Physics and the Immortality of the Soul

By Sean Carroll | May 23, 2011 11:02 am

[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:

$latex igamma^mu partial_mu psi_e – m psi_e = iegamma^mu A_mu psi_e – gamma^muomega_mu psi_e .$

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science, Top Posts
  • MPS17

    There is yet another line of reasoning, which is to note that the components of mind that people wish to contribute to an everlasting soul are themselves known to be conditional on material health of the human body. This is to say, presumably it is very important for the soul to have memory of the experiences of the body it inhabits (otherwise, how would it know whose soul it is? what would be the value of these experiences, and thus what is the purpose of the material life?). Yet we know that if we conk someone sufficiently hard on the head, or give them just the right drugs, or deny oxygen to part of the brain, that these things destroy memories and/or memory-making. People would also like to attribute personality to the soul, yet we know traumas like those described above can also change personality. And so on. Taken as individual components, I imagine there is evidence that every component of “mind” is dependent on material health of human body (brain). And yet people wish to believe that somehow taken together, they can transcend that.

  • beteugelse

    Nice food for thought. My only “complain” is that it seems that your arguments apply somehow also to consciousness. Please correct me if I’m wrong here but particles and interactions cannot explain life after death neither the consciousness of the human being. There’s a huge distance between equations and these topics… and this raises all the mystic about it (which is unfair, I hate it).

    I would like to see equations describing how particles interact to form our thought, and why we feel we are alive. Why a bunch of matter like us think ? I bet no one can present reasonable theories with equations on that. Yet, we are here having this healthy discussion… :)

    Its funny, because we may be a bunch of matter explaining matter.

  • PhilosophyMajor

    I mean…Nietzsche was saying God is dead nearly 150 years ago. This article quite literally gives a mathematical formula to that wider statement: modern civilization has no God, no religion, no Dante, no Sistine Chapel, as well as no Inquisition, no (religious) persecution. Our civilization is a civilization of science; it no longer needs God. God was there to provide the possibility of eternal life after death, and as was once put by a Spanish peasant “If there is no immorality, what’s the point of God?”

    Then again, I am only a philosophy major. My two cents of nonsense may or may not be worth anything.

  • Carol

    i also note that all of this discussion disallows for other dimensions, which are routinely discussed in physics. I think that to claim we know everything in this manner is to claim absolutely nothing. To say that the moon is demonstrably not made of green cheese, because we have physically analyzed it is extremely different from saying we have not demonstrated that there is a soul, simply because we haven’t shown that there is a dimension or particle or something that it is associated with.

    Which puts us back to the agnostic part.

  • Bystander

    What do you think about the idea of quantum immortality/reincarnation in the MWI of quantum mechanics?

    The electrons in our brains are scattered in 99.99999…% of possible worlds but they reconstitute themselves in some way as a consciousness in 0.0000000…1% of them, and we get to live again, perhaps after a very long time and in a completely different place. A minimum “electron pattern” may persist, and when it “wakes up” again it may resembe someone who has amnesia + slept for years, but does preserve just enough of his old “self”. And, if the MWI is correct, then perhaps we (and some copies of ourselves), will only experience the small fraction of future worlds where our consciousness is reconstituted and is not scattered away.

  • Julien

    One thing I’m a bit ill-at-ease with you post, is that you’re discussing immortality of mind as if this belief was implicating belief in an unmaterial mind interacting with ordinary mater. Of course this is the most common belief, but maybe also the less interesting to discuss. What if one sees the mind as a program? Then mind is as immmortal as any equation in the Platonic heven, isn’t it?

    While I’m at it: suppose I say I understand how cars work, because cars are made of matter, and matter obbey QM, and I understand QM. Wouldn’t you think it’s a weak notion of understanding?

  • Wes

    One other thing not covered is non-local properties of mind. These have been demonstrated and written up on peer-reviewed journals for years. Do we know how that works? No, not yet. I’m not necessarily arguing for life after death, I’m just skeptical of claims that we know enough to answer the question. The history of science is the history of hubris.

  • Marcio R G Maia

    Quoting: “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.” Would we? Have we (really) detected dark matter, for instance? What about dark energy? I am NOT suggesting that a possible soul are made up of these two ‘things’!! But, as a friend of mine once said (when we were Physics students long ago): “I don’t think the laws of Physics are incorrect. But they may be incomplete.” Well, I’m quoting too much. Besides, a green cheese Moon would be cool…

  • davidstarlingm

    The general assumption — among physicists who believe in Christ, or Christians who believe in physics, or any combination of the two — is that the spacetime governed by the Standard Model is a subset of a more complete reality. Whether you want to use the extradimensional analogy of Flatland (the brain is to the soul as a cube is to a tesseract) or the computer science analogy (the brain is to the soul as the user input is to the user) or any other visualization, it isn’t that confusing.

    If the spacetime we know and see and test is but a tiny slice of a larger reality, and the larger reality only regularly interacts with ours in a few controlled ways (consciousness, etc), there is no reason to presume that we would be able to detect any portion of that reality that is necessarily located outside our own, any more than we would expect a computer program to be able to tell you anything more about its hardware components than the signals it is receiving from them.

  • Marcio R G Maia

    Quoting: “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.” Would we? Have we (really) detected dark matter, for instance? What about dark energy? I am NOT suggesting that a possible soul is made up of these two ‘things’!! But, as a friend of mine once said (when we were Physics students long ago): “I don’t think the laws of Physics are incorrect. But they may be incomplete.” Well, I’m quoting too much. Besides, a green cheese Moon would be cool…

  • DP

    Re: #2 beteugelse:

    You raise a good point, but I think that the difference is related to the mind/matter connection. No one claims that consciousness is independent of matter. As #1 MPS17 says, physical encounters in the real world affect our mental and cognitive experiences. We certainly do not have a complete physical description of consciousness, but we do know that certain psychoactive drugs, brain injuries, and other physical stimuli have specific effects on consciousness. The difference is that for the soul, people claim that unlike consciousness, it maintains a separate existence that is somehow informed by, but not dependent on, the physical state of the body. We have admittedly imperfect ways of describing consciousness and its relation to the body that is not incompatible with physics – e.g. the whole field of neuroscience.

    We know consciousness ends at death because all of the neurological processes that we see impacting a person’s mental state, such as blood flow, cellular integrity, neural processing, end when the body dies. It therefore makes no sense to suppose that consciousness extends after death. If the soul survives death, it must not be composed of the ordinary matter that deteriorates. But in that case, we would have to explain how it was able to interact with the physical body in the first place, which brings forth the conflict with QFT.

  • Alaya

    The persistence among certain commenters in insisting that consciousness CANNOT POSSIBLY be explained by current physics absolutely baffles me. I mean, yes, I’m sure consciousness is not fully understood or explained and is in much need of further investigation. So is Hox gene regulation and photosynthesis and the evolution of DNA. These–and consciousness–are all *biological* problems. Aside from the very general way that all physics relates to its emergent properties in biology, what is it about the problem of consciousness that makes people think it belongs in the realm of particle physics? I have never heard anyone argue that since there isn’t an “equation” for regulating the development of limbs in humans, we have to postulate entirely new laws of physics to explain how I’m typing this comment. There isn’t an “equation” for consciousness, but there’s still a very good, fits all the data, time-tested explanation for it and all other emergent phenomena of biology that have been shown to increase the fitness of our ancestors:


    Show me a good reason why consciousness can’t be a particularly spectacular result of the same overwhelmingly successful paradigm as EVERY OTHER ASPECT OF HUMAN BIOLOGY and maybe then it would be reasonable to start yammering at the particle physicists.

  • Ash


    Although there is much we don’t yet understand about consciousness, it seems fairly conclusive at this point that it is a product of electrochemical activity in the neurons of our brain. As such, consciousness does not require a mysterious particle or any fundamental change in our understanding of physics as does any life-after-death hypothesis. Said another way, consciousness does not seem to violate what we know to be true so long as it emerges from a living brain.

  • Julien

    @Alaya #12

    I don’t see anyone before your comment making this claim. The point is there is a difference between “current physics could explain conscisouness” and “current physics HAVE explained consciouness”.

    Current physics explains how cars work, but not because the behavior of small amount of matter is well explained by QM. 😉

  • Koray

    The green cheese argument is properly known as Ockham’s razor in philosophy of science. Essentially the argument points out that the data we have does not decisively point to a model where the moon is full of green cheese instead of one filled with ketchup or lego bricks. Therefore, a model where the moon is full of cheese is “needlessly complicated”.

    Similarly, one can enumerate many theories where a person has a soul that survives her, or has been reincarnated, or has two souls, or a soul shared by another living person, or a hierarchy of souls, or a soul that persists for only up to 100 years after the person’s death, or a soul only until the person stops believing it, etc. We don’t have data that definitely points to any of these theories and we may never have such data. The whole exercise is pointless.

  • Bigbangbuddha

    Let me preface my response with the fact that I am an atheist and have no religious or spiritual agenda for my response. But I would argue that the immortal soul may exist. We just keep answering the wrong questions. Every argument I’ve ever seen asks how ones consciousness can exist outside the body or after death. But no one stops to ask what is consciousness or why we even aknowledge it’s existence in the first place. Can anyone presume that they are the self creators of their own mater? What about the energy that causes the continous change in our bodies and leads to observable life? What about the information stored in ones brain? None of these originate from the individual, they flow in and through us and others as they have since the big bang. . So why do we assume that we exist at any given moment at all? I’ve seen argument that concsiousness is caused by neurological reactions, but aren’t those just responses to this same external stimuli? We put much weight on observation and perception, but as we know these are illusions of reality, extensions of the brains storage mechanisms, very human but not accurate representations of reality and very tied to external causation. Ultimately what I am suggesting is that the state of matter that we call body and mind are not the individual, but the changes that happen within and throughout, and these emanate from everywhere, each other and the universe, and as such are technically immortal. Fundamentally life is no different than non life, so maybe we should reexamine our understanding of ‘us’ and ‘I’, maybe consiousness and the soul is in the exchange, not the state being. We know that we cannot observe anything in our universe without change in state, so maybe the key to life is in that fundamental rule. I guess in the end we should examine more about what we are in the here and now before applying to much thought on the hereafter. Cheers.

  • Emil

    Occam Razor tells us that there must be a simple explanation and new physics does not exactly fit the bill. Then again 100% confidence raises alarm flags on my bullshit detector. What is your confidence interval on this claim?
    There are many paths to life after death that don’t require Casper or Ghost Buster dramatics. Most do “live” in the memory and behavior of others (and the fortunate ones live for very long) and that’s how haunted houses are made.
    Having said that I really wish I could filter out Sean’s post on philosophical themes (and movies also) :)

  • Jesse M.

    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.

