Saw and met Rebecca Goldstein doing the @platobooktour to promote her Plato at the Googleplex – why philosphy won’t go away on Monday at Nunn Hall, London. A bit like her 36 Arguments it’s a fictional creation as a vehicle for bringing long-standing (but still very relevant) philosophical questions and ideas into topical mainstream debates. I’ve not read her latest yet beyond the preface and opening chapter, but it’s looking promising and if it’s half as good as 36 Arguments it will be excellent.
The great and the good attending the British Humanist Association event included Ian McEwan, Peter Atkins, Stephen Law, Bob Churchill and Alice Fuller to name a few, as well as Andrew Copson in the chair.
She opened the evening with a little of her biography and her own journey into philosophy and writing having majored originally in physics. Some of this autobiographical journey – her ultra-orthodox Jewish upbringing, with a family background from fleeing the holocaust, via Hungary to the USA – you also get from reading her Betraying Spinoza – another thoroughly recommended read. The switch from ultra-theism to more scientific rationality and a belief in an objective world “out there” may seem obvious, but what we learn here though, is that her switch from physics to philosophy came from dissatisfaction at the lack of coherence in any real world explanation behind the mathematical elegance and success of Quantum Mechanics. David Bohm’s interpretations being the most coherent she believed, but these are not the current mainstream view in modern fundamental physics.
For many the subject (literally) of her latest work, Plato in the 21st century is a “hate figure” in scientistic humanism – Copson admitted so in his introduction. For any modern thinker, like Goldstein, the relationship with Plato must be a mixed love-hate balance between the narrow fascistic tendencies of (say) The Republic, with the fact that in his more lyrical dialogues, he pretty well invented every philosophical question that still matters to this day. As others have said “all philosophy is footnotes to Plato”.
Sure, as a man of his times, he could not have all the knowledge we have to create acceptable modern-day answers, but in fact by virtue of his dialogic style, he often didn’t attempt to commit hard answers to many such questions anyway.
A major part of Goldstein’s thesis is that the results of Plato (and similar contemporaries trying to codify the world in different “civilisations”) have been adapted through multiple channels theistic and secular. And, despite the fact in ancient Greece they kept their gods quite separate from moral codification and rational thinking, it is the modern Abrahamic theistic religions that dominate the outcome. Hence the hate figure for so many humanists. Doubly ironic since the origin of Ibrahim is to name those the other side of the Jordan from the Greeks.
By way of an aside, I noted in her switch from the mathematical elegance underlying (incomplete) fundamental physics to the hopes of more satisfactory (coherent) philosophy for our real world – metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, ethics, you name it – she also studied Kurt Godel seriously enough to publish another learned work Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel. Much controversial opinion about the rights and wrongs of applying Godelian thinking beyond mathematics itself – but there is no doubt IF people believe the rules of life can be directly systematised objectively – rather than via a philosophical metaphysics – that the impossibility of both completeness and consistency is a real moral dilemma. Like Dennett, a friend of hers and a hero of mine, she warns against the arrogance of science in discounting the need for philosophy to complete the picture – being “too greedy” in its objective reductionism of real life and what counts as evidence. I now also have Goldstein’s Godel work on order.
Anyway, how she weaves her theses into the modern day lecturing, speaking and writing tour of our 21st century Plato I’m yet to read, but you will find him active on Twitter @platobooktour as we speak.