Escaping Plato’s Cave

As you know, the Image of the Cave, which is the centerpiece of Plato’s Politeia (or Republic) is an image of human nature in chains and the story of an escape—a healing, Socrates says—from our default condition, which is one of bondage and ignorance.

There are people, though, who think that healing is what we need to be healed from, and anywhere outside the prison is what needs to be escaped.  In a quite literally Orwellian “freedom is slavery” argument, I have been told that only they are truly free who are slaves, and that free men and women are enslaved—by their freedom.

This is one of those times that I will choose Socrates’ simplemindedness over the sophisticated sophistry of the sophists—I’ll go with the freedom of the mind that’s just freedom, not the sophistical freedom that is the “true freedom” of mental slavery.

But let’s take a look at this idiocy, shall we? It’s meant to “cure” me of Platonism, and since Platonism is, at bottom, the belief that reality exists and can be known, it is meant to cure me of these beliefs too.  Let’s see if it succeeds, shall we?

stupidplatostuff

Nine whole points.  Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?

1. Plato’s essentialist, historicist and degenerative Theory of Forms or Ideas is a bad idea.

1. This is nothing more than name-calling. And it isn’t even accurate name-calling.  Platonism is as anti-historicist as one can get, since to be a Platonist is to hold that there are entities and intelligible structures in reality that do not vary over time—things like mathematics or the laws of nature.  It is the Caveman (as I shall call him) who is the historicist, as we will see, and who holds that human thought is incapable of rising above its historical situatedness.   As for “degenerative,” the word holds no meaning here.  Again, Platonism holds that there are entities and structures within reality that do not change, and being changeless, cannot degenerate.  If the Cavemen is asserting there is something “degenerate” about Platonism itself, he hasn’t said what it is or even might be, so that claim can be ignored.

2. Nothing — mind, matter, self, or world — has an intrinsic or real nature.

2. Pure self-contradiction.  Supposing it were true, it would be the nature of all these things not to have a nature. To be able to assert this, one would have to know that being or reality is this way—but what is being denied even as it is being asserted is that there is a way reality is.  And “there is no way reality is” is just as self-contradictory an assertion as the assertion “there is no truth” (a proposition the Caveman also accepts, as we will see).

3. That does not mean that the world does not exist. The world is independent of our mental states.

3. Flat contradiction of 2.  Caveman now states, in opposition to his self-contradictory principle 2, that the world does indeed have a nature, and that that nature is “to exist independently of our mental states.”  Remember he said this, because his right to say this is going to be an issue.

4. It means that truth, knowledge and facts cannot exist independently of the human mind. Truth, knowledge and facts are properties of sentences, which make up larger theories and descriptions.

4. Idiotic on several levels.  I am certainly willing to concede that knowledge cannot exist apart from some mind (it doesn’t have to be a human mind)—since knowledge JUST IS the apprehension of some true proposition by some mind.  Notice however that Caveman in the next sentence will ridiculously ascribe knowledge not to minds, but to sentences.  No, Caveman, sentences do not KNOW THINGS.

[Philosophy 101 lesson: Following the principle of charity, I’m going to take Caveman’s “sentences” to mean “propositions,” although strictly speaking he is confused.  Propositions are the primary truth-bearing logical entities, and they relate to sentences in that they are expressed by sentences.  Using the standard philosophical example, consider two sentences: “Snow is white” and “Schnee ist weiss”.  The sentences are different.  One is an English sentence and one a German sentence. The can be found in different locations on your computer screen. If they were spoken, they would be spoken at some time, in some place, by some speaker, etc.  However, they both express the same proposition, which is the logical expression of the relation between a real entity, snow, and a real property of that entity, being white. That snow is white is a state of affairs in the world or a fact.  The relation of snow to whiteness is an intelligible proposition which is true (the fact that snow is white makes the proposition ‘snow is white’ true). Propositions are universal. Sentences are particular.  When you are I or anyone comes to know ‘snow is white’, we have the same propositional attitude towards the very same proposition, viz. that snow is white.  If this were not so, we would not all know the same fact or truth about snow, but we would each ‘know’ an individual fact or truth relative to us—but the nature of knowledge is such that it is common to all.  And once we have propositional knowledge we can express these propositions that we know in the linguistic entities called sentences.  And it is  irrelevant whether we do this by means of English, or German, or Chinese.]

As I’ve just mentioned, facts are best construed as the truth-makers of true propositions.  This is because facts, as states of affairs, exist independently of their being known, that is, independently of human minds—contrary to Caveman’s assertions. It should be a fairly trivial point to note that IF Caveman is correct, we human beings produce not only the entities that may or may not be true, affirmative sentences or negations, BUT ALSO produce the truth-makers of these things, this makes FACTS and TRUTH things that are produced by human beings.  We would, in this case, not only be the ones who produce claims about reality, but we would produce/create/manufacture the truth-makers that make our claims true.  And this means that we human beings have the power to make any claim about anything true or false by our creative wills.  Hello Nietzsche, my old friend. It’s good to meet with you again.

Finally, Caveman’s claim that truth is a property of sentences, which I will charitably take to mean “truth is a property of propositions”, is a half-truth.  There is a very important way in which propositions are the most common locus of truth—for us, since we are essentially discursive creatures or creatures of λόγος.  But this is not the most primordial sense of truth—discursive truth is itself always grounded in a deeper openness of reality to comprehension that makes discursive truth possible.  To put it very simply: we could not grasp or express discursive, propositional truths of the form “S is P” if S and P and their relation where not already given to us in such a way that we could grasp them in their belonging-together and thus come to know them precisely in this belonging together.

So even where Caveman gets close to saying something true, that “truth is a property of propositions,” he’s right only with a series of necessary qualifications.

5. The world can cause us to hold certain beliefs. However, neither the world nor some notion of unchanging Forms decides which description of the world is true. The world does not speak or provide descriptions. Human beings do.

5. Okay, I have decided that this is not a true description of reality.

See the problem?

