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Plato's proofs of the existence of a soul in the Phaedo


To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's proofs of the existence of a soul in the Phaedo
Date: 22nd November 2011 11:37

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 14 November, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Discuss whichever you take to be the most convincing argument for the immortality of the soul that Plato offers in the Phaedo.'

This is an interesting and original take on Plato's discussion of the soul in the Phaedo, which I have a lot of sympathy with. What Plato is offering here is a series of considerations, none of which appears conclusive or is intended to be, which as a whole give support to the theory of the soul, as a theory, that is to say, an 'inference to the best explanation' (Peter Lipton) as a contemporary philosopher would describe it .

Although inference to the best explanation is usually presented as what scientists do, it has become increasingly fashionable amongst analytic philosophers to talk about offering 'theories' rather than 'analyses'. Along with this shift -- which I have witnessed over the last 30+ years since I did my BA -- goes an increasing scepticism about the 'a priori' nature of philosophical claims, commensurate with Quine's attack on analysis in 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' and his insistence that 'there is no First Philosophy'.

To take a pertinent example, the view that the mind should be seen as a sophisticated computer or Turing Machine (Daniel Dennett 'Consciousness Explained') is a partly empirical claim, based on our best (still very limited) knowledge of the way the brain works. Connectionism (the view that there is no 'program' for the human brain that could be written in 1s and 0s) is a competing claim. Plato would have revelled in this debate. Indeed, it seems to me that the Pythagorean claim that the soul is an 'attunement' is remarkably close to Dennett's speculation in 'Consciousness Explained' that 'downloading' the program of your brain onto disk and then 'uploading' it into a fresh body is the best chance for human immortality!

You probably don't need me to say that an answer such as the one you have given would not greatly please an examiner. If you really think that Plato's first argument is the most convincing, then you should concentrate on it (you don't need to give your reasons why you prefer it, the question doesn't ask for this) and articulate the argument in detail, supplying missing but necessary steps as and where needed.

I am prepared to accept, for the sake of argument, that despite the scholarly consensus the first argument is the most convincing, when fully laid out. I take your point that we are choosing between arguments none of which convinces or is intended to convince on its own. That would be a valid point to make, in the spirit of 'questioning the question'. Still, if the first argument has any value, then it should be possible to state it in a way that enables other students to appreciate that value.

If we consider the role of 'opposites' in Greek philosophy from the earliest Presocratic philosophers, one thing that emerges is a growing resistance to the idea that opposites exist, per se, as 'opposites'. Whereas Anaximander has the opposites transmuting into one another under the guidance of a lawlike force, in Anaximenes there is no such thing as 'the cold' or 'the hot' as such, merely relative differences in compression, a view consonant with modern physics. The point is made even more strongly in Heraclitus.

The picture we gain, which Plato helped himself liberally to, is a universe awash with energy, where nothing is truly dead, for all time; the soul itself is a component part of, or shares its essence with the principle (the Logos) which animates the universe, an idea which later came to be incorporated in Plato's eternal Forms.

In other words, the strength of the argument is not so much, as you seem to present it, that it anticipates contemporary science (DNA etc.) but rather that it summarizes and presents an entire tradition of philosophizing (ignoring the atomists) where the universe is soaked with 'mind', where teleology rules, and where the part we as human beings play is far more than just the part played by our perishable material bodies. The mind transcends physical existence. It is what connects us, in the literal sense, to the universe.

How to encapsulate this in an argument? Take the statement, 'If opposites did not always correspond with opposites...'. What the examiner would really like to see here is a series of numbered steps, 1, 2, 3 etc. where the claims are clearly laid out and the inferences tested. A good way to do this is to first present the argument as Plato presents it, close to the text. Then look for loopholes. Which steps fail to convince? What extra premisses, or steps, are needed to make the argument appear stronger? Use all the latitude you need. It is not at all implausible to claim that Plato is assuming knowledge of a tradition, so make use of this background information in shaping and honing the argument.

Then, and only then, you can state why you still find that the argument fails fully to convince. Nevertheless, you would have made a case that deserves to be reckoned with, for your claim that you find the argument the 'most convincing'.

All the best,