Physics and the Immortality of the Soul

[Cross-posted at Scientific American Blogs. Thanks to Bora Z. for the invitation.]

The topic of “Life after death” raises disreputable connotations of past-life regression and haunted houses, but there are a large number of people in the world who believe in some form of persistence of the individual soul after life ends. Clearly this is an important question, one of the most important ones we can possibly think of in terms of relevance to human life. If science has something to say about, we should all be interested in hearing.

Adam Frank thinks that science has nothing to say about it. He advocates being “firmly agnostic” on the question. (His coblogger Alva Noë resolutely disagrees.) I have an enormous respect for Adam; he’s a smart guy and a careful thinker. When we disagree it’s with the kind of respectful dialogue that should be a model for disagreeing with non-crazy people. But here he couldn’t be more wrong.

Adam claims that “simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information” regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese. Sure, we can take spectra of light reflecting from the Moon, and even send astronauts up there and bring samples back for analysis. But that’s only scratching the surface, as it were. What if the Moon is almost all green cheese, but is covered with a layer of dust a few meters thick? Can you really say that you know this isn’t true? Until you have actually examined every single cubic centimeter of the Moon’s interior, you don’t really have experimentally verifiable information, do you? So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted. (Come up with all the information we actually do have about the Moon; I promise you I can fit it into the green-cheese hypothesis.)

Obviously this is completely crazy. Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon’s interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it’s absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.

We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it. Admittedly, “direct” evidence one way or the other is hard to come by — all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences, plus a bucketload of wishful thinking. But surely it’s okay to take account of indirect evidence — namely, compatibility of the idea that some form of our individual soul survives death with other things we know about how the world works.

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?

Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren’t any sensible answers to these questions. Of course, everything we know about quantum field theory could be wrong. Also, the Moon could be made of green cheese.

Among advocates for life after death, nobody even tries to sit down and do the hard work of explaining how the basic physics of atoms and electrons would have to be altered in order for this to be true. If we tried, the fundamental absurdity of the task would quickly become evident.

Even if you don’t believe that human beings are “simply” collections of atoms evolving and interacting according to rules laid down in the Standard Model of particle physics, most people would grudgingly admit that atoms are part of who we are. If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. 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.

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. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham’s razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know.

But let’s say you do that. How is the spirit energy supposed to interact with us? Here is the equation that tells us how electrons behave in the everyday world:

$i\gamma^\mu \partial_\mu \psi_e - m \psi_e = ie\gamma^\mu A_\mu \psi_e - \gamma^\mu\omega_\mu \psi_e .$

Dont’ worry about the details; it’s the fact that the equation exists that matters, not its particular form. It’s the Dirac equation — the two terms on the left are roughly the velocity of the electron and its inertia — coupled to electromagnetism and gravity, the two terms on the right.

As far as every experiment ever done is concerned, this equation is the correct description of how electrons behave at everyday energies. It’s not a complete description; we haven’t included the weak nuclear force, or couplings to hypothetical particles like the Higgs boson. But that’s okay, since those are only important at high energies and/or short distances, very far from the regime of relevance to the human brain.

If you believe in an immaterial soul that interacts with our bodies, you need to believe that this equation is not right, even at everyday energies. There needs to be a new term (at minimum) on the right, representing how the soul interacts with electrons. (If that term doesn’t exist, electrons will just go on their way as if there weren’t any soul at all, and then what’s the point?) So any respectable scientist who took this idea seriously would be asking — what form does that interaction take? Is it local in spacetime? Does the soul respect gauge invariance and Lorentz invariance? Does the soul have a Hamiltonian? Do the interactions preserve unitarity and conservation of information?

Nobody ever asks these questions out loud, possibly because of how silly they sound. Once you start asking them, the choice you are faced with becomes clear: either overthrow everything we think we have learned about modern physics, or distrust the stew of religious accounts/unreliable testimony/wishful thinking that makes people believe in the possibility of life after death. It’s not a difficult decision, as scientific theory-choice goes.

