Shelly Kagan “Death” – Open Yale Courses – review

I’ve been thinking of writing reviews of Itunes U and Coursera courses. Have you ever listened to any of those? They’re a great way to improve one’s knowledge for free.

I’ve been listening to quite a few of those since my employment status recently changed to jobseeker (or as I prefer to think of it, unpaid freelance writer), and most of them are absolutely fantastic. But, of course, what actually pushed me to a review was a course that I’m not quite so sure of.

The course in question was Shelly Kagan’s course on death (provided by Yale University on Itunes U). First things first: Shelly Kagan warns in the very first lecture that his approach to death is not an objective one and he will not be withholding his private opinions during the subject he is teaching. During this course, he attempts to persuade his listeners that there are no souls and that life after death is impossible. You may not agree with him, but if so he invites you to evaluate his course as a long hypothesis: what would our approach to death be if there was no afterlife?

Consequently, the first half of the course is concerned with basic metaphysics. What would it mean to have a soul, and what would a soul be? In contrast with Plato who believes our souls are the way in which we understand eternal forms such as justice, happiness, and numbers, Kagan seems to think that numbers are perfectly understood by computers and that the soul would be principally concerned with the perceptions of sensory experiences.

I have problems with this.

First of all, I would like Kagan to give me the theologically/philosophically appropriate literature that states that the primary function of the soul is subjective perceptions of sensory experience – I do not doubt that there is some, but I want to know what it is, exactly. I really didn’t feel there was a large enough secondary reading list for this course.

Secondly, it seems bizarre to be reading Plato in the context of modern computing and to be dismissive of what he originally meant. This touches upon my other problem with Kagan: he approaches the writings of philosophers not as historical documents, but rather evaluating whether they are actually believable in the modern day. And whether, he, personally, agrees with them.

One of my main problems with this course is that it is unashamedly purely philosophical. It is a curiously narrow approach to a subject matter as wide as death. At one point, Kagan jokes that he could have invited a doctor from the Yale Medical Faculty and he could have told us about all the physical details and definitions of death. At which point, I was like – yes, please! Why didn’t you? It seems bizarre for a philosopher who thinks about death and not to engage directly with the latest medical thoughts on the matter. It, unfortunately, goes to show that that though psychiatry and medical ethics feel constantly obliged to engage with philosophy, Kagan does not really feel obliged to engage with anything other than his beloved subject.

Likewise, he doesn’t really mention many other approaches to death other than the Western European approach. He briefly mentions the Buddhist thinking about death as a liberation from a life of pain and just says that he is not personally persuaded by it. Um, okay… But I still want to hear more about it?

And yet, for a man teaching a purely philosophical course focused on Western philosophy’s thoughts about death, Kagan really doesn’t engage much with Western philosophical terms either. Incredibly for a course on death, he doesn’t mention the term existentialism. One of the books in the secondary reading has existentialism in its title, but he doesn’t mention the term or any of its main proponents. Perhaps his book based on the course is a bit better in that

One of the readings is a story by Tolstoy, but Kagan doesn’t really engage with what seems to be one of its main points: the desperate, panicked fear of all fragile, living things of becoming non-sentient nothing.

Kagan’s reasoning is that death should not be feared as it is both non-existence (hence not painful) a certainty (and hence not terrifying, as it is variability that makes things scary). I would think of him as close to an Epicurean stance. But his proposition does not really engage with our basic animal wiring (or Tolstoy). I get the impression that fear of death is literally wired into our central nervous system: most living creatures seem quite keen to avoid death. It seems strange for a physicalist, as Kagan professes to be, to avoid this fact of our biology.

Kagan barely talks about Epicureanism, preferring to talk about hedonism more generally. And hedonism is another problem of mine with this course. For all his professed avowal of a distance to the hedonist approach, Kagan’s analysis of euthanasia and the possibility of the rationality of suicide seems to me to be completely hedonic: it’s a balance of a person’s future pleasure and pain. If there is too much pain, Kagan thinks it’s completely rational to commit suicide.

Even Kagan seems to fear the implications of this statement for a moment – he immediately says to his class of his young Yale students that he thinks it is highly unlikely that there is more pain than pleasure in their future life. That’s sweet. But does he really think that that sort of logic will prevent the appeal of his previous conclusion to someone who is clinically depressed? Or to someone who does not belong to one of the most privileged groups on Earth: ie. white Americans who can afford an education at Yale?

What about the people who committed suicide in the middle of World War II? Some of them made their decisions clearly convinced that the war would never end, and all that the future held was suffering. They happened to be wrong, although perhaps statistically they were more likely to have been right.

If we think that life on balance tends to contain more pain than pleasure (I remind you casually that Kagan suggested this was the Buddhist point of view)—what should we do? Just kill ourselves off now? This is where Camus’s myth of Sisyphus would be a useful suggestion, but it never makes an appearance.

Death is an important subject which deserves our full attention and consideration. Thus far I agree with Kagan. I also understand that it is a broad subject, to which one course can hardly do justice in one series of lectures. But in 25 hours of lectures, I really hoped to learn a bit more about it. Instead, I felt I learned a great deal about the size of Shelly Kagan’s ego. Humongous.

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