Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (Vintage, 2015) [IBR2020]

When I was a child I was addicted to science fiction, and my favorite science fiction required the reader to accept just one preposterous premise, and then everything else made sense. That is what the dialogues of this book ask of the reader. Just accept the one preposterous premise that Plato could turn up in twenty-first century America, an author on a book tour, and everything else, I hope, makes sense.

I wasn’t aware of that “preposterous” premise when I decided to read this book. It’s the sort of thing that might immediately put some people off as gimmicky, but it would’ve sold me from the get-go. What would Plato have to say about computer technology, how would he be as a guest on a cable news show or on a discussion panel, as an advice columnist, or when confronted with contemporary neuroscience?

Overall, the book tries to answer the question in the title: is philosophy, as imagined 2400 years ago, still relevant? If not, why does everyone still know the names Plato and Socrates? And if it is still relevant, that’s almost worse: doesn’t that mean philosophy has made no real progress at all?

While the 21st century Plato chapters are both informative and entertaining, they only form half the book. The chapters proceed in pairs: first there’s a more traditional chapter on some aspect of Plato’s life and work, and then a chapter further illuminating the concepts via a contemporary setting. As such, instead of thinking of it as a ten-chapter book, look at it as five modules with two sections each. The chapters, by the way, are accounted by Greek letters (α, β, γ, δ, etc) rather than numbers, which makes me smile since I just recently started a course on ancient Greek and have just become somewhat comfortable with the alphabet. But it’s another of those things: some people see fun and charm, others see gimmicks.

The first module looks at how Plato saw the purpose of philosophy:

Plato didn’t think the written word could do justice to what philosophy is supposed to do . And yet he did write; he wrote a great deal. And the literary form he invented for his writing should give us an indication of what he thought philosophy was supposed to do .
And what is it, according to Plato, that philosophy is supposed to do? Nothing less than to render violence to our sense of ourselves and our world, our sense of ourselves in the world….
Progress in philosophy consists, at least in part, in constantly bringing to light the covert presumptions that burrow their way deep down into our thinking, too deep down for us to even be aware of them.

This last sentence brought to mind the central metaphor from Sophie’s World, the wonderful YA novel-about-philosophy that, almost thirty years ago, first got me (and a lot of other people I’ve encountered) interested in philosophy, except that it’s the reverse: in Gaarder’s book, most people are burrowed deep down into the rabbit’s fur, while it’s the philosophers who climb out to the tips of the hairs to stare the Magician in the face as he pulls it all out of a hat.

We then join Plato on his book tour in the company of Cheryl, his author escort showing him around the Google complex where he’s to give a book talk. They encounter tech-bro Marcus, and though Cheryl tries to prevent it, Plato invites him to join them. It’s a demonstration of the Socratic method at work, and the eventual effect is to break down some of Marcus’s smugness and get even super-focused Cheryl thinking about more than the schedule and the book sales that will result from the upcoming presentation – which we never see, because it’s this impromptu seminar, the kind so often featured in the Dialogs, that takes center stage.

The chapter is somewhat difficult reading, because it’s told via a narrator who’s listening to Cheryl give her account of the afternoon; quotes are omitted and dialog tags are sparse, but it’s worth it: What starts simply with Marcus’s need for orthodonture, and the question of who gets to decide, travels through having algorithms for ethical questions (and where do the algorithms come from?) to the value of super-arguers, aka philosophers, working on complicated issues and finding the errors in the initial arguments, and finally landing on the question of how changing attitudes towards slavery, so acceptable in Plato’s day and so anathema today (it still is anathema, isn’t it?) are an example of whether argument changes feelings or feelings create the argument, and when it’s in the decision-makers’ interests to maintain the status quo, how do you break through that, until we get to the kicker:

…[H]ow do we know we aren’t any different above all sorts of things we feel perfectly okay about right now because it’s in our interest to feel perfectly okay about them? Why should we be different from people in the past?

