Letting Go of the Soul, with Julien Musolino

February 09, 2015

Intuitively, it can feel as though the essence of our thoughts and feelings exists separate from the body and brain, and that essence is what is normally referred to as the soul. Empirical evidence, however, forces us to reconcile our intuitions with reality. As the science of the brain and consciousness advances, the case for the existence of a soul deteriorates.

This week on Point of Inquiry, Josh Zepps talks to Julien Musolino, psychology professor and author of The Soul Fallacy: What Science shows We Gain From Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs. Musolino discusses why there isn’t room for belief in the soul in modern science, and how moving past that belief might make the world a better place.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, February nine, 2015. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Do we have a soul? It’s a doozy of a question. And what does that even mean? Will I somehow survive the death of my buddy? And even if not, is my sense of myself nothing more than the material gray stuff in my skull? The latest contribution to this grand philosophical debate is a new book, The Soul Fallacy What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs. It’s written by the French American cognitive scientist Julian Marcelina, who joins me now. Thanks for being here, Julian. 

Thank you for having me. 

So let’s start off with what Americans actually believe about the nature of our souls. What do what do most people think? 

Well, most people think and have thought for a long time that we have, in addition to our body, our physical body, an immaterial soul that is psychologically potent, which means that contributes to our psychological functioning. It gives us freewill, a moral compass, consciousness, and much more importantly, a soul that is immortal in the sense that it will carry consciousness into the afterlife. 

Do you have to be religious to believe that? 

Well, it helps to be religious because most religions endorse this view. But you don’t have to be religious. There are people who were not religious and who do believe that just metaphysically. 

What’s wrong with that idea, assuming that we’re not believing that books that were written thousands of years ago are the wisest depictions of of history and cosmology. What’s what’s wrong intellectually and philosophically with the idea that nonetheless, regardless of whether or not religions are true, we might have a soul? 

Yeah, that’s a very good question. 

Well, I think the first thing to recognize, once we get a precise definition of the soul and I’m to bring us back to what we said a few minutes ago. So we have an entity that’s supposed to have three properties, a material psychologically potent and immortal. Once we start with that, it’s not hard to show that. So claims of that nature are, in fact, scientific claims. So basically, the claim is a claim about the detached ability of mind and body. In other words, the mind or consciousness can continue to function without the body. Once the body dies. And it’s also a claim about some kind of interaction between an immaterial entity and a physical entity. So not once you realize that. So claims or scientific claims? Well, we know how to assess scientific hypotheses. And we know how to do that for for quite a while. And so now we can bring things to bear on on this question. And we can evaluate the hypothesis the way we would any other scientific hypothesis. And it is this process of evaluation that leads us to the conclusion that the soul most likely doesn’t exist. So I can if you’d like, I’d be happy to run briefly. 

Yes, absolutely. Let elaborate on those reasons. 

Sure. So, in fact, the case is quite powerful, very strong. Because there are a number of converging lines of evidence that all point in the same direction. So it’s what philosophers of science called conciliators. So to give a brief analogy, it’s like suppose that you and I were prosecutors and we have a suspect and we’re looking at the evidence that person allegedly committed a crime. And soon enough, we realized that our guy doesn’t have an alibi, that his motive was transparence. That there’s DNA evidence against him and evidence from other bodily fluids and recordings from video surveillance cameras and eyewitnesses and fingerprints. Now, all these things pointing in the same direction, we’d have to be insane to conclude anything other than the person is guilty. So back to the soul. Now, if we think about the hypothesis, what we discover is, first of all, that the soul that the domain of the soul has actually shrunk as scientific understanding progressed. A quick aside that there used to be many souls. Today we talk about the soul as though there was only one soul. But if we go back in history, the soul began its life as a plurality of entities. They were souls a few thousand years ago. And those have shrunk and disappeared and melted away as scientific understanding progressed. That’s one line. Another line is that there is absolutely no objective empirical evidence that souls exists in spite of the fact that the claim of scientific souls also fly in the face of what we know about modern science. Flies in the face of biology. Flies in the face of physics. Flies in the face of modern psychology and neuroscience. Another line of inquiry, another line of reasoning is that there is simply no explanatory game that comes from postulate. The existence of souls. There’s nothing we’ve ever been able to explain by saying, aha, well, it’s the soul that does it. And here’s how it does it. And finally, there’s overwhelming evidence for the competing hypothesis, which is a form of materialism. So when you put all that together, it really looks like souls have exactly the set of properties that they should have if they didn’t exist. 

