist temptation. That last one really shows me something important: something as intangible and spiritual and even soul-ish as resisting temptation can actually be shown as a physical event inside of my brain, caused by the simple problem of not having enough fuel.
Even with all that science has learnt about the brain so far, we’re only just getting started. There are so many mysteries and questions regarding the human brain, and so much to explore, that some scientists have compared it to space exploration. But the point is, the more we do know, the more we realise how much of our weird human behaviour comes down to the gray and white matter between our ears.
Interestingly, the human brain has the same basic structure of other mammal brains; it’s not that different to a chimpanzee. That’s what you’d expect if evolution is correct, and it backs up the idea of a kind of ‘consciousness spectrum’: that we are not on some separate kind of ladder to other creatures, but that we are simply higher up the same ladder than other creatures due to the way we evolved.
And if that’s true, then it raises a whole bunch of other morality questions (like throwing Jon Headley vs a rock in the lake): for example, should animals have rights according to how conscious they are? Is it morally okay to eat meat?* What responsibilities do we have as creatures at the top of the ladder?
*(We’ll be tackling that question in Issue #5.)
Here’s something else for you to chew over: what would happen if we could copy all of the information contained in your brain over to a robotic body just before you died? Sounds crazy, right?
Well it isn’t as crazy as it sounds: in fact, there’s a lot of very smart people who believe this will be possible within the next century. And we’re making progress. Scientists around the world are currently racing to be the first to create a complete map of the human brain. This is a huge goal, unbelievably huge, as we talked about in the last section. But, in theory at least, it’s fully possible.
And this video (embedded below) shows something unbelievable to me: scientists have successfully placed a copy of the brain of a ringworm into a small robot, which then proceeds to move in a manner similar to the ringworm, without any programming necessary. It is simply a copy of the ringworm brain that controls the robotic body.
Theoretically, with a powerful enough computer, somebody could copy all the information stored inside your brain, upload it to a computer, and implant it in a robot; which would then think, act, and live exactly like you, building up its own experiences and memories, growing in knowledge and living a normal (but robotic) life.
This is not some crazy sci-fi concept: it’s something that is actually happening.
So here’s the question: if we created a robot with a human brain, would that robot have a soul? Before you are too quick to shout ‘NO’, let’s look at the differences between you and the robot:
We may argue that the robot wouldn’t really ‘feel’ anything: it would simply be acting as if it had feelings. But that’s not as clear as we might be tempted to think. What is a feeling? As I said earlier, we can ‘watch’ different emotions forming in the brain, and we can link them to chemicals and reactions. This doesn’t make feelings any less ‘real’; but it does show that they aren’t necessarily some kind of spiritual, magical thing: they are rooted in reality and in our brains.
In this way, why wouldn’t the robot experience feelings in the same way as us? It would have the same wiring, the same brain parts, the same reactions to its environment. Just because it was created by a human, would that make it any less ‘real’? Would it be any less conscious than we are? I think that any machine with a human brain would be just as conscious as us; which is a challenging and scary thought, and definitely makes me think twice about what I mean when I talk about a ‘soul’.
Maybe, in a few decades or half a century from now, we’ll be writing articles about the morality of cruelty to robots. Or maybe the robots will be the ones writing the articles, organising protests and fighting for their rights.
Believe it or not, this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. And that’s just the beginning. But maybe we’ll save that for a full robot issue.
By the way, because I like to bust a myth now and then, let’s smash a common one: the idea that we only use 10% of our brains. It’s what the movie Limitless was based on: that if we could only access the other 90%, we’d be capable of superhuman levels of intelligence and endurance. Well, that’s completely untrue. We use almost 100% of our brains, it’s just that we don’t use it all at once. That would be like running all the apps on your computer simultaneously: it’s unneccessary and would push the computer too hard.
The 10% myth is interesting for another reason though: it shows a common bias in the way that we think.
Most of us see our brains as something we use, instead of something that we are. We use language that suggests that we are somehow outside of our brains, simply using them as a tool to achieve our will. As the Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene noted:
‘Most people are dualists. Intuitively, we think of ourselves not as physical devices, but as immaterial minds or souls housed in physical bodies. Most experimental psychologists and neuroscientists disagree, at least officially. The modern science of mind proceeds on the assumption that the mind is simply what the brain does. We don’t talk much about this, however. We scientists take the mind’s physical basis for granted. Among the general public, it’s a touchy subject.’
