Sean Carroll claims that "there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death." Carroll makes this claim in a recent post on his blog Cosmic Variance. There is no reason to believe that Carroll is not a competent scientist, but he has now produced a pretty good reason why we might want to question his competence as a philosopher:
Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?These kinds of statements make me wonder what I would say if my plumber told me that the interior decoration scheme in my home was all wrong on the basis of his knowledge of pipes, or if my barber tried to explain how he had detected psychological problems with a previous customer based on what he knew about cutting hair.
Carroll is partly responding to Adam Frank, who thinks rightly that science can have nothing to say about the question of the immortality of the soul since there since it is not a scientific question, a position Carroll glibly compares to the position that we can't really know whether the moon is made of green cheese:
Adam claims that “simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information” regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese ... So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted.There's just one minor difference here: the composition of the moon is an actual scientific question with a definite scientific answer--whether you have to tools to determine it now or not. It is exactly the kind of question science is designed to answer. Whether the soul is immortal is not. That Carroll thinks it is is a measure of his lack of understanding of the issue before him.
Once again, we have a scientist performing philosophy without a license, thinking that his scientific qualifications fit him for the task when they don't.
C. S. Lewis once noted that there is very little you could know about what was outside nature by what was inside nature:
"But science has shown that there's no such thing [something that exists outside nature]."Carroll's argument seems to run something like this:
"Really," said I. "Which of the sciences?"
"Oh, well, that's a matter of detail," said my friend. "I can't give you chapter and verse from memory."
"But don't you see," said I, "that science never could show anything of the sort?"
"Why on earth not?"
"Because science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists--anything 'outside'. How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?"
No reality can exist that does not abide by the laws of physicsThat first premise is a doozy. No wonder he never states it outright in his argument. It simply lurks there in the background throughout the whole article unargued for, unanalyzed, and unacknowledged. How exactly does he know this? In fact, isn't this precisely one of the points at issue between scientific materialists like Carroll and religious thinkers?
A supernatural reality could not abide by the laws of physics
Therefore a supernatural reality cannot exist.
Why would we expect that the soul would retain information after we die? Why would anyone belief that it consists of particles? Why would we think there would be physical laws holding it together?
Why would anyone ask questions like this unless they were simply unaware that the question of the immortality of the soul is not a scientific question. I'm sure accountants have a hard time making accounting sense of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I imagine economists have some trouble making economic sense of Beethoven's Symphony Number 3 in E-flat Major. And I've got to believe that the Empire State Building is somewhat impervious to the analysis of a professional psychologist.
Among advocates for life after death, nobody even tries to sit down and do the hard work of explaining how the basic physics of atoms and electrons would have to be altered in order for this to be true. If we tried, the fundamental absurdity of the task would quickly become evident.Well, the absurdity of the task--and of asking these particular scientific questions about a non-scientific issue--has apparently not been brought home with sufficient force to Carroll to prevent him from engaging in it. Maybe the reason believers in life after death don't ask scientific questions about it know something Carroll apparently doesn't: that it isn't a scientific question.
But somehow we're supposed to believe that a physicist, by plying his particular craft, can resolve the question of the immortality of the soul. I wonder how Carroll would react if a theologian began analyzing problems in science according the principles of religious dogma.
In fact, we already know the answer to that question. Just go look at Carroll's response to creationism! But don't ask Carroll to observe the same limitations that he asks others to observe.
Carroll sets forth the formula that "tells us how electrons behave" [genuflect here]:
He then states:
If you believe in an immaterial soul that interacts with our bodies, you need to believe that this equation is not right, even at everyday energies. There needs to be a new term (at minimum) on the right, representing how the soul interacts with electrons. (If that term doesn’t exist, electrons will just go on their way as if there weren’t any soul at all, and then what’s the point?)Um, well, no you don't. At least no more than you would need such a thing to happen in the process of affirming the above statement. Such an affirmation would involve a free will decision by Carroll in his conscious mind. In fact, this is one of the problems with the philosophical solvent Carroll wants to apply here: it would not only explain the immortality of the soul away, but consciousness, free will, love--and rational validity itself.
If nothing can be accepted as real if it cannot be encompassed in a mathematical equation, and these things cannot be encompassed in mathematical equations, then these things cannot be accepted as real. What is the formula for consciousness? (a subject Carroll mentions later, as if he'll be able to make any more sense of that) What equation explains free will? By what calculus can you prove love?
And what about life itself? Carroll talks on as if science really understood life, but does it? What is the equation for life? What physical thing is absent from a dead body? Can science even create life? If science cannot explain life itself, by what authority does is pretend to speak on the afterlife?
Aristotle, wiser even in physics than his successors, says that the soul is "the form of the body." The form of a thing is not a material aspect of it. In fact, Carroll is just one of the many philosophically ignorant scientists who gets his formal and material causes mixed up. Modern scientists of Carroll's bent accept material causation, but reject formal causation. But instead of going on their merry way and simply interpreting the world without taking formal causation into account, they either try to make material causes do the work of formal causes or they want to keep formal causation and pretend it is material causation--or (more commonly) both.
In demanding that scientific criteria be applied to the question of whether the soul is immortal, Carroll commits the first of these errors. In not applying it to consciousness, free will, and the process of rational justification, he also commits the second. In both cases, he is committing a category error.
The extent of Carroll's confusion is evidenced by the fact that he doesn't even know he is confused.