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Death (The Open Yale Courses Series) Paperback – May 15, 2012
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About the Author
Shelly Kagan is Clark Professor of Philosophy, Yale University. He is the author of Normative Ethics and The Limits of Morality. He lives in Hamden, CT.
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I can't give more than zero stars to Mr. Shelly Kagan. Unfortunately. Shelly is a very nice man, as it seems. I watched all his 26 videos from Yale available on youtube, basically saying exactly the very same things that he says in the book (no update, huh Shelly?...). I really would love to give many stars to a work by him. But the sheer fact is this: Shelly does not know about the issue enough to be saying what he says and to be "concluding" what he concludes. And, this is not a "pink pony subject" (i.e. inconsequential). Rather, it is a very serious subject. It is a very dangerous subject. People's hearts is at stake. People's anxieties and hopes are at stake. I dearly wished Shelly would know better. But he doesn't...
I will comment on the book basically sequentially. Sometimes I may make comments off sequence. Let' see:
Starting my comments actually off sequence, one point that I would like to highlight is Shelly's notion that "the soul is immaterial." That is, it seems that, to him, if there is a soul, this soul is immaterial. Now that is perhaps the worst mistake people commit when thinking about this whole issue. As I have repeatedly stressed both to materialist and to spiritualists, souls, *if they exist*, most likely ARE material. As a matter of fact there are at least two spiritualist traditions that assert this very same thing.
It is good that Shelly spends a good deal of time with the issue of personal identity across time (and I must add: across space too!). Yet, I think even in this he dealt too poorly with the subject. To my eyes, he seemed like a bird with only one wing in this...
Now, more sequentially. On page 4, he says: "I think that the common picture is pretty much mistaken from start to end, and I am going to try to convince you of that. That, at least, is my goal. That's my aim." What he wants to convince us of is that, 1, there is no soul; 2, immortality is not good; 3, fear of death isn't actually an appropriate response to death; among other non problematic items (two more items, if my memory serves me well). There is no problem in his trying to convince us of these things. The problem is: why does he want to do it when he simply did not analyze the evidence pro and con. Never did, as it is clear. And maybe never will...
On page 5, he says: "We'll be trying to think about death from a rational standpoint." Again: what is the rationality in not analyzing the evidence?
On page 9 we get to know some "problems" with philosophers. Actually not with philosophers, but with philosophers like Shelly: "I don't really know a whole lots of facts." True. He does not know a whole lots of facts. To discuss the issue of death nowadays, one has to have a good knowledge of the relevant physics, a good knowledge of the relevant biology, and a superb knowledge of parapsychological research in general, and of the relevant parapsychological research more specifically. Shelly is Shallow in all these areas.
Chapter 3, starting on page 24, has the title: "Arguments for the Existence of the Soul." So one might expect to find in this chapter an analysis of the arguments for the existence of the soul. Much to one dismay, this is precisely what you do not find in this chapter!
[Note added on October 29, 2012: I have been somewhat unfair to Shelly in this point. The score is actually this: in chapter 3, entitled "Arguments for the Existence of the Soul," Shelly divides the issue between "Everyday Phenomena" and "Supernatural Phenomena." As I said, his addressing of the "supernatural" is bogus. Regarding the "everyday," he basically mentions three arguments: 1- Vitalism (or the like); 2- Free will; 3- Consciousness. (he actually lists 9, but they truly "boil down" to these 3 that I am listing). I think he discusses these 3 in a fair way. Further on, in chapters 4 and 5, he discusses Descartes's one (1) argument and Plato's two (2) arguments. Descartes's is actually the argument of consciousness itself (qualia), even though Shelly doesn't show signs of perceiving it... Plato's argument about the forms (eidos) and about simplicity are, too, fairly well dealt with. My view is this: the "philosophical arguments" (basically Plato's) are too far fetched from nowadays concerns (but, granted, maybe they are only too far away from *my own* concerns...). And the "everyday arguments" (vitalism, basically) are too childish (granted, maybe to my eyes basically). So when I think about arguments for the soul nowadays, I think the "supernatural" is at least 80% of what matters to the general audience or to the informed scientist/philosopher as well. And that is why my view is that Shelly ended up not discussing the arguments the way he should. Strictly speaking though, he left aside the supernatural arguments (paranormality, communication with the dead, possibility of reincarnation, and the like). That is it.]
On page 25, Shelly says: "Turn your mind's eye inward and ask, do you see a soul inside you? I don't think you will. Like me, you may observe various sensations in your body; you may observe various thoughts and feelings. But you won't observe a soul." Well, this is a possibly tricky issue. I may very well say that what I see when I look inside myself is the soul itself! Sometimes we look at things and do not understand what we are seeing. Maybe feelings and thoughts ARE the soul. I am not saying that there is a soul. I am saying that Shelly's reasoning at this point is highly flawed.
On page 39, Shelly admits that consciousness is still a mystery for the physicalist (materialist). He states that, *in this regard*, there is a tie between physicalism and spiritualist dualism (both cannot explain the phenomenon of consciousness). I must say that even though Shelly shows a fairly good understanding of the issue of consciousness, he is still too raw in this respect too. He does not show signs of really grasping better how deep the "mystery of consciousness" goes. Anyway, good enough.
On page 49, he names some of the "supernatural" phenomena that he will take a look at:Ghosts, ESP (extra sensory perception), NDE (near death experiences), communication with the dead. He states, on page 53, regarding NDEs: "Does it seem more plausible that we can explain these experiences (NDEs) in terms of the traumatic stress that your body and brain are going through when you are near dying? Or is it more plausible to suggest that what's happening here is that the soul is being partly released from its normal connection with the body?" Shelly concludes that the former is "fairly persuasive and compelling." Again (and again, and again, and again...), the problem is: he does not analyze the evidence! How can he conclude anything at all?
Pages 54 and 55, still on chapter 3..., definitely sink Shelly's boat for good. He says that the person to ask about the veridicality of claims like communication with the dead is not him but rather a magician. In other words, he is saying that he trusts pretty much in people like James Randi and similar "debunkers." What he does not know (or does not bother to know...) is that: 1- Sometimes these debunkers have proved to be dishonest too, Randi included (and as a consequence we cannot take their word for granted); and: 2- The best parapsychological research DOES MAKE use of highly skilled magicians, and this include studies of communications with the dead (I am not saying that the dead can communicate; what I am saying is that Shelly is being naive and raw).
A few phrases onward, Shelly states: "I can't take the space here to go through each purported type of supernatural phenomenon. But in principle, that's what we should do. We should look at each type of occurence and review the various scientific explanations that have been offered for what's going on. ... ... I can't take the space to do that here. But speaking personally, when I review the evidence, I always come away thinking that there's no good reason to move beyond the physical." When he says "when I review the evidence," he intentionally gives the impression to the reader that he HAS reviewed the evidence in at least a reasonable way. Yet, he has not! Shelly shows no signs whatsoever of having reviewed the literature even in a introductorily satisfactory way. That is a shame. He is dealing with people's feelings and with people' beliefs and hopes, and he is passing himself off as something that he is not (and... lecturing at Yale with this very same content!!!).
On page 362, conclusion, he says: "Still, having said that, it would be disingenious of me to pretend that I don't care whether you end up believing what I believe about death. I do care, because of course I want you to believe the truth." Note that he now is declaring that what HE believes is the truth. Even though he does not know the evidence...
On page 362, he makes Suggestions for Further Readings. Hah! Let' just look at two gems that he offers: "A skeptical discussion of near-death experiences can be found in Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, 'Near-death Experiences,' in How to think about weird things." (year 2012). Well, I can't say bad things about this book without having read it. Yet, why a "skeptical discussion?" What is the point of indicating a supposedly "skeptical" discussion? Are the other scientific works on the subject gullible? The authors use the term "weird," just like Michael Shermer used years ago... ("Why People Believe Weird Things" - year 2002). Suspicious. Unfortunately being "skeptical" (actually *being a member of the organized skeptic movement, or a willing collaborator*) does not mean being honest or thinking straight. Often enough, it is precisely the opposite... Second gem: regarding surprising claims about death, Shelly suggests: "a lively attempt to cut through some common mistakes about death can be found in Paul Edwards's essay "Existentialism and Death: A Survey of Some Confusions and Absurdities." If Edwards deals with factual data in this work, then the very same criticism that I directed to him in my review of his book "Reincarnation: a critical examination" will most likely apply...
Apart from these "metaphysical issues" above, Shelly also talks about value things. I think this is very personal. Sometimes he seems more clearly mistaken. For example, he considers immortality a bad thing. I consider it something that I do not know whether I may like or not. Only time will tell. His other value positions are, IMO, debatable. And personal. Anyone can freely agree or disagree, since there is no right or wrong in this area (i.e. the area of value, like: should we fear death? Can suicide ever be acceptable? etc).
All in all, I hope Shelly will leave the shallows, and follow both the data where it leads and his duty where it urges him to go! And I also hope that, now, he learns what to be a hard grader truly means...
Anyway, my Very Best Wishes to you, Shelly! :-)
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.)
Kagan introduces the book by making it clear what he is and his not doing. He is going to think philosophically about Death but he is going to exclude any religious material or consideration. He will first consider what the person is, consider the body- mind question. He will make an effort in the work to prove that the soul is not real.
He also says that he is not dogmatically trying to teach any doctrine about Death. He is going to explore certain basic questions regarding Death and is eager that each student will think through these questions.
He does this in a generally clear way, though I suspect that certain chapters of the work will be pretty tough going for the general reader.
He works hard to analyze the notion of personal identity. He concludes the work with the question of whether Suicide can be moral or not. He in the course of this evaluates different value systems. He also has a chapter on how we live when we know that we are going to die. And he too argues that Immortality is not a desirable alternative. In other chapters he discusses why Death is Bad.
It is possible to learn a great deal one does not necessarily want to know from this book without endorsing Kagan's positions. Kagan is well aware that this is far from the last word on the subject. And this when he as a philosopher does make arguments for a position on Death which certainly is out of keeping with, and far less consoling than traditional religious positions.