Immortality of soul as a category mistake

Arguments for immortality of soul are all valuable and nothing I say here is meant to detract from them, but on a close read it’s clear that for the Aristotelian or Naturalist, speaking of immortality or mortality of soul is a category mistake. That said, Aristotelianism allows for one sense in which activity continues after the death of the subject while Platonism gives an account of the immortality of soul as such.

“Soul” is a synonym for “life”, and so is something that can be had or lost. In the most ancient and convincing forms of Naturalism, soul is an accidental form of order among non-living substances, and is therefore the accident of relation. Though atoms can have or lose order X, order X cannot, and so soul (or life) as the Naturalist understands it can neither be mortal or immortal. That said, accidental forms cease to be all the time, and so the Naturalist can make sense of life ceasing to be, even if it is not true to say that the soul dies. There are still however problems, because while it looks like the body can live and die,  if life is an accidental form then coming to be alive or dead does not change the subject in question, since accidental changes occur only in one and the same subject. A living elk would be just as much an elk as a dead one, whatever this might mean.

Aristotle agrees with the Naturalist that life is a form, but not one making an accident but a substance. Like other forms, soul can come to and depart from a subject, meaning that a living substance can come to be alive and die. Still, the form that constitutes life cannot live or die. On the one hand, Aristotle argues extensively that this form is eternal and neither comes to be nor passes away, but on the other hand this eternal form is not a substance, and so one cannot say that a living substance survives death or pre-exists to it.

Aristotle argues for the eternity of substantial form in a way that also argues for an eternity of accidental form, saying that when one makes a bronze ring neither the bronze nor the circularity comes to be, but the bronze circle. The form no more comes to be, and is no more a mere “idea” than the matter. In this sense Aristotle and Naturalism both agree that life and therefore soul is eternal, though this belief as such is compatible with believing that no living substance survives death.

Unlike Aristotle, Plato makes life a basic feature of the universe that is neither created nor destroyed. Formally, the opposite of life is not non-being but death, and so life and death are a fundamental set of contraries where one gives rise to the other. Plato concretizes this in his myth of metempsychosis and an underworld into which souls die and from which they are born, but a narrative of each soul being created ex nihilo and dying into a transcendent realm would work just as well. On this account soul and life are conserved like any conserved quantity in physics, only changing states from embodied to disembodied.

It is not clear in Platonism whether soul is a substantial form, but it could be one. It is formally soul that is alive, and embodiment is the sharing in this life. So Aristotle gives a clear account of life arising but is a bit more hazy on whether soul is sometimes itself alive while Plato defines soul as alive but is a bit more hazy on whether life comes to be or only embodiment.

So the breakdown seems to be this: all soul is form, but this form is either definitely not alive as one’s theory accounts for it (Naturalism) definitely alive by the theory that accounts for it (Platonism) or perhaps alive or not in light of the theory that accounts for it (Aristotle). We can also distinguish the forms as definitely not a substantial form (Naturalism)* definitely a substantial form (Aristotle) and maybe a substantial form or not (Platonism).


*There is a possible naturalism that makes the soul a substantial form, but it would not be the oldest and most intelligible form of this idea.

%d bloggers like this: