Saturday, March 26, 2011

Plato is unreal

Abstract ideas are our creations, however much we want to make them into absolutes and deities.

"Platonism describes idea as prior to matter and identifies the person with the soul. Many Platonic notions secured a permanent place in Latin Christianity."Wiki

As a non-philosopher, it may be slightly presumptuous to dismiss the founding philosopher. But something really needs to be said. Plato and his school were obsessed by the abstract- by forms and ideas. The idea(!) is that abstractions are real-er than real, since we need ideas to make sense of sensations. They paid homage to the soul as the ideal figment of man, and to idealized forms of the universe as the shape or expression of god. Christianity, formed out of the meeting of Greek philosophy and Jewish theology, lapped all this up, treating Plato as a church father who led the way towards making the metaphysical and the supernatural into respectable intellectual topics. But Plato was wrong.

Who makes forms? Nature doesn't. Nature can (sometimes) be described using formal mathematics. We can abbreviate its vast clockwork using abstract ideas. But they are only helpmeets and makeshifts to make up for our paltry cognitive capacities. They are our creations, confined to our minds and writings. We discover them in the sense of developing those ideas the most efficiently describe large collections of phenomena. But we don't discover them in the sense of going to Antarctica to discover new equations. They are found in our heads, and there they remain.

It is frankly bizarre that people could get so carried away with the power of abstract thought, (their own or that of others), that they project these powers onto the universe at large, characterizing it as a giant computer, or as a "thought" of a deity. And go far as to deprecate the very reality they are faced with, regarding it as less real than the true realities that are hidden behind in the shadowy realms of mathematics, celestial spheres, simplifying concepts, and the rest.

What does this amount to? It is the oldest form of thought in the book- magical thinking, which sees hidden forces, agents, spirits in all the vexing phenomena of our world. This is not to say that phenomena can't be analyzed ... where would we be without germ theory, geology, or Newtonian physics to make sense of the bewildering chaos around us? But never have we come face to face with what we most desired and feared- that vengeful deity or merely conscious being that, to be frank, sprang entirely from our own imagination.

Plato cleaned this up in his image as forms rather than gods, but the same process was at work- the projection of human capabilities and motivations on the canvas of reality. So, isn't the quest of physicists for a grand unified theory of everything an indication that he was on the right track? Wouldn't the ultimate reduction of physical reality into, say, an enormous Lie group, or a tiny string, vindicate the Platonic position? No it wouldn't, because such an abstraction, enormous as its explanatory power would be for us, wouldn't change the reality before us.

Biology has taught us the dangers of casual projection in place of detailed empirical engagement when dealing with bizarre, even alien, technologies. How much more inscrutable is the fabric of the universe? Whatever its cause and nature, it would be madness to assume that it follows the outlines of psychological projections which have been consistent over millennia, persistently invoking a thinking, emotional, sentient, powerful, intelligent, and caring, etc... being.

If forms were really the real reality, then we should be able to stretch reality into new shapes by altering those forms. Admittedly, this is the ultimate magical thinking, but it follows directly from the Platonic argument (as well as all the related theologies of prayer, intercession, etc.). If, on the other hand, the forms we use to describe reality are mere desiterata of our mental mechanics while reality exists outside them, not caused by form or embodying form, but capable (sometimes) of being represented through forms and formalisms... then the empirical reality is what we get, adamantly resistant to formal manipulation.

And what is the cause of this reality that we can abstractly understand by our formalisms? Is it something / someone which thinks, and whose thoughts actually conjure reality in elegant mathematical relations? This again is a projection from our mode of understanding onto the world. Biology has taught us the dangers of casual projection in place of detailed empirical engagement when dealing with bizarre, even alien, technologies. How much more inscrutable is the fabric of the universe? We simply have no idea what its ultimate cause is or was. While we can be thankful that it exists, there is no reason to think that there is anything cognizant at its core, let alone cognizant of us, much as we may wish to please it and understand it.

