One common theme found throughout religions and philosophies around the world and across cultures is the presence of some part of us that survives death and lives on forever, of some sort of soul. The form, qualities, and destiny of this soul vary as much as the people who believe in such a thing, but the end result is the same, that we continue on after death in one form or other. The nature of the human soul has been picked apart and pondered for millennia by philosophers, theologians, and even scientists, pretty much anyone who has ever contemplated the great beyond past this veil of reality we call life. It should come as no surprise that there would be those who would attempt to delve past the philosophical debate of the meaning of life and the human soul and try to actually find concrete evidence once and for all, but this evidence has remained elusive to say the least.
Although belief in a soul or some sort of incorporeal eternal life essence is as old as our ability to ponder such things, and for the faithful there is really no question at all, one of the first real attempts to scientifically quantify a soul and prove its existence was carried out in 1901 by a Massachusetts physician named Duncan MacDougall. He reasoned that if humans did indeed have a soul, then this soul must have some weight that can be detected and measured, no matter how insubstantial or unseen it is. To test out this hypothesis he went about measuring the weight of tuberculosis patients both before and just after they died. After performing this analysis on 6 of these patients, MacDougal did see a change in weight, and came to the conclusion that the soul leaving the body after death weighed ¾ of an ounce, or 21 grams. Interestingly, when he performed the same test on dogs he found no change in measurable weight, leading him to conclude that this was because these animals had no soul.
These radical findings really made waves at the time and captured the public imagination, but there were several problems that are evident. One was that MacDougall had only weighed 6 people dying from the same disease, which is far too focused and small a sampling to claim any definitive results. Another is that he had apparently measured other patients as well who had not demonstrated the loss in weight, and he had just failed to mention those. Even worse yet is that the results later proved to be unreproducible by other researchers. One doctor named Augustus P. Clarke also looked into MacDougal’s sensational findings and decided that the measured loss of 21 grams could have been due to simple physiological factors, of which psychologist Richard Wiseman has written:
Clarke noted that at the time of death there is a sudden rise in body temperature due to the lungs no longer cooling the blood, and the subsequent rise in sweating could easily account for MacDougall’s missing 21 grams. Clarke also pointed out that dogs do not have sweat glands (thus the endless panting) and so it is not surprising that their weight did not undergo a rapid change when they died.
Ever since then there have been others who would try and prove that the soul is a real thing and that we are not just the sum product of biology and the random firings of neurons within our brains. Unfortunately, as with MacDougall’s experiment these investigations have typically left much to be desired, and the road to providing such evidence has been a bumpy one. One very well-known experiment in modern times is that of a Russian physicist and director of the Research Institute of Physical Culture in St. Petersburg, named Konstantin Korotkov, who believes that the soul can actually be photographed as it emerges from the body upon death.
Korotkov is a big proponent of using a bioelectric imaging technique called Kirlian photography, which was invented quite by accident in 1939 by a man named Semyon Kirlian. It was found that images could be produced on photographic plates without light if they were subjected to potent electrical charges. The technique went on evolve into several different types and be used mostly for taking pictures of coronal discharges. However, it has also been used rather extensively for trying to take photographs of the aura of living creatures, and this is where Korotkov comes into the picture.
Korotkov has studied Kirlian photography for years, and claims to have developed a very advanced version he calls “Electrophotonics,” which he says can be used to capture images of human auras and measure fluctuations within them to detect biological imbalances or problems. The technique is also apparently useful for photographing the human soul leaving the body, which Korotkov believes can be done by photographing the aura upon the moment of death. He then claimed to have done just this in 2016, and the news was widely reported on at the time, taking the Internet by storm in the process.
The problem is, it is unclear if any of the photos of the supposed soul that have been passed around all over the net are even real or not, as one common picture used on nearly every site that is claimed to be authentic seems to be almost a stylized piece of art rather than real, and indeed it is a modified photograph created by Argentinian Photographer Oscar Burriel. Another popular photo passed off as being from the experiment is merely a thermal image of people who have just gotten out of a sauna, and has nothing to do with auras or the soul at all. Because of this, it is very difficult to ascertain the veracity of Korotkov’s claims, and there have been accusations that he is perhaps a bit of a crackpot. For his part, Korotkov insists that not only are his claims true, but that his revolutionary technique for capturing these images has been used by over 300 doctors for the purpose of monitoring patients for stress and disease. Is he on to something or this just delusional ramblings or even a hoax? Who knows?
One seemingly phenomenal experiment that was definitely a hoax was supposedly carried out in 1988 in Germany. According to the story, German scientists Becker Mertens and Elkie Ficher carried out attempts to weigh the soul, similarly to MacDougall’s experiment. They reportedly monitored a total of 400 terminal patients and carefully weighed them both before and after death, which led them to the conclusion that the soul did have a weight, and that weight was 1/3000th of an ounce, or 0.01 grams. This project was widely talked about at the time, and is still considered by many to be a real experiment, but as it turns out these scientists have not been proven to be real people, and there is no actual evidence that such an experiment was ever done at all, much less what the results were.
