The Atlantic ponders a weighty question: Did early hominins have souls?

Among the category of Articles That Should Not Have Been Written, this one is prominent. It’s “Did Neanderthals have souls?” by freelance writer Ruth Graham, and her piece is in The Atlantic.

The question of when, and in which species, hominins were “ensouled” is of interest mainly because it’s so dumb, showing not only the conflict between faith and fact, but the silly issues that theologians get paid to grapple with. As shown in the recent book by Julien Musolino, The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain by Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs, there’s not the slightest bit of evidence for a soul. Although a bit repetitive, the book is certainly worth reading, especially for its copious evidence that the mind is a product of the brain and that there’s no bit of “consciousness” that can be detached from the brain and exist separately.

Nevertheless, many theologians not only assert that there is a soul, but that humans are the only species that have one. That, for instance, is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, which accepts that humans did evolve, but also that we’re distinct from all other species by virtue of our ability to be “ensouled”. Exactly when this happens during embryonic development is not clear, but the ability to be ensouled itself must have arisen during human evolution. And that raises the question of when that ability arrived in our lineage, a question activated by the recent discovery of Homo naledi. (Theologians always need new grist for their mill.)

Such is the subject of Graham’s piece, which would be okay if it mentioned the evidence against souls. But it doesn’t: it simply buttresses the superstition mongers who find the evolutionary arrival of souls is an intriguing and viable question. But that question is completely unanswerable, not only because we almost certainly don’t have souls, but because the concept of a soul is itself so nebulous that we wouldn’t know what kind of evidence to accept. Should we take ritualistic burial of the dead? (H. naledi may have deposited the dead in a burial chamber, but some ants do the same thing) Religion itself and worship of deities? Language?

Here are the questions, discussed by Graham, that the concept of a soul raises for its adherents:

The broader issue is what happens to the soul of anyone born before Jesus Christ. Surely Moses and Abraham, for example, made it to Heaven. But how? The short answer, according to many theologians, is they trusted in God’s promises about the coming of a savior. They wouldn’t have known the specifics about Jesus Christ of Nazareth, but they could have had a general faith that a Messiah was on his way.

A related question is what happens to modern people who never had the chance to hear the message of Jesus Christ. Again, most Christian theologians allow for salvation on the basis of a kind of orientation toward God. Here’s how the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council addressed the problem in 1964, for example:

“Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”

That last sentence is the kind of opaque theobabble that the Vatican regularly emits.

These are prime examples of the silliness of theology, which answers these questions by simply making stuff up. It always amazes me that educated people can even bother themselves with these questions, much less write screeds about them. (See, for example, the book The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters, by J. P. Moreland, or the article in Psychology Today by physician/researcher Robert Lanza, “Does the soul exist? Evidence says ‘yes'”, which takes as evidence the existence of subjective experience.)

To some theologians, the question of whether H. naledi has a soul comes down to this: “Was the species descended from Adam and Eve?” Since the scientific evidence shows that H. sapiens could not have descended from only two individuals, this question is already nonsensical. But creationist Kurt Wise (remember him?) sees it as answerable, and with a “yes”:

Creationists are already arguing over the naledi discovery. Kurt Wise, the director of the Center for Creation Research at Truett-McConnell College, told the evangelical World magazine that the fossils do represent a fully human species.

But the equally fundamentalist group Answers in Genesis, headed by Ken Ham, disagrees, claiming that H. naledi wasn’t descended from Adam and Eve. They were just apes!

These fossils, like so many others before them, may reshuffle the “family tree” that evolutionists are constantly drawing and re-drawing in their efforts to create for us a history apart from God. But they will not re-shuffle the truth about human history or what it means to be human. We know that God created man and land animals the same day without evolution. We seriously doubt the original owners of the Dinaledi bones [H. naledi] were among the descendants of Adam and Eve, as the preponderance of the evidence suggests they were animals, one of the variations that developed among apes. They most certainly were not any sort of evolutionary intermediate.

