The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” of the Soul

What is a Neutrino, and why is it Hard to Find?

A recent advance in particle physics in Japan (Livescience - Neutrino Particles Change Flavors) was based on the detection of just 22.5 electron neutrinos over an extended period of time. I fell in love with neutrinos as a kid, after I read Isaac Asimov’s book “The Neutrino: Ghost Particle of the Atom” (1966) and although the science in the book is somewhat dated, it’s still an excellent read. An electron neutrino has no electric charge, so you can’t detect it through an electro-magnetic interaction. The mass is so small that it still has yet to be accurately measured, but most estimates place it at something less than 2.2 eV (electron volts), or maybe significantly less. This is a terribly small quantity of energy. 1 eV is equivalent to 1.6x〖10〗_^(-19) joule (J). By way of comparison, “6.24×1020 eV is the energy consumed by a single 100 watt light bulb in one second.

They travel at or near the speed of light (maybe faster), and have been noted theoretically to be able to pass through several light years’ worth of lead before having a statistically relevant chance of interacting with (i.e., hitting) the lead. Keep in mind, a light year is 9.4607×1012 km.

If you want to think of this in terms of weight, just divide eV by the speed of light squared (as derived from Einstein’s famous rest mass equation E=mc²) and you get the mass of one eV expressed as 1.783×10−36 kg. An hydrogen atom, which is the lightest atom, is 1.674x10−27 kg. A grain of sand is about 3.5x10-10 kg. The only thing usually thought to be lighter than an electron neutrino is the theoretical rest mass of a photon (a single quantum of electromagnetic radiation, i.e. light).

The neutrino’s size has never been measured, so it’s approximated by reference to the field of its electroweak interaction, at 〈r²〉 = n × 10−33 cm² (n × 1 nanobarn). Since it does not interact in the “normal” electromagnetic sense, it’s a bit disingenuous to speak of it even having a size, as it’s more of a wavefunction. But we have detected them, for many years now, in several countries at numerous sites. Pretty amazing, right?

So, a simple question for the religious: If we can detect something this small and this hard to detect, why haven’t we ever found god(s) or a soul? If we have technology that can do this amazing feat of identifying a single neutrino, why can’t we detect these supposedly everyday “facts” in our lives?

So, what About Finding God(s)?

For finding a god, the response of believers will, of course, be that God doesn’t exist in our world of 3 spatial dimensions. I guess he/she/it pops into our reality to perform the odd miracle or hear a prayer or two, maybe to start a tsunami. But he/she/it never stays around long enough to be detected. God doesn’t dawdle over an extra caramel latte at Starbucks. Pop! Earthquake, find the missing child, Cure/cause the cancer, etc., and then pop! Gone again before we can ever train a od detector in his/her/it’s direction. Where are the Ghostbusters when you need them?

None of this, of course, is in any of the major holy books because they were all written by people who thought that God was in the sky, on top of a mountain, or somewhere “up there” (and a few gods were “down there” too). They had no concept of other dimensions, let alone the depths of space, and I guess the gods didn’t either since there is no mention of them in the holy books or any other literature of antiquity. Now, here I have to make a possible exception for Hinduism, which was arguably a bit more accommodating to conceptual extra-dimensional space in some interpretations of its descriptions of the divine. It’s also interesting to consider that once we gained more scientific knowledge about the planets and possible other worlds, relatively new religions like Mormonism and Scientology promptly adopted their existence into their core religious beliefs. The Mormons even put God on another planet (on Kolob), while the Scientologists imagined a Galactic Confederacy of 76 planets from which Xenu came, a being who may not be a god but which has many godlike attributes.

Another response from professional believers is that God can’t be detected because he/she/it doesn’t want to be, perhaps as this is a test of humans’ “faith.” Think of how our society talks about a “person of faith” as though it’s some great accomplishment, like a college degree or a medal earned while in the military. To believe in something that is “not evidentially there” is somehow morally commendable, and most societies consider such belief to be a high virtue worthy of respect from your fellow humans (unless of course you believe in little green fairies living in your hair that sing Beatles songs to you at night, in which case they don’t think you’re morally superior, just nuts). OK, so much for that line of thought. Forget about detecting god(s).

How About Finding a Soul? And what is a Soul Anyway?

