Do Atheists Accept
The Existence Of Souls?
Freuerbach

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine"
To: "Áñçò"
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: September 30, 2001 10:22 AM

Feuerbach:

Most atheists don't wonder about such things, but prefer to deal with the day-to-day struggles and joys of living. But a few of us do think about such things. We have researched the claims for the existence of a "soul" which can (allegedly) survive the death of the body or which can (allegedly) detach itself from the body. And those of us who have checked it out do not see any reason to believe that such a thing as the "soul" exists.

Instead, we are satisfied with the explanation that the conscious, aware "Self" is established by the structures and the processes of the nervous system, particularly the brain, but working in conjunction with the nerves and the sensory organs. We may not know exactly what is going on or exactly how it works, but we don't see anything that even remotely points to the possibility that a supernatural "soul" exists.

When we use the word "soul" in English, then, we mean a synonym for "person": "Not a soul was at the beach this evening." Sometimes we mean "mind" when we use this word. Only religious people mean "disembodied spirit"; only religious people give this word a supernatural, life-after-death meaning.

As materialists, we atheists hold that matter is fundamental. Whatever else may exist, if it exists, it depends on matter. Thus, if mind exists, it must be a function of matter. This is the view of many of the ancient Greeks, many of whom taught that death was the absence of life: Epicurus said:

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Why should I fear death? If I am,
death is not. If death is, I am not.
Why should I fear that which
cannot exist when I do?

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I prefer the materialistic view of consciousness for two reasons. First, we have not found any reason to believe that anything other than particles exist; this is the view of the physicists who study physical matter down to the particle level: all is the matter-energy continuum. Secondly, we have not found any way for a "soul" to interact with the physical brain. Other reasons which push me to lean in this direction include the fact that when a human sustains certain specific brain damage, we can predict how this will affect that person's personality and that person's ability to function.

The classic study in how brain damage can affect judgement is that of Phineas Gage, who suffered a meter-long steel rod being shot through the center of his skull as the result of an explosion. Gage, formerly a polite, dignified man, suddenly developed a very coarse personality and lost most of his friends as a result.

I think Descartes was the last scientist-philosopher to seriously posit the existence of an immaterial "soul." The big question by then was how would the "soul" interact with the brain? Descartes suggested the pineal gland because it appeared to him to be the only organ in the brain that was not bilaterally duplicated. He also believed (erroneously) that this gland was uniquely human. This gland was called the "third eye" by ancient people and was thought to have mystical powers. Modern occult and New Age practitioners still attach a great deal of mystique to the pineal gland, its only "sin" is that of being complex and difficult to pin down. There is nothing to show it to have magical or supernatural powers other than the ignorance of certain people prompting them to jump to premature conclusions when they cannot find easy, simplistic answers.

Spinoza abandoned Descartes's mind-body dualism for a double-aspect system. By this he meant that the mental and the physical are simply different aspects of one and the same substance. Nevertheless, Spinoza thought that mental occurrences can determine only other mental occurrences and physical motions can determine only other physical motions. Leibniz preferred "psychophysical parallelism," retaining both the dualism of mind and body and the idea that mental and physical events are correlated, while avoiding the idea that there is a causal connection between mind and body. Gall worked on a theory assuming that one's mental abilities were fixed, and that one's abilities were based on size of one's cerebral organ. Although his assumptions were flawed, Gall laid the foundations for a biologically based, functional psychology.

Flourens was the first to demonstrate that brain function is localized, and he came to this idea through criticism of Gall's conclusions, while admiring Gall's methods of studying skills and relating them to the size and shape of the cerebrum. It was Flourens who distinguished between sensation and perception (calling perception the subject's appreciation of a sensation or the meaning given to it). During his career of studying brain function through surgical procedures, he localized sensory function in several related sub-cortical structures. However, damage to the cerebrum, Flourens noted, affected higher mental functions (perception; intellect; will). Most surprising to Flourens was his discovery that the severity of the damage to the higher mental functions varied only with the extent of damage to the cerebrum, and, unlike the senses, was not determined by the location of the damage.

By now, it was becoming clear that the brain itself is what causes us to sense, to feel, to think, to judge, and to experience emotions.

