Brian Cox, Souls, & the Large Hadron Collider

There are so many great scientists out there. The things they get to discover and explain to the rest of us lay people are always very cool. Every so often, however, a well-known scientist will get a bit of publicity over a controversial comment they make. When theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s book, The Grand Design was released, it caused quite a stir in the philosophy community regarding his statement in the book that “philosophy is dead.”

Soul Collider Ghosts

Hawking’s claim that “philosophy is dead” is a self-refuting philosophical statement. He goes on to endorse, ironically enough, a philosophical view called model-dependent realism, gets facts about the history of philosophy wrong, implies a philosophical, metaphysically impossible claim about the universe, and finally states that the law of gravity itself is responsible for the existence of the universe. More recently, Bill Nye the “Science Guy” (a mechanical engineer by trade) gets basic biology wrong, misunderstands the pro-life view, and confuses science statements with philosophical statements in a Big Think video about abortion.

Recently, several online science outlets like LiveScience and ScienceAlert, have published articles referencing a BBC program featuring theoretical physicist Brian Cox and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. I noticed that even well-known theoretical physicist Sean Carroll shared the article by LiveScience on Facebook. The conversation between Cox and Tyson has gotten traction because of a claim that Cox makes about the Large Hadron Collider and ghosts. Here’s the relevant portion of the conversation:

“If we want some sort of pattern that carries information about our living cells to persist then we must specify precisely what medium carries that pattern and how it interacts with the matter particles out of which our bodies are made. We must, in other words, invent an extension to the Standard Model of Particle Physics that has escaped detection at the Large Hadron Collider. That’s almost inconceivable at the energy scales typical of the particle interactions in our bodies” (Cox).

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was also on the show, pressed Cox to clarify his statement.

“If I understand what you just declared, you just asserted that CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, disproved the existence of ghosts.” (Tyson)

Cox replied,

“Yes . . . I would say if there’s some kind of substance that’s driving our bodies, making my arms move and legs move, then it must interact with the particles out of which our bodies are made. And seeing as we’ve made high precision measurements of the ways that particles interact, then my assertion is there can be no such thing as an energy source that’s driving our bodies.” (Cox)

So, per Brian Cox, since ghosts are an “energy source” and the Large Hadron Collider has never detected the energy of ghosts, they must not exist. A perusal of various Facebook posts using the search feature easily demonstrates that many people believe the same argument advanced by Cox extends to belief in the existence of souls. Again, since souls are an energy source and the Large Hadron Collider has never detected the energy of souls, they must not exist either (according to Brian Cox).

Let’s talk for a minute about Christian philosophy and belief in souls. As a Christian, I believe the Bible teaches that the human person is a composite being made of two fundamental realities, one material and the other non-material. This idea is articulated very generally in the Bible, leaving us the conceptual space to explore details of this view through philosophy. In Christian philosophy, we have a technical term for the view that human persons are a body/soul composite. It is called Substance Dualism. This is the view that each person is an embodied soul, a simple, indivisible substance not having any parts. Substance Dualism has been defended rigorously by Christian philosophers like Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford and J.P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Let’s see how a few philosophers define what they mean by a soul, since this may give us some indication where Brian Cox’s argument may have gone astray. First consider the words of Richard Swinburne:

“…I conclude that the human soul cannot be analyzed as composed of form and matter; it is *non-physical* and indivisible, and possesses only pure mental properties. This is the view of Plato and Descartes…” – Richard Swinburne, Mind, Brain, & Freewill

J.P. Moreland writes:

“In chapter 3, I defended property dualism and concluded that consciousness is, indeed, *non-physical*. In this chapter, I will argue for substance dualism, the view that the owner of consciousness-the soul or self-is *immaterial*.” – J.P. Moreland, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters

Baker and Goetz state,

“As dualists we do not (necessarily) deny that current research in brain sciences and related disciplines might pose some interesting new challenges to a dualist theory that includes the Soul Hypothesis as a component. For example, dualists have the specific challenge of sorting out in some detail which features of human mental life depend directly on the physical part (the body) and which depend directly on the *nonphysical* part (the soul).” – Mark Baker and Stewart Goetz, Introduction to the Soul Hypothesis volume

