Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Two, section one

Soul Defined: The Human U-Turn (Chapter Two, section one)

The author begins the chapter by asking what exactly the soul is and how we can relate to it. To, “…give us a glimpse into the power and nature of the soul,” he tells several glurgy stories.

The first is again related to WWII, and is about two concentration camp inmates. In a bad moment one tells the other that God loves him and gives him a hug. The second man would later claim that hug saved his life. The author asks, “If human existence is limited to the physical dimension, how can something as ethereal as love stave off death?” Firstly, in this case I would argue that it was hope, shared experience, and sense of meaning that helped the man survive, not “love” per se. Secondly, love is not as “ethereal” as the author would imagine, but is instead an emotion generated by our brain through the release of the neurotransmitters oxytocin and serotonin, a process “limited to the physical dimension.”

The second story is about a sickly boy who, told by doctors he would not live to adulthood, ran away from home and became a circus strongman through, “will power… and the power of the mind,” and lived to be an old man. The author implies that it was his mind/soul that overcame his illness and allowed him to perform amazing feats. Leaving aside that circus acts are just that – acts – there are several possible explanations for the boy’s recovery. 1) The doctors may have been mistaken. 2) The training and bodybuilding he went through to become a strongman strengthened his weak body and allowed it to fight off the disease. 3) There really is something to the mind-body connection. The belief that one will get better causing actual improvement is a well-known phenomenon called the placebo effect, and it is the main thing that drugs are tested against for efficacy (that is, trials are conducted to see if the drug’s active ingredients produce improvement over the placebo effect produced by a sugar pill). It is entirely plausible that the boy’s, “strength of mind [could] counteract the weakness of the body,” especially when we remember that the mind, as an emergent property of the brain, is part of the body. Thus we can discuss the influence of the mind on the body without having to posit a metaphysical soul.

The author cites several other cases of people who overcame extreme physical limitations to have notable careers. These people are to be admired for the fortitude and hard work that it took for them to succeed despite their disabilities, but their success neither implies a metaphysical soul nor tells us anything about the soul if it does exist. Attributing their success to the 'power of the human spirit' is an emotional appeal that actually detracts from the credit they deserve for their extraordinary achievements. It is the equivalent of saying, “Yes, they worked hard, but their success is really due to their fairy god-mothers waving their magic wands.”

The author claims that, “The above examples suggest that an invisible, non-physical component can profoundly affect corporeal reality.” They do no such thing! In none of the examples given is it necessary to posit a soul to explain the reported phenomena, and if the author’s statement is taken to refer to the mind alone (though I have no doubt he means the soul) it must be remembered, as I stated above, that the mind is as corporeal as any other part of the body.
{incorrect scientific fact, emotional appeal, unwarranted assumption}

The author provides a quote from Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch in which Rav Hirsch explains that man’s body was taken from the earth, but that which makes him alive is the spirit breathed into him by God. He further explains that this spirit survives death.

This is reassuring to a species aware of its own mortality, but it is theology, not science.

The author states that the relation between the spirit and the body is now beginning to be investigated scientifically, and that new experiments have shown the spirit’s effect on the body. I have a feeling that “spirit” in relation to these experiments is a synonym for “mind,” not, “soul,” but let’s see what the evidence shows.

The first study he cites showed that patients who merely believed they had received surgery to reduce pain in their knee showed just as much improvement as patients who had actually received the surgery. While this is a good argument against continuing to perform said surgery, it is merely a demonstration of the placebo effect. This is not “groundbreaking” as the author claims, but merely yet another affirmation of a well-known effect. It is also not evidence for the power of a transcendent human spirit, but a fascinating insight into how our beliefs about a situation influence our experience of it.

In the second study he cites, one in which patients with Parkinson’s were given either a dopamine injection or a placebo, the author explicitly states that, “the placebo – or rather the patient’s expectations – caused the brain to release as much dopamine as the active drug!” These are very interesting results, but it does not show, as the author claims, “That thoughts, hopes, and expectations can produce such demonstrable physical effects reveals the power of the spirit.” Unless, as I speculated above, “spirit” here means “mind.” The results show how our mind, as an emergent property of our brain, can affect our brain and cause it to inhibit the activity that produces pain and increase the activity that releases dopamine. This is similar to how clicking on an icon on your computer screen – an image produced by software, an emergent property of the ones and zeros encoded on your computer’s hard drive – can cause the physical door of your disc drive to open.
{equivocation fallacy}


  1. "Glurgy"? Try "saccharine," a word found in real dictionaries.

    "This is reassuring to a species aware of its own mortality, but it is theology, not science."

    Theology is a failed science, as Hitchens says. Technically you are right that it is not science because it is an assertion without evidence, but as a hypothesis there would be nothing wrong with the same statement.

  2. Does he think it is uniquely human to value love? There are plenty of experiments that show that at least other primate need care and affection when growing up.

  3. > "Glurgy"? Try "saccharine," a word found in real dictionaries.

    What makes something a real word? When it’s recognized by the people who edit Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary?

    Glurgy evokes an image of something gooey, sticky, and disgustingly sweet.

    > Technically you are right that it is not science because it is an assertion without evidence, but as a hypothesis there would be nothing wrong with the same statement.

    Sure, it makes as good a hypothesis as any, but my point was that, as you said so well, it’s an assertion without evidence. I’m sure we could come up with any number of hypothesis about the relationship of the body and soul and what happens to the soul after death, but without any evidence it’s all baseless conjecture.