We don’t choose theories in a vacuum. We are allowed — indeed, required — to ask how claims about how the world works fit in with other things we know about how the world works. I’ve been talking here like a particle physicist, but there’s an analogous line of reasoning that would come from evolutionary biology. Presumably amino acids and proteins don’t have souls that persist after death. What about viruses or bacteria? Where upon the chain of evolution from our monocellular ancestors to today did organisms stop being described purely as atoms interacting through gravity and electromagnetism, and develop an immaterial immortal soul?

There’s no reason to be agnostic about ideas that are dramatically incompatible with everything we know about modern science. Once we get over any reluctance to face reality on this issue, we can get down to the much more interesting questions of how human beings and consciousness really work.

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198 Responses to Physics and the Immortality of the Soul

1. deeds says:

I was just diagnosed as being schitzophrenic and I feel sorry for all these philosophers and scientist who grapple with the uncertainty or ,even worse,the conviction that our human consciousness expires upon the death of our body…
Here is the truth…
The moment we die our “soul” is instantly transferred to our other etheral being..And if we have a strong connection with another human in this world..it is not only possible but factual that we can return and influence this world in a very physical way…I have found gifts and letters all from my brother from the otherside to here….
What does it take to visit spirit world? ..Believing with all your heart “it” really exist..and for me…The resolve of any and all hatred I have in my human heart..Seek truth my friends….We Never die…Our consciousness lives forever , learn it now and you too will be able to visit this world again armed with the knowledge of who you are as opposed to being a lost soul wandering….

2. Joseph Milanese says:

Doesn’t it seem that when the scientific community encounters something that defies their explanation by all known physical law, depending upon agenda, they pronounce it either “nonsense” or a “singularity”?

3. Matthew Saunders says:

152: It’s normal domesticated primate behaviour — everyone does it, at least sometime in their lives, no matter their belief system. That which is blasphemous or uncomfortable we tend to ignore — we can even ‘edit’ the experience out of our awareness

For instance, take a look at people’s preferences for Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics…which one they choose says a lot more about them than it does about any ‘objective world’. Especially the ones who think that only one must be right — there MUST be certainty at all costs

4. Milton says:

Who cares what a bunch of collections of random bursts of electron movements think they are discussing, anyway? And how can there be a “who” to care? And what is a “care” or a “discussion”, at least in Carroll’s half-dimensional, simultaneously self-absorbed, self-referential and self-negating world?

The only possible, and, thankfully true and sufficient answer to such madness and incoherence begins, “In the beginning, God…”.

5. Matthew Saunders says:

“did a fantastic prat fall, landing on hir own fundament. Sie, the first co(s)mic shmuck, was so full of hilaritas, sie just had to share and, with laughter, made all of Creation. And it was good, yo.”

6. Mark Fahey says:
7. M. says:

Martin Cothran’s reply 146. is simply devastating mostly because he knows his Aristotle.

Charles Darwin years after he wrote The Origin of Species:

“Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.”

The venerable E.A. Burtt in his ‘Metaphysics of Modern Physical Science’ , http://www.archive.org/details/metaphysicalfoun00burtuoft (excerpted here too http://realphysics.blogspot.com/) AN Whitehead etc etc all put paid to Mr Carroll’s metaphysics nearly a hundred years ago.

“..there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination? Of course it goes without saying that in this case your metaphysics will be held uncritically because it is unconscious; moreover, it will be passed on to others far more readily than your other notions inasmuch as it will be propagated by insinuation rather than by direct argument.”

“Now the history of mind reveals pretty clearly that the thinker who decries metaphysics will actually hold metaphysical notions of three main types. For one thing, he will share the ideas of his age on ultimate questions, so far as such ideas do not run counter to his interests or awaken his criticism. No one has yet appeared in human history, not even the most profoundly critical intellect, in whom no important idola theatri can be detected, but the metaphysician will at least be superior to his opponent in this respect, in that he will be constantly on his guard against the surreptitious entrance and unquestioned influence of such notions. In the second place, if he be a man engaged in any important inquiry, he must have a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful.” E.A. Burtt

Mr Cothran, Mr Edward Feser, et al would be most gracious in providing Mr Carroll with a primer, at the moment though the best advice for him when doing philosophy is ‘put down that pen!!’.