The problem is an equivocation on the verb “decide.” In one sense, as creatures capable of knowing or believing, it is up to human beings to ‘decide’ what to believe. On the other hand, the way that reality is is not a matter up to human ‘decision.’  Reality is the way it is, regardless of whether human beings ‘decide’ otherwise.  If Caveman seriously disagrees with this, I have a simple challenge for him: I challenge him to ingest a large quantity of cyanide and ‘decide’ that cyanide is non-toxic to human beings.  If reality is controlled by human decision, he should not have a problem doing this and not dying. I maintain “Cyanide is a lethal poison to human beings” is a true description of the world. I further maintain than no amount of human “description” can change this fact.

We can do another thought experiment to bring this home: suppose that the earth became unstable for some reason and was soon to explode, much like Superman’s home planet Krypton.  Suppose also that (for some odd reason) Caveman was the one who was tasked to find a solution to the imminent explosion of the earth.  His solution is “Because the world does not decide what is or is not true, it is not true that ‘the earth is going to explode’. Nor can anything in the world ‘decide’ whether the earth does explode. These things—’facts’ or ‘truths’ or ‘knowledge’—are all contingent on human description. So all we need to do, as human beings, is to describe the earth as ‘not going to explode’ and it will become true that the earth is not going to explode.” Do you think that would work? I think *KABOOM*.

If human ‘decision’ could alter reality by means of ‘description,’ why would we not redescribed reality into some kind of ideal state for human beings? Why do we not live in a perfect world, if it is entirely within our power to create reality as we see fit by description?

Oh, wait, I think I know! It’s because this is bullshit, and we can’t actually change reality by redescrbiing it, isn’t it? Damn. I knew this was too easy.

6. That does not mean that truth, facts and knowledge are subjective. It means that they are a product of shared vocabularies, language games, social practices, in short, forms of life which are again contingent upon and conditioned by historical, social, environmental, and cultural factors and, in the final instance, human evolutionary biology.

6. Time to cut the bullshit. This means that we cannot have knowledge of reality. THAT is what the denial of Platonism MEANS, as I’ve said. “Contingent, historical, circumstantial truth which is produced by a variety of social factors” IS NOT TRUTH.

Caveman is putting forward a theory of reality that serves as a DEFEATER for all theories of reality INCLUDING HIS OWN.  If this account is TRUE, then it itself is merely a product of some historically contingent form of life, etc., etc., and “in the final instance” of human evolutionary biology.  In other words, he is FIRST a SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST about reality, but SECOND (inconsistently) a BIOLOGICAL REDUCTIONIST.

Neither of these things is coherent, either with the other, or with itself.

Social constructionism fails because it is self-defeating; if true, it is an unwarranted theory, because as a theory (like every theory) it is a mere social construction or convention.

Biological reductionism fails because it is self-defeating; if true, it is an unwarranted theory, because as a theory (like every theory) it is merely the outcome of mindless biological forces.

Each theory provides its own defeater, because it provides a defeater for all theories.

Any theory that provides a defeater for all theories, including itself, can be immediately rejected as unwarranted and wholly irrational.

So, that’s what I’ll do.

In this case, each theory also instantiates a performative contradiction insofar as the one who puts forward the theory intends that it be taken to be a true theory about nature of reality—which means that the proponent of the theory, despite his wishes, is committing himself by the very fact of offering a theory of reality, to the view that REALITY CAN BE KNOWN, or in a word, to PLATONISM.

Nietzsche understood this: TRUTH stands or falls with PLATONISM.  That is why he said things like this

nietzschefacts

And this

nietzschetrutherror

And this

nietzschewhatistruth

What we can see from this is that Caveman is one of those sad specimens of the 20th and 21st centuries, a feeble Nietzschean.  He thinks he is a late-Wittgensteinian, but of course he isn’t consistent in any way, nor is there anything Wittgenstein discovered that Nietzsche was not aware of.

Caveman’s problem is not (yet) the wild incoherence of Nietzsche or the late Wittgenstein. Caveman’s problem is that he sees, dimly, that his shallow Nietzscheanism cum Wittgensteinianism requires him to reject Platonism—but his isn’t actually prepared to DO THAT, since that entails giving up the idea of TRUTH once and for all.

This is sane, to an extent, insofar as the rejection of TRUTH and REALITY is tantamount to embracing the irrational void of pure nihilism—but the inconsistent attempt to embrace the nihilistic void is, if anything, worse. It merely makes one a failure on all sides, a half-and-half, a lukewarm neither-this-nor-that, a rebel when convenient, but utterly conventional when that is convenient. “Hypocrite” would be another word.

But here’s the deal Caveman: YOU DON’T GET TO RENOUNCE PLATONISM AND KEEP IT TOO.

It’s one or the other: BEING or NOTHINGNESS;  PLATONISM or NIHILISM.

And lest I be accused of putting to much weight on Nietzsche’s assessment of meaning of Plato (although Nietzsche, as his arch-enemy, understood Plato better than almost any other thinker), let us add some additional testimony:

whiteheadplato

emersonplato

7. We communicate successfully every day, and we use knowledge successfully every day, because we share imagined (and conditioned) realities and social practices on many levels.

7. What’s amusing is that Caveman thinks our success in knowing and communicating shows that we can “do without” Platonism.

Actually, what it shows is that Platonism is true; that is, we can know things and communicate them.

At bottom, Platonism is the theory of theories, the theory we can know things.  No anti-Platonism can be coherent, since it has to assert we cannot know anything to be true, and so, by its own (anti-) theory, it cannot know what it asserts as true to be true. Caveman is merely another in a long line of people trying to escape truth by asserting the “truth” that “there is no truth” or to escape knowledge by claiming to know that “nothing can be known.” Caveman fails, and all such attempts will always fail, forever and necessarily.

 8. Truth, knowledge and facts can always be redescribed by changing the language game, by changing the habits of speaking, by scientific research coming up with better theories, better descriptions that pragmatically explain better, work better according to what we want to achieve.

8. This is simply the thesis of the sophists, that because we speak about reality, we can change reality by changing the way we speak.  See above for why that doesn’t work.

Caveman thinks he is being bold and new. But there is nothing new here. It is the same old sophistry that philosophy, in the person of Socrates, rose up to destroy.

protagorasmanisthemeasure

Platonism is the view that, not man, but reality and truth are the measure of all things. The fact than it is man who does the measuring does not change the fact that what man measures is not man’s creation, nor is it under man’s arbitrary control.

