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Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Soul Question

First of all, let me define the word 'soul' in the context of this blog post:
By 'soul' I mean the eternal supernatural entity that supposedly resides in a physical body and continues to live on even after the physical body is dead. The soul is also supposed to be able to exist independent of the physical body and even take up residence in a different body when its current home crumbles to dust. This entity is also supposedly responsible for our sense of morals, our conscience and self-awareness.

Now the question is, “Does the soul really exist?

At this point, it is necessary to state that there is no scientific evidence for the soul. The supposed experiment, where some dude weighed a person on their deathbed and noticed half a pound of weight-loss when they died, has been debunked as a fraud. Moreover the soul is not a physical entity and hence cannot be expected to show physical evidence of its existence.

Now to prove that the soul exists, we must resort to the non-physical evidence. For example, the human body is known to continually replace old cells with new ones. This means that after a few years, our bodies are almost completely different from the ones that we were born with as almost all the cells in our previous body have been replaced with new ones. Yet, we do still retain the same identity. We still feel like the same person. Is this because our soul has not been replaced like the rest of us?

The key word here is 'almost'. Our bodies are 'almost' completely new. You see, most of the neurons in the brain are not replaced. These cells cannot be regenerated and hence remain with us throughout our lives. Coincidentally, it is these neurons that store our memories and are responsible for our decision making and other brain functions. And our identities are nothing but complex functions of our memories and our DNA. In fact, when we do lose these neurons, we also lose memory and we are said to suffer from Alzheimer’s. It is common for Alzheimer’s patients to lose their identities. They continue to remain alive, but no longer recognize themselves. Have they lost their souls?

If not our identities, perhaps our morals come from our souls. If so, souls being eternal entities, must have absolute morals. Our morals should not be subject to change, but they are. As humanity as a species ages, the moral values of entire cultures have changed and evolved. Even our personal morals change as we age and experience different events. This leads me to conclude that our moral values are nothing but a function of our experiences. In fact, if we look at it objectively, our moral values tend to maximize survival and happiness and minimize suffering. This is nothing but the most basic survival instinct that every animal in the wild has. We may have added many abstract layers to the animal instinct in us, but it continues to be the core of our moral system. It is a byproduct of evolution and not derived by any supernatural means. Hence, our morals are not evidence for the existence of a soul.

Now that we cannot find any logical evidence, let us entertain the possibility that we might not have souls, that we are nothing but physical bodies with no immortal components. Does this pose any problems? Other than a small dent in our egos that would like to live on forever, this does not cause any problems as we don't need souls for maintaining our identities or moral values.

Now just as a thought experiment, let us disregard evidence and assume that we have souls. Does this pose any problems? This throws up a lot of confusing and contradictory questions. Do all living things have souls? Even bacteria? Are their souls inferior to ours? Does every cell in our body have a separate soul? When does the soul start living in a body? Is it once the child is born or is it at the moment of conception? What about viruses? They are alive when inside a host cell, but dead when outside. When they get inside another host, they come alive again. Do they have souls? Do their souls take vacations?

Assuming that a soul exists causes a lot of unnecessary confusion.

So here are the salient points:
  1. No physical evidence for the soul.
  2. No logical reason or evidence for the soul as it is not necessary for identity or morals.
  3. Assuming the existence of the soul causes more problems than it solves.

The first and second points should be enough for any rational person to conclude that the soul does not exist. The third point shows that there is no benefit even if one decides to be irrational about it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Real Truth.

No, this is not a post about the answer to life, the universe and everything. We already know that is 42. This is a post about reality and how real ones reality really is; or isn't. Interested? Read on...

One of the most popular ways of thinking about reality is : "Seeing is believing." 
We now know that this is not enough. The human eye can only see a certain range of electromagnetic frequencies that we call the visible(how appropriate) spectrum. On either side of these frequencies we have the infra-red and the ultra-violet frequencies. Similarly, we can only hear a limited range of sound, taste a limited range of tastes and smell a limited range of smells. Our sense of touch and temperature is also extremely limited. We can only broaden these ranges of perception using instruments and scientific techniques. We will never be able to sense or perceive the entire universe in all its unfiltered glory. This may be a bleak prospect, but we have no choice in the matter.

Spiritual gurus, religions and some philosophically oriented individuals might urge you to look inwards as they believe that the brain/soul itself is a sensory organ which has no such filters on reality. They say that if one meditates strong enough and/or denies external stimuli one will be able to "KNOW" the whole of reality. Unfortunately, what a brain perceives when devoid of senses can just as well be a fanciful composition made from random sparks between the neurons. As for the soul, there is no such thing.

How then can we so arrogantly assume that what we can perceive with our senses and our gadgets is reality? This in essence is similar to believing in the geocentric model (the one where earth is at the center) of the universe. We now know that the geocentric model is incorrect and scientists are now working on the cosmological model. 

At this point, we must agree that what a person believes to be reality is just a model (a very limited one) of the universe that they experience through their senses. Also, every person can and does have their own unique model of the universe. A very common example of this discord is the various religious beliefs held by people in the world. A christian has a model of the universe where god created it in seven days, a muslim's model includes allah and the prophet, an atheist's model leaves no room for god in it and worst of all, every single one of these people will argue vehemently that their model is the right one. So, how do we decide which model of reality to accept?

In his book, "The Grand Design", Stephen Hawking presents this concept in a beautiful and elegant manner. He calls it "Model-Dependent Realism." 

So if we cannot by means of all our senses and technology perceive the absolute reality of the universe, we have but one choice: choose a model that best describes the reality. There is a very simple way to see how well a model describes reality, just check if it agrees with all the observations that we can make. If there is more than one model that agrees with all the observations, then they are both equally true. What if the model we have of reality agrees with all the observations that we can make, but not with reality itself? Well, do we really need bother ourselves with those aspects of reality that we can never hope to perceive? The very fact that we cannot perceive them means that they have no way of affecting us, so as far as we are concerned, they might just as well be fiction.

Now we have clear and logical method on how to choose the right model of reality. Unfortunately, the only system of beliefs (yes, in this context everything is a belief) that actually applies this method is Science. When  CopernicusGalileo and Kepler made observations that did not agree with the geocentric model, science scrapped the model (and the christian church tried to silence them.)

String theory is a model of the universe that is so different from the currently accepted model of universe that it turns our understanding of Physics on its head, but if it were to be proved, all the current models would be thrown out. 

The same cannot be said for the models offered by religions or spiritual leaders. All these models require some amount of faith. They either require us to disregard the observations that contradict them or make no observable claims. For instance, if I were to propose that we are all a mere figment of some supernatural being's imagination, there would be no evidence for or against this theory. Also, this theory of Juju-Fantasy is absolutely useless as it does not further our understanding of reality in any way.

tl;dr : If you want to understand reality, throw in your lot with science, they are the only ones who are actually working towards it.