8. Christopher Barr says:

A rigorous wrestling match with epistemology might humble anyone. Hamlet reminds his hyper rational friend that “there are more things under heaven, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” That seems to me to be perfectly true. Emerson thought that “Under every deep, a lower deep opens.” Of course, such radical skepticism can lead to all sorts of dangerous bull shit, but it can also produce a kind of humble agnosticism, the kind that wants better data, the kind that asks harder questions–like what might I be hiding from, or am I full of shit, and how will I know if I am?

It doesn’t seem to me that the science of soul is settled-or even close. I’m agnostic, but profoundly interested in what might be behind Door #3. Your R and D director may have no interest in pursuing the experiment, and she may be right, but I hope that the essential questions continue to be asked.

9. Jimmy C. says:

If dimensions beyond the 4-d exist, then anything is plausible. If time is fabric instead of a line, then for every moment would have an infinite amount of moments of time. In the same form, if there exists spacial dimensions beyond 3-d, then anything could be “on the other side” a fraction of a millimeter away and it would be all but imperceptible. Just as a bug is incapable of understanding the internal combustion engine, we cannot understand all the inner workings of the universe/creation. We cannot understand fully what is ‘behind the curtain’ of the space-time continuum. The logic that just because we don’t understand and have a limited ability to measure or quantify something is fundamentally flawed. By that logic, there is nothing beyond the known universe, and quite frankly ‘matter’ does not exist, because we still don’t understand the quantum forces that hold atomic particles together.

10. Casey says:

The laws of everyday physics, whatever that means, do not explain how we can have something like consciousness to begin with. There is an explanatory gap. For that matter we still don’t know what gravity is or the answer to any number of other questions like what motion is.

Science doesn’t have a clear definition of matter after Newton. The material world simply is what is. If we found proof of a consciousness that survived death this wouldn’t disprove the scientific conception of the material world, it would simply be added in as a material force like any other.

Your reasoning is extremely weak. You should look into some of what Chomsky’s written about the mind body issue. Then maybe some John Searle and David Chalmers.

Chomsky has put it very well, when he says that we’ve lost the ghost in the machine. This isn’t because the ghost has left, however, but rather that the machine has vanished and all we have left is the ghost.

11. Alan says:

I’ve been scoping around for some good material on NDEs recently. There’s interesting work here by Chris Carter:

http://www.amazon.com/Science-Near-Death-Experience-Consciousness-Survives/dp/1594773564

But a really very recent fascinating overview of NDE research is from Dr. John Gibbs of Ohio State Uni. which looks quite comprehensive.
This link is on Dr. Melvin Morse’s site, who has been studying NDEs in adults and children for decades. So this is full-on academic stuff. Gibbs reviews cardiologist Dr. Pim van Lommel’s ideas (and others) of continuity of consciousness and agrees with van Lommel’s conclusions that there seems to be such a continuity. Stacks of references and case histories.

Near Death Experiences, Death Bed Visions and Past Life Memories: Convergence in Support of van Lommels Consciousness Beyond Life

or see ref. 6 at http://spiritualscientific.com/references

Many interesting veridical accounts here, well worth thumbing through.

12. shams says:

salaam aleykum Jama’ah (tribe) Scientist

If energy is neither created nor destroyed, and only transformed, then the documented energy of electo-chemical human thought has to be somewhere, right?
Perhaps it is part of dark energy. Who can say?

The question of freewill is more amenable to q-physics modelling i think. I’m a fan of Penrose/Hamerhoff quantum consciousness and the Penrose view, of course, is that you can always jump out of the system by utilizing trans-Turing noncomputable cognitive primitives, implemented by quantum-gravity state transitions in the entangled microtubules.

Some of the cutting edge Strong AI/Friendly AI research has to do with embodiment theory….the idea that a silicon intelligence needs a physical organic body to exhibit consciousness and altruism among other human attributes.

