General Question

ragingloli's avatar

Being that the concept of a soul is purely rooted in mythology and its existence in humans thus, as of now, an unfounded assumption, how would you define "soul", in such a way that its existence or non-existence could be verified by science?

Asked by ragingloli (41511points) January 19th, 2014

And more importantly, based on your falsifiable definition, what would be your method to verify its existence/non-existence?

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27 Answers

funkdaddy's avatar

Scientifically a soul would be anything that carries information specific to an individual and continues to exist after our body doesn’t. Instead of body you could say separate from the physical form.

Because of the “anything” in the definition, I don’t know that you can necessarily prove it false once and for all, but detecting and being able to interpret a soul consistently and well enough to tie it to the life it was a part of should be enough to prove its existence.

So, lacking at least a consistent detection of some sort of possible carrier for that information outside the body (even if it can’t be interpreted yet), you’d have to assume there is no soul.

Until detection improves in some way. Then try again.

Science doesn’t prove things as often as people would like to think. Most things are too complicated for absolute certainty. So you’re usually dealing in likelihood.

It’s unlikely we have a soul. But when you start thinking about things like quantum entanglement it seems possible (again, unlikely) that there is some storage system in the universe we don’t yet understand. Our entry in that could be considered a soul.

whitenoise's avatar

Our souls for me are the manifestation of our human self awareness; our ‘being’.

It is the result that one gets from the synergy of roughly 85 billion neurons in our enormously complex brain. It is what makes us feel we are more than just a body. It is what one cannot (fully) design, create or control, but what results as an ‘emerging quality’ in a chaotic system.

So… for me the soul is like a pattern in the sand. It is different from the sand, but cannot exist without it. That is… for now. Maybe, one day, we may be able to ‘lift’ all the information from our brain and run it on a simulated computer brain or copy it to a clone of ourselves. Then the soul would be compatible to ‘our program and memories’. Then our soul could live beyond its current limits of the human body.

We can already put part of our souls into our surrounding. Put it in paintings, books, our children and our friends. At least part of us can now already live on.

And… sorry for not providing a falsifiable definition. I guessed you were not honestly looking for one, given that it so extremely unlikely you’d get one.

flutherother's avatar

You are asking something of science that science cannot do. I’m not sure science can even verify sentience.

Berserker's avatar

Soul and spirit is what people called psychology before they knew the latter was ever an actual scientific thing.

SwanSwanHummingbird's avatar

We tried this one in my Metaphysics class. There is no answer.

ETpro's avatar

Is the existence of a soul defeasible? Is the hypothesis that a metaphysical entity completely outside of spacetime and undetectable or observable by any known means scientifically falsifiable? Maybe it is. If it acts on observable things, then its influence is within the observable universe.

If such an entity existed, what would it predict? I would expect it to store all our memories, so when we get to Heaven we’d recognize grandma when we saw her. If the soul is the incorruptible repository of our memories, then it ought to work prior to our deaths. It would probably that which is aware of being aware within us.

It’s pretty clear there is no entity inside us that has all our memories locked in it and carries them on with it after our death. I say this because neuroscience has established specific areas of the human brain that handle specific tasks. When one of those areas is damaged by trauma, a stroke, a tumor or such; the ability it controlled is gone. These abilities can be highly specific, as in losing the ability to hear, or to remember names including your own. One area lost robs you of the ability to form short term memories, but long-term memories already stored remain intact. Lose the long-term memory area, and that is gone. You can form short-term memories, but they will disappear without leaving a trace. A stroke

If there were a metaphysical entity inside us or hovering over us with all our thoughts and memories within it, it could easily route lost abilities to other areas of the brain. But that does not happen. Only through long, arduous therapy can we learn to use a new area of the brain to pinch hit for a damaged one. And even after therapy to set up a new center for long term memory, or knowledge of how to play a musical instrument, all the memories that were in the damaged area must be relearned or they are forever gone. So it seems to me there is no rational reason to believe a soul exists.

DWW25921's avatar

A persons soul is their essence of being, I suppose. It’s a very interesting question and I really haven’t put much thought into it. I suppose a way to “prove” it’s existence would be by way of personal accounts of “seeing ones self” after a near fatal incident or even becoming brain dead as there is no longer anyone there… Science can’t explain everything you know. Our world is far bigger than we realize.

ragingloli's avatar

The brain can do all sorts of whacky things when under the influence of drugs or oxygen depravation.
Besides, do you have dreams at night?

DWW25921's avatar

@ragingloli Probably but I don’t remember them anymore.

kevbo's avatar

By falsifiable, I assume you mean capable of being verified through experimentation or observation.

The commonly held concept of soul, I think, lends itself to the kind of discrediting that skeptics are wont to deliver since even for most conventionally religious people it plays a tertiary role in one’s existence. Maybe we direct feelings at it or modify our behavior to somehow preserve it. But we are primary, and it, for the time being, is secondary.

Perhaps a more useful concept (and definition of “soul”)is that of Ātman, which is the origin of the Self (as described above, the essence one’s being). Ātman is the sense “I am,” which comes before the mind’s involvement. Descartes “mistake” was putting the cart before the horse with cogito ergo sum.

To verify the existence of the soul as now defined, one need only rely on direct observation. By enquiring “Who am I?” and coming to recognize that there is a self who is an observer that comes prior to the mind (and prior to concepts such as “soul” and “science”), one can shift identification to this sense of “I am” and experience the soul directly. You don’t even need one of those machines that go “bing.”

To quote another philosopher, “We are spirits in a material world.” Emphasis on are.

antimatter's avatar

Remember the Matrix about that we are a battery? Well I think our souls is nothing but the very energy that powers our bodies. A current can be measured.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@DWW25921 “I suppose a way to “prove” it’s existence would be by way of personal accounts of “seeing ones self” after a near fatal incident”

IMO that is caused by the pineal gland releasing large quantities of Dimethyltryptamine into the brain causing such hallucinations.

