Plato’s Argument for the Existence of the Human Soul

Questions 1-Plato’s Argument for the Existence of the Human Soul
Here is a version of Plato’s argument for both the existence of, and the immortality of, the human soul (the psyche). If you have some sort of bias as to whether the soul can or not be proven, drop this now! Don’t approach philosophical questions with dogma, prejudice and unsafe assumptions. Instead, approach his argument directly, by honestly, but critically, responding to the question: Did Plato prove it?
Keep in mind what we learned in Chapter One regarding how we proceed, when thinking critically about arguments. Basically, we must ask two questions: (1) Are the premises in the argument true? (2) Do the conclusions follow logically from the premises? Approach Plato’s argument with these two questions. Have fun with this one.

Premise One: The essence of a thing is the characteristic(s) which is unique to the thing. In other words, what makes something essential is that it be an attribute or quality that must be there for a thing to be the thing that it is. A horse that cannot run, a knife that cannot cut things, fire that cannot burn, food that has no nutritional value—all these things have lost their essence. In reality, they are not what they appear to be.

Premise Two: Human beings are the only “things” which think in a complexway. Although other animals may have brain activity, and may be able to communicate in primitive ways, only humans can do math and physics, debate politics, write poetry, or contemplate philosophical issues.

Premise Three: In addition, only humans clearly possess character attributes such as courage or cowardliness, justice or injustice, generosity or stinginess, lazy or industriousness, etc—all characteristics which go beyond mere expressions of biological instinct and socialization. Outside of cartoons, other animals do not clearly possess character at this level of sophistication.

Premise Four: Any “thing” that is completely devoid of the ability to think or to have character, cannot be reasonably identified as a human being—no matter how much it may “look” human on its surface. For example, a stature or photograph of a human being is not a human, no matter how human it may “look.” And, if an individual, because of some very serious accident, were to lose his arms, his legs and become radically disfigured, as long as thinking and character were still present within this person, he would still rightly be considered human. Appearance is not reality.

Premise Five: Matter is nothing more than complex combinations of chemicals. The human body, for example, is nothing more than a very complex configuration of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, mixed with smaller amounts of a few other chemicals. A mere configuration of chemicals is not capable of thinking or character development. The only possible exception might be the “thinking” which is done by computers.* However, it is debatable whether computers “think,” or, whether they simply follow the commands of programs and programmers. And even if they do think, it is clear that they cannot have character. Outside of fantasy stories, computers are neither lazy nor hard working, clever nor dull, moral nor immoral. It would be silly to assign these character traits to computers or any other material thing, precisely because computers are just material machines–not the sorts of things that can have these traits.

Conclusion One: The possession of thinking and the ability to form character is the essence of what it is to be human.

Conclusion Two: This essence must be a non-material reality. Let’s use the word “psyche” or “soul” to name this “thing.”

Conclusion Three: Since it is non-material, it cannot die with the material body. It must continue on in some manner.
*Clearly, Socrates and Plato had nothing to say about computers. But the argument they make
anticipates the present debate over whether or not computers can really “think.”)
Questions 2-The Materialist View of the Mind and Self
A philosophical “materialist,” such as Paul Churchland, argues that it makes no sense to talk about the “mind” and the “self” as realities that are distinct from the brain, the central nervous system and the sense organs. In order to successfully make an argument such as this, he must show that he can explain all of our thinking, beliefs, desires sensations, etc., without recourse to talk about non-material entities such as a non-material “mind,” “self” or “soul.” To this end, materialists propose theories such as the “identity thesis” and/or “eliminative materialism.” Basically, the materialist view is similar to the “scientific and common sense” view I hear many people express today; namely, that “thinking” is merely a mechanical process that machines, such as computers, can do.

The practical upshot of this is as follows: If the materials are right, then when we die, we rot. And all that is the “self” ceases to be, once the “machines” that produces it (the brain and body) cease to function. Just as digestion does not occur after the stomach is dead; thought and consciousness does not occur, once the brain and central nervous systems are dead.

What do you guys think?
Questions 3- Does the Self have an Essence?
Hume’s view of the self and personal identity is considered very radical, because he claims although we “believe” that we are the “same” people from moment to moment, it is unlikely that this is true. Hume says that all we have is an immediate sense of who we are right now, and the “memory” of who we were 5 minutes ago, 5 days ago, 5 years ago, and so on. Without our power of memory, we would be trapped in the here and now, and unable to maintain any stable sense of self. And if all our memories were erased, we would be erased as well. Since our memories are always changing, we are always changing. At each moment the changes are so slight we do not notice them. But if we compare ourselves to how we see our selves in the here and now, to how we saw ourselves 5, 10 and 15 years ago, the changes are much more dramatic.

Do you think Hume is right? Is the belief that we persist, from moment to moment, as the “same” person, merely a myth?

Leave a Reply