But a soul is a different thing. All the major religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism) believe in a “soul” of some sort (in Buddhism and Hinduism it’s represented by a spirit or force which is capable of being reincarnated, and while some argue that you don’t need to believe in reincarnation to be Buddhist, but most followers do, so I will leave it at that). Unlike a god, which can be here or there or not there as he/she/it might choose, all these faiths believe that a soul is bound to the body during life (except for you believers in astral projection) and only parts from the body upon death. Virtually all faiths believe in this, and it’s a core tenant of their beliefs. It’s right up there with the existence of a God. In fact, I don’t know of any current religion that doesn’t have some concept of a soul or post-death continuing existence (or cycle of existence and destruction, as in Hinduism). If someone does, please let me know.

Indeed, if there is no soul, there is no afterlife, no possibility of punishment or reward or elevation. I would hazard the opinion that the existence of a soul is a more important feature of religious belief than the belief in any god. Think about it. What if there was a God, but no soul? That reduces God to a magical genie, who can cause certain events to occur on Earth. So what? We don’t see much evidence of this.

Thousands of people are not getting healed magically at Lourdes. People of one faith are not appreciably better off than all the others. Students who go to a particular Shinto shrine don’t all pass their college exams with high grades. No, it’s not love of any gods that motivates people, it’s the prospect of eternal life and the fear of death, and to address that issue you need an indestructible or transitional soul, not a god. You can postulate having a soul without having a god, but you don’t need a god if you don’t have a soul (unless the god is going to help you kill your enemies – provided these enemies don’t have chariots of iron, which was too tough for the Hebrew god [Judges 1:19]). I wonder how YHWH would do against tanks, if iron chariots were too much for him before?.

Now it’s interesting that none of the holy books actually define what a “soul” or spirit is supposed to be in reality (please correct me if I am wrong about this, but I can’t find a reference anywhere, although many animist religions were much more specific on this point). Some ancient commentators equated it with breath, perhaps because they witnessed the typical exhalation of humans when they die. Also, there is some comment in Hinduism that there is really no individual “soul,” but each “soul” is part of and the entirety of a greater existence. But even in this case, there is still an existing “soul” (call it a spark, if you like) manifested in each living thing (either as one entity, part of a greater entity, or the sole and only entity – but something is still believed to be there).

But, hold on now. We can detect individual radioactive atoms in a human body, and regularly do. If we can detect something as elusive and incorporeal as neutrinos, and there is something like a “soul,” we should be able to devise a way to detect it.

How Would you Detect a Soul?

We know a soul has to be capable of storing information. It can’t be as small as a single particle, like the hard-to-find neutrino, since the amount of information that a single particle can “store” would probably be limited. The sum of who we are, our memories of our lives and loved ones—all this information is somehow retained after death (unless the soul is reincarnated, in which case the memories are lost but karma is retained). Christian doctrine (like classical and ancient Egyptian) envisages a resurrected body, presumably which the soul would then re-inhabit. But in the meantime, it would need to be somewhere, as a rotting brain cannot sustain the electrical impulses necessary to sustain consciousness or memory. Death is like having your computer’s hard drive and CPU melt.

So we know a soul must have mass/energy in order to preserve information. It should be considerably smaller than the human brain, but how much smaller is up for speculation. Many of our brain’s functions would not be needed by a soul, like the need to regulate temperature, heartbeat and respiration. I assume a soul would have some means of sensing things, otherwise you would be blind, mute, deaf, and without the sensation of touch or taste. That wouldn’t be much of an afterlife, frankly, so let’s assume (as do our four major religions) that you get all those things back in a new body (either through resurrection or reincarnation), and the soul only needs the memories and personality (and/or karma). So until you get your new body, you are like software without a computer: you can run a lot of systems (your senses), but if there is nothing to run them on, you sit in the box… maybe you mentally compose really boring poetry while you wait?

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The average brain is about 1.5 kg, with a volume of about 1130 cm3. How much storage capacity this evidences is highly debated and frankly is very uncertain as we still don’t understand how memories are stored within the brain. However, Paul Reber, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in the United States, speculated recently in Scientific American (What is the Memory Capacity of the Human Brain?): “The human brain consists of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections. If each neuron could only help store a single memory, running out of space would be a problem. You might have only a few gigabytes of storage space, similar to the space in an iPod or a USB flash drive. Yet neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.” We don’t know the answer to how much memory we have or need, but it has to be significant, given all the memories a human accumulates during the course of their life.

