The Stoics and the Epicureans on the soul

Another part of my exam preparation.

The Epicurean view of the soul is intrinsically linked with their view on physics. According to Epicurus, there are only two substances that exist. Atoms and the void. Atoms are the physical entities which bodies are made up of, they have various properties which account for the different properties of various bodies. The void is the blank empty space in which all of the atoms and bodies made up of atoms can interact and move.
In the Epicurean view, any immaterial entity could neither act upon or move bodies, in the way one observes the soul to do. Therefore, the soul must also be made up of atoms. Epicurus argued that the atoms making up the soul are very fine, and are spread out throughout the body, and through them one can have sensations and experience pain and pleasure. When a body loses it’s soul atoms it can no longer sustain life, and therefore it dies. There is also a part of the human soul concentrated in one’s chest, and it is the location of all of the higher intellectual functions.
There are two consequences of this view. Firstly, the soul can no longer survive after the death of the body. The soul is not capable of surviving following the death of the body, and as the soul dies along with the body, there is no possibility of punishment after death. Secondly, there are no purely mental phenomena, as all sensations and experiences are in some way physical.

The Stoics view was different in a few ways. They believed that the soul, or pneuma was the animating force of bodies. It consisted of two of the four elements recognized by the Stoics, fire and air. Those were the active principles of the Stoic physics, distinguished from the passive ones which were water and earth. They assumed it was so because when animals die their bodies get cold and they cease to breathe, so the bodies must have been sustained by warmth and breath. Importantly to Stoic physics, pneuma was mixed in with the body. This way they could explain how there could be two bodies in the same spot. The soul was not only the sustaining cause of all bodies, but it was also guiding the growth and development of bodies that it is contained within. Pneuma can also consist of various ratios of the active elements, and in this way the Stoics could account for different qualities of bodies.

From today’s standpoint, the Epicurean view appears to be much more plausible. With our knowledge that in some way the brain and the nervous system account for our conscious experiences, it seems plausible that what the Epicureans meant by ‘soul atoms’ was the same as neurons. On the other hand, the Stoic view requires one to accept the existence of a deity. The principle of Fire was associated with God in their view, putting an element of the divine into every living thing. As appealing as it would be to believe that there is an element of divinity in each living thing, realistically we can experience what the Epicureans argued for, and that puts their view above the Stoics.

Towards a definition of consciousness

This is my attempt to define what consciousness is. The method I take is to peel off successive layers of my being (as I may only use myself as a sample). By taking away everything which can be done away with without sacrificing the feeling of consciousness, I hope to arrive at something that cannot simply be peeled away.


Behaviour can be done away with first. A disease like “Locked-in syndrome” (I use this name for it instead of the medical one as it is better known this way) can leave every muscle in one’s body paralyzed. Some patients are left with some muscular control. Jean-Dominique Bauby, the writer of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, managed to write a book by blinking his left eye. We therefore know that people can exhibit no behaviour yet remain conscious.

Bodily sensations are next. I am not sure of whether those with Locked-in Syndrome still feel bodily sensations so I will deal with those separately. It is possible to remain conscious without any bodily sensations, for instance, in a sensory deprivation chamber. One may be left blind, deaf, without any feeling of touch or smell. One is still conscious though.

Thus, I have taken away any input towards one’s experience from their body. Now let’s consider our inner behaviour. By that I mean thoughts, feelings. In a meditative state it is possible to rid oneself of almost all of those experiences. We can disassociate ourselves from the inner monologue we experience and calm our mind.

The last thing that remains is what we cannot shut out from our experience while still remaining conscious. That is the feeling of identity, of what it is like to be me. We cannot get rid of this feeling, because it is what enables all of the other things that I have eliminated to function. There is no consciousness without subjectivity.

Why the idea of AI is flawed

Artificial Intelligence is the Philosophers Stone of the computer world. Scientist get closer and closer to developing a computer that can think as well as a person.
The concept however, can never be satisfied. The idea that an artificial intelligence can be as good as a human is simply ridiculous.
For a start, the definition of what intelligence constitutes is murky enough. Secondly, if a computer ever could “think” it would only think within the limits of it’s programming. It would only ever be artificial, and therefore not real intelligence.

The difference between property and substance dualism

Again from that assignment. It’s the last question, I promise.

Explain the difference between property and substance dualism. Articulate and evaluate an objection against property dualism.
Substance dualism is the claim that there are two fundamentally different kinds of substances in the world. Physical or material substances, which are, according to Descartes, known particularly by that they have spatial extension, and mental substances, which are non-extended in space and thinking.

Property dualism instead claims that there is only one kind of substance, material substance. There are however two different kinds of properties, physical properties and mental properties. The mental properties in this view cannot be reduced to physical states. Importantly, the mental properties are able to produce an effect on the physical states of one’s body (eg., generate movement). One may argue against this from induction. This argument claims that property dualism will ultimately be explained away by science. Looking at the past success that it has had explaining the physical causes of many things, which previously were attributed non-physical causes (such as lightning), it appears that it is only a matter of time until property dualism becomes unnecessary.

This argument is easily refuted however. A common example is the following. In the past all swans that A has seen are white. From this A could conclude therefore, that all swans are white. However, there in fact are swans which are black (Vickers, 2011). Therefore, the conclusion would be false. Similarly, just because science has had success giving causal explanations in the past, has no bearing on whether it will have success with all causal explanations.

Vickers, John, “The Problem of Induction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Epicurus as Emergentist

How does Sedley instead argue that the swerve was part of Epicurus‘ emergentist view of the mind? Be sure to explain what Sedley means by ‘emergentist‘.

Sedley’s meaning of emergentist can be explained as properties of certain systems which are too complicated to be explained purely by analysis of the properties of the constituents of the system. The example he cites is that of a computer that becomes so complicated that it becomes conscious. Any single component of the computer is not conscious on its own. When all the parts are put together though, consciousness emerges.

He argues that on Epicurus’ view, matter in complex systems can acquire ‘new, non physical properties not governed by the laws of physics’.  These emergent properties can produce free actions because of the swerve, as it implies that actions are no longer governed purely by the laws of physics, but something more, which is non-physical.