f The Wittenberg Door: How Much Does the Soul Weigh?

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Friday, January 17, 2014

How Much Does the Soul Weigh?

In case your subscription to the American Medicine journal has lapsed, you’ve missed the findings of Dr. Duncan MacDougall regarding the weight of the soul.

Published in 1907 (I’m a little behind in my reading), the journal records that Dr. MacDougall, son of a mortician, was able to measure weight change upon death. He did so by building a bed that doubled as a scale, and then by successively tucking-in six terminally ill patients.

By measuring their weight before, during, and after death, and by accounting for air, bodily fluids, etc, the good doctor was able to record a decrease in body weight of 21 grams. (He performed the same test on dogs, but recorded no such weight change—sorry Lassie.)

There you have it: the soul weighs 21 grams.

Modern Soul-Weighers

Dr. MacDougall’s study, and his subsequent attempt to X-Ray the soul, strikes us as silly today. It’s silly to the Christian because the category error is obvious: the soul can’t weigh anything because it isn’t physical (and it can’t be photographed because it’s shy). To the modern skeptic, the soul can’t weigh anything because it doesn’t exist—nothing immaterial exists.

The interesting thing is that today’s skeptics have more in common with Dr. MacDougall than they think.

Whatcha Talkn Bout, Willis?

Consider the following from mathematical physicist Casey Blood, Ph.D (no relation to the Errol Flynn character). . . .

. . . we need to sketch how the brain works. For our purposes, it consists of long nerve cells called neurons. Each neuron has a long branch on one end that receives electrochemical signals from other neurons, a cell body in the middle, and a second long branch on the other end that passes electrochemical signals on to other neurons. If the receiving end of a neuron receives enough input from other neurons, an electrochemical wave runs the length of the cell. In that case, the neuron is said to be “firing.” Each thought (or emotion or perception or initiation of a bodily action) corresponds to a particular set of firing neurons. So from a materialist’s point of view, we essentially are our pattern of firing neurons. (Emphasis in original.)

A key word in the explanation is “corresponds.” To the materialist, thoughts, emotions, intuitions, etc, are the firing neurons. But for those who believe in the existence of the soul, like Dr. Blood, “corresponds” is much more accurate. To put it another way, to the materialist there is only the brain. To those believing in an immaterial self, there is the mind and the brain, which work hand-in-hand; hence the use of “corresponds”: thoughts (produced by the mind) correspond with the firing synapses, but are not themselves the firing synapses or caused by the firing synapses.

What Does This Have to do With the Price of Butter?

There are a few problems with the “soul-weighing” being done by modern skeptics regarding thoughts. The first problem has to do with a reductive fallacy known as “Nothing-Buttery.” This fallacy is committed when you reduce something to one of its parts. For example, if I refer to my truck as “nothing but a bunch of nuts and bolts” I would be committing this fallacy, for my truck is much more than that.

Here’s another problem: If your thoughts are nothing but firing synapses, how could you know that without transcending it? For example, if I was a fish in a bowl, how would I know that without somehow transcending the bowl?

Also, if only material things exist, then our thoughts are material (i.e., extended into space). This brings us to another problem: Imagine a gold fish swimming in a fish bowl. How much does that thought weigh? How long is it? Moreover, if we cracked open your head, would we find the gold fish? If the materialists are right, we should find Mr. Limpet swimming around in there.


Thoughts are information, and information isn’t physical. If you grabbed today’s San Antonio Express-News and took it to the lab, you could determine all of the chemical and organic compounds that make up the paper—but none of that would ever tell you what it says. The information transcends the paper’s material constituents. Likewise, thoughts—and souls, for that matter—transcend our physical selves. Otherwise you might find Mr. Limpet hiding behind your Occipital Lobe.

--The Catechizer



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