This is ludicrous, of course, because we’re still apes, and we’re certainly animals! Here we have two fundamentalist Christian groups disagreeing, with no way to settle the issue. Instead of suspending judgment pending a good definition of the soul and a way to demonstrate its existence, they just make stuff up. This is not science but wish-thinking, and it’s no way to settle issues. And remember, this is in principle an empirical question: it’s about religion asserting what’s real, not simply dealing with meanings and values. So much for those who bang on about religion not making any claims about reality.

But of course even more liberal theologians accept souls, and thus still must deal with the evolutionary question. Graham continues:

Even the many Christians who accept that the world is much older than 10,000 years find that the problem can still provoke. But it’s not necessarily cause for despair over the fate of the naledi soul. British pastor Mark Woods, a contributor to the online publication Christian Today, wrote recently that the naledi burial site raises intriguing suggestions for Christians about the existence of the soul. If this primitive group went to such lengths to bury their dead, he argues, it “shows they knew that death was not an absolute ending, and that those who had died were still, in some way, present.”

That’s a theological way of saying what scientists have been arguing all along. As Lee Berger, who led the discovery in South Africa, put it, “We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human.” For some, it’s a matter of eternal life and death.

Re the first paragraph, we still don’t know whether the cache of H. naledi skeletons represents some kind of ritual, much less any behavior suggesting that those dead were considered “sacred.” Some ants remove their dead and put them in a “death pile.” Does that mean that ants have souls, too? There’s no evidence that the naledi dead were buried: they could have simply been removed to a specific location in the cave—and really, we don’t even know that for sure. And even if they were buried, this could have been just to avoid stench and contamination. Finally, even if they were buried deliberately for spiritual reasons, that doesn’t show H. naledi KNEW that “death was not an absolute ending.” It showed at most that they believed it. Here pastor Woods is mistaking belief for fact.

As for Lee Berger’s statement, I still think it’s silly to ponder “what it is to be human”, at least on the basis of his discovery (he headed the team that found H. naledi). Let Berger first answer the slippery question of what we mean by “fully human”—and that, of course, is completely subjective. If we invoke specific things like behavior or brain size, yes, we can in principle get an answer. But that’s not what many secularists mean: they are surely talking about the subjective beliefs and attitudes of hominins, and that question is almost impossible to answer.

And it becomes completely impossible to answer once we begin invoking theistic concepts of the soul. If the human soul is a requirement for being “fully human,” and the soul is an idea without an iota of supporting evidence, then the question will linger forever in the domain of theology: a discipline that cannot truly answer its questions, but pretends to do so by confecting solutions.

As for Graham, it was her journalistic responsibility to point out the lack of evidence for souls, and certainly to quote someone who thinks the whole question is nonsensical.  By quoting Berger in her last paragraph as almost supporting souls, Graham simply keeps the question alive. If we’re going to talk about “what it means to be human”, let’s get tangible about the question, honest about its subjectivity, and dubious about our ability to find answers.

h/t: Matthew Cobb


  1. GBJames
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:24 am | Permalink


  2. Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Last sentence of the third paragraph sums it up “It may sound silly to apply that standard [that a person must believe in the resurrection of JC to get into heaven]to primitive species hovering millions of years ago between animal and human, but it’s an important question if you believe in the eternal soul.”….as you say periodically, nothing to see here folks, move along…

  3. Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I want to see Graham’s materials and methods write-up.

    In related news, I hear Gabriel is hosting a disco night at this club called “The Pin”.

  4. Les Robertshaw
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Thomas Paine settled the issue of what theology is for me. It’s not even a subject. Clarence Darrow did the same for the existence of the soul
    That otherwise intelligent people still’study’ and argue about theology and claim, without a shred of evidence, that the human soul exists is just plain silly.
    Topics not worthy of the time and ‘ink’ wasted on them. My dog is more interesting

    • nightgaunt49
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      Seems to me if they found something they could call a “soul” wouldn’t change humanity one bit. Except it might crimp those who want bodily life extension. They might find it harder to gain funding on it.

      Lovecraft in his short story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” had an interesting idea. That when we sleep we travel up and down the time stream, to other planets etc. Then we return every morning till we die. And that there are others who are not human as well. The protagonist meets one through the dying degenerate body of a hill mountain man. Reminded me of the Greek theoi, a non human spirit entity that some people would have as companions or even muses. Supposedly Aristotle or Plato had one. The man is told that one day humans may reach the stage it is in now. Energetic swirls of intelligence and power. Lovecraft was a strict materialist and Atheist.
      Wish it was like that. But I am skeptical. Still a great idea.

