Come join us at this week’s Philosophy Club meeting Thursday, November 16 from 12:15 to 1:45 in 421 Auerbach Hall at the University of Hartford as Dr. Brian Skelly discusses The Case for Immortality. (See attached.)
In spite of the fact that it had long been considered a bona fide philosophical topic, we have in recent times without fanfare written the question of immortality off as a religious matter not deign for rational scrutiny. This may be on account of its association with the human soul, which has lost its philosophical reputation in modern times in the eyes of many.
Nonetheless, it is puzzling how we have shuffled the whole question away without so much as a refutation, at least of the best case that can be made for it. Part of the problem may be that soul theory had long been divided into two distinct and non-collaborative camps, the dualist and the non-dualist. Dualist theory has its ancient roots in Plato (42?- 348/347 BCE) and its modern ones in Descartes (1596-1650), whereas non-dualist theory has its roots in Aristotle (384-322), with a medieval boost from Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Platonic dualism seemed to give us a straighter shot at immortality, but at the cost of accepting a non-realist or idealist account of the physical world, which Plato saw as a sort of limbo between existence and non-existence. His immortality argument, which we will get to shortly, may have merit, but only if we can somehow dissociate it from his untenable view of matter and bodily existence. Aristotle, Plato’s student, did much to address what he took to be the flaws of Plato’s philosophy, developing in the process a non-dualist theory of soul which delightfully takes matter and bodies seriously. But it came with an apparent denial of the possibility of the immortality of the soul. Thomas Aquinas later deftly noticed that Aristotle’s discussion of human rationality – a discussion prescinding from questions about soul, which Aristotle took to be a matter for biology – might leave us with a way of making an Aristotelian case for immortality of the human soul in particular. Finally, the dualist theory of René Descartes accepts the soul narrowly as a rational principle, while writing off the body as a “machine of nature” not even counting as substantial, but rather as part of the singular substance of extended matter.
Perhaps soul theory fell out of favor because of the mutually denigrating impact these three traditions had upon one another. Aristotle’s theory probably supplanted Platonic notions in the late medieval era due to the emerging recognition of the latter’s incompatibility with Christian doctrine, which demands a robustly realist vision of the body and physicality. Moreover, there is reason to believe Aristotle’s soul theory was dropped during the Renaissance when his Physics justifiably fell out of favor. Descartes’ theory alone was left in their wake as the going trend, but it was attached to the heavy baggage of modern rationalism. The eventual turn toward empiricism seems to have cast a dark shadow over Cartesian soul theory, hence, as its only then current representative, on soul theory in general.
What I propose is to reconstruct an updated case for immortality using both Platonic and Aristotelian traditions collaboratively. The structure of the argument will be as follows.
1. Establish by a non-dualist (Aristotelian) rationale that living things have souls, i.e. existent non-physical organizing principles of the body.
2. Make the Platonic case that if non-physical things exist, they do not die or decompose, hence are immortal.
3. Confront the non-dualist challenge against the immortality of the soul in spite of Plato’s argument.
4. Explore the Thomistic/Aristotelian proposal that rational thought is an activity “not pertaining to the body”.
5. Make a stronger case for immortality based on the independent agency of rational thought.
The Case for Immortality