This is of course how SCIENCE operates.  Human beings gain what technological power and mastery over nature they have, only insofar as they submit to the objectivity of reality. Here is Bacon, one of the founders of empirical scientific method making this point:

baconsubmissionnature

The postmodern rebellion against reality is, to paraphrase Sartre, a useless passion.

9. Plato’s hypothesis of truth, knowledge and facts as unchanging essences (or “The thing in itself”, in Kant’s description) — only every seen as poorly reflected images on a cave wall — is entirely optional.

9. Platonism is “optional” only so long as you are willing to regard reality, truth, and knowledge as “optional.”  And it is far from clear that that is even a coherent thing to do.

Caveman keeps making assertions which have the appearance of being meant as possibly true assertions—but since he assures us repeatedly that “truth” is a kind of social fiction (or perhaps biological fiction; see Nietzsche’s remark above)—this is in vain, a useless passion.

It is not clear that it is in any way meaningful to say that everything is a fiction, an illusion, a falsehood, etc., since these very concepts of “fiction,” “illusion,” “falsehood” seem to by parasitic on the idea of truth.

And the idea of truth is ultimately the same as the truth of ideas, that is, of an intelligible reality which shows itself to the human mind in such a way that it can be known.

Caveman has failed in his attempt to persuade me to reject truth in favor of fiction, to reject philosophy in favor of sophistry.

I remain, as always, a friend of truth, a seeker of truth and a friend of wisdom.

Which is to say, a philosopher.

Which is to say, a Platonist.

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Revisiting Whales and Fish One Last Time

As some of you know I have been involved in an argument on Twitter with one DrJ (@DrJ_WasTaken) concerning the usage of the term “fish.”  It began when he asserted that Geoffrey Chaucer was using the word “fish” (or “fissh”) wrongly, because Chaucer includes whales under the term “fish.”

I pointed out something I took to be something very obvious, that correctness and incorrectness in word usage is conventional, and is therefore contextual and relative to the community of language speakers of which one is a part.  The fact that many modern English speakers would not use the word “fish” in such a way as to include whales merely reflects a change in usage, where popular language has tended somewhat to conform to usage in science, in which whales, being mammals, would not be regarded as “fish.”

Although it is not actually clear that biologists use the word “fish” in any formal sense—”fish” is, at most, a paraphyletic classification, similar to “lizard” and “reptile.” That is to say, it based on phylogenetic ancestry, but includes a couple of arbitrary exclusions.  For example, here is a chart of the paraphyletic group Reptilia:

traditional_reptilia

Reptilia (green field) is a paraphyletic group comprising all amniotes (Amniota) except for two subgroups Mammalia (mammals) and Aves (birds); therefore, Reptilia is not a clade. In contrast, Amniota itself is a clade, which is a monophyletic group.

In other words, “reptiles” seem to be defined as “all animals which are descended from the Amniota, with the (semi-)arbitrary exclusion of mammals and birds.”

There was once a Class Pisces, but this is no longer recognized as a valid biological class.  Nowadays, the biological use of “fish” seems to refer to three classes: Superclass Agnatha (jawless “fish”; e.g. lampreys and hagfish), Class Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous “fish”; e.g. rays, sharks, skates, chimaeras), and Class Osteichthyes (bony “fish”), but excluding Class Amphibia, Class Sauropsida, and Class Synapsida, although these all belong to the same clade.  So “fish”, like “reptile” is a paraphyletic classification. It includes some members of a clade but just leaves some other members out.  Here’s a chart:

fishparaphyleticchart

I think this element of arbitrariness in the biological taxonomic classification of fish is important, and goes to substantiating my point about the flexibility of the usage of the word “fish.” In this case, the point is: the term “fish” even as used in contemporary biology is essentially arbitrary.  It involves drawing a line around certain kinds of living beings and saying “These are fish.”

The issue is that DrJ holds the position that, for any given English word, such as “fish,” there is one and only one absolutely correct usage of this word, that this correct usage is completely independent both of all historical context and of actual usage, and that any other usage of the word is, in some absolute way, INCORRECT or WRONG.

Thus, he maintains, that English speakers in Chaucer’s day, including Chaucer, were using the word “fish” wrongly, because they do not use it as modern scientists use it, which is the one, single, eternally correct way—even though, as I mention above, this modern “scientific” usage is essentially an arbitrary paraphyletic grouping.

This position generates what I take to be a number of absurdities, more than sufficient to refute the position by a reductio ad absurdum.  For example, it entails that in many cases, and definitely in the case of the word “fish,” whatever English speakers first coined the word “fish,” used the word they had created WRONGLY, the very instant they used it at all.  They had just now made a new word to name something, but they were ignorant of the fact that the word which they had just now created, really names something else—their intentions in creating the word notwithstanding.

Now, there are many natural facts about animals, e.g. that whales give live birth and so are mammals.  But “the correct name of this animal or animal kind in English” is not a natural fact.  I would have said that it is a social fact or a convention (which still seems correct to me).  But DrJ denies this.  He maintains that there are facts about the correctness of word usage which are neither natural facts nor conventions.

As a Platonist, I am perfectly prepared to admit that there are such facts, non-natural facts,  for example, facts of logic or mathematics.  Logical facts and mathematical facts are neither natural or physical, because they are about things which are immaterial, nor are they conventional or social, since they are entirely objective.  I would not, however, have thought that English word meanings were the sorts of things about which there could be transcendent metaphysical facts outside time and space, not subject to the actual usage and conventions of English speakers. I had always taken it to be obvious that word usage was a convention or social fact.

