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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.