Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rebecca Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away (2014)

I can recall a classroom discussion decades ago about the function of literary criticism:  was it a formal evaluation of the literary text on its own merits, treating the work as a self-contained aesthetic object?  Or was context required:  for example, the reader's attention to the author's biography, the culture and historical reference point(s) from which the work emerged, and perhaps the work's social function?  I always leaned to the latter simply because most (if not all) authors are writing to be heard about something in context.  Few, if any, authors are writing solely for the sake of form.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who has written non-fiction works about Spinoza, Gödel, and now a blended work of fiction and non-fiction about Plato confronts this split in Plato at the Googleplex. She can't avoid a contextual approach:  this work is substantially about the history and role of philosophy, and she is trying to communicate a message about philosophers talking across the ages to each other, even when it is impossible to get them in the same room together.  Philosophy is that way, after all.  But is literature really any different?  Both have their origins in human imagination, and for that matter so does scientific inquiry, a point I will return to in a moment.  (See July 30, 2011 post).

Not a biography, Plato at the Googleplex is biographical. It is a very clever book, organized to convince you that Plato, born 2500 years ago, is still very much alive today. The story of Plato or Socratic ideas is really just a tool in a much larger construct that Goldstein is presenting and arguing.  Goldstein is disturbed --- deeply I might say --- that philosophy is being characterized as something like a historical artifact in the mental toolbox of evolving human ideas, now allegedly dominated by scientific inquiry.  Previous posts in this blog have noted this:  for example, John Searle's statement, "Philosophers need to forget about Cartesian dualism "and just remind ourselves that mental phenomena are ordinary biological phenomena in the same sense as digestion and photosynthesis."  (See January 21, 2011 and September 27, 2009 post).  This story of Plato and Socratic ideas is the device to remind us that many of the things that we argue about today at work, on television talk shows, in criminal and civil justice institutions, in educational institutions, and in public fora are the same things we have been arguing about in western civilization since the 5th Century BCE.

It is not enough to understand Plato's dialogues or Socratic ideas based on the text and words alone.  It is imperative that we understand the context in which the words were uttered or written.  There was the Golden Age of Greece glorified by Homer, then came the monument builders, wars and more wars, and in the middle of those wars an intellectual era that marks the beginning of modern philosophy.  Philosophers and political leaders and teachers preceded Socrates and Plato, and they (Socrates and Plato) were arguing with their predecessors.

Modern science is no different.  The same is true of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and others engaged in the quantum discussion of the 20th century.  (See July 30, 2011 post).  There is little difference between philosophical theorizing and scientific theorizing.  They are starting points in the discovery of what is real.  But ultimately, the test of what is real is dominated by that next part of scientific inquiry that asks, "How can we test this proposition?"  When the testing begins, the philosophical inquiry does not come to an end, but it wanes.  We can see this in the scientific inquiry into "moral behavior" and "cooperative behavior."  (See November 21, 2012, September 17, 2012,  September 12, 2012 post).  At some point, real facts about human beings start to explain what philosophical inquiry and speculation began poking around at thousands of years ago and we keep digging into those facts until there is a more solid foundation and a story to tell.

Goldstein gets this, but she is not sympathetic to the view that some day science will have everything figured out.  She takes offense at Lawrence Krauss' remark that the "tension between philosophy and science occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't."  This book is a statement that not every philosopher feels threatened and philosophy does help solve problems.  Certainly John Searle does not feel threatened (see January 21, 2011 post) and Plato at the Googleplex reveals that Goldstein does not feel threatened.

The contextual key to understanding Socrates and Plato, Goldstein argues, is the Greek sense of virtue, embodied in the word arête.  Prior to Socrates, arête was an Athenian social construct that was dependent upon reputation (kleos). A reputation for excellence, a reputation for being extraordinary is what gave life "an added substance."  "Live so that others will hear of you" is the choice that Achilles makes in The Iliad. Greek myth and song advanced this kleos-centric view.  What brought Socrates into conflict with his Athenian community, Goldstein opines, is Socrates' assertion that arête was entirely independent of social regard, reputation. For Socrates, his moral anchor is not what others may think of him, but whether he can live with his own actions.  Others cannot control my life; I must control my life. The quest for knowledge and truth and reality is personal, and it is not a social construct that is imposed upon me. And that non-kleos-centric view brought Socrates to his trial and conviction.  Without this "context," we cannot understand why Socrates, the Socratic dialogues, and Plato are worth reading.  This same "context" also helps us understand a Socrates of a later era, Baruch Spinoza (see March 12, 2012 and December 17, 2012 post).  Goldstein wants us to understand this connection; philosophers, after all, speak to each other across the centuries.

But if Socrates is speaking to future philosophers, John Searle must be speaking back to this view of Socrates. Searle will not agree that reality is not a social construct; for Searle our reality is entirely dependent upon a social construct and, whether we like it or not, that social construct is imposed upon us.  (See February 24, 2013 post).  We are social animals.

