Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

4Aug/08Off

Neuroscience Disproves The “Self”-Containing Soul

Most people who believe in the presence of a soul, also believe that that soul contains some sort of information about who “you” are. They believe that it contains some essence of your self, your memories, your personality.

However, there now exists within the realms of neuroscience, a plenitude of evidence that such a soul does not – cannot – exist (Note: this does not exclude other definitions of soul).

Claim 1: My soul contains the essence of my core personality.

Evidence against it: This one is quite simple. All we have to do to see that this is unlikely is look at brain injury patients. It is irrefutable fact that brain injury can lead to profound changes in personality. Therefore, if one’s personality can be fundamentally changed by brain injury, then one must argue that if a soul exists and contains your personality, then it is also damaged by brain injury. The corollary to this is that if your brain is destroyed, then the soul that contains your personality is also destroyed.

Claim 2: When I die, my soul retains my memories.

Evidence against it: Similarly, many many things can kill the cells (and their network of synaptic connections) that store your memories. Alcohol and substance abuse, brain trauma, etc. Furthermore, there are mountains of evidence that your memories are not static, that they can be changed by suggestion, or changed by time. We have all experienced change of our own memories over time, whether by repetition of embellished stories or simply by memory loss. Our memories lie solely in the physical makeup of the cells in which they are stored, much like digital data on a hard drive (though our own memory storage is much more complex and still being deciphered). Essentially the same argument as above indicates that if a soul exists, it cannot contain our memories, or alternatively, when memories are lost, so too are those parts of the soul.

More Evidence: Everything about what makes “you” you comes from an entire life’s worth of experiences – smells, laughs, people, conversations, traumatic events, feelings, etc. These are all incorporated into your memories, and they help determine your personality. You are not born exactly as you exist today. Your neural pathways, your memories, your reactions, and your emotions are all developed over time, and encoded into the unimaginably complex connections within the 100 thousand million neurons in your brain. Injury can change or erase all of this. Thus, again, if your personality and memory changes, so must the thing which holds them. If your memories and personality die, then so does that which defines them.

All of this does not and cannot rule out the possibility of the existence of some other definition of the soul. But one must wonder: if the soul does not contain my memories, personality or any other characteristics that define my “self”, then in what capacity can I say that any immortal soul is really “me”? Even if your soul lives forever, “you” as you define yourself will be as nonexistent as the brain structures that held “you.”

If brain injury could only delete parts of your personality or delete memories instead of actually changing them, then one might argue that the brain has merely lost access to those parts of the soul – that those parts of “you” are still in there. Many people make this argument - that the soul can only work through the biological machinery that exists, but it still exists independently. But the fact that both personality and memories can be changed suggests that the soul either does not exist, or that it the soul is changed in the same way that the personality or memories are. And if the soul itself is changed, that implies that it is changed similarly by complete destruction of the brain.

It seems that modern neuroscience suggests that any “soul” we contain has no real meaning in regards to containing the “self” as we define it. Thus, any immortal soul we may contain is about as significant as the immortal matter of which we consist. Sure, my energy and atoms might remain for all eternity, but is that “me?”

No.

Comments (6) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I guess it depends in what you define as “soul.” In pop culture, soul and spirit are used interchangeably. That is also the view of some denominations these days.

    I was taught that humans are triune beings consisting of a body, a soul and a spirit. (Thessalonians 5:23)

    The soul (in this theological definition) is defined as the mind, will and emotion. Animals have a soul too. The soul does NOT directly survive death, then; it comes from the dust and returns to the dust. (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

    The spirit, on the other hand, is the life force and it returns to God.

    However, the soul is what is judged worthy or unworthy of salvation – possibly to be raised from the dead at the rapture and/or Last Judgment.

    Not that it matters. Your real point is that we die like dogs and there isn’t any afterlife. Whether you call it soul or spirit is semantics.

  2. I like your post. It is a valid one. The arguments are strong or appear strong if you are on the skeptic side. I guess the believer won’t see it as strong. They can always say that there is a connection of soul and matter when tied to matter and if the matter is damaged the soul can only manifest itself through the working mechanicisms of that matter. As far as memories are concerned, I don’t think it is every stated that memories are eternal as a whole, I think your logic of memories changing and diminishing over time is more or less what a lot of people believe even when it comes to the soul. I think conscious awareness is what soul advocates are using to justify the soul, which still persists through brain damage and memory loss but appears to cease when in a coma/during sleep/etc. In the end it all becomes circular, they can use the manifestation argument or they can use the diminishment over time argument. Besides, it would be too arrogant of me to say naturalism and the hand of science can explain everything eventually. I just prefer not to stretch my imagination to far out but I don’t rule out the possiblity of a soul the same way I don’t rule out we will understand dark matter/energy as a whole, which 100 years ago was non existent in the realm of science, yet still existed without us discovering it….perhaps the same can be said of the soul?

  3. I would tend to agree that modern science does raise difficulties for dualism, but in regards to your conclusion, which I am not saying I disagree with but I do think it can be challenged:

    “If brain injury could only delete parts of your personality or delete memories instead of actually changing them, then one might argue that the brain has merely lost access to those parts of the soul – that those parts of “you” are still in there….But the fact that both personality and memories can be changed suggests that the soul either does not exist, or that it the soul is changed in the same way that the personality or memories are.”

    The argument made against deletion of memory/persona can still be used against change of memory/persona. If the machinary is damaged the machinary may just manifest the souls expression differently, the access is limited or malfunctioning. Example, if my remote control car has a busted wheel I can still try to drive it straight but it won’t go straight, the driving itself is not deleted, just changed, I can no longer drive straight. I did not delete the driving ability as a whole, it was just changed through damage, yet I can still try to tell it to go straight, but fail. This analogy is not the strongest but I think it makes my point. I think the Philospher Lycan doesn’t even see this as an issue per se, even though he is a materialist, I think the biggest issue he sees is interactionism.

  4. If you ever had any outer body experiences you would see that your soul and your body/mind are really quite separate, that is – one can function quite separately and with a distinct personality from the other… so yes, the personality could change on the outside after a head injury.
    you cant really prove it, its just a matter of knowing through experience really..

  5. The thing with OBE’s is similar experiences have been induced under lab settings stimulating the temporal lobes, so there is still nothing definitive about an OBE that truly separates itself from an OBE under controlled settings.

  6. I think this post has very reliable information, but the only thing that keeps me at a constant amount of questioning is everything that exists in the universe is created by something. The atom is a basic unit but what makes the atom and what make the material that makes up an atom? My only answer is that something with a high power, call him God if you want to, had to have started creation, but does this high power entity intend us to be here? I really don’t think anyone can prove that the soul is connected with the brain because there is no real valid way of proving it. Please let me know what you think of my opinion.