I've got some bad news and some good news for those who believe they have, or are, a soul. Bad news is, almost certainly the soul doesn't exist.
The good news is, no matter. Because we can never be dead.
However, the good news doesn't mean we're immortal, which is the promise of soul. It just means, as Stephen Cave says in his fascinating book, "Immortality," that it is impossible for us humans to imagine our own nonexistence -- because whenever we try to do this, we're still alive.
That's what I learned from a quote in the leadoff reader review of Cave's book on Amazon, which made me buy it.
We do not linger like uninvited guests at our own funeral, nor are we plunged into the lonely void. We stop. The conscious experiences we have had are the totality of our lives; death, like birth, is just a term that defines the bounds of those experiences...The second step along the path of wisdom is therefore this realization that we can never be dead, that fearing being dead is therefore a nonsense.
l'm enjoying "Immortality" a lot. It's going to be the book that I talk about next weekend at a meeting of a book discussion group, where the theme is History. That's because the subtitle of "Immortality" is the quest to live forever and how it drives civilization.
Cave convincingly argues that the only four possible approaches to immortality, Staying Alive, Resurrection, Soul, and Legacy, are at the root of almost everything humans do. Or at least, the important stuff.
So far I've read the Staying Alive, Resurrection, and Soul sections. At the end of each, Cave discusses why this scheme for achieving immortality doesn't work. Because so many people believe in soul (I did, for over thirty years), I was particularly interested in the reasons he cites for why souls don't exist.
Here's some excerpts from "The Lost Soul" chapter.
There is one big problem with the idea that your consciousness or "awareness" can in some form survive the death of your body. It is something with which we are all in fact very familiar, not least from countless Hollywood films: simply that if you get hit on the head with sufficient force, you will be knocked unconscious. Your awareness of the world ceases; your lights go out.
...Similarly, if you are injected with general anesthetic -- a syringe full of chemicals -- your awareness will be extinguished. For anyone who thinks consciousness can survive bodily death, this is an embarassment.
The reason is this: the soul, which even in its pared-down form is supposed to maintain some minimum degree of consciousness, is supposed to be an entirely nonmaterial thing independent of the body -- only thus can it survive the body's death.
Now it is natural to suppose that a hard blow to the head would stop your body from working -- we might expect you to collapse to the ground and even to seem, from the outside, unconscious. But if consciousness were being maintained by an entirely nonmaterial thing, we would expect your consciousness to continue regardless.
...The crux of the challenge is this: those who believe that the soul could preserve these abilities after the total destruction of the brain in death must explain why the soul cannot preserve these abilities when only a small portion of the brain is destroyed.