And it is a touchy subject. Even now, I feel a bit uncomfortable suggesting that you are a brain, and nothing more. We really want another explanation for it: the physical reality just doesn’t feel like enough.
What is going on here?
‘RACE-CAR POWER!!’ & ILLUSIONS
I read a flipping fantastic book* while I was researching for this article: ‘I Am A Strange Loop’ by Douglas Hofstadter. I smashed through all 360 pages in about a week, and I’m going to recommend that you check it out if this article gets you interested, because I can barely touch on the whole subject here.
*(Just a tiny bit too late to make it onto my favourite books of 2015.)
The book is about a lot of things, but the big idea is that consciousness is simply a natural result of what a brain does, and not some magical extra ingredient. The author compares it to a person buying a car*:
*(Believe it or not, I didn’t draw the red car; you can see how bad my car-drawing skills are just outside the window.)
The man in the picture has already decided to buy the car, but for some reason he thinks that he also needs to pay for some imaginary essence called ‘Race-Car Power!!’.
The author’s point is that what the man is trying to purchase as ‘Race-Car Power!!’ isn’t an optional extra with that car: it’s simply a result of how powerful the engine is. If we buy a powerful car, it will automatically have ‘Race-Car Power!!’; if we buy a crap car, then the ‘Race-Car Power!!’ will be much more limited. Consciousness works in the same way. It’s not a magical extra ingredient like ‘Soul Power!!’ that certain creatures do or don’t have in addition to their physical bodies. It’s a natural side-effect of what a brain is. Once you get to a certain level of brain power, consciousness is an inevitable result.
So, why do we have this feeling of possessing some magical ‘Soul Power!!’? Douglas Hofstadter explains that the human brain has two ingredients that lie behind this idea:
#1 – an ability to perceive the world around us,
#2 – an inability to see below the ‘high level’ that we live at.
We’ve already talked about #1, which is how we defined consciousness.
Let me explain what #2 means. We are trapped at the high level of experience where we live our everyday lives: the level of friendships, heartbreak, job offers, language, christmas trees, Netflix, religious services, checking emails, feeding the dog, taking a bath, clothes and music and forests and rocks and laptops and bedrooms and weekends and temptations and pirañas and Jurassic Park.
We cannot grasp things that are going on at the low, microscopic level of reality: the world of physics, of atoms and quantum mechanics and 100 billion neurons and 37.2 trillion cells and the septillion atoms that are constantly firing, dying, and being reborn in you every single second. We cannot possibly even begin to comprehend the amount of activity that happens down here, never mind how it could cause the high level experiences that we are familiar with.
In other words, we cannot figure out how physical things like cells and brains could cause soul-ish things like emotions and personality, because our brains themselves are unable to grasp the complexity of what is going on inside of them. That’s why we cling to ideas like the soul, because they are easier for us to grasp. How strange.
Is your head starting to hurt yet?
In this view of life, what you call your ‘self’ is something that formed as you grew up, as a result of your brain perceiving itself and the world around it, and building up a picture of how it acted in certain situations; there was no ‘you’ before you were born, because there was no consciousness at that point; in other words there is no immortal ‘essence’ of you that would exist without your brain: you are your brain.
Here’s a quote from the book that really lays the idea out (although, seriously, if you want to really stretch your mind on this stuff then you need to read the book in full):
‘…what you call ‘I’ is an outcome, not a starting point. You coalesced in an unplanned fashion, coming only slowly into existence, not in a flash. At the beginning, when the brain… was taking form, there was no you. But that brain slowly grew, and its experiences slowly accumulated. Somewhere along the way, as more and more things happened to it, were registered by it, and became internalised in it, it started imitating the cultural and linguistic conventions in which it was immersed, and thus it tentatively said ‘I’ about itself.’
If this is all messing with your head a little bit, then don’t worry: it’s messing with mine too, and we’re about to wrap this up so you’ll be fine. The main point is this: the way that the brain works means that it inevitably develops a sense of ‘I’ about itself, and is blind to what is going on at a microscopic level of reality. That’s where the feeling of having a soul comes from: it’s a complex illusion created by your own brain.
I warned you to hold on to your butts.
