21 Grams

21 Grams

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.

32 thoughts on “21 Grams

  1. It may be true that we don’t — for instance, while we sleep each night we don’t, do we? But then, what constitutes our individuality as persons, or does that really exist at all? I think memory plays a central part in our individual identities, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily unbroken; if we think of remembering as re-member-ing, as active and autonomic reconnecting the central narrative that makes us who we are, then the continuity is an action of reconstituting the self again and again rather than “unbroken first-person point of view”.


  2. Just a thought about ‘the soul’ . . . . I had always been taught that we, each of us, individually, receive a soul from God Himself when we are being formed in the womb;

    but I have heard of a strange teaching (strange to me) that some believe that ‘souls’ were inherited from Adam and Eve, and are existing in the DNA passed down to each human person.

    I don’t know the NAME of this teaching, but would this then have something to do with the idea that a ‘soul’ is given to a person through genetics than being the gift of God to each individual human person ???


    If irrelevant, pay no attention to my question. 🙂


  3. > For it to be the same person, there must be some sort of continuity of
    > personality and memories and experience and “unbroken first-person
    > point of view” between the two. Otherwise it’s not the same person,

    Does it? Do we, in our life times, experience “unbroken first-person point of view”? Color me skeptical of that.


  4. I agree.
    He should have the same amount of slack as the ‘researchers’ at Auschwitz.


  5. We know you can quote like an MP3 playback.
    But can you think as well as quote?


  6. C.M.

    Is it true Biden is a Unitarian because was kicked out of the Lutheran Church for excessive hugging ?

    [ I like Joe just fine but thought this was a pretty funny comment I read elsewhere ]


  7. Check your translation. Ancient Near Easterners in no way meant the same thing by the word translated as “soul” as a medieval theologian.


  8. But neither did anywhere else: the Islamic world, India, or China all being obvious candidates. The right approach isn’t to ask what any of the various places lacked, but what was the secret sauce the Western Christendom stumbled upon? Crosby takes a fairly convention approach, that unlike those other places, Western Christendom after the fall of the western Roman Empire never achieved political unity, which in turn both allowed and incentived a lot of activity outside the bounds of the establishment. This approach goes back at least to Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and comes as close as anything to being the consensus. Crosby is interested in certain specific aspects of this general phenomenon.


  9. “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

    ” . . . . and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”


  10. Ouch.

    This post lit what I can only call a brainfire. So much of what is dicussed here aligns with what little I can discern from the thought of Owen Barfield, and confirms it.

    “The interior is anterior”
    “The logos was always there, but it wasn’t free”
    “The inside of man is part of the inside of nature”
    “The idea of matter as completely devoid of anything akin to mind, emerges as a mistaken idea, one in conflict with both physics and philosophy.”


  11. I once asked Fr Stephen why there was no huge take-off into “scientific inquiry” in the Christian East that was comparable to the West in the late middle ages/early modernity. Of course, certain sciences were known and practiced, e.g. medicine, astronomy (not so much astrology), others. He thinks that it was mostly because the people in the East weren’t all that into alchemy. I thought that was interesting.



  12. “We should cut Dr. MacDougall some slack, for the thinking behind the experiment if not for poisoning dogs.”



  13. So Isaac Newton was splitting his time between physics and mathematics, and alchemy. In retrospect the alchemy was a waste of time, but this wasn’t obvious at the time.

    Don’t forget astrology.

    Science and what’s now called Pseudoscience (then called Magick) was blended together back then with a LOT of overlap. The two are much more distinct and separated today.

    In the Eighties, James Burke of the BBC did two documentary TV series on just this subject; Connections and The Day the Universe Changed.Look them up sometime.

    Though when Quantum Physics came along, you kinda wonder. As my old Dungeonmaster put it once in a post-game recreational-thinking session, “Physics shaded into Metaphysics some 30 years ago with Quantum Physics, though nobody’s willing to admit to it.”


  14. is the resurrected body the same person? Or just a quantum-level identical copy of a destroyed original (as is seen in several SF horror pieces about teleportation)?

    The difference is CONTINUITY. For it to be the same person, there must be some sort of continuity of personality and memories and experience and “unbroken first-person point of view” between the two. Otherwise it’s not the same person, just an exact duplicate. A Soul(TM) or holographic pattern of quantum events could fit the requirement for continuity.

    Souls in Heaven before Resurrection or the “Intermediate State” was the theological explanation to provide this continuity. (Unfortunately, the Intermediate State expanded over time to all but overwhelm Resurrection until you ended up with today’s Fluffy Cloud Heaven forever.) In his “Riverworld” series, SF author Philip Jose Farmer (one weird dude) had to postulate a non-physical “recording” of a personality which downloaded into Riverworld’s newly-resurrected people with each resurrection. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riverworld

    The rationale connecting the two is that without a body, physical beings like humans are INCOMPLETE; even if you’re a “Soul in Heaven” you are still incomplete; only with Resurrection and a new body will you be complete and human again, without the split between corpse and spook.

    And (as N.T.Wright puts it in several essays and videos), we know next to nothing about the Intermediate State. All we know is the dead “are with God” in some way until the Day of Resurrection.