No matter how you calculate the storage capacity, the human brain is an amazing organ. And the soul needs to preserve much of what is in there. The inescapable conclusion must be that any soul, which stores at a minimum just our memories and personality (and/or karma), without all the software on how to run our bodies, still needs to have a significant mass/energy. It is possible (maybe likely) that there is a storage mechanism superior to our brains which is used by a soul, but even using theoretical quantum storage requires some medium of mass/energy.

There have been a few modern recorded attempts to determine the weight of a soul (you can check out some of these with a “weight of a soul” search on Google or your favorite search engine). The most often results quoted, at 21 grams, was determined by Dr. MacDougall in 1901. (For all you animal lovers out there, he also determined that dogs didn’t have souls, so no chance to be reunited with your favorite pet in the great hereafter.) His conclusions are not widely (or even narrowly) accepted by the scientific community, however, and his results are often chalked up to measurement error (charitably).

Most elementary particles, including neutrinos, were merely theoretical until science discovered a way to detect them and confirm their existence. This methodology of theory and experiment is a well-trodden path. Nothing new or difficult here. So, we theorize the existence of a soul and the next step is to devise experiments that could detect it or its interaction with our physical selves. After all, we do have lots of humans around to test, and every one of us is supposed to have a soul (even the heathens, otherwise there would be no one languishing in torment for the enjoyment of the saved in the afterlife–I am assuming that there is no TV in the afterlife, so looking down upon those in hell is probably the best that can be done as far as entertainment goes. I think of it as the “FOX News” of the afterlife). So, in short, there are lots of handy material for study

So why isn’t There a “Find the Soul” Project like there was for the Human Genome?

But with billions of believers and billions of available dollars to fund research, why hasn’t organized religion financed a search for the soul? To demonstrate beyond doubt that a soul exists would be a tremendous accomplishment. The technical expertise is available, as aptly demonstrated by our ability to detect something as seemingly insubstantial as a single electron neutrino. The study could be done, and the results published in a properly peer reviewed paper. Everyone would know the “truth.” They can still argue about which god(s) are right and which are wrong, but at least they will have defined the argument somewhat, and everyone would be comforted by the prospect of continued existence in some form after a physical death (or not, as Buddhists and Jains arguably seek the soul’s ultimate oblivion–perhaps they know how boring eternity could be…).

So why hasn’t any country that considers itself to be “under God” funded such a research program? A trip to the moon was a laudable goal, as was detection of the neutrino, and billions have been spent on finding the Higgs Boson (the infamously misnamed “God particle”) and in making observations of the universe from space and land based telescopes. We also spend money on medical research, drug research, climatological research, and the list goes on and on. Surely, a bit of money could be spared to find something considered as fundamental as a soul? Especially since such a large segment of the population believes in one. With so many believers, you would think that it should be a politically popular project, like decoding the human genome or curing cancer.

Why doesn’t it happen? Well there’s an easy explanation, and you can verify it using a very simple example of game theory. What will people do when faced with the following situation? The purpose of the game is to have the most followers. You have 10 followers. If you take action A (verifying the soul), you will gain 2 adherents if A is positive, but lose 5 followers if it’s negative. Or you take Option B, where you do nothing and neither lose nor gain followers. Which option do you choose?

Now, if you had a high degree of confidence in finding a soul, you would expect that course to be pursued. But it’s not. Not by the Catholic Church or the Southern Baptists, not by the Mormons, not by the Hindus or Muslims, not by anyone. When you ask a believer about it, you find the concept of the soul slipping into the same “non-existence” realm as God now inhabits. There has been no change of religious doctrine, but religious believers don’t even want to risk looking for something that might not be there. I can imagine a Christian or Muslim televangelist being asked about it, and responding something like this: “I know a soul exists because the Bible/Koran tells me it does, so I don’t need anyone to find it and tell me about it.” But for those for whom religion does not provide a livelihood, the response may be a bit different.

There is no reasonable argument against the proposition that if a soul exists, we should be able to detect it or its effect on the human brain when it collects information. It has to have some degree of physical interaction with the neurons in our brains; a way to down-load our memories and personality and store the information. Even if it were to be conceded that a soul existed outside of our 3 spatial dimensions, like God, there would still have to be regular interaction with our physical form to collect the information, and this interaction should be detectable.

Why it Won’t Happen

I doubt that anyone will ever fund a search for the soul. Because for the believers, the likely answer would be too hard to bear. And considering that scientists’ work isn’t indebted to religious faith, I can’t see such an effort attracting any academic support or funding. It’s a situation of the believers not asking the question, and of non-believers not supplying the answer. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” of the soul.

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