Arithmetic of Souls

There are two kinds of minds. One kind of mind can be reached with new evidence, and is capable of rational persuasion — even on subjects of ardent belief. The other kind of mind will not be persuaded, regardless of evidence or reason. It simply parrots, “this is my belief,” as a talisman against fear, learning and growth.

I cannot help the second kind of mind, but there are people of good will in this world who are reachable. For those folks, I offer this excerpt from Sam Harris. Some years ago, his writings presented me with evidence, of which I had been unaware, on the subject of abortion. I became persuaded that my views were, at best, primitive and uninformed. Perhaps this information can help others.

For context, this excerpt is taken from Letter to a Christian Nation, in which he was discussing anti-abortion arguments against stem cell research:

Let us look at the details. A three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all. It is worth remembering, in this context, that when a person’s brain has died, we currently deem it acceptable to harvest his organs (provided he has donated them for this purpose) and bury him in the ground. If it is acceptable to treat a person whose brain has died as something less than a human being, it should be acceptable to treat a blastocyst as such. If you are concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present you with greater moral difficulties than killing a human blastocyst.

Perhaps you think that the crucial difference between a fly and a human blastocyst is to be found in the latter’s potential to become a fully developed human being. But almost every cell in your body is a potential human being, given our recent advances in genetic engineering. Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings. This is a fact. The argument from a cell’s potential gets you absolutely nowhere.

But let us assume, for the moment, that every three-day-old human embryo has a soul worthy of our moral concern. Embryos at this stage occasionally split, becoming separate people (identical twins). Is this a case of one soul splitting into two? Two embryos sometimes fuse into a single individual, called a chimera. You or someone you know may have developed in this way. No doubt theologians are struggling even now to determine what becomes of the extra human soul in such a case.

Isn’t it time we admitted that this arithmetic of souls does not make any sense?

The naïve idea of souls in a Petri dish is intellectually indefensible. It is also morally indefensible, given that it now stands in the way of some of the most promising research in the history of medicine. Your beliefs about the human soul are, at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable misery of tens of millions of human beings.

You believe that “life starts at the moment of conception.” You believe that there are souls in each of these blastocysts and that the interests of one soul—the soul of a little girl with burns over 75 percent of her body, say—cannot trump the interests of another soul, even if that soul happens to live inside a Petri dish. Given the accommodations we have made to faith-based irrationality in our public discourse, it is often suggested, even by advocates of stem-cell research, that your position on this matter has some degree of moral legitimacy. It does not. Your resistance to embryonic stem-cell research is, at best, uninformed. There is, in fact, no moral reason for our federal government’s unwillingness to fund this work. We should throw immense resources into stem-cell research, and we should do so immediately. Because of what Christians like yourself believe about souls, we are not doing this. In fact, several states have made such work illegal. If one experiments on a blastocyst in South Dakota, for instance, one risks spending years in prison.

The moral truth here is obvious: anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics. The link between religion and “morality”—so regularly proclaimed and so seldom demonstrated—is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion.

Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation (pp. 29-33)

This got through to me. I wanted to do the right thing. I certainly didn’t want to be adding to the misery of others. But I was a pro-life believer, and I found out that my thinking was — at the least — ignorant of this information. And in that ignorance, I had opposed stem cell research for exactly the reasons Harris outlined.

Two key points stood out to me. First, the arithmetic of souls really does not work. There was never any measurable presence of a soul, of course. That was extrapolated by theological reasoning. The existence of twins and chimeras both indicate that this inference does not work. By the way, many extrapolations beyond the available evidence wind up producing faulty conclusions.

Second, if there is a point before which an embryo or a fetus does not have consciousness or the ability to feel pain, then it is specious to regard it as a human being. I looked for more information on this question: when does a fetus become conscious, and when can it potentially feel pain? When do the lights come on?

There is a consensus among developmental neurobiologists that the establishment of thalamocortical connections (at weeks 22-34, reliably at 29) is a critical event with regard to fetal perception of pain, as they allow peripheral sensory information to arrive at the cortex.[9]

Aggregate Source, Wikipedia: Primary Source [9]:  Johnson, Martin and Everitt, Barry. Essential reproduction (Blackwell 2000), p. 235. Retrieved 2007-02-21.

For people who want to get this right, information like this should matter.

The wiring and sockets of the brain that make suffering a possibility simply do not exist at the moment of conception. The arithmetic of souls also does not work. If we look at actual evidence, to try to come to a serious and thoughtful position, we have reason to think the third trimester marks a point where suffering may be possible, and where consciousness of some type may exist. Before this point, it is probably inappropriate to refer to a fetus as a human being. And it happens that this developmental point is similar to the “viability” threshold for survival outside the womb.

But none of this matters, unless a person has a mind that is reachable.


  1. I always struggled, when I was a believer, with the concept of the soul and its logical consequences. If, as many insisted (without much biblical warrant interestingly…), a new soul began at conception, there were not only the issues with twinning, etc, but also the point that throughout history it seems likely that there are probably more ‘people’ who died prior to being born than those who were born. Fertilized eggs that don’t implant (thought to be up to one half of all fertilized eggs), miscarriages, etc. If those fertilized eggs continued in some eternal state what would that look like? How can we meaningfully talk about them as existing prior to any possible cognitive function. I think early Catholic thinkers invented limbo in part to account for this conundrum. But if not at conception that at what point would a soul manifest? Growth is a continuum with emergent properties gradually establishing, but the concept of a soul is an absolute yes or no – has a soul or doesn’t. So at what other moment might it logically commence? It was just one more loose thread that when I started tugging, the whole edifice finally fell apart and collapsed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well put my friend.

      There were so many mirages in Faithland. So many efforts to square various circles. It was all a bit like laboring over a physics problem long and hard to get the correct solution, and then discovering that the answer key simply had an error.

      Liked by 1 person

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