    But in an infinite multiverse, isn’t it likely that somewhere out there a pattern of information identical to our own brain’s last conscious experience will arise somewhere, and will survive to have additional experiences? This would seem especially natural in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, leading to the theory of quantum immortality. Of course the question of whether “I” will experience such a branch of the multiverse depends on your assumptions of how continuity of consciousness/identity works, whether there is in fact any “objective” truth about the flow of consciousness in the first place (if not, then I can’t really even say that “I” will not be dead 10 seconds from now, replaced by a different brain state which just has memories resembling my experience)

  • TimG

    The actual configuration of atoms in your brain is one representation of the information that describes “who you are”. The equations that describe those states and interactions are another representation of that same information. Why can’t the “soul” just be another such representation of the same information? If it is, asking “How does the soul interact with the atoms of the brain” makes no more sense than asking “how does the quantum mechanical state vector for your brain (which given sufficient time and space I could write down on a piece of paper) interact with the atoms in your brain? It doesn’t, they are “in sync” because they represent the same information.

    To put it another way, my subjective experience of reading these words is not the same thing as the dynamics of my brain as I read these words. They are on some level “the same”, but I don’t consciously experience the act of reading as “Fire neuron 3141592, trigger synapse 2718281, etc.) Maybe one could be called “how my soul experiences it” and the other “how my brain experiences it.

    I suppose you could argue that that’s not what one normally means by “soul”, however. And I suppose you could say that if we define the soul as “just another representation of the information in the brain”, then it necessarily isn’t immortal. I’m not so sure that that’s the case, though — arguably the equations that represent the state of the brain in terms of underlying physics are immortal, in the “platonic ideal” sense in which all equations are (arguably) immortal.

  • Resuna

    The soul doesn’t need to have an effect on our bodies to matter. If you have a problem with that concept, read “Permutation City” by Greg Egan… that’s the closest thing I can think of to a hard-science novel about the traditional idea of a “soul”.

  • DaveH

    @Carol #4,

    To say that the moon is demonstrably not made of green cheese, because we have physically analyzed it

    …is not what the article says. We can infer that the moon is not made of green cheese even though we haven’t physically analyzed the interior, because of what we know about dairy produce and orbital bodies.

    In the same way, we can infer that there is no soul that persists after death because of what we know about physics. I don’t think extra dimensions help, since the soul would have to interact within the dimensions we know about.

    Of course, the usual route is to say that the soul exists in a non-material realm, implying that it interacts via non-material means, which is to say it happens by magic. We have a fairly good idea that things don’t work by magic, although a surprising number of adults still cling to the idea.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    As part of the choir being preached to, I seriously can’t see how arguing against the existence of an immortal soul using physical principles is supposed to persuade anyone except those who already reject the existence of an immortal soul. The green cheese analogy isn’t even relevant, because green cheese is not supernatural. How does the soul interact with ordinary matter? Why, the same way all supernatural influences are mediated. And because we are discussing the SUPERnatural, after all, violations of whatever symmetry or conservation law you wish to evoke are pretty much allowed by definition. You actually figure believers or “open-minded” agnostics feel the need to justify any of this? That some naturalistic foundation is even germane to the discussion? Logically, you’re rejecting any supernatural explanation from the outset, and then demanding a rebuttal to an argument the other side isn’t even making.

    There’s no debating these things. Such beliefs or suspicions are impervious to refutation by physics because they could be MIRACULOUS. That’s the whole damn point. Why bother?

  • Arun

    Well, there is soul and there is soul. The Advaita Vedantic theory is that awareness is part of the basic stuff of the universe. Not memory, not thought, not information, just awareness.

  • Arun

    Quantum mechanically speaking – no information is lost, ever; and so the whole of your life’s deeds and the accompanying information are (inextricably) entangled with the environment. Is this information retrievable? No. Does this entangled information form a sufficient basis for the Law of Karma to operate? Probably not, but don’t know for sure.

  • Jason A.

    The general assumption — among physicists who believe in Christ, or Christians who believe in physics, or any combination of the two — is that the spacetime governed by the Standard Model is a subset of a more complete reality.

    And the moon might really be green cheese, if we were to fully understand reality. But that fails parsimony, just as the assumption you mentioned.

  • BlakeG

    Given that few of those who believe in an afterlife are naturalists, this blog post is arguably an uninteresting waste of time (as others have suggested). I always think its a trajedy when I see a good scientist making this kind of move. In truth, “Science says xyz” simply means “[ASSUMING philosophical naturalism is true], our best evidence suggests xyz is true”. It’s consequently naive TO say to someone who ISN’T a philosophical naturalist “Science says xyz, therefore […] our best evidence suggests xyz is true”, without givin an argument for philosophical naturalism. It’s like a Christian saying “The Bible says xyz, therefore xyz is the case” without giving an argument for Biblical authority.

    In short: Of course if naturalism is true then there is no life after death. Why did you take a whole post to explain this? Why didn’t you tackle the interesting and philosophically controversial question: “Is naturalism true”?

  • BlakeG


  • Hubertus Bigend

    The last time I looked, no one had the foggiest notion of what consciousness is, yet it is discussed above as though its attributes are known. How can one say that the mind does or does not die along with the body when we don’t know what the mind is. The soul (should one exist) as the vehicle for life after death is even more obscure. At least we interact with each other using our minds (through the agency of the body). The soul is simply posited to exist (with no supporting evidence whatsoever); it takes no active part in our time alive, and it does not seem to influence the body or mind in any way – in short, it adds nothing! It is simply concocted as a raison d’être for religion.

  • Carol E Roper

    I’m continually amazed at the convolutions people will go through in order to hold on to the idea that they have “an immortal soul” – I didn’t expect those people to be any relevant proportion of your (responsive) readers, though. How depressing.

    Excellent article, Sean, and a lovely proof. We also have an excellent understanding of how thoughts, ideas, etc, are generated – *physically* within the brain. How they stop cold when we die.

    The term ‘supernatural’ implies it exists totally outside the natural, physical world, and there’s absolutely zero evidence for it – it’s just a rather silly “what if there is something we cannot see or know in ANY way?”. What’s the point of believing in something which, by definition, is outside our realm of experience? It’s utterly irrational.

    I suppose if we keep explaining this long enough, it will eventually sink in. Thanks for writing it.

  • Lord

    Supernatural = Multiverse

  • KWK

    BlakeG and LM,MI seem to have hit the nail on the head. Or to put it another way: we are all Bayesian creatures, and the conclusions stated here regarding the (non-)existence of the soul add approximately zero information beyond what can be easily determined from one’s choice of priors. So the much more interesting issue–to me, at least–would be a detailed evaluation of the process one might use to construct a naturalistic or supernaturalistic prior (aka “worldview”).

    The most obvious way *not* to pursue such an undertaking, though, is to make the fatuous claim, “Now that we’ve discovered X, supernaturalism is clearly bogus.” (where X = fire, or electrons, or evolution, or …). While any reasonable priors–including, yes, some supernaturalistic ones–are amenable to revision or even overthrow given new data, a lot of data are just plain orthogonal to the truth of falsity of such priors. The laws of physics fit rather neatly within a Christian worldview, for example, whereas “here’s the body of Jesus” would be rather more akin to finding fossil rabbits in the Precambrian in terms of its significant impact on any supernaturalist worldview.

  • math

    Hey! Which of the terms is the interaction term with the information in my brain? Surely that is real, but I can’t determine which of the terms it is. Also, what is the particle responsible for transmitting math, surely it is gauge invariant. Hey does math propagate at the speed of light? I just want to know when the rest of the universe will discover the dirac equation since it has only been around for about 70-80 years. Surely the rest of the universe doesn’t know it yet?

  • DaveH

    There are many people who waver on the fringes of reason wrt souls and life-after-death, for the simple reason that they haven’t thought it through. I think there is some value in reminding people that these concepts are not in accord with how we observe the world actually working.

    Sean is making the case that science has something to say about such claims. I don’t think much of a philosophical case need be made for naturalism. The epistemological justification of naturalism IS its empirical efficacy (and the lack of a coherent rival).

  • They call me ‘Mad’

    “there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die”

    I think they’re called books.

    If souls are no more than information and memories, personalities and preferences, then the children we once were are already dead. Who remembers their own birth? Whatever happened to that happy three year old, excited to explore this shining world? Was there life… after?

    Teachers and mothers, friends and lovers, the memories we share, that we pass on. I sit by the fire and read Newton’s own words, as if he were speaking within my mind. His thoughts, mine. Is it he? A fragment? A fading echo? What puts the fire in the equations? Whence comes this light of perception, illuminating the walls of our inner cave? Computation and calculation in endless dark; fearful numbers and data churning, circulating, repeating… meaning. Memes swim through the darkness, and flash as they leap from one black pool to another, up the glittering waterfalls. Alliances form and shift, cooperate, congregate and disperse, inherited, passed down as treasured heirlooms, in rooms that collapse and decay as the occupants move forever on. Room to room to room, an ever-lasting, ever-changing party.

    I forget yesterday. Nothing much happened, I’m sure. I got up, had breakfast, read the paper… and died. What I was that day as evanescent as the morning mist. I shall not mourn myself. I did not have much of a life, and left nothing to show for it. Time passing, and passing time, the humdrum ticking of the clock. Another day, another death, hidden where nobody noticed.

    But what if I had taken some other path, into the what might have been? Possibilities stacked like the pages of a book, the many worlds, the many me’s, striding abreast ‘tween parallel mirrors, sitting companionably together by the glowing fires, an infinity of us spreading out like ripples across the multiverse? Do my shadows know what I think? Do they yet live? Am I the last to die? Is each one too thinking that they are… all alone?

  • James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil

    The moon is green cheese idea is silly. We had determined the moon was not made of any kind of cheese long before the first robotic missions landed there.

    Calculations of the moon’s mass and gravity proved it was a rocky object with no hollow core or material other than rock and maybe metallic elements.

    So yes, we can prove that the moon is not made of green cheese. That argument is not valid and it’s embarrassing that an otherwise intelligent individual would even suggest it. His credibility was not done any favors by that.


    Thanks for mentioning that amino acids, viruses and bacteria are not often thought of as having souls! I’ve always used examples such as this to back up my assertions when on this subject. Do ants go to heaven? Dogs? monkeys? rocks? People with brain damage? My way of thinking doesn’t require any math or science, only common sense. Does anyone reading this remember the 1800’s? of course not! That’s because you didn’t exist yet. After we die is absolutely no different. How could it be any other way? There is absolutely nothing but hearsay to indicate anything else. I believe that we should spend out lives being good and being useful, not worrying about death or any sort of fiction that happens after we die. After all, immortality would be so boring! You’re only here for a brief flash, make it count.

  • bad Jim

    I suspect that the overwhelming majority of those who believe in a soul also believe in a non-physical mind and vice versa. Such beliefs are based on emotion and tradition and not upon physical evidence.

    Those who hold out for some sort of yet-to-be discovered phenomenon are ignoring the fact that brain activity involves large numbers of molecular interactions and energies that are orders of magnitude larger than quantum events. Any sort of spirit or non-physical mind
    would need to expend measurable amounts of energy to affect the functioning of the brain, and there’s no way for it to do so, nor evidence that it does.