I have spoken of DrJ’s belief in PLATONIC WORD-MEANING HEAVEN. I intended this term to show (what I take to be) the absurdity of his position, but I want to stress that it is LOGICALLY NECESSARY that he believe in something like this. If the CORRECT meaning of words is determined neither by nature nor by convention, it MUST necessarily have some kind of eternal, transcendent ground beyond convention and outside of nature—if not God, then at least something like Platonic Word-Meaning Heaven. I don’t care what he calls this transcendent ground beyond nature which determines eternal correct word meaning—all that matters to me is that he must believe in such a thing, because whatever it is (and perhaps he knows the one, true, eternally correct name for it?), this is what he is appealing to when he holds there is a standard of correctness for words which is non-conventional and above nature.  He cannot be, for example, appealing to the usage of modern biologists, because his claim JUST IS that this usage is eternally correct, and—he has been very clear on this point—it was correct in Chaucer’s day, before any actual English speaker used the word “fish” in this way—which is what enables him to say that Chaucer’s use of “fish” is incorrect, and that the use of “fish” by whichever English speakers who first used the word “fish” was equally incorrect.

We are not debating about HOW the word “fish” is used by modern biologists (although that might be interesting—it’s paraphyletic nature seems to add an ad hoc, arbitrary element, which makes his case that it is the one, true, eternally correct use even more suspect.)—we are discussing the grounds of DrJ’s claim that ONLY the use of the word “fish” by modern biologists is or can be CORRECT, and that any and all other uses, past, present, or future, are, necessarily, INCORRECT or WRONG.  It is very clear DrJ is maintaining that correctness in word-usage is in some way an eternal truth comparable to the truths of mathematics and logic.  I remain unconvinced by this claim, and have yet to see any good evidence offered for it, beyond a dogmatic insistence that it is so, ad nauseam.  But I want to know what his actual arguments are for this Platonic position on word-usage.  I am a Platonist, so he’s already got my concession that there are such things as eternal, non-physical, not-temporal standards (e.g. of math, logic, ethics, etc.).  I’m just not convinced that word usage is like that. Given the way that words vary among languages and the way they change meaning over time, it seems absurd to me to class word-meanings among the eternal objects—although of course we are forced to speak of eternal entities by means of temporal words, but that’s another story.

My suspicion is that he is continually confusing the USAGE OF A WORD TO REFER to some truth about the world with the REFERENT BEING REFERRED TO IN THE USAGE.  That is to say, I think he is doing the equivalent of confusing the natural fact that snow is white with the English sentence “snow is white.”  The fact of the color of snow is what it is, regardless of how that fact is EXPRESSED in English.  The very same fact can be expressed in German as “Schnee ist weiss.”  But the WORDS USAGE which expresses the fact is CONVENTIONAL.  Nothing in the fact of snow’s being white in any way entails that the stuff has to be called “snow” or the color called “white.”  These are arbitrary sounds that convention has linked with the frozen precipitate that falls from the sky and the color or tint which is a quality of said precipitate.

Plato’s Cratylus is devoted to the question of whether or not there are “true names” for things, or whether names are conventional.  Cratylus says there are true names, and Hermogenes holds they are conventional.  For SOME MAD REASON the two call upon Socrates to decide the matter—Socrates then proceeds to refute Cratylus and argues him into conceding that words are conventional, and before Hermogenes has time to gloat, Socrates turns on him, refutes him, and argues him into the position that there are true names for things.  And with the opponents having switched sides, and the question still unanswered, Socrates leaves. RULE OF LIFE: DO NOT ASK SOCRATES TO “SETTLE” AN ARGUMENT.

Anyway, I have a number of questions for DrJ that still remain unanswered, to wit:

1. What are the reasons for your belief in a transcendent ground which determines CORRECT word usage over and above actual historical usage? Can you demonstrate that such a Platonic realm of word meanings exists? Or that there are transcendent facts about word meaning in the same way or in a similar way that there are transcendent truths about mathematical entities and logical entities?

2. How do you access this transcendent place wherein the one true eternal correct word meanings of English are stored? I would like to know the true, eternally correct meanings of words, so I can use them properly.  How do I check which definition is the one, true, eternally correct one?  What sort of argument would demonstrate that usage X of a word is the ‘one, true, eternally correct’ one and usage Y is not?

3. If your thesis is true, why don’t linguists, who study language, recognize that it is true? Or if any linguists do maintain that there is one and only one eternally correct usage for any given English word, can you please give me their names?  And can you point me to their arguments as to why they think this is true?

4. If your thesis is true, why don’t lexicographers recognize it to be true? Why do dictionaries, at least every one I am familiar with, give more than one definition for some words? Are lexicographers unaware that there is and can be only one true correct meaning for each word? For example, the Oxford English Dictionary says of itself

The OED is not just a very large dictionary: it is also a historical dictionary, the most complete record of the English language ever assembled. It traces a word from its beginnings (which may be in Old or Middle English) to the present, showing the varied and changing ways in which it has been used and illustrating the changes with quotations which add to the historical and linguistic record. This can mean that the first sense shown is long obsolete, and that the modern use falls much later in the entry.

Why does the OED focus on “the varied and changing ways in which [a word] has been used” instead of on the “one, true, eternally correct meaning” of a word? Shouldn’t the one, true, correct meaning be regarded as more important than all the historically incorrect usages? Why does the OED speak as if multiple senses of one word are all valid, if this is (as you say) false? Or again, the OED says

What’s the difference between the OED and Oxford Dictionaries?

The OED and the dictionaries in ODO are themselves very different. While ODO focuses on the current language and practical usage, the OED shows how words and meanings have changed over time.

Why does the OED think that word meanings change over time, when they are, in fact, static and fixed by your transcendent standard of correctness? Why do all dictionaries think this? Why have you not corrected the OED and the various other dictionaries on this extremely important point? Surely, if it is worth taking the time to explain to me on Twitter that words have only one, true, eternally correct meaning, it is worth explaining this to the OED and other dictionaries, so they can change their priorities.  Or can you point me to a dictionary whose policy is to give ONLY the one, true, eternally correct definition of each word?

5. If every English word has one, true, eternally correct meaning, does this go in reverse? Does every eternal meaning have only one true word to which in corresponds? Or do you hold that although there is only one, true, eternally correct meaning for each word, there can be arbitrarily many words (e.g. in other languages) that express this meaning?  In other words, is “fish” the one, true, eternally correct word to express the one, true eternally correct meaning of “fish,” so that all other languages are wrong to not use the English word “fish”? Is Chaucer’s “fissh” wrong? Is the German “Fisch” wrong? Are they “less wrong” than the French “poisson”? Is it always English words that are correct, so that all speakers of non-English languages are always using all words wrongly, just because they are not speaking the one, true, eternally correct language, English? Or are the true, eternally correct words divided among the various languages of the world?