DWW25921's avatar

@uberbatman You know a lot of big words.

ragingloli's avatar

Of course he does.
He is Batman.

DWW25921's avatar

No, he’s UBERbatman! :) I don’t even know how to respond to that… Big word wielding smartypants…

zenvelo's avatar

I just answered a question like this on a dating site. There are some questions that science cannot ever answer. Existence of a soul is one of them.

And I’d ask this question in response – if there is no scientific explanation for the existence of a soul, how did disparate civilizations with no communication arrive at the same conclusion?

RocketGuy's avatar

You would think that the soul defines who you are, yet, if you sustain brain damage, your personality might change. So the soul would have to be somehow linked to the brain.

LostInParadise's avatar

If we identify soul with consciousness then, like Descartes, our soul is the one thing that we can be most certain of. From a materialist perspective, the soul may very well be the grandest illusion in the Universe – a bunch of neurons that collectively think of themselves as a single entity. It is quite natural to extend this illusion even further, believing that this consciousness exists as a non-physical entity that travels with our bodies.

The Turing test is currently the best test that we can devise to detect consciousness. In a way it begs the question by using one presumed consciousness to detect the presence of another. The problem is that you can always build a robot that will respond to a certain degree like a human. If there is some question that trips up the robot then it can be reprogrammed to handle that question. There may come a time when we can nail down just what consciousness is, but until then the Turing test is the best that we can do.

zenvelo's avatar

Presence of soul = presence of lurve.

Strauss's avatar

The soul is a metaphysical concept, whose existence is a matter of faith. I believe I have a soul, but I could never scientifically prove it to you. Conversly, you have no scientific proof that your soul exists, but you cold not scientifically prove that to me, any more than you can disprove the existence of chakras, or a human aura, or any other spiritual, non-physical, non scientific concept.

ETpro's avatar

@kevbo That’s a deepity and deepities are not proofs of anything.

@zenvelo If a soul actually does exist, then science may some day be able to furnish evidence it exists. What science can’t do is prove hypothetical entities do not exist. I don’t believe fire breathing, flying dragons ever ruled the world; or that pink unicorns are flying about invisible to most humans; but I can never prove they don’t exist. I don’t believe in them because I’ve seen no evidence suggesting I should. But if I saw solid evidence for dragons or unicorns, then I would change my position.

As to why so many cultures have hypothesized a soul, that’s because it feels like that is what the I of “I“ness is. It feels for the world like “I” am a homonculus sitting somewhere inside, watching a viewscreen as Captain Kirk did on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. But neuroscience tells us that my brain decides what “I” am going to do before “I” am even aware of thinking to do it. That which is aware of being aware, the “I am”, is en emergent phenomenon of a human brain, and it feels for all the world like something separate from the brain and having free will. But science is increasingly telling us both those perceptions are incredibly compelling illusions.

kevbo's avatar

@ETpro, what, exactly, are you referring to as a deepity, or can you summarize what you’re calling a deepity? I’m not seeing the connection.

I also don’t expect it to ring true for someone without having taken a look, which in past discussion, you’ve prejudged as a fruitless effort (which is fine, of course, but only to articulate). So I doubt we are referring to the same sense of “I am.” For example, I’m not referencing an “I am” that has free will. I would guess that the “I am” I am referring to is prior to the emergence that you reference. Besides, what does a soul/Atman care for free will?

I’ll add that there’s not a lot of distance between your descriptions of “compelling illusions” and my understanding from which I’ve distilled the above response. From the point of view I’ve referenced, there’s compelling illusion inside and out, including the illusion of free will.

Thammuz's avatar

@DWW25921 I suppose a way to “prove” it’s existence would be by way of personal accounts of “seeing ones self” after a near fatal incident or even becoming brain dead as there is no longer anyone there…

Those experiences were thoroughly debunked as being hallucinatory with tests made under controlled conditions with people who experienced them regularly due to sleep paralysis and/or sleep apnea. You can’t discern any actual information (such as the time on a big clock on the wall) from your surroundings during these experiences, which means your brain is basically just making up a vague impression based off your memories of it. Which is closely related to why you can’t read in dreams.

ETpro's avatar

@kevbo This is a deepity.

“To verify the existence of the soul as now defined, one need only rely on direct observation. By enquiring ‘Who am I?’ and coming to recognize that there is a self who is an observer that comes prior to the mind (and prior to concepts such as ‘soul’ and ‘science’), one can shift identification to this sense of ‘I am’ and experience the soul directly. You don’t even need one of those machines that go ‘bing.’ ”

This feels very true. So in a trivial sense, it works. But when examined, it predicts absurdities and answers nothing. Let’s say I allow, for purpose of discussion, then asking “Who am I” means that a metaphysical :I am” exists within me. Can I then poof Zeus into existence by asking “Who is Zeus?”

kevbo's avatar

@ETpro, enquiry in this case is not the same as asking. This is not about saying magic words but instead is a meditative investigation. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my attempt to maintain some brevity.

Similarly, the process poofs nothing into existence. Instead it dispels illusion—perhaps the same illusion you reference. So not a process of conjuring, but a revealing.

If you enquire “Who is Zeus?” then you will likely experience more synchronicity in your life, since any (sincere) mantra has the effect of harnessing the mind in the way of making it a “wonderful servant” instead of a “terrible master.”

ETpro's avatar

@kevbo Aha, if you are talking about the contemplative state brought on by meditation of chanting a mantra, then I have no quarrel with that. It’s a measurable thing.

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