[extropy-chat] Bioethics Essay- Revised

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Mon May 23 18:36:39 UTC 2005

Essay extract:

>one way we might determine if a blastula has a
>soul or not is to scientifically measure it somehow.
>Interestingly enough somebody has already
>scientifically weighed the soul. He was a medical
>doctor named Duncan MacDougall and in the April 1907
>issue of the journal American Medicine he reported the
>results of experiments in which he determined the mass
>of terminally ill patients before and after they died.
>He observed that the patients he studied lost an
>average of 21 grams of mass when they died.
>Interestingly enough his results were never confirmed
>or repudiated by any other scientists despite the fact
>that they were published in a peer reviewed journal.
>If MacDougall’s results are accurate then one
>must conclude that a blastula can in no way
>accommodate a 21 gram soul as it weighs only about 34
>micrograms which is 600,000 times too little. In fact
>a developing embryo would not reach 21 grams until
>about the eighth week of development. If similar
>experiments were performed, perhaps we could obtain a
>more accurate weight for the soul. However the
>experimental evidence as it stands, would argue that a
>blastula does not contain a soul.    [nostrils, etc]

I hope what follows is regarded in the spirit of collegial critique, rather 
than gratuitous insult, but I don't intend to mince words. Several people 
(including me, off list) have advised deleting the "theology". Instead, 
you've added this ridiculous spiritualist/new-age item, which for most 
traditional Christians schooled in the elements of theology will look like 
either barefaced parody and mockery, or tone deaf positivism.

The idea of an immortal soul is that its "essence" is metaphysically 
disjunct from corruptible, measurable matter and energy. This is precisely 
what is supposed to grant the soul its incorruptible immortal character. 
Angels and souls have no extension, no footprint, as it were, in the world 
-- hence the celebrated (although mythical) debate over the number of 
angels that can dance on the head of the pin. Of course, this mental 
construct seems incoherent. How can something with no palpable material 
reality supervene upon, interact with, let alone command the physical body? 
But that's allegedly the mystery of the thing. For many Christians, the 
sheer vulgarity of supposing that you can put a soul on scales and weigh it 
is (arcane pun intended) breathtaking. You will win no significant number 
of supporters with this line of argument.

If you must persist, consider the equally misjudged possibility that souls 
also develop in size and mass from conception to death. The reason a 
blastocyst doesn't weigh very much, on this unlikely argument, is that its 
soul is proportionately less massive. That doesn't mean God fails to love 
it, nor that killing its material substrate, however underdeveloped, is not 
murder most foul of the innocent.

I think the way to go with an essay like this is either to stick very 
closely to elucidation of the physical and developmental facts, or to 
provide a sophisticated theological argument for why the ensoulment theory 
is a culturally-specific importation of certain historically located and 
limited philosophical opinions, as corrigible as the rest of the largely 
fallacious Greek biology of that time. That would require hard work by a 
theologically informed theorist, and probably should not be tried at home.

In addition, many sophisticated Protestant theologians, and I imagine 
Jewish theologians as well, no longer countenance a dualist model of the 
human person. Spirit is not any longer regarded as a gadget that gets stuck 
on, at conception or any other time. Admittedly, believers of this sort are 
probably not your natural audience, since they very likely won't object to 
stem cell research in the first place.

There's much to admire in your draft essay, Stuart, and I hope you'll 
consider this critique seriously, because it would be a shame to provide an 
unnecessary opportunity for derision rather than reflection.

Damien Broderick

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list