It brief:

  1. What is your argument that words have only one, true, eternally correct meaning, such that all other uses are wrong?
  2. How do you access whatever supernatural eternal ground of word meanings there is wherein you find these eternal standards of correct word use?
  3. If you are correct, why don’t linguists acknowledge that you are correct?
  4. If you are correct, why don’t lexicographers acknowledge that you are correct?
  5. Are you saying that not only does every English word have one, true eternally correct meaning, but that every meaning has one, true, eternally correct word that expresses it?

The Tripartite Platonic Soul

Plato has the distinction, among many others, of presenting the Western world with the first systematic λόγος or rational account of the ψυχή or soul; Plato is, in other words, the first psychologist. Plato’s psychology, expressed most extensively in the Republic and the Phaedrus, is still entirely plausible as a basic account of the nature and structure of the human psychē.

Plato was a philosopher with the soul of a poet, and often expressed his insights in images. He gives two famous images of the soul.  In this post, I’ll be giving you the one from the Republic.

Plato, or the Platonic Socrates, asks us to imagine a human being, and inside this human being, to imagine three part: a human being, a lion, and a many-headed monster (familiar to the Greeks and still today as the hydra, the monster that when one head is cut off, three more grow in its place—making it an ever growing, ever more-dangerous monster).

According to Plato—and to Aristotle, who follows him on this point—the human soul is basically tripartite.  It consists of a properly human part—this is represented by the man, and is the thinking and reasoning part of the soul.  In a properly working soul, this is the part that should rule or govern.  However, the problem with reason is that it has no force. Its action consists essentially in λόγος, thinking and talking.  Now, talking can be directing and commanding, but directing and commanding, even when the direction is sound, is useless if the directions are not followed. Or if one’s reasoning part is corrupted, such that it is reduced from its role as ruler to an instrument of a power properly beneath it, in which case reason because a mere tool, instrument, or slave—of honor, for example, or the passions.

The lowest part of the soul is the appetitive part, the part that is the home of our irrational fears and desires.  “Irrational” is, in Greek, ἄλογον, that is, without λόγος.  Neither fear nor desire can “talk”—we have to elevate them for them even to “speak”, but if we do so, and speak for them, we find that desire only screams, like a small child “I WANT IT!” and fear only screams, period, or at most screams “RUN AWAY!” or even less helpfully “DO SOMETHING!” Worse still, unlike reason, which is directed at truth, and so can never conflict with itself, since every truth is compatible with every other truth, the irrational, appetitive part of the soul is in constant war with itself: fear vs desire, fear vs fear, desire vs desire.  Hence, Plato’s image of the many-headed monster also signifies that the many heads are each pulling in a different direction, and often they turn on one another, and attack and devour one another.

Unlike the modern world, which tends to more simplistically divide the soul into a rational part and an irrational part, the ancient and medieval world always recognized a third, middle part of the soul, a tertium quid able to run interference and mediate between the higher reasoning part of the soul and the lower irrational appetitive part.  This, in Plato’s image, is portrayed as a lion.  (Aristotle, less glamorously compares it to a faithful hound.)

The middle part of the soul is the θυμός, a word that is not easy to translate into English. It could be rendered as “spirit” or “spiritedness” or “heart” (if rightly understood).  θυμός is what we encounter in phrases like “team spirit” or “esprit de corps.” A horse or a body of soldiers who are gung ho may be called “spirited.” The θυμός is related to the angry part of the soul—for anger, used correctly, is anger at injustice, according to the ancients, and according to Plato, justice is first of all the right ordering of the soul.

When we have a bad or unseemly passion that makes us desire something we should not desire, reason may counsel against the passion as bad or unseemly, but again, reason can only talk.  It is the θυμός that gets angry that we are being reduced to the slave of a passion. One who acts not from reason, but from a blind passion, is not acting freely, even if the passion is his or her own—for passions are not chosen or willed, but come over us, they move us, they affect us; hence they are called “emotions” or “affects” or “passions”—”passion” is the opposite word to “action.”  When in the grip of a passion, we undergo it, we suffer it, we are not agents who act, but patients.

Anger, on the other hand, is a very active and powerful force.  Blind anger is, of course, no better than blind passion. However, according to Plato, in the properly functioning soul, the θυμός, through discipline and training, obeys the reasoning part of the soul.  Reason commands, and θυμός obeys.  And the primary role of θυμός is to use its angry active force to engage the passions on their own level of force, and beat them into submission, to regulate and control them, as reason directs.  The θυμός is therefore like the police, who enforce the laws the rulers make upon the citizens, not all of whom, but some of whom, require force to obey the law—because like the many-headed monster, each citizen goes his own way, and some, left to themselves, will go outside the law.

In the Republic, Socrates illustrates the conflict between passion (ἐπιθυμία) and θυμός with a story about one Leonitus and his eyes. It transpired that Leonitus was walking back to Athens from a trip down the Piraeus, the port of Athens, and his return journey took him past the pit outside the walls of the city where the Athenians tossed the corpses of executed criminals who were deemed not to merit proper cremation.  Leonitus immediately felt himself seized with a great desire to go and gawk at the bodies in the pit. At the same time, he felt shame to have such desire.  He struggled with himself for a bit, and finally gave in to his desire, and gazing upon the bodies, he angrily cursed his eyes, saying “Go on! Drink your fill of the beautiful sight!”

What this shows is that, in addition to a desire for something, there is in us another part that can fight against the desire, becoming angry at our own weakness for giving in (as Leonitus did).  There’s a scene in Season Five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the heroes discover a skinned corpse—and the following dialogue occurs:

Xander: “This is the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.”

Buffy: “And yet my eyes won’t look away. Stupid eyes!”

That is another perfect Leonitus moment. We’ve all had them. How many of us have had the urge to rubberneck at the scene of a traffic accident, for example? Almost all of us, judging by the way traffic slows down. And is there not for most of us (I hope) a sense of shame in wanting merely to gawk at someone else’s misfortune?

