Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Plato Strikes Out on Immortality

When modern philosophers decided that you couldn't prove the existence of God--or the non-existence of God--they put an end to a vibrant industry.

The same thing applies to immortality.  How would we know if we are immortal?  It's a matter of faith, and properly a question for religion, the sphere of the human quest for meaning.  And everyone is on that quest, whatever they say.  Christians are on a quest to save their immortal souls by experiencing God's love.  Environmentalists are on a quest to save humanity from sudden mortality by saving the planet from humans.

Plato was no slouch in the immortality stakes; he entered at least two likely runners.  There's the proof in the Republic and the proof in the Phaedrus, for a start.

In the Republic, Socrates wants Glaucon to believe that the soul is different from the normal operation of good and bad things on the body.  If something bad "attaches itself to something... [it can] break it down completely and destroy it."[609a6]  Obviously this applies to disease of the body.  But to the disease of the soul, not so.  If you get sick, the sickness can kill you.  If you act unjustly, the injustice doesn't kill you.  A deficiency in the body can kill you, but not a deficiency in the soul.  So, if "something is not destroyed by a single bad thing--whether its own or an external one--clearly it must always exist.  And if it always exists, it is immortal."[611a1]

But why should a deficiency in the soul afflict a man in the same way as a deficiency in the body?  Maybe a deficiency in the body will kill you, but a deficiency in the soul just makes you into a monster.  And if a deficiency of the soul doesn't kill you, or sicken you, it doesn't mean that it's immortal.  It just means that the soul is different from the body.


In the Phaedrus, Socrates uses a different argument on his young friend Phaedrus.  "[W]hatever is always in motion is immortal".[245c5]   That's because something always in motion never had beginning, for if it had a beginning then it must have come from another source.  For us this is ridiculous, because we post-Newtonians believe that everything moves forever unless accelerated by something else.  But for the ancients, things sat around immobile unless they were pushed, like Eeyore.  The idea of something moving perpetually was unnatural, godlike, and therefore immortal.

But really, Socrates, how do you know?  How do you know that the "something" you see in motion was always in motion, or could have been always in motion?  You are pulling a fast one on us.  The idea of perpetual motion is not something that we humans experience.  We only experience objects that seem to have been moving before we first observed them, and that we assume will continue to move after we terminate our observations. We believe with Wittgenstein of the Tractatus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."


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