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Charming style, sloppy arguments.
on December 31, 2012
Kagan's style is charming and engaging, and he covers a broad range of important topics, but his arguments are sloppy where they count the most. The crucial chapters for thinking about the possibility (and probability) of "survival" (i.e., continued, personal existence after bodily death) are chapters 3 and 4. Here Kagan surveys the main arguments for substance dualism (the view that humans have souls in addition to bodies). Although he touches on all the key issues, his touches are far too brief and light to do justice to their subject. They don't really provide an adequate introduction to the issues, let alone an adequate justification for any conclusions about dualism. Nonetheless, Kagan takes them to be sufficient to (provisionally) justify a physicalist perspective (the view that humans are purely physical/material beings)that informs much of the remainder of the book.
Of course this is just an introductory text, so some simplification of the material is forgivable. However, in light of the current state of the debate between physicalists and dualists in the philosophy of mind, chapter 3 especially is so overly-simplified that I can't help but regard it as a bit of philosophical malpractice. In this chapter, Kagan surveys those features of persons that, because they are so hard to explain in physical terms, might reasonably be accepted as non-physical. These features include intentionality/mental content, qualia, free will/agency, mental causation, and teleological action. (Although Kagan doesn't use any of this terminology apart from "qualia", he nonetheless raises all of these topics.) For a more adequate discussion of these (and other) ostensibly non-physical aspects of persons, and their implications for dualism, I recommend any (and really all) of the following:
1. David Chalmers' essay "Consciousness and its Place in Nature", in the _Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind_, also in _Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings_, and also online here [...] .
2. Goetz and Baker (eds.) _The Soul Hypothesis_
3. Alter and Howell, _A Dialogue on Consciousness_
4. Kukla and Walmsley, _Mind: A Historical And Philosophical Introduction to the Major Theories _
3 and 4 are intended to be introductory texts, yet provide much deeper coverage of the issues noted above. 1 and 2 are for the most part very accessible, although both contain some harder sections too. (But even the harder sections aren't so hard that a bright and/or determined novice can't follow them.)
Chapter 3 also covers Near Death Experiences. Here again, the discussion is far too short to count as adequate, or even competent. For better discussions of NDEs, see:
1. David Lester, _Is There Life After Death? An Examination of the Empirical Evidence _. (Lester is a Psychology professor who, although skeptical, manages a fair and balanced assessment of the evidence. He covers not only NDEs but also other purported paranormal phenomena relevant to the tiular question. The book's only weakness is that it is now a bit dated - there have been several more prospective NDE studies published since he wrote the book. Sadly, it seems to be out of print.)
2. Holden, Greyson, and James (eds.), _The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation _. (Probably the best, most complete, most objective source for information on NDEs currently in print. Most of the authors seem sympathetic to non-physical interpretations of NDEs in a way that counterbalances Lester's skepticism, but, like Lester, they do a good job of bracketing their personal biases and remaining objective.)