The Idea of an Immortal Soul in Phaedo. The Belief Systems Essay Example



In the Platonic dialogue of Plato Socrates’ main argument to his listeners can be broken into two main premises, the first being the conclusion drawn mainly from the argument of affinity, and the theory of recollection; that the soul is immortal. The second being that knowledge gained in our life on earth is a preparation for the afterlife. This would conclude that philosophy is a useful practice to humans. Although Socrates draws an agreeable conclusion, he fails to justify it due to the weakness of his first premise. Socrates fails to adequately defend that philosophy is a good practice as his claim rests on the fact that a soul is immortal: He does not provide a compelling argument for the immortality of souls, and 

Socrates begins with the argument from opposites. Socrates explains that everything that has come to be, has come to be from it’s opposite. A tall man has only become tall due to him being previously short and something that is hot only could become hot due to it first being cold. He uses the relationships drawn from his examples to deduce that life spawns from death and vice versa and states all of this implying that there is in fact life after death, and the transition back and forward between the two should not be feared by him or his friends, as the soul exists, unlike the body, in an endless cycle of either a state of life or death.

He then moves to his theory of recollection. What Socrates says next is based on the assumption of innate (A Priori) knowledge, which Plato will later delve into and classify as forms. Socrates states that, for example, we have a clear idea of a perfect triangle, yet do not need to sensibly see one to have the idea of its true perfect ‘form’. To have knowledge prior to birth implies again that the soul needs not an association with a body to maintain knowledge so the same conclusion again can be drawn, the soul is immortal.

Socrates’ then states his argument from affinity Socrates in this argument distinguishes simple things from composite. What is composite, being made up of parts/pieces can be changed, while on the other hand things that are simple are unalterable; they are fixed as they are only made of one thing. Death is able to deconstruct the composite buildup of the body but has no effect on the soul and therefore when the body dies the soul carries on, unchanged and immortal.

Socrates’ argument of recollection relies on the premise that we perceive things that imitate perfection but have an a priori knowledge of perfection without seeing perfection firsthand. Granted that humans are capable of understanding a perfect triangle (or any other form for that matter) without perceiving it sensibly. That however does not conclude that the idea was innate knowledge. For this counter argument, it must be assumed that human intelligence is relatively similar to artificial intelligence (AI) with respect to basic learning.

Captcha is a machine used to develop AI’s understanding of, let’s say, for the purpose of a perfect example, what a triangle is. (Along with everything else that AI could usefully understand) “Essentially, the way machine learning works is that you hand the machine a bunch of data that is already sorted - say, a bunch of images of cats that you have tagged as cats, and then it uses this information to build a neural network that enables it to pick the cats out of other images. The more pictures of cats that you feed it, the more accurate the AI becomes at picking out cats from other images” (O'Malley, 2018). This explains the way we have a clear idea of what a perfect triangle is, we see hundreds of imperfect triangles and are able to draw only the similarities of each to collect an idea of what a perfect triangle is, similar to the way AI would. As we know, AI does this without innate knowledge or a soul.

To raise doubt in Socrates’ argument from affinity, I will attempt to invalidate Socrates’ defence to a counter argument provided by Simmias: “But even though a musical harmony is invisible and akin to the divine, it will cease to exist when the lyre is destroyed.  Following the soul-as-harmony thesis, the same would be true of the soul when the body dies” (85c-88c). His first defence is that something cannot be attuned prior to the materials it is composed of. Socrates is correct, but not in the way he thinks, he says this with the assumption the soul is immortal.

Assuming my argument above is correct, he has not adequately proved that the soul is immortal in the first place, therefore deeming his defence to this doubtful as indeed the attunement of the soul did not exist before the materials it is composed of; it didn’t exist at all. He then claims that if it were the case that the soul is similar to a harmony/attunement, then some souls would be more in harmony than others. For an instrument to be in perfect tune, there are certain conditions that must be met. The soul is the result of perfect conditions that are met through birth that allow the soul to exist. A soul is similar to a perfect attunement, a perfect attunement cannot be surpassed, all perfect attunement, if truly perfect, are exactly the same. The majority of Socrates’ logic throughout the dialogue rests on an inadequately proven assumption that there is an immortal soul.

Socrates makes a logical argument for the benefits of practicing philosophy but fails to be sound due to the weakness of his arguments to prove the existence of an immortal soul. The raised doubts in the idea of an immortal soul through comparisons made in this essay to AI and the tuning of an instrument has hopefully created a quite reasonable doubt in Socrates’ idea of an immortal soul which in turn invalidate the majority of Phaedo’s arguments, due to the large portion of his logic resting on the presumption of the immortal soul. Philosophy may be a good thing to practice but he does not prove the reasoning for such is in preparation for the afterlife.