  • http://na R


  • Baby Bones

    Although I’m not a proponent of life after death, there are a couple of non-religious ideas that point to the possibility of a non-mechanical explanation for consciousness and existence. I think we live in a world where new behaviors emerge that bear no relation to the underlying phenomena. For instance, a typical place in the universe is a vacuum near absolute zero, whereas Earth is very non-typical by comparison. It would be very difficult to predict the existence of Earth were the only samples of universal stuff available for analysis the typical stuff. Similarly, I doubt if anyone able to ignore their own liveness would be able to suppose that life could emerge from non-living matter that shows such a strong tendency towards thermal equilibrium.

    To make a distinction between the rise of human intelligence and all life that came before it is false but I think it is fair to say that our awareness operates on a completely different “level” than say a bacterium, so the hypothesis that I would entertain is that there is actually such a level and it cannot bear a relation to the parts that make it up.

    I’m not saying that all aspects of intelligence lie at this level but one or more do. Call that level a soul, or a will, or self-awareness. I’m not supposing that it is immortal but I’m not requiring that it plays by any rules of the physical universe either.

    And there is no need to stop at the level of intelligence. If we could imagine an intelligent anthill that gained an interest in human behavior and decided to emulate it, we would have a problem in locating its intelligence. Our intelligence is apparently inside our body and mostly inside our brain, but an intelligent anthill would not make that conclusion. Furthermore, the anthill intelligence would see a city as its peer, for its intelligence in the “air” just like its intelligence is, and it would attempt to communicate with a city-being made up of many human-ant agents.

  • paul kramarchyk

    Sean, science please. Talk about science. Not medieval superstition. When someone of your stature talks about souls and god it brings the end of time crackpots out of hiding . And it scares me how many there are. Stop scaring me.
    Thank you.

  • peicurmudgeon

    Well written.

    I have had similar thoughts in the past, but without the physics background I found that I was never able to articulate it properly. It seems to me that many of the detractors in the comments are actually saying that intelligence is a non-measurable concept outside of known physics. Why? biochemistry and physics explain everything quite nicely and completely.

  • Matti Pitkanen

    The discussion demonstrates convincingly that quantum theory of consciousness is desperately needed to get rid of these Moon as green cheese arguments.

    First of all, we still do not understand the relationship of the essentially geometric time of physicists to the experienced time. As western pragmatists we just identify these times although even child realizes that they are totally different things (reversibility contra irreversibility for instance if someone in the audience has not realized it yet). The lack of this understanding has fatal consequences for quantum measurement theory so that the only thing we are able to is the primitive reaction “Shut up and calculate!”. We cannot even imagine answering “What after biological death?” or what happens to consciousness after biological death before we have clarified the relationship between these two times.

    Secondly, we do not even know whether consciousness is a property of physical system or represents totally different level of existence.

    Thirdly, most of matter and energy is dark and it is now becoming clear that the standard beliefs about what dark matter as extremely weakly interacting particles are simply wrong. The most recent experiments suggests that dark matter candidates are electromagnetically charged (PAMELA and Fermi, DAMA contra Xenon100). We are completely confused: how on earth matter can be invisible and electromagnetically charged at the same time? What goes wrong in our basic assumptions?

    What if this dark matter plays a key role in living systems: what if it is controller of ordinary matter in living systems? What about dark part of the biological body: what happens to it in biological death? And so on….

    We find the primitive beliefs of people of earlier centuries entertaining at best. Perhaps we should avoid demonstrating publicly this moon as green cheese attitude if we want to avoid the same fate: internet is merciless, all will be stored and read by future generations;-).

  • Darth Dog

    Great post. Very clearly explained. Seems straightforward to me.

    But wow. Reading through the comments is something else. Actually makes me wish that some of them had disappeared Saturday in The Rapture.

  • Andrew S

    There is no evidence for life after death, supernatural phenomena, free will, unnecessarily complicated physical theories, or any number of other fantastical things. The reason why many people believe such things anyway is because if they didn’t, then they would probably conclude that existence is the ultimate trap in which they have no power, no control, and no purpose. Thus, natural selection will favor those that believe in these things (even if these beliefs are false) to the extent that such beliefs allow or encourage them to reproduce rather than kill themselves in despair.

    Seen this way, it is not surprising that the majority of people believe in things that we have no evidence for. It’s all evolution’s doing. It is, however, an ironic quirk of fate that natural selection should seek to prevent the majority of the population from knowing or accepting what is (based on the evidence we have) the truth. Promoting false beliefs is evolution’s ultimate defense mechanism.

  • bad Jim

    No more invocations of dark matter, please. As far as we know it has mass but doesn’t otherwise interact with other sorts of matter. In particular, it doesn’t couple to electromagnetic fields, which mediate most of the processes of life forms. At our scale, for all practical purposes, it may as well be purely supernatural. The coriolis effect doesn’t make the water in a tub circulate one way or the other because a tub isn’t that big. Any effect so tiny that we can’t detect it in theory cannot affect us in practice.

    We’re biological organisms. Our brains are made of living cells, whose conductors are membranes moving signals along ion gradients. Our wetware isn’t nearly as fine-featured or fast as the solid-state constructions we’re using to communicate, whose manufacturers have so far found it unnecessary to take dark matter into account.

  • David Santo Pietro

    Give unto science that which belongs to science. Give unto religion that which belongs to religion.

  • dinvlad

    Nice article, Sean! I couldn’t agree more. But the real problem of why all these questions about the existance of soul arise is because of lack of education on modern physics. Unfortunately, people just don’t see what we’re trying to tell them. They don’t think in terms of fundamental interactions, even though those basic science was told to them in high school.
    But I do think the situation will improve over time – not that more people would become physics graduates, but just the physical science (including life sciences) will reach so unthinkable before things (like dramatically extending our lifecycle, and whatnot), so that previous religion-based view would simply become laughed at, just like we now ridicule the ancient view that the Earth is flat.
    We should take our time..

  • Steve Hall, MD

    Guess I’ll go to bed comforted by the fact that the physical laws underlying life are completely understood. Maybe my job will be easier tomorrow.

  • raghavan Jaganathan

    From consciousness and ethics angle, I have seen people with defects in the body functioning normally. This incudes brain defects like stroke, parkinsonism etc .I am yet to see person with defect in the mind without any structural abnormality of the brain( schezophrenia, mania etc) functioning normally. I think consciousnes is more primitve than nucleic acid(DNA & RNA) . Life is an interaction of both. Consciousness without material is possible . But material without consciousness will merely be stone and mud. ( quarks and electrons)

  • slw

    What is the particle for information? If two particles collide, can you tell by observing the collision results that one was part of a rerun of Cheers and the other was the latest Dr Who episode?
    There is an infinite number of ways to carry information in the world around us. Hell, even the exact same signal can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. It can be very hard to detect there even is a signal at all if you don’t know what to look for, FHSS communications for example.
    No, I don’t think there is an afterlife in the classical religious sense, however the concept of preserving a consciousness after a physical body dies seems well doable. No new physics required, just transfer the information contained in the body to another medium.

  • Cristi

    I think your arguments should be improved. Maybe people believing paranormal stuff avoid scientific evidence and logic and prefer to commit fallacies. They rely on anecdotal experience and generalize with too much ease. But if we want to do better, we need to rely on science and logic better than they do. After all, scientists are not guided by wishful thinking, and they are agnostic until the evidence is provided.

    1. “all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences”.

    It would be nice if you can point a study, which was repeated and corroborated, and peer-reviewed, showing that people witnessing near-death experiences are unreliable. I hope the definition of “unreliable” is other than unreliable = people claiming to have such experiences.

    2. The moon made of green cheese argument. This argument can have many other uses. It could have been used in the XIXth century to prove that it is impossible to have planes, or that there are no rocks in the sky. We can use it today against theories in physics which cannot be verified (yet), like string theory, multiverse theories, huge fluctuations of entropy.

    3. “there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die”

    This argument is able to defeat the straw-man who claims that the soul is a continuation/survival of the functions and memory of the brain. But can it be improved so that it defeats the following hypothesis about the soul?

    What if the soul resides somewhere outside the physical universe (this is what they claim), and the information in the brain grows under the guidance of this soul? The information in the brain is not the soul, but it is somehow a projection of that in the soul. Consider the soul as a hard disk, and our universe as the RAM of the computer. The information from the soul is loaded into the RAM (a human body is born), and then, until the program is ended (the human body dies), some of the information gained while the program was running is saved back on the disk.

    Now I don’t say that this is the truth, I just say that your argument should not reduce all the claims about the soul to the most easy to dismiss version.

    4. “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.”

    Well, this equation or something like this is true and it described how everything evolves, given the initial data. And clearly there is no “soul term” in the evolution equation.

    But again, we can, if we want, make a “green-cheese hypothesis”:

    Those reporting NDE and OBE claim that during such experiences they transcended time. If the soul is from “outside” our universe, then it has no reason to be prisoner of our time line. What if it can choose the initial data at t_0 to obtain the desired result at t_1? What if the soul does not affect the evolution equation with a term, but simply the initial conditions? The equation can be deterministic, but the soul can act by choosing the initial conditions.

    You may say that there is no way you can change the initial conditions. I agree that we cannot change them, but what if they are not yet decided completely? Think how we can perform a delayed choice experiment and choose how a photon went from a distant galaxy towards us billions of years ago. What if quantum mechanics actually tells us that the initial conditions are not selected completely, and by choosing the observable we want to measure, we add information about the initial data? If this is so, then it can provide a way by which something outside our universe can influence what happens within our universe.

    I don’t say that this is true. What I say is that you did not rule this possibility out. Of course, you may say that you don’t need, and go back to the green cheese moon argument. I hope you will not do this, because it will mean that this is your last argument. Now you may say that it is trendy to claim that quantum mechanics supports paranormal stuff. It may be so, and maybe quantum mechanics is abused in this way, but if one claims we should not be agnostic, one has to explain away the possibility that quantum mechanics offers support for “weird” stuff. To reject the agnostic position, one has to explain why it is OK to teleport the state of an electron into the past, but not to use the initial conditions of the universe to implement free-will and a way for the outer soul to act in the universe.

  • bad Jim

    It’s interesting to know that information might be somehow be distinct from energy. If true, it might make possible, not only a new generation of memory devices, but an entirely novel theory of computing. I’d bet that nobody has a clue as to how to make it work, though.

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  • piscator

    There’s no evidence for a mortal soul either. And based on physics alone I have no reason to think that Sean Carroll is any different than a more complicated bit of rock – its just another N-body problem interacting according to the Schrodinger equation.

    The difficulty with arguing against an immortal soul is that most arguments (this one included) also rule out a mortal soul. You establish that something meaningfully called ‘mind’ is a fiction after death, at the cost of establishing that it is also a fiction before death.

  • slw

    To clarify my last comment, “and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die” is the proposition I completely disagree with.
    Yeah, we can’t do it yet, however I see no physical reason why a complete dump of the brain would not be possible. And if you can read it, you can copy it.
    So the question of afterlife simply becomes “is there an innate process in nature that copies the informational content of the brain after it expires to some other storage?”, to which the most likely answer is “no”. However, in the future, we might very well be able to build such a machine ourselves.

  • WL

    What is often neglected in after-life discussions is that the hard wiring of our brain determines our personality, the way we think and we perceice things. The “me” is firmly encoded in our specific neuronal substrate, which continually changes and it also depends on the chemical, hormonal climate of the moment. Just eat a certain drug or have a little stroke and you’d be a different person than yesterday.

