The soul exists and I can prove it. I walk through several thought experiments that help isolate the soul from both the physical brain and the brain data.
Let me preface this article with the same disclaimer that Alan Watts used to preface his talks with: I am not trying to sell you anything. I’m not trying to convert you to a religion or a way of thinking. You’re under no pressure to believe anything I say here.
I am simply an entertainer.
And in the same way that when you go to a concert and hear Mozart, the musician isn’t trying to sell you anything. He asks nothing of you but to enjoy the music. I am also asking nothing of you but to enjoy a point of view that you might find interesting, or comforting, or entertaining.
C.S. Lewis once said,
“Where men are forbidden to honor a king, they honor millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”
The same is true of religion. As the western world moved away from the moral doctrines of Christianity following the Enlightenment, we lost a formal structure for morality and felt a strong urge to fill the vacuum left behind. This gap in the belief systems of modern westerners is known as the crisis of modernity.
In that void, a new religion has formed from a mixture of pop science and paganism, albeit not in any official capacity. But this impromptu religion has all the trappings of a true religion; widespread uptake, fanatic believers, application as a method of social control – you may even be a believer yourself! See if you recognize any of the following beliefs:
The cosmic fluke of life
At the birth of the universe, stardust was scattered to the far reaches of space. Billions of years later, life begins to grow on just one of these rocks, like a mold or a fungus. Life is fragile and any single instance is incredibly short lived, as if the universe was desperately trying to contain the mess it had made. But by some miracle life managed to outpace death for long enough that lifeforms became incredibly complex.
The ghost in the machine
At some point, life becomes so complex that it becomes self aware. Consciousness grows out of very complex systems, we assume, since we also assume that self awareness could grow out of a machine representation of a brain.
Since consciousness is a function of brain data, it is purely conceptual. Upon death, the hard drive of the mind is wiped and we are plunged into eternal darkness.
Rage against the celestial automata
The universe doesn’t care about me. Why should I care about the universe? Why not spend my precious few years alive chasing hedonistic pleasures? Why not abuse the environment and trash the earth? Why not eat the proverbial seed crop and leave nothing for the future generation?
These beliefs are pretty much in line with what your average atheist skeptic thinks about the universe. Alan Watts named this belief set The Fully Automatic Model. But if you’re a believer you probably think of these things as being true and based in fact. Such is the nature of faith.
It should at least be obvious how this implicit set of beliefs has imparted a sense of simultaneous existential angst and apathy in today’s youth. Is this all in the service of science? I would argue not – the Fully Automatic Model is not even particularly well supported by modern science.
I’m not going to tear down the entirety of this belief set but instead focus on a single aspect – the soul. My hope is that by reconsidering your stance on the nature of the soul, you might be able to ease some of the existential angst that the Fully Automatic Model imposes on you.
But before I present my argument, I will observe the philosophical principle of defining my terms. So let us first ask, “What is the soul?”
What is the soul?
When I speak of the soul, I’m not speaking about an ethereal version of yourself that floats out of your body and goes to heaven once you die. Imagery of this kind comes from religion and can obviously no longer be taken to literally be true.
What I’m referring to is the real ‘you’. Your consciousness, or self awareness. The metaphorical little guy that sits behind the bridge of your nose, right between your eyes, watching the outside world from inside your head.
We’re quite attached to this little guy. We associate ourselves with him more than we do any other part of the body. After all, we say ‘my arm’, ‘my body’, ‘my mind’. Only the ego is given the label ‘me’. So it’s natural that we have some attachment to this guy and wonder how he’ll do when we die.
I’m going to make the case that this self awareness is a soul and not a side effect of either the physical brain, or the information within the brain.
As I mentioned in my previous article, all matter, energy and everything in the universe exists in a closed system. In this closed system, matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, only reused. I argued that since there was nothing that went from a state of not existing, into a state of existing and then back into a state of not existing, the soul shouldn’t be any different. If it does exist, then it also cannot be created or destroyed. The counter argument was that if consciousness occurs as a result of brain data, then there was never anything to exist or not exist in the first place – consciousness exists only conceptually, like the operating system of the computer.
And so in order to prove the soul exists, I must demonstrate tautologically that it can be shown in isolation from both the physical brain and the conceptual information within the brain. I will be doing this by working through a series of thought experiments, beginning with Bernard Williams’ Torture Test.
Thought experiment 1: Torture test
Imagine that it were possible to swap all of the data in one brain with the data in another brain. And imagine that a mad scientist has just performed this operation on you, swapping your brain data with someone else’s. You have a choice: who should the mad scientist torture? Your physical body with someone else’s brain data, or the body containing your brain data? Assume you’re a rational person that does not want to be tortured.
If you’re a believer in the Fully Automatic Model, you believe consciousness follows brain data. So you’d probably have your original body tortured, believing that you now reside in a new body.