In al-Islam the Sufi especially speak of metaphysics and maarifah (the ‘invisible’ world).
maarifa is an intellectual realm which neither physical science, cognition (fikr), nor various types of mental perception (basira etc.) have access to. Tasawwuf is the only science that can enter this realm, because although other sciences are bound to human capacity, tasawwuf is not. We think of maarifah as a kind of sub-atomic alignment that ties into wadat al wujud (unity of existance) and wadat al shuhud (unity of consciousness).
And look…meditation grows grey matter.
So is this thought affecting physical matter?
Sufis would say yes.
😉

13. Joseph Milanese says:

Consciousness exists simply because, without it, the universe, multiverse, matter, time, motion, energy and space could not. In order for there to be anything, there MUST be consciousness to record and be aware of it. In my view, the meaning and purpose of life itself is to give acknowledgement to the presence of everything that would not exist without a consciousness to measure it. This is the explanation for all lifeforms drive to procreate. Without the imperatve to perpetuate consciousness, there would be no reason to insure the continuation of any species. After all, why should any being care if they are the last of their kind, as long as they have sufficient nourishment, shelter and comfort? To expend such energy to ensure that the species will survive, in light of the fact that there is no personal benefit and any continuation will take place after one is presumably unaware and beyond memory, would be totally senseless. The only thing that anyone can be sure is real IS consciousness.

14. “If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of?”

One can’t answer a philosophical question within a subcategory such as physics. Not that subcategories lack truth quality, but because the point of departure takes place where assumptions are already present.

15. Alovrin says:

165 Sham sez
“then the documented energy of electo-chemical human thought has to be somewhere, right?”
Yep, it just got used when you had a thought.

And waaaaay back citizen314 sez
“But mushrooms will let you really experience our physical as well as spiritual, emotional and inspirational aspects of our peaceful potential – inner/outer awareness that is in us/around us but has been suppressed by our uptight violent culture. It will also give you amazing insights into your different fields of science. Eventually it would lead and speed up humanity toward a higher consciousness level. ”

Way to justify getting high. If you can convince the rest of humanity we could all get high together…
aww sweet.

And this howler
“Consciousness comes from outside the body and is channeled and takes a temporary home in our brain/bodies. Everyone knows this deep down but many suffer from denial. Denial has become a major factor in hindering our cosmic spiritual evolution as well as locally on this little blue planet we are collectivity messing up to our own detriment. ”
So that next download I hope its properly formatted this time. And I want to see a user guarantee first.

16. Alan says:

This is a very interesting link, which seems to me to yet again put consciousness “up in the air”, shall we say. Quite a mix of papers from some high calibre types. And good to see Prof. Roger Penrose and Prof. Stuart Hameroff taking the lead here.

In all these studies on consciousness, overall, surely the “promissary materialists” would have solved it by now – and yet the enigma remains. Combining this with some of the studies I gave above shows it’s solution is far, far off. If consciousness, awareness or whatever can actually be somehow out there beyond the brain and can also become disembodied (!), a disembodied intelligence, this shows why so many are struggling with this issue – it ain’t just chemistry is what I mean! Also this begs the question as to why the universe is made this way so that this can happen inside it.
If physical consciousness is only taken as true, then chemical and biological mechanisms will be used as tools for an explanation. But if the nonphysical is finally confirmed, then new ideas are needed. Some seem to be cracking on with this.
“Two paths diverged in the woods and I, I took the one less travelled by” seems apt.

“Is consciousness an epiphenomenal happenstance of this particular universe? Or does the very concept of a universe depend upon its presence? Does consciousness merely perceive reality, or does reality depend upon it? Did consciousness simply emerge as an effect of evolution? Or was it, in some sense, always “out there” in the world?…

http://journalofcosmology.com/Contents14.html

17. Gary M says:

I’m a small-a atheist who’s been written out of several wills.

I’m a big fan of Heavy Metal.

What I notice about both demographics is that their existential relevance requires that the very thing that they each deny is extant.

Otherwise, what’s there to rebel against?

Same for the Scientist demographic.

Shakespeare: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Ingenious Gentlemen, all.