And of course we aren’t. We’re seeing this play out in real time with #MeToo, how “back then” it was ok to grab women or make salacious comments to subordinates at work or pin teenaged girls down at drunken parties because boys will be boys, and suddenly it isn’t. Some day maybe we’ll be amazed, like Keiko on ST:TNG, that people actually ate real meat from dead animals, or that people could die from poverty and it would be their own damn fault.

The next pair of chapters looks at how cultures have viewed what makes a life worth living, and the role of the state: is it to protect, or perfect, the citizenry? The expository chapter lays out the Axial Age, the five centuries during which, all around the world, cultures began looking at the meaning of life. The world religions were born during this period: very different religions, from Confucius and Lao Tse, Buddha and Hinduism, Jain and Zoroastrianism to the monotheism of Judaism that would become Christianity and Islam, to the philosophy of Golden Age Athens. Which one of these is not like the others? Only Greece, which was replete with gods and religion, looked to humans to define what made life worth living. Goldstein shows how this evolved, from Homeric kleos to arete, and how Platonism not only established itself and sent offshoots into different directions but met up with Christianity several centuries hence.

This idea of what makes a life worth living, and the state’s role in the arete of its citizens, is dramatized by a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y with Plato, a Tiger Mom, and a Jungian analyst. Should parents push their children to be the parents’ version of exceptional, or create the circumstances under which children will find their own exceptionality, though it might be more humble? This mirrors the questions about the State, about which character traits the State might want to encourage, and how it might do that, or whether it just holds invaders at bay and makes sure there’s bread for all.

As you might expect, a lot came up that rang with contemporary urgency, from Plato admitting “[W]hat I have not been able to figure out yet is if the Internet itself strengthens your democracy or weakens it” (yeah, we’re still working on that one, too) to the role of reality in a State:

PLATO: And, conversely, when I say that it is right that the guardians should be those who are capable of apprehending reality, and most importantly the aspects of reality that account for goodness and justice and wisdom, then I would expect that you would concur with me. Let it be reality that chooses the powerful, rather than the powerful who choose reality. Isn’t that less tyrannical?
MUNITZ, still speaking uncharacteristically softly: But then you enthrone reality as the tyrant.
PLATO: It is a better tyrant than any one of us, certainly with more of a right to impose itself on our minds than any human being possesses.

Having seen the effects of ignoring reality, that seems to be a good way to think of it. But then there’s the Noble Lie. Nothing with Plato is ever simple or absolute.

In another creative (or gimmicky, you pick your adjective, I’ll pick mine) attempt to illuminate Plato, Goldstein provides in this chapter what she believes would be his answers on the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, developed with Jungian principles. I was surprised that the two axes on which I score the most definitively coincide with the philosopher’s.

I’m a little confused about the next pair of chapters. Ostensibly, they’re about philosophy as the pursuit of Eros (it figures this would be what trips me up), and spends considerable time on who Socrates and Plato might have had the hots for (Alcibiades? Dion?) but is really about whether morality should define the state, or the state should define morality:

Is the best state the one that maximally allows arete to flourish, where arete is independently defined? Or is areteto be defined in terms of the qualities that will allow a person to become justifiably notable in the polis, the qualities of an individual that best allow the values-setting polis to exist and to flourish ? …. Plato moralized political theory, while the Athens to which he objected politicized morality – or at any rate it politicized arete. And it judged Socrates to be severely lacking in the qualities that would conduce to the flourishing of his polis, which made him, though notable, not justifiably notable, and so deficient in arete.

The contemporary chapter gives Plato the role of consultant to a popular advice columnist (the importance of Ann Landers’s Rolodex is emphasized) and shows how he approaches a variety of interpersonal issues.

Then we come to the death of Socrates, the history and politics in play, and Plato as a guest on a cable news show based on Bill O’Reilly’s show at the time. I found it so annoying I couldn’t finish the chapter. Draw your own conclusions.