Other experiments to find a soul have been variously flawed or twisted to fit in with the expected data, and there has been little stringent scientific research with reproducible results done in the effort to prove the existence of a soul. Herein lie some of the problems with this avenue of research. First, with all of the numerous different religions of the world, all with their own canon on what the soul is and what happens to it after death, there is a vested interest for many in what such scientific results could mean. It is very difficult to get a totally unbiased experiment that is not haunted by some degree of confirmation bias, which is the tendency for human beings to hold onto the data that fits their preconceived theory and discard or ignore everything else. An example would be MacDougall’s experiment to weigh the soul in both humans and dogs, and since he had already been convinced that animals don’t have souls before he even began, he took his results to be a confirmation of that set idea. Ideally science should not have this bias, but it happens actually a lot more than you might expect, especially with highly controversy charged research where there is something at stake in the results, like, say, confirming the existence and nature of the human soul.
This ties into what would happen to the world if the soul was actually proven as being a real thing. Think about it, if someone were to actually capture irrefutable scientific evidence of the existence of the human soul and what happens to it, the repercussions of such a finding would reverberate throughout society as we know it. What would happen if a major religion was found to be wrong? What would happen to our view of the universe? How would people behave and view life and death if they knew for a fact that death was not the end and that they would live on forever? How would we deal with that? Society would experience a total upheaval. This absolutely colors research into the nature of the soul, and looms large in the background. It is so much easier and nicer to just believe what we want to believe and for no one to say differently, let alone prove it.
Another problem is that, although there are actually many scientists out there who do believe there could be a soul and that it can possibly be measured somehow, the widespread general attitude in the mainstream scientific community is of casual disinterest at best, and aggressive skeptical debunking or outright denial of the concept of an eternal soul at worst. In many ways the majority of the scientific world still view the idea of the soul as religious mumbo jumbo, and totally unnecessary to explain our existence or anything in the universe, and many will flat out write dismiss it. V. S. Ramachandran, a brain scientist at the University of California, San Diego gives a typical such sentiment when he says:
An immaterial spirit that occupies individual brains and that only evolved in humans — all that is complete nonsense. It is basically superstition. Far from being humiliating, this idea is ennobling, I think. Science—cosmology, evolution and especially the brain sciences—is telling us that we have no privileged position in the universe and that our sense of having a private nonmaterial soul ‘watching the world’ is really an illusion … Once you realize that far from being a spectator, you are in fact part of the eternal ebb and flow of events in the cosmos, this realization is very liberating.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has also railed at length against the notion of a human soul, calling our tendency to believe such a thing a vestigial relic of our evolution that merely served the purpose of giving us survival traits such as a sense of unity, self-preservation instincts, and diverting our attention from the inevitable utter oblivion of death. This is a common sentiment in mainstream science, and this general climate of skepticism and indifference means that there are few researchers who are going to want to risk their reputations and their standing among peers by seriously looking into whether a soul really exists or not. In other words, no matter what they really believe, or how much they think it deserves serious further study, many scientists simply won’t go near this sort of research with a 10-foot pole. This all further adds to the problem of launching any truly serious studies into this potentially eye-opening research, and ensures that there is no serious clinical challenge at all so far to the established scientific dictate that we are nothing more than the product of our evolution and an array of neurons and chemical reactions wrapped up in a meat bag over a calcium frame.
None of this is to say that the road to evidence of the soul is closed, or that no scientists think it could exist. In fact, as our research into quantum states continues we are coming to the realization that our universe is far stranger than we have ever imagined before. Indeed, some scientists believe that this is the key to discovering the existence and nature of the human soul. One such scientist is respected British physicist named Sir Roger Penrose, who believes that our soul, our consciousness, is stored within our cells as quantum information on a subatomic level, and that if our physical form dies this information can be released and continue on, possibly forever. He has also explained that if a person dies but is revived, this quantum information can be drawn back into the body, and he uses this hypothesis to explain life after death experiences. Another researcher who agrees is Hans-Peter Dürr, former head of the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, who believes that our physical universe is just the beginning, and that a vast other world lies beyond what we see and touch. He has said of this:
What we consider the here and now, this world, it is actually just the material level that is comprehensible. The beyond is an infinite reality that is much bigger. The body dies but the spiritual quantum field continues. In this way, I am immortal.
To theorize about all of this is very well and good, even with a rigorous and unbiased study into the existence of a soul there is still the challenge of actually detecting and quantifying it. At present it is very possible that we simply don’t have the tools we need to be able to objectively detect and measure the soul to any appreciable degree. It is also true that even if we scientifically look into the existence of the soul and we do have the technology we need to detect it, we really don’t know what we are looking for. Is it a force, a presence within our brain, packets of quantum energy, what? There are theories that the soul does not even reside within us at all, but rather that our physical bodies are merely conduits picking it up just as a radio or TV might pick up a signal. We just don’t know, and there is certainly the idea that it is perhaps better for us as a society if we don’t know.
We simply don’t know anything about the nature of the concept of what we could call a soul, what it is, what its properties are, or where it resides, and we possibly have no way of detecting it at all with our current stage of development. However, with further journeys into the new worlds of physics opening up to us and the timeless human desire to reach out and explore, perhaps we will one day have the means with which to finally find what humankind has long sought since time unremembered. Perhaps one day we will know if there is a soul or not, and what that entails, for better or worse.