I've read a bit of Julien Musolino's book “The Soul Fallacy” in which he claims that there is a scientific consensus that the soul does not exist.

Is his view correct?

For this question, “soul” should not be understood as a metaphorical term for our psyche but rather as an immortal spirit or essence of humans whose existence makes an objective difference in the world. I only know of the Aristotelian and Cartesian concept of the soul in detail – they are very different but would both fit the “souls” we're talking about.

I'm especially interested in the following points:

  • Is doing a survey the correct way to find out?
  • Have the right surveys been done? They seem to be rather rare and regarding the results of this small survey of 35 senior neuroscientist, which I found

    95. The mind is the result of the action of the spirit, or of the soul, on the brain.
    Yes: 3%, No: 62%, Don't know: 35%

    ... I'm not sure if it supports Musolino. The “don't know” percentage is a bit too high.

  • How do we decide if we focus on the correct discipline? (e.g. why not ask psychologists instead of neuroscientists?)
  • How do we decide if it's a scientific consensus rather than just something scientists in discipline x generally believe is correct? Going by this common definition

    The scientific consensus represents the position generally agreed upon at a given time by most scientists specialized in a given field.

    they are the same. But, for example, the overwhelming majority of mathematicians also believe that P ≠ NP, if they understand the statement, yet it would be very different if there was a proof (not comprehensible for the layman) for P ≠ NP and virtually all mathematicians who are able to understand this proof found it correct. I know that mathematics is not an empirical science but something along this line of reasoning could apply to empirical science, too.

PS: A question which is similar to my question on the surface has been posted. But I think that this is sufficiently different to warrant a new post.

closed as unclear what you're asking by user19563, Conifold, virmaior, Swami Vishwananda, Joseph Weissman Feb 25 '17 at 19:29

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    Maybe is better to assert that "there is not a scientific consensus that the soul does exist." No scientific evidence and no "reasonable" scientific theory supporting the claim about the existence of the soul. The same for: God, phantoms, extra-terrestrial intelligences, afterlife,... – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Feb 23 '17 at 14:04
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA yes, but that's not the statement he made. And who would really disagree with this? – wolf-revo-cats Feb 23 '17 at 14:07
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    Thus, the issue is not what scientists "vote" but if we have a way to "manage" the facts concerning the so-called soul with scientific methods and procedures (experiments, theories, computations, etc.) and the answer is NO. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Feb 23 '17 at 14:15
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA "Science is not democratic; it does not progress by "polls". When Newton formulated Univ Gravit Law, it has no consensus at all" --- Kuhn might disagree with that statement. – Alexander S King Feb 23 '17 at 15:46
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    The first part of this question about the scientific consensus itself, I don't think is best answered here. The extent to which neuroscientists or psychologists have evidence that the soul does not exist is a question for CognitiveScience.SE or Biology.SE. The rest of the question seems to be about the scientific method and is entirely suitable so I'm not voting to close, but the first part may be the reason for the close votes (I too wish people would take more time to explain their voting, hence my attempt to guess on their behalf). – Isaacson Feb 24 '17 at 7:42

There seem to be several questions packed into this post. From the philosophy of mind point of view, please refer to the extensive literature on Dualism vs Materialism. Musolino isn't the first to delve into this question. Note that I am conflating the position that souls exist with substance dualism, even though strictly speaking they are not the same.

The philosophy of science questions implied by this post are much more interesting, and I will try to breakdown my reading of the post:

[...] Musolino's book “The Soul Fallacy” in which he claims that the scientific consensus is that the soul does not exist.

Is his view correct?

- How do we know what the scientific consensus on given question is, and what is the scientific consensus on the existence of souls?

The social epistemology of science. Are surveys enough? Consider the following question pertinent to another big debate: How do we know that the scientific consensus is that climate change is real, especially given that many non-scientists frequently challenge that this is indeed the consensus? We can apply the methodology from that field to the question of the soul as well, assuming such data exists. See this study.. In particular, the following passages is relevant:

These kinds of reports and statements are drafted through a careful process involving many opportunities for comment, criticism, and revision, so it is unlikely that they would diverge greatly from the opinions of the societies’ memberships. Nevertheless, it could be the case that they downplay dissenting opinions. One way to test that hypothesis is by analyzing the contents of published scientific papers, which contain the views that are considered sufficiently supported by evidence that they merit publication in expert journals. After all, any one can say anything, but not anyone can get research results published in a refereed journal. Papers published in scientific journals must pass the scrutiny of critical, expert colleagues. They must be supported by sufficient evidence to convince others who know the subject well. So one must turn to the scientific literature to be certain of what scientists really think. Before the twentieth century, this would have been a trivial task. The number of scientists directly involved in any given debate was usually small. A handful, a dozen, perhaps a hundred, at most, participated—in part because the total number of scientists in the world was very small (Price 1986). Moreover, because professional science was a limited activity, many scientists used language that was accessible to scientists in other disciplines as well as to serious amateurs. It was relatively easy for an educated person in the nineteenth or early twentieth century to read a scientific book or paper and understand what the scientist was trying to say. One did not have to be a scientist to read The Principles of Geology or The Origin of Species. Our contemporary world is different. Today, hundreds of thousands of scientists publish over a million scientific papers each year. [...] No individual could possibly read all the scientific papers on a subject without making a full-time career of it. Fortunately, the growth of science has been accompanied by the growth of tools to manage scientific information. One of the most important of these is the database of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). In its Web of Science, the ISI indexes all papers published in refereed scientific journals every year—over 8,500 journals. Using a key word or phrase, one can sample the scientific literature on any subject and get an unbiased view of the state of knowledge.