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9 comments:

  1. I think you are right on in describing Plato as unreal. I have been saying in my blog that Life is more important than the definition of life.

    Although you may not want to take this where I take it, I think religion has often blocked the real material world in defining God, and I go on to say that evolutionary theology says real life must evolve to Godhood, and not merely in mathematics or philosophy.

    I think that Godhood is a Supreme Natural Object evolved to in the Cosmos, containing Absolute Truth within the Mind of the Natural Object defined as Godhood, and not merely the Mind alone, or definition alone.

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  2. Hi Burk,

    "As a non-philosopher, it may be slightly presumptuous to dismiss the founding philosopher..."

    This is so funny to read because you then spend the rest of the post philosophizing. You may disagree with Plato, but you have no idea whether he is wrong or not but you are entitled to your uninformed (as you admit) opinion.

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  3. Hey Burk,

    I have been pondering this stuff lately as well. I dislike the Platonic notion that unmoving, unchanging, spiritual, abstract reality is superior to contingent, dynamic, physical reality. However, at least from our perspective, the former still exists. Whether it is some sort of emergence out of purely physical phenomena or if there is some underlying, deeper basic stuff, I do not know. Obviously, the physical element is the method that our mental mainframe is able to use to manipulate and understand reality. However, our first person experience of the physical is often very non-physical - concepts, abstractions, etc. It's very weird to me.

    I don't tend to think the rest of the universe (or multiverse or whatnot) is like us, but rather that we are like the rest of the universe. It's all related to your level of zoom when describing things. We appear as conscious organisms right now, but if we zoom way out, we hardly look conscious while looking at the entire globe. But perhaps the planet appears conscious? If we zoom way in, we see little organism-y things making up our blood, our skin, etc. and perhaps from that perspective it is not obvious to "zoom out" and see the larger organism.



    If everything is an inter-related, determined physical system, then it makes sense that we are no different than other physical reactions. As Alan Watts says, "I decided to close my hand, but did I decide to decide to close my hand?"

    I think there is a creeping dualism in thinking that personifying aspects of the physical world does not work at all. It suggests that we are fundamentally different than everything else, when really our perceived difference is contingent on our level of zoom. Agency is simply determined physical processes working a little more quickly in one corner of the overall structure of things. Right? So is it that strange to think that perhaps the universe is like a person? And that reality is like a thought? All depending on the level of zoom....

    However, if the issue is more about not taking empirical testing as seriously as our intuitions about things, then yeah, that is no good.

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  4. Hi, Steven-

    Thanks for a fascinating comment. Let me meditate on a few of your points.

    "However, our first person experience of the physical is often very non-physical - concepts, abstractions, etc. It's very weird to me."

    That is the nature of experience. Our first existence is obviously physical, and we can only attain the level of experience when our brains grow enough to boot up some kind of sensation or consciousness. All our thoughts are abstractions built through a physical information system, sensing systems, etc. That they seem to us subjectively so ethereal and immaterial is certainly true, but doesn't alter their actual basis.

    It is like the illusion of sight. We only have three color receptors, but think we can perceive millions of colors- why is that? Through complicated processing that uses the most basic signals into assemble a subjectively complex world. Does that make chartreuse "real"?

    "I decided to close my hand, but did I decide to decide to close my hand?"

    This is a comment on free will, with which I am in complete agreement, actually. These decisions arise from a complex of unconscious sources, and while that doesn't eliminate our ability to use reason, it has to make us humble and careful about doing so.

    "I think there is a creeping dualism in thinking that personifying aspects of the physical world does not work at all."

    Dualism is not intrinsically such a bad thing ... if it were true. But I don't think it is, in topic of mind/soul. Here, you seem to be defending anthropomorphism and projection as reasonable tools of analysis of how reality works, perhaps because we are part of the matrix as well.

