Simmias’ Harmony: Socrates’ Arguments on the Soul, Revisited
by DT Strain.
Phaedo may be especially important in ancient Greek philosophic concepts on the soul. In it, Socrates is written to argue for the existence of an immortal soul, distinct and separate from the body. Much later, while the Hebrews did not accept the concept of a distinct soul, the Christian tradition had moved beyond the Hebrews and into Gentile culture, in which it took on some different aspects to which they could relate. Given that Greek philosophy was an influential factor in the later development of Gentile Christianity, the impact of the reasoning in Phaedo might be an original and profound, if forgotten, basis for the modern Western concept of the soul. This article looks back at those original arguments, parses them out from the conversational style of Phaedo, and speculates on how they would fare given today’s knowledge.
In his first two arguments, Socrates attempts to argue for the existence of a soul. Argument #3 attempts to support its pre-existence, before our current life (perhaps as in some sort of reincarnation). Argument #4 attempts to prove the continued existence of the soul after death. Following Argument #4, Simmias (a person with whom Socrates is conversing) offers a counter proposal for understanding the relationship of the mind to the body. Remarkably, Simmias’ argument and his analogy make perfect sense, given what we know of the brain through science today. Nevertheless, Socrates follows with three more arguments (#5, #6, #7) designed to show Simmias’ model to be unfounded and thus, the concept of the distinct soul triumphs in Phaedo.
One thing to take note of here is that (at least in my translation) the words ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ are used interchangeably. These philosophies on the soul are especially naturalistic in nature. Unlike our supernatural conception of the soul and the afterlife, Socrates in his time did not make a distinction between the real and “ethereal” planes, as modern theistic philosophy does. These were people attempting to understand their world and they viewed the soul and the afterlife as much a part of nature as the seasons, fire, breath, democracy, or decay.
One indication of this naturalistic view is Socrates’ line to Simmias, “You fear that, upon death, the soul may scatter in the wind, especially if a man dies in stormy weather.” Another indication of Socrates’ materialist view of the soul is in the fourth premise in Argument #3, “The concept of equality (as with all other absolute concepts) can only be known through the medium of the senses.”
In a later section of Phaedo, Socrates describes to Simmias his understanding of the nature of the world, heaven, and the gods…
I believe that [the earth] is vast in size, and that we who dwell between the river Phasis and the Pillars of Hercules inhabit only a minute portion of it… We do not realize that we are living in its hollows, but assume we are living on the earth’s surface. Imagine someone living in the depths of the sea. He might think that he was living on the surface, and seeing the sun and the other heavenly bodies through the water; he might think that the sea was the sky. He might be so sluggish and feeble that he had never… emerged and raised his head from the sea into this world of ours, and seen for himself… how much purer and more beautiful it really is than the one in which his people lives. Now we are in just the same position… We call the air heaven, as though it were the heaven through which the stars move. And this point too is the same, that we are too feeble and sluggish to make our way out to the upper limit of the air. If someone could reach to the summit, or put on wings and fly aloft, when he put up his head he would see the world above, just as fishes see our world when they put up their heads out of the sea. And if his nature were able to bear the sight, he would recognize that that is the true heaven and the true light and the true earth…
There are many kinds of animals [above the air], and also human beings… As water and the sea are to us for our purposes, so is air to them, and as air to us, so the aether is to them. Their climate is so temperate that they are free from disease and live much longer than people do here, and in sight and hearing and understanding and all other faculties they are as far superior to us as air is to water or aether to air in clarity.
They also have sanctuaries and temples which are truly inhabited by gods, and oracles and prophesies and visions and all other kinds of communion with gods occur there face to face. They see the sun and moon and stars as they really are, and the rest of their happiness is after the same manner.
Absent in this talk is any notion of a ‘supernatural’ realm. Socrates moves smoothly, as though in a literal rocket ship, from the land to the sky, and above the air into what we call space today. He then speaks in the same context of heavenly beings, gods, and moons in the same breath. His explanation for the purity, long life, and better understanding of the gods is based on his suspicions regarding the material properties of elements in these regions. As Socrates speculates about the nature of the world, his outlook is thoroughly naturalistic. What he describes is closer to a ‘science fiction’, rather than theology as we approach it today. This naturalistic monism continued into philosophies such as Stoicism, which in other ways had a large impact on Paul and the Bible.
When the ancient Greeks like Socrates spoke of heaven, they literally meant what one sees in the night sky. When they spoke of an underworld, they literally meant a place that could in principle be reached with a shovel. These were expectations about far-off lands in their world, and talk of souls were investigations into how and why natural life forms are able to move and think. These souls were seen as a sort of natural phenomenon, yet invisible – as we might think of gasses and electromagnetism today.
