Attacking the Soul
Originally submitted by emil10001 on Tue, 12/21/2010 - 10:35
I think that the soul is an often overlooked weak-point in the theist’s beliefs. It seems that it would be possible to make some very good arguments against the soul that don’t appear to be attacking their central belief system, but will cause them to seriously look at those other beliefs. If we can get people thinking seriously about their beliefs, and really attacking them critically, then I think that’s a step in the right direction.
I have recently had several discussions with people on the topic of the soul. There seem to be some effective arguments against the soul that are very difficult to counter. My general strategy for getting into a discussion about the soul with people has been to first ask them to explain what they thought the soul is and how it might work. To help them along, I’ll ask them questions as they are explaining, to make sure that I have a good picture of what they are talking about. Once they have given me a complete picture, I will try to find some things that seem novel about their view, or something that I like and tell them that it’s interesting, or something that I had not considered. Then I start to deconstruct their view.
I think that for most people the view is that the soul is a non-physical entity. People describe this as our consciousness, or our mind. The very first question here is, ‘how does a non-physical entity, such as the soul, interact with something in the physical world, like your mind, without breaking the laws of physics?’ It seems that there are only a couple of ways to answer this question, the first would be to say that we don’t understand enough physics yet to explain this phenomenon. We will attack this argument later. The next type of response is that perhaps the soul doesn’t interact with our body. If they say that the soul does not interact with the body, you’re home free. If the soul does not interact with the body, then what does it do? why is it something worth wanting? Does it outlive you? If so, then is it to be held accountable for all of the things that your body did while you were alive, but that the soul had no control over (since it can’t interact)? It seems to me that this is not the type of soul worth wanting.
If, however, they give some response along the lines of, future physics might explain this, then they are saying that the soul is a physical thing. If the soul is a physical thing, it should be able to be measured in some way, even though there has been no indication thus far of such a phenomenon. Then the participant is asked why we should include more in the picture than is necessary, when it seems that this extra part (the soul) is just added in because we want it there. You can’t just add in a physical thing into a system, say it does something and not be able to show its effect. Consciousness does not count as an effect, since it more simply explained as your brain interpreting its own activity. (Dennett calls this the myth of double transduction.) If there is an effect of a physical soul, and the soul is something separate from us, then it should have a measurable effect somewhere. If the physical soul is not separate from us, then that is basically the view of a physicalist.
Some years ago, there was a lovely philosopher of science and journalist in Italy named Giulio Giorello, and he did an interview with me. And I don’t know if he wrote it or not, but the headline in Corriere della Sera when it was published was “Sì, abbiamo un'anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot – "Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.” And I thought, exactly. That’s the view. – Dan Dennett (source)
I think that if we take the tactic of attacking the soul, and other analogous issues, the problem of God will become more clear to the theist. At least, that there are a lot of good arguments against such a thing, or that the supporting players are no longer around to help out. Giving other types of analogous refutations of things like unicorns, fairies and dragons can also help to show how we think about the issue of God, and why we don’t find the arguments compelling.
Original comments on r/Atheism.