Our Hindu scripture "Bhagavad Gita' says that "the soul is invisible, inconceivable, immutable, and unchangeable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body".
Since many millenia, many religious Hindus when hearing this on their deathbed have drawn a lot of solace from this.
The question of whether or not the soul exists has also been debated for centuries, and is one of the key elements in theistic belief.
In order to ascend to some heavenly realm after death, there must be some intangible part of our being that survives death. The concept of a soul is present in virtually every religion, as is the idea that after we die, it must go someplace that is appropriate to the life lived.
AFTERLIFE CONCEPTS CREATED BY RELIGIONS
Even the most pessimistic atheist can recognize that religious pictures of the universe also have their downsides. It is not just that, Hell (in Abrahamic religions) is a particularly frightening concept to contemplate; even Heaven sounds rather unpleasant when you think about it. As one pop group Talking Heads sang: ‘Heaven, heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens. It's so boring’.
In Hinduism & Buddhism, we have a more circuitous way of approaching Heaven. First, we have to undergo many rebirths, sometimes in a lower form of life, second, we have to settle our karmic debts and third, we then attain moksha/Nirvana and go to Heaven. This also, specially to be born as a cockroach is blood-curdling.
THE EVIDENCE OF SCIENCE
With modern brain-imaging technology, we can now see how specific, localized brain injuries damage or even destroy aspects of a person’s mental life.
Countless examples of such dysfunction have been documented—to the point that every part of the mind can now be seen to fail when some part of the brain fails. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has studied many such cases. He records a stroke victim, for example, who had lost any capacity for emotion; patients who lost all creativity following brain surgery; and others who lost the ability to make decisions. One man with a brain tumor lost what we might call his moral character, becoming irresponsible and disregarding of social norms
The crux of the challenge then is this: those who believe they have a soul that survives bodily death typically believe that this soul will enable them to see, think, feel, love, reason and do many other things necessary for a happy afterlife. But if we each have a soul that enables us to see, think and feel after the total destruction of the body, why, in the cases of dysfunction documented by neuroscientists, do these souls not enable us to see, think and feel when only a small portion of the brain is destroyed?
To make the argument clear, we can take the example of sight. If either your eyes or the optic nerves in your brain are sufficiently damaged, you will go blind. This tells us very clearly that the faculty of sight is dependent upon functioning eyes and optic nerves.
They believe, therefore, that their soul can see. But if the soul can see when the entire brain and body have stopped working, why, in the case of people with damaged optic nerves, can’t it see when only part of the brain and body have stopped working? In other words, if blind people have a soul that can see, why are they blind?
Even eminent a Christian theologian as Saint Thomas Aquinas believed this question had no satisfactory answer. Without its body—without eyes, ears and nose—he thought the soul would be deprived of all senses, waiting blindly for the resurrection of the flesh to make it whole again.
Aquinas concluded that the body-less soul would have only those powers that (in his view) were not dependent upon bodily organs: faculties such as reason and understanding.
But now we can see that these faculties are just as dependent upon a bodily organ—the brain—as sight is upon the eyes. Unlike in Aquinas’s day, we can now keep many people with brain damage alive and use neuro-imaging to observe the correlations between that damage and their behavior. And what we observe is that the destruction of certain parts of the brain can destroy those cognitive faculties once thought to belong to the soul. So if he had had the evidence of neuroscience in front of him, we can only imagine that Aquinas himself would have concluded that these faculties also stop when the brain stops.
In fact, evidence now shows that everything the soul is supposed to be able to do—think, remember, love—fails when some relevant part of the brain fails. Even consciousness itself—otherwise there would be no general anesthetics. A syringe full of chemicals is sufficient to extinguish all awareness. For anyone who believes that consciousness can survive bodily death—this is an embarrassing fact. If the soul can sustain our consciousness after death, when the brain has shut down permanently, why can it not do so when the brain has shut down temporarily?
A TV STATION & A TV SET
Some defenders of the soul have, of course, attempted to answer this question. They argue, for example, that the soul needs a functioning body in this world, but not in the next. One view is that the soul is like a broadcaster and the body like a receiver—something akin to a television station and a TV set. (Though as our body is also the source of our sensory input, we have to imagine the TV set also has a camera on top feeding images to the distant station.)
We know that if we damage our TV set, we get a distorted picture. And if we break the set, we get no picture at all. The naive observer would believe the programme was therefore gone. But we know that it is really still being transmitted; that the real broadcaster is actually elsewhere. Similarly, the soul could still be sending its signal even though the body is no longer able to receive it.
This response sounds seductive, but helps little.
FIRST, it does not really address the main argument at all: Most believers expect their soul to be able to carry forward their mental life with or without the body; this is like saying that the TV signal sometimes needs a TV set to transform it into the picture, but once the set is kaput, can make the picture all by itself. But if it can make the picture all by itself, why does it sometimes act through an unreliable set?
SECOND, changes to our bodies impact on our minds in ways not at all analogous to how damage to a TV set changes its output, even if we take into account damage to the camera too. The TV analogy claims there is something that remains untouched by such damage, some independent broadcaster preserving the real program even if it is distorted by bad reception. But this is precisely what the evidence of neuroscience undermines. Whereas damage to the TV set or camera might make the signal distorted or fuzzy, damage to our brains much more profoundly alters our minds. As we noted above, such damage can even change our moral views, emotional attachments, and the way we reason.
Which suggests we are nothing like a television; but much more like, for example, a music box or Digital Walkman: the music is not coming from elsewhere, but from the workings within the box/walkman itself. When the box/walkman is damaged, the music is impaired; and if the box/Walkman is entirely destroyed, then the music stops for good.
There is much about consciousness that we still do not understand. We are only beginning to decipher its mysteries, and may never fully succeed. But all the evidence we have suggests that the wonders of the mind—even near-death and out of body experiences—are the effect of neurons firing. Contrary to the beliefs of the vast majority of people on Earth, from Hindus to New Age spiritualists, consciousness depends upon the brain and shares its fate to the end.
Hence science says there is no such thing as a soul.
In his 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig wrote: "When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity; when many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion".
I think he was spot on!