  5. JohnE
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    This makes as much sense as an article analyzing whether Little Red Riding Hood could whistle.

    • Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      Red Riding Hood has some value as a cautionary tale, and whistling is a good skill

      so I’d say there was more value to that than angels dancing on a pinhead and when did our primate ancestors get a soul and stop being animals

      I’d rather be a risen ape than magic dirt

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        Love that last sentence. 🙂

        • Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

          I can’t recall where I read it, I am either quoting someone or paraphrasing

          but seriously – we should take that us as a chant

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted September 21, 2015 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

            Very honest of you! I was giving you credit. 🙂

            • Posted September 21, 2015 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

              Memes matter more than “me” lol now that’s mine – I am known in certain circles as “The Integrity Fairy” and while it’s not meant as a compliment – I take it as one. Thank you very kindly

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

                It’d make a good t-shirt! 🙂

              • Posted September 22, 2015 at 12:38 am | Permalink

                hehheeh thank you

  6. BobTerrace
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I go back to my standard answer for this stuff – 42, also the number of angels that fit on the head of a pin.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:56 am | Permalink


  7. Walt Jones
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    The 1964 statement by the church basically says that if you’re nice to others, you’ll go to heaven (i.e., works). Sometime in college, while wondering why a god would want to be worshipped, I concluded that treating others well was worshipping. Humanism has shown me that I was right – other than one superfluous hypothesis.

  8. Kevin
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    We have plenty of stars well over a million years old whose spectra we have collected that confirm many things, chief among them, the laws of electromagnetism. Granted we knew next to squat about electromagnetism before the 1800s, but evidence shows that the theory works way way back…

    Now if Xians worked out the idea that physics gets you loads of empirical data back to times when JC was not around, they might have had a chance of getting somewhere with their almighty vision. However, it’s that not all blessed to worship an electron, because electrons do not possess the salvation Xians were hoping for.

    • Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

      Personally, I always thank the stars that died to make the Fe for the haemoglobin in my blood.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted September 22, 2015 at 7:00 am | Permalink

        But before they did that, they made the oxygen that you breathe and the carbon that underlies most of your chemistry. There’s a lot to thank stars for.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted September 22, 2015 at 10:06 am | Permalink

          We are all made of stardust.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted September 22, 2015 at 10:17 am | Permalink

            ♬ We are slightly auriferous ; and we’ve got to [mumble, mumble]

  9. Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    It’s yet another reason why Christian theology is incompatible with evolutionary reality. Bob Price and I discuss it in Evolving out of Eden under the subheading “Prehistoric Propitiation.” We “take a moment to shine a flashlight on the never-mentioned implications of the belief of many theistic evolutionists, Protestant and Catholic, that the human soul appeared somewhere in the evolution of Homo sapiens from [our prehistoric] uncouth hairy ancestors,” and conclude thusly:

    Even the members of our own species who lived over a hundred thousand years ago in Africa pose a dilemma for traditional Christianity. What kind of salvation was available to these people, before even the most primitive forms of Israelite sacrificial worship? The “oldest known human-made religious structure,” was built about 12,000 years ago, and is decorated with graven images of animals. That would be prohibited by Exodus 20:4; people weren’t worshiping the God of Israel there.

    Obviously, in one sense all this is moot since there are no longer any cave men left around being “discriminated” against. It’s like complaining that the money-grabbing Ferengi are being caricatured on Star Trek. But it still seems worthwhile to point out the insidious thinking involved in this theistic evolutionist gambit. It seems innocent only because the scapegoat (“soulless”) forebears are all gone, unable to confront us except in the occasional skeleton or fossilized skull fragment.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      The caveman may not be around for potential discrimination, but by narrowing the focus on “what makes us fully human ” to signs that a group believed in God, an afterlife, and/or sacred, spiritual realities the rock solid structure for modern day discrimination is being well laid.

