THE MURDER ON A BEACH THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: ON HAVING A SOUL
Believers, feel free to aggravate your non-believer friends with this little argument. Challenge them with this. Will they pull the trigger, or not?
THE MURDER ON A BEACH THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: ON HAVING A SOUL
by Jeffrey A. Corkern
It is my contention, gentle reader, that coldly logical examination---without any call to faith or religion, completely objective analysis---of human behavior reveals humans have souls. That they really, truly are spirits only temporarily enclosed in flesh, instead of flesh solely. I have developed a collection of arguments (that I have dubbed “The Nine Point Five Theses”) that attempt to prove this thesis by somewhat abstractly examining various aspects of human behavior and teasing out the assumption of eternal existence that lies at their bottom. I have then presented them in various forums for two reasons, the first being to show people souls are an entirely rational thing to believe in, and the second being an attempt to stimulate scientific experiments to detect souls.
Unfortunately, these theses haven’t had much impact. (Not always. The Nine Point Five Theses have rattled some VERY big cages.) You would think showing people by all odds really do have souls would cause MAJOR excitement, but by and large, that hasn’t been the case.
I suspect at least part of the problem is the abstractness. (And the other part is the people I presented my arguments to really didn’t want to hear they were wrong.) The strength of The Nine Point Five Theses, abstract thought, is also their weakness. Abstractness, cold unemotional analysis, is fundamentally not exciting. Abstractness doesn’t reach most people, and as a writer, I know that to truly reach people, on the PERSONAL level, you have to engage them as PERSONALLY as you can.
So, if my abstract arguments were not getting through---then I needed to develop something IMMEDIATE and PERSONAL. Something that would stun even the most convinced person into wondering whether or not he really did have a soul.
If I wanted to be as convincing as it was possible to be, I had a challenge. Could I come up with a HIGHLY SPECIFIC situation, a PERSONALLY INVOLVING situation, a scenario that would demonstrate beyond all possible doubt to the gentle reader (at least to those who possess the capacity for intellectual honesty) that he, personally, really and truly acts like he has a soul?
After considerable effort, the following refined thought experiment has evolved. I offer this experiment for you to participate in, gentle reader.
Do you, or do you not, act like you have a soul?
As always, gentle reader, I invite you to use your own capacity for logic and reason and decide for yourself whether or not I have succeeded in doing this.
You, gentle reader, MUST be the final judge.
Consider the following scenario:
You are standing on a deserted beach with a forty-five pistol in your hand, and you're BROKE AND STARVING, man, not a penny in the world. All you own is the clothes on your back and the gun in your hand.
You're not quite alone. Standing out in the surf, with his back to you, is the meanest man in the world, mean as a snake. This guy wouldn't care if the entire human race died. He wouldn’t even lift a finger to stop that from happening. NOBODY likes this guy. NOBODY would miss him or even think to go looking for him if he disappeared without a trace. NOBODY needs him. There will be ZERO consequences to society if this guy just ups and disappears. This guy is WORTHLESS, man.
(But one thing this guy ISN'T. He is NOT evil. He doesn't go around hurting people. He pays his taxes and he obeys all laws. He's just mean and worthless. So he does not DESERVE killing. There's NO moral justification for that here. )
He's got a briefcase in his hand.
In the briefcase is a million dollars. (Or whatever amount you think would be enough to make you happy for the rest of your life.)
You've already asked this jerk for money for food, and your face is still stinging from the back of his hand. (But don’t kid yourself into thinking you can kill this guy just because he slapped you, gentle reader. Would a judge let you off?) He's not going to do it. He's already told you he wouldn't give you a nickel even if it saved your life.
All you have to do is shoot this guy in the back of the head, throw the gun far out into the ocean, take his briefcase, and you'll be happy for the rest of your life.
And waddya know, the tide is going out. The body will wash out to sea, along with all the evidence, where it will never be found. The beach is totally deserted, not another human being for miles around. Nobody will ever know or will ever find out.
For the purpose of this thought experiment, gentle reader, you may assume your chance of getting away with this murder is EXACTLY one hundred per cent. There is NO cop standing there watching you. Justice will NEVER catch up to you.
And, for a kicker, not even YOU will know what you've done. You've got this pill in your pocket that will erase the last thirty minutes of your memory. So you will NOT feel, for the rest of your life, the slightest pang of guilt over what you've done. There will never, ever be, for the rest of your life, the slightest negative consequence. (This pill, by the way, works ONLY for you. It's tuned to your brain chemistry, and will have NO EFFECT on the mean guy. So robbing him and then forcing HIM to take the pill is not an option.)
So all you have to do is blow this worthless guy's brains out, throw the gun far out into the sea, take the briefcase, pop the pill, and POOF! Suddenly you're standing on a beach with a million dollars in your hands! I mean, you have no idea how you got the million dollars, but WEEEEEEEEE! YOU'RE RICH AND HAPPY FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE! Who cares if you can't remember the last thirty minutes?