And just to clarify your argument about the prosecutor who’s looking at the criminal is that no particular piece of evidence makes us disbelieve in souls, but that the totality of all of those disparate pieces of evidence would point in the same direction. Cumulative. Absolutely right, Josh? That’s exactly right. Yes. So I want to separate a couple of definitions of souls here, because I think you do a really good job of demolishing the idea that there is an eternal, timeless soul that will permit my consciousness to exist after the death of my physical body. I think a trickier question is just this intuitive sense that my experience of being alive can’t simply be a product of matter, even if that experience dies at the same time that my body dies. You know, you hear Deepak Chopra say things like, well, yellow radio is able to produce music, but then if you can’t pick up, pop the radio and find the music, it’s tuning into something bigger than itself. What do you say to that? 

Well, OK. So the fact that I’m glad you bring up the analogy, because the radio analogy is exactly the one that I use to differentiate what I call the dualistic hypothesis from the materialistic one. So I’ll run through this briefly and I’ll get back to your first point, which is about our intuitions. You’re absolutely right that we do have all of us have very strong intuition that there’s something it is like from the inside to be a human being. And it does feel like we are specks of consciousness that are separate from the physical substrate of our brain. So let me take the radio analogy first. One way to think about the soul hypothesis as a scientific hypothesis is to say, well, think about, let’s say, a portable C.D. player. OK. So you put in the city of your choice, you plug in your headphones. I know it’s slightly older technology. We have iPhones and smartphones now, but at work, the analogy works better with slightly older technology. So you have this portable C.D. player, you put in the C.D., plug in your headphones, you hit play and presto, you can listen to your favorite tunes. Now, if you were to ask someone in that case, what does the music come from? The answer in that case is that the music comes from the result of the physical activity taking place in the physical device that we call it C.D. player, assuming that there are no copies of the music stored anywhere else. Then once you destroy the C.D. player in the C.D., the music doesn’t continue to exist because it is intimately bound to the operation of the city player. So that would correspond to the materialistic hypothesis. In other words, that what we call minds or our mental lives, including consciousness, including the intuitions we have about we are from the inside, simply arise as a result of the operation of physical processes inside our bodies and brains. Once the body and brain ceases to function, so does the mind. So that’s the materialistic hypothesis. Now, people like Chopra often like to invoke another analogy, which is a good one, but has been shown to be completely false. It is the radio analogy. So now suppose that instead of having a portable C.D. player, you have a portable radio set. Now, OK, you tune into whatever station you want, your show, for example, you plug in your headphones and there you go. You can listen to your favorite tunes. Now, in that case, if you were to ask someone, what does the music come from? The answer is slightly different. It comes from the interaction of two things. You have a physical device called a radio set, which receives a set of ways that electromagnetic waves. And if you destroy the radio set, you don’t destroy the waves. So that’s the analogy for the soul. Now, if the body and the soul have that property of being detachable like radio waves and the radio set, then perhaps when you destroy the body, the soul waves, if you if you will, can can continue to exist. Now, the problem with that is that there’s not a shred of evidence that this is how we function. But that’s a good analogy to differentiate the materialistic and the dualistic hypothesis. 