Dean Zimmerman says,

“A person, like me, who thinks he’s an *immaterial* soul uses “I” in roughly the same way as a person who thinks that he’s a brain, or a body, or even (like some “madmen” Descartes mentions) that he is made out of glass.” – Dean Zimmerman, From Experience to Experiencer

Brandon Rickabaugh states,

“I am puzzled and very concerned by the move toward physicalism among theologians, especially within the Society of Vineyard Scholars. I can see no convincing arguments in favor of doing so, and this paper has demonstrated the tremendous failure of such arguments against SD (substance dualism). We are *embodied human persons* (an SD view), not bodily human persons.” – Brandon Rickabaugh, Responding to N.T. Wright’s Rejection of the Soul: A Defense of Substance Dualism

I emphasized certain words in the previous quotes to help you figure out what the problem is. According to these Substance Dualist philosophers, the soul is a “non-physical” or “immaterial” entity. An immaterial entity can’t be composed of energy because it is non-physical. It can use energy, but its essential nature does not consist of energy. I love how Brandon Rickabaugh put it, that we are “embodied human persons.” If we are embodied, that means that our essential nature is something other than a physical body. It’s reasonable to say that these five quotes are representative of the substance dualists writing and defending the view in the philosophy community. I would further contend that no category of substance dualism (i.e., Thomist, Cartesian, or Emergentist) believes anything other than that the soul is immaterial.

Physicist Brian Cox assumes that souls are an “energy source,” then constructs his argument upon that assumption. The Large Hadron Collider should have discovered such an energy source by now, but they haven’t, so says Brian Cox. Clearly, the problem here is that his argument doesn’t work because people who believe in souls don’t agree with his assumption. We reject his assumption and so, therefore, his entire argument does not even get off the ground. Brian Cox and the people who find his flawed reasoning convincing are simply mistaken. Cox and company have not attacked the soul; rather, they merely attack a straw man.

Along with the philosophers noted above, Tim Stratton has argued forcefully for the existence of the soul. The Freethinking Argument provides good reason to think the soul exists. That is to say, the view that human persons are composed of a nonphysical component called a soul is still alive and well.

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15 replies
  1. Ex-Ex-Ex-Christian says:

    Substance Dualism is the premier ‘god of the gaps’-style proposition. Not only is the soul undetectable, but alas so is the link between the soul and the brain. Considering that the brain is regarded, no matter whereupon one finds themselves on the ‘physicalist-dualist’ spectrum, to play a part in the construction of the ‘self’, I cannot help but sense that this ‘soul’ proposition is used to fill in the gaps that the brain has yet to fill (such as that controversial ‘qualia’ question).

    Physicalism still has a lot to explain, presumably, but let’s stop placing ghosts in the machine, okay? Brian Cox just said we disproved them – and for all intents and purposes – we have. Of course, since this ghost is immaterial, I’m afraid this dialogue will continue ad nauseam. I suggest you get to work building a soul-particle-detecting-collider, because all of this conjecture rings very hollow.

  2. John B. Moore says:

    You say the soul can use energy even though it does not consist of energy. This is the key problem for substance dualists, I think. Can you explain how the soul uses energy or interacts with matter?

  3. toby says:

    “This is the view that each person is an embodied soul, a simple, indivisible substance not having any parts.”

    How can an immaterial “substance” be contained within one physical body? Why doesn’t it jump from brain to brain or exist in many brains at once?

    The idea of something being *non-physical* or *immaterial* is completely opaque. And circular in a way. How can you explain anything about something non-physical? I don’t think the idea of non-physical/immaterial as used by theists is a coherent concept. What properties can you possibly assign it other that “It’s not physical like all of the other stuff in the universe”? How do you know that? “Because my non-physical self allows me to think that it’s not physical.”

    • ANTHONY says:

      The phrase “immaterial substance” is an oxymoron. If something is immaterial, it has no substance. The whole idea contains a contradiction and therefore cannot “be a thing”.

  4. Ed Vaessen says:

    “Along with the philosophers noted above, Tim Stratton has argued forcefully for the existence of the soul. The Freethinking Argument provides good reason to think the soul exists. ”

    Whats scientific source is that?

    • KR says:

      It’s not a scientific argument but a philosophical one. I checked out Tim Stratton’s video of the “Freethinking Argument” for the existence of the soul and I don’t think it works. This is how he sets it up:

      1: If naturalism is true, the immaterial human soul does not exist.