Here is my rendering of Plato’s Image of the Tripartite Human Soul:

Platos Tripartite Soul

 

 

 

Plato, Moser, and Existentially Non-Neutral Knowledge

I was reading the entry on Philosophy of Religion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  If you don’t know the SEP, it is an online encyclopedia of philosophy that solicits its entries from professional philosophers and is peer reviewed to ensure the quality of its entries.  As with anything, sometimes it fails to be perfectly neutral, as each author presents what he thinks is most relevant, but since the replies are done by professionals, often those outstanding in the areas they are writing about, and since they are vetted and peer-reviewed by other professionals, the general level of the SEP is very high quality.  It would be perfectly acceptable, for example, to cite the SEP in professional publications. In other words, it is not, for example, Wikipedia.

In the course of the entry, I came across a description of an argument strategy employed by Dr. Paul Moser, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, expert in Theory of Knowledge and Philosophy of Religion, author of 8 books and 151 published articles, editor of 16 books, etc. Here’s his Curriculum Vitae for the curious. And a list of some of his books. I mention all this to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Moser is an expert in the philosophy of religion and also in theory of knowledge.  This is relevant since his argument involves both.  Here’s the bit from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Taking a very different approach to theism, Paul Moser has recently criticized what he refers to as the preoccupation in philosophy of religion with what he calls “spectator evidence for God,” evidence that can be assessed without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously. Eschewing fideism, Moser holds that when one seeks God and willingly allows oneself to be transformed by God’s perfect love, one’s very life can become evidence of the reality of God (see Moser 2008, 2010). While this proposal may worry secular philosophers of religion, Moser is not out of keeping with the pre-Christian Platonic tradition that maintained that inquiry into the good, the true, and the beautiful involved inquiry in which the inquirer needed to endeavor to be good, true, and beautiful.

Being me, I made it into a picture card, so

GenericManSpectatorKnowledgeOfGod

The picture isn’t of anyone in particular. It’s a detail from a painting by Nicolai Fechin that I use sometimes. It didn’t seem appropriate to use a picture of Moser, since these aren’t his words, but a description of an argument strategy of his.

To the point at hand: It’s important to note a couple of things:

1. This is not an argument. This is a description of an argument strategy by Moser.

2. I have not studied Moser’s work as of this writing. The above argument strategy is intriguing—I have had some ideas along similar lines—and I found it interesting enough to (1) share it on Twitter, and (2) get a copy of Moser’s book, which I will be reading in the near future.

Naturally, Twitter being Twitter, I was immediately attacked for my “bad argument” by an angry atheist, the fact I wasn’t making an argument notwithstanding, the fact that Moser’s argument is not even being presented here, but only described notwithstanding—naturally, said angry Australian atheist felt that he had all he needed to dismiss the ‘argument’ in question out of hand.  This is not untypical of the level of discourse one finds on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 4.41.18 PM

Now, since just from the description it is clear that Moser is not making either of the following arguments,

  1. I imagine God exists.
  2. This makes me feel better.
  3. ∴ God exists.

or

  1. I have certain feelings.
  2. ∴ God exists.

it’s clear that MrOzAtheist is indeed constructing a straw man, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, and I (and others) called him on it. He belongs to that particularly noxious breed of online atheists who insist on telling you what you really mean and then ‘refuting’ this “real meaning” that he has told you you really mean—in other words, they have raised the straw man to a high art form.

In their defense (sort of), I honestly think that many of them are incapable, for whatever reason, of conceiving that there are or could be serious and substantial theistic arguments.  They are so ideologically blinded by their atheism, that they are literally unable to recognize the possibility that there might be strong evidence or good arguments which dispute their position. This is one reason that it is always unpleasant to argue with ideologues.  No doubt many of them have encountered Christian ideologues and are unable to see that they have become exactly what they think they are against.  Personally, I have primarily encountered this kind of ideological blindness among atheists, feminists, and Objectivists (i.e. Ayn Rand cultists).

I do have a point concerning Moser’s position and ideological blindness.  I think it is noncontroversial that certain belief-commitments and emotional commitments can induce a kind of blindness or inability to see, or to fairly or reasonably evaluate evidence and arguments.  In other words, one’s cognitive powers can become corrupted or distorted both by certain convictions and/or by certain passions.

If this is so, then it is entirely possible (and in fact very likely) that human cognitive powers, our reason, is not merely an existentially neutral instrument, as one of the usually unquestioned dogmas of the Enlightenment/Modernity suggests.  Indeed, going back at least to Plato, in the Image of Cave and elsewhere, the Western philosophical tradition has usually maintained that human cognition is existentially non-neutral, that there are things that one cannot know, that there are things one is necessarily blind to, depending on the condition of one’s ψυχή (psychē or soul).  Here’s an enjoyable presentation of Plato’s Cave Image in claymation on YouTube.

Plato compares the νοῦς, the intellect, to “the eye of the ψυχή” or “eye of the mind” and extends his analogy, arguing that just as it is not possible for one to turn one’s eyes around to see what is behind one without turning one’s head or whole body around also, neither is it possible to turn one’s νοῦς to the higher realities without a turning-around or reorientation of one’s entire soul or ψυχή in the direction of the true and the good, a μετάνοια. In other words, one must be in a certain state of the soul analogous to health, which Plato calls ἀρετή, virtue, to be able to see or comprehend certain truths about what is.  Those who are not in the right state of soul, those who are vicious, will be unable to see what truly is, due to their being “turned” the wrong way, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, who are not only facing the wrong way, but chained in such a way that they are unable to turn around.

Plato’s Cave Image is complicated (I hold that it recapitulates the entire Republic in miniature, occurring at the dramatic center of the dialogue, or the 7/12ths point—I don’t have time here to get into the musical significance of 7/12ths or Plato’s musical compositional structure)—but one thing it safe to say is that one primary meaning of the “chains” that bind the prisoners in the cave in place are their beliefs about the nature of what is.  Plato has in mind, I think, the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form in all cultures as well as the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form by growing up in a given culture—but in a democratic society, there is no reason one cannot forge one’s own chains by the adoption of an ideology.

