TONE AND TACTICS
On a general level, the case against the soul is similar to the argument against the luminiferous ether of the nineteenth century, an invisible substance with mysterious properties, which was believed to serve as the medium for the propagation of light. The ether was an idea that was once entertained by the most serious scientists, but as understanding progressed, the need for such a substance became superfluous, and the ether hypothesis was eventually abandoned. From an emotional standpoint, however, the unraveling of the ether and the demise of the soul are as different as night and day. Most people did not have an opinion, let alone feelings, about whether the ether was real. Nothing about their lives hinged on the existence of the ether, and sacred doctrines did not contain divine prescriptions regarding the ether and its metaphysical significance. When it comes to the soul, it is a completely different story. For many people, the existence of an immaterial soul forms part of an intimate set of convictions and provides the basis for a deeply meaningful worldview. In no small sense, for such people, belief in the soul is a matter of life and death (literally so for those who believe in an afterlife).
These considerations bring up an important issue that has been regularly discussed within scientific and skeptical circles: the issue of tone. In reflecting on this question, the late Carl Sagan, who has done so much for skepticism and the public understanding of science, observed that when skepticism is applied to issues of public concern, as in the present case, there is all too often a tendency to belittle, to condescend, and to disregard the fact that believers are human beings as well, with genuine beliefs and real feelings, people who, like skeptics and scientists, are also trying to understand the world and figure out what their place and purpose in it might be.
Echoing Sagan’s concerns, the astronomer Phil Plait delivered an address at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) of July 2010 titled, “Don’t Be a Dick” (a maxim related to Wheaton’s Law, which provides guidelines on appropriate online game-playing behavior, but that was also intended to apply to life in general). The gist of Plait’s remarks was that even the best ideas are useless unless they are communicated. And in the case of skepticism, the message communicated has the potential to make people uncomfortable and defensive, to say the least. Consequently, our attitude and the way we communicate those ideas takes on critical importance.
I must confess that I have been guilty of the bias described above, and I was unaware of it until a student pointed it out to me when she wrote the following:
I came into this discussion excited for this new point-of-view and eager to learn, but I remember leaving the lecture hall on the verge of crying. I know that dualism isn’t the best explanation for the world around us, and it’s good to hear both sides, but the way he explained it felt like daggers were being thrown in my heart and my world was shattering. I wish he would’ve let us down gently, like saying “Santa may not be here physically, but he’ll always be in our hearts” instead of just yanking off the beard on the mall Santa and yelling in front of all the little kids, “SANTA ISN’T REAL!”
This is beautifully put and painful to read, and I felt sincerely sorry for eliciting such feelings. Those remarks also provided an important reality check. Since then, I have become much more sensitive to the issue of tone, and I have made a conscious effort to bear this in mind whenever I discuss the issue of the soul publicly or write about it. Tone, therefore, is something I will be sensitive to in this book. In doing so, I am reminded of Spinoza’s motto, a dictum named after the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and expressed in these words: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” In this regard, I also wish to make it clear at the outset of our investigation that this book is not intended as another broad-brush critique of religion, any more than a condemnation of drunk driving should be construed as a general diatribe against the use of motor vehicles. I am interested in the soul not because it is a religious concept and I have a bone to pick with religion but because it represents a fundamental aspect of human psychology.
Truth be told, there is a small group of soul advocates whose ideas I will criticize quite overtly in the pages ahead. These are the authors of popular books claiming to show that science supports the existence of the soul. I call them the New Dualists. When I discuss their ideas, the tone will be more pointed, if only for rhetorical purposes, but the criticism will always be directed at the ideas themselves rather than at the individuals who proposed these ideas. Besides, the New Dualists are all seasoned writers, and so unlike regular folks, they are used to having their ideas critiqued. This is just part of the game and it comes with the territory. Needless to say, the same rules also apply to my own ideas. With only one exception, I do not personally know the New Dualists, but I am sure that they are a great bunch, and I would be happy to share a stage with them if the opportunity presented itself.
Finally, I am also aware of the fact that even if I manage to find the right tone, the ideas that I will discuss in this book, and especially the conclusions that I will reach, might be offensive and sacrilegious to some. Here lies the dilemma that one finds at the heart of the scientific enterprise. On the one hand, the advancement of knowledge and understanding is a mission of critical importance in any society, and consequently, it is an endeavor that should be undertaken with earnest conviction and zeal. On the other hand, science has the singular property of revealing to us nature’s ways without the kind of sugarcoating that might sometimes be helpful. Reality, for better or worse, happens to be the way it is and not the way we would like it to be. Inevitably, certain conclusions are bound to rub us the wrong way, which is the price we need to pay for looking behind nature’s curtain to take a peek at its true face.
Related to the issue of tone, when writing on a sensitive topic, is the issue of tactics. Philosopher Owen Flanagan describes three such tactics, which I paraphrase here.
(1) You may say: “You are really naive to believe X; we’ll have to educate you so you can think straight and let go of all that silly nonsense.”
(2) You may say: “There are good reasons to believe that X is not true, but we are confident that Y is true, and Y is close enough to X that you’ll eventually get used to it. As you can see, everything will be alright, and the world won’t come to an end.”
(3) Or you may adopt the following strategy: People usually speak of X meaning X, but when you, the skeptic, speak of X, you really mean Y, hoping that your intended meaning will win the day, so that others will eventually come to mean Y when they talk about X.
I feel that (1) would simply be the wrong approach, for all the reasons I mentioned when I discussed the issue of tone. I also find (3) somewhat disingenuous. So (2) then will be my strategy of choice.