      We’re only fully human when we believe in God or some other permutation of the supernatural. That automatically places atheists in the unfully human category, a sad and bizarre aberration. These “silly ” articles surreptitiously kick us out of the species by implication. I find this offensive for reasons which go beyond the crackpot pretense at science.

      • Pliny the in Between
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        Sastra, maybe being human is nothing more than, ” I think, therefore I am – better”.

      • darrelle
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        Nicely said.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        I agree and think further that all theses idiot beliefs being given any weight also give weight and validity, however tenuous, to other often more extreme religious beliefs.

  10. mitchej
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    If you put the entire Christian world-view together, it not only disagrees with reality, it’s not even coherent with itself. I believe that some day we’ll have a deeper understanding of this process from a cognitive perspective. My own opinion is that presents externally as a “belief” is actually internally a bunch of scattered ideas, and that there are psychological defenses to stop the ideas being held in awareness long enough for the lack of coherence to be clear.

    For example, take two ideas “soul” and “heaven”. The christian worldview is that the soul is the part of a person that lives on after death, the part that will go to heaven. And only humans have it. Squirrels do not have souls.

    So there are no animals in heaven. None. Certainly no pets, since they don’t have souls. Now square this against the assertion that heaven is a happy place.

    Of course, “soul” and “heaven” fall apart in many more ways than this, once one can hold the concepts for a moment and begin to question them – as does the story of Jesus as the “son” of God etc. The whole christian narrative, laid out in full, is completely incoherent.

    But while non-believers can easily see the absurdities, I think that once these ideas are approached psychological defenses kick in. It’s not lack of intelligence: it’s that intelligence gets directed towards protecting the ideas from scrutiny rather than examining them.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      I think more than a few believers in the super special ensoulment of humanity will quickly break ranks if they’re asked about their pets. The casual identification of “soul” with a capacity for love and loyalty will hook up with the modern tendency to view our animal friends as members of our family and produce a major dissension among the religious. Even the current pope appears to have noticed the live wire in this issue.

      • mitchej
        Posted September 23, 2015 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        I completely agree – which shows how little thought people put in to the logic of souls and heaven in the first place. Anyone who can step outside their beliefs for five minutes and walk the consequences through will quickly see that it makes no sense.

        But to do this requires an act of courage: to put aside the comforting belief that once you die, you will come back to some happy place. Like I said in my original post, this is why an attempt to debate this stuff logically is so difficult. Atheists are basically attempting to have believers confront the unpleasant fact that the will die like any other mammal, and they are not coming back.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know too much about Christianity but isn’t judgment day when jeebus comes back and the dead will rise again, the actual physical dead, put back together?

      That the soul goes to heaven or that there are ‘people’ in heaven now is contradicted by some versions.

      But then consistency and sense really need not apply here, I guess.

  11. Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    If only we could get these people on the US Olympic gymnastics team, we would be permanently in the gold.

    • Jeffery
      Posted September 22, 2015 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      I don’t think, “contortionism” is an Olympic sport, is it?

  12. Scote
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    What serious article on science and religion will be next in the Atlantic? One on whether or not Adam and Eve had belly buttons?

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      Hence many a strategic leaf in old religious paintings. It is a serious question.

      • Scote
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Well, I’d like to know if Adam had sex organs when he was created, and, if so, why, given that his only company was animals…

        • Willard Bolinger
          Posted September 23, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

          Yes I have raised that question many times. Also the claim of not knowing that they were “naked”. What would that mean in their existence of just two people. No indication of sex and then what would be the purpose of a man and a woman. Another would be having any knowledge of obeying “god”-(what would that mean to an Adam and Eve?) or disobeying “god”? How could two people by themselves develop an understanding of “right” and “wrong”? We humans do that in a large social structure base largely on ‘community values” that have a complex process of development within a structure of wealth and poverty, owners and laborers, the few owning property living off the many payments for the use of this property by the many. And more

          • rickflick
            Posted September 23, 2015 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

            Don’t worry. It’s all metaphor. What about God himself? The Sistine Chapel depicts Adam with his junk hanging out, but notice that God (the older man on the right) is covered by a smock or lab coat. Who is ms. God and how was she endowed? These are things best left to theologians to debate.

