by Karen Frazier, Managing Editor
Did you know the soul was 3/4 of an ounce? Those are the findings of a guy named Duncan MacDougall.
Dr. Duncan MacDougall was a Massachusetts physician who hypothesized that the human soul must have some kind of mass, and so he decided to weigh the human body at the precise moment of death to see exactly what the soul weighed.
Fortunately for MacDougall, he was in the perfect job to be able to tag people at the very moment that they left this earth. He was a physician in a consumptive sanatorium. This was in the early 20th century when a lot of people were still checking out from consumption – or TB.
MacDougall devised an experiment. He had a giant silk weighing scale that he rigged up with a bed. He then obtained the permission of a few patients who were pretty close to croaking. When it appeared that death was imminent, the patient was transferred to the bed on the scale. MacDougall and two other doctors watched breathlessly, awaiting the moment of death.
The very first patient, in his moment of death, lost 3/4 of an ounce. Unfortunately for MacDougall, patient #1 was the only patient that he was able to observe under ideal conditions. The remaining five in the study had results that were flawed for one reason or another.
You see, MacDougall had a lot of critics. Once “the powers that be” got wind of what it was he was doing, there was tremendous opposition to MacDougall’s somewhat ghoulish dead guy weighing project. The results from two of the patients were disqualified. The other three, according to MacDougall, were measured in less than ideal conditions.
But still – there was that first guy. MacDougall felt he really had something there with that poor fellow. He was certain that the 3/4 ounce differential must be the weight of the human soul.
So MacDougall moved on. In his next phase, he tried it with dogs. Guess what? Dogs don’t have souls! This is what MacDougall concluded when the dogs failed to lose any weight at the moment of their death.
Here’s a guy who had reached a foregone conclusion. Humans had souls. Souls had weight. So he – most likely unintentionally – found a way to interpret dubious results to match what he had hypothesized.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that dogs had no souls merely because they lost no weight at the moment of death. Was that really what the science was showing Dr. Duncan MacDougall?
He thought so. As a matter of fact, he believed so much in the veracity of his study, that his findings were published in both the New York Times, and the medical journal, American Medicine.
All it took was one finding under ‘ideal’ conditions to convince him. And apparently, he expected no weight loss in dogs because of the whole lack of a soul thing. Huh.
It sounds like MacDougall had an interesting idea that was fatally (no pun intended) flawed in a number of ways. Foregone conclusions. Lack of control of conditions of the experiment. Low sampling rate. Plus, let’s face it, it was just a little bit ghoulish. And he had to kill dogs. There’s no way he’d get away with that today. Or would he?
MacDougall’s story is interesting on a number of levels. It’s got that creepy factor. It’s a fascinating idea – weighing souls. Plus, it shows how a fundamental lack of good protocol combined with foregone conclusions reached by the researcher just might skew the results in favor of such foregone conclusions.
Interestingly, others have tried to replicate MacDougall’s experiment. Not with people of course. One researcher used sheep. The sheep actually gained weight. Another guy tried mice. No go.
A third guy, named Donald Gilbert Carpenter, used MacDougall’s findings to calculate what type of weight loss one could expect in smaller critters with souls. Something to do with the proportion of the average size of a baby at birth to the average weight of the soul leaving the body. Voila – a formula to apply to any of God’s critters who might be blessed enough to have a soul.
If Carpenter’s calculations were correct, then this hypothesis could, conceivably, be tested in the lab for any creature. Very astutely, Carpenter also calculated that the weight of the soul was just about the same weight as a Leprechaun, leading him to hypothesize that Leprechauns are “most likely discarnate humans.”
So much for science. I was right there with him up until that Leprechaun thing.
Just because it’s an experiment doesn’t mean it has a scientific basis. And just because conclusions can be reached from complex mathematical calculations doesn’t mean that the conclusions reached have a darn thing to do with logic or science.
I don’t think I even need to make a point here. I think the above stories do it for me. Don’t they?
If you find Duncan Macdougall’s search for the weight of the soul an interesting story, Mary Roach’s book, Spook, Science Tackles the Afterlife, covers the search for the weight of the human soul in depth.
Oops! Looks like people didn’t understand the point I was trying to make in this blog. So – I made it here instead. Hopefully that will clear everything up.