PHIL 176: Death

Lecture 2

 - The Nature of Persons: Dualism vs. Physicalism


Professor Kagan discusses the two main positions with regard to the question, “What is a person?” On the one hand, there is the dualist view, according to which a person is a body and a soul. On the other hand, the physicalist view argues that a person is just a body. The body, however, has a certain set of abilities and is capable of a large range of activities.

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PHIL 176 - Lecture 2 - The Nature of Persons: Dualism vs. Physicalism

Chapter 1. “Is There Life After Death?” Asking the Right Question [00:00:00]

Professor Shelly Kagan: The first question we want to discuss has to do with the possibility of my surviving my death. Is there life after death? Is there a possibility that I might still exist or survive after my death? Now at first glance — and in fact, I think, at second glance it’s going to turn out to be true — you might think that the answer to this question would depend on two basic issues. Do I survive my death? Do we survive our deaths? You think, the first thing we have to get clear on is well what am I? What kind of a thing am I? Or generalizing, what kind of thing is a person? What are we made of? What are our parts? It seems plausible to think that before we could answer the question, “Do I survive?” we need to know how I’m built. And so the first thing we’re going to spend a fair bit of time on is trying to get clear on what’s a person? What are the fundamental building blocks of a person? The second question that you might think we’d want to get clear on is, “What’s the idea, or what’s the concept, of surviving?” Before we ask, “Do I survive?” we need to get clear on “What am I?” and “What is it to survive?” What is it for something that exists in the future to be me?

Now this question can be discussed philosophically in quite general terms. What’s the nature of persistence of identity over time? But since we’re especially interested in beings like us, people, this topic, this sub-specialized version of the question of identity, gets discussed under the rubric of the topic, personal identity. What’s the key or the nature or the basis of personal identity? As we might put it: What is it for somebody who’s here next week to be the same person as me? What’s the nature of personal identity? So, as I say, at first glance you might think to get clear on the answer, “Do I or might I or could I survive my death?” we need to know, what am I? What’s a person? What’s the metaphysical composition of people, on the one hand? And we need to get clear on the nature of identity or persistence or, more specifically, personal identity. Now as I say, I believe that when push comes to shove, we do need to get clear about both of those questions and so that’s going to take the first several weeks of the class. We’re going to spend a couple of weeks talking about, “What’s a person?” And then we’re going to spend several weeks, or at least a week or so, talking about the nature of personal identity.

But before we can even get started, there’s a question, really an objection to the whole enterprise. So we’re about to spend a lot of time asking the philosophical question: Is there life after death? Could there be life after death? Might I survive my death? But there’s a philosophical objection to the entire question. And the objection is fairly simple. It says the whole question is misconceived. It’s based on a confusion. Once we see the confusion, we can see what the answer to our question is. Could I survive my death? The answer has got to be — this is what the objection says — the answer has got to be, obviously not. All right, so here’s the objection.

I should mention that the very first reading that you’re going to be doing is a couple of pages from Jay Rosenberg, a contemporary philosopher. He gives us a version of this objection. So I’ll give you one version. You’ll have another version in your readings. The objection basically says: What does it mean to say that somebody’s died? We’re asking, “Is there life after death?” What does it mean to say that somebody has died? Well a natural definition of death might be something like the end of life. So then, if that’s right, then to ask, “Is there life after death?” is just asking, “Is there life after the end of life?” The answer to that ought to be pretty obvious. Well, obviously, the answer to that is no. After all, if we’re saying once you’ve run out of life, is there any more life? Well, duh! That’s like asking, when I’ve eaten up all the food on my plate, is there any food left on my plate? Or what happens in the movie after the movie ends? These are stupid questions, because once you understand what they’re asking, the answer is just built in. It follows trivially.

So although it has seemed to people over the ages that the question, “Is there life after death?” is one of the great mysteries, one of the great philosophical things to ponder, the objection says that’s a kind of illusion. In fact, once you think about it, and not all that long, you can see the answer’s got to be no. There couldn’t possibly be life after death. There couldn’t possibly be life after the end of life.