          • nightgaunt49
            Posted September 23, 2015 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

            If you take into account Lilith yes they had sex and she wanted to be on top. Adam said “no” so she went off and had sex with angels or demons and so Eve was made from Adam so that she could be subservient to the male as the male is subservient to their Jehovah. That goes for servants and slaves, be subservient to their human masters and love them as the Master loves and is subservient to their deity.
            Now see how they make that work? Genius. Genius used for evil.

        • Willard Bolinger
          Posted September 23, 2015 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

          The Bible points out he cold find a suitable “help meet” among the animals that he is busy naming. The question arising how would he know what to do to have sex with animals and which ones? I noticed lots of things like this as a teenager or younger. “God” creating a woman was an afterthought! I was thinking of this people trying to explain how the world was created and how people came into being and all these silly stories so full of holes and yet could not find but a very few other people who had thought about the things that I did. Multiple ‘gods” in Genesis 2-3 included.

          • Willard Bolinger
            Posted September 23, 2015 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

            sorry I thought I checked for typo errors—-“could not”

      • rickflick
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

        And many more belatedly applied to earlier works of art.

        • Michael Waterhouse
          Posted September 22, 2015 at 12:27 pm | Permalink


  13. Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Too much going on today to subscribe and join in the fray…but oy! what assininity. It’s on the level of wondering at which latitude you fall off the bottom of the Earth. How the hell can such nonsense make it past the editorial process at The Atlantic?


    • rickflick
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      I can imagine the editorial meeting:
      “Can you believe this shit?”

      “What the hell do they take us for. This is the Atlantic ferchrisake.”

      “Wait now, guys…keep in mind the flagging circulation and no bonuses last year. This is great clickbate. Admit it.”

      “OK,OK, but please, please only one of these a month. I can hardly face the kids at home after that one we did on Irish elves.”

      • nightgaunt49
        Posted September 23, 2015 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

        Maybe “The Atlantic” is run by the same kind of mind set that purchases it. The US has always been too religious and too prone to authoritarianism and all its factors like genocide, glorification of power and military. Mixing of church, state, economics and politics into a toxic brew given a cosmetic fine smell of democracy and equal for all rhetoric that doesn’t always ring true.

  14. gluonspring
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    That is an interesting question, but what I really want to know is whether their alignment was lawful, neutral, or chaotic?

  15. Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Nina's Soap Bubble Box and commented:
    The religious assert childish and obvious foolish wishful thinking and then they have the nerve to portray skeptics as perpetual rebelling teenagers, eh?

  16. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Wikipedia tells me soul music started in the 1950s, so I guess souls have to predate then.

    • BobTerrace
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      No, no, no – you have cause and effect backwards. Soul music is what created souls.

      • GBJames
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        But soul food created soul music!

        • darrelle
          Posted September 21, 2015 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

          That just goes to show that the best way into a persons soul is through their belly.

  17. W.Benson
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Standard materialism does not seem to explain the subjective experience of personal existence. There must be (IMHO) material laws and relations that are currently not well understood that account for the phenomenon. I may be wrong, but closing the door on scientific ‘hyalozoism’ (however hard it might be to get a handle on) seems unacceptably dogmatic.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      Explaining the ‘subjective experience’ is a puzzle.
      But making up a word ‘soul’ and just filling in whatever characteristics you want, to justify your understanding is empty.
      There is no evidence for a soul or any of the claims around it. It’s like saying it’s magic.
      Nothing yet explains the subjective experience without endless baseless assumptions or full bore question begging.
      Idealism can’t explain it either except by assuming it.

      As we know that lightning isn’t gods throwing thunderbolts, while still not knowing the deep how and why of electromagnetism we do have a full valid explanation of it.
      I can do without incoherent invocations of non existent gods and propositions of non existent ‘stuff’ made up to provide a pat answer. A non answer.

      I like the puzzle of subjective experience, I don’t want it made less and less interesting by the equivalent of waving a magic wand to find answers.

      Software provides a hint as to how such a thing may happen.
      It may be completely wrong but it does show us how material and immaterial can interact.

