Can a Person be a Soul? - Michael Shermer | Closer to Truth

Can a Person be a Soul? - Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer - Philosophy of Science

Michael Shermer

Michael Brant Shermer is an American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims.

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Michael
Shermer

Author, Founder and Publisher, Skeptic magazine

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Theologians, religious people all over the world, throughout all time, talk about a soul, generally an immortal soul. What thinks thou?

Michael Shermer:

It depends what you mean by soul. I think what most people mean by have a soul, it's my soul, they mean their self, their being, their essence. But what does that mean? Well, my personality, my memories, who I am as a person.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

No, I think theologians mean something that is real, that is a substance of some kind that during our lifetime infuses our being. And after our physical body disintegrates and dies, something else happens to that.

Michael Shermer:

I know. But we know something about what our essence and being is. It's a pattern of information coded by DNA for our protein chains that make up our physical body and our memories, our personality, our self, which is coded in our brain, in our synapses, in our memories. So those patterns, once you die, assuming you're not cryogenically frozen or something, those patterns are gone. And until you can tell me what the medium of transference, of the pattern of you, from this physical body to some other platform, I can't see other than you're gone, your pattern is gone. Your soul is dead. I can't see any other conclusions. What would be the medium of transfer and the new platform to carry it on into the future of the universe?

Michael Shermer:

It to me seems a little bit circular. But sometimes circular reasoning if you get in there has some legitimacy. And that says that people use the existence of a soul to show that there's a non-physical existence and then determine this pattern by saying it has to be a non-physical pattern of some kind that co-exists with our physical brain which everybody recognizes as our personalities and how we feel and see and all of our senses. But there has to be some non-physical that's part of it.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Why does there have to be? Because we want it to be so? Because we're afraid of death? So we make up this thing and say it has to be. Why does it have to be?

Michael Shermer:

Well, certainly all of the above. The question is, is that determinative? Is that ... because we are self-conscious. Because we have self-awareness and because we can be aware of our own deaths, does this somehow make it more real that there is something that's non-physical that's part of us?

Michael Shermer:

I think it has all the earmarks of wishful thinking on it. Does my dog think, oh, no, I'm going to die? Or let's say we train a chimpanzee sign language and all of a sudden they start signing to each other I just found out this bad news. We're going to die. I heard it from the humans. And they've got this incredible concept of souls. And let's start spreading that means so that we can have this good feeling too. It has all the earmarks of just we constructed this concept because it makes us feel better about dying because we're aware of the fact that we're mortal.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

But is that unique to human beings?

Michael Shermer:

It sure appears to be, yeah. I don't know of any chimps that worry about it, gorillas or orangs or ...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That doesn't give you pause to wonder because it's unique to use, because we're self-conscious, we have this self-awareness, aware of ourselves doing ... aware of ourselves being aware as opposed to just being in the moment. Which animals seem to be in the moment.

Michael Shermer:

Yes.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

We are aware of ourselves in the moment.

Michael Shermer:

More than animals. But not qualitatively so, only quantitatively so. Let me come at it in a slightly different way, a science-fiction scenario of where you replace every one of the neurons in your brain with a silicon chip. Let's say a nanotechnological device in 1,000 years from now and you inject it. And it slowly replaces all your neurons, rebuilds them with the silicon chip. So they last much longer. So the electric need of your protein brain breaks down after a couple of decades, a century or so. But the silicon chip brains last 10,000 years. And by 10,000 years from now, we'll have some other platform which we can download that pattern and carry you on into the far future of the universe. I could buy all of that once the technology was there to do it. What has religion got to offer that's comparable to that? When you say I believe that the soul continues on into the far future? Really? How?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, the question is if you did all those implants and the substitution, would you be exactly the same person? You'd say yes.

Michael Shermer:

Well, the analogy I make is when I was seventeen, I bought my dream car, a '66 Mustang. And I had it for fifteen years. And as young men are want to do, I crashed it and destroyed it and replaced nearly every part on it. And fifteen years later, I sold it for a tidy profit. Because it was a classic '66 Mustang. Even though there was hardly a thing on it from 1966. It's not the ... it's not the material. It's the pattern of its Mustangness, was its essence, its being. The soul of this car was that it looks like this pattern. And that's what we're like.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And that soul is not imprinted on something other than what exists in the physical world.

Michael Shermer:

That's right. Well, maybe it is. But tell me what it is. From the religious perspective, when you said I believe that this essence continues on beyond the physical body, I say really? Terrific. Tell me how. Because I'd love to know. I want to believe that. How? See, it's not enough for me to say I don't know. Some immaterial force does it. Yeah, I'd like to believe that. But I'm sorry, that just doesn't ...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

It seems to me there are two issues. One is the issue of how the mechanism, which you're talking about. The other is just determining is it real? What external evidence for it can show it to be correct.

Michael Shermer:

Yes.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So it's external evidence and mechanisms. And you really have to have both.

Michael Shermer:

And I also factor in a third component. The fact that I want it to be true so bad sends up my baloney-detection alarms, my skeptical alarms go out thinking, oh, boy. The fact that we humans want this so bad means it's going to be fraught with subjective, wishful fulfillment and desires and biases that makes it especially sensitive to really address with an objective point of view.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So the more we want it, the more we must be skeptical?

Michael Shermer:

Well, we should at least be especially cautious that we're not imposing our own wishes on something that may not be true.