Notes on the Phaedo with Shelly Kagan

The following notes are taken from the Open Yale Course on Death with Shelly Kagan. professor of Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy. In this particular section, Kagan is addressing the arguments that Socrates makes for the persistence of the soul.


  1. We have free will.

  2. Nothing subject to determinism has free will.

  3. All purely physical systems are subject to determinism

  4. [So] We are not a purely physical system.

René Descartes's illustration of dualism. Inputs are passed on by the sensory organs to the epiphysis in the brain and from there to the immaterial spirit.
  • The soul is an idea that the dualist posits to describe something about ourselves: why do we have free will?

  • Can one have free will and be subject to determinism? (c.f. “incompatibalism” / “compatibalism”)

  • Is free will an illusion?

  • The fundamental laws of physics are not 100% deterministic. Probabilistic breakdown of radioactive material is 80% / 20%

  • are atoms purely physical systems?

  • Maybe the soul needs to be, because of ghosts.

  • Near death experiences: can’t know what it’s like to be permanently dead. Yet it’s some experience.

  • Can Near Death Experiences be imitated with chemicals?

  • What is the biological process of dying? (Schick & Vaughn)

  • The need to believe as evidence for it, is not a compelling argument.

  • What is the better or best explanation?

  • Is there a good reason to move beyond the physical? De we need the idea of the soul?

  • The qualitative experience of living is not explained well by the physicalist.

  • “Maybe we’d be better off positing something immaterial…”

  • Of the Cartesian experiment: Can you imagine a story

where your body doesn’t exist? Yes, but can you think about your mind not existing?…If the mind & body are the same thing, then how can you imagine mind without body? Talking about my mind cannot be interchangeable with talking about my body.

  • The Cartesian argument: if I can imagine two things they must be two things, they can’t be the same thing…

  • But can we imagine a mind without a body?

  • The morning star and the evening star – they are the same body (Venus) – so the Cartesian argument fails astronomy…

  • Cartesian argument is difficult to pin down where it went wrong…hard to pin down what is impossible…it’s a trick…an illusion…maybe imagining doesn’t mean it’s possible…maybe identity is contingent. (see Penrose Triangle; can’t be taken at face value).

#death #soul #penrosetriangle #shellykagan #impossibleobject #openyalecourse

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