Or suppose we ask the question in a slightly different way. Might I survive my death? Well what does the word “survive” mean? Well, survive is something like we say that somebody’s a survivor if something’s happened and they haven’t died. They’re still alive. When there’s a car accident, you ask, so-and-so died, so-and-so survived. This person survived. To say that they survived is just saying that they’re still alive. So, “Might I survive my death?” is like asking, “Might I still be alive after” — well what’s death? Death is the end of life. So — “might I still be alive after I’ve stopped living? Might I be one of the people who didn’t die when I died?” Gosh, the answer to that is, again, duh! No. You couldn’t possibly survive your death, given the very definition.

It should remind us of — at least it reminds me of this joke that you probably told. It seemed hysterical when you were seven. The plane crashes exactly on the border of Canada and the United States. Exactly on the border. There’s dead people everywhere. Where do they bury the survivors? The answer is: You don’t bury the survivors. So when you’re seven you think, “I don’t know. Do they bury them in Canada? Do they bury them in America?” The answer is: You don’t bury the survivors, because survivors are people that haven’t yet died. So, “Can I survive my death?” is like asking, “Could I not have yet died after…?” The answer is, of course, you have to have died if you died and you haven’t survived if you’ve died. So the question can’t even get off the ground. That, at least, is how the objection goes.

Now I don’t mean to be utterly dismissive of the objection. That’s why I spent a couple of minutes trying to spell it out. But I think there’s a way to respond to it. We just have to get clearer about what precisely the question is that we’re trying to ask. This is something that Rosenberg tries to get clear on as well. So here’s my attempt to make the question both a bit more precise, and a question that’s an open question. A question we can legitimately raise.

Well, now as you will hear on several occasions over the course of the semester, I’m a philosopher. What that means is I don’t really know a whole lot of facts. So I’m about to tell you a story where I wish I knew the facts. I don’t know the facts. If I could really do it right, I’d now open the door and bring in our guest physiologist, who would then provide the facts that I’m — what I’m about to go is “blah, blah, blah.” But we have the physiologist come in and he’d actually tell us these things. I don’t know them. I don’t have that person.

But take a look at what happens when a body dies. Now, no doubt, you can kill people in a lot of different ways. You can poison them, you can strangle them, you can shoot them in the heart. The causal paths that result in death may start different, but I presume that they converge and you end up having a set of events take place. Now what are those events? This is exactly where I don’t really know the details, but I take it it’s something like: because of whatever the original input was, eventually the blood’s no longer circulating and oxygen isn’t making its way around the body. So the brain becomes oxygen-starved. Because of the lack of oxygen getting to the cells, the cells are no longer able to carry on their various metabolic processes. Because of this, they can’t repair the various kinds of damage they need, or create the amino acids and proteins they need. So as decay begins to set in and the cell structures begin to break down, they don’t get repaired as they would normally do, and so eventually have breakdown of the crucial cell structure and boom, the body’s dead. Now as I say, I don’t really know whether that’s accurate, the little rough story I just told, but some story like that is probably right.

And in typical philosophical fashion, I’ve drawn that story for you up here on the board. [See Figure 2.1.] So the events that I don’t really know the details of, we can just call B1, B2, B3, up through Bn. Before B1 begins, you’ve got the body working, functioning, in its bodily way — respirating, reproducing the cells, and so forth and so on. And at the end of the process, by Bn, the body’s dead. B for bodily. B1 through Bn; that’s what death is. At least, that’s what death of the body is. As I say, it’s the sort of thing that somebody from the medical school or a biologist or a physiologist or something could describe for us.

So here’s the question then. Suppose we call that process “death of the body.” Call what has occurred by the end of that sequence of events, “bodily death.” Now here’s a question that we can still ask, at least it looks as though we can still ask it. Might I, or do I, still exist after the death of my body? Might I still exist after bodily death? I don’t mean to suggest in any way that we yet know the answer to that question, but at least that’s a question that it seems as though we can coherently raise. There’s no obvious contradiction in asking: Might I still exist after the death of my body? The answer could turn out to be no. But at least it’s not obviously no. If the answer turns out to be no, it’s going to take some sustained argument to settle it one way or the other. The answer could turn out to be yes, for all we know at this point. This just brings us back to the thought that whether or not I could still exist after the death of my body looks like it should depend on what I am. So in a minute, that’s the question that I’m going to turn to.