We can perform a similar experiment now: ScienceDirect is a well known scientific publisher and research paper database (although a lot of the access is behind a pay wall, most people affiliated with a western university have access to it). A search for the term "Soul" in their database yields some examples:

Someone who is serious about assessing the scientific consensus on the existence of soul would have to go through such databases (there are many, scholar.google.com should help as well), and then run some statistics and summarize their findings. This would be more accurate than a simple survey.

- Can science disprove the existence of souls?

Science can never disprove the existence of souls: Following the problem of induction and Popper's falsificationism, 10 000 000 observations of white swans doesn't prove that black swans don't exist, and logically speaking, there is always a small chance that one day we might come across a black swan. Similarly, the best science can do is say that no experiment has ever proved that souls exist, but it can never prove definitively that souls don't exist, there is always a chance, no matter how small, that some day, an new unheard of experiment that proves the existence of souls.

All of this presupposes that the soul can submit to scientific (i.e. physical, experimental) methods in the first place. Which leads us to the next question:

- Is the the existence of the soul a scientific question?

I will set aside the demarcation problem and the issue of which questions are scientific and which questions are not, and work with a naive empiricist notion of "scientific question = one that can be resolved by experiments and observations, i.e. empirical evidence".

The thing is, almost all arguments for dualism revolve around proving that the empirical description of mental phenomenon is incomplete, then rely on other epistemic methods (rationalists arguments, the immediacy of subjective experience, etc...) to fill the gap left by the incompleteness of empiricist methods. Since mental phenomena cannot be described using strictly empiricist methods, they must be non-physical in nature, hence dualism.

Here's another way of putting it: The central premise of dualism is that the mind or the soul is non physical. If it is non physical, then physical methods of investigation don't apply, other methods have to be used.

Consider one of the main contemporary arguments for dualism, Frank Jackson's Knowledge argument: Mary the Neuroscientist knows all the physical facts about the color red, but her knowledge of the color red is incomplete.

Similarly, DesCartes argument for dualism and Saul Kripke's modern variation on it are rationalist arguments (in the sense of the rationalism vs empiricism debate), whose starting point is the incompleteness of the empirical description of mental phenomena.

The only way then for the question of the existence of the soul to be a scientific question is if one concedes that not all scientific knowledge is empirical. But most scientists don't: As pointed out in the accepted answer to the question linked to in the OP: "The operational consensus of physical scientists is that physicalism holds. That is, experiments are planned and executed as if physicalism is true."

So it really does come down to the demarcation problem: If you stick to a strictly empiricist definition of scientific knowledge, as most modern scientists do, then the question is not a scientific one.

One final (somewhat silly) note: Various sci-fi and fantasy scenarios involve protagonists using special devices to detect and measure supernatural phenomena (for example Ghostbuster's PKE Meter), which seem to indicate that physical devices might be used to measure non-physical entities such as souls. On the highly unlikely chance that someone was to somehow physically detect souls (say for example as something leaving the body at the moment of death) - this wouldn't mean that physical devices can measure non-physical entities. Instead this would mean that souls are physical (again very, very, vey unlikely) and we need to reexamine the laws of physics and biology.

  • I think there is a scientific consensus that "soul" is so vague, poorly defined and anecdotal that it is not subject to scientific discussion (and there is something similar concerning "free will"). When it comes to somewhat better delineated terms, like consciousness or "self", even physicalists do not exactly deny their existence (any more than existence of rainbows or mathematical structures), or that they can be studied without empirically. Neuroscience one day may well identify some sort of stable dynamical formation in the brain that fulfills most of "soul's" responsibilities. – Conifold Feb 24 '17 at 22:45
  • @Conifold "Neuroscience one day may well identify some sort of stable dynamical formation in the brain that fulfills most of "soul's" responsibilities." yes, but would this amount to dualism? – Alexander S King Feb 24 '17 at 23:22
  • I am not sure that substance dualism was a majority position on soul even in its heyday, or that it fits the "folk intuitions", Descartes was kind of a stand alone. Aristotle and scholastics identified soul as a "form" of the body (emergent structure?) with autonomous "agency" having causal powers. Dualists today, like Chalmers (I'd also say Searle, but he'd deny it), are property rather than substance dualists, and apparently, "non-reductive physicalism is a form of property dualism". So sayeth Wikipedia :) – Conifold Feb 24 '17 at 23:40
  • I like++ the first half, don't agree 100% with the 2. half. a) “Dualism = souls” is only justifiable, if you exclude epiphenomenalism. The presumed interaction between the soul and the physical is the thesis that must examined most closely. b) Your characterization of science leaves too much out of what everyone accepts as scientific. E.g. what about existence of Lorentz contraction? It cannot be directly observed and needs rational inference to be justified. In your link it's also admitted that arguments are part of science, though not “the hallmark of science”. – wolf-revo-cats Feb 25 '17 at 0:19
  • c) Can we really say that falsificationism is the philosophy of science? Also Musolino writes “[..] the case against the soul is similar to the argument against the luminiferous ether [..]. The ether was an idea that was once entertained by the most serious scientists, but as understanding progressed, the need for such a substance became superfluous, and the ether hypothesis was eventually abandoned.” So is the soul similarly “discredited” as the luminiferous ether (though its nonexistence is not definitely proven)? Then Musolino has practically won the argument. – wolf-revo-cats Feb 25 '17 at 0:21