Much later, when such literal concepts began to seem ridiculous (or at least extraneous) in light of more information about the world and biology, people began to find new ways of explaining nature, while the older explanations had since become cherished beliefs. This is when the concept of the supernatural began to emerge as it exists today.
In his book, Christianity Without God, Lloyd Geering explains that, although Jewish prophesies referred to a literal and physical heaven and earth, Christians in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries mentally constructed the notion of an immaterial and separate supernatural realm to account for the failure of a quick second coming of Jesus.
This ‘unseen realm’ allowed believers to go on believing what they wished, without any fear of disproof from surrounding evidence. What is important to understand in viewing the following arguments in Phaedo is that they take place in a philosophically pre-supernatural setting.
Another point to take note of is that these dialogues take place about two thousand years before the scientific revolution. Only then was it fully appreciated that that physical evidence is required to prove assertions about matters of fact (such as what exists), and such assertions cannot be proved by analogy or argument alone. Nevertheless, Socrates and his bunch often refer to assertions as having been ‘proved’ merely by analogy or argument – something we must naturally take with a grain of salt today.
Without further ado, these are the arguments regarding the soul in Phaedo, broken down into premises and conclusions…
ARGUMENT #1: Opposites
1. All opposites are generated out of their opposites.
2. Anything that becomes greater, must become greater after being less.
3. Between each extreme, there are two intermediate conditions: increase and decrease (wax & wane, cool & heat, growing & shrinking, etc.)
4. There is an opposite to life (death) with two intermediate processes.
5. If death comes from life, then life comes from death.
6. The dead must come from somewhere to make the living.
Conclusion: The dead must exist somewhere.
ARGUMENT #2: Entropy
1. If all things died and remained dead, then all things would eventually be dead.
2. All things are not dead.
Conclusion: All things must not remain dead after dying.
ARGUMENT #3: The pre-existence of the soul
1. All things remind us of other things, some like, and some unlike.
2. There is a higher quality shared by like things which makes them equal.
3. In order to recognize that some things are more or less equal, we must have had a concept of equality before we first looked upon these things.
4. The concept of equality (as with all other absolute concepts such as beauty, good, justice, and holiness) can only be known through the senses.
Conclusion: All learning is recollection of previous learning, with the physical senses, we experienced before our current lives.
ARGUMENT #4: The continuation of the soul after death
1. the compound may change, while the uncompounded is stable and remains the same.
2. Beauty, justice, and all other “essences” are constant, while horses, men, etc. are in a constant state of change.
3. Horses, men, etc. can be touched and perceived with the senses, while the unchanging essences can only be seen with the mind – they are invisible.
4. There are, then, two forms of existence: the seen (changing), and the unseen (unchanging).
5. The body is seen and the soul is unseen.
6. The body changes.
Conclusion: The soul is unchangeable and will exist forever.
SIMMIAS’ ARGUMENT: The harmony and the lyre
1. A lyre and its strings are matter, material, earthly, composite, and akin to mortality.
2. The harmony is invisible, incorporeal, fair, divine, and abides in the lyre.
3. When the lyre is broken, the harmony has perished, even before the lyre.
Conclusion: The soul, like the harmony, perishes when the body, like the lyre, ceases to function.
ARGUMENT #5: First response to Simmias (pre-existence)
1. Harmony is not pre-existent to the lyre.
2. Either Simmias’ argument, or the pre-existence of the soul, is invalid.
3. The pre-existence of the soul has been proven in Argument #3.
Conclusion: Simmias’ lyre/harmony analogy must be invalid.
ARGUMENT #6: Second response to Simmias (degrees)
1. There are different degrees of harmony: some “less” of a harmony than others.
2. There are not degrees of souls: some “less” of a soul than others.
Conclusion: Simmias’ lyre/harmony analogy must be invalid.
ARGUMENT #7: Third response to Simmias (opposition to its parts)
1. A harmony cannot be in a state other than that of the elements out of which it is compounded.
2. A harmony does not make up the parts, but only follows them.
3. A harmony cannot have any sound or motion which is opposed to the parts.
4. Every harmony depends on the manner in which the parts are harmonized.
5. The soul is sometimes at variance with the body.
6. The soul leads the body, and not vice versa, as with the harmony and the lyre.
Conclusion: Simmias’ lyre/harmony analogy must be invalid.
Socrates went on to say that he once loved the natural sciences and enjoyed investigating such questions as, “what is the nature of decay?” and “What is the source of thought? Is it blood, air, fire, or perhaps the brain?” (these would be the equivalent of today’s studies in taphonomy and neurobiology). He then concluded that he was “wholly incapable of these inquiries” – no doubt, due to a lack of the knowledge and technology in his time. Having, abandoned these studies, he then appears to make an expression of what might be ‘sour grapes’ when he criticizes the natural sciences as confusing cause with effect. Nevertheless, it seems that, with his desire to seek Truth objectively, his willingness to go against the grain, and his naturalistic/monistic outlook on the world, Socrates would have likely concluded quite differently had he the biological and scientific knowledge of the body and brain that we enjoy today.
For instance, knowledge of brain function would be especially beneficial to his misunderstandings in Argument #7. Premise 6 of that argument is, “The soul leads the body, and not vice versa, as with the harmony and the lyre”. However, modern studies of brain function by researchers such as Benjamin Libet, reveal that what we would call the mind today is indeed led by the body. Despite our perception that we make a decision and the body carries it out, Libet’s volition scans showed that the brain actually makes decisions a split second before we become aware of making them.
Knowledge of how memory functions in the brain and the basics on neural activity would likely have also destroyed Argument #3 for him. Recognizing that some things are “more or less equal” is a product of pattern recognition – a function we can replicate with other neural network structures. This allows one to understand how such evaluations can be made in the brain without prior knowledge. That is, unless one considers the genetic data that determines the growth of that neural network to be ‘prior knowledge’. But if Socrates were to have known about DNA, genetic codes would have to become Socrates’ “soul” based on Argument #3, and it seems unlikely he would have gone in this direction rather than simply discarding the argument.
As it goes, Argument #5 rests upon Argument #3. If there is no reason to suspect the pre-existence of the soul, then the fact that a harmony doesn’t exist before the lyre in no way harms Simmias’ argument.
A simple correction in Simmias’ argument, changing “harmony” to “sound” would overcome Argument #6. This means that all three of Socrates’ arguments in response to Simmias (#5, #6, #7) are invalidated given what we know about information processing, neural networks, and brain function today.
Socrates’ approach was a naturalistic one that sought to take into account all available evidence. There are no tendencies in Socrates toward accepting claims on the notion of ‘faith’. Therefore, had Socrates access to the information we have today, it seems very likely he would have been convinced by Simmias’ argument (or perhaps even thought of it first). If so, Socrates’ position on an immortal soul would have much more closely aligned with modern materialists – the effects of which may have been profound on the philosophic atmosphere in Greece and proceeding Western, and perhaps Christian, thought about souls.
Any relevant, applicable, or practical philosophy to be pursued regarding a ‘soul’ in today’s time must look at current understanding about brain function, and build new arguments from the ground up. That is not to say that an argument for a distinct soul couldn’t be made given today’s information. But in order to pass muster as a serious notion on the level it had been in Socrates’ day, those arguments would need to take into account behavior as it relates to brain function. More importantly, such arguments would need to justify themselves against Ockham’s Razor, have predictive power, and align with the expectations of any serious theory. When brain function can explain behavior, why should we assume the machine is haunted by additional phenomena? This is the challenge of the modern proponent of the dualistic soul.
Perhaps the most promising avenue for soul proponents would be to note what Consciousness philosopher David Chalmers calls the ‘hard question’ of consciousness, which is beyond the scope of this essay. Still, such notions would be mere hypothesis at best and be very much in danger of slipping into extraneousness.
Rather, we currently have every reason to suspect that when the brain is destroyed, Simmias’ harmony also ceases. We cannot hold it against Socrates for addressing what was, in his time, a serious hypothetical contender for a description of living entities. But as for today, until or unless more sophisticated arguments are discovered, the notion of a distinct soul should be considered out of the realm of serious philosophical thought and more in the realm of superstition and folklore – at best, when described materially, an ancient scientific hypothesis now obsolete.
References: Cliffs Notes on The New Testament, Charles H. Patterson, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Nebraska, 1995, Cliffs Notes, Inc., pp. 17, 20-21, 23-24.  Plato: Collected Dialogues, editors Edith Hamilton & Huntington Caims, 1989, Princeton University Press, pp. 90-91.  Christianity Without God, Lloyd Geering, 2002, Polebridge Press, pp. 89.  A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, Gerald M. Edelman & Giulio Tononi, 2000, Basic Books, pp. 68-69.  “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”, David Chalmers, http://consc.net/papers/facing.pdf.