Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (New York: Pantheon Books, 2014, ISBN 978-0307378194), 480 pp. Hardcover, $18.26. Also available in paperback, on Kindle, as an audio CD, and as an Audible book.
Philosophy has been declared worthless and pointless ever since, well, since there were philosophers—individuals who asked questions about the nature of reality, our ability to know reality, how and why we find value and significance in things, and the extent and nature of our obligations to others and ourselves. Many reasons have been given for the dismissal of philosophy, including the alleged idleness of its speculations, for which most people don’t (or say they don’t) have the time to consider, to the more contemporary view that to the extent philosophy once served a purpose, it has long since been surpassed by science. Whereas philosophy groped for answers with the limited resources available to it—basically critical thinking mixed with inexact observations—the scientific method combined with our armamentarium of precise instruments allows us to dispense with philosophy. We now understand the universe and ourselves much better through science than we ever did—or could—through philosophy.
In Plato at the Googleplex, a book remarkable on many different levels, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has delivered a powerful argument for the continuing relevance of philosophy. One remarkable feature of the book is that it blends fact and fiction, and in doing so boldly uses a dramatic technique fraught with literary peril. As indicated by the book’s title, Goldstein’s exposition of philosophy focuses on the thought of Plato. Given his prominence, this is not an illogical choice, but one’s first thought might be: Aren’t Plato and his views just a wee bit dated? Will focusing on Plato not reinforce the perceptions of many that there is no progress in philosophy? But Goldstein meets that concern directly by effectively reanimating Plato: in the fictional sections of the book, she introduces Plato as a character in several contemporary settings where Plato can discuss his views with various persons exhibiting modern-day attitudes. He’s at the Googleplex discussing skepticism toward ethical issues and considering whether “crowdsourcing” is the proper way to answer ethical quandaries; he becomes involved in a panel discussion on educational methods; he assists in providing advice to the lovelorn; he’s interviewed (or lectured at) on a cable talk-show that bears a striking resemblance to one that might be found on Fox News; and he has a vigorous exchange with a neurologist who’s convinced that studying the brain will give us all the answers to the questions worth asking.
These imaginative encounters are all arranged in the form of dialogues—befitting, considering the protagonist, but also risky. If there’s a literary form that can veer more quickly into the contrived, wooden, and pedantic other than a poorly written philosophic dialogue, I’m not sure what it would be. As I’m a baseball fan, I hope you’ll excuse the following metaphor: by opting to transport Plato to our time and insert him into a series of contemporary dialogues, Goldstein has swung for the fences. Fortunately for us, the result is not a swing and a miss but a home run.
The fictional encounters are interspersed between Goldstein’s deft description of, and authoritative commentary on, Plato’s thought. She helpfully places Plato in the context of his time, explaining the influences on him and why particular questions occupied his attention more than others. But she goes beyond that to discuss the extent to which Plato’s questions remain relevant and his “answers” valid. (I use scare quotes for answers because it’s a source of ongoing debate as to whether Plato intended to give us his own views, and if so, precisely what those views were, because, at least arguably, they changed over time.) In doing so, she skillfully makes use of a distinction, properly credited to the philosopher of science Hans Reichenbach, between the context of discovery and the context of justification. The former explains how and why a thinker may have come to certain conclusions; the latter assesses the soundness of the thinker’s claims. Failure to make this distinction has resulted in much confusion and bad arguments, both by defenders and critics of philosophy. That Plato lived in a slaveholding, patriarchal culture is undeniable, and surely his outlook was influenced by this culture. Philosophers do not live in ahistorical, atemporal bubbles. That said, we can still evaluate the soundness of Plato’s arguments on their own merits.
Part of the attraction of Goldstein’s book, and the payoff for her decision to insert Plato into contemporary settings, is that she can show how someone such as Plato would react to the changed circumstances of the contemporary world. Philosophy is not static; philosophy—at least good philosophy—is a thoughtful reflection on the world as it is, not a misguided attempt to dictate how the world must be. We can leave contemplation of the latter to the religious dogmatists, the prophets who think they are privy to some privileged revelation.
That is one reason I believe the supposed tension between science and philosophy is overblown. No philosopher worth his or her salt is going to be ignorant of relevant scientific developments. Of course, our increased understanding of the workings of the brain will affect a philosopher’s views on ethical decision-making. On the other hand, with all due respect to those scientists who may think otherwise, the accumulation of scientific knowledge will never answer certain fundamental questions. We can know all there is to know about the human brain and the cosmos while still wanting to consider the implications of that knowledge: why we consider humans significant; why they matter to us; why our own lives matter to us; whether we should regard these issues as consequential as they seem. As much as some may want to brush philosophy aside, that effort will not succeed. Philosophy will endure as long as wonder and inquiry about value and significance endure.
Plato at the Googleplex is an immensely rich and rewarding book. No specialized training or background in philosophy is required to understand it. The book is accessible to anyone with an open mind.
Ronald A. Lindsay is the CEO and president of the Center for Inquiry, a supporting organization of the Council for Secular Humanism. A lawyer and a philosopher, he is the author of Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas (Prometheus Books, 2008). His next book, The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do, will be released by Pitchstone Publishing in early December 2014.