    So, what aspects of us are preserved in the soul when we die? Is it like a snapshot of the brain state in the moment of death?

    If so, what is if we sleep at that time.. do we wake up when we die? If a blind person dies, can the soul suddenly see again? And if yes, what kind of colors can it see? What is the resolution, can it see atoms? Can the soul see in the dark? Does the soul of an Alzheimer patient suddenly become smart again? If you are drunk or depressive in the moment of death, in what state your after-life conciousness should be in? Actually 95% of all brain processes run unconciously but still influence our deeds and thinking… it is known that decisions are taken before we conciously know about them. How would that be encoded in a thinking soul?

    If you say, well the soul is immaterial and these questions do not make sense, then what properties of your personality are preserved at all? At best this can be some vague feeling of existence and conciousness, but that could hardly be called “you”, who is a product of your specific history in the physical world.

  • Chaz

    Lucid as always, Sean!

  • Matti Pitkanen

    The average over comments give a good view about prevailing more than century old prejudices called for some reason “scientific view”, which is nothing but extremely naive materialism neglecting all its problems raised by modern physics itself (quantum measurement theory). Even the questioning of the belief that biology reduces to physics as we understand and that free will might be something real is regarded as a belief in paranormal! God grief!

    The first thing that should be done to cure the situation would be inclusion of a course about basic unsolved problems related to consciousness to the basic curriculum in theoretical physics. Its scandalous that people who get so fantastic tools for problem solving are completely unaware about fundamental unsolved problems of consciousness and continue to repeat centuries old platitudes of materialism. For God’s sake: wake up! : we are not living times of French revolution anymore.

  • jumbo

    Alaya, you are saying:

    “Show me a good reason why consciousness can’t be a particularly spectacular result of the same overwhelmingly successful paradigm as EVERY OTHER ASPECT OF HUMAN BIOLOGY”

    I think there are some empirical INDICATIONS that conciousness may survive death. One set of related data is coming from research of NDE (for a 2010 update see e.g. Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences by Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry).
    Another set of interesting data was produced over several decades at the University of Virginia, where they study “Children’s memories of Previous Lives” (for a 2005 summary see e.g J. B. Tucker, Life before life). In fact I believe that in case of less controversial results, the proofs given in these two fields would be already considered sufficient, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs…….

    I am sometimes asking myself why physicists can freely discuss some never (so far) detected phenomena such as dark matter (hopefully to be detected soon), extra spacelike dimensions (do they really exist?), multiverse (is this even measurable in principle?) and not other phenomena (soul, NDE etc).

  • jumbo

    Alaya, you are saying:

    “Show me a good reason why consciousness can’t be a particularly spectacular result of the same overwhelmingly successful paradigm as EVERY OTHER ASPECT OF HUMAN BIOLOGY”

    I think there are some empirical INDICATIONS that conciousness may survive death. One set of related data is coming from research of NDE (for a 2010 update see e.g. Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences by Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry).
    Another set of interesting data was produced over several decades at the University of Virginia, where they study “Children’s memories of Previous Lives” (for a 2005 summary see e.g J. B. Tucker, Life before life). In fact I believe that in case of less controversial results, the proofs given in these two fields would be already considered sufficient, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence…….

    I am sometimes asking myself why physicists can freely discuss some never (so far) detected phenomena such as dark matter (hopefully to be detected soon), extra spacelike dimensions (do they really exist?), multiverse (is this even measurable in principle?) and not other phenomena (soul, NDE etc).

  • Cristi

    The Moon is a coagulation in our galaxy, Milky Way. Milky Way is made, like any other galaxy, of milk. Why else would scientists call the galaxies “galaxies” (gala=milk)? Therefore, the Moon is made of cheese. Now considering the age of the Moon, obviously the cheese turned green. QED.

  • David George

    “Of course, everything we know about quantum field theory could be wrong. Also, the Moon could be made of green cheese.”

    The relevant question here is not whether what is known about quantum field theory is wrong. Quantum field theory is a human invention. How could the inventors not know about their own invention? The question is, does quantum field theory describe physical reality? And more importantly, does quantum field theory explain all the elements of physical reality? I do not believe anyone can claim that. Some things that quantum field theory “knows” about physical reality could be wrong. For example, an effect must always lie in the future relative to its cause, according to currently understood theory. However it is not possible to determine whether a signal arrives at any location from the past or from the future. The choice of designation is arbitrary. If a universal signal arrives at every universal location from the future, it cannot be located in physical reality (try to find it) and yet it influences physical reality. And there must be some delay between the source and the receiver, and this delay must also lie in the future relative to the reception. The question then is, is retrograde signalling possible?

  • Doug Warren

    A loose interpretation of Godel’s incompleteness theorem might be that you can neither prove nor disprove the existence of anything outside of a closed system from within that closed system. Prove or disprove God? Not from our frame of reference. Closer to our culture, I can imagine that any experiment you could do in the Matrix would come out as you expect it to. Doesn’t prove that your world is “real”. Come to think of it, maybe it’s not. Solid? No, you’re almost entirely empty space! And what is “there” is only a pattern of “energy” that persists very briefly. So when you start looking at science, you quickly see we’re all living in a fairy tail anyway. We’re still soooo very primitive. Be humble and find joy in the wonder.

  • Luis

    If I may quote Dr. House,

    Rational arguments don’t work with religious people; if they did, there wouldn’t be any religious people.

    So: you are right, but blog posts like this one are largely exercises in futility.

  • beteugelse

    Reply #11 DP:

    Thanks for the reply. Well explained. Thats a good way to go, indeed.

    Should we REALLY abandon the idea of life after death given the standard models and the known interactions (please say yes!) ? Of course such research could be a road to nothing, like search for green cheese on the Moon… but this would be of great interest to humanity. Can you imagine a nice paper showing that ? It would be nice to end with religion, right ?

    The problem is: we don’t have a published paper saying that a soul does not exist. And we don’t have more papers confirming that either. Thus, in this case, it is still not a “scientific truth”, that is, religious people can always say that science did not handle this problem. Perhaps there’s an exotic field, blah blah.

    To conclude. The subject and tools we have at hand are disparate. This a bar topic, with beer.

  • TedL


    I enjoyed your post. But I find it hard to get worked up about what other people choose to believe. I don’t believe in god or the afterlife; I’m not trying to amass points on the Cosmic Scorecare for being “right” on the issue. The answers that science provides are readily available to those who are interested. But I think religions are shaped by tradition, culture, and experience — which, dogma aside, can make religion a good thing. Regardless, I find that religion/god/afterlife have a miniscule affect on my daily life.

    Thanks for a great blog entry. It went quite well with my Konga Yirgacheffe coffee, brewed in a french press. If it were evening, I probably would have been sipping a tasty home brew–dry hopped for a refreshing bitterness. Some might find those choices repulsive. We can all weigh in on what we like and why. C’est la vie.

  • Adam Frank
  • Bill C

    Well, we do know one thing: we became consciously aware at least once. I wonder if it can happen again.

  • Blunt Instrument


    Anyone who does not believe in life after death will applaud your reasoning.
    Anyone who believes in a ‘supernatural’ soul will be unconvinced by anything you say.

    This kind of argument merely confirms our internal biases and does nothing to foster meaningful discussion; assuming, of course that meaningful discussion between athiests and believers concerning the afterlife is possible.

    In addition, your discourses concerning religion seem to presume that it would be preferable for people to not be ‘disillisioned’ about our place in the cosmos. I’m not convinced that a society consisting of athiests would be better.
    Even without religion, bad people will find other justifications for their bad actions. But the good people who are struggling may find it considerably more difficult to pin all of their hopes on the vagaries of man.

  • AnotherSean

    QFT is certainly not wrong, perhaps incomplete and maybe not fundamental. I’d say one of the lessons of QFT is that even mass is dynamical. This means to me that what ‘exists’ is not just a result of its history, but ultimately equivalent to it. If so, this does profoundly alter our notion of what it would mean to be immortal, because simple endurance through time would be seen as an approximation.

  • SteveB

    Duh! The soul is made up of QFT ghosts…

  • Greg

    I was left thinking that the author was a little too certain about his premise. After all, how did the universe begin? What was before the universe? Where did the fabric that this universe is composed of originate? I find Adam Frank’s ‘agnostic’ response to the soul a far wiser answer.

  • Arko Bose

    I read a lot of comments and two things have become clear to me. Not everyone who read this post understood it. But that’s okay.

    Here are two issues which I think need clarification (yes, even though Caroll has clarified them already!). First, we must concede that even if we assume that a “soul” exists and resides within the body, and outlives the body, then we must conclude that this “soul” interacts with the body. Now, the body itself is made of electrons, protons and neutrons, and gets continuously bombarded with neitrinos, and so on. The point is, that the physical interactions which the body is subject to at the energies at which the body remains as it is, are ALL well understood. The claim that there are many phenomena which occur within our bodies which are not understood at all is actually is misunderstanding of what is meant when we say “all physical interactions”. It means that all the “fundamental interactions” (i.e., all the interactions taking place among the fundamental constituents of matter) are well understood. Of course, what remains to be understood are the various complex reactions which the molecules take part in: ALL OF WHICH CONSISTENTLY OBEY ALL THE KNOWN PHYSICAL LAWS. This is the most important point: not a single observed phenomenon in the body violates or contradicts the known laws of physics. However, as Carroll explains, the very assumption that there may be a soul runs into a direct contradiction with these well-understood laws of physics.

    Second, in response to the questions along the lines of: what if the soul is made up of an as yet unknown, unexplained form of matter (someone gave the analogy of dark matter and dark energy in argument, while admitting to not implying that the “soul” was actually made of these)? Well, let us assume that it IS actually made of some unknown form of matter. What then? Since it is made of some unknown form of matter, that form of matter will manifest itself through new interactions which it has with the known forms of matter (how, otherwise, can one even posit that a “soul” exists? Existence requires interaction.). However, ALL the interactions which known forms of matter exhibit are clearly and well understood, and this precludes the possibility that ANY new, unknown, unexplained, form of matter may interact with the known constituents of matter in a way which will be detectable in experiments which we can perform. And, if we can not detect any such interaction, how can we even talk about their existence?

    This is the point which Carroll has tried to drive home, but was sadly missed by most readers.

  • Johnr

    Well done, Dr. Carroll.

    “I think therefore I exist….I think.” Once the plug is pulled (death), I will no longer think, and therefore will no longer exist in any form, other than a loose cluster of fragments of atoms. I agree with you.

    Time to bury the witch doctor and move those wasted resources into science for the betterment of mankind.

    Glad you survived the “end of the world” and hope for the same outcome in October.

  • jumbo

    Arko Bose, if soul exist then it is expected to interact with our bodies via our will, emotions, conscience etc. Are you 100% sure that these can be derived from standard model? It seems to me that you start with assuming that reductionism is correct and not surprisingly you arrive to a conclusion that reductionism is correct.