What if it’s more a Morpheus than that still so that it’s not that the radio waves will continue to exist? Maybe they’ve been algae’s and perfectly radio waves don’t continue to exist after the radio has been destroyed. But there is something going on in an interaction between different radio sets. Like think, for example, of the Internet. Maybe as an analogy of my computer linking up to a network that your computer is also linked up to. And that beneath the substrate of the human physical brain is a deeper substrate that is consciousness. This is another thing that, you know, I’m sort of channeling Deepak Chopra again here. Yeah. That that there’s some kind of quantum craziness going on in the universe. That is capable of explaining these pinpricks of self-awareness that our individuals, but that they are tapping into something bigger. Now, I know that this is not a scientific claim because there’s no way of really demonstrating it. But I think it does complicate your claim that there’s an easy scientific answer to where consciousness resides. 

I think well, it doesn’t complicate things because there could very easily be evidence that this is the case. So that’s why I think we’re pretty confident that it doesn’t work that way. 

What would that be, though? I mean, what would such evidence look like? 

Yeah, I’ll give you a couple of very simple examples. So one example would be very, very simple, would be being able to say talk to the dead. In fact, this was pointed out all the way back in 1935 by Bertrand Russell and his essay on science and religion in which he said that they’re speaking of this subject matter. He said that there could be, I’m quoting, evidence that would convince reasonable men. So suppose for sake of the argument that we have somebody whose ashes in an urn. Now we’re pretty confident that the body is ceased to function. On the other hand, supposing you could and it wouldn’t be difficult to set up the experiment, I could do it in my lab with a couple of undergrads. We could communicate meaningfully with that person’s consciousness or soul or whatever you call it, under a controlled external conditions. There you have it. If this could happen, if the world worked that way, we’d have pretty compelling evidence that consciousness can operate separately from the physical body. That’s one line of reasoning. Another one is what happens in the case of so-called near-death experiences. So for our listeners, I’m sure most of them know what that is. But it’s a very old set of subjective feelings that Plato wrote the Battle Hymn The Republic a few thousand years ago. But it’s a very powerful, subjective set of impressions that one gets under certain circumstances where often you have this what’s called an out of body experience. So you feel like you’re seeing yourself from a third person perspective. And the way people interpret that very often is look at my soul temporarily left my body and was floating around in the room and could see and hear everything that was present and then got somehow reattached. Well, this also makes a prediction that’s been tested. The prediction is that if you have a soul or a speck of consciousness that can float separately from the body and therefore see what’s out there the body couldn’t possibly see from its more restricted vantage point. Then you should be able to read what’s on the laptop on top of the closet or something like that. And amazingly, those experiments have been done and they show exactly nothing. But but notice that if they did show something, which they could. It’s not hard to imagine the person regaining consciousness and saying, oh, yeah, what’s on the laptop up there? Why I was on my bed could not possibly see it with my eyes is seven, five, four, three, two thirty to thirty five. Now we’d have something to talk about but we don’t have any of that. And so I think making impressive sounding claims about conscious universe and conscious quantum mechanics is just it’s the physicist Murray, the Nobel laureate, had a very interesting saying about that. He called it a quantum flapdoodle. Brian Greene calls it a quantum bullshit. Interestingly, it’s it’s one tactic that is used by oh, by the way, you mentioned Deepak Chopra, viewers or listeners. Sorry, shouldn’t take a look at something really interesting that’s posted on YouTube called something like Deepak Chopra confronts a real physicist. So Chopra was at a conference or giving a talk about his crazy interpretation of quantum mechanics. Turns out there was a very good quantum theorist in the audience who, during the question session stood up and very politely said something like, well, would you be interested in a short course in quantum mechanics so we can straighten out your interpretation of the theory? It impresses people who don’t know much about science and quantum mechanics, but it doesn’t impress the scientific community. 

Since you mentioned near-death experiences, what do you make of the cultural phenomenon in recent years of these New York Times best selling books that relate to people’s experiences of proving heaven? You know, there was this neuroscientist who had a near-death experience and believed that it proved that heaven was real. There was this child. There was a book, Heaven is for Real. That was turned into a movie, right? Yep. So what’s going on there in those experiences? 