    Obviously, I would stenuously disagree, because known forms of consciousness and other mental/personal characteristics always flow from special sources: brains, in various forms. There just is no reason to think that rocks are conscious, that electrons "know" what they are doing, etc. I am not saying that something bizarre like that couldn't possibly be the way the universe works, only that I really don't see evidence for it from any kind of sober analysis. It is, however, certainly a staple of the more mystical & spiritual modes of thought, which brings us back to the reason why these things come up in the first place...

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  5. Hi Burk!

    "Does that make chartreuse "real"?"

    Sure! Why not? And I agree with everyone that you have said - certainly there is a physical basis for all things. I just wonder if "physical" is a heuristic that works for us, but our abstract experience of things may suggest a basis that may be even more fundamental than physical? But hey, "physical" does the job for the most part. It's just odd that within our first person experience, it's not how we perceive things. And even our manipulation and learning about the physical is within the realm of our first person experience. I am not trying to smuggle anything in here - I am just trying to observe things as dispassionately as possible. I don't think I have a problem with a purely physical universe, but I feel I am open to potentially valid criticisms if I adopt that view too dogmatically. But I do not see good enough reasons to whole-heartedly believe in a completely separate "spiritual" existence at this point. And aesthetically, I like the idea of an underlying basis for all things, not an underlying duality.

    "There just is no reason to think that rocks are conscious, that electrons "know" what they are doing, "

    I agree. I was not speaking of rocks, but rather of whole systems of which we are a part (the earth, the universe). And I do not mean that the universe as a whole is a person, but part of it is certainly persons, so the whole is something....well I don't know what. More complex than persond, yet if I intend to pursue a path of first person experience (yes, mysticism, spirituality and intuition) about the nature of things of which my experience is a part, then anthropomorphizing to an extent may be a useful heuristic. And if another person sees no reason to think in those terms, that is fine as well. But I think there are rewards in taking our first person experience seriously, as long as it includes empirical responsibility along with subjective contemplation.

    A brain is made up of deterministic physical processes. So is the universe as a whole. And this is not a fallacy of composition as this is ontological stuff here - if the universe is a process of inter-related, deterministic, (even "mechanistic", though I don't like that term too much) processes, then how are we different? Except perhaps in our speed of turning this into that? We are like fire, like weather systems more than rocks perhaps.

    Anyway, thanks for indulging my active wonderment and my penchant of being a (responsible I hope) mysterian. I always enjoy your posts.

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  6. "if the universe is a process of inter-related, deterministic, (even "mechanistic", though I don't like that term too much) processes, then how are we different? Except perhaps in our speed of turning this into that? We are like fire, like weather systems more than rocks perhaps."

    This may not have been too clear - bad sentence structure on my part. I didn't mean that we are faster than the universe, that's incoherent as we are a part of the universe. I meant in comparison to what we perceive as inanimate objects, we are faster and denser, but still the same. And we are a part of an even more complex system.

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  7. Hi, Steven-

    I think I understand.. since it is difficult to infer consciousness even in other people, what is to say that other processes don't have some similar property, perhaps on some quite different scale. I often think about that looking at redwood trees. It does point to the importance of coming up with some better tests of consciousness. And to the fascination that will ensue when we create something artificial that claims consciousness.

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  8. Just to add a note- I ran across a brief discussion of Plato on a page defending the reputation of Hegel from being responsible for the Nazis. The basic theory being that over time, the left Hegelians gave rise to communism, and the right Hegelians to fascism. But this writer claims that no, the Nazis owe far more of a (conscious) debt directly to Plato:

    "The Nazis’ official “philosopher,” Alfred Rosenberg, mentioned, and denounced, Hegel twice in his best-selling Der Mythus des Zwanzigsten jahrhunderts. Originally published in 1930, this book reached an edition of 878,000 copies by 1940. In the same book, a whole chapter is devoted to Popper’s beloved Schopenhauer, whom Rosenberg admired greatly. Rosenberg also celebrates Plato as “one who wanted in the end to save his people [Volk] on a racial basis, through a forcible constitution, dictatorial in every detail.” Rosenberg also stressed, and excoriated, the “Socratic” elements in Plato."

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