Shelly Kagan on the Existence of the Soul
29 May 2009 (updated 27 March 2020)
In his third lecture on the philosophy of life and death, Shelly Kagan begins presenting and refuting arguments for the existence of a supernatural or immaterial soul. He calls this the “dualist perspective.”
He explains that one argument for the dualist perspective is that a supernatural or immaterial soul is required to explain the sorts of capacities that humans exhibit. He then appeals to technological advances, particularly computers and robots, to demonstrate that many of the capacities attributed to humans are already exhibited in bodies to which we do not attribute dualist natures. He ends by mentioning that he’ll explore in the next lecture whether computers or robots might have the capacity for emotion.
I agree with the ideas he expresses in this lecture. However, I do think there is plenty of room for natural material spirits that are a subset of the total information that makes up a person. In particular, I anticipate, as it appears he does, that computers and robots will prove capable of exhibiting all of the characteristics that we now associate with persons.
On the other hand, I also think it makes sense to talk about computers and robots having spirits, already primitive and forming in the causal information stream that is leading to their eventual emergence as full persons. Frankly, that’s what I think we are: spiritual machines – to steal a label from Kurzweil.
Here are my thoughts on Shelly’s second lecture.