Chapter 2. Ways to Conceptualize Self-Identity [00:13:25]

But it’s a bit cumbersome to constantly be asking: Might I still exist after the death of my body? So no harm is done, once we’ve clarified the question that we’re trying to ask, if we summarize that question in a bit of a jargon or slogan. We say, instead of asking: Might I survive? Or: Might I continue to exist after the death of my body? — you might put it this way. You might say for short: Will I survive the death of my body? No harm done. Or: Will I survive my death? Because what we were just stipulating we mean when we talk about my death in the context of this question is the death of my body. No harm done. We can just say for short: Will I survive my death or might I survive my death? For that matter, no serious harm done if we ask: Is there life after death? As long as we understand that what we’re not asking about there is life of my body. Just another familiar way of trying to ask: Will I still be around after my death? Will I still exist after my death? So I think there’s a perfectly legitimate question and that’s the question we now want to turn to.

As I said, it looks as though to answer the question, “Could I continue to exist after the death of my body?” — “Is there life after death?” “Could I survive my death?” for short — to answer that question, we need to get clearer about: What exactly is it for something to be me? That’s a question we’ll turn to in a couple of weeks. First, we’ve got to get clearer about: What am I? What kind of an entity am I? What am I made of? In philosophical jargon, this is a question from metaphysics. So we’re asking the metaphysical question: What kind of a thing is a person? It seems plausible to think that whether or not a person can survive or continue to exist after the death of his or her body should depend on how he’s built, what he’s made of, what his or her parts are.

So, let me sketch for you two basic positions on this question. What is a person? Two basic positions. They’re both, I imagine, fairly familiar. What we’re going to have to do is try to decide between them. They’re not the only possible positions on the question of the metaphysics of the person. But they’re, I think, the two most prominent positions and definitely the ones most worth taking seriously for our purposes.

So, first possible position is this. A person is a combination of a body and something else — a mind. But the crucial thing about this first view that we want to talk about is that the mind is thought of as something separate from, and distinct from, the body. To use a common enough word, it’s a soul. So people are, or people have, or people consist of, bodies and souls. The soul is something, as I say, distinct from the body. I take it the idea of the body is a familiar one. It’s this lump of flesh and bone and muscle that’s sitting here in front of you and that each one of you sort of drags around with you. It’s the sort of thing that we can put on a scale and prod with a stick and the biologists can study, presumably made up of various kinds of molecules, atoms and so forth. So we’ve got the body. But on this first view, we also have something that’s not body. Something that’s not a material object. Something that’s not composed of molecules and atoms. It’s a soul. It’s the house of, or the seat of, or the basis of, consciousness and thinking, perhaps personality. But the crucial point for this view is that the proper metaphysical understanding of the mind is to think of it in nonphysical terms, nonmaterial terms.

That, as I say, is the first basic view. I’m going to say more about that view, a fair bit more about that view, over the next couple of weeks. First, let me sketch the other basic view. So this first view we can call “the dualist view.” Dualist, of course, because there’s two basic components — the body and the soul. Although I may occasionally slip, I’m going to try to preserve the word “soul.” When I use the word “soul,” I’m going to have in mind this dualist view according to which the soul is something immaterial, nonphysical. Some other kind — the body is a material substance. The soul is an immaterial substance. That’s the dualist view.

The alternative view that we’re going to consider is not dualist, but monist. It says there’s one basic kind of thing and only one basic kind of thing. There are bodies. So what’s a person? A person is just a certain kind of material object. A person is just a body. Of course, it’s a very fancy material object. It’s a very amazing material object. That’s what this second view says. The person is a body that can do things that most other material objects can’t do. So on the monist view — which we’ll call “physicalism,” because it says that what people just are, are these physical objects — on the physicalist view, a person is just a body that can…now you fill in the blank. You point out the kinds of things that we can do. We can talk. We can think. We can sing. We can write poetry. We can fall in love. We can be afraid. We can make plans. We can discover things about the universe. According to the physicalist view, a person is just a body that can do all of those things: can reflect, can be rational, can communicate, can make plans, can fall in love, can write poetry. That’s the physicalist view.

As I say, we’ve got two basic positions. There’s the dualist view — people are bodies and souls. And there’s the physicalist view, according to which there are no souls. There are no immaterial objects like that. There are only bodies, though when you’ve got a functioning body like ours, so the physicalist says, these bodies can do some pretty amazing things. The kind of things that we all know people can do. Two basic views.

From a logical point of view, I suppose you might have a third possible view. If we’ve got the monist who says there’s bodies but there’s no souls, you could imagine somebody who says there are souls but there are no bodies. This would roughly be a view according to which there are minds, but there aren’t really physical objects. Physical objects are a kind of illusion, perhaps, that we fall into. Or thinking about them in materialistic terms might be greatly confused or mistaken. This view is sometimes known in philosophy as idealism: all that exists, are minds and their ideas. Physical objects is just a way of talking about the ideas the mind has or something like that. Idealism is a position that’s got a very long history in philosophy and for many classes would be worth taking a fair bit of time to consider more carefully. But for our purposes, I think it’s not a contender. So I’m just going to put it aside. The positions that I’m going to — and there are other possibilities as well. There are views where mind and body are just two different ways of looking at the same underlying reality where the underlying reality is neither physical nor mental. That view’s also worth taking seriously in a metaphysics class, but for our purposes, I mention it and put it aside. The two views we are going to focus on are, on the one hand, the dualist view — people have souls as well as bodies — and the physicalist view — all we have, all we are, are bodies.

Chapter 3. Dualists: The Body-Soul Perspective [00:21:18]

Let me say something more then about the dualist position. According to the dualist, the mind is this immaterial substance and we could call it by different names. No harm would be done if we call it a mind, though the reason I will typically talk about a soul is to try to flag the crucial point of the dualist view. The mind is based in, or just is something nonphysical, something nonmaterial…The soul can direct and give orders to the body, on the one hand. On the other hand, the body generates input that eventually gets sensed or felt by the soul. You take a pin and you stick it through my flesh of my body and I feel pain in my soul, in my mind. So, two-way interaction. As always with philosophy, there’s more complicated versions of dualism where maybe the interaction doesn’t work both ways, but let’s just limit ourselves to good, old-fashioned, two-way interactionist dualism. So my mind controls my body. My body can affect my mind in various ways. But for all that, they’re separate things.

Still there’s this very tight connection. We sometimes put it: the soul is in the body, though talking about spatial locations here may be somewhat metaphorically intended. It’s not as though we think that if you start opening up the body you’d finally find the particular spot. Here’s the place where the soul is located. Though it does seem, from this dualist perspective, as though souls are located, I’m sort of viewing the world from here. Just like each of you is viewing the world from a particular location. So maybe your soul is located, more or less, in the vicinity of your body. Crucial point, of course, the attraction of the dualist view, from our point of view, is that if there’s a soul as well as the body, and the soul is something immaterial, then when the body dies, when we have B1 through Bn and the death of the body occurs. So at the end of Bn, the body stops repairing itself. Decay sets in. We all know the sad story. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out. At the end of the day — well it maybe it takes longer than a day — the body has decomposed. Yes, all that bespeaks the end of the body. But if the soul is something immaterial, then that could continue to exist, even after the destruction of the body. That’s the attraction, at least one of the attractions, of the dualist view. The belief in the soul gives you something to continue to exist after the end of your body. So what’s death? Well, if normally there’s this super tight connection between my soul and my body, death might be the severing of that connection. So the body breaks and no longer is able to give input up to the soul. The soul is no longer able to control the body and make it move around. But for all that, the soul might continue to exist. And so at least the possibility that I’ll survive my death is one worth taking very, very seriously if we are dualists.

A couple of things to point out about this view. One is I’ve been talking as though a person is a combination, kind of a soul and body sandwich. So a person has two basic building blocks. The bodily part and the soul part. It’s natural to talk that way, but if we want belief in the soul to help us hold out the possibility at least that there might be life after death, then I think we need to actually say that strictly speaking, it’s not that a person is a soul plus a body. Strictly speaking, I think we need to say the person just is the soul. After all, if the person is the combination, if the person is the pair, soul plus the body, destroy the body, you’ve destroyed the pair. If the person is the pair and the pair no longer exists, the person no longer exists. So if we want belief in a soul to help us leave open the door to the possibility that I survive the destruction of my body, it had better not be that the body is an essential part of me. It’s simpler, more straightforward to say instead, “What I am strictly speaking is a soul.” As long as the soul exists, I exist. Of course, my soul, me, I, have a very tight connection to a particular body. But still, you could, in principle, destroy the body without destroying me. Look, I have a particularly close connection to the house I live in. But for all that, you can destroy my house without destroying me. So that’s I think the position that we ought to ascribe to the dualist. The person is, strictly speaking, the soul. The soul has a very intimate connection with the body, but the person is not the soul and the body. The person is just the soul. So even if that intimate connection gets destroyed, the person, the soul, could continue to exist.

The second point to clear up is that there’s really three different issues that might interest us. One, metaphysically, are bodies and souls distinct? Is the mind to be understood in terms of this immaterial object, the soul? So are there two kinds of things? That’s the first question. Are souls and bodies distinct? Second question, though, is: Does the soul, even if it exists, survive the destruction of the body? It could be something separate without surviving. That’s why I’ve tried to say if there are souls, at least that opens the door to the possibility that we will survive our death. But, it doesn’t guarantee it, because absent further argumentation, there’s no guarantee that the soul survives the death of the body. Even if it’s separate, it could be that it gets killed at the very same time or destroyed at the very same time that the body’s being destroyed. Maybe when these physical processes, B1 through Bn, take place, they set into motion — remember, after all we’re interactionist dualists. There’s this very tight causal connection between the body and the mind and the soul and the body, the body and the soul. Just like when you prick my body, that bodily process sets up certain things taking place in my soul. Maybe when B1 through Bn take place, they set up some other processes in my soul. Call them S1 through Sn. And maybe S1 through Sn results in the destruction of my soul. So simultaneously with my body dying, my soul dies.

Okay, this one’s going to be a little bit trickier to draw. The first part, S1…, that’s easy. Sn. The question is: How do I draw the soul? I don’t really know [draws a smiley face on the board connected to a halo. See Figure 2.2]. So the mere fact that we decide, if we do ultimately decide that there is a soul, something nonphysical, separate and distinct from the body, doesn’t guarantee that we survive our physical death. That’s going to be a separate question we’ll have to turn to. The first question’s going to be: Are there any souls? Next question is going to have to be: If there are, do we have any good reason to think that they survive the death of the body? Third question that might interest us, that does interest us, is this: If it survives, how long does it survive? Does the soul continue to exist after the death of the body? Does it continue to exist forever? Are we immortal? Most of us would like that to be true. We want there to be souls so that we can be immortal. And so the question’s got to be not only, is the soul distinct? Does it survive the death of my body? But does it continue to exist forever? Those questions — hang on one second — are ones that especially interest Plato. So in about a week or so we’ll start reading Plato’s Phaedo. The purpose of that dialogue, of that philosophical work, is to argue for the immortality of the soul. That’s a question we’ll be turning to. Yeah?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Shelly Kagan: Great. So the question is this. If the very idea of soul that we’re working with here under the dualist picture is the soul as an immaterial substance, it’s not made of ordinary atomic matter. If the soul is immaterial, doesn’t it follow automatically, trivially, that the soul can’t be destroyed by a material process? After all, there was death of the body, B1 through Bn. That’s a material process, a physical process. Doesn’t it follow that a soul, an immaterial entity, can’t be destroyed by a material, physical process? That’s a great question. What I want to say is, the short answer for now is, I don’t think it follows automatically. It doesn’t follow trivially. It may follow. Plato’s actually going to give us some arguments for pretty much that same claim. Plato’s going to argue once we understand the sort of metaphysical nature of the soul, we’ll see why it couldn’t be destroyed. That’s going to take some fancy arguments. The reason I think it doesn’t follow trivially is because, remember, I said we’re dealing with interactionist dualism. We’ve already admitted that bodies are able to affect the soul, right? The body is having all sorts of light bounce off my eyes of various wavelengths. And because of that my soul is having various visual sensations about the number of people in front of me, colors, and so forth and so on. I gave the example of pricking my body. That’s a physical process that causes some sorts of changes in the mental processes occurring in my soul. Once we’ve admitted that on this kind of dualist picture the material body can influence what happens in the immaterial soul, then it doesn’t seem that we have any grounds for shutting the door to the possibility that the right physical process, B1 through Bn, might set up this horrible mental, soul process, S1 through Sn, resulting in the destruction of the soul. It’s a possibility. It’s going to take more arguments to rule it out. Yeah?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Shelly Kagan: Yeah, another great question. The question was: I said it seems plausible to say my soul is located, more or less, here because I seem to view the world from here. But maybe that’s not right. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about the location of the soul at all. After all, if the soul is an immaterial object, can immaterial objects have locations? I don’t know. The short answer is I don’t know. I know very little about how immaterial objects are supposed to work. So although I’m trying to sketch the dualist position, as I explained on Tuesday, I don’t myself believe in souls. I don’t actually think that the dualist view is correct. You might say, I’ll leave that problem — are souls spatially located or not — to be worked out by those who believe in it. For our purposes, I think it doesn’t really matter. If you want to say souls have a location, where are they located? They’re located more or less where my body is. At least, as long as my body’s working. Maybe at death the soul gets liberated from the body and is able to wander more freely. Sometimes people talk about, in fact we’ll be reading about this, out-of-body experiences. And so maybe during those unusual times the soul wanders from the body and comes back to it. Or, alternatively, maybe the soul doesn’t have any location at all. Maybe that’s just an illusion created by the fact that I’m getting this visual input from my body. My body certainly has a location. Maybe the right way — imagine somebody who was in a room with remote control television setup and so forth and so on. And he’s seeing what’s happening in Chicago, even though he’s sitting in a room in New Haven. Well, you could understand why he might fall into the trap of thinking of himself as located in Chicago with all the visual inputs coming from Chicago. So maybe that’s how it works with the soul. We get lulled into thinking that we are where our bodies are. But that’s really a metaphysical illusion. I don’t really know. For our purposes, I think it’s not crucial. Though it’s a great question, but I’m not going to try to pursue it any further.

