Socrates, Dualism, and Science

I was reading one of Plato Socratic Dialogues—Phaedo--when I had a sort of epiphany. The section I was reading was the dialogue between Socrates and those present at his death, most notably Cebes, regarding the immortality of the soul. Socrates, incidentally, is portrayed as having a very dualistic (or even Manichaean) view of the body and the soul: a philosophy which he shared with his student Plato.

In the course of this discussion, Socrates argues that death is a good thing because it frees the soul from the body in which it was effectively imprisoned. An effect of that imprisonment is that the soul is hindered in the pursuit of wisdom and of truth:

Now how about the acquisition of wisdom? Is the body a hindrance, or is it not, if you use it as an accessory in the search? What I mean is, do sight and hearing provide men with any true knowledge, or are even the poets trying to tell us something like this, that nothing we hear or see is accurate? And yet if these bodily sense are not accurate or reliable, the others are hardly likely to be--for all the others are inferior, I suppose, to these....When, then, does the soul attain to truth...when it tries to investigate anything with the help of the body, the body quite clearly deceives it....So it is only through reasoning, if at all, that any part of reality can be plainly understood.

The discussion then progresses to suggest that the soul is freed from the body with death (though also that suicide is unjust, since we would be robbing God or the gods of one of their possessions, namely, ourselves). Following this, Socrates suggests that the souls is reincarnated in another body in the future--another philosophical tenet which fits quite nicely with the Manichaean idea that the body is a prison, but which is most clearly manifested in Buddhist or Hindu pantheism today--that is, that in death the soul is freed, but in life it is re-imprisoned without direct recollection of its past life.

Here Cebes interjects an interesting bit of philosophy which he received from Socrates:

Then there is the argument, Socrates, which you are so often putting forward, that our learning is simply a recollection--that argument, also, if it is sound, proves that we must have learned what we now recollect at some previous time; and that would be impossible unless our souls had existed somewhere before appearing in this human frame--so that according to this argument as well, the soul seems to be something immortal.

There is a problem with this statement which should be obvious at a glance, namely that it creates a sort of infinite regress. To the pantheistic Greeks--of whom Socrates and Plato were two--this does not present a problem, since they held a belief in an eternal universe. However, we know that the universe is not eternal. Most atheists and agnostics acknowledge that the universe had a beginning--sometimes referred to as the Big Bang--and in addition Christians (and most others who subscribe to a monotheistic religion, non pantheistic religion) know that the universe was created in time by an eternal God. An infinite regress requires an eternal universe, but it is requires an infinite amount of time to transgress: if the past is itself infinite in time and without beginning, then we can never reach the present.

But the assumption made explicit by Cebes is that all learning is but a remembering of a thing learned in a previous life. But this leaves us facing the question: if learning means only remembering something learned from a previous life, then each previous life itself requires a previous life from which to recall knowledge: an impossible regress with no starting point which therefore cannot lead to this life. The only alternative is to posit that there exists some life in which the souls possesses all knowledge already (which Socrates himself later does): but this leaves the question as to how the soul comes to be in possession of this knowledge, if not through learning.

There is something more at work here, though. If learning does not entail recalling lost knowledge from a previous life, then what is it? The best option which remains is to allow that the body itself is essential to the process of learning: the body through the experiences of the fives senses collects information--raw data--which is then ordered by the mind. Learning therefore means to be able to “make sense” of the information taken in, which is done through reasoning (a natural power of the intellect, which is given us innately, being endowed in the image and likeness of our Creator). Thus, a part of learning is the ability to synthesize data into a theory, be it scientific or philosophical, and developing our skills of reasoning to accomplish this task with regards to a new situation.

This goes counter to the philosophy of the Greeks, beginning with Socrates. Here, the body is every bit as integral to learning as is the soul, for the body is what gathers the information for the soul to synthesize into knowledge. It is perhaps in part for this reason that the scientific revolution occurred not in the philosophically developed Greece of antiquity, nor the culturally stable east of pantheistic Buddha or scholarly Confucius, nor even the mathematically advanced lands of Islam, but rather in the Christian West. For of all religious and philosophical systems, it was Christianity alone (especially Catholicism and certain Protestant sects) which recognized the body itself as a part of the human self, and not merely as the machine in which we live as ghosts.

Many of these religions proclaimed the immortality of the soul, but the Church was alone in making the resurrection of the body a part of her creed. Thus we see in the West the marriage of reason to observation, a marriage which has sparked the revolution in the development of the natural sciences. In other cultures, there is an interest of one, the other, or even both, but never both in union together on any scale large enough to give birth to modern science.

The Greeks and the Romans after them were certainly interested in making certain observations, but they did so almost always for practical reasons. Rarely did they test their philosophical assumptions--such as Aristotle's belief that a heavier object falls faster, because its desire to reach the earth was greater--with actual observations. Had the Greek philosophers not followed Socrates (and Pythagoras, among others) in rejecting the body, had they believed that the physical world was made by a reasonable Creator Who, and thus endowed with order according to a knowable, reasonable set of laws, perhaps the development of the natural sciences would have followed a much different path.

Instead, the sciences had to await the establishment of a religion which accepted both the body and the soul: both the material and the spiritual (or rational) worlds. This religion was the Faith of the Church, which (as Professor Pierre Duhem and Fr Stanley L Jaki after him have shown) brought forth the beginnings of modern science during the High Middle Ages, when it had been established as the religion of Europe and was at last relatively secure from the barbarian invasions and tumultuous centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Even then did science and technological invention develop in Christendom, as Fr Jaki (among others) has shown with his excellent essay “Medieval Creativity in Science and Technology” (republished in Patterns and Principles and Other Essays).

The birth of science could not be found amongst the dualistc Greeks or their successors, but instead had to await the birth of Christ, and the establishment and subsequent growth of His Church.

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