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Do we have souls?

  1. Jun 3, 2009 #1
    Here is a rather old excerpt. It's from Sam Harris's 2004 book. I came across this again, buried in an endnote, while skimming through the book for a paper. I find it interesting, but also think it's a nice, accessible sketch of the type of reasoning used in scientific and philosophical circles that so disproportionately purvey physicalist (and anti-spiritualist) convictions.

    (Mind you, there's much about Harris's thinking I don't agree with, so this isn't a promotion of the entirety of his worldview. But this, I think, is a nicely put excerpt. I hope it is judged for what it's worth and not its author.)

    What happens after death is surely a mystery, as is the relationship between consciousness and the physical world, but there is no longer any doubt whether the character of our minds is dependent upon the functioning of our brains - and dependent in ways that are profoundly counterintuitive. Consider one of the common features of the near-death experience: the nearly dying seem regularly to encounter their loved ones who have gone before them into the next world. See A. Kellehear, Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). We know, however, that recognizing a person's face requires an intact fusiform cortex, primarily in the right hemisphere. Damage to this area of the brain definitely robs the mind of its powers of facial recognition (among other things), a condition we call prosopagnosia. People with this condition have nothing wrong with their primary vision. They can see color and shape perfectly well. They can recognize almost everything in their environment, but they cannot distinguish between the faces of even their closest friends and family members. Are we to imagine in such cases that a person possesses an intact soul, somewhere behind the mind, that retains his ability to recognize his loved ones? It would seem so. Indeed, unless the soul retains all of the normal and cognitive and perceptual capacities of the healthy brain, heaven would be populated by beings suffering from all manner of neurological deficit. But then, what are we to think of the condition of the neurologically impaired while alive? Does a person suffering from aphasia have a soul that can speak, read, and think flawlessly? Does a person whose motor skills have been degraded by cerebellar ataxia have a soul with preserved hand-eye coordination? This is rather like believing that inside every wrecked car lurks a new car just waiting to get out.

    The implausibility of a soul whose powers are independent of the brain only increases once we recognize that even normal brains can be placed somewhere on a continuum of pathology. I know my soul speaks English, because that is the language that comes out of me whenever I speak or write. I used to know a fair amount of French as well. It seems that I've forgotten most of it, though, since my attempts at communication while in France provoke little more than amusement and consternation in the natives. We know, however, that the differences between my remembering and not remembering something is a matter of physical differences in the neural circuits in my brain - specifically in the synaptic connections that are responsible for information encoding, information retrieval, or both. My loss of French, therefore, can be considered a form of neurological impairment. And any Frenchman who found his linguistic ability suddenly degraded to the level of my own would rush straight to the hospital. Would his soul retain his linguistic ability in any case? Has my soul retained its memory of how to conjugate the verb bruire? Where does this notion of soul-brain independence end? A native of speaker of one of the Bantu languages would find that the functioning of my language cortex leaves even more to be desired. Given that I was never exposed to Bantu sounds as a child, it is almost certain that I would find it difficult in the extreme, if not impossible, to distinguish between them, much less reproduce them in a way that would satisfy a native speaker. But perhaps my soul has mastered the Bantu languages as well. There are only five hundred of them.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 3, 2009 #2
    I have similar ideas of the soul we had a thread written about this a couple weeks ago. Materialism vs Dualism discussion. I wouldn't say that the author has written them out well or even chosen the best arguments to help his case though..
  4. Jun 3, 2009 #3
    I think we don't really have souls. Souls are known to be an immaterial part of a person, it's supposed to contain a persons thoughts, personality, mind, sprit and all kinds of stuff like that, but still all those properties can be traced back to parts of the brain. The brain depends on mutiple chemical reactions through its cells, so this gets rid of a viable need for a soul and implies that it is illogical to believe in them.

    Quite depressing really huh. :frown:
  5. Jun 3, 2009 #4
    You could call the soul the software the brain is running. In the future our decendants will be machines who can upload themselves to other machines at distant locations. So, to them the concept of a "soul" will be more natural than it is for us.
  6. Jun 4, 2009 #5
    Actually that's a flawed assumption.

    In the future if such an upload is possible. It won't be 'you' that is moved in the physical sense. Upload, in the sense of computers, is no different than 'copy'. So your 'soul' doesn't go anywhere. Your 'self' stays put with the hardware running it. A distinct copy of yourself can be made, and then run on different hardware, but it won't be you... in any sense of continuity of consciousness.

    Every instance of your 'self' will have its own life and death. Even if the copy retains the original's memories, they will be copied, not original.

    The copy of course would believe the memories are their own, but only the memories made after copying would really 'belong to them'.
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2009
  7. Jun 4, 2009 #6
    But then I should think of myself as a completely different person from who I was a year ago, because my body, by reparing itself continually, has effectively replaced itself with a new body within this time frame. So, the person who I was year ago should be dead and I'm a completely new person.

    To me this doesn't make sense. Clearly it doesn't matter what "hardware" the software is run on. If the same software is executed on different machines and they don't get any outside information, the software cannot notice it, otherwise that would contradict that the software is run properly on the different machines. This proves that hardware cannot influence consciousness as long as the hardware is computing the same software.
  8. Jun 4, 2009 #7

    This is also the case for the human body that is not copied like in the machine uploading scenario. One can say that my memories about my past are copied through time via the processes that occur in my brain.
  9. Jun 4, 2009 #8
    This is the old ship of Theseus problem.

    But you're confusing two separate issues. Firstly, as your body repairs itself, it isn't the same body as it was. This is true. However, since this happens slowly, there is a continuity of consciousness. Second, death implies both a physical stopping and a mental one. This is clearly not what has happened. So saying the person you were is 'dead' is at best an analogy, and not a good one.
    No, it doesn't, but that doesn't mean every instance is the same, nor that every bit of hardware is the same. The you that you are talking about requires both.
    The fact I have two computers sitting side by side running Sims 3, doesn't mean the games were identical. It just means they are similar. Even if the computers have identical parts, the gameplay will still have different events based on different inputs. And the longer they are run, the more the gameplay will diverge. And just because they are the same game, on the same hardware doesn't mean you can access any specific saved game from either.

    You are oversimplifying. If I upload my 'software', its a copy. It may think its me, and it may be similar to me in every respect, but when my meat body dies, I, the only me that really matters to me, will stop thinking.
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2009
  10. Jun 4, 2009 #9
    Count Iblis look up continuity of identity.

    However I think that with the machines it would be POSSIBLE to transfer the original 'you' to another machine... the machine you left would now be without any programing. I'm surew we can even do this now days on computers can't we? Does this violate continuity... is the old machine still 'you'.

    However just because this works in an imaginative world of machines and transfering what makes them.. them... does not mean it is relatable to humans at all.
  11. Jun 4, 2009 #10
    Why is that depressing? Why do you even care?
  12. Jun 4, 2009 #11
    A lot of human programming is hardwired, so the copy process would be complicated.
    Why would the original be left without programming??
  13. Jun 5, 2009 #12
    This is of coures all hypothetical.

    I'll reword what I wrote though:

    The original would be left without programming relating to the 'soul' which was previously running on it.

    I assumed that all functions the body can do would be part of 'it'.

    For humans it would be like me saying all functions the body can do is part of 'you' (regardless of the body we reside in)

    I guess though for a machine the situation might be different, or maybe my thinking on this is wrong.
  14. Jun 5, 2009 #13
    I think you are treating the 'functioning of the brain' as an object to be moved. But the functioning of the brain is really not that sort of thing. Consciousness as far as we can really tell is just what the brain does.