      And, if there were a scientific hylozoism surely it would be more expansive that this selective soul stuff of a select few. Pretty much the opposite of hylozoism, as I see it.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

        …while still not knowing the deep how and why of electromagnetism…

        QED is widely accepted as a complete theory of electromagnetism. Do you disagree? What questions do you think remain unanswered?

        • Michael Waterhouse
          Posted September 22, 2015 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps I phrased I wrongly.

          Perhaps I should have stuck with why?

          I did say that we have a full valid explanation of it. But why things are the way they are is not always explained.

          My knowledge does lag these days so maybe there is a complete answer to why moving a wire in a magnetic field generates electricity?

          I know there is a full functional description, but why?

          I was listening to my radio the other day, in the car, with a weak signal. I put the wind screen wipers on and heard a bunch of static.
          I thought to myself how amazing it is that the rough contact, relatively, between the carbon brushes and the commutator causes a bunch of sparks to be generated and as they collapse (voltage wise) many short bursts of radio waves are generated, resulting in the static sound.

          I wonder why?

          There a still puzzles in quantum aren’t there?

          But, I am happy to agree with you in principal and have the substance of my argument against soul stuff remain valid.

          I’ve tried learning music. They say (they?) that it is best not ask why there is such a thing as key. Just accept and move on.

          But why?

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted September 22, 2015 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

            There aren’t really any sensible “why” questions in physics. We can ask what causes something to happen, and how it happens, and get sensible answers to those sorts of questions.

            If you’re asking why the laws of physics are this way instead of some other way, there are three sorts of answer to that question: consistency, anthropic arguments, and brute fact. Any alternative laws you want to propose must actually work together as a consistent system. (Classical Newtonian physics doesn’t, it turns out; that’s why QED is a relativistic quantum theory.) They must also be compatible with our existence (because we’re among the phenomena they need to explain). And if there are multiple ways to meet both of those requirements, then which one we actually observe is down to the luck of the draw; that’s just the way things are (within the space of viable possibilities), and there is no explanation beyond that.

            If by “why” you’re asking what’s the ultimate purpose of it all, consult a theologian for a made-up answer. We don’t deal in ultimate purposes here.

            • Michael Waterhouse
              Posted September 23, 2015 at 1:13 am | Permalink

              I think all three might need to be considered.
              I like the consistency position. I also think it is a thing that a lot of people don’t get. People who think science is a bunch of disparate facts taken on a certain kind of faith, without realizing that it all has to fit together and be consistent with a huge, historical body of work.
              to say nothing of people who think there are scientific propositions in the bible or koran.

              I not really implying ‘ultimate’ why’s but it is tricky to say just what I mean and, as I said my knowledge is a bit behind. An example of what I meant would be something like the situation before the Higgs boson was confirmed.
              Are there still not questions about quantum that need answering to move our understanding a bit further?
              And, it is a matter as to where you put the why question as to whether it can be asked properly. One can ask why there is lightning.

              Any way I know what you are saying and I most certainly won’t consult a theologian, except for a laugh maybe. John Lennox for example.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

        Well said. In addition, as I understand him, Sean Carroll has pointed out that our current understanding of physics rules out hylozoism. There are no holes in the standard model into which it could fit.

        • W.Benson
          Posted September 23, 2015 at 10:49 am | Permalink

          Kelvins current understanding of thermodynamics ruled out relativity. Science advances; dogma stands still.

          • rickflick
            Posted September 23, 2015 at 11:31 am | Permalink

            Yes, it’s good to be skeptical. If you haven’t read Carroll on this topic, you should. I wish I still had the link.

    • Willard Bolinger
      Posted September 23, 2015 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      spelled wrong! The word is “hylozoism”–the doctrine that matter is inseparable from life, which is a property of matter.

  18. loren russell
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    A simple Biblical approach is to ponder this: If Adam was H.neladi-like — a pin head with human arms and legs attached to chimp shoulders, hips and ribcage — and if Adam was also “made in God’s image”, we aren’tat all what God had in mind to haul souls around the earth..

  19. Posted September 21, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    If by Soul you mean a supernatural metaphysical quality to your conscious life that exists after you die then the answer is NO. Ditto for all living earthly creatures.

    Tomorrow I will answer the question “Do ghosts have souls?”