As with all of the articles here at The Allowed, the aim isn’t to change your mind or convince you to think like me; it’s to share my own explorations and thoughts in the hope that they will help you to think for yourself and make your own conclusion.
So, I have two views to share at the end of this piece: one that says there’s no such thing as a soul, and one that says it doesn’t really matter. I’ll take them in reverse order:
#1 – WHY BELIEVING IN THE SOUL ISN’T REALLY A BAD THING
Just because the soul may not be literal doesn’t mean the soul isn’t ‘true’. It describes something important about how it feels to be a human being. As well as my physical feelings, I have hopes, dreams, fears and desires; I feel pain in the pit of my stomach, I have moments of deep connection, I experience things that I can’t put into words. The soul may or may not be a measurably real thing separate to our bodies, but either way it’s at least a great way to describe how it feels to be human.
As we saw before, we are limited by our own brains, trapped on the higher level, and so we could never even begin to grasp the complexity of what is physically going on inside our heads every single second; but this doesn’t make our high level of experience any less real than the low level. Because of this, using language about the soul and the self is helpful and necessary.
Talking about the soul can help us to value people, whatever our differences may be; and it can lead us to conversations about our responsibility as human beings to other people, other animals, and our world itself. It can help us to deal with death and the loss of loved ones: even though I personally struggle with the idea of the afterlife, there’s something powerful about the idea that even when we lose a physical person, some aspect of who they were remains with us and marks us in a very real way. We carry an image of that persons ‘soul’ in our mind, their ways of thinking and talking and seeing the world, and in this way they stay with us.
And then there’s this:
I was with a couple of members of my family recently who believe in the soul/spirit/body split that we talked about earlier in the article, and they shared how that affects their perspective in a positive way:
They believe that the split between our bodies, souls, and spirits essentially means this: that whatever we may do on the outside, through our bodies and souls; whatever changes might take place in our personality or our emotions or dreams, whether we make good or bad choices in life, and however many times we fail; having a spirit means that there’s something inherently valued and loved and accepted about us, regardless of all the outside stuff.
I don’t think I believe that the soul and spirit really exists; but the belief in value and acceptance, regardless of our life situation, is one that I can fully embrace (and it might make all of us better people).
So, there’s good reasons to talk about the soul, and even as a metaphor it’s valuable to help us understand what it feels like to be a human being. But still…
#2 – WHY I DON’T BELIEVE IN THE SOUL (at the moment… I think)
I have three main problems with the soul as a literal idea, as some kind of eternal essence that makes me ‘me’.
PROBLEM #1 – Senses
I used to believe that my soul would somehow ‘live on’ when my body died. But I can’t see how a soul could exist without a body. We know that all of our senses are possible only because of the way our bodies work. We see things because our eyes take in a certain frequency of light, and our brains interpret that light, flipping the image upside down and seeing colours and objects and people. We hear things because our ears pick up vibrations in the air and our brain decodes that information as speech, or music, or the sound of traffic or a waterfall or birdsong.
Without my body, I couldn’t see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or think. I could have no way of perceiving the world or being conscious. The only way I could see around this problem is if we believed that our souls were somehow ‘stored’ or kept safe, like jars in a kitchen cupboard, until eventually being placed in a new body (like in reincarnation, or the Christian idea of a heavenly body).
But that still doesn’t make sense to me, because of the next problem:
PROBLEM #2 – Brain Damage
I’ll let Sam Harris, neuroscientist and philosopher, explain this in his own words:
‘We know this from 150 years of neurology, where you damage areas of the brain and faculties are lost: it’s not that everyone with brain damage has their soul perfectly intact, they just can’t get the words out… everything about your mind can be damaged by damaging the brain, you can cease to recognise faces, you can cease to know the names of animals but you still know the names of tools… what we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain, and something about the mind is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, and yet if you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognising Grandma and speaking English.’
This is an uncomfortable thought, but an important one. By injuring your brain, you can change all kinds of things about your personality. If we want to believe that we are somehow more than our brains, some kind of essence that lives on regardless of what happens to our physical selves, then it’s difficult to explain those personality changes away.
PROBLEM #3 – Changes
I used to believe that the soul was where my core personality was based. I thought that ‘Jon Headley’ would always be the same essential person, and that would continue on after I died.