Now consider a new situation, this time the operation will wipe all of your memories and then implant false ones, until your brain data is an exact replica of the old brain data of the other patient, and vice versa. Who should be tortured this time?
I suspect that regardless of who you think you are and what your memories are, you still don’t want to be tortured. So you pick the other body that now believes it is you.
But there’s an issue here: both of these situations are exactly the same. Whether the information is transferred or replicated makes little difference; think about copying a document onto a memory stick via the cut and paste command. Though the computer gives the appearance of transferring data, it is in fact just copying the data and then deleting the source afterwards, no different from a standard copy.
So we don’t believe that our consciousness would reappear just because all of our memories were replicated in a suitable consciousness container. And yet we believe our consciousness could be transferred if the data itself was moved – despite the fact that data is never truly moved, it is just replicated elsewhere.
The idea that consciousness follows information is starting to look somewhat paradoxical. Lets move onto the next thought experiment – Derek Parfit’s teletransporter experiment.
Thought experiment 2: Teletransporter experiment
This is a very popular thought experiment that almost everyone will be familiar with. The situation is as follows: In the future, teletransporter machines exist that allow you to travel huge distances instantaneously. These machines consist of a small cubicle that will put you to sleep, vaporize all of your atoms and transfer the information about your body to the destination cubicle, which will rebuild you perfectly from raw materials – right down to the scratches and blemishes.
You use this system quite happily for a number of months, commuting from London to Tokyo every day. Until one day you wake up without having teleported at all. When you go to tell the operators that one of the machines isn’t working, they tell you that in fact it is working fine – the teleportation was successful. They point you out on the monitor – there you are on the way to work. It was only the vaporization process on this side that didn’t work, but that is easy to fix, you just need to get back into the machine quickly.
Are you eager to get back into the machine again? Probably not – you know which version of you has the ‘soul’. You are the real one, the one with self awareness. That other guy is just a copy.
This splitting or duplication of the consciousness crops up again and again in these experiments. Whenever we try to think about the soul as purely a side effect of data, we end up with unexpected results. If consciousness was just an effect of data, then manipulating data would always manipulate the consciousness. But the consciousness doesn’t seem to travel as part and parcel of the brain data.
So does that mean consciousness is an effect of the physical brain? After all, a brain transplant would surely be guaranteed to transfer consciousness. And although most of the cells of the body renew themselves entirely every 7 years or so, the neurons of the brain are the exception to this – they do not regenerate. Could consciousness just be a physical property of the brain and destroyed when the brain is destroyed?
Split-brain patients may cast some doubt on this idea. You may have heard of this condition – the severance of the corpus callosum that connects the left and right brain hemispheres. Interestingly suffers of this condition often experience involuntary movements from one side of the body. It is almost as if splitting the brain has split the consciousness, giving one consciousness control of one half of the body and the other control of the other half.
There have been many examples of patients surviving with just half a brain, so imagine what might happen if we could put each half of the split brain patient into a different body. We would probably see the same splitting of the consciousness that is observed when we try to manipulate the data of the brain. We would not expect that a single consciousness would now be controlling two bodies. And so although we have altered the brain, we haven’t effected consciousness – the split brain person is still the same ‘me’ as he was before.
When we assume that the soul is data, our calculations don’t work. We try to move the data, but more often than not, we see the error in which the consciousness is split or doubled, rather than transferred.
Equally, when we assume that the soul is the brain, our calculations don’t work. We try to alter the brain to effect consciousness, but we just split or double the consciousness, without affecting the original.
Therefore I conclude that the soul must exist in isolation to both of these things.
I won’t waste time speculating on what this property is, but I suggested in my last article that the soul could be our link back to base reality, if our current reality is in fact a simulation, so check out that article next if you haven’t read it yet.
If I’m right and the soul does exist, it must also be immortal, since things that exist within a closed system cannot be created or destroyed. This might seem odd when I talk so frequently about consciousnesses splitting and duplicating – aren’t they being created here?
A hypothetical consciousness split could mean two things – firstly it could mean that the technology from the thought experiments can never exist. If it is impossible to duplicate a consciousness in this way, it would also be impossible to build brain data copiers or teletransporters.
Alternatively it could mean that the property that defines the soul isn’t distributed 1 to 1. Perhaps certain creatures, like small animals, require less of this soul property to function. Perhaps more intelligent and complex creatures require much more. We may in fact be a nexus of many different souls acting as one entity.
That concludes my thoughts on the soul for now. I hope that my view at least gave you a different perspective from which to consider things. Don’t get too bogged down in the existential angst of the Fully Automatic Model – you can explore the subjective and spiritual side of existence and still keep your badge as a man of science. In fact, theistic belief tends to follow a bell curve, appealing to those of the very lowest and the very highest intelligence levels.