  • Arko Bose

    @jumbo: Are you suggesting that our will, emotions and conscience etc. violate the known laws of physics? Because if you are not suggesting it, then you are not contradicting me in any way. And if you are suggesting it, then I will patiently wait for you to show me some experimental evidence to back up your interesting claim. Thank you.

  • Alpha Omega

    This is my favorite post so far in this very interesting thread:

    “There is no evidence for life after death, supernatural phenomena, free will, unnecessarily complicated physical theories, or any number of other fantastical things. The reason why many people believe such things anyway is because if they didn’t, then they would probably conclude that existence is the ultimate trap in which they have no power, no control, and no purpose. Thus, natural selection will favor those that believe in these things (even if these beliefs are false) to the extent that such beliefs allow or encourage them to reproduce rather than kill themselves in despair.”

    This is the fact on the ground that the atheist/scientific community always seems to ignore. You are not dominating the memetic/genetic landscape; in fact you may be headed for extinction. How many children did Richard Feynman have? How many cultures did he conquer? Sorry, but this matters!

    Science tells us that humans are just another animal species engaged in a Darwinian struggle for power, yet how poorly most scientists fight this struggle! Where is your will to power? Where is your Mohammedan spirit of conquest? This was the genius of Nietzsche and the proto-fascist Futurists; they offered an aggressive brand of modernity that celebrates the will to power and can overthrow all that is obsolete, primitive and weak. This is the ideological direction scientific atheism needs to go in if it wants to survive, because I hope it’s clear by now that the Einstein/Sagan brand of scientific liberalism leads to nothing but impotence and extinction!

  • jumbo

    Arko Bose, in my view the current knowledge of consciousness is poor and it is premature to say whether it can be fully explained by current physics. Saying that, I have also to admit that I find some current research on near death experiences intriguing and worthy of further continuation (for example blind patients describing colors of various physical objects around them after coming back from a coma). This would suggest that consciousness may be more complex than we thought. In fact I find a bit funny that brain is always likened to the most complex machines known at a given time (mechanical instruments full of cogwheels, telephone exchange, computer, internet,… ).

  • Arko Bose

    @jumbo: I have answered your latest concerns here:

    By the way, if you close your eyes and then apply some pressure on them, you will see colors. Just to remind us that we do not need to keep our eyes open all the time for our brains to register the information of colors. The cones present in our retina already have the information to decode colors embedded in them. Perhaps, the brains just has a hotline to access some of that information? Occam’s razor, again.

  • DaveH

    in my view the current knowledge of consciousness is poor and it is premature to say whether it can be fully explained by current physics.

    It would be premature to invent a need for new physics.

  • Charles Ames

    Sean– build the bridge! Your argument is persuasive, and yet I have to admit feeling stymied with any thought experiment that begins with “How does QFT explain observations of human consciousness?” Its a bit like the chasm into which so many fall when confronted with “how do successive random mutations turn a skin cell into an eyeball?” The answer is not obvious, and requires a kind of thinking that is often unfamiliar.

  • Nik Semenoff

    Innate to all organisms is the need to survive and reproduce. Finding food and escaping predators is critical to all forms of life. Homo sapiens, with an imagination, created the soul for life-after-death as the ultimate continued existence, supported within primitive religions. With our imagination, we have created stone tool technology, languages, religions and art, all these have become more complicated over time. Religions have become very complicated but kept the concept of the soul to give hope to some.
    As an artist, I see creations as the product of the brain that stops functioning at the time of death. Only the objects produced in a lifetime live on to show how the mind worked to reveal ones values, knowledge, empathy, anger etc., that must surely turn out to be a representation of our soul – now transferred into other medium. Think Plato, Bach, Van Gogh – and all the other important individuals that have made humans the intelligent ape. This is only where our souls survives – in the knowledge of future generations.

  • spyder

    Wow, reading the comments, i am noticing a huge swath of debris left by human hubris and exceptionalism. It reminds me of something Douglas Adams wrote: “Man always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much–the wheel, New York, wars and so on–while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man–for precisely the same reason. So long and thanks for all the fish.”

  • Jim Cross

    If someone not exposed to our modern technology hears music on a radio, he might think that the radio is the source of the music when it is nothing more than transistors and circuits reproducing information on a radio wave. If the same person destroys the radio, he might believe he has destroyed the source of the music.

    The point about being agnostic is we really don’t know how ignorant we might be.

  • Jim Cross

    Just to continue the analogy a little further.

    Right now, we can take apart the radio and see the circuits but we don’t know where the music is coming from.

  • JimV

    I am just writing to say that I liked the post, and it will be useful to me. So thanks, and keep up the good work.

  • Sokatsu

    It is likely that nano-technology, genetic engineering, and robotic technologies may eventually produce self-replicating machines that are indistinguishable from biological systems. If that point ever arrives, it will be difficult to draw a line between natural and engineered machines, and indeed Occam may be inclined to dictate that the observable engineered processes are more likely than postulated unobserved ones. Following this line of thought, future engineers would likely program complex systems the way they do now, with remote control at critical control points. Will future generations more clever than us figure out how to use entanglement, tunneling, or other quantum effects to relay information? If so, my control points would be in the microtubules and ribosomes (where quantum effects have been observed) in the heart of the manufacturing and control process so I have a back door to each cell. I would keep the control software, that took so long to develop and exceeds the value of the machine, in a safe place so it would not be lost if the machine were damaged. Speculation you say? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet everything against it. Perhaps the answer to the question of life after death lies in the future instead of the past, where even the existence of intelligence changes everything…

  • Matthew Saunders

    Good riff, Sean :)

    Could the Earth’s magnetic field be a medium for us to exist after our physical bodies die?

    Perhaps you could do an article or three on information being physical? Or what a typical portion of universe would be like? Or how an ‘uncollapsed wave function’ could be intentionally utilized by us?

  • Kevin R. Bridges

    I’ll admit that I do believe in the existence of a soul. While being interested in supernatural things, and interested in science, I’ll admit that I’m a far cry from being either a mystic or a scientists. My belief in the supernatural comes with a belief that I may be wrong.

    When I think about the future of scientific discovery, I do expect that there are still discoveries to be made that will be game-changers. The kinds of discoveries that will make our great-grandchildren think of our current scientific understanding as being very immature, the way we see science in the past, even as those scientists felt they were closing in on a full understanding of nature.

    A lot of people are only interested in science insofar as they can use it to try to support their supernatural claims use this reasoning to claim that, sooner or later, something will be discovered and the entire spirit world will be visible on a meter in a lab. I’m not saying this will happen. But, I do think you underestimate the anecdotal evidence with the words, ” a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences.” I believe that out-of-body experiences have a little more prevalence and consistency between them to be dismissed that way, including my own. It’s an interesting subject, even if you only take it as psychology (rather than parapsychology).

    So, if coming scientific discoveries did back up that these experiences are outside of the mind, I wouldn’t be surprised. And if they didn’t, same answer.

  • tim Rowledge

    Could the Earth’s magnetic field be a medium for us to exist after our physical bodies die?

    No. Not least because the magnetic field collapses every now and then, so all your putative information would fade away along with it. Not a very useful sort of afterlife…

  • Charon

    “The nonexistence of something is established as highly probable, not through a single experiment demonstrating its nonexistence, but through acceptance of an explanatorily powerful framework that has no place for it.”
    -Patricia Churchland, Brainwise, 172

    Hurray! There are some philosophers who make sense!

  • Charon

    @Kevin R. Bridges:

    When I think about the future of scientific discovery, I do expect that there are still discoveries to be made that will be game-changers. The kinds of discoveries that will make our great-grandchildren think of our current scientific understanding as being very immature, the way we see science in the past, even as those scientists felt they were closing in on a full understanding of nature.

    You clearly did not read Sean’s post, to which he links above, about the laws of physics, as they relate to our everyday life, being completely understood.

    Really. It’s true. No, we don’t have a Theory of Everything. We will discover new and unanticipated things in the future. But that’s not relevant to this discussion.

  • Stephen D.

    A little Humor from NPR?

    The contrast between thinking in time and thinking outside of time can be seen in many domains of human thought and action. We are thinking outside of time when, faced with a technological or social problem to solve, we assume the possible approaches are already determined by a set of absolute pre-existing categories. We are thinking in time when we understand that progress in technology, society and science happens by the invention of genuinely novel ideas, strategies, and novel forms of social organization. LEE SMOLIN-Physicist, Perimeter Institute; Author, The Trouble With Physics

    Thinking In Time Versus Thinking Outside Of Time –

    See: A “scientific concept” may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or “in a phrase”) but has broad application to understanding the world.

    In the case of Meno and the Slave Boy the question arises for me as to what can exist as immortally, through phases of life and death “through rebirth” that the innate understanding of each soul carries with it all that it has learn in it’s evolution.

  • Guido

    obviously consciousness is not the “soul” – yes we lose consciousness when we die – but don’t bet on the loss of your soul – it will still be there – at least as long as other humans live – moreover the world is not just made of atoms – it is also made of “justice” “freedom” “evil” etc… and of course consequences: the consequence of being atheist for one – God is not just a “useful idiot” – He is at least the true lighthouse of evolution

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  • Oliver

    Unless I’ve missed out on some major research, consciousness has not been explained by the laws of physics. As far as I know, it hasn’t even been described coherently. If it has I’d appreciate someone pointing me in the right direction.

    Just as consciousness cannot be explained , language acquisition is also NOT explained by the laws of physics. Linguists cannot explain it, nor can biologists, despite 40 years of research. There are models, but little evidence (or none, depending on whom you ask) of appropriate hard-wiring in the brain. For example, there is no grammar gene in the geonome, but we know that grammar is somehow hard-wired into humans. If not in the brain, then where is it located ?

    So “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood” .
    surely should be : ” Except for consciousness and language acquisition, the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood.”

    I think this affects the basis of the argument made above in a fundamental way.

  • citizen314

    I pasted in my comments from the NPR forum – Let me guess, you mentioned Adam so he would mention you so you both could criss-cross social networks to increase traffic flow and insure keeping your little blogger gigs for supplemental income? Anyway you and most of your commentators are boring limited thinkers.

    @ Adam – Good for you for clarifying and sticking to your guns. God forbid your boring orthodox secular colleagues think you believe in souls! I’ll take Wigner’s “consciousness causes collapse” over Sean Carroll’s limited perspective. His comments about Physics being complete is so ridiculous it’s hard to believe he would say such a stupid thing. I recall a Lord or Sir ? respected scientist back at the end of the 19th century saying that science/physics had gone as far as it could go and then Einstein released his first Relativity paper just a few years later in 1905. We are on the verge/threshold of a huge paradigm shift that will leave in the dust closed minded atheists or anyone else who is so extreme as to close their eyes to alternate realities that do exist – this includes religious extremists as well. 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. God I am glad I stuck to Music & Art. Contemporary Scientists are a drag.

    Oh yeah – Galileo, Newton, Descartes & Einstein all believed in God. These are the true earth shakers – paradigm shifters in science/math history. They are still proving many of Einstein’s less famous theories today – over 50 years later! He was a spiritual or even a ‘religious’ scientific genius. He believed in a ordered universe, yet quantum mechanics has thrown a wrench into this concept – but it may still turn out that he was right – and we may find that Heisenberg uncertainty is wrong regardless of the experiments. There may be an underlying order we just do not understand yet within the Quantum framework. Anyway these men are the top of the science hierarchy and they all were humble and believed in a greater force. The jaded scientists and philosophers that dominate this forum and Academia in general nowadays could not touch these great geniuses’ with a google foot pole.