The final pair of chapters is all about reality, our perception of same, Socrates’ Daimon, epistemology, and a very detailed look at the myth of the Cave. This lends itself nicely to imagining Plato in conversation with a neuroscientist and a cognitive scientist. Those who are familiar with my love of neuroscience will understand why these were my favorite chapters (though I did love the first two as well). The contemporary chapter is in the form of a dialog, complete with clear tags this time, and references where/if the brain ends and the mind begins, determinism vs free will and the implications of both, and whether morality can be determined by algorithm (the neuroscientist’s view). And it contains my favorite half-page in the book in a discussion of whether something besides an algorithm could be needed to explain why Socrates went peacefully to his death rather than avoiding it:

PLATO: So then what my friend ought to have said is something along the following lines: The reason that I am lying here on this jailhouse bed is that my default mode network, interacting with memories stored in my hippocampus and medial temporal lobe, generates patterns of activity that correspond with various future scenarios, including fleeing and staying put. The staying-put pattern generates a conflict signal in my anterior cingulate cortex, because the ACC also receives a prepotent response from midbrain limbic circuits that causes the organism to struggle to escape confinement. The signal is then relayed to my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which engages in information processing to resolve the conflict. The DLPFC sends and receives signals from my ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which contains information about my long term goals and also connects to areas in the right superior temporal sulcus that allows me to simulate the actions of other people. The information in this network causes the DLPFC to resolve the conflict by sending signals to the premotor and motor areas, which caused the muscles of my body to leave me in the jail cell.
SHOKET: OK, now I’m officially amazed. What have you been doing, auditing classes?
PLATO: MOOCs.

And I KNOW WHICH MOOCs – I’VE TAKEN THEM! Dartmouth’s Libertarian Free Will: Neuroscientific and Philosophical Evidence is the most on-point (by the way, philosophical libertarianism is completely unrelated to political libertarianism), complete with ACC and DLPFC and all the other cortexes and modules and nodules.

While all this circuitry is well and good, this leads directly to the invocation of the field of embodied cognition, the study of interplay between the brain, the body, and the world, to truly understand Socrates’ action:

PLATO: Do you not see what is missing from the explanation of my friend’s action? We cannot explain why my friend did what he did unless we understand what that action meant both to him and to others, how he saw it and what value he placed on it and how he saw how others would see it and what values they would place on it, both in his day and later, back and forth in spiraling loops of values and meanings.
AGATHA: The way the philosophers at the cognitive Science Center would put it is that you can’t explain his action unless you view it in the context of value and meaning in which his behavior is embedded.

Ok, so not everybody loves this neuro stuff, but remember there was the advice columnist and the cable tv show and the Googleplex and the 92nd Street Y as well? Surely there’s something in there for everyone.

So why doesn’t philosophy go away? I think this might be revealed in Goldstein’s introductory chapter:

His words sound natural in conversations that will be familiar to the reader , and this is a testament to the surprising relevance he still has – but not because his intuitions always ring true to us. His relevance derives overwhelmingly from the questions he asked and from his insistence that they cannot be easily dispensed with in the ways that people often think…. I rarely give him the answers, and I think this is true to the man. The thing about Plato is that he rarely presented himself as giving us the final answers . What he insisted upon was the recalcitrance of the questions in the face of shallow attempts to make them go away . His genius for formulating counter reductive arguments is at one with the genius that allowed him to raise up the field of philosophy as we know it.

Maybe the point isn’t to answer questions, but to engage people in asking them. This is in fact what happens in the Googleplex chapter: both the tech-bro and the author escort move out of their comfortable assuredness into query mode. I thought of Emily Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility”, a poem I haven’t thought about for a long time: the point is to ask questions, not write down Answers for All Time. Maybe there are answers for one set of circumstances, and maybe not for another. Maybe an answer that once worked, no longer does. The work is to keep asking, and that’s why we still read Plato: because we still have questions, and always will.

This is the third Goldstein book I’ve read, and I find them all wonderful in different ways. Fortunately, there are several more geared towards general readership. I do make a conscious effort to read other philosophical explainers and apologists to keep from getting stuck in a rut, but I have to admit a fondness for her humor and style.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.