    • eric
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      I think we can reach some agreement here. Both skeptics and the faithful can agree that H. Naledi had as much soul as any other hominid.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      The ones that have to walk might.

  20. Posted September 21, 2015 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    In response to the statement of soul music I will say that James Brown will live forever.

    • Willard Bolinger
      Posted September 23, 2015 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      I would say that in time he will be forgotten and almost everyone and new music stars will supplant their name in most people’s memory and knowledge!

      • GBJames
        Posted September 23, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        And in time, the heat death of the universe will supplant even more.

        • rickflick
          Posted September 23, 2015 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

          Even Pat Boone?

  21. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Early humans aint got no soul; they were around before the old time rock ‘n roll.

  22. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    …the ability to be ensouled itself must have arisen during human evolution.

    I don’t see why. If souls are little pieces of God, and God is omnipotent, then he could ensoul a Roomba if he wanted to. (Even R2-D2 feels the Force.)

    There needn’t be any biological reason why only humans have souls. It could be that God just prefers it that way for inscrutable reasons of his own.

    • Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      “If souls are little pieces of God, and God is omnipotent, then he could ensoul a Roomba if he wanted to.”

      I am aware of at least one such roomba. 🙂

      • nightgaunt49
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

        Don’t you remember Herbie the “Love Bug”?
        Walt Disney film about a car with a soul?

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

          I almost said a 1928 Porterinstead of a Roomba, but wasn’t sure how many here would get the reference.

  23. Posted September 21, 2015 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    This sounds like a Comic-con discussion panel on how Kryptonians evolved super-powers on a planet with a sun that couldn’t power them, or what quality of kryptonite, being a piece of Superman’s home planet causes it to be poisonous to him on Earth.

    The difference between the above discussion and the lucubrations of theologians is a matter of degrees (i.e. a PhD), and the answers to the first come out with the next issue of Superman, while the Bible-series, while mostly derivative, ended ages ago and any new writings about those stories are basically fan-fiction.

    • gluonspring
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:15 pm | Permalink


  24. TnkAgn
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Why=oh-why did they not consult James Brown, the living Godfather or Soul?

    The mind boggles…

  25. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    In terms of seriousness “did Neanderthals have souls?” ranks somewhere south of Barry Mann’s “who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?

    • rickflick
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      No one here is fool enough to click on that bate.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

        Your loss. I wouldn’t bait those of you waiting with bated breath to hear the #1 novelty doo-wop hit of ’61 (as I’m sure our host recalls).

  26. Johan Mathiesen
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    The Atlantic? My goodness, I thought it was from the Onion.

  27. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Ahh, Soul.

    I’ve got one of those, comes in very handy when I go to the little room…


    (I’m sorry, the Devi^H^H^H^H^H Determinism made me do it…)

  28. JoeBussen
    Posted September 22, 2015 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    1964, hmmm. In 1956, my 17 yo self went from the corn and soybean fields of IL to the Novitiate (that’s a place, not a person) in WI to become a Teaching Brother. I was in awe of our erudite novice-master, Father Charles Neumann. (Brothers called to be priests were sent to Fribourg, Switzerland for their seminary education; Americans had to first master French, German, and Latin; that did require some smarts.)
    One day he told us that we were ready to learn the truth about our privileged election. God dispensed his grace as he chose, and we are to be eternally grateful. None of this namby-pamby “baptism of desire”stuff. Aquinas went a little soft here. Augustine was more on the mark. Of course we respectfully objected: what about the pagan babies? They can’t help it that they don’t know Jesus. Are they really condemned to eternity in hell? Yes they are.
    To my (not quite) eternal shame, it took me ten years to escape the madness.
    That same year six of us brighter novices were asked if we would major in physics; seems there was a dearth (perhaps an exodus) of physics teachers in the province. Some seeds of rationality were soon planted. They grew slowly…

    • rickflick
      Posted September 22, 2015 at 5:11 am | Permalink

      Sounds like fun(as in a Gulag) . Any idea how many of your classmates stayed and how many eventually escaped? And was there much talk in the bunk house at night about doubt and escape planning?

  29. Posted September 22, 2015 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Surely Moses and Abraham, for example, made it to Heaven. But how?

