Thursday, January 5, 2017

Proof of the Human Soul?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the human soul is the innermost aspect of man and the spiritual principle that separates from the body after death. The body then decays and the soul goes to meet God (CCC #363, #997). But is it possible to prove that the human soul exists?

Whenever someone asks for proof of something, especially something immaterial, I sometimes ask if it is possible to prove anything at all. This is not to be flippant; it’s a serious question.

Suppose you were told that last night while you slept your brain was taken by aliens and installed into an alien supercomputer. This supercomputer is now inputting all the correct electrochemical impulses into your brain to precisely simulate the world you are familiar with. You think you are reading a blog post right now, but it is actually the alien computer inputting the data directly into your brain—similar to the concept in the 1999 movie “The Matrix”. This might sound absurd, but you would simply have no way of proving that this artificial reality is false. If all the data you have is only virtual data being continuously streamed into your brain, you would have no outside system to use as a relevant basis of comparison.

For a less fantastic example involving “proof”, consider our criminal justice system. Have you ever been a juror in a criminal trial? I have; it was quite a rigorous exercise in reason with a bunch of perfect strangers—and it went on for two days. Proving someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt gets rather contentious when all twelve jurors cannot agree on when the threshold for a “reasonable doubt” has been achieved. It seems to me that when people try hard enough, they can always find a doubt that is reasonable…at least to them.

Here’s another case in point; suppose you and I see a cat running across the street. We agree that it was indeed a cat and we go forward with that premise. There is no doubt that we saw a cat; it is an unquestioned fact. We later receive more data that informs us that it was actually a funny looking raccoon. This is not so different from observations used in science. Once something is “proven” is the science settled forever? No; not if more data is found to question the previous thinking. Consider that Isaac Newton and centuries of Aristotelian logic held to the assertion that our universe and past time were infinite. Today many accept the premise that time/space had a starting point or Big Bang.1

There are many such examples about “proof” and I was reminded of these when discussing near-death experiences (NDEs) with someone as evidence for the human soul. Of all the unanswered questions in science, one of the biggest is “What is the biological basis of consciousness?” The hidden assumption in the question is (of course) that there must be a biological basis.

Consciousness can only be a product of a working brain; which is essentially a “meat computer” ultimately controlled by the universal and unchangeable laws of physics and chemistry. Therefore, NDEs must be manufactured in the brain. They are delusions produced by the brain under extreme duress, such as a lack of oxygen or being under the influence of powerful drugs administered during a medical emergency. Agreed?

For the strict materialist the paragraph above might be a satisfying answer, but like the example of the cat vs. raccoon, could there be more data to question the thinking behind NDEs and human consciousness? I believe I found such data in an article written by Fr. Robert Spitzer when I searched the Magis Center for Faith & Reason for NDEs.

Now, it is understandable to think that a priest writing something about NDEs could have a non-scientific and manipulative agenda about the afterlife, but the very opening paragraph shows the concern for scientific objectivity, “I cite the evidence of near-death experiences with some trepidation, because there are many books written on this subject which are not scientific…these nonscientific books have rather manipulative agendas, and some are quite cultic in character.”

The article goes on to summarizes three separate scientific studies on NDEs: The van Lommel et al Study, The Melvin Morse Study of Near-Death Experiences of Children and The Kenneth Ring, et al Study of Near-Death Experiences of the Blind. For me, the most interesting data that challenge the premise about consciousness being only a product of the brain are as follows:

Flat EEGs: People reported clear and lucid consciousness during the time in which there was no electrical activity in the brain cortex and no brain stem function either, evidenced by fixed dilated pupils and absence of the gag reflex. How can lucid conciseness continue when the brain is clinically dead?

Out of Body: People experienced an out-of-body state with sensorial capabilities. Out of body could even mean out of the room where they laid unconscious, going through walls, seeing things and hearing conversations which were later verified to be accurate. How does one experience this without a body, unless their consciousness is somehow “non-physical”?

Blind from Birth: Those blind from birth reported that they could see. If all our memories and knowledge are stored in our brain and our brain never received any visual inputs from our eyes, how does a blind person see during an NDE?

NDEs and Children: Wouldn’t it be foolish to believe a child? Maybe sometimes, but if you’ve spent time with children you know they can be very unbiased and matter-of-fact. Small children do not know what an NDE is and are not motivated by cultural or religious agendas, so how likely are they to purposely report data to help these agendas?

Low Percentage: Not everyone reports an NDE. In the van Lommel study only 18% reported an NDE, but 100% of them suffered a shortage of oxygen, were given morphine-like medications and were victims of severe stress. If an NDE is just a biological reflex of a dying brain, shouldn’t it be closer to 100%? If endorphins were suddenly and unexpectedly released into the brains of 100 people, wouldn’t about 100 of them report “good feelings”?

Do these objective aspects of subjective near-death experiences prove the existence of the human soul and the afterlife? Perhaps not, but beware of willful ignorance and having qualms with an agenda. As in the criminal trail example above, people are good at raising “reasonable doubts” for just about anything. Should consciousness without a physical brain be considered a real possibility? As with the most basic principles of reason, when many clues point in a certain direction, we do well to explore that direction seriously. In the grand scheme of reality these studies are additional data points (and there are many) that concur with the Catholic worldview.

1. Thomas E. Woods, How Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Washington D.C: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2005), p. 91