Recently, I have taken to listening to podcasts of college courses during my downtime–commuting, perambulating, staring into space–and I have had great fun making my way through Open Yale Courses and similar. I am now about halfway through Shelly Kagan’s Philosophy course on “Death” (the course actually focuses on the existence of souls, the nature of persistence of identity and meaning of immortality, and the ethics of suicide). Kagan spends the first about 10 sessions presenting an apologia (sort of) for the physicalist view that the soul is “[something the body can do]” rather than an immaterial entity intimately associated with the body (what is called the dualist view). I say sort of, because Kagan argues strongly that he has no more responsibility to disprove souls than he does to disprove fire-breathing dragons. And in that lack of responsibility stands a matter of huge logical, philosophical, religious, and social significance. (PS, a simple summary of what follows is available just before the footnotes)
By his assertion that the soul bears the burden of proof (it is a figment of imagination unless proved to be real), Kagan bluntly but powerfully sidesteps the vexing problem of consciousness and manages to perpetuate his worldview in an ultimately rather non-reflective way. Kagan chooses as analogies fire-breathing dragons and unicorns. He argues that he can be confident that they do not exist as long as he is able to refute or reject any evidence that they do exist. In the event of an evidential vacuum (ie nothing can be proved one way or the other), there are no dragons or unicorns. By placing the soul beside ancient traditions now almost universally rejected as fanciful, Kagan looks forward to a day when the intellectual tenor of society will reject the soul on similar terms (it does not yet, a point that the tenor of his undergraduate proselytism underscores). To him this prophecy and aspiration is sufficient to reject (for himself) and to disprove (to others, whom he rather forcefully calls into allegiance to the advancing worldview that supports this limited view of the soul) the existence of the soul.
The problem is that the burden of proof here is all in how you pose the question. If we assume the physicalist view as reasonable, then a view that deviates will bear the burden of proof, while if we assume some sort of dualism is reasonable, then physicalism bears the burden of proof. The stakes seem reasonably high to me, since in my experience most philosophical arguments are able to provide rather limited durable, conclusive evidence of fundamentals like the existence of the soul. Since a tie is almost guaranteed, it seems to me that it matters a great deal how we interpret a tie.
Speaking in what I understand to be philosophical terms, though, if we conceive the physicalist mind (an epiphenomenon of the brain’s neural circuitry that dualists call the soul) as a construct attempting to explain the phenomenon of consciousness, then I think we have an argument with a burden of proof. When even Kagan admits that there is no currently compelling physicalist account of consciousness, I am hard-pressed to see how an account that rejects the crux of self-awareness (the mind’s sense that it is in fact distinct from the body, a point clearly made in Descartes’ classic thought problem) can be taken as true without evidence. The closest anyone is coming to a physicalist accounting of consciousness is with complex systems analysis, and it’s not even clear what it means to be able to model an emergent phenomenon similar to consciousness as an account of consciousness. As religious theorist Jonathan Z. Smith famously reminds us “Map Is Not Territory,” and as Einstein (and any other scientist worth her rigorous salt) would have us know models are not the reality they seek to model, but are extracts from it. So accounting for a complex mental entity that a) is the one doing the accounting, and b) conceives of itself as non-physical, by saying that “[someone will figure it out eventually, I just know it]” seems to me to bear the burden of proof. Quod Errant Demonstrandum.
SIMPLIFIED SUMMARY: Kagan says the soul is guilty (of being a religious fable) until proven innocent, so if there’s no evidence for or against it, then there isn’t a soul. I say that you can as easily say that the “mind” (the belief that the soul is just something the body does while it’s alive) is guilty (of being a scientistic fable) until proven innocent. So that’s what (my soul and) I say.
 I know little if any actual philosophy, and my comments should be interpreted as only those of an outsider who likes to read and interact with ideas.
 He actually argues that there are no dragons but clearly by that does not intend Komodo Dragons but rather the fire-breathers that have bated the breath of more than one nervous man-child obsessed with Tolkein’s hairy-footed worlds.
 Kagan very openly and repeatedly confesses his aim to persuade his audience that there is in fact no soul. It quickly starts to wear thin, but I haven’t been an undergraduate for some time, and may therefore not represent his target audience.
 Physicalist pretty much means what outsiders mean when they say “materialist” or “secular” or “atheist.” Basically, the physicalist viewpoint is that there is nothing beyond physical existence.
 Descartes argued that because we can easily imagine our mind as a disembodied entity that proves mind and body are separable. I agree with Kagan that this is not an adequate philosophical proof of the soul’s existence, but I do think it’s a powerful reminder and demonstration that the mind conceives of itself as separate from the body, a point he does not engage in these lectures.
 Again, I am not a philosopher or a mathematician, hence the pun. Sue me.