The Soul Story Soul Fallacy marshals lots of troops, but rarely gives them order

The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain From Letting Go Of Our Soul Beliefs

Julien Musolino (Prometheus Books, 2015) 287 pages with notes and index

Editor’s Note: This review is one part of two concerning the same title. You may find the complementary, competing review here.

 

As early as I can remember, just before bedtime my mother, my brother, and I would kneel down at the edge of the bed and recite the familiar prayer:

 

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

 

Those words gave me immense comfort. My little body could wither away, but my soul would live on forever. Almost as immutable as my genetic inheritance of skin color, something called a soul was embedded in me—a wellspring for self-identity and of oneness with the universe, of partnership with souls both living and departed (the latter floating in permanent peace somewhere in the remote ether), and of closeness to our enigmatic, unknowable, but ubiquitous Creator.

Julien Musolino’s The Soul Fallacy blends knowledge and techniques from history, philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, political science, sociology, and neuroscience to explore the notion of the soul in human imagination and culture. Although some have abandoned the idea altogether, many cling to its appeal, its promise of immortality, its projection of universal nirvana, despite cautionary advice from the scientifically inclined that the “soul” is fantasy not fact. Musolino’s book lays out a compelling argument for the soul’s nonexistence.

The author, a cognitive scientist at Rutgers University, weaves his arguments from multiple vantage points and along several lines of thought. First, he contends that the soul can and should be treated as a scientific hypothesis; that there is no credible evidence supporting its existence; that modern science provides plausible evidence against it; and that nonbelief in the soul, left to its own devices, can erode our sense of self, mutual responsibility, and community and negatively affect our moral standards.

The author traces the history of the concept from Plato and Aristotle in Antiquity, through René Descartes and Julien Offray de La Mettrie in the 17th and 18th centuries, to Dinesh D’Souza, Deepak Chopra, and Stewart Goetz—contemporary commentators and philosophers who have mounted a strong defense of the soul as real and authentic, as a tangible if not necessarily observable entity. While Musolino takes exception to the dualism (mind-body split) postulated by Descartes (Meditations on First Philosophy, 1641 in Latin), he credits him with having introduced the idea of the body as machine, governed by the laws of physics. A generation later, however, in his L’homme machine (1748), La Mettrie rejects Descartes’ dualism in favor of a materialist outlook wherein the human body is governed purely and solely by the laws of nature. For La Mettrie, Descartes’ notion of mind separate from body amounted to little more than superstition. Anything spiritual or soul-like in man could be accounted for in less airy, more earthily precise terms.

Musolino illustrates how destructive are our superstitions about the soul however peripheral, in efforts to understand and address pressing societal matters such as incarceration, capital punishment, abortion, and assisted suicide. He declares that the “ominous association of unbelief and unhappiness is nothing more than vulgar fear-mongering,” and that there is “a grandeur in the naturalistic view of life.”

What about God and his role in the universe? Is the human soul manifested through God’s existence? Musolino argues that science and religion are mutually exclusive—apples vs. oranges, physics vs. metaphysics—while conceding that the great 17th-century scientist Isaac Newton had specified a role for God in his seminal work, the Principia (1687), which furthered the boundaries of scientific knowledge through three laws of motion along with the law of universal gravitation, all within the context of established religious cosmology. Newton likened the world to a clock, with God as clockmaker. In the Newtonian universe, the clock would run down from time to time and God would come in to tidy up little heavenly motions that went awry—planetary perturbations that eluded Newton’s scientific rigor or capacity, causing him to rely on mystical assumptions rather than on empirical evidence. Later in the 18th-century, when the Newtonian world view held sway, astronomer and mathematician Pierre Simon Laplace published an alternative view in his Mécanique celeste (1829). When asked by Napoleon Bonaparte “What is the role of God in your universe?” Laplace responded, “Sire, I have no need for that hypothesis.” His view anticipated that held by many modern-day scientists who, perhaps in consensus, hold that our moral-spiritual-metaphysical senses associated with the soul, or with God, stem from biological evolution, and indeed that every human characteristic and capacity derives from brain function. From this perspective existence of the soul is a figment of overactive imaginations. A materialist perspective, Musolino argues forcefully, offers ample explanation for human existence and behavior, far surpassing theological arguments to the contrary. And while some modern-day scientists hold to a belief in the soul, few if any have forged a perspective that credibly amalgamates science and faith.