It saddens me that this is something that gets so widely discussed and taken for granted. You know, because it isn’t what represents the vast majority of opinions within the sciences. So it’s people on the fringes like Eben Alexander, for example, the most recent case, virtually nobody in the sciences believes a word of what he has to say. But he is in a culture like North American culture. These people are preaching to the choir. I mean, the one striking fact about the US is that we are an unusually religious country, given how wealthy we are, and it really literally off the spectrum. And so. When you start saying things like that, when you start saying, look, heaven is real and I can prove it to you scientifically. Well, people are going to flock to that. And it’s really sad because it’s a travesty. It just makes a mockery of science. But sadly, it’s the kind of stuff that gets out there in popular culture as opposed to the real serious. Interesting stuff. I mean, if you look at the. Well, to get back to I said to you earlier when I was on The O’Reilly Factor, he he bragged to me about the fact that more people believe in the virgin birth of Jesus than do believe in global warming in America. I don’t know what the numbers are in Australia, but that’s frightening. 

Oh, it wouldn’t it wouldn’t even be close in Australia. We have many sins. But religiosity is not one of them, fortunately. And just to clarify for listeners, we were talking before we went to air about your appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show. I mean, that is a classic, just logical fallacy, as if facts were subject to opinion polls, as if the mere mere fact of what people believe makes it so absurd. What do you make of the way that consciousness arises through different species? I think this is one of the more interesting, I guess, refutations of the case for a soul, which is that it’s obvious that something’s going on in the eyes of a chimp. When we communicate with that chimp, that is not going on in the goo of an oyster. So something has happened there. Right. Which is the evolution of some kind of consciousness. 

Yeah, it’s a very tricky question, actually. So just to give you a piece of historical trivia, Descartes, for example, in the 17th century used to believe that only human beings have consciousness. We’ll get to define slightly more precisely what that means. And he believed that other animals, like sea cats, for example, were mere automata that behaved as though they were feeling pain and but they were not. They were just had the external behavioral manifestations. But there was there was no light on the inside. And that’s why the French used to burn cats and just love the spectacle. So now, yeah, you bring up the problem of consciousness, which is very tricky. It’s one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in the study of the mind. And there’s one particular problem that represents this mystery. It’s what people in the cognitive science is called the the hard problem. Philosophers give it a name. They call it qualia. It’s the idea that it’s the inherently subjective nature of experience and that nobody has a good story on why we have that, who else has that, to what degree other creatures have. That’s a very tricky set of questions. Some people think that it’s a problem that is so deep that we’ll never be able to solve it, perhaps because it falls outside the range or the scope of our science forming capacity, very much like, say, quantum mechanics falls outside the cognitive scope of thought of, say, cats. It’s doubtful that cats will ever hit upon quantum mechanics. 

Yes, I suspect you’re right there. But aren’t we slightly conflating two things here, which is that, I mean, I think the existence of consciousness throughout other animals or some kind of sense of their own ability to perceive is less of a problem for the materialist than it is for the person who believes in the soul. Because you can just imagine consciousness as arising out of a combination of other neurological mental capacities. Right. So that as the brain becomes more complicated, it develops a greater capacity to think and process and perceive and eventually be self-aware. But I think qualia is a slightly different thing. No qualia, as I understood it, is just the difference between simply knowing data the way a computer would. And actually having the experience of feeling like you are yourself and you are actually perceiving things with a richness and an intensity that a computer could never appreciate. Right. 

