The harmony objection in Phaedo

Simmias responds to Socrates’s arguments for the immortality of soul* by claiming soul is like the harmony of a lyre. The example is particularly apt, since it’s clear that Socrates praises the soul as a heavenly and transcendent thing and the timbre of the lyre evokes the same sense of the heavenly. For all that, however, the heavenliness of the lyre is just the vibration of the string and disappears as soon as the string breaks. The example thus has the effect of advancing the sort of hard-nosed/ debunking rhetoric so typical of the materialist tradition. Soul is just the proper functioning of a machine, and the notes of the lyre = the good working order of the vending machine = the ticking of the clock, etc.

Socrates gives two responses, the first denying that the soul is functional and the second claiming that even if the soul is functional, it is not like the functioning of a body.

Soul cannot be a function because soul as functioning is understood through virtue or health while soul as soul is understood as giving a sort of existence. As functioning, soul has a greater or lesser activity and operation (fish swimming, birds nesting, dogs chasing cars) but as soul it gives something its existence as a species and so isn’t more or less of a type, but simply the species that it is (fish/squirrel/bird).

But even if soul were function it is not like the functioning of the vending machine or the computer program. Soul commands and arranges matter. The central nervous system doesn’t just give rise to desires but is shaped as a whole by them, and soul preserves the unity of the animal even with all matter flowing into it and being sloughed off again. While the activity of a whole physical system is an effect of its parts, the activity of a living system is not purely physical except by abstraction. Of itself, life is irreducibly bio-physical. Said another way, life is a physical system but not a physicalist system.

Socrates’s responses complement each other – life functions are substantial functions in opposition to being the sort of accidental functions we understand best. Saying the man walks or the rock falls is not the same kind of predication as saying that the man lives. Some activities don’t just result from or inhere in substances but constitute the substance in its species. To use language that STA will apply to the Trinity, some processions are not accidents coming out of substances but are things that are one with their principle precisely by coming forth from it.


*None of these arguments change if one substitutes “life” for “soul”, though one has to understand “life” in a formal sense as whatever a living thing has.

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