Discuss whichever you take to be the best of the many arguments that Plato offers for the immortality of the soul.

 

Plato's Phaedo dialogue is significant for the four or five arguments (approximately, depending on how the reasoning is divided) that Plato offers to "prove"that the soul is immortal.   However, it is the details of these arguments that make it difficult to know whether Plato intends this dialogue as a serious philosophical work, or as a satirical spoof of the Socratic method.   Or possibly a satirical spoof of the dialectic methods of the Sophists.   Even granting the unquestioned premise of body-soul duality (natural enough given Plato's cultural context), and even excusing the completely anti-empirical view of learning adopted by Plato in the Phaedo (the recollection theory), all of the arguments presented in this dialogue are laughably incomplete, and unacceptable by any standard of logical analysis.   Each of the arguments presented very obviously commits the fallacy of assuming the consequent.   Considering how tightly reasoned are Plato's arguments on other topics in other dialogues, it is hard to see these efforts as a serious attempt at philosophical reasoning.   Especially considering that the Phaedo is usually classified by chronologists as one of the middle or transitional works, and not as one of Plato's earlier efforts.

It is therefore not reasonable to identify a "best"amongst the arguments.   However, in order to highlight the obvious flaws with Plato's reasoning, I will examine just one in greater detail.   In the Argument from Forms, Plato reasons:-

a)           There is such an existing thing (Form) as "absolute equality" [unsupported premise].

b)           Equal things are not the same as absolute equality.

c)           It is through our senses that we perceive that equal things resemble absolute equality, but fall short in some respect.

d)           We must have some acquaintance with the form of "absolute equality" before we can recognize that some things share a resemblance with it and can be called equal.

e)           We can recognize that things are equal at birth [erroneous empirical observation].

f)            We must have acquired this acquaintance with the Form before birth.

Here is Plato's theory of learning and knowledge as recognition, and the theory that all particular properties are but resemblances to the universal Form in which the particular participates.   The basic argument is that we recognize a property of a particular by its resemblance to the Form.   We recognize that two sticks are roughly equal in length because we recognize that the equality of the two sticks roughly resembles the Form of perfect equality.   He then argues that since we are able to use our senses from birth to perceive and understand the environment, we must have gained our familiarity with the Forms before birth.   He is, however, quite obviously wrong about this empirical claim.   Any mother would have instructed Plato that a child learns about the form of Perfect Equality by learning what the word "equal"means.

In an early part of the argument, where he is setting the stage, Plato mentions the statue of Simmias in the context of demonstrating what he means by "recollecting"something previously encountered.   The statue recalls to mind the image of Simmias, but only if the statue is recognized as that of Simmias.   But of course, Plato cannot possibly return to that example in the context of someone who has never previously encountered Simmias in this life.   For it is quite obvious that the statue of Simmias could not "recall to mind"an image if Simmias, if the person in question has not already learned what Simmias looks like.

What Plato fails to do at this stage of his argument is suggest how the soul "learns"about the Form in the first place, even granting the hypothesis that it gains its familiarity with the Forms in the "other world".   However, what is very obvious to any parent attentive of children, is that the mind (soul) learns its familiarity with the Forms in this life, as it learns the language used to talk about them.  

Plato then continues his reasoning about Forms by making a blanket claim as to their properties.   A claim quite unsubstantiated anywhere in the reasoning to this point.

g)          The Forms are uniform, independent, constant, invariable, invisible, immortal, uncreated, indivisible [unsupported premise]

h)          Particulars are variable, dependent on the Forms, inconstant, visible, created, and dissoluble.

i)           The body is variable (ages), inconstant (changes with health), visible (obviously), created (born), and dissoluble (dies and decays to dust).

j)           The body is therefore a particular.

k)          The soul is uniform, independent, constant, invariable, and invisible [culturally popular premise].

l)           The soul is therefore not a particular.

m)         The soul is a Form [invalid conclusion].

n)          The soul is immortal, uncreated, indivisible.

Here, Socrates draws upon the presumed resemblance between a Form and the Soul.   To do so, of course, he is drawing upon the then culturally extant popular beliefs in the body-soul dichotomy (the independence of the soul from the body), and the beliefs that the soul is perfect (constant and invariable), and immaterial (invisible).   He then argues that the soul therefore necessarily must possess the all the other presumed properties of a Form rather than any of the properties of a Particular.   He is arguing that because it is popularly accepted that the soul possesses some of the properties he attributes to Forms, it therefore must possess all the other properties (such as immortality) that he attributes to Forms.   In the next step, Plato extends this reasoning by slipping quietly from maintaining that a soul exhibits some of the properties of a Form, to claiming the soul is itself a Form.   As Aristotle would later point out, this is an invalid move in deductive logic.   Plato commits the syllogistic fallacy of the undistributed middle.   He reasons that:

         All As are B        All Forms have these properties

         This C is B          The Soul has these properties

Therefore    This C is an A      The Soul is a Form.

However, aside from the logical fallacy involved, the entire argument is based on the preconceived notion (based on the then popular cultural milieu) that the soul has certain properties -- specifically those properties shared by Forms.   And it is based on the fallacious analogical reasoning that if it shares some of those properties, it necessarily must share them all.   The reasoning also depends, of course, on the presumption that Forms possess the equivalent kind of existence as it is presumed a soul possesses ("real"rather than a merely conceptual existence, for example).

The entire structure of reasoning crumbles to naught if one fails to accept any of Plato's critical and unchallenged premises -- the recollection theory of knowledge; the theory of forms; the properties of forms; and the properties of souls.

Unless one considers the Phaedo as either a capture of actual Socratic logical error, or a very early Platonic attempt at reasoning (contradicting the chronology of the experts), one has to wonder at the glaringly obvious flaws in the arguments.   Perhaps it is not actually intended to be a serious logical effort.   Perhaps it is intended as a display of many of the dialectical persuasive tricks of the Sophists, rather than a display of carefully rational reasoning.

[Up] [Home] [Next]