  • DaveH

    So “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood” .
    surely should be : ” Except for consciousness and language acquisition, the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood.”

    The laws of physics are completely understood, even if consciousness and language acquisition are not. Much about the brain is not completely understood, but the laws of physics that underlie the operation of the brain are. It is ridiculous to propose new laws of physics just for the brain.

  • David George

    Re #98 DaveH, the laws of physics are human inventions. Of course the inventors understand them. The question is whether the manmade “laws” explain or even describe physical reality. And the answer is, almost certainly not. The quantum theories do not explain or describe any physically real mechanism for spin, notwithstanding Dirac’s equation. Nor is it reasonable that an electron is a mathematical point particle with no spatial extension. And when an electromagnetic wave propagates, what is the physically real entity whose collective motion forms the wave? There is much more, so much that like an earlier commenter said, it is hard to believe someone would say such a stupid thing — unless he is being cagey like a politician, counting on people to believe that the laws of physics are the laws of nature.

  • Bruce S.

    Sean’s post reminds me of the story of Euler, who was asked to confront Diderot, who argued that there was no god. “(a+b^n)/n=x”, Euler said. “Therefore, god exists!”

    Diderot, who knew no math was convinced. I think Sean was hoping his bit of field theory would have a similar effect.

    Now, I don’t believe god exists, nor do I hold out much hope for an afterlife. But to argue that the current state of science can be summed up by a Lagrangian is, I think, naive as Sean would, in another context, certainly agree. We live in a time in which physicists freely posit hidden dimensions, parallel universe and other entities that are either unobservable in principal or merely unobservable in reality. So to dismiss the afterlife on the notion that physics is complete and there is no place for such a thing is absurd.

    The analogy with the question of whether the moon is made of green cheese is also a little too cute. By Sean’s reasoning we can never know if this is the case or not. Even if we dig a tunnel to the center of the moon it may be the case–who can say?–that when moon cheese touches our shovel it turns to stone. This reaoning, of course, means that we can’t really know anything. It’s impossible to refute such radical skepticism, so to proceed we just ignore it. But you can’t employ it when you want as a tool of ridicule.

  • martin g

    Sean, you don’t convince me because if science could demonstrate direct or indirect evidence for the soul (or god) then my belief would be overturned, that is, the divine is eternal and beyond the natural/material. Conversely if a religionist could physically demonstrate the supernatural that also would contradict my view of the universe as a perfect manifestation of the divine, that is, perfectly natural and consistent, which point you argue so well.

    You might ask, “What’s the point? Sounds irrelevant.” We can’t afford to wait for a purely rationalist foundation of moral principles to be established. The suffering and destruction wrought by those who believe that “rational philosophy” permits them to define for themselves what is right and what is wrong (or that it is irrelevant) is immediate (and thanks to science might even be total), while the destruction and suffering brought about by our ignorance of nature is something we have been able to survive for 200,000 years.

    This simple theological postulate -god is eternal and benevolent- ultimately leads to the necessity to be humble (and very, very careful) in all we do in this world. It leads us to always exercise benevolence towards all our fellow humans, and even animals -don’t you know? They’re angels! And a truly mighty host they are. 😉

  • DaveH

    The quantum theories do not explain or describe any physically real mechanism for spin

    Who says there is a “physically real mechanism” for spin? As you mean it, anyway.

  • DaveH

    That is, by “physically real mechanism” you mean a classical analogue.

    I don’t know why you think electromagnetic waves aren’t real.

    The laws of physics are the laws of nature, as we understand them. Of course they are human laws, but so what? They describe reality as we understand it. What do you think they describe?

  • David George

    There is a physically real effect, “intrinsic angular momentum”, but there is no physical model for this effect. The mechanism by which the effect occurs is not known. If it were, there would not be such confusion over the interpretation of quantum mechanics — nonlocality vs. local realism, wave-particle duality, etc. But there is such a mechanism. It requires a spatially extended model of an electron. There is such a model. It is possible someone may illustrate what happens in a proton-electron system. But what happens will be found to be quite different from what is supposed.

    Did I imply I don’t think electromagnetic waves are real? The description I recall is that of a disturbance in the electromagnetic field. There are probably others. The photon is the imaginary entity. But what is the character of the field that transmits the disturbance? In the modern theory, it is a mathematical field, not a physical field. It’s a probability field! It explains nothing about the physically real world of our sense experience.

    Human laws do not necessarily describe reality; nor do they necessarily reveal understanding of reality.

  • DaveH

    @David George

    Human laws do not necessarily describe reality

    Only in the sense that reality is also a human construct. As is the soul. Or anything we talk about. The only reality we can meaningfully talk about is the reality we can understand. If you wish to pontificate on the ontological status of fields and quantum spin that is up to you. None of it makes a convincing argument that there may be things immune to our everyday laws of physics. There may be green cheese in the moon.

  • DaveH

    By “things immune to our everyday laws of physics” I mean things that are supposed to interact with everyday stuff, eg things like souls that are supposed to interact with our bodies.

  • Joseph Hutchison

    “Adam claims that there ‘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.”

    This is lousy logic. Mr. Frank is saying there is no information—which is true. We have plenty of information about the moon; we know its size, its mass, its fundamental composition, its reflective qualities—and we know it is not made of green cheese. One would have to be an idiot to be an agnostic on the question of the cheesiness of the moon….

  • nick herbert

    Any room for experimental facts in this discussion or are we limited to mere philosophizing?

    A recent book “Irreducible Mind” by Kelly & Kelly et al has gathered evidence from many sources that strongly suggest that the mind is not entirely dependent on the brain. That book is 800 pages long.

    One line of evidence studied, especially by Ian Stevenson, are the hundreds of children who remember a past life: “You’re not my parents; my mom and dad live in XYZ. And I have two sisters there, etc.” A lot of the claims of these kids check out.

    That the mind is totally dependent on the brain is a reasonable hypothesis but as good scientists we have a duty to check out ALL THE EVIDENCE before we jump to conclusions about a phenomenon
    (consciousness) about which we are so abysmally ignorant.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Wow, nick herbert,

    good to see you’re still out and about :)

    It’s amazing how all of this stuff, from ‘the afterlife’ to ‘reincarnation’ to ‘Psi’ is mainstream now, while the armchair debunking is the fringe :)

    Have you checked out Richard Tarnas’ book Cosmos & Psyche? Another good example of someone following the evidence where it leads…

  • Stephen D.

    Can one call “spirituality a substance” that has no weight, or a definition of the lightest matter states?? Could soul operate independently of the matter states, or , is the soul destine to live experience according too, those bound by the relation of those same matter descriptions?

    A long time ago I remember a reference on the “ole cosmic Variance” pointing toward meditative individuals who thought they could float?:)

    I was also thinking of Macdougall experiment with regard to 21 Grams

    Just wondering if there are any experimental methods done since then?

  • citizen314

    @ David George – I dig your humble, poetic brilliance.

  • citizen314

    I would like to suggest to all you very well educated conservative people in the sciences – to find or grow some psychedelic mushrooms and ingest some – about an 8th of an ounce. It will open your mind and change your perspective – in a good way, no a great way. It only lasts around 4 hours and is natural/organic – leaves no hang over or toxic side effects physiologically but it will alter your brain – the way you see the world. After a few years the rat race will erase it from your memory but there are those rare moments when things crystallize and a sublime feeling overcomes you – and it comes right back – and you can hold on to it again for a bit of time until the 9-5 robot life that is only recent history for our species will erase it again – meditation now brings it back for me as I have not taken them in many moons but when I am back in nature someday in a safe environment with some loved ones I will do them again. A. Huxley wrote extensively about his experiences with psychedelics and mushrooms in particular were part of a rite of passage in one of his last great prophetic books – “Island” in which he espouses Eastern philosophy of being in the moment – “Right here, right now”. You could probably get the same effect from meditating and doing heavy duty yoga every day for 7 years but most of us do not have the time, discipline or may not like doing yoga so mushrooms are a easy quick way. God grew them here on earth for us to experience the awe and wonder we once had as children in the great sandbox that is life. Please avoid man-made in the laboratory acid and ecstasy – they both are too strong, last too long and have toxic side effects that make you feel lousy like a bad hang over. 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. We could use a kick in this positive vibration direction at this troubling cross roads of history that we find ourselves on earth in 2011.

  • Andrew
  • Matthew Saunders

    citizen314: I had the best trip on shrooms (I talked with G_d, G_d turned out to be me, I forgave myself…) One thing I really enjoyed about them (asides from the no coming down badness) is the ‘revolving door effect’ where I would experience whatever drug I was on separately, so I would feel the caffeine high, then change to sugar high, then to nicotine, etc etc etc. Other than that, it always was a very…well, I tried to guide the trips, but it was always like “Ok, this is what I want you to experience” kind of deal :)

  • Alan

    Good for Nick Herbert – very good reference.

    This is fascinating also, Professor David Fontana’s book: Is There an Afterlife: A Comprehensive Overview of The Evidence (2005).

    David Fontana was one of the authors of the Scole Report (which I don’t mind repeating again!). They concluded:

    “This report is the outcome of a three-year investigation of a Group claiming to receive both messages and materialised or physical objects from a number of collaborative spirit communicators. It has been conducted principally by three senior members of the Society for Psychical Research. In the course of over 20 sittings the investigators were unable to detect any direct indication of fraud or deception, and encountered evidence favouring the hypothesis of intelligent forces, whether originating in the human psyche or from discarnate sources, able to influence material objeccts and to convey associated maningful messages, both visual and aural.”

    I will give one extract from the report:

    “The (normally single) light point would appear to: Leave at the base of the Pyrex bowl a three-dimensional image of a glowing crystal which is found to be insubstantial when seized by the investigators, then converting the glowing essence of this crystal into a solid form which could be picked up and replaced – and repeat the procedure twice, to the satisfaction of three close observers, one of whom [AE] (Arthur Ellison – electrical engineering professor) placed his head immediately above and close enough to the bowl to preclude the entry of a normal hand, his face being clearly visible to MK [Montague Keen] (classics scholar) and DF (David Fontana – psychology professor]) in the light from the crystal.”

    I studies physics at uni. to postgrad. level and all this really baffles me but these are real observations that cannot be denied. Physicists should try and find models for this, clearly.

    But you have to read all the Scole Report to get an idea of why they came to their (cautious and tentative) conclusions in their abstract above. The Scole Group (four people) also flew to Europe and the US and these phenomena were seen by scientists in California including some from NASA. This is all in the Scole Report, available from the SPR, I believe,

  • dave chamberlin

    STFU people, your words are like turds piling higher and higher. You are going to die and be forgotten, get over it. The human condition is one of perpetual delusion, our eyes we look out from tell each us that we are the center of the universe when of course we are not. Face your actual insignificance, get over it. Wander too far from the shadow of experimentalism and our speculations descend into the quagmire of barroom philosophy, get over it.