That’s right. So that’s the problem, that it’s very hard for scientists to want to explain. So there’s there’s a very famous thought experiment that tries to pump our intuitions to borrow words from Daniel Dennett about the problem. But you write that so me back up for a second. What makes consciousness tricky in part is that there are many ways to define it and to think about it. You mentioned self-awareness. That’s one possible way acquires another way. There’s something else that’s called access consciousness, which is basically how can we make sense of when and how and why information that is unconscious becomes consciously accessible to the mind so that we can verbally reported. That’s another aspect of the problem. So the fact that the question is complicated has to do in part to the fact that it’s not clear what definition of consciousness people have in mind when they talk about it. And therefore, it complicates everything. But the local heart problem is really the problem that really says, look, that’s that’s a big mystery. We don’t really know. That’s what they worry a lot about because it seems so hard to get a handle on it so that the thought experiment by this fellow philosopher actually is. I’ll run it by you. I’ll see what you what what your intuitions are. Who’s the philosopher, by the way? Jackson, I think. And this person that name escapes me for now. That’s or at least I know the name of the experiment. Associate the last name that the first name in this case. It’s called Mary. How a scientist, so I know if you ever heard it. The idea is this. You have a person called Mary who has been raised all her life in a black and white environment, has lived in the black and white room, has experienced the outside world through black and white monitors, is never seen in the world of color. But she specializes in the neuroscience of color vision, and she’s a brilliant scientist who knows absolutely everything there is to know about the neurophysiology and psychology of color vision. She knows exactly what happens in one’s brains when certain Waveland’s wave length and combination of wavelengths hit the retina and everything. She knows everything there is to know about these processes physically. OK. So the question now that Jackson asked us to think about is what will happen the day that Mary is released from her black and white environment and is allowed to experience color for the first time? Question is, will she learn anything new? Remember the claim? Is she supposed to know everything there is to know about the physical basis? So will she learn anything new? And the intuition that many of us have is yes. Well, if that’s the case, the claim is that therefore, if she knew everything physical and she learned something new, then consciousness and quiet can’t be physical. So that the intuition bump. 

I do remember that thought experiment from first year philosophy at the university. Although I think it was related in the context of this being a person who could only see the world as a paint by numbers picture, which is in black and white. But you know that ninety one is is orange and you know that 16 is light blue. So you have all of the understanding of what colors are. But then when they see a sunset for the first time, that is not a paint by numbers, black and white sunset, but an actual sunset. It’s sort of gibberish, too, to say that that person has not had a new experience. Right. Even though there’s no new data going in, I think that does pose a problem for strict materialists. 

I don’t think it does, because it gets it goes back to something you mentioned earlier, which is our intuitions. So we have the intuition that it does. But having an intuition is very book. We have an intuition, for example, that the reason evolution, for example, is fought tooth and nail in the US, in addition to the obvious religious issue, is that it’s very counterintuitive. The idea that you can have a naturalistic process unfold over a few billion years and turn very simple life like life forms eventually into something as complex and beautiful as a human being is incomprehensible intuitively. So the general point is that most scientific findings, discoveries, conclusions are deeply counterintuitive. There’s nothing intuitive about, let’s say, curved spacetime and Einstein’s theory or 26 dimensions of dimensions or 10 dimensions in string theory. So the thing is, as scientists, we learn to be very wary of our intuitions and don’t let them color our understanding of what works and what doesn’t work. In fact, psychology used to rely on intuition very much about one hundred or so years ago. But that’s been completely abandoned because it’s now clear to most practicing cognitive scientists that you can’t learn anything, almost anything about how the mind works by simply introspecting, meaning by consulting the result of your of your conscious thoughts. I can give you a brief analogy that to make the point here. So suppose you think about your hearts. OK. And suppose that I could you race from your memory everything that you’ve learned about your heart through school and education and what you’ve read and everything. OK, all you have to rely on to figure out where your heart is in your body and how it works are your introspective intuitions. You feel like you have a heart. Then you can feel it beating. OK, well, you could learn a few things about the heart. You could say to me, well, Julian, my heart is something that beats I can count the beats, I can possibly locate it in my chest or in my wrist or something like that. OK. You can learn a few things, but notice that if we’re limited to intuition to learn how the how the heart works and what it is you learn, you learn virtually nothing. How about a structure? Could your intuition tell you how many parts your heart had? Could it tell you how they related to each other? Could they tell you what the mechanism is that makes it beat? No, not at all. To find out the answers to those questions, you need what’s called the third person perspective of science. And so that’s where intuitions are very tricky. You got to be very careful. So when we have intuitions that we are more than a physical collection of organs and cells, well. OK, fine. That’s our intuition. But that doesn’t tell us anything about what we really are and how the world really works. Likewise for the thought experiment. OK. We simply may not have the right intuitions, period. 

