How much does the human soul weigh? Sounds like a ridiculous question. But according to a “scientific” study published in 1907 by Duncan MacDougall, a physician from Haverhill, Massachusetts, the answer was 21 grams. Dr. MacDougall identified six patients in nursing homes whose death was imminent. According to Wikipedia, one of the patients lost weight but then put the weight back on, and two of the other patients registered a loss of weight at death but a few minutes later lost even more weight. One of the patients lost “three-fourths of an ounce” (21.3 grams) in weight, coinciding with the time of death. MacDougall disregarded the results of another patient on the grounds the scales were “not finely adjusted”, and discounted the results of another as the patient died while the equipment was still being calibrated. MacDougall later measured the changes in weight from fifteen dogs after death. MacDougall reported that none of the dogs lost any weight after death, thereby concluding that dogs had no soul (it is widely believed he poisoned the dogs to cause their death)(1). Needless to say, even at the time, MacDougall’s experiment was widely criticized and thoroughly rejected by the scientific community.
But before MacDougall was able to publish the results of his experiments, The New York Times broke the story in an article titled “Soul has Weight, Physician Thinks”, and so the story entered and endured in popular culture. In 2003 a movie, entitled 21 Grams, directed by Alejandro (Birdman, The Revenant) Iñárritu, came out and provided a unique opportunity for reflecting on both spiritual and scientific questions. A review of the movie, and a reflection of the enduring pop culture phenomenon, was published on the website, “Christ and Popular Culture” listed on the Internet Monk’s Blogroll. The review is by Tim Burbery. Tim Burbery is Professor of English at Marshall University. His research examines the intersection of science, theology, and literature. Take a minute to read Burbery’s review.
The interesting turn in Burbery’s review comes when he discusses a theory offered by a prominent Oxford physicist, Roger Penrose in his book, “The Emperor’s New Mind”, that suggests that, indeed, the soul may be, as we say, a thing, something physical if immaterial. Burbery says:
Dubbed the “quantum soul” by some, the theory’s official name is less sexy: Orchestrated Objective Reduction, or Orch OR for short. It’s a possible answer to what has been called the “hard problem of consciousness” in science, that is, the origin and nature of consciousness. Whence self-awareness? Do animals possess it to the extent that humans do? Do we have an inner essence or core—a soul? Is consciousness necessary to earthly life, even to the universe, or could life have flourished even if earth was populated solely by zombies? Orch OR also engages these and similar questions.
Now this would seem to be just another example of “woo science” except that after reading The Emperor’s New Mind, anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff stepped forward and offered Penrose a mechanism: microtubules, tiny tubes in the brain composed of a protein called tubulin. Supposedly, tubulin “makes up the skeletons of our cells, including neurons. What makes them interesting is their … potentially quantum role”, according to the book by Charles Seife, “Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes”. They can be both extended and contracted at one and the same time, “in a state of superposition” (according to Seife). Put another way, the microtubules might provide a site for the quantum brain. And, they might be the seat of—wait for it—the soul. Thus, Orch OR was born. Burbery summarizes Orch OR thusly:
In presenting their theory, Penrose and Hameroff parted company with most scientists, the majority of whom posit that consciousness arose slowly by an evolutionary process, as neurons began firing, more and more, with one another. Orch OR, on the other hand, argues that consciousness arises not between, but within, microtubules, inside the neurons, where quantum events take place. As they become “orchestrated” with each other, they produce discrete, quantized moments of awareness, which, taken together, result in what we call consciousness—somewhat like a film, as many separate frames produce the illusion of a “moving” picture.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Orch OR is its inversion of common sense, in which consciousness is a localized phenomenon. We tend to regard consciousness as starting with the human subject and radiating outward; our brains evolve, and then we’re able to look beyond ourselves and perceive things. But Orch OR argues that in fact, there are quantum events happening outside of us, ones that become entangled with our brains, and which, as it were, spark or fire our consciousness. To quote Penrose and Hameroff, “There is a connection between the brain’s biomolecular processes and the basic structure of the universe.”
Did you get that… “a connection between the brain’s biomolecular processes and the basic structure of the universe”? Hah! I knew it! What have I been trying to tell you? Take a moment to view this fascinating video from Hameroff. Hameroff remarks that “the soul is a real entity in terms of quantum information embedded in the universe.” Hameroff also claims that that information, because it’s quantum, experiences quantum entanglement with things outside the body, and thus, in theory, could be reconstituted after death.
Now, quantum effects are not limited to the sub-atomic world, but have also been observed in phenomena such as plant photosynthesis, and quantum biologists (go ahead and Google “quantum biology”) have proposed that certain birds are able to navigate on their migrations by using quantum entanglement. I bookmarked this LiveScience article, “Schrödinger’s Bacteria? Physics Experiment Leads to 1st Entanglement of Living Organisms” and was going to post on it, it seems appropriate to this discussion. I’ll be interested to see what Klasie Kraalogies says about this when he recovers from the temporary blindness from excessive eye-rolling that I have induced by this post 🙂
Burbery concludes: “As Christians, then, we don’t need science to prop up our beliefs, true, but we should at least be aware when scientists are working on something that overlaps with, and in some ways reinforces what we believe.” I would tend to agree with that. A purely materialistic reductionist viewpoint has always had trouble accounting for personal individual consciousness, except as pure epiphenomena. The idea that our personal consciousness, our soul, is an illusion is an entirely circular argument. If it is an illusion, it is a deeply persistent one.
1- The fact that he poisoned 15 dogs to test his theory leads me to conclude that Dr. MacDougall had no soul.