Now what is your own, PERSONAL choice, gentle reader? Do you shoot the guy, take the money and the pill? And walk away rich?
Or not? Or do you drop the gun to the sand and just walk away? Broke and starving?
For maximum effect, please make your choice NOW, before reading the rest of this essay. (Note this is NOT a life-or-death situation for you. You can always walk to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, and they will give you something to eat and a place to stay.)
The fundamental question here is: Will you murder an innocent person for entirely selfish reasons, when it is COMPLETELY certain nobody will ever find out, and not even you will remember?
I have offered MANY people this choice, gentle reader. Believers, non-believers, skeptics, atheists, theists, the whole range of human religious belief and non-belief.
Despite this widely differing range of beliefs, they have all made EXACTLY the same choice. Without hesitation.
Not one has ever pulled the trigger. Or even come close to pulling the trigger.
What does this human action, this choice, this ABSOLUTE refusal to commit murder, imply, gentle reader? Is there a common idea we can deduce that explains why ALL these DIFFERENT people would make EXACTLY THE SAME choice?
Let's think about it.
How can we RATIONALIZE this choice? By that I mean how can we make this refusal to commit murder make sense in the SIMPLEST possible way, IN SCIENTIFIC TERMS? Be the SMART thing to do, in your self-interest?
In the SIMPLEST terms, (which is scientifically preferred) ONLY if there are negative consequences to the murderer. In the abstract (hard to get away from that), something that will eventually make you unhappy. From a scientific standpoint, that's the only thing that makes sense. Again from a scientific standpoint, there MUST be some way this choice you made IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST.
And it can't be just a little negative consequence, either. It would have to be one REALLY HUGE negative consequence, to so totally, completely out-weigh a lifetime of complete happiness that refusal to commit murder is done without a second's thought. (Which is what the observed behavior is.)
Except, well, there are NO negative consequences here! Not even tiny ones! No shred of guilt, NOTHING! It's not even remotely possible! ALL negative consequences have been eliminated! All the consequences can only be POSITIVE! So WHY did you make that choice? It's insane, man! Nothing's going to happen to you because you murdered that guy for the rest of your life!
For the rest of your life.
You're acting like there would be negative consequences anyway, aren't you. Like justice would get you anyway and there wouldn't be the slightest thing you could do to escape it.
Except it couldn't happen while you were alive. That possibility has been deliberately totally eliminated. ZERO negative consequences to you, ZERO negative consequences to society.
Okay, there is one thing in this situation----AND ONE THING ONLY---that would make the refusal to commit murder RATIONAL.
If the negative consequences can happen to you----AFTER YOU DIE.
If you SURVIVE the death of your physical body.
IF YOU HAVE A SOUL.
And some way, somehow, the negative consequences would find you THEN.
By way of making this as clear as possible, let us back off and come at this again from a simpler standpoint.
You know, there is one slight change we could make to the experiment where the question of WHY that particular choice is made would be easy as pie to understand. It would be immediately obvious, clear and easy to a six-year-old. I mean, right now the choice to not murder seems REALLY strange and hard to understand because there is every reason in the world to pull the trigger and not one reason not to.
What is that change?
Remember I said there was NO cop standing there watching you?
Let’s put one there. Watching YOU.
A great, big, mean, UGLY cop, with one hand on his gun and staring STRAIGHT AT YOU.
Now there’s NO problem understanding the choice to not murder!
You pull the trigger, or even try---you’re going to JAIL, man! For ten, twenty, THIRTY years! You might even be EXECUTED!
YOU’RE GOING TO BE PUNISHED!
(Oh, yeah, sure, try and shoot the cop. One guess who’s going to win the shoot-out. The trained, alert professional in his body armor, or the complete amateur? It’s a completely flat beach, right? No cover for miles. You’ll get one shot off at most. How unbelievably, incredibly stupid.
Which, by the way, is something VERY important to note. The cop’s presence can’t stop you from committing murder. It only makes it the STUPID thing to do.)
And NOW the simplest reason for that choice you made when the cop was NOT there is clear.
The simplest reason can only be---the SAME reason as before.
Because you’ll be punished for it. AFTER you die. And somewhere deep in your guts is the unconscious knowledge you WILL be punished. That justice is completely, totally inescapable, that you can NOT escape the consequences of your actions.
Although there is NO cop standing there watching you---you are ACTING like there is! And he can only bust you---AFTER you die!
The refusal to commit murder in this situation can only be rationalized by assuming you have a soul, and that you can't escape justice. And NOTHING else.
Let's ignore the inescapable-justice assumption and concentrate on ONE thing.
Gentle reader, you may believe you don't have a soul----but when we examine your actions, we discover YOU ACT LIKE YOU DO.
As always, gentle reader, you get to be the judge.