Duncan McDougal was a magnificent fool. Magnificent because he was bold enough to test a theory that would transform the world, and a fool because he convinced himself he’d actually succeeded. Duncan McDougal weighed the human soul. It sounds absurd because it was, but this Massachusetts physician believed he could find and deliver definitive proof for the existence of the human spirit and by doing so gift the world with the first tangible evidence of religious beliefs… and in 1901 he set about to do just that. He gathered six tuberculosis patients, sufferers who stood no chance of recovery and had just days left to live, and placed them each on a type of weighing bed wherefrom he monitored the changes in their mass up to and beyond the point of their ultimate demise. As the patients exhaled their last breath McDougal recorded their weights, tallied the results, found an average, and proudly proclaimed to the world that the human soul weighs 21 grams. Surprisingly, the results were actually published by someone (the British non-profit paranormal group, the Society for Psychical Research) but not so surprisingly failed to penetrate the scientific landscape any deeper than that. The reason why is quite simple: thermodynamics.
Physics has known for quite some time that a soul cannot exist, not in this universe, which by extrapolation means the flighty theistic promise of an afterlife is equally impossible. It’s a lovely notion, a security blanket for the frightened and overwhelmed, but its little more than a fairytale borne of imaginative longing. We are information processing devices capable of performing work, and that requires energy. We’re a heat engine, and if you stop providing the power source you stop processing information. As Professor Brian Cox put it, “If there is an afterlife I’d have to reconsider the engineering design of fridges.” That’s to say, for some conscious, non-physical body (a spirit) to exist and be capable of processing information (of work) it must be proven that energy can exist outside the laws of this universe, and no one has even gotten a whiff of that being so. The argument a theist will inevitably leap on here is that a soul does not exist in this universe, and the moment they say that so begins the merry-go-round debate of empiricism vs. adult fantasy bullshit.
I’m happy to say there is however room for some future Duncan McDougal to do something bold and actually work to expand human knowledge. Forget trying to prove whether or not a soul exists (it doesn’t), but do try and find a way to test if atoms are capable of storing even minute traces of information; information (in any form) acquired from the things that atom has been. Prove that and the next Mr McDougal will go a long way in establishing some tangible evidence for a notion of an afterlife… albeit not the one the Abrahamic religions are selling today.