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Examining our naive ideas about the soul


To: Anna H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Examining our naive ideas about the soul
Date: 11th November 2010 13:08

Dear Anna,

Thank you for your email of 2 November, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Explain the different facets of our ordinary, pre-philosophical idea of the soul, giving examples that relate to your own experience. What impact does philosophical enquiry have on those ideas?'

There is a lot of meat in this essay. You start with an account of what you learned about the 'soul' through your Catholic upbringing, then go on to discuss the different accounts of the soul in Plato and Descartes, as well as raising difficult questions about the relation between the concept of 'soul' and the concept of 'mind'.

Did Plato ever talk about damnation, as such? The belief that souls come to reside in Hades was common in Plato's time. But in Phaedo I don't recall that the term 'Hades' is ever used. Socrates (as the mouthpiece of Plato) talks about the eternal Forms, and how he soul is 'akin' to the Forms, and must therefore take delight in the prospect of being released from the material body at death. The aim of philosophy is to prepare our souls for the afterlife, by contemplating the Forms.

So there is at least the implication that, the more the soul is 'prepared', the better it will enjoy the afterlife, although Plato never talks of what happens to the souls of those who neglect their studies for the pleasures of the flesh.

Plato was aware of the Pythagorean theory of reincarnation. In the Meno, he says that the soul existed before it became embodied, and this is the explanation of how we come to possess a priori knowledge. We 'knew' the Forms before we came to know material things. So the soul comes to inhabit a body, and then leaves it. Having left, it remains permanently in the company of the Forms.

When Plato considers the question of why we should be just, or moral, in the dialogue Republic, the argument is all about how the immoral man 'suffers' as a consequence of his actions in *this* world, because of his 'disordered' soul. In other words, our true self-interest lies in behaving justly, because only in this way can we be truly 'happy'.

Although Christianity took much from Greek philosophy, the idea of a Day of Judgement when each soul will be consigned to Heaven or Hell is not one you will find in Plato or Aristotle. Implicitly, the very idea contradicts Plato's view that wrongdoers cannot be truly 'happy'. There is no need for a supra-human institution of cosmic justice where the good are rewarded and the bad are punished in the afterlife.

How exactly does Descartes' view of the soul differ from that of Plato?

For Plato, as more explicitly in Aristotle, the soul is the 'Form' of the body. However, Aristotle, unlike Plato, saw the Forms as not residing in a separate universe but rather part of this world. The Form of the living human body is something like its functional, organizing principle which accounts for the kinds of thing that human beings can do which set them apart from other things in general and other living things in particular: such as the capacity for reasoning.

By associating 'form' with 'characteristic function', Aristotle makes no distinction between the mind and the soul: they are one and the same. The Greek term 'psuche' can be translated as 'soul' or 'mind'.

Descartes, from a contemporary perspective, represents a reaction to the Aristotelian view, in his insistence on viewing the self as a substance, distinct from physical substance. It is 'mental substance'. All the properties that we associate with the mental are properties of the soul. So here too there is no distinction between 'mind' and 'soul'.

However, it is interesting that in contemporary philosophy there is still debate over the question of dualism, even when it is accepted that Descartes' view of the function of the brain was incorrect. The brain is not, as Descartes believed, a mere 'relay mechanism' (the soul interacts with the 'animal spirits' in the pineal gland), but rather the very source of our thinking processes. How could you not be a materialist if you believe this?

And yet there are contemporary dualists who accept the role of the brain, but argue that something else is produced by brain activity, besides bodily movements and speech, something of which only the subject can be aware. On this view (as you will see in the program) there arises the strange possibility that there might be a zombie indistinguishable from a human being in every external respect. The only difference would be internal: there is nothing 'it is like' to be a zombie because 'all is darkness within'.

You and I know that this is not true of us. But if you tried to convince me, or if I tried to convince you, we could never succeed, for the very reason that a zombie (by hypothesis) would do and say exactly the same things!

Could this extra 'something', that makes the difference between a human being and a zombie, be the 'soul'? In the program, I offer various considerations against this view. What seems clear, however, is that talk of the mind and what it does in a purely 'functional' way leaves the question of what, if anything is 'inside' unanswered.

All the best,