Removing the Head, or Destroying the Brain: Part VII
It’s been a long time since I read the writings of Plato, and not even in their original language, but I’ve gotta say: I wasn’t particularly impressed.
There’s one scene which has always stuck in my mind, not least because in my freshman year, my Cognitive Psychology professor acted it out (dressed in a bedsheet and laurel wreath):
Plato and a friend are arguing about how humans learn, and most particularly learn virtue. Plato insists that humans do not learn, but recall. Since human souls are eternal, at some past point they contemplated the ‘Forms’, unchanging and timeless templates for the universe, and any recent contemplation of truths must therefore be merely a recollection.
Plato then demonstrates this by taking an untaught slave and showing him a problem in geometry. The slave carries out the logical reasoning necessary to solve the problem. Plato argues that the slave couldn’t possibly have produced the solution, being a mere slave, and so he must have remembered it from an earlier, nobler, incarnation.
It struck me, not only upon reading it the first time but upon watching it enacted, that this conclusion is not only based on a variety of indefensible assumptions, and excluding alternative explanations without cause, but is contrary to our initial experience of such events. Introspection is not at all a reliable guide, but in my experience most people feel that they’ve generated solutions to problems, not remembered; remembering feels very differently. That’s not necessarily what happens, but it’s the natural first hypothesis for people to form.
Given the weakness of the argument, and its counter-intuitive properties, it seemed to me that Plato was likely trying to find an ‘explanation’ that he found appealing, rather than honestly searching for the best approximation for the truth.
As it is said that all of western philosophy is contained in Plato, I read other philosophers. I found that, overwhelmingly, they consisted of elaborate, sophisticated, and clever use of language, wrapped around silly arguments, non sequitur statements, and pure incoherence. Reading it was difficult, and identifying the meaning equally so, but once the complexity was comprehended it was almost always foolishness and nonsense. There were a few exceptions, but they were rare.
I further noted that most of the ‘philosophical’ readings I found to be genuinely useful and information-containing did not come from ‘philosophy’, but from scientists and mathematicians, even when they wrote outside of their fields. Especially then, actually.