    Why limit this to Moses and Abraham? How do we know anyone “made it to Heaven”? Where is Heaven? Does on violate the speed of light to get there? If not, it must be close, yet we can’t seem to find it with all the eyes we have on space. The list goes on with more questions that have made up answers, not the least of which is: what the hell is a soul? Even the Catholic Church doesn’t define it clearly. When Aristotle talked about the concept, he talked about matter and form. Well, once your body is rotted, the matter is of course still there, but the form is gone. It’s kind of silly to speak of a soul at this point. They’re right back where they started trying to come up with some other nebulous definition of what it might be.

  30. Jeffery
    Posted September 22, 2015 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    “Theobabble”- a great term!

    “…copious evidence that the mind is a product of the brain and that there’s no bit of “consciousness” that can be detached from the brain and exist separately.” – there’s a good article in, believe it or not, HuffPo, concerning evolving views on consciousness:

    It argues that ALL “system” have a form of “consciousness”, implying that it is nothing “special” or confined to man (I bring this up because our consciousness, our sense of, “I” is the foundation for the belief that there is some sort of irreducible entity in us separate from the body).

    It uses the example of watching a sunset and how many different regions of the brain “light up” in processing this sensory information, some being only concerned with the color “yellow”, for instance (I read an article a while back that said researchers had found in an individual ONE neuron that “lit up” only when showed pictures of Jennifer Anniston!).

    This got me thinking about why, when we hear a little voice in our head saying, “I’m watching a sunset”, we choose to think it’s something “separate” and different from the other phenomena being processed, rather than recognizing it as just another “artifact” of the experience: what intrigues me more than the “problem” of consciousness” is how, and at what point, did a brain develop the capacity to generate “internally-produced” images and sensations and ponder them as if they were information coming from our sense organs?

    Given the massive interconnectivity of our neural network, it’s not hard to imagine a “bleed-through” occurring in which a region of the brain started to “process the processing” of an adjacent region; the ability to imagine events that haven’t happened would be of great survival value in hunting and “threat-avoidance”.

    On Kent Ham: ” We know that God created man and land animals the same day without evolution.”- he’s conveniently avoiding avoiding the fact that there’s TWO different, and conflicting, versions of this event in the Wholly Babble: proof positive that these “internally-created” thoughts need have no basis in reality!

    The “ego” works perfectly: “It thinks it is itself”

    • rickflick
      Posted September 22, 2015 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      Good points. I remember Dan Dennett says basically the same thing about consciousness. He described a vending machine as having a limited sort of consciousness.
      An important concept for how consciousness arises in the human brain is recursion. We think about our thoughts and we think about thinking, and we think about thinking about thinking, which, when you think about it, isn’t really such a great leap from thinking about other things.

    • nightgaunt49
      Posted September 23, 2015 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

      I’ve noticed at least two contradictory versions in the Bible. Literally polar opposites like someone edited two books together into one. It essentially allows for anyone reading it to settle on one version. Where deeds don’t matter or deeds do matter etc.

      You could edit it into two Bibles one anti of the other. Then we can shave some real schisms.

      • Posted September 23, 2015 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

        Actually, some one expert on the bible I think would agree there are more than two mixed up versions of many of the stories, not to mention the many incidents reported as fact that never happened. One of my favorites, since it shows most Christians don’t pay much attention is the two contradictory stories of the birth of Christ. His parents lived in Bethlehem. No, the lived in Nazareth and went to Bethlehem because of some hair-brained Roman tax scheme (which the Romans didn’t have), and had to stay in a barn. Then they went home to Nazareth. No, they went to Egypt, because Herod (who had died six years before Jesus was alleged to have been born) sent his soldiers to kill the kid. Then they moved back after a while but went to Nazareth because Herod’s son might like to kill the kid and wasn’t clever enough to find them if they weren’t in Bethlehem. Actually reading the whole bible during one summer vacation in high school is what convinced me I didn’t want to be a minister and started me on the “conversion” to atheism.

        • nightgaunt49
          Posted September 24, 2015 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

          And Christians wonder why Atheists reccommned to others to read the Bible. Of course Atheists say to read it with discernment, hard analysis and logic. Also check the historical records too.

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