Sketches on Atheism

Could the next Duncan McDougal please stand up… We promise not to laugh.

afterlife_by_lacza-d2xpukcDuncan 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.

HeavenGatewayI’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.

23 thoughts on “Could the next Duncan McDougal please stand up… We promise not to laugh.

  1. That McDougal though a fool was a brave man, at least we must pat him on the back, albeit late, for trying. There is a Dan Brown Novel The Lost Symbol he has guys measuring the weight of the soul in some underground laboratory which is blown up by some fanatic. It is actually an interesting read if you like fiction.


      • The only fools I’ve noticed are the ones participating in mental masturbation within this blog. The last time I check it was “thermodynamics,” not “thermal dynamics.” Don’t comment when ignorance taints your understanding. Plato knew with certainty that he knew “nothing.” He was and is still correct. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that we discovered our galaxy was but one of billions – until then, the Milky Way was our “Universe.” Since 1933, physicists have come to realize that the universe we “see” (if we could indeed see it all at once) is only 4.9% of what actually exists and that the invisible, lion’s share mass of the Universe is comprised of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Countless billions are being spent to find and understand the natures of these two entities – especially since they appear to somehow interact with matter in the visible Universe. Hence, there is a hidden Universe which is overwhelmingly larger than the one we can see and touch. If there is a supernatural world, then this is likely it.


      • Thanks for pick-up.

        Now, your point being?

        Did you even get to the bottom, or did your fingers just start moving before your brain kicked in?

        Now, what makes you think something “supernatural” might be going on? Dark matter could, of course, be little more than brown dwarfs…. Quite natural. If it’s an ocean of exotic particles (theoretical neutralino’s) then these particles still operate by the natural physical laws, exampled by measuring it by its generation of Positrons. Exotic, yes, but nothing “supernatural” there.

        Perhaps it’s all explained by current theoretical research into the idea of spacetime ‘torsion,’ which contends our universe might in fact exist inside a black hole and the Big Bang was instead a sort of Big Bounce where matter decays into familiar electrons and quarks, antimatter decays in dark matter, and dark energy is the outward force of the torsion itself. Wildly exotic, but still perfectly natural.

        So, the question remains: what leads you to suspect something “supernatural” is happening?


  2. My stupid computer keeps deleting my comment. Sigh. And now I am tired. It boils down to something like – I always appreciate your insights. And something else that I forget right now…


  3. Bless my soul, now you done got me all riled up! Now I want you to know that not only does I gots one soul, I gots two of ’em. One on each foot! Now, there smarty pants! Think you are so smart provin’ shit!


  4. The good doctor of the soul
    Oh how he was engrossed

    Gathered a few folks
    Soon to say adios

    He poked them and he pried them
    Weighed them after a lethal dose

    Alas there was no soul
    That he could diagnose


    • The bad doctor did a simultaneous “experiment” in 1901 with stray dogs where he actually did give them lethal doses. In this experiment he didn’t find the 21 grams and concluded dogs (and all animals) don’t have a spirit.


  5. “…test if atoms are capable of storing even minute traces of information; information (in any form) acquired from the things that atom has been.”

    The atomic soul! Halleluiah! (sounds like a good name for a band!) Perhaps I’ll compose a piece of electronic music for that title.

    I seem to recall reading somewhere, quite a few years ago actually, that the folks at M.I.T. or another such institute, were trying to figure out that very thing. They were trying to store information at the atomic level in order to come up with ginormous capacities for computer memory. Atomic computers!

    In my opinion it all comes down to one thing; energy. It can neither be created nor destroyed. Life is energy. It’s everywhere all the time. The only question is, can energy itself be sentient?

    I think I recall a couple of old Star Trek episodes with such beings as characters.


    • I’m going to search out this research now. I love the idea. It’d place such an ENORMOUS emphasis on not just right relations, but honestly good relations because you’re literally helping fashion (in some frightfully minute way) the buildings blocks of everything else. The ideas by no means new, but if it can be proven atoms are somehow capable of storing something of the past then it would be tangible evidence of ‘presence’ without conscious form. A physical investment in the future for others to enjoy. Can’t sneeze at that possibility.


      • Richard, just read a few articles and it seems the research is limited to freezing atoms (that’s probably not the right term) in a magnetic position, positive or negative, like the 0 and 1 in digital code. I’d heard about this a while back and it’ll blow computing out of the water when it gets rolling. IBM has succeeded in “programming” 12 ion atoms as a proof of concept experiment. Pretty cool stuff. Alas, we need to dive even deeper and discover if that ion atom (to use an example) ‘remembers’ being a star, a gas cloud, the core of a planet, a steak on a BBQ, and Richard Posner before going on its merry way.


      • Don’t be sorry. That’s just what i found with a quick search this morning. I’ll keep looking. The problem with atoms is we’re only at the stage of smashing them together to see what happens, not actually studying them as wholes, eye-to-eye so to speak.


  6. This is the first time I’ve seen a thermodynamics counterargument for this particular story. Anytime I hear about this story, the failure of his findings are always due to them being non-repeatable. This is much more clever, and moreover, scientifically sound.

    Any theories on who will be the next McDougal? My bets are on a Templeton Prize winner within the next 5 years.


    • If its going to be anywhere it’ll be from the Templeton bed. Pitty that doesn’t get more media exposure. It should. Active research in any field is important. Discovering something isn’t possible is just as important as finding out if it is, or might be. It’s a sad indictment on popular culture that such things don’t inspire the majority. I guess its precisely why we have such childish and utterly foolish religions dominating the landscape.

      The thermal dynamics line comes from Brian Cox. He did a great interview for a program called carpool, where they literally just drive around chatting. Brilliant idea. If you’re interested here’s the link:


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