18. Cody says:

I disagree Gary M. If the majority of society constantly rambled on about fairies or leprechauns or santa claus, I would feel obligated (as a reasonably intelligent/rational/informed human being) to ‘rebel against’ the status quo. I could understand people who wouldn’t bother, but I’d like to think they could equally understand me.

My two cents: this seems very much an issue of parsimony & Occam’s razor. If we postulated a soul for cars people would ask why—even some who’s mechanic expertise is no where near enough to be a car mechanic (like myself). Likewise some of us can see enough of the mechanical underpinnings of human beings/consciousness to confidently declare souls as extraneous additions—despite our lack of being fully-certified M.D./Ph.D neuroscientists. For much the same reason a car-soul would seem so silly. We know how humans are built, we know how they come to function, we know what they are made of, we know the cause & effect of various accidental damage to various parts, and we have ZERO evidence that anything is happening beyond that. If there ever were a case of severe brain damage/death, that did not result in loss of consciousness or higher cognitive functions, that would be strong evidence against this view. E.g. it is falsifiable.

19. Mark Swanson says:

To Mr. Carroll, thank you for opening this topic. I enjoyed your writing immensely.

To all the people who posted and understood the topic, you have contributed in the spirit of science, a team effort to find truth. To Mary who picked the right side of Pascal’s Wager, keep up the Good Works, I’m with you on that.

I’ve read the posts and re-read Sean’s article several times. He suggests science observing metaphysics is problematic. He is correct. Remember, science established itself separately from philosophy about the time of Newton and I predict science will one day rejoin metaphysics, the goal Sean may be pointing to.

Let’s start with the obvious and move to the specific, I tend to be conventional with nomenclature, not concepts.

Obviously, you are reading this post today because you are the continuation of the life of your ancestors. Had one died you would not be here. You are a continuation of life because babies are the extension of living cells, not inanimate matter. All life is a continuation of life from its beginning and you are not separate from this continuation, you are a part of all life. You are one branch of a huge family tree that reaches back to the beginnings of life on Earth. Should you die with no progeny then your branch dead ends and your DNA no longer contributes to life.

Obviously, by extension, the Universe is a continuation much like life. The Universe’s ancestry reaches back to the big bang, your ultimate inanimate ancestor. As life is one, the Universe is one, and the most amazing thing the Universe does is it wiggles. All the time it wiggles and physicists know that intimately. We as conscious beings perceive the wiggle and call it ‘time’ and build very useful concepts around it. As you experience your life right now, you experience this moment of the wiggle. Your memory is the recollection of past wiggles. Memory can only refer to the past because memory is without knowledge of the future wiggles. We as conscious beings create the concepts of ‘future’ and ‘past’ to describe events and our lives, but in truth we only live in the wiggle of ‘now’. So it becomes obvious that you are a part of one life, one universe, and one wiggle. So the puzzle to you becomes will you strive to understand it?

You are a conscious being that creates a description of the ‘real’ world in your head when awake and you create ‘unreal’ dreams when you sleep. A ‘normal’ person separates reality from dreams, fact from fiction. You create a personal psychology to manage your way through the wiggles, learning from your childhood through adulthood with all the pleasant and terrible events which come to your being. This learning and memory culminates in the current consciousness of your being.

As you ponder your consciousness realize that you are much more than the conscious brain or ego reading this missive. As those who have practiced karate know, we have other ‘brains’ in our body. Your conscious ego is not your complete self. To find your complete self in karate you must learn to harmonize your conscious ego with the autonomic nervous system in order to throw a punch correctly, if not decisively. This cooperation of your conscious ego with your body is far outside of ‘consciousness’ as we commonly talk about it, so let us limit this missive to ego for now, the thing we call ‘ourself’. Perhaps a brain doctor will help post an illumination of our current understanding of consciousness. My current readings suggest a culmination of learning memories, personality development, and constant sensory input create a subjective experience we call ‘being’.