    It is a grand time to be alive. Science is growing like a well fed amoeba into the fog of the unknown. We don’t need no stinkin beliefs that sooth our fears. Get humble, we are just extra smart monkeys, stop settling for deep meaning concentrated, a child like sense of wonder that never grows old is plenty good enough for me.

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  • dave chamberlin

    I hope the rudeness of my opening sentence is forgiven, delete it out if you find it too rude, I have little patience for people hiding behind theology and pretending they are wise or insightful. I give no quarter and no respect to people who fool themselves with convenient ignorance.

  • Gregory Magarshak

    I disagree with one thing.

    The soul may not be able to affect anything in this world. But it may be the immaterial thing that gives rise to our subjective experience. What do I mean?

    You have a “gut brain” and digestion, yet you do not experience it in first person. You don’t experience anyone else’s thought process in first person. Why not?

    If you go beyond “qualia” (seeing the redness of an Apple, etc.) you can have a perfectly consistent (or so it seems to me) dualistic world where the soul perceives things from a first-person point of view. Basically “you” are the soul. Not in the sense of self-pointing, for a machine can also point to itself and say “this is me”. But the sense of first-person point of view. Where does this point of view come from?

    In Eastern religions, it is held that this point of view is an illusion. But that seems to be begging the question, because illusions need a point of view to begin with. Without a conscious observer, “existence” itself is meaningless. I could ask in what sense a universe exists which we can neither perceive or ever hope to discover. Maybe it exists! If I told you that there are white goblins in there, and 40 of them die every time you wash your hands through some mechanism. Would you care? Similarly, without a conscious observer, THE WORLD WE LIVE IN would be like that world. Existence seems to only matter when there are conscious observers.

    Quantum mechanics seems to suggest something similar, that conscious observers are somehow special. The waveform function collapses only when a conscious observer observes it. What is so special about conscious observers?

    Anyway, back to my point. The soul could interact with the world in a “read-only” way. How could you disprove this? In this case, life after death could happen when the soul interacts with another world in a “read-only” way. This world could be heaven. Or it could be one where the soul finally gets to interact more directly with the world!

    So how can we answer the eerie questions raised by Quantum mechanics, and the fact that if we build a machine we can never be sure it is “conscious” in the same way we are? And how can we rule out the existence of the soul in the way I described?

    Thanks for your time,

  • Kevin R. Bridges


    “You clearly did not read Sean’s post, to which he links above, about the laws of physics, as they relate to our everyday life, being completely understood.”

    You’re absolutely right. I hadn’t read it. They’re very good points, and well-stated. I was going to reply in my own blog, but I don’t think I’m going to pursue it. I realized that Sean had brought it to the point that my only reply would be, “But paranormal things ARE real! (raspberry)” and that’s not a discussion I’ve ever enjoyed.

    Sorry for not following the link. I honestly hadn’t noticed it.

  • jumbo

    dave chamberlin: How many books about theology, spirituality, near death experience research, children past lives research etc did you read to acquaint yourself with the subject? Did you try to practice meditation to find some answers for yourself? My guess is that all this is just a mumbo jumbo for you and you did not try to study these topics at all. But who is then ignorant? I think that many contributions in this discussion can be summarized as : I do not understand why soul should exist =>therefore it does not exist.

  • ohwilleke

    The case that there might be something appropriately described as a soul within people who are alive consistent with science isn’t implausible, despite the fact that it doesn’t obviously follow from quantum electrodynamics. Indeed, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that we can identify parts of the brain that are clearly implicated in the folk experience of a soul, and others that are clearly not implicated in it. Routine body temperature and heart beat regulation is not the stuff of souls; consciousness is. The distinction even has legal relevance. We are comfortable calling people “dead” for legal purposes like decisions to terminate life support or commence organ donation even if they have some brain activity, so long as that brain activity does not involve activity associated with the folk definition of a soul.

    It is not beyond scientific possibility that we could someday develop a way to put that part of us that folk wisdom calls a “soul” into a bottle or machine and sustain it beyond the death of the body.

    The case that the element of a person that is appropriate described as a soul leaving an impact on the world a person leaves behind in death through interactions with others be they writings or paintings or conservations or what have you is likewise not implausible or inconsistent with science. When you’ve lived somewhere long enough, you can be consciously aware that this or that part of the world you experience is attributable to this or that person even if that person is long gone. Science wouldn’t name theories after their discoverers if these kinds of associations weren’t deeply a part of what it means to be human.

    The case for coherent, post-corporal souls with continuity from the corporal soul, i.e. ghosts or an afterlife or karma, however, is a proposition that is supported by no credible evidence and lacks any scientifically plausible mechanism by which it could happen. These are plausible things to suppose if you have a pre-scientific world view, but the proto-scientific thinking that made these ideas seem to be plausible possibilities has been discredited.

    I am reminded the ancient Chinese anatomists believed that there was an organ in the body responsible for Qi. At that time it was a logical and plausible hypothesis. But, we know now, having looked carefully and systematically at countless bodies, that this organ isn’t there, and that adds to the argument that the theoretical basis for acupuncture, etc. is deeply flawed even in cases where its practice does have empirically measureable effects.

    While it might be possible to preserve what could fairly be called the soul of living person after the body is gone much as we can save the software and data that once resided on a dead laptop, the case that this actually happens now through a natural process is not supported by the scientific evidence.

  • dave chamberlin

    @121 It is all mumbo jumbo to me all right, but not because I haven’t studied “children’s past life research” but because it is mumbo jumbo, Jumbo. I choose to read books where the author can distinguish between beliefs and verifiable facts, if that makes me ignorant in your eyes then I think further discussion is fruitless.

  • Lenny

    I am not a bible thumper and I was never overly religious or anything like that. I am however a person of strong faith, only my faith is based on an actual series of events that happened many years ago, over a two week period leading up to the one year anniversary of a friends death. These events were physically real, not coincidence, not wishful thinking, and changed my entire outlook on life. I don’t know exactly how it all works, I would like to think someday quantum science and what is currently known as religion find a way to support each other. Whose to say some of the protons, neutrons, and electrons actually make up consciousness itself? And those particles continue on after others that make up the human body die? I don’t know how it works, and I’m not going to argue, again all I will say is as a result of a real series of events in my life, I view “natural” science that paints everything with a broad brush, and claims to have all the answers as primitive, simple minded, and wrong, sort of like the “experts” centuries ago who said the world was flat.

  • David George

    Thank you, Citizen314.
    Something struck me on this topic, it is the future-past conundrum (see #62). It may be the case that in physical reality all signals are transmitted into the future and also all signals are received from the future. I think that accords with GR. However, in the case of a ‘powered universe’ the power signal will be transmitted into the past (and received from the future). It will not be possible to identify this signal since its source is in the future.
    This must be reconciled with the notion (or law?) that an effect lies in the future relative to its cause. Here the effect lies in the past relative to its cause. So which is it? I think the answer is in the light travel time, or “light moment” whose duration cannot be defined.

  • Lenny

    One last thing, natural scientists themselves like to point out that we were all basically monkeys holding sticks not that long ago, so how can we then assume in such arrogant fashion that just a short time later in the big scheme of things, we’d even have the capability in our “pea brains” to come up with the answers to the universe, and say it with such absolute confidence as well? That’s why, in light of my own real experience, I view anything coming from so called “modern science” in relation to the afterlife as primitive and simple minded.

  • Jonathan M.

    Post 44 said free will does not exist. I have a choice to type this and a choice to not type this. What is that?

    Also, how can we assume that scientists are always unbiased in their work?

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  • Matthew Saunders

    Jonathan M: You write “Post 44 said free will does not exist. I have a choice to type this and a choice to not type this. What is that?” Now, I’m not saying that ‘Free Will’ exists or doesn’t exist…but what you did there, isn’t that just evidence of your short-term memory working?

  • Lenny

    Interesting, I thought this was an article written by a regular scientist, but I see from the link that this is someone who definitely has a certain mindset. That said, all I ever see is the arguments about science vs religion and it’s one or the other, but I believe in science, I believe in evolution, and I also believe what I experienced first hand, so to each his or her own I guess.

  • God

    People don’t actually believe in life after death. If people did, they’d be a lot less afraid of dying. Dying is FEAR #1. Most people are irrationally afraid of death to their detriment.

    People pretend to believe in life after death because it makes them feel better when loved ones die. In actual practice shown by their actions, people do not believe in life after death.

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  • Alan

    This is another snippet from an academic psychologist (a witness) from The Scole Report I spoke a little about above. I guess some kind of intelligence – not physical but very interesting.
    I’m just wondering whether this “being” (?), I suppose you could call it, popped out from some “nearer” universe to do with this “multiverse-in-a-box” article that Dr. Carroll talks about above. Just a thought really and I wouldn’t mind some physics clarification on this as I’m still trying to form a picture of this idea. Basically can other “intelligences” transition over to our space? Surely you have to ask where the heck it came from.

    “The first phenomena that I saw were small points of golden light dancing in the corner of the room…They danced animatedly upwards and downwards…Shortly following this, there appeared a ball of diffused light, which I estimated to have a diameter of about 20 cm, close to the ceiling in the same corner…as the lights. The ball had no physical boundary: it was simply a three-dimensional orb of diffused golden light. It hung suspended for a moment in the corner about 30 cm beneath the ceiling. Slowly the orb moved toward the centre of the room, pausing above the centre of the table round which we were all sitting. It lowered itself by about 17 cm, remained still, then retreated slowly upwards and backwards into the corner…There were no beams of light to the orb, and the light was not reflected onto a surface; it moved independently in space. This occurred twice in succession, and I became aware of an overwhelming feeling of gentleness and love which seemed to accompany this phenomenon or, more accurately, which this phenomenon seemed to embody.”

    BTW this occured in a bare stone cellar with other witnessess (David Fontana and others).

  • Daniel Schealler

    @Gregory Magarshak

    Quantum mechanics seems to suggest something similar, that conscious observers are somehow special. The waveform function collapses only when a conscious observer observes it. What is so special about conscious observers?

    Not being a physicist myself, I of course have no expertise in the field of QM.

    However, I am an interested and (I like to think) scientifically literate layperson.

    From what I understand of standard QM experiments, I’m pretty sure that the ‘specialness of consciousness’ interpretation of QM is… problematic, to say the least.

    If I were to set up a two-slit experiment using an electron gun that fires individual particles at the slits with a scattering light-source behind the slits (from the perspective of the gun) and left the room, we would still get exactly the same pattern as if I had been there recording whether each electron went through slit one or slit two (straightforward sum of probabilities of just-slit-one and just-slit-two).

    And again – if I were to remove the scattering light source altogether and leave the room, I would get the same interference pattern as if I had remained in the room scratching my head while observing the slits.

    Removing the observing consciousness from the experiment does not alter the outcome of the experiment – which suggests to me that the ‘specialness of consciousness’ interpretation of the uncertainty principle is a specious one.

    Whatever else is going on in QM, I seriously doubt it gives a rat’s ass about us. It would be something of a shock, to say the least.

