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Humanities LibreTexts

2.1: Hoops of Steel

  • Page ID
    29962
  • Northwest Regional Hospital was chosen by doctors Renee Carter and David Hughes for the experiment precisely because it was unexceptional. It was a quiet place where no extraordinary procedures were performed and patients came to die very ordinary deaths. It also happened to be where they first met doing their residencies, so it meant they were familiar with its procedures and generally well-liked. While it had the guise of a public hospital, it was primarily funded by a local businessman that owned many large manufacturing facilities in the area. The nearest hospital used to be 3 hours away and, with the potential for serious accidents every day for his workers, he felt opening the hospital was just a necessary part of doing business. He was also a Lutheran minister, and all these factors meant it would be easier to accomplish what began as a conversation over a beer many years ago.

    “We’ve received approval from the review board to proceed with the experiment! Of the fifteen patients we received consent from earlier, nine are still alive and eight of them are still consenting to our experiment,” Renee shouted excitedly as she entered the office she shared with David. He was both too nervous and abrasive to attend the meeting with Renee. They were happy the hospital gave them some private space to set up their things a few days ago in anticipation of receiving approval for the experiment. After all, no patients were going to be harmed by their work, as they were all dying, but the potential implications of their research were not to be taken lightly. Whatever their results showed, there were bound to be serious consequences for some people's deeply held beliefs about the world.

    “That’s great! But you really must prepare yourself for finding out the truth that you’re wrong,” David replied with a sly grin. He always enjoyed pestering her about what he called her “groundless mystical beliefs.”

    “Oh, come on. You know that all this experiment can do is confirm my beliefs and will do nothing to undo them. If it turns out I’m ‘wrong’ and souls don’t actually weigh anything, then I’m fine. And I wouldn’t be wrong even if we find out you’re ‘right’ since I don’t know what we’ll find. I’m just genuinely curious to learn something new,” she responded.

    “Yeah, yeah, I know. But if it turns out souls don’t have any measurable weight, then there would really be no way to ever scientifically prove their existence, unless they exist in the form of a yet-to-be-discovered brand new energy state,” David reminded her. He continued, “After all, you are the namesake of a guy that thought we could never touch or interact with souls directly, but that they would control us by communicating through our cerebellum or something. I still can’t believe you’re named after Descartes.”

    “What can I say? My parents are good Catholics and appreciate one of the greatest minds of all time. It was the pineal gland, not the cerebellum – that would just be crazy. But how can you hold that against him? He barely had any knowledge of medicine and was just trying to explain how it is our minds and souls can interact with our physical bodies. I still can’t believe you refuse to read his meditations. They really are a great piece of literature and philosophy, and they’re not really that long. You’d understand where I’m coming from if you had ever bothered to look at them. Maybe I’ll just post them along with pictures of cute kittens on Facebook? That seems to get my less academically-minded friends to read things. Perhaps I can run an experiment to see if that works on you, too?” Renee bantered back as she began to take stock of the equipment in the room.

    “Speaking of good experiments, Dr. Duncan McDougall, your almighty savior, was a terrible scientist. He’s the only reason people believe souls actually weigh an amount we can measure, but his methods were not up to even the scientific standards of the time in the early 20th century. He made his observations of the weight of the soul under very terrible experimental circumstances with only a few observations and somehow settled on a little less than an ounce, 21 grams, as the weight of the soul. He was unable to accurately reproduce his measurements or experiments. At least that theory resulted in a good performance for Benicio del Toro in the movie 21 Grams,” David said.

    “And if he or someone else had experimented further on his hypothesis that a dying person loses some precise amount of weight after death because the soul is lost, then we wouldn’t be about to make history, would we? I still can’t believe that no one has properly conducted an experiment to confirm or refute the claim that the soul leaves the body after death and there is a measurable loss of mass,” Renee said, shaking her head while smiling at the same time. “We are just so lucky we get to be the ones to test it.”

    “Now that, I agree with. I think it’s all a load of garbage, but it is a very interesting load of garbage worth investigating, if at least to help illustrate that there is definitely no physical evidence in favor of the soul’s existence. There is still, of course, one major problem: when exactly will we declare someone dead?” David asked. He had made a very important point here, and Renee knew it, as there were quite varying definitions and criteria for death. “Are we allowed to look at the loss of mass after the death of the physical body in patients that are already brain dead? Or are we to assume their souls are already gone?”

    “We’ve already discussed this, and we are only going to use patients that are going to expire from cardiopulmonary cessation, and observe them before, during, and after their hearts and lungs cease to function. It doesn’t matter for how long they’ve been stopped, since all we care about is what happens to their weight in the minutes after they do stop,” Renee reminded him.

    “But when they die still has to be important and we should still have a good grasp of when they are dead as we currently understand death. For how long must their hearts and lungs stop? It will be hard to pick a point that is not arbitrary, because – as we both know – you can keep a patient’s heart beating and lungs going for quite a while using artificial means, and they can even be restored to normal functions using devices like defibrillators, especially if they just lost their vital functions. Do we declare them dead immediately, even though they may spontaneously come back? Do we do it after a minute? After two minutes? Five minutes? All of those are currently in use as standards,” David asked.