Our brain is programmable (learning) and recursive (self-examination) which are two remarkable properties. Further, there is discussion that DNA is a self-programming molecule while we are alive, thus suggesting higher self-organization globally, and evolution locally. We live in an imaginary ‘virtual’ world in our brains and communicate our experience of ‘being’ to others, through feed-forward and feedback. This is quite a remarkable experience of ‘being’. ‘Being’ is so remarkable that we create concepts like ‘soul’. It is also so remarkable that we create concepts like ‘hubris’.

What I think we need to attempt as ‘beings’ is to affirm what can be proven. That which is, is. The universe is because I can point to it and thus prove it. A simple rhetorical tautology. I cannot disprove a universe which does not exist. This is its negation. Now extend this to the soul and look for the proof, with science, without hubris.

Post Script

I stumbled across this site today because the notion of immortal soul was haunting me. My wife passed away at the beginning of the year and I wrote a poem today about this experience for my grief counselor. Marty and I were married ten years. A bit about myself: my undergraduate is in religion, philosophy, and art and master in business. My work experience began in aerospace materials manufacturing with vacuum technology but now I consult in business development. I offer my poem as an insight to my experience with death and the mystery of soul.

Finding Marty

I love you Marty and miss you deeply dear.
Could I be so lucky if your spirit still dwells here?
I love you Marty and voice my only fear:
Could no soul be? Or are you free? Now ethereal?

Five months have passed and I ponder this.
Will you touch me with your being and recognize me?
Will you ever communicate with me again?
Are you here? Are you somewhere, aware to look for me?

I speak to you each morning and start my routine.
Alone with morning coffee: I feel a profound grief.
Alone with morning coffee: Winter turns to Spring.
Alone with morning coffee: a heron has babies.

The first months: each day was like slogging through mud.
My brothers call: Did you pay the bills? Are you on task?
It took effort: Make meals and eat. Wash the clothes.
The house is in order, exactly how you left it.

I pretend you are watching me and want to talk.
All day long I talk to you and tell you what I think.
Your remains are powdered and held in a cardboard box.
No power to the hardware: the software does not work.

Mark Swanson
May 31, 2011

20. Alan says:

Cody – “If there ever were a case of severe brain damage/death, that did not result in loss of consciousness or higher cognitive functions, that would be strong evidence against this view.E.g. it is falsifiable.”

Well, if you look at the phenomenon of “shared-death experiences”, which is a step up from many ordinary but veridical near-death experiences there are data points. See here for these “ordinary” NDEs at least:

http://www.iands.org/conferences/past-iands-conferences/2006-houston-tx/217-panel-the-future-of-nde-veridical-perception-research.html

and the international AWARE study is presently looking at 4 years worth of data.

But for “shared-death experiences” carers, family and the patient experience phenomena together – difficult to ignore. See Moody:

http://www.amazon.com/Glimpses-Eternity-Mind-Body-Spirit/dp/0824948130

21. TidyTim says:

Wow! What a LONG discussion. I haven’t read all the entries, but as a Christian who believes in the Immortal Soul I think the point about Dirac’s Equasion is a valid point. This equasion has to allow a two-way connection so that perception and response are both possible. Either the equasion is incomplete, or perhaps the wave function of an electron is composed of two parts, one is the “history” the other part is (or can be) controlled by the “soul” and appears to come from the future (i.e. “advanced” and “retarded” components of the wave function).

In scientific experiements we can only control the “history” part of the wave equasion and that’s why the electron seems to have a sort of “free will”. If both parts could be controlled then an electron would be 100% deterministic.

I’m not claiming that this is the way the soul latches onto electrons in the brain, I’m just throwing out one possible idea.

22. Tim says:

Thanks Sean! This was an excellent account of how the soul is basically impossible.

23. TidyTim says:

Philosophy has to preceed science. If one’s world-view is that the universe is a closed system and there is no “outside” which can interfer with its operation, then the soul is automatically excluded and therefore any “scientific” discussion will always come to this conclusion.

If you want to understand the basic philosophical question you could read the book “Miracles” by C.S. Lewis.

