Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Physics and the Immortality of the Soul

There was an opinion piece published a while back in Scientific American, by physicist (and physicalist!) Sean Carroll, called Physics and the Immortality of the Soul.  Carroll argues that belief in any kind of life after death is equivalent to the belief that the Moon is made from green cheese - that is to say, ridiculous. 

But this assertion is made, I contend, because of the presuppositions that the writer brings to the question. In other words, he depicts the issue in such a way that it would indeed be ridiculous to believe it. But this is because of a deep misunderstanding about the very nature of the idea.

Carroll says:


Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

I can think of a straightforward answer to this question, which is that the soul is not 'made of particles'. In fact the idea that the soul is 'made of particles' is not at all characteristic of what is meant by the term 'soul'.  (Jains and Stoics both believe in ultra-fine material particles that comprise the soul, or karma, but we'll leave that aside for this argument. 1)

But I think the soul could more easily be conceived in terms of a biological field that provides an organising principle analogous to the physical and magnetic fields that were discovered during the 19th century, that were found to be fundamental to the behaviour of particles. This is not to say that the soul is a field, but that it might be much more conceivable in terms of fields than of particles.

Morphic Fields

Just as magnetic fields organise iron filings into predictable shapes, so too could a biological field effect be responsible for the general form and  the persistence of particular attributes of an organism. The question is, is there any evidence of such fields?

Well, the existence of 'moprhic fields' is the brainchild of Rupert Sheldrake, the 'scientific heretic' who  claims in a Scientific American interview that:


Morphic resonance is the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields.  It enables memories to pass across both space and time from the past.  The greater the similarity, the greater the influence of morphic resonance.  What this means is that all self-organizing systems, such as molecules, crystals, cells, plants, animals and animal societies, have a collective memory on which each individual draws and to which it contributes.  In its most general sense this hypothesis implies that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.

As the morphic field is capable of storing and transmitting remembered information, then 'the soul' could be conceived in such terms. The morphic field does, at the very least, provide an explanatory metaphor.

Children with Past-Life Memories

But what, then, is the evidence for such effects in respect to 'life after death'?  As it happens, a researcher by the name of Ian Stevenson assembled a considerable body of data on children with recall of previous lives.  Stevenson's data collection comprised the methodical documentation of a child’s purported recollections of a previous life. Then he identified from journals, birth-and-death records, and witnesses the deceased person the child supposedly remembered, and attempted to validate the facts that matched the child’s memory.  Yet another Scientific American opinion piece notes that Stevenson even matched birthmarks and birth defects on his child subjects with wounds on the remembered deceased that could be verified by medical records.


On the back of the head of a little boy in Thailand was a small, round puckered birthmark, and at the front was a larger, irregular birthmark, resembling the entry and exit wounds of a bullet; Stevenson had already confirmed the details of the boy’s statements about the life of a man who’d been shot in the head from behind with a rifle, so that seemed to fit. And a child in India who said he remembered the life of boy who’d lost the fingers of his right hand in a fodder-chopping machine mishap was born with boneless stubs for fingers on his right hand only. This type of “unilateral brachydactyly” is so rare, Stevenson pointed out, that he couldn’t find a single medical publication of another case.

Carroll, again

Carroll goes on in his piece to say that  'Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren’t any sensible answers to these questions (about the persistence of consciousness)'. However, that springs from his starting assumption that 'the soul' must be something physical, which, again, arises from the presumption that everything is physical.  In other words, it is directly entailed by his belief in the exhaustiveness of physics with respect to the description of what is real.

He then says 'Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that "new physics" to interact with the atoms that we do have.'

However, even in ordinary accounts of 'mind-body' medicine, it is clear that mind can have physical consequences and effects on the body. This is the case with, for example, psychosomatic medicine and the placebo effect, but there are many other examples.

He finishes by observing:


Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV.

But that is not what 'most people have in mind'. That is what physicalists have in mind - because that is how physicalists think. If you start from the understanding that 'everything is physical', then this will indeed dictate the way you think about such questions.  And it is indeed the case that there is no such 'blob' as Carroll imagines; never has been, never will be. That is not what 'spirit' is; but what  it is, is something that can't be understood, given the presuppositions you're starting from -  although I rather like the German term for it, which is 'geist'. 

The Domain of Meaning

I have the idea that information actually comprises a separate domain from the physical domain. Of course 'information' has a wide range of meanings, and is not easily defined. But I have the view that numbers, logical and scientific laws, grammar, and so on, are not and can't be explained in terms of physics. Indeed, the mind must be capable of grasping logic and using language and math for physics to exist. And I think that is one hint of the nature of 'soul'. It pertains to the domain of meaning rather than to the domain of material existents.


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1. There's another objection, which is that the laws of physics have given rise to many deep conceptual problems, for example the possibility of parallel worlds, that are seriously considered by many reputable physicists. So ruling in or out ideas about 'the soul' on that basis is at best premature.

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