The Spirit Level Arguments about the soul are best served in conversation, not contest

Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs

By 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.


Two segments of American society seem engaged in a battle for supremacy. It is a battle between a group of theists against a group of non-theists/atheists. It is not a new battle. But, as even the most recent Pew Research study, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” was published, for many people it seems that more is at stake in this conflict of ideas than ever before. As I have witnessed the most recent skirmishes in this mêlée, the weapon that is used, by both sides is, curiously, science. Dr. Julien Musolino’s book, The Soul Fallacy, is one example of this phenomenon. Musolino uses scientific reasoning to disprove the existence of the soul. Yet, one could easily say that he was enticed into this foray by the likes of a camp of Christian thinkers, who have been using the evidential reasoning of science to prove the sure and certain existence of the soul. Not unlike his predecessors in the communities of science and philosophy, Dr. Musolino uses interesting stories, thought experiments and playful arguments to keep the reader engaged in this debate.

In The Soul Fallacy, after sketching out his proposal in the first chapter of the book, Musolino opens with a brief historical review of concepts of the soul. This quick and rather simplistic review of various belief systems, describes the place of the soul in religious traditions and the expectation of what might exist for human beings after death. He includes a summary of what has been called the Dualist Hypothesis: that human beings are composed of a physical body and an immaterial, psychologically potent and immortal soul, which functions independently from the body after it dies. And, he includes a Materialist hypothesis (though very briefly) that the mind, the dominion of the soul, cannot function separately from the body. By the end of the second chapter, Musolino sets forth his working premise for what will be the main argument of the book: that some of the greatest Western “soul thinkers” have been dualists (from Plato to Descartes), dividing body and soul; and dualism cannot be substantiated by reasoned, scientific analysis. Much of this seemed to me reminiscent of Gilbert Ryle’s “ghost-in-the-machine” argument which was introduced in his book The Concept of Mind (1949), rejecting Descartes’ mind-body-dualism by pointing to the connection of the brain and body.

Musolino’s central point of departure can be summarized this way: “at any given time, the scientific consensus remains the best measure of truth.” Or, as he more playfully says, in his assessment of whose knowledge has authority: “the Pros remain Pros and the Joes remain Joes” science of sorting, of course reserving the title of “pros” for himself and his academic tribe. The New Dualists are the “Joes” and invariably misuse science to prove the soul’s existence. Pointing back to Bertrand Russell’s 1952 epic essay entitled, “Is There a God?” he reminds his readers of Russell’s thought experiment: Imagine that the claim is made that there is a small china teapot floating between Mars and the Earth, in orbit around the sun. The claim cannot be proved because the teapot is too small for the best telescope to see it (remember this thought experiment was created way before Hubble), nor could it be disproved, for that matter. Still, Russell maintained, the burden of proof must lay with the one making the claim of the teapot’s existence.

As such, the author begins to lay siege to the use of science by the New Dualists, putting each of their theories on trial. For instance, he recounts that in Dinesh D’Souza’s Life after Death, The Evidence (2007), D’Souza maintains that “physics demonstrates that the possibility of realms beyond the universe;” and “there is nothing in physics to contradict the idea that we can live beyond death in other realms.” To which Musolino counters that this new dualism “boils down to a claim about mind-body detachability for which there is no evidence.” Or in the case of Deepak Chopra’s claim, as set forth in his book Life after Death: The Burden of Proof (2006), that quantum mechanics proves that the mind exists as a distinct reality (and so a dualist view of reality), Musolino counters that there is little agreement among quantum physicists about what quantum mechanics tell us about the nature of reality.


I am not sure that real insight and wisdom is found on the battlefield of these two competing ideologies, particularly one where one must choose sides between this Christian camp of New Dualists and anti-theist scientists. … from my vantage point as a mainline Protestant minister with 30 years of congregational ministry behind me, I find wisdom and insight in the commingling of dialogue and debate among a much larger body of people.


In addition to this debate about the use of science by these New Dualists, The Soul Fallacy also counters the convictions of those who would argue that the demise of a belief in the existence of the soul would undermine society’s moral frame. Musolino cites “The Wedge Document” drafted by the Discovery Institute which declares that scientific materialism will destroy the moral, cultural and political legacies of theism in American society. His response is to enjoin the reader in his closing chapters—“The Sum of all Fears” and “Imagine”—to recognize the moral system which is framed by dualism and supports the promise of eternal life for the just and good is flawed—both by judgmental ethics and intolerance. Fear thus becomes the driving force for moral behavior.