  15. That was 1907. Victorian vivisection of “mindless biological machines” was less than a generation in the past. (You don’t want to know what “animal experimentation” meant back then; let’s just say today’s animal experimentation is much toned-down since.) Tthe attitude was “See how the blind reflexes of the biological machine simulate a human feeling pain; if Science didn’t know better, we might think it was actually in agony!”

    Assuming the whole 21 grams thing is legit, dogs also have Tubulin; the brain structures of all mammals (including us) differ in scale and complexity, not the basic molecular structure. For all we know, MacDougall’s scale wasn’t sensitive enough to show the drop when the dogs died.


  16. I remember first reading about this in one of those Frank Edwards “STANGE But True” paperbacks in the 1960s (his stuff scared me), then mentions of this now and then..

    Don’t remember anything about it during my time in-country, which in retrospect surprises me. Like “Beyond and Back” NDEs in the Seventies and Eighties, it seemed like the type of thing Christians would have glommed onto as “PROOF! SEE? SEE? SEE?”


  17. We should cut Dr. MacDougall some slack, for the thinking behind the experiment if not for poisoning dogs. I happen to be currently reading the excellent “The Measure of Reality” by Alfred W. Crosby. It is about how there was in the late Middle Ages a shift in how Europeans thought about the world around them. Previously this had been mostly qualitative. They knew how to count discrete items (cows, melons, etc.) but beyond that level they didn’t think in quantitative terms. So they could see that one object was moving faster than another, but lacked the mental tools–and clocks–to put numbers to this. And the idea of putting numbers to one object accelerating faster than another was entirely outre.

    When the breakthrough came, it wasn’t clear what was and was not subject to such measurement. They sometimes went overboard, trying to measure, for example, grace. This in turn is an example of a general phenomenon that the boundaries of a new and exciting field are not clear. So Isaac Newton was splitting his time between physics and mathematics, and alchemy. In retrospect the alchemy was a waste of time, but this wasn’t obvious at the time.

    And really, its not as if we today aren’t guilty of going overboard on the matter of what can be quantified. The social sciences, subject as they are to physics envy, are particularly prone to this. So you read news reports of studies that show one group is happier than another, with their respective happiness stated as hard numbers. Upon closer examination these numbers turn out to come from surveys, whose answers were mathematically manipulated in various ways of various appropriateness. Even if the math all checks out, there is a great conceptual leap from a concept such as “happiness” to the answers on the survey.

    That being said, I suspect air currents, with the dogs being weighed under more closely controlled conditions.


  18. “I recently have been on a soul diet and it works, I have lost 21 grams.”

    If someone comes up to you and offers you a guaranteed weight loss of 21 grams, just sign this contract here… RUN.


  19. Isn’t there an implicit contradiction in these views?

    The earliest Christians believed in a bodily resurrection at the eschaton. If there is a bodily resurrection what need of a soul? If there is a soul that survives death then what need of a bodily resurrection?

    What we seem to have here is the conflation of two completely different ideas.


  20. I should have listed this post under humor. It is entirely tongue-in-cheek. I thought most people would get that with my crack about Klasie and eye-rolling. Robert’s advice is good: let’s just have some fun and speculate.


  21. This morning I weighed my soul – came in at 15 grams.

    This may confirm the belief of more than a few I-monkers that I am “under souled.”


  22. “where quantum events take place.”

    Since Ant-man appears to be freed from the quantum realm in the upcoming Avengers movie, let’s wait to see what he has to say.


  23. This is all quite speculative, and far from anything like “settled science”. Speculation is not an inherently bad thing, obviously, and it can be fun. But what is bad and not fun is how quickly and often we religious people latch onto such speculative science ideas as if they are certainties, and then use them in contexts and with stridency that is out of all keeping with the tentativeness of these untested ideas. When we do this, it is a best awkward and uncomfortable for others; at worst, these tentative ideas are used as another way to batter intelligent skeptics with arguments that cannot but seem unhinged to them. Speculate and have fun, but hold lightly, my coreligionists.


  24. Rubbish!
    Dare I say that this topic is R…….
    I have little knowledge of physics but I cannot agree with this R…….
    Sorry CM, we need something more tangible not R…….



  25. Mike the G Man, another thought provoking piece and my thoughts are provoked. Like the very arkward Elaine my dancing. back in the disco days, got me labeled a sole brother not a soul brother so I am very familiar with in depth discussions of the what constitutes a soul.

    I think the soul is what makes us “human”, gives our life meaning. Though not proven science I do believe Ole King Cole was a merry old soul , some people have better souls than others , that is my theory. A soul is different than human nature, a soul is unique to the individual.

    I recently have been on a soul diet and it works, I have lost 21 grams.

    Of course we have a soul, why else would the devil want to buy it? but we have to be careful now Daniel Webster is dead but the devil is not. When I was a kid that was perhaps the first story I recall with a surprising twist ending, it touched my soul.

    Again thanks for the post, it has got my mind firing on all 2 cylinders.


  26. ” 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). ”

    “1- The fact that he poisoned 15 dogs to test his theory leads me to conclude that Dr. MacDougall had no soul.”

    what a creep


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