The Search for the Soul


Vic Stenger

For almost a century and a half now, many professional scientists have attempted to apply scientific methods and tools to various supersensory or psychic phenomena. These studies are termed "psychical research," or parapsychology, but they represent nothing less than the scientific search for the soul. Most religious beliefs are based on the notion of transcendendent, other-worldly, or spiritual powers, and so psychical research crosses over from the physical to the spiritual sphere. But in all this time, after immense effort, no scientifically verifiable evidence for phenomena beyond the realm of matter has been found.

Nothing from the long history of systematic and unsystematic searching for evidence of non-physical phenomena provides the slightest verifiable hint of a spiritual realm. In particular, no convincing case can be made for a non material component to those phenomena we classify as mental, contradicting the widely held public perception that mental processes are "spiritual" - that mind and body are separate realities.

Psychical researchers have tested many of what could be termed, in a rational context, hypotheses of religion. Common religious teaching, regardless of sect, holds that humans possess powers that transcend the physical world. Thus we, or a self-chosen few, are supposedly able to perform miracles and possess special non-sensory channels to ultimate truths. Parapsychologists have sought evidence for mind-over-matter, extrasensory perception, precognition, life after death (and before birth), communication with spirits and ghosts, miracle healing, and much more. The results of 150 years if these studies: zero. Claims to the contrary are no more than unsupported private beliefs - faith, not data.

Taken at face value, these results fail to confirm many critical religious assumptions. But few investigators are willing to say that out loud, or even to themselves. Rather, they attempt to limit the connection between psychical research and religion. This is done today, despite the historical fact that the most important figures in psychical research, from William Crookes and Oliver Lodge in the last century to Joseph Banks Rhine in this, had strong religious proclivities and were personally motivated to scientifically prove the existence of spirit. They failed, and so are now disowned by those who insist on believing despite the evidence.

Not a single parapsychologist, of the many I have read, has suggested what to me is the only scientifically honest conclusion that can be made from this unbroken history of negative results, unprecedented in any branch of conventional science: The hypothesis of a realm beyond matter playing any measurable role in human life is unconfirmed to such a degree that it is safe to assume that such a realm does not exist. With high probability, science has ruled out the existence of soul.