–TidyTim–

24. collins says:

Re: “life after death” and/or “some form of persistence of the individual soul after life ends”, SC states ” Clearly this is an important question, one of the most important ones we can possibly think of in terms of relevance to human life.”
Why?
SC makes a presumption which I believe is erroneous. In my own experience over 40 years and many cultures, highly religious people who employ their beliefs in daily practice give little if any thought or concern to what a possible life after death may entail. They’re too busy trying to be good to their fellow humans and the planet.
SC’s presumption (about “relevance”) I believe is the bias that afterlife is the principal motivator for good behavior for people who self-identify as religious, and the inversion that such people would exploit and dominate others were it not for that constraint. But the reality is that these people are good despite the inevitable doubts they all have. For example, Buddhists believe all memory and personality vanish with death, as the soul goes on either to another life or possibly nirvana. Since there’s no memory, why should one care what happens to the soul after death, so why bother leading a compassionate life? Yet the Dalai Lama says “my religion is compassion.”

Scientists are supposed to eliminate biases as best they can at all stages of inquiry, but it’s very difficult to do. Being “firmly agnostic” in the true sense of the word is the appropriate scientific position.

25. Alan says:

I suppose for palliative care for terminally ill people, the link given highlights how we sometimes try to keep our loved ones alive maybe for ourselves, not them. That seemed to be the message from that story. And how much we want to be in charge of them even though they would want the final release – a more natural release is better. So because we have technology we do it and doctors are also legally obliged but at what cost to the patents’s suffering is key here? But a fascinating end to the article which perhaps suggests we are not alone at the end – something the relative learned and which allowed him to let the doctors switch off life support. Surely though, if proof of an afterlife was confirmed, this would change the whole landscape of palliative care, moral, legal…there would also be an emphasis perhaps on preparation for going somewhere instead of nowhere – how would that be done?
Also doctors and nurses must have many stories like this – well worth documenting seriously.

26. vn says:

What is the reason of all this war activity in Libia?
Dirac equation? Viagra overproduction? Dictatorship of Lie?

27. Guido says:

to 167 and 175
what particle is the soul made of??? there could be one but I don’t think so – on the other end it would have been difficult to expect gravity to be made of particles.
The world is not just particles. Complexities are not just particles. What are concepts made of? What are memories made of? Our “memosphere” is expanding exponentially. What is a “singularity” and what will it do?
Dream on….your soul is waiting….possibly eternal.

28. aeolius 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? ”
What utter humbug.
Isn’t it more the laws which we believe to underlie everyday life seem to be completely explained or some such. But to make such a claim we would have to know all about everything in the universe. As a former defense secy suggested it is the unknown unknowns which we have to watch for.

We know zilch about 90% of the universe. We do not know what has to be changed to explain entanglement. And the problems in the Copenhagen model, or rather the alternate answers to these problems, will take us into places where other aspects of everyday life may well emerge.
One of the great afilings of our culture is our Chrono-centric.That we know know is correct and complete. What others earlier believed is the misguided attempts of dumb schmucks.

29. jlue says:

One big problem with this thesis is the correlation between believing the moon is made of green cheese and believing that mankind has a soul. IF Sean had begun with the hypothesis of ‘Could the moon be made of volcanic rock,’ this would have been a much more realistic comparison. How many people actually believe the moon to be made of green cheese? I doubt one percent of the population would believe this. On the other hand, throughout history mankind has believed in life after death and that the moon is made of material similar to that of meteors or made of rock. When you compare these two beliefs it changes the analogy and the outcome is different.

Sean’s entire premise is based on the hope that mankind completely understands the laws of physics AND that evolution is responsible for human life.

Where upon the chain of evolution from our monocellular ancestors to today did organisms stop being described purely as atoms interacting through gravity and electromagnetism, and develop an immaterial immortal soul?

This is where there is a major breakdown in the reasoning that leads some to discard the idea of a soul and life after death. When you leave God and creation out of the equation, explaining how man is superior to other life forms is difficult. There is a great divide between all life on earth and man, who was made in the image of God. Evolution cannot and does not explain life as we know it. It does not explain the soul. It does not explain our love of music, art, and beauty. It does not explain our ability to have a relationship with our Creator. There is a dimension to mankind that neither physics nor evolution can explain.