    “You’re right, we still haven’t decided that factor yet, partly since we never thought we’d get approval so easily or so early. But, again, it doesn’t matter when we declare them dead for our little experiment, and if we get the results I’m hoping for, then maybe we will have a new way to determine death. It’s like this: if the soul does have a measurable weight, then when we measure it leaving the body, shouldn’t we declare the body dead then? And if the ‘dead’ body does come back to life and regains the weight it just lost, wouldn’t that then even more confirm the theory of the soul and its residence in the body?” Renee asked excitedly.

    “That would be interesting, and you’re right. However, just be prepared for us to see nothing when someone dies by any standard we choose to apply,” David said sternly.

    “I can’t help but remember something I read in college by the Philosopher John Perry. In his story, a philosopher is dying and her friends are trying to comfort her. She says there is no point in doing so since she knows she will shortly end up as nothing much more than worm food since she believes she has no soul and is simply identical to just her body. When her body goes, everything goes, and she sees no possible way for her to continue on after her body dies. Her friends however, think otherwise, and try to convince her that she can survive the death of her body. I guess I’m still wondering that even if we find a mysterious loss of weight after death, what will that tell us? We can’t quite directly assume that it’s the loss of a soul that caused it, but we know that’s what everyone would say. But then what is the soul? Is it just weight? Does it even matter if we have one or not? What if someone loses that weight, gets revived, and the soul doesn’t return? No offense, but I’ve always thought that’s what might have happened to you,” Renee said, attempting to lighten the mood.

    “Dogs have always looked at me like I have no soul, and my parents swear I stopped breathing for a full three minutes when I was two years old and deathly ill from pneumonia, so that would make sense. You’re actually making some sense today, since I also agree with you about the results of our experiment. It would seem that someone could lose their soul and still be the same person possibly, right? If someone loses 21 grams, but comes ‘back to life’ and acts no differently than before, why say they're a different person? The soul wouldn’t add anything to us understanding the identity of a person, and the soul would then have to be carved off of our understanding of identity using the precision of Ockam's Razor,” David said while pretending to excise a mole from his arm with a scalpel.

    “That's the idea that the simplest explanation is the correct one, right?”

    “Not exactly, and that idea wouldn't be worthy of such a cool name. Old William of Ockham was an Anglican Bishop that told us that we should not multiply causes beyond necessity, which is very different than heading straight towards the simplest explanation. That idea has obvious flaws in it, and is totally not what he meant. Your soul example is exactly what he had in mind: if us having a soul adds nothing to our understanding of identities and how our persons work – and there is no independent evidence to say we have them – then they provide no explanatory force in our discussion and ought to be removed as useless, hideous moles before they turn cancerous and infect our understanding of the truth,” David said, once again pretending to cut off his mole.

    “Thank you for that history and philosophy lesson, professor. Though I believe we have souls, I never thought it was the soul itself that really made us who we are, but rather it is because the soul contains our memories, and our memories make us who we are. John Locke gave me that idea. I know that you equate the physical body to our identity and our physical brain to our minds, which isn't that far off from Locke. You just think that if I made a copy of your memories, it wouldn't be you, but some bizarre unholy copy. I truly believe a copy of your mind would be just as annoying and brilliant as the original,” she said with an air of finality.

    “That may be, but why would that copy then be me? Many people have the same memories of watching the Cubs finally win the World Series in 2016, but they’re clearly different people. There has got to be something else that makes someone the same and it can’t just be memories. What if we do find a soul and we can copy it? What would that say about our identities?” David replied.

    “Now that’s just crazy. Let’s stop discussing this and start setting up our experiments. Our remaining nine patients are literally on their death beads and we need to set up our ‘soul containment chambers,’ awesome name, by the way, and calibrate the equipment in their rooms before they expire. We’ve gone over it so many times, I know we have it right. We’ll be able to properly measure the precise weight of everything in the body just before it dies and properly account for all losses of gas and moisture up to, during, and after the moment of death. Unless souls get trapped by sterile instruments, any loss of weight will be very interesting,” Renee responded as she began placing their equipment onto a cart.

    “Regardless of what results we get, they will be helpful and interesting. You ready to be known as one half of the duo that ‘proves souls do not exist’?” David asked as he also began to load the carts.

    “I really hope that’s not what they say, but we know everyone loves a sensational headline, like ‘Young, bright doctor proves the soul weighs 21 grams! How come no one ever bothered to do this before?’ or ‘Philosophers now have an easier job, thanks to attractive doctor and her sidekick’ or something like that,” Renee said smugly.

    “If we do find a soul, how will we catch it?” David asked, somewhat nervously.

    “With ‘hoops of steel,’” Renee replied dreamily.

    “What?” David was genuinely confused.

    “’Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.’ It is Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes in Hamlet. For some reason it’s a line that’s always stuck with me, and I can’t help but think of it when I wonder how exactly we can catch a soul if we ever find one. It is the advice that made me stick with you all these years, so don’t dismiss it so quickly,” Renee smiled as she said this.

    Just then, they received a call letting them know that one of their patients had begun to decline and they should set up their equipment immediately before it was too late. They were about to get their first bit of information on the weight of souls, and they could hardly contain their excitement.

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