Do you think about the origin of life as part of this line of thought about the big questions, I suppose, of why? I mean, those are the religious questions. The scientific questions are how did that happen? Does that factor in at all? 

I mean, it’s not even clear that it’s the right question to ask for a meaningful question to ask me to give you an example, in Catalist time, there won’t be five planets that were. No. And so Karplus question was, why are there only five planets? Well, turns out they are not five planets. And so the question is completely meaningless. It’s tricky to know whether a white question, in fact, is even meaningful. But you’re right. We do not really know. We have ideas exactly how life started on the planets once it started. Then we had a pretty good story about what went on. But if science doesn’t have an answer, then nobody else does. 

Yeah, I think that’s clear. So just speak briefly in the book. You go into the question of free will as well. And the research that’s been done, that raises questions about our easy sense that our thoughts and motivations originate with our own volition and then lead to our body doing things. Just tell us about those studies that look at the timing of how we actually make supposed choices. 

Well, there’s a very. So let me mention first the book, which is wonderful along those lines, like two books. And then I’ll tell you about the result of a classic experiment done in the 1980s to speak directly to your point. The first book is called The The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel Wegner at Harvard’s Grilli. Really good book. So that’s one thing. The other one is a book by a former friend of mine, Safe Work, because he died. He was a really brilliant man. Mark Sunhill died a few years ago. His book is called I Don’t Think It’s Been translated into English. It’s called The Low Self over There, which means the voluntary brain and very much arrives at the same conclusions that Wagner develops. So now back to the first part of the question. The classic experiment. So it’s an experiment that was carried out by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s and it was supposed to test this hypothesis. So if you were sitting there at your desk and you had a glass of water sitting next to you and you want to grab it from the inside, it feels like some conscious thought originates first. An intention, the intention to grab the glass. And that intention seems to have causal powers. It seems to be what’s causing your body to reach out and grab the glass. Well, it does have causal powers. Then if we understand anything about causality, it’s that causes tend to precede their effects. So what they decided to do was to try to measure the timing of such events. And he developed a very clever experiment where he basically had people wired up with electrodes so that he could measure in their brain the what’s called the readiness potential source of electrical activity in the motor cortex. So the task was that they had to simply flip their risks whenever they wanted. So it could wait two seconds, 10 seconds, woman and then flick their wrists so he could now objectively record when the risk was flipped. And, of course, look at the onset of electrical activity in the brain. Well, how could we measure the subjective feeling of having that intentional volition? Well, here’s what he did. He had a clock on the wall with a red dot that was moving. Not too subtle, not too fast around the around the clock. And he asked participants to look at the position of the dots on the clock when they became aware that they wanted to move their wrist and then remember when it was. Now, the prediction, if in fact our conscious thoughts precede and cause our actions, is that if you look at the timeline now, you should first notice that the moment at which the person becomes aware of wanting to move is prior to the onset of electrical activity in the more of the cortex, which itself is prior to the movement of the wrist. Right. That’s what it would look like. Well, what he found is it’s not what it looks like. It’s actually the other way around that the activity in the motor cortex precedes by a small number, but not insignificant. The intention of wanting to move now. I should point out that the this has been replicated many times, but the interpretation of these results is still controversial. What exactly it means is still controversial. But to give you a more recent version of the experiment, people now with a technique called MRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging, a brain scanning technique can do the same experiments. And I’m not getting up to almost 10 seconds. 

So you’re in a scanner. You’re given two buttons, one, then you right hand, one, your left hand. And you told Josh, whatever you want, push the right button or push the left button. 