30. Alpheus says:

The initial claim that we know all we need to know about physics to explain consciousness is absurd. Roger Penrose wrote at least two books–and perhaps a third that I have not yet read–attempting to explain that not only is consciousness not understood, but that the contradictions between quantum mechanics and general relativity need to be resolved before we can understand consciousness.

This isn’t an issue of belief in a soul or not: as far as I can tell, Penrose is an atheist. But it *is* an issue, in that you make it an important part of your proof. And this irks me greatly.

I would also concur with others on this thread, that there is plenty of room in the equations, if the imagination wishes to squeeze the soul into the gaps; and since believing in a soul is harmless, I see no reason why it matters one way or the other.

31. Joseph Milanese says:

The argument that consciousness only exists within the brain falls apart when the documented cases of identical twins who maintain some level of awareness of each others well-being over distance are examined. What particles or beams connect these people? No matter how you cut it, they’re exhibiting evidence of consciousness outside of the body.

32. Mike says:

“documented cases of identical twins who maintain some level of awareness of each others well-being over distance are examined.”

Please provide cites to your sources so others can read them. Since the laws of physics (as currently understood) say that this can’t be true, my initial assumption is that your sources are incorrect. However, I would like to review and evaluate them for myself. Thanks.

33. jumbo says:

Mike, there is quite a lot of studies on twins. I reccommmend an excellent 2011 book Fringe-ology by Steve Volk which describes current state of parapsychology. There you can also find several references to research papers on “twin telepathy”.

34. Harrison says:

It seems, at first blush, sublime, to reduce the question of immortality to an equation.

35. Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM says:

@Alan
According to the critics:

“Unfortunately, the Scole Experiment was tainted by profound investigative failings. In short, the investigators imposed little or no controls or restrictions upon the mediums, and at the same time, agreed to all of the restrictions imposed by the mediums. The mediums were in control of the seances, not the investigators. What the Scole Report authors describe as a scientific investigation of the phenomena, was in fact (by any reasonable interpretation of the scientific method) hampered by a set of rules which explicitly prevented any scientific investigation of the phenomena.
The primary control offered by the mediums was their use of luminous wristbands, to show the sitters that their hands were not moving about during the seances. I consulted with Mark Edward, a friend in Los Angeles who gives mentalism and seance performances professionally. He knows all the tricks, and luminous wristbands are, apparently, one of the tricks. There are any number of ways that a medium can get into and out of luminous wristbands during a seance. The wristbands used at Scole were made and provided by the mediums themselves, and were never subjected to testing, which is a gross dereliction of control by the investigators. Without having been at the Scole Experiment in person, Mark couldn’t speculate on what those mediums may have done or how they may have done it. Suffice it to say that professional seance performers are not in the least bit impressed by this so-called control. Tricks like this have been part of the game for more than a century. Since hand holding was not employed in the Scole seances, the mediums effectively had every opportunity to be completely hands free and do whatever they wanted to do.”
Source: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4179

36. Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM says:

A commenter raised the problem of which “you” would make it to an afterlife: the one that exists at the moment of death or some earlier one. Because most of us have a set of memories that go back a way we have the illusion that we have always been the same person and personality. This is not, in fact, true. We think quite differently at different stages of our lives. We also forget a huge amount of our experiences and knowledge. For the Abrahamic religions this poses the problem of what happens if one “sinned” during the periods for which one no longer has a memory? What if the “sin” was one of those that cannot be forgiven?

In other words, we really don’t know exactly who we are and have little clue about who we once were.

There is an even bigger problem. We have two brains in our heads that are normally connected together. This is not always the case, either for reasons of genetic abnormality, brain injury or surgery. Split brain research provides proof that the two halves can have opposite views on religion. There are recorded cases where one half is an atheist and one half religious. If there were an after-life that includes a god does this mean that one half of the brain is sent to “hell” and the other to “heaven”? Is there a separate soul for both halves or only one? If there is only one, would this be jeopardized by the “wicked” brain half or not?

The only answers to such questions would involve the religious making more stuff up. It’s an interesting life being a religious apologist.