May be some scientists would disagree but, please, allow me to express one not-so-well-known or expressed point of view to the problem of the nature of the souls. I agree with physicalists that everything in Nature should have a physical carrier, so here materialism can get in. But what about a software program which can be downloaded to different computers or even change the carrier altogether? Just like transhumanists believe some day we may be able to download the consciousness(some people may consider it an analogue to the soul)from body to machine and even the vice versa by some yet undeveloped technology. Then, wouldn't it be possible to have a definition of the soul who is both physical and not physical in nature?

What I mean by my questions is the possibility phenomena can be considered from different points of view that appear to contradict each other and yet be able to complement themselves if the definition of the phenomenon in question is broad enough to include the cases where they support each other, but at the same time precise enough to exclude the cases where they contradict each other. I know this isn't "the standard" in philosophy as far as I am aware of it(please, correct me if I am wrong)but is it so difficult to imagine a point of view where the soul is immaterial(just like the software of computer)so it is consistent with the point of view of dualism, but at the same time is always embedded in a carrier thus contributing to the materialistic point of view? After all, can you really call a computer program a material entity? But it does have effects on material entities. May be the same can hold for the soul-a path neither strictly idealistic, not materialistic.

Now, as far as science consencsus is concerned I am sure 100 years ago there was a scientific consensus man can't go to the moon, before that man can't fly in a machine heavier than the air and that time can't slow down or speed up. However our evidence today says otherwise. This is as much as scientific "consensus" holds up(but please consider that in all those examples there could have been those brave few dreamers who thought the dominant view of their times may not be the case). However, I would like to point out to a fact often neglected in such discussions-the fact that scientific claims are usually part of bigger views on reality-hypothesis and theories based on evidence. When facts can be linked together hypothesis and eventually theories emerge and they in turn shape the view of the observer. Now, for example the dominant theory in physics for gravity-general relativity tell us apples don't fly but fall to the ground. It has a substantial amount of evidence to back up this claim, although one can always imagine someone who can say that until you throw an apple in the air you don't know will it hit the ground or fly in space. Such "fantasts" have always existed but their views sometime can shed light on an important fact scientists often miss-that their claims are true only within the context of the theory they were made in. Thus, tomorrow if somebody finds a new more profound theory of gravity apples may indeed fly. According to the same reasoning those scientists who said man can't go to the moon, can't fly or time can't dilate were actually quite correct but only in the context of what science knew back then.

The thing is those theories they used were not general enough to include the phenomena they used them for but in the specific circumstances they were created they actually were! Indeed man didn't get to the moon riding the blast of a gun, people didn't flew by waxed feather wings and time doesn't dilate unless you are moving in speeds far beyond those for which Newtonian mechanics was derived. So what science can do is to provide special cases where its results are indeed true if the mechanism they describe holds! I myself adhere to a kind of mechanicism claiming if we can provide a mechanism for explaining some phenomenon and then prove by experiment this phenomenon exists in the special case which we investigate, then the claim prescribed by the theory created for will indeed hold. The thing is how big can this "special" case be? Many people have the natural tendency to overlook(or outright deny)the limits which their theories themselves prescribe to themselves. But if one is carefull enough one can see every theory in science can prescribe its own limits. If the claim is made within them, then I(please, consider this personal opinion, so feel free to disagree)would consider it a scientific claim and its refutal will mean there is something seriously wrong with the scientific method itself. I will not delve further into the prospect can the scientific method be our only "window" for getting accurate knowledge about the worldbut I would cling to the view that if you can provide a mechanism within line with what modern science had discovered and provide your case is within the limits of those theories, then you don't need consensus on anything-you simply can state that science backs your claim!

In the case of the soul then the question really boils down to the claim:"There is no soul because modern biology don't need them to explain neurophysiological phenomena." Then it is Musolino's obligation to show us why this is the case. If he can show us modern neuroscience has well-supported by carefully bounded experiments facts to support a paradigm where this is the case-then, I agree-there is no soul. But if that isn't the case the door is wide open to a range of possibilities.

Having that in mind if we return to the beginning of this answer and consider the soul as "the software" of the body even driven by emergence the only way anyone(consensus or not)can prove there is no soul is to show us that within the limits and I mean the well-established and shown to be undisputed limits of the experimental backing of the modern neuroscience there is definitely no place for such a "software". Can he do it?

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