As for the existence of "souls," only ancient legends tell us that "souls" exist. Modern science is not showing us anything that would lead us in the direction of that belief. However, some ideas die hard. One reason people persist in believing in "souls" is because we don't want to die. If death means the destruction of the body, then the only way we could possibly survive the death of our bodies would be for our "Selves" to be a non-physical function -- a "soul." This holds either for the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic model of Heaven and resurrection as well as the Eastern and spiritualistic model of reincarnation: either way pretty much requires for the "soul" to exist. So, any evidence that anybody can make even remotely convincing will be hauled on to the lectern and used to reassure the common people that they are not going to die, but that they will continue to live through their "soul."

But science is not saying this. Science does not talk about "souls" because nobody is discovering anything that would lead us to think that "souls" exist. Rather, almost everything we learn about the human mind points to the likelihood that everything there is about our conscious, aware "Selves" is contained in the brain and nervous system. The implication is grave: if you destroy the nervous system (upon death), then your "Self" becomes destroyed as well. "You" cease to be, not only physically but in every other conceivable aspect as well. Some people just don't want to accept this. They want to be able to see Papa again. They don't want to think that little Maria, who died in infancy, never got to live her only chance at life.

Nobody wants to think these things!

So we convince ourselves that Papa is safe in the arms of God and that little Maria gets to grow up and become a lovely woman in Heaven. And our desire to think these things is so great (our fear of thinking that death is final -- that is, that "souls" don't exist) that it does not take much "evidence" to convince us that "souls" really do exist.

Unfortunately, it sure looks as if "souls" do not exist. I'm sorry, but that's what it looks like when you study all the claims and arguments and look at all the facts without regard to what you want to be true. I don't want to die. I don't want death to be the end. I don't want some robber to come in my front door as I type and kill me for a few dollars and for that to be the end of my only opportunity to ever live! No! I don't want that at all! However, I have, since childhood, committed myself to following truth wherever it may lead.

Perhaps other people are much happier than I because they think they'll see Papa again, because they know little Maria really does get to live a life after all. I am not going to say that they are wrong or that I am better than they are. All I'm saying is that I have looked at this situation desiring to know the truth of the matter, and unfortunately, this is what I think is the situation.

If you can give me reasons to think that "souls" exist, I might become a happier man! But they would need to be strong reasons and they would need to overthrow what I already know which has leaned me toward believing the other way. I do know that I cannot be happy fooling myself, so in order for me to be happy thinking that "souls" exist, I will need to actually think that "souls" exist!

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine"
To: "Áñçò"
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: October 01, 2001 10:38 AM

I am posting your question about souls, and would like to point out two other files that you'll probably want to read. These files specifically address the question of whether atheists believe in "ghosts" and in an "afterlife."

To answer your question directly, no, most atheists reject other claims of the paranormal, but some do not. So, this first file discusses the distinction between the paranormal and the supernatural. The paranormal is basically claims of phenomenon for which science has no explanation (even though it might not exist). The reason it is legitimate for atheists to believe in the paranormal is because it is the supernatural which involves the agency of beings which are somehow "above" or "beyond" nature, whereas the paranormal never claims to be anything other than natural physical phenomenon for which we simply have not found an explanation (possibly because it might not exist). I would say that if somebody believes in the supernatural, phenomenon that is said to occur because some supernatural being willed it to occur, then that person ought to call himself a theist.

Most atheists reject even the paranormal because many who claim the paranormal use the same tricks as those who claim the supernatural. We prefer to keep it easy by accepting what mainstream science says and does, trusting that if there is something to this or that paranormal claim, science will surely come around and accept it.

The second file goes over the ground covered in the first file, but from a different point of view (that is, you ought to read both files, besides, the first file is quite short). This is because the second file needs to lay the groundwork for the second portion of the discussion regarding so-called ghosts and claims that we get to live again after we have died. What will happen is that your question will become part of this discussion after I have posted it. Thus, we will have three files, one introducing the distinction between the paranormal and the supernatural, the second dealing with these subjects again as they relate specifically to claims of ghosts and various afterlife models. Finally, your file will deal specifically with the idea that humans have "souls" and will show that this idea has its roots in humankind's species-wide fear of the personal destruction which we call death.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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