In his closing section, “Three Gifts,” he suggests that rather than filled with fear and anxiety, death can be understood as an end after a journey. He quotes the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who wrote that “death is nothing to us” because “when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.” Thus, Death is not to be feared, it is simply the end of consciousness and being. This then leads to the second “gift” in understanding: that if a person’s life is “all there is,” then it is of more value and meaning, not less. Musolino’s self-reflection of his life through this lens of understanding has led him (and, he believes, will lead others) to constantly ask questions of meaning for his life—What is good? What is beautiful? Where can happiness and truth be found? And so he concludes his book, with the third and final gift—intellectual freedom. This gift is best captured for Musolino by sharing Robert “The Great Agnostic” Ingersoll’s “Vow” which includes such unforgettable lines of liberation, as “I was no longer servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free to express my thoughts, free to live my own ideal. Free to live for myself and those I loved …”

The thing is, for me as an active Christian and priest in the Episcopal Church, I am not sure that real insight and wisdom is found on the battlefield of these two competing ideologies, particularly one where one must choose sides between this Christian camp of New Dualists and anti-theist scientists. I guess in a debate where one will win and the other will lose—I would bet on the Pros. But from my vantage point as a mainline Protestant minister with 30 years of congregational ministry behind me, I find wisdom and insight in the commingling of dialogue and debate among a much larger body of people.

For one example, I turn to the noted American author, Lynne Rudder Baker, professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who sets forth non-dualist understanding of the person. This Materialist argument, or, as she would claim, Type-II Materialist perspective, is set forth in a number of books and essays, and I think defies Musolino’s critique of the Materialist camp in the early pages of his book. Her argument, which she calls “Constitutionalism,” is that a person is inextricably tied to one’s body, as the cloth and pattern are a unity which make up the U.S. flag. Further, as she articulates this concept, it is not innately in conflict with either theists or non-theists, while taking science very seriously. I find this position compelling. Baker also points out that such an approach is compatible with both theological understandings of the Incarnation and the Christology of the Council of Chalcedon (See her 2011 essay “Christian Materialism in a Scientific Age”) and that this allows for the possibility of the continuing existence of “the person” after the death of our bodies.

But even more than gathering philosophers into this dialogue of understanding, I have relied on poets and literary sources, wisdom sayings, and even listening to people’s self understanding when they face the joys and sorrows of living. When I plumb these very deep waters of human understanding, I find a view from the poetic and the pew helpful in the search for meaning in life and in death.

Early in my ministry, and subsequently in conversations with hundreds of people exploring the Christian faith and the Episcopal Church, I have shared the following story, which I called The Woman of Strasbourg, though I admit to not remembering my source for the story: “There once was a woman, who in witness to her faith, walked the streets of Strasbourg carrying a torch and a bucket of water. When asked why she carried the bucket, she replied ‘I carry the bucket to douse the flames of Hell, so that no one seeks God in fear of punishment!’ And when asked why she carried her torch of flame, she replied, “I carry the flaming torch to burn down the gates of Heaven, so that no one seeks God out of want of reward.’” For me, the truth of this story is that it is in our very nature to seek out God and relationship with the divine. Our nature, as many 21st century Christian thinkers might articulate it, is bound to the Nature of God, simply and inextricably.

Rather than enjoining in the New Dualist and Musolino’s battle, I prefer embracing the desire to use the long stretch of human wisdom and understanding to make sense of life, unafraid of metaphor and poetry to reach deep for meaning for myself and others. I agree with Musolino that one of the gifts of death is that it helps us define and hold fast to what is precious and beautiful and of immeasurable value in life. But I also know intimately that loss and grief are our universal conversation—not a malady, but another gift tethered to loving. As novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner so brilliantly stated, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

And so, over the millennia, holy writings and wisdom become a guide to many of us as we search for the meaning that will shape us as individuals and as communities. There is no certainty here, and doubt and questions and reconsiderations will always accompany us, as do many who practice science. There is no simple reading of Scripture here either, for as Wendell Berry wrote in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays (2002), “The Bible’s aim, as I read it, is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction. It says that they cannot be divided; that their mutuality, their unity, is inescapable; that they are not reconciled in division, but in harmony. What else can be meant by the resurrection of the body? The body should be ‘filled with light,’ perfected in understanding. And so everywhere there is the sense of consequence, fear and desire, grief and joy. What is desirable is repeatedly defined in the tensions of the sense of consequence.”

I find a richness in this approach to understanding human life and living. I am glad to say, that I am joined by many other fellow travelers, believers and doubters, who are both deep and gifted thinkers and ardent committed practitioners of their various faith traditions.