Sunday, July 10, 2016

Philosophiae revixit

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, philosophers, psychodrama

Perhaps my title ought to have been, "Η φιλοσοφία αναβιώνει," since the protagonist of the book is Greek. I sometimes wonder how many people know that The Republic, and nearly everything else we have from Plato, is in the form of dialogues? In the hands of philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, the philosophic dialogue is restored, in her new book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away.

I recall the one college class in Philosophy that I took. We were told that all modern philosophic study fell under the rubric of Linguistic Analysis. (If you take that to its logical conclusion, you have Bill Clinton answering a Yes or No question about his adultery with Monica Lewinsky by saying, "That depends on what the meaning of is is." In my estimation, Clintonesque statements by either Clinton have gone only downhill ever since.) I left that course profoundly saddened and profoundly disgusted that seemingly intelligent people would waste so many kajillions of watts of purported brainpower on such fruitless endeavors. I care not a whit about the meaning of the word "meaning." I simply want to know if meaning is possible, and if so, what is it…even a little bit?

It has been said that all of philosophy over the past 2,400 years or so is only a series of footnotes to Plato. Not exactly. Not if a semi-Socratic dialogue I had with a professor of philosophy could end, in less than five minutes, with him practically spitting mad over a few simple questions by the admitted "layman", me. Come to think of it, he didn't actually get apoplectic until I stated (not as a question) that I found a study of the fallacies of Informal Logic most fruitful and useful. That part of what he spluttered as he stalked away that was intelligible, was, "…not even real philosophy…". Poor uneducated fellow. Of course, logic, formal or not, is definitely philosophical.

Digging into it, we find that the quandaries raised in Plato's dialogues in no way fall neatly into any of the "formal" philosophical buckets, and that the fallacies exposed by Socratic questions are primarily of the informal variety. But more to the point of Dr. Goldstein's book, while scientists and the scientific method have taken over numerous ideations once called "natural philosophy" and similar terms, there is plenty of territory left about which we may fruitfully converse.

The book's ten chapters are "numbered" according to the symbols Plato most likely would have used, Greek letters from α to ι, though a substitution had to be made at the sixth chapter. The old Greek "vau" is no longer used, and the nearest character in a modern Greek typeface is ς, the form of σ found at the end of a word; it looks almost identical. Five of the chapters are the author's discussion of philosophical matters and particularly the subjects about which Plato and certain of his contemporaries wrote, and about Socrates and his life. The other five, interspersed in alternation, are dialogues between Plato, still around after 24 centuries, and certain modern persons (in disguise), in which the statements of Plato are largely quotations or well-made paraphrases from his writings.

An important reason for writing the book is the increasingly strident proclamations of anti-philosophers who claim that science can explain everything and philosophy is no longer needed. I wonder why they never ask why their antipathy is so vehement. In the last dialogue, among Plato and a neuroscientist and a graduate student, the scientist claims that MRI studies have shown that the "I" does not truly make decisions, but confabulates an explanation for a decision that, the machine has seemingly shown, was made a second or more earlier than the "I" reports having made the decision. But then he has to admit that his MRI machine cannot resolve brain activity that occurs in less than about two seconds, nor in a region smaller than about a cubic millimeter. Since our 1.5 liter brain contains more than ten billion neurons, each cubic millimeter contains about six million neurons; and neural communications occur at frequencies between ten and 50 times per second. Then comes the fun: Plato allows the poor fellow to imagine a machine that can fulfill all his technical dreams, that can discern every neuronal action in every neuron as it happens. Could he then determine exactly what pattern of nerve firings constituted the "making" of a particular decision, such as the decision to raise a finger while ensconced in the MRI machine? And further, what is doing all the confabulating after the fact, and why does it feel the need to do so?

I suppose I am burdened by excess knowledge. The graduate student has made the point that there are numerous reasons for some kind of brain signal to precede a person's report that "I just made such-and-such a decision", or for the finger-lift that signals that decision; none of these reasons eliminates the need for an actual "I". More importantly, though, what could the "dream machine" really tell us? Here it might have been interesting for a knowledgeable philosopher of science (which is what the title PhD is actually supposed to represent) to mention three significant names: Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and Gödel. Heisenberg showed that there is a definite limit to what science can measure; Schrödinger, intending to make a joke, actually showed that we cannot determine the result of an action without making an observation; and Gödel proved that no consistent mathematical or conceptual system is capable of fully answering all the questions that it is possible to ask within that system. These three set firm boundaries around the kinds of knowledge that can be known and the depth of knowledge that can be attained. Though the realms in which science is able to fruitfully operate are vast, and are quite far from being fully tapped, they are very, very much smaller than the realms about which science can never describe nor prescribe.

It is not often that I read the whole of a 432-page book without feeling a growing ennui by the end. This book is delightful throughout. I am not philosopher enough to follow all the reasoning, but I found it refreshing that, as reported by the author, although Plato was most sympathetic to Rationalism, he had to hedge that bet, because he seemed to have an inkling of what Kurt Gödel demonstrated, that he was asking questions that nobody had the mental equipment to answer, and even more, while it might be demonstrated that the questions themselves are valid, we may never attain the oomph needed to provide a full answer. That's OK. May we not be so small-minded that we insist every question be fully answered. There is plenty yet to gnaw over.

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