    Its like saying, by teaching someone else how to swim, you are transfering the soul of swimming from one person to another. Swimming is an action, consciousness is too, so you could make any computer act like you, but the one thing that makes consciousness in any way continuous is the hardware... which keeps your program running.
    A copy is just a copy, assuming our brains work in a similar way to computers.... a big if.
  15. Jun 5, 2009 #14
    These are all ad hoc criteria that are not based on any notions underlying the known laws of physics. If one assumes that is possible in principle to define consciousness starting from the fundamental laws of physics, then it is hard to see how a particular consciousness could be tied down to a particular brain.

    About death, we know that the fundamental laws of physics are time reversible. So, while in practice death is irreversible, using this practical irreversibility to construct a notion of consciousness will necessarily make that notion to be incomplete. Precisely when you discuss things like copying, that notion will fail to capture correctly what is going on.
  16. Jun 5, 2009 #15
    Anybody ever feel like consciousness is a non-local phenomenon pervading the entire universe and we only experience things as individual due to our localised sense apparatus? Or rather that we experience things as cellular conglomerations due to the communication between the various parts making up our whole?
  17. Jun 5, 2009 #16
    Yep, locality of conciousness or the mind is a pretty weird concept... when you think of it as 'something' that is immaterial. When you look at it materialistically it just makes sense... to me at least.
  18. Jun 5, 2009 #17
    Consciousness is oh so very hard to discuss, because it's such an inaccessible phenomenon. I don't understand why I cannot function exactly as I do through either deterministic or probabilistic mechanistic processes devoid of any real awareness, and for all you know I do, and though I can't shake the feeling that I am, in fact, 'aware', a word I would be at a loss to give a meaningful definition for, that too could simply be a product of the way I fucntion as a natural process.

    I think the issue of what could be meant by the 'self' has to be tackled before exploring what that self consists of.

    Reading that back I expressed very little of what was intended.
  19. Jun 5, 2009 #18
    All this is very true and raises interesting questions. The point of my response to you before was merely that just because we can't explain 100% doesn't mean one should posit mystics that seemingly 'just' answer your question. Meanwhile, in reality, all they do is provide a continuous 'promise' of an answer; one that will never come.
  20. Jun 5, 2009 #19
    I always love philosophi and I like to tell you that it might just be you . I have a soul I think a good soul for books, and I always read them with all my heart. Even after I die, I am still for books, I think. So, I can say my mind and my soul are quite close. If someone advertises my book, I must show at least my gratitude for him. It has been said so often that "no pain no gain" as a fact. That is also because book shapes my soul.

    (Sorry, I just speak what I am thinking, if you think it is right then please offer me a good rate, I can feel how happy I am now)
  21. Jun 5, 2009 #20
    I don't understand how you enjoying books has anything to do with positing a soul exist. Why can't YOU just enjoy books, why does your soul need to enjoy them?

    If you think it is because you don't know what YOU is or what makes YOU enjoy the books... then answer me what your SOUL is and why IT likes books... it answers nothing.
  22. Jun 5, 2009 #21
    I think I know who I am clearly...
    I hear people say they have a heart instead of instead of a soul.
    I only hear people say someone else is their soul never hear anyone says he is himself his soul. They love themselves though. I love myself too.
  23. Jun 5, 2009 #22
    If I understood all of this response I would respond back...

    I was asking if you knew WHAT, you/your experiences/your thoughts etc, were not WHO you are.

    And I feel we are not understanding the definition of soul here (from a philosophical sense) you seem to use it implying that it strong emotions or feelings.
  24. Jun 5, 2009 #23


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    Everyone talks about the "soul" as though they and everyone else knows what it is.

    Please define what a "soul" is, thank you.
  25. Jun 5, 2009 #24
    A soul is supernatural explanation of mind/consciousness
  26. Jun 5, 2009 #25
    This is what I was saying. But Sorry! keeps saying WHAT WHAT WHO WHO YOU YOU ...:sad:

    There is no definition of soul in Asia, only spirit or if any that should be a definition of "heart":
    an open heart or a generous soul,
    a pure heart or a pure soul,

    I think "soul" is probably originated from the Christianity.
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