This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the case of ethics, as C. S. Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man.  One who has not been raised well and educated well (these are the same) will be unable to apprehend the principles of ethics:

CSLewisVirtueTraining

Lewis is of course simply affirming the classical teaching of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the Christian tradition including thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Not everyone is equally capable of apprehending the good; in particular, the evil cannot do so, and this blindness to the good is, in no small part, what enables the evil to be evil. We are apt to say things like, “How could anyone do a thing like that? Couldn’t he see how wrong it is?” Sadly, no, he couldn’t.  Here’s Aristotle:

AristotleRightEducation

Aristotle emphasizes the role of passions, and particularly of pleasure and pain in human education/upbringing.  Philosopher Edward Feser has an illuminating account of Aquinas’ teaching that disorder desire, particularly disordered sexual desire, has directly corruptive effect on the mind.  In “What’s the deal with sex? Part II” Feser discusses Aquinas’ argument that the first “daughter of lust” (there are eight) is “blindness of mind”:

Now, when, for whatever reason, we take pleasure in some thing or activity, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is good, even if it is not good; and when, for whatever reason, we find some idea attractive, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is true and reasonable, even if it is neither. Everyone knows this; you don’t have to be a Thomist to see that much. The habitual binge drinker or cocaine snorter takes such pleasure in his vice that he refuses to listen to those who warn him that he is setting himself up for serious trouble. The ideologue is so in love with a pet idea that he will search out any evidence that seems to confirm it while refusing to consider all the glaring evidence against it. The talentless would-be actor or writer is so enamored of the prospect of wealth and fame that he refuses to see that he’d be better advised to pursue some other career. And so forth. That taking pleasure in what is in fact bad or false can impair the intellect’s capacity to see what is good and true is a familiar fact of everyday life.

Now, there is no reason whatsoever why things should be any different where sex is concerned. Indeed — and this is part of Aquinas’s point — precisely because sexual pleasure is unusually intense, it is even more likely than other pleasures are to impair our ability to perceive what is true and good when what we take pleasure in is something that is in fact bad. In particular, habitually indulging one’s desire to carry out sexual acts that are disordered will tend to make it harder and harder for one to see that they are disordered. For one thing, the pleasure a person repeatedly takes in those acts will give the acts the false appearance of goodness; for another, the person will be inclined to look for reasons to regard the acts as good or at least harmless, and disinclined to look for, or give a dispassionate hearing to, reasons to think them bad. Hence indulgence in disordered sexual behavior has a tendency to impair one’s ability to perceive the true and the good, particularly in matters of sexual morality. In short, sexual vice makes you stupid.

Put another way: certain kinds of knowledge, knowledge about the highest things, e.g. the good, the beautiful, and the true, are existentially non-neutral kinds of knowledge: there are truths, that is, which are evident only to the wise and virtuous, because folly and vice, of themselves, have a corruptive effect on our natural cognitive powers.

It seems perfectly evident to me that this is true.  The Enlightenment conception of reason as calculative ratio is a wholly unwarranted reduction of reason to one of its lower functions, although it is perhaps true that reason as a merely instrumental ratio is a typical case of existentially neutral knowledge; at least I see no reason in principle why vice or folly or ideological dogmatism would make a person less able to do mathematical calculations and certain other types of reckoning.  But it seems flatly absurd to assert that all knowledge is like this.  Those who do seem to be people who are paradoxically and paradigmatically blinded by an ideology, namely, scientism.  Since their ideology requires them to conceive all knowledge as scientific knowledge, and they almost always insist that scientific knowledge is existentially neutral knowledge, they must deny that there is anything that can be known to the wise and virtuous that cannot be known to the unwise and vicious—despite the fact that this is evidently false.

To return to Moser’s position: if I read it correctly, Moser is asserting that knowledge of God is not a case of existentially neutral knowledge, or what he calls “spectator evidence of God,” but rather argues that evidence of God cannot be properly apprehended or accessed “without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously.”  In other words, to come to know God will necessarily be an existentially transformational event for a human being which will by its very nature involve a reorientation or “turning around” of the ψυχή—Plato’s “turning around” of the soul becomes in Latin convertio, conversion.  One cannot see God without a turning around of the soul (as a condition of the possibility) and one cannot see God without a being turned around of the soul (as a necessary consequence).

Again, I have not actually studied Moser’s argument.  So, necessarily, I am not elucidating Moser’s argument nor defending it. What I am doing here is showing how something like what I understand him to be saying is plausible—and also how it is manifestly not “God exists, because of feelings I have.”

Atheists tend to become angry and indignant when they are told that their atheism is a result of cognitional malfunction, but neither anger nor indignation is a sound counterargument.  As I have written elsewhere (following Plantinga), if God does exist, then it is highly likely that properly functioning human cognitive powers are such as to dispose us to believe this, and in a warrant-conferring way; and it would also then be the case that atheism is necessarily a result of some kind of cognitive malfunction or cognitive blindness.  This would explain why around 90% of human beings (at least) in all times and places do in fact form a belief in the existence of God or the divine.  Atheists need to account for this phenomenon, and needless to say, “atheists are smarter than everyone else” is false (although it is obvious that many atheists do believe this, and indeed, the pleasure they take in feeling themselves smarter than everyone else is one of the main motivators of their atheism).

It seems to me that “cognitive God blindness”, something loosely analogous to color-blindness, is a much better explanation—especially when one recognizes that some kinds of cognitive blindness are willfully motivated on the basis of ideological belief-commitments and passions.  Atheism is certainly an excellent candidate for a willfully-motivated dyscognition; recognition of the existence of God would require a radical reorientation not only of one’s belief-structure and comprehensive worldview but of one’s entire existence or being-in-the-world (to use Heidegger’s apt term)—no part of one’s life is likely to be unaltered.  And if one has a strong desire not to alter one’s life in a fundamental way (perhaps because one is habituated to some vice that he recognizes he would have to give up, and therefore the pleasure he his habituated himself to experience in indulging the vice—as, for example, St. Augustine’s addiction to womanizing), then one eo ipso has a strong motivation to prevent oneself from seeing evidence that might force one to recognize the existence of God, a recognition which would necessarily result in the upheaval of one’s life.