But then I think about this: I don’t even recognise myself from ten years ago. I sometimes use the examples of Old Me and Present Day Me in these articles, because they show so clearly how much my mind has shifted on various ideas. In fact, if Old Me and Present Day Me could somehow meet today, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t get along (as we’ve seen in previous issues)*:
*(by the way, forget my crap car-drawings, my artistic skills have definitely improved since this picture from Issue #1)
My personality, my beliefs, my relationships, my interests and fears and hopes and dreams, have all completely changed in only one decade; and they continue to change today. That’s part of the normal way of life, and partly why it’s so hard to describe ‘Jon Headley’ to somebody else. Of course there’s some continuity, but when you look back it’s very hard to say that my essence has remained unchanged.
If I can change that much in ten years, imagine an eternity as an immortal soul: I’m sure I’d feel like a series of completely different people. The idea that there is some core ‘Jon Headley’, who stays the same regardless of my experiences or what goes on in my physical brain, doesn’t hold up for me when I think about those changes.
Let’s do one more quick thought-experiment: if we really want to believe that I do actually have some kind of ‘essence’ that makes me who I am, what would happen if a crazy scientist (maybe Dr MacDougall again) took that essence of ‘Jon Headley’ at the moment I was born in Shrewsbury, cloned it somehow, and placed it into nine other baby bodies from around the world?
Imagine: take a drop of Jon Headley’s soul, and see what it would look like if it grew up under different circumstances: different families, different cultures, different genders, different skin colours, different levels of wealth and advantage and opportunity. Now, wait for thirty years and get those ten people who started off with the essence of Jon Headley together for a reunion party :
Would there be anything to show that we started off as the same person? Personally, I don’t think so. I think that each of those people in the picture would be completely different; they would have different beliefs, interests, personalities, sexual preferences, virtues, vices, and dreams, depending on their inherited genetic code, the environment they grew up in and their life experiences. To say that each one was somehow still ‘me’ would make no sense, and poor Dr MacDougall would have to go back to soul-photography again.
This leads me to the reason why I think leaving behind the idea of a soul is helpful:
Sometimes I think we give ourselves too much credit. The idea of a personal soul makes us feel in control of who we are, tempts us to compare ourselves to others and to feel superior or inferior, proud or jealous. We can be quick to label people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as if they have some kind of essential goodness or badness that doesn’t change. When we think in terms of ‘souls’, maybe we end up judging people quicker. But if we could understand how much of a person is actually down to environment, culture, DNA, experiences, and other basic things outside of their own control, then maybe we’d learn to appreciate and accept other people a little bit easier.
This is one of the big things that caused me to leave behind some of my traditional understanding of God and religion: I couldn’t accept any longer that we had The Answer and had to bring everybody else into our way of seeing things in order to save them. We split the world into ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, and spent our lives trying to bring more people inside. But I realised that if I had had a slightly different set of experiences or relationships in my life, I’d be an outsider too. Brain science even tells us that some people’s brains are physically more disposed towards a belief in God than others. In other words, it’s almost down to luck, or chance, or a set of circumstances beyond our own control as to whether or not we end up as one of the ‘insiders’.
I can’t see life that way anymore.
All of this is to say that I am pretty convinced that the feeling of having a ‘soul’, of being a ‘self’, is actually just a result of the insane power of the human brain: a hugely powerful illusion that is basically impossible to break out of.
So, to go back to the original question:
who am I?
I am a blueprint of DNA, made from a mixture of my parents’ DNA, that developed a brain according to that blueprint. I am the consciousness that has emerged from that particular brain as it began to perceive the world and perceive itself acting in that world. I am a unique set of experiences and memories and emotions and feelings and beliefs and perspectives, all valuable but all encased within an incredibly complex, powerful, and mysterious organ inside my skull. I guess I’m one of the physicalists.
And I still find that idea slightly uncomfortable, because it goes so against everything that I feel to be real, and I know that once I stop actively thinking about it for this article, I’ll probably go back to feeling like a soul every now and then.
In a few days I’ll probably forget about the illusion completely…
…and that will be totally fine.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our previous issues:
Comments : The Allowed is a safe space for people of all backgrounds who are wrestling with faith and doubt; many of whom may have had negative or traumatic religious experiences. Please be respectful and kind in any comments you make.