Saturday, October 12, 2013

[PHI 1000] 21 Grams

In 1907, the New York Times published a piece about experiments performed by Dr. Duncan MacDougall which were designed to demonstrate the existence of the soul.

Dr. MacDougall reasoned that, if there is a soul that departs the human body at the time of death, then the body should lose weight at the time of death when the soul departs.

According to his own reports, six patients lost an average of 21 grams upon dying from tuberculosis

What do you think of MacDougall's experiment? Does it show that there is a soul that departs the body at the time of death?


  1. I don't think that the loss of weight at the time of death means that it necessarily shows that there is a soul that departs the body at the time of death. There can be many other factors that MacDougall didn't take into consideration, and maybe a few other factors that people don't even know about at this point in time to account for the little loss in weight.

    The loss of weight might be explained by the drop in blood pressure or the pumping of blood. Perhaps, it could be explained by the loss of air from the lungs that doesn't escape until one dies. Hence, 'holding one's breath' like MacDougall tried to do can't be taken into account.

    It could also be explained by other, more complex biological factors of the human body.

    One loophole in the study was that there was an assumption that the soul is something physical which ought to have mass. In order for anything to have mass, it has to be composed of atoms or sub atomic particles. However, the soul does not necessarily have to be physical, it could be something relating to energy or one's consciousness which has no weight. Unless there is substantial proof that the soul is something physical, we cannot assume so in any experiment.

    Swarnima Taparia

  2. Overall, I am skeptical about the results of MacDougall’s experiments. I do not think that his experiment was repeated enough times convincingly conclude a concrete trend of loss of mass at the moment of death. That being said, even if this experiment was repeated hundreds of times, I would need convincing that this was the only possible explanation for the loss of mass at the moment of death. As discussed in class, there could be many different explanations for the loss of mass- for example, the loss of the last bit of air in the lungs, which cannot be physically exhaled while a person is still alive. On another note, I am not entirely sure myself if the soul is something physical to actually be measured. Ultimately, MacDougall’s experiment does not convince me of what he set out to prove.

    Alyssa Rusch


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