It seems likely that a common motivation for atheism in modernity is our peculiar conception of freedom as autonomy combined with our implicit belief that freedom as autonomy is the highest good—in such a conception, the existence of God becomes existentially intolerable, because God is necessarily a threat to my personal, infinite autonomy, more, God is necessarily incompatible with such a conception of personal autonomy.  If God is God, then I am not God, and modernity teaches that not only am I God, but that it is both my right and my highest good to be God.  Both these things are false, of course, since I am not God, but I cannot even maintain the fantasy of being God, if God truly exists and confronts me as God.  It also seems likely that the root of contemporary Western nihilism lies somewhere in this area; see for example David Bentley Hart’s “Christ and Nothing“, or consider Jacobi’s remark, contra Fichte, (which incidentally is from the same essay where Jacobi uses the word “nihilism” for the first time in a serious philosophical context):

JacobiGodOrNothing

To sum up:

  1. I promise a fuller account of Moser’s position once I have worked through his book.
  2. It should be obvious that it is possible both (1) that there is existentially non-neutral knowledge and (2) knowledge of God is almost certainly of this sort.
  3. The concept of existentially non-neutral knowledge as articulated by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Lewis, and others cannot be dismissed out of hand as a mere appeal to feelings. This is a completely absurd straw man that barely merits even the minimal response of pointing out that it is a straw man.

Peter Kreeft on Platonism

This is an excerpt from Boston College Professor of Philosophy Peter Kreeft’s audiobook The Platonic Tradition: Understanding Plato’s Impact Through the Ages in which he gives a brief account of the “Plato’s Big idea,” or “the heart of Platonism”:

The American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, even more simply, “Plato is philosophy, and philosophy Plato.” And a third great thinker, the old professor in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia said, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato! Dear me, what do they teach them in the schools nowadays anyway?” That’s a pretty good summary of the point of these lectures. The Platonic tradition in Western philosophy is not just one of many equally central traditions; it is so much the central one that the very existence and survival of Western civilization depends on it. It is like the Confucian tradition in Chinese culture. Or the monotheistic tradition in religion. Or the human rights tradition in politics ….

Any philosophy is a work of art. Every great work of art must have a central unity.  That’s why almost every great philosopher has one Big Idea, on great central idea, a kind of hub from which all the other idea radiate like spokes ….

This single Big Idea that defines Platonism could be called the Theory of Big Ideas, because the Platonic ideas are bigger than any ideas inside of minds and also they are bigger than concrete material things outside of minds. They are bigger than both of us. Bigger, or realer, than either concepts or things. They are the standards or patterns of for all concepts and all things. And they account for the unity between concepts and things. For instance, our ideas of justice or squareness or humanness can correspond to just things or square things or human things only because both our ideas and those things participate in the same Platonic form: justice, or squareness, or humanness.

This Big Idea of Plato’s is most famously expressed in the Republic, the single most famous book in the history of philosophy. Books become famous, and remembered, because they are loved. And the Republic is loved, I think, not for its politics—which are absurd—but for its psychology, which is the world’s first, by the way. And above all for one short passage, the most famous in the history of philosophy: the parable of the Cave, in which Plato invites us to come with him out of our small comfortable conventional little shadowland into a startlingly larger world outside this cave and see those realities of which these shadows are shadows.  When we do that, we will at first certainly be confused, and blink when we first see the sunlight.  The reaction of my students to Plato’s theory of ideas is typically that of Horatio to Hamlet when he first sees the ghost whom he did not previously believe in. While Horatio is in this amazed state of mind, Hamlet says to him “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

That’s the essential point of Platonism: moreness, transcendence, another kind of reality outside our cave. The tendency of typically modern thought is just the opposite: reductionism, debunking, demythologizing, that there are fewer things in heaven and earth, that is, in objective reality, than in our philosophy. The modern tendency is to contract, to reduce, and I think the reason for this is clear: only when we reduce the complex to the simple, and the mysterious to the clear, can we comprehend it scientifically and conquer it technologically.  That’s our essential modern project, our main claim to fame, our great success story.

Plato’s project is the opposite. Not to conquer things by making them smaller, but to let ourselves be conquered by something greater. Modern scientific truths are like poker chips with which we can calculate and win. Our mind encloses such truths and uses them. They work, and they work very well.  But Plato’s truth is like a cathedral, which we humbly bow to enter.  It encloses us; we do not enclose it. But when we bow, we become taller, and we feel we are in a larger world when we are in a cathedral. Or in Plato’s philosophy. The Platonic ideas are not in our mind; we are in them. They are not our servants; they are our masters. That’s why we experience awe and wonder at them. Most philosophies don’t have that power over our souls. When we speak of awe and wonder we don’t usually think of modern philosophers.

But I’ve described only the psychological effect of the idea I’ve labeled the heart of Platonism. Can we be a little more specific about what it means? We can define it in three different ways, either very broadly, very narrowly, or somewhere in between. Very broadly it means what the Greeks called λόγος, and what we might translate as “order.” That reality has an internal order, an intelligibility, a system, that it makes sense; that order is not just our invention, our minds imposing structure and meaning, but that it’s really there, in everything.  It’s discovered rather than invented. Things are ordered because they have intelligible natures, or essences. That primary question: WHAT IS IT? has real answers. Reality is intelligible to mind. Being is open to reason and reason is open to being.

I recommend Dr. Kreeft’s lecture on Platonism very highly as an introduction to Plato, Platonism, and Plato’s influence throughout history, which is ongoing.  Nietzsche was not insane when, in his attempt to overcome the entirety of the Western tradition in his transvaluation of all values, he knew his main opponent was Plato.  Not Christianity, which he called “Platonism for the people,” but Plato and everything Plato stood and stands for.  I know this intimately, as I speak from experience. I was a Nietzschean for many years, and Nietzsche taught me well.  One thing Nietzsche taught me is to despise the idea of holding one’s beliefs according to a personality—if Nietzsche and Plato were opposed forces, to be honest, to show Nietzschean Redlichkeit, I had to undertake a serious, ruthlessly honest study of Plato.  Learning Greek was merely a delay—a philosopher needs that in any case.

And, to make the story of over a decade into a sentence: Plato won and Nietzsche lost. Not even Nietzsche could withstand him.

Because Platonism is unstoppable.