Excerpted from “The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain From Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs”
Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust.
—Lawrence Krauss, “A Universe from Nothing,” 2012
One July night in a small English village, sometime near the end of the twentieth century, Harry stood by his friend Rodrick as the radio engineer calmly explained his plan to strike at the creator of the universe. Rodrick had decided that he wanted to kill God, and he thought he knew how. This desire was motivated in part by his conviction that the universe should exist on its own, but mostly it was fueled by Rodrick’s deep contempt for the unfairness of existence for which he held God responsible. He explained to Harry that even though God was not material, He must possess at least some material characteristics, for otherwise He would not have been able to create the physical universe. When prompted to explain how he might be able to reach God, Rodrick remarked that the information had been available to us for a long time: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light,” (Genesis 1:3).
The machine that Rodrick built to carry out his plan was an elaborate framework of lasers, mirrors, and prisms, all precisely arranged and calibrated, sitting on the workbench in his home laboratory. He reasoned that it should be possible to generate a self-sustaining pattern of light that would reinforce itself indefinitely, transcending space and time to reach the Creator, striking God with a deadly bolt of energy. The two men adjusted their goggles and Rodrick flipped on the switch. Through the dark lenses, they could make out the pattern of light in front of them as the beams followed their geometric paths. Gradually, the light intensified, and the brightness started to expand, swallowing the mirrors, the workbench, and the entire room. An instant later, the light was gone. “That’s it,” announced Rodrick dryly. “God is dead.”
Harry looked around, and everything seemed perfectly normal. “Nonsense!” he snarled. Rodrick then removed his goggles to inspect the room, and it was at that moment that the truth was revealed to Harry. He saw his friend’s empty eyes. . . . Rodrick had indeed killed God, and in the process, he had destroyed every living creature’s soul. Life went on, and the vast clockwork of the universe continued to tick according to mechanical laws, but all you had to do now was look into people’s eyes to realize that they were all dead inside. There was no beauty, no meaning, no inner life. This is what God supplied when he was alive, after all, reflected Harry. And now it was all gone.
This is a summary of the short story called “The God Gun,” by science fiction author Barrington Bayley, which was written in the early 1970s. Today, in spite of considerable advances in technology, most people would find Rodrick’s quest futile and hopelessly simpleminded, to say nothing of its evil nature. But Bayley’s story remains powerful because most of us share his intuition that human beings are more than mere collections of physical parts. There must be something else in addition to the atoms and cells that make up our bodies—an essence, a spirit, something precious and beautiful. In short, a soul. This intuition is deeply rooted in the human psyche and has been shared by people across cultures from antiquity to the present day. As Mark Baker and Stewart Goetz observe in their book “The Soul Hypothesis,” “Most people, at most times, in most places, at most ages have believed that human beings have some kind of soul.”
This intuition also plays a central role in most religious doctrines. Pope John Paul II famously articulated the idea in a message delivered to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in October 1996, in which the Holy Father declared that the human body might originate from preexisting living matter, but the spiritual soul is a direct creation of God. Explaining the mind as a product of evolution, claimed the pope, was incompatible with the truth about man. Belief in the soul is also very much alive in North American culture today, as the results of numerous polls demonstrate. In my own interviews of college students enrolled in upper-level undergraduate psychology classes like the ones I regularly teach at Rutgers University, I have found that a majority of students also believe that they have a soul. What’s more, these intuitions are constantly reinforced by a wealth of books, TV shows, movies, and pronouncements made by writers and gurus of all stripes who purport to have found convincing evidence for the existence of the soul. Belief in the immortality of the soul was even featured as the cover story of the October 15, 2012, issue of the magazine Newsweek, with the title “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife.”
In sharp contrast to popular opinion, the current scientific consensus rejects any notion of soul or spirit as separate from the activity of the brain. This is what Francis Crick, codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, called “The Astonishing Hypothesis.” In Crick’s words, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Reflecting on what he calls the scientific image of persons, the philosopher Owen Flanagan stressed that we “need to demythologize persons by rooting out certain unfounded ideas from the perennial philosophy. Letting go of the belief in souls is a minimal requirement. In fact, desouling is the primary operation of the scientific image.” The weight of the scientific consensus is distributed over many disciplines and includes, as we would expect, the sciences of the mind (psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science). Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene summarizes the situation as follows:
Most people are dualists. Intuitively, we think of ourselves not as physical devices, but as immaterial minds or souls housed in physical bodies. Most experimental psychologists and neuroscientists disagree, at least officially. The modern science of mind proceeds on the assumption that the mind is simply what the brain does. We don’t talk much about this, however. We scientists take the mind’s physical basis for granted. Among the general public, it’s a touchy subject.
Thus, according to Greene, science, like Rodrick’s God-gun, has killed the soul, but scientists are reluctant to announce the news. The soul may indeed be a grand illusion, but it is a useful and comforting one. Open Pandora’s box and we may be the ones, like Harry, looking into other people’s eyes and discovering that everything has lost its beauty and meaning.
The award-winning author Jared Diamond once remarked that science is responsible for dramatic changes to our smug self-image. Astronomy has taught us that our planet is not the navel of the universe. We learned from biology that we were not created by God but evolved alongside millions of other species. This book is about another seismic change in our self-image. Most people today believe that we have the bodies of beasts and the souls of angels. Science tells us otherwise. In the pages ahead, I will take you on a tour of history, philosophy, and science to show you that the soul, like geocentricism and creationism, is a figment of our imagination, and I will try to explain to you what gives rise to the illusion. Modern astronomy and the theory of evolution did not precipitate the end of the world. They are unmistakable signs of progress. Likewise, I will show you that in spite of repeated claims to the contrary, we lose nothing by letting go of our soul beliefs and—better—that we even have something to gain. It is this empowering conclusion that I want to leave you with as you reach the end of this book.