Well, if I were looking at your brain, I can tell about ten seconds before you push one or the other button what you were going to do. 

And that’s true, even if I’m not consciously aware of having decided which button I’m going to push. 

Well, you’ve got to become consciously aware at some points. But the point is that I can tell before you that you become consciously aware of wanting to push the left or the right button. 

So if this plays out and let’s wrap it up with this, if we reach a consensus, I’m taking it as a given that rich, educated, developed societies become increasingly secular over time. If we become less religious, if we become less besotted with the idea of having an eternal soul, if we become more materialistic. And if the evidence continues to point in the direction of freewill being a complicated. Question that we are not really as independent as we might think we are. What does that mean in a 100 years time for the way that we construct our societies? 

I think it would be tremendous progress, actually, because we would be able to let any any policy do any idea. That is based on a more accurate understanding of the phenomenon under investigation as opposed to a less accurate one is always better. And in the book, towards the end, I go over what soul beliefs actually get in the way of. And I think today, especially in the U.S., they really get in the way of a more humane society in which a lot of suffering could be avoided. So I end with a very optimistic and positive message. If the future pans out the way that you and I are plotting it right now. 

Give us an example of how that would be a preferable world. 

I’ll give you three briefly. One is the endless and endlessly polarizing battle over abortion in the US. That’s rehashed every election cycle. Well, if you look into this, the reason people are so upset about abortion in the US is that many people will tell you that as a matter of faith, life begins in the moment of conception. Now, why should that be? Because supposedly that’s the moment at which the soul enters the body. And when you listen to politicians, for example, even on the left, like if you take Barack Obama and Joe Biden, look at the interviews they gave on this question before they became president. And Vice President Biden, for example, I’m almost quoting now, said that as a matter of faith, he was willing to accept that life begins at the mouth of conception. Obama said something like, these kinds of theological questions are above my pay grade. Notice that it’s couched in religious theological terms, whereas in fact, it shouldn’t be. That’s one area abortion in which irrational beliefs really get in the way and affect millions of women. Abortion is legal in the US for sure. But it’s in many states there are policies and laws are implemented that make it very difficult for women to have access to certain medical care. And so that’s one area, another area. So this is like the beginning of life at the end of life. Suppose you are terminally ill, and I don’t wish that on you, of course. But you’re old. You’ve had a wonderful life. Many, many more out of views on your show. Wonderful. Back and forth between France and Australia. You’re a happy man, but you’re dying and you’re suffering and you want to control. When that happens, you want to basically have a say in how you and your life. Well, if you live in Switzerland, for example, you can do that. So what’s called physician assisted suicide, which is slightly different from euthanasia, has been legal in Switzerland since the 1940s and the US. The only thing about four states in which it’s legal. And again, if you look at the reasons it has to do with the soul, religion has such an impact that it tells people that the process of dying is important because your soul is going to be reunited with God and so it shouldn’t be interrupted. So in other words, suck it up and suffer. So that’s another area in which soul beliefs really get in the way. And the other one. But there are others that stem cell research, just cloning. But another really important one is our system of punishment and criminal justice, which is anchored. I think a good case could be made in our intuitive notion of moral responsibility and free will, which is scientifically dubious. And as I’m sure you know, the US has had an unusually dysfunctional and harsh criminal justice system. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, something like over 700 inmates per hundred thousand habitants. We still have the death penalty. So that’s an area in which it really matters. I mean, to explain, the logic would take more time. We’re approaching the end. But these are not trivial issues that we’ve just touched on. So, yeah, I think that once we move beyond the soul and realize that we are complex biological machines, beautiful machines, machines with feeling feelings that can love, then be all kinds of things, things are going to get better for us. If you read what the materialists of the 18th century wrote, they were very optimistic about what would happen once we recognize our true nature. And I think they were right. 

The book is The Soul Fallacy. Gillian Marcelina My Soul. Thanks your soul for being on point of inquiry. My pleasure. Thank you. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.