I have not read Plato or about Plato in years.  I would be interested in discovering how Plato addresses the social and moral emotions.  We know that Plato and Socrates embrace the power of reason, not unlike Spinoza and other philosophers of the Enlightenment.  But some Enlightenment philosophers understood the power of social emotions.  (See November 21, 2012 post and February 27, 2011 post).  The social emotions and language (and yes, intelligence (see November 16, 2013 post)) are, in my view, key to describing what makes us human, and these are the raw materials for the social construct that builds a reality in our minds.  It is not merely our capacity to reason that defines our species.

Neoplatonism is a different subject, particularly as revealed in histories of the early Christian church.  Goldstein only now makes me realize that the collection of memes that are represented by neoplatonism may not actually represent the philosophy or views of Plato, if we can ever really know the philosophy or views of Plato.  A surprise to me, although surely not to Plato scholars, is the statement attributed to Plato in the Seventh Letter suggesting that he never put his philosophical views to writing:  "This much at least, I can say about all writers, past or future, who say they know the things to which I devote myself, whether by hearing the teaching of me or of others, or by their own discoveries-that according to my view it is not possible for them to have any real skill in the matter. There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject."  If this was true --- and remember Plato's dialogues on their face express the views of others who participate in his dialogues --- then how can we ever know Plato's views?  Plato is open to interpretation and if we can discern his views and philosophy at all, it is only in context.  "When you ask why did some particular question occur to a scientist or philosopher for the first time," writes Goldstein, "or why did this particular approach seem natural, then your questions concern the context of discovery.  When you ask whether the argument the philosopher puts forth to answer that question is sound, or whether the evidence justifies the scientific theory proposed then you've entered the context of justification.  Considerations of history, sociology, anthropology, and psychology are relevant to the context of discovery, but not to justification. . . . one doesn't diminish a philosopher's achievement, and doesn't undermine its soundness, by showing how the particular set of questions on which he focused, the orientation he brought to bear in his focus, has some causal connections to the circumstances of his life."

Plato, she believes, was more of a materialist than the dualist that neoplatonists would suggest.  Her elucidation of Plato's Myth of the Cave (The Republic) suggests Plato was not, as I have long believed from the neoplatonist understanding of Plato, entirely an adherent to the eternity of abstract Forms as a matter of transcendent reality.  Phaedo suggests that Plato supports a dualist's perspective, but Timaeus, she argues, suggests otherwise. For Plato, asserts Goldstein, there was only one "form" and that was mathematics.  "The Pythagorean intuition that the form for rendering reality intelligible is supplied by mathematical ratios influenced [Plato] profoundly, ultimately yielding him his conception of the Sublime Braid [truth, beauty, and goodness are all bound up with one another, sublimely], and the means to make good on Socrates' search for the kind of knowledge that is also virtue."  Goldstein writes that in Plato's Timaeus, "the mathematics inscribed in the heavens' motions, generate the structure of reality."  Mathematics is not a component of reality, however; it is a mental tool belonging to our representational capacity that makes information accessible to all humans and enables, as Goldstein writes, "our human reason to penetrate the cosmic reason."

There is a "form" that is much a part of our brain's mental faculty, which this blog has described in a prior post.  There, quoting sociologist Paul Bloom, it is noted, "Our minds have evolved to put things into categories and to ignore or downplay what makes these things distinct.  Some categories are more obvious than others: all children understand the categories chairs and tigers; only scientists are comfortable with the categories such as ungulates and quarks.  What all categories share is that they capture a potential infinity of individuals under a single perspective.  They lump."  Bloom says, "We lump the world into categories so that we can learn."  He adds, "A perfect memory, one that treats each experience as a distinct thing-in-itself, is useless.  The whole point of storing the past is to make sense of the present and to plan for the future.  Without categories [or concepts], everything is perfectly different from everything else, and nothing can be generalized or learned."  So if we think of "categories" created by our mind to assist our memory as Forms, these Forms or categories are very real to us.  But these are not Plato's Forms as we understand them from neoplatonists (and perhaps even Plato himself).

I cannot intelligibly vouch for or comment on Goldstein's perspective on Plato.  First she informs us that Plato's views on anything may never be known, but she is bold enough to suggest that we can marshal a perspective on his views that gives more weight to one of his dialogues over another dialogue.  Plato's breadth of philosophical conversation is astonishing for its day, and that fact alone explains why the philosophic tradition celebrates Plato.  He was among the earliest rationalists, reasoning his way to a framework that helps us understand reality.  Another philosophic tradition explores whether our knowledge of what is real is subjective, personal, or objective, universal.  And there are other philosophic categories --- ethics, aesthetics, for example --- explored by Plato that are also divided by the subjective/objective distinction.  Science may or may not solve this division, and that uncertainty opens the door for Goldstein to question Krauss' judgment and argue the continuing vitality of philosophy as the bridge between our senses, intuition, and scientific knowledge.

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