      2. If the soul does not exist, libertarian free will does not exist.

      3. If libertarian free will does not exist, rationality and knowledge do not exist.

      4. Rationality and knowledge exist.

      5. Therefore, libertarian free will exists.

      6. Therefore, the soul exists.

      7. Therefore naturalism is false.

      8. The best explanation for the existence of the soul is God.

      I have problems with all the premises but let’s focus on premise 3. Stratton claims that rationality and knowledge requires libertarian free will. This is how he justifies this claim:

      “If all things are causally determined, then that includes all thoughts and beliefs. Now, if our thoughts and beliefs are forced upon us and we could not have chosen better beliefs, then we’re simply left assuming that our determined beliefs are good, let alone true. Therefore, we can never rationally affirm that our beliefs really are the inference to the best explanation – we can only assume it.”

      Stratton is arguing that if our beliefs are causally determined, then we have no way of assessing their validity. He apparently excludes the possibility of empirically verifying our beliefs, which seems a bit odd considering we’ve known for centuries that the scientific method (which is based on precisely this kind of empirical verification) is a very good way of testing our beliefs.

      Stratton continues: “Here’s the big problem for the naturalistic atheist: it logically follows that if naturalism is true, then atheists – or anyone for that matter – cannot possess knowledge. Knowledge is defined as justified true belief. Now, one can happen to have true beliefs. However, if they do not possess warrant or justification for a specific belief, their belief does not qualify as a knowledge claim.”

      The justification for our beliefs consists of determining how well they comport with reality. The way we do this is by comparing our beliefs to our observations of reality. Why would this require libertarian free will? Reality is what it is, independently of our will. The empirical study of reality is a matter of making observations – I don’t see where free will comes into it.

      Stratton states: “If one cannot freely infer the best explanation, then one has no justification that their belief really is the best explanation. Without justification, knowledge goes down the drain. All we are left with is question-begging assumptions – a logical fallacy.”

      I think the phrase “freely infer the best explanation” shows where Stratton goes wrong. If there is a “best explanation” according to any objective criteria, then this is a verifiable fact which is completely independent of the observer. We’re not free to pick and choose – it’s just a matter of comparing the proposed explanations with observed reality and determine which one is the best. Libertarian free will is simply irreleveant to this process.

      Of course, if premise 3 falls, the whole argument goes down with it. Clearly, if rationality and knowledge are about aligning our beliefs with reality, then libertarian free will is not required for either of them. Also, as I’ve argued a number of times on this forum, there’s every reason to suspect that there is no such thing as libertarian free will since it seems to lead to logical contradictions.

      In summation, the argument fails to establish that the soul must necessarily exist. I think Stratton will have to accept that he can’t philosophize the soul into existence. A demonstration of the existence of the soul would need some actual empirical evidence.

      • Ed Vaessen says:

        Tim Stratton also makes a mistake in premise 4. He says rationality and knowledge exist. But how can he be sure of that? This believe can be forced upon him (and others, like me) in a very deterministic way.

  5. Ed Vaessen says:

    See how shamelessly the logical fallacy of the appeal to authority rules this post.

    “Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s book”
    Stephen Hawking does not write things apologists like. So no scientific credentials are mentioned.

    “Bill Nye (a mechanical engineer by trade)”
    Apologists neither like him. Scientific credentials laughed at.

    “Substance Dualism has been defended rigorously by Christian philosophers like Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford and J.P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.”
    Oh boy. These people tell what apologists like. Full scientific credentials are mentioned of course.

    “Physicist Brian Cox”
    He is not very popular in apologist land. Therefor no scientific credentials mentioned.

    • Brian says:

      I think your point regarding Bill Nye is valid. The parenthetical statement was meant to minimize his credentials. However, your objection to how the others were or were not identified, seems much ado about nothing. Philosophers, other than Socrates, Aristotle, and perhaps Augustine, are not well known, compared to Hawkings, Nye, and Tyson.

  6. Ed Vaessen says:

    Suppose Albert Einstein would have said something apologists don’t like?

    On this site, he would only have been a mere physicist, working a some patent office that had nothing to do with science.

    Suppose Einstein would have said something apologists like?

    Wow! An explosion of praise! You dare doubt the great Einstein? The Man of the Millennium? Nobel Prize Laureate? Professor at the university of Berlin? You must be kidding…


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