    Additionally: I know of no example where the straightforward probabilistic predictions of QM have been violated. Again – I lack expertise in the field, so that claim of mine shouldn’t carry a lot of weight of itself as we should expect me to be profoundly ignorant of QM research.

    However, all the same, it would be an interesting example to see a QM experiment where the outcome could be shown to violate predictions due to the presence, absence, or specific attention/non-attention of a physical observer, rather than just being reducible to the strange (though predictable and therefore expected) behavior of particles that are exotic when considered from the perspective of day-to-day human experience.

    For anyone else who is interested, I can recommend the book ‘Six Easy Pieces’ by Richard Feynman and available quite cheaply as a Penguin Paperback. They’re the assembled notes to a series of lectures Feynman gave in 1962. Those lectures are available on – I’d recommend signing up with a monthly plan to save on the cost of purchase. The book – and especially the lectures – are very interesting and accessible to a scientifically literate and interested layperson. Easily worth the price.

  • Tico MD

    Great article! As a physician and professor of medicine, I have used a similar line of reasoning to argue against homeopathy. We would need a new set of laws in physics to explain the “water memory” phenomenon homeopaths use as an explanation for their “treatments”

  • Stephen D.

    Maybe it would be better if there was some correlate metaphorically to what we can reveal that what brought this universe into existence, was information that was contained and transported through to what we see now?

    If we look at particle decay patterns what said that the continuing perspective of such constituents, through faster then light mediums of earth, water and ice could have revealed more information from whence the source of these cosmic particles in space reveal.

    What does the qgp reveal then and is there a way of the information being transferred to illustrate an example of new universes being born?

    Just wondering.

  • Jonathan M.

    Matthew Saunders Says:

    Jonathan M: You write “Post 44 said free will does not exist. I have a choice to type this and a choice to not type this. What is that?” Now, I’m not saying that ‘Free Will’ exists or doesn’t exist…but what you did there, isn’t that just evidence of your short-term memory working?

    Hi Matthew,

    I cannot agree that my action of typing my previous response or this current response is simply short-term memory. I have a choice, to read these comments and not post or I can comment and share my thoughts on the subject of free will. This action uses short-term memory but that does not mean it generates from the chemical process involved in using our memory. Do you think that your response to my comment was short-term memory or a choice to act?

  • Oguchi

    “…the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood…”


    No, this is a falsity. The entire monologue should come crashing down as an argument, assuming we were engaging rationally, since it is based on a false premise. It is incredulous to read this type of assertion in the year 2011.

    Physics has yet to understand and characterize dark matter and dark energy. What our math and physics address (poorly at that–lots of approximations) is the “visible” component of existence accounting for 4% to 6 % of what we surmise there might be (completely blinded, of course, by no fault of ours, to what really is).

    Even of this visible component, Quantum Physics tells us that what we think and we see is the exception to the rule of existence–thus, existence is weirder than our wonted sedate experiences and version of reality.

    Then, there is the common error of human beings to consider themselves “outside of the system.” We come to think that we are outside of “nature.” But, we are not outside of dark matter. We are not outside of dark energy. We couldn’t be. Obviously, we are not outside of known matter either. We are nature and nature is us. What this means is that if our math and physics can only deal with 5% of existence, then we may know only 5% of what we really are as human being-manifestation of existence.

    This leaves ample room for immortality, soul, consciousness, ghosts, telepathy, etc.

    And also, ample room for ignorance.

    Oguchi Nkwocha, MD

  • Mustafa

    “And they ask you, [O Muhammad], about the soul. Say, ‘The soul is of the affair of my Lord. And mankind have not been given of knowledge except a little.’”

  • dave chamberlin

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. How a neuron network of 100 billion cells making 100 trillion connections keeps right on working after death is one hell of an extraordinary claim. I will stay open minded to the very remote possibility of some kind of unknown magic saving us from death, but lets just say I am a hell of a lot more open minded to people fooling themselves when it makes them feel better. Our world may be secretly run by shapeshifting reptilian overlords, I can’t prove that it isn’t, but it does not follow that I must concede that it is very likely. There is proof and there is probability and a lot of comments here are making a huge leap from no proof that there isn’t an afterlife to a high likelihood that there is one.

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  • Mary

    This is all very interesting, but my question is, what does it matter? I choose to believe in God, life after death and the eternal nature of all things, not just humans. (ie. plants, animals, the earth.)

    My belief system guides me to be kind to all people. To help those in need. To draw my children near to me, rear them to be decent individuals who will also strive to make the world a better place.

    If there is a tsunami, I send money and I pray. If there is an earthquake, I send money and I pray. If my neighbor is sick, I take them dinner and I pray for them. When my community needs help, I do my best to show up and work.

    So, let’s assume that I am delusional and inhaling/smoking/mainlining Marx’s Opiate for the Masses, and when I die there is nothing. OK, well, I will have had a happy life trying to improve myself, love my neighbor, and make the world a better place. And then there will be nothing and I will not even have any time to be disappointed, for I will no longer exist.

    Essentially, my belief in God or the afterlife is none of anyone’s business as long as do not trample on the rights of others.

    Now I know that the next argument is that in the name of religion people have gone to war and committed atrocities that are unspeakable. Yet governments have done the same thing in the interest of power, economics and real estate acquisition.

    Bottom line: there are people who choose a life of good (regardless of belief) and people who choose a life of evil. I don’t think we should be arguing over their motivations. We can judge them by the “fruits of their labors.”

  • sam

    ‘Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them.’ Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944)

  • Matthew Saunders

    Jonathan M wrote: “I cannot agree that my action of typing my previous response or this current response is simply short-term memory. I have a choice, to read these comments and not post or I can comment and share my thoughts on the subject of free will. This action uses short-term memory but that does not mean it generates from the chemical process involved in using our memory. Do you think that your response to my comment was short-term memory or a choice to act?”

    Jonathan M: I think all I can fairly say about my responses, my reading of them, etc etc is that I remember doing them. Typing them out and reading I don’t consider evidence of something called ‘free will’. After all, I don’t experience the future and I don’t experience the present, there is really, as I experience it, the past. I don’t think there is evidence that I have infinite choices — my memory says that I am influenced and constrained by causes and effects that have occurred before me. To me, to say there is a choice means that the future is, in a real sense, determined, when that is meaningless; what happens, happens, what I do or don’t do, happens. I think it has to be taken on faith that free will happens. That’s how our society runs. And that is fine by me.

  • Wally

    random ponderings:

    if all things came from an initial oneness, is that oneness now gone?

    could we all be joined at the soul? meaning, rather than having your very own personalized soul, could we all be separate physical manifestations of a universal soul that animates all life? kind of God-ish I suppose. Though the physical manifestation is just a flash, a note in a song, the universal soul continues.

    I think life after death simply means that this universal soul never ceases, and that everything that makes you You has always been, and will always be.

  • Martin Cothran
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  • Alan

    Professor Henry Stapp, the quantum theorist, has modelled some kind of observer sitting outside of things. I find it quite compelling.

    See his site at

    He also has a paper out on “personal survival” – quite interesting. Just scroll down a bit.
    “Compatibility of Contemporary Physical Theory with Personality Survival” – which stays within quantum physics.

    One comment that really intrigued me from a while back was from Frank Wilczek, the physics Nobel,

    “The leading interpretations of quantum theory introduce concepts that are extrinsic to its equations (“observers”), or even contradict them (“collapse of the wave function”). The relevant literature is famously contentious and obscure. I believe it will remain so until someone constructs, within the formalism of quantum mechanics, an “observer”, that is, a model entity whose states correspond to a recognizable caricature of conscious awareness; and demonstrates that the perceived interaction of this entity with the physical world, following the equations of quantum theory, accords with our experience. That is a formidable project, extending well beyond what is conventionally considered physics.”

    Note he says “concepts that are extrinsic to its equations”. So awareness acting on the causal Schrodinger equation gives experienced results? So what IS this awareness.

    Can anyone shed more light on these two ideas above? Free-will entities acting outside of matter? – just to link with some comments above by Matthew Saunders and Jonathan M.
    I suppose Stapp means energy conservation is not broken when this awareness “interacts”.

    Henry Stapp is interviewed here BTW:
    if you click on “participants”.

    – Robert Kuhn’s great series – the host with the most! ; – ), and lots of scientific luminaries.

  • Jim

    The (A) spirit can live without the physical ; the physical cannot live without the spirit .

  • Jim Aye

    One thing is rather obvious. We don’t know all the answers to all the questions. And when we do find answers they often just raise more questions. And so on. Isn’t life amazing?

  • deeds

    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 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….

  • Joseph Milanese

    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”?

  • Matthew Saunders

    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 :)

  • Milton

    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…”.

  • Matthew Saunders

    “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.”

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  • Mark Fahey
  • M.

    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’ , (excerpted here too 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!!’.

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  • Christopher Barr

    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.

  • Jimmy C.

    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.

  • Casey

    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.

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  • Alan

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

    with very good academic reviews.

    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

    Many interesting veridical accounts here, well worth thumbing through.

  • shams

    salaam aleykum Jama’ah (tribe) Scientist

    I think this a great thread personally, and I read all the comments.
    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.

  • Joseph Milanese

    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.

  • Philip Spomer

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

    What particles is blue made of, or ugly made of, or up 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.

  • Alovrin

    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.

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  • Alan

    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?…

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  • Gary M

    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.

  • Cody

    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.

  • Mark Swanson

    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

  • Alan

    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:

    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:

  • TidyTim

    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.

  • Tim

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

  • TidyTim

    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.


  • collins

    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.”
    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.

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  • Alan

    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.

  • vn

    Please read Lizzie Cocker’s `Letter from Libia to a close friend’:

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

  • Guido

    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.

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  • aeolius

    “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.

  • jlue

    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.

  • Alpheus

    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.

  • Joseph Milanese

    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.

  • Mike

    “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.

  • jumbo

    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”.

  • Harrison

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

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  • Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM

    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.”

  • Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM

    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. :-)


    We don’t assume that we already reach the end point of the wholeness of the truth… weither we like it or not we are fully aware and sense that there are infinite things that still need to unearth… Let’s be authentic and honest with ourselves that we are still seeking, exploring because we feel a big space and emptiness deep inside that we need to fill in/ we are confuse confuse… we have only a small splinter of knowing of the entire wholeness of the truth (our human lifetime isn’t enough) and we cannot use this knowing to make an fixed/rigid inference how the whole reality works…

    It is better to be humble (humility) to ourselves and be open to anything (confusion and uncertainty) so that wisdom can flow within us…instead of being so critic with only a little knowledge of reference… we can’t be arrogant because inspite of our success in our technology we still asking questions and sometimes feeling confuse.

    If we still asking question it means our journey of knowing never ends…

  • Riverdale Arch

    not a big stretch to allow terms such as moon made of green cheese. maybe the milky way is the home of cows

  • Riverdale Arch

    ahah! great point.. quantum might be much to closer to understanding counsciousness than any einstein undevelopped theories that are not universaly applicable.

  • Riverdale Arch

    p.s. a soul can make a difference if it has a net weight of 26 gms// it seems its mass MATTERS!


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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