All right. So one question: Is there a soul? Second question: Does it survive the death of our body? Third question: If it does, does it live forever? Does it continue to exist forever? Is the soul immortal? We will initially think about the first question: Do we have any good reason to believe in souls at all? And only after a while will we turn to the second and third question: Does it survive and, more particularly, is it immortal? That’s the first basic view about the nature of a person. A person has a soul, something immaterial and not a body. I take it that the view is a familiar one. Many of you probably believe in it. Those of you who don’t believe in it have probably, at least, been tempted to believe in it. I’m sure you all do know people who believe in it. It’s a very familiar picture. But, of course, the question we’re going to have to ask ourselves is: Is it right? Is there reasons to believe it’s correct?

Chapter 4. The Physicalists: The Body Is a Body and Conclusion [00:39:00]

Turn now to the second basic view, the physicalist view, according to which a person is just a body. This is a materialist view. People are just material objects, the sorts of things biologists poke and prod and study. It’s important — I think this is the crucial point — that when we say a person is just a body, we don’t understand that to mean — the physicalist doesn’t mean that as — a person is just any old body. It’s not as though there aren’t important differences between different physical objects. Some physical objects can do things of a far more interesting sort than other physical objects.

Here’s a piece of chalk. It’s a physical object. It’s just a body. What can it do? Well, not a whole lot. I can write on the board with it. I can break it in two. You let go of it, it drops down. Not a very interesting physical body. Here’s a cell phone. It’s just a body. It’s not the most interesting physical object in the world, but it’s a whole lot more interesting than a piece of chalk. It can do all sorts of things a piece of chalk can’t do. If the physicalist is right, then here’s another physical object for you — me, Shelly Kagan. I’m a pretty impressive physical object. Now arrogant as I may be, I don’t mean to suggest I’m any more impressive than you guys are. Each one of us, according to the physicalist, is just a body that can do some amazing things. We are bodies that can think. We are bodies that can plan. We are bodies that can reason. We are bodies that can feel. We are bodies that can be afraid and be creative and have dreams and aspirations. We are bodies that can communicate with each other. We are bodies that are — well, here’s a word for it: We’re bodies that are people. But on the physicalist view, a person is just a body. And that’s where we’ll take it up next time.

[end of transcript]

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