Friday, August 22, 2008

You have no soul. Deal with it.

I daresay I have many faults, and among them is this: Once I come to the conclusion that some concept or other is stupid bullshit, e.g. God, I generally drop it from my mind, and no further time or resources will be spent pondering the matter. If the bullshit is of a particularly heinous or batshit insane flavour, e.g. Original Sin, I may even go so far as to forget why I dismissed it as bullshit in the first place.

So, although I'd quite happily tell you straight off the bat that, say, metaphysics is bullshit, if you asked me why, I'd have to scurry off and do my homework all over again. But do rest assured that when I say something is bullshit, there will definitely be a basis for such a claim.

Of course, I consider it a matter of intellectual duty to occasionally check if my conclusion is flawed or perhaps needs amending, but usually this will be the result of my analysis of someone else's musings on the subject rather than as a conclusion drawn from my own ponderings, i.e. If I think it's bullshit, I leave the real thinking to someone else who could be bothered to prove conclusively on all fronts that it's bullshit. I suppose you could say I just don't have the stomach to perform the intellectual equivalent of a perpetual enema.

It is with that in mind that I present here an extract from Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate*, which highlights most eloquently the inadequacies of a common pile of steaming bullshit that's often accepted by those who don't think too much about the matter: That we have an immortal soul.

The Catholic Church and certain other Christian denominations designate conception as the moment of ensoulment and the beginning of life (which, of course, makes abortion a form of murder). But just as a microscope reveals that a straight edge is really ragged, research on human reproduction shows that the "moment of conception" is not a moment at all. Sometimes several sperm penetrate the outer membrane of the egg, and it takes time for the egg to reject the extra chromosomes. What and where is the soul during this interval? Even when a single sperm enters, its genes remain separate from those of the egg for a day or more, and it takes yet another day or so for the newly merged genome to control the cell. So the "moment" of conception is in fact a span of 24 to 48 hours. Nor is the conceptus destined to become a baby. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of them never implant in the uterus and are spontaneously aborted, some because they are genetically defective, others for no discernible reason.

Still, one might say that at whatever point during this interlude the new genome is formed, the specification of a unique new person has come into existence. The soul, by this reasoning, may be identified with the genome. But during the next few days, as the embryo's cells begin to divide, they can split into several embryos, which develop into identical twins, triplets, and so on. Do identical twins share a soul? Did the Dionne quintuplets make do with one-fifth of a soul each? If not, where did the four extra souls come from? Indeed, every cell in the growing embryo is capable, with the right manipulations, of becoming a new embryo that can grow into a child. Does a multicell embryo consist of one soul per cell, and if so, where do the other souls go when the cells lose that ability? And not only can one embryo become two people, but two embryos can become one person. Occasionally two fertilized eggs, which ordinarily would go on to become fraternal twins, merge into a single embryo that develops into a person who is a genetic chimera: some of her cells have one genome, others have another genome. Does her body house two souls?

What I draw from Pinker's line of questioning is that, on closer scrutiny, the assumption of a soul raises far more questions than it answers. Suffice it to say, organized religion is incapable of offering any sort of adequate rebuttal for two main reasons:

1) a total inability thus far to provide empirical evidence justifying their beliefs; and

2) conflict of interest. Of course they'd tell you there's a soul. If knowledge that the soul is a myth gained widespread acceptance, all the priests, imams, rabbis and similar purveyors of religious bullshit in the world would have to go and find real jobs. As such, they are incapable of giving any sort of unbiased insight on the matter.

I suppose that now one could ask:

If we don't have a soul, what have we got?

This post is already getting much longer than my usual posts, so I'm going to have to go with a short and sharp answer for now and maybe revisit this later. For the moment, my answer to the above question is thus:

A brain. Use it well.

* A damned good book that deserves a thorough reading. Twice.


Mike said...

you used the word bullshit several times. youre probably already familiar with the show of the same name by penn and teller. if not you should check it out.

清, just 清 said...

Done. These days I use the word to be consistent with a previous post on logical empiricism.

Anonymous said...

Burnova again.

I really enjoyed this read, both your commentary and the book itself.

Is there any chance you'll return to the pox forums? I've been trying to incorporate psychology into my atheist arguments and am only finally drawing some attention.

清, just 清 said...


Thanks very much, but I took a peep again at the Poxnora thread on religion and it seems to me to have drifted somewhat. I was educated a physicist and as such, I stand by the scientific method in dismantling religion.

However, looking at the Poxnora thread, it just appears to have degenerated into a bunch of philosophy majors engaging in an intellectual circle jerk, if you'll pardon my French, with no sign at all of directly addressing the issue of whether belief in the Abrahamic God is justified. That is, to nitpick over the scriptures is just a lot of fucking about. Far more efficient to cut straight to the heart and scrutinize the Nicene Creed.

But, if you insist on trying to press home your point in that thread, I recommend the Internet Infidels Discussion Board and the RDF forums as good sources of material. You can also look up thunderf00t and Pat Condell on Youtube, 2 very eloquent infidels whom I totally respect.

Alternatively, move on and let them toss each other off, coz life's just too short.

May the blessings of the FSM be with you...