Musolino investigates how the soul myth began, developed, and grew crucial to our idea of self. He promotes what he calls “the three gifts” as an alternative vision: a valid concept of death, an appreciation of beauty and value in a finite life, and, finally, intellectual freedom itself. He illustrates how destructive are our superstitions about the soul, however peripheral, in efforts to understand and address pressing societal matters such as incarceration, capital punishment, abortion, and assisted suicide. He declares that the “ominous association of unbelief and unhappiness is nothing more than vulgar fear-mongering,” and that there is “a grandeur in the naturalistic view of life.”

One of Musolino’s main goals is to show how science works and how scientists think. The word “consilience” comes up over and over. The author shows how science assembles evidence from multiple sources and forges a conclusion around a hypothesis. No single piece of evidence is usually persuasive, but taken together seemingly unrelated bits of information, data, and theories can gel to form a conclusion. Consilience is synonymous with “evidence convergence”; the weight of the totality yields proof. In addition to the sciences, consilience is important in the arts, humanities, social sciences, ethics, and religion. Natural scientists, social scientists, humanists, and artists generally recognize the importance of biology in innovation. Musolino connects well with this process, pulling from related and unlike fields ideas, data, and theories to prove nonexistence of the soul. The result is a compelling narrative, inherently polemical, based on historical facts, experimental data, theories in sociology and political science, findings in experimental psychology and neuroscience, philosophical principles, and theological beliefs. While this conglomerate is conveyed admirably in layman’s terms, avoiding disciplinary jargon for the most part, it sometimes feels dizzyingly kaleidoscopic with little attempt at layering or prioritizing the relative status of component parts. The book seems scattered in this respect, albeit richly detailed and thought-provoking throughout.

The author shows that the actuality of human consciousness and libertarian free will constitutes no evidence for existence of the soul. We may not yet know precisely how consciousness arises from neural computation, but there is little doubt, according to Musolino, that it is intimately connected to what goes on in the brain. So, too, with free will. Musolino agrees with 18th-century philosopher David Hume that determinism and free will are compatible (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748). Free will, properly understood, has constraints and operates within boundaries of human actions. The author further derives a notion of moral responsibility within a structure where determinism and free will operate hand in hand—one that corresponds to evolving standards of criminal law. Situating both consciousness and free will within the laws of nature neither voids man’s moral responsibility nor excuses him from its mandates.

Still, the author shows respect for believers in the soul. His language and tone are adeptly chosen, non-inflammatory, and well reasoned, enough to induce readers, regardless of where they stand on the topic, to at least consider his points of view. But the book is a polemic against modern-day believers in the soul, especially Dinesh D’Souza (Life After Death: The Evidence, 2009; What’s So Great About Christianity, 2007). Interdisciplinary at the core, it combines the author’s own insights with sources from popular media, history, and contemporary scientific research (including that from his own laboratory). His examples are drawn from multiple aspects of life, including his childhood encounters with religion and the concept of soul in his early Catholic education, and are presented in an amusing, lighthearted, yet incisive way. These anecdotes more readily persuade someone whose training and outlook are embedded in the materialistic or scientific world; they are less likely to convince someone for whom intuition and faith typically preempt arguments no matter how sharp or well-reasoned they may be. While the book seeks to address both camps, it preaches more to the choir than to the unconverted.

The book is readable and, in general, clearly written and well-researched. It suffers, however, from repetition in spots, and its arguments could have been better honed and more cohesive. The author’s enthusiasm compensates somewhat for this flaw. The book is certain to enlighten and entertain discerning readers. Many will be stimulated and some will be persuaded by this important work.

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