Archives for posts with tag: Plato

Peter Worley is an educator keen on teaching philosophy to youngsters. One of his teaching methods is to gather together objects to create a humanoid shape, and ask his students how many things there are. You can listen to a podcast of him doing exactly this here:

Now, to prove I’m smarter than a 10 year old, which my cripplingly low self-esteem demands that I do, I will offer my humble outcomes on how this thought experiment plays out.

So here is our object(s?):

Isn't it lovely? This took me two minutes and a small chance of copyright infringement to make.

Isn’t it lovely? This took me two minutes and a small chance of copyright infringement to make.

So how many things? I think most people’s gut reaction will be that there are six things, each meticulously stolen from a Google Image search. Four pencils, plus a book, plus a ball equals six things. But if you’re going to break something down into its parts, you have to realize that each pencil is going to be made up of wood, lead, paint, and whatever the hell eraser is made out of. The ball will have air, plastic, and other… ball parts, I guess. I don’t know what’s in a ball; cut me some slack. And so on with the book.

Of course, you’ll have to go further and further until you reach the atomic scale, because stopping at the materials level would simply be arbitrary. Now you’re counting neutrons, electrons, and protons, and you might as well just say fuck it and announce that there are an infinite number of things, because nobody is counting that bullshit.

Now perhaps there was a keener among you that said there are only three things. There are pencils, a book, and a ball. That makes three. Aren’t you sharp. These would be the Platonic Forms. Plato suggested that behind our perceived reality is an actual reality, and this actual reality has Forms that our perceived reality would just be variations of. So if you want to know about “pencils”, for instance, you have to study the Form of pencils, and then you can deduce on our perceptions of them. We all have an Idea as to what a pencil is, and then our perception of pencils would just be variations on that.

Unfortunately for Plato, I disagree with his theory. There are infinite variations on things, to the point where trying to define something’s “Form” becomes impossible. We project the idea of “pencil” out into the universe; there is no objective universe projecting the Form of a pencil into us.

So it’s not three. Sorry, keeners.

Maybe there were a few of you who took pity on my Clipart concoction and said, you know what? That thing is humanoid enough, I’ll say that it’s one thing. Bless you, kind sir or madam. Of course, if you claim my clearly multi-object’ed object is one, then you’ll have to say that its surroundings are one as well because we’ve already established that the Platonic Forms are nonsense. The table it would be sitting on in a non-digital example of this experiment would be part of it, as well as the floor. If this abomination of a humanoid shape is one, then the whole universe is one. Congratulations, you’re a Buddhist.

Lastly, there could be two things. The object, and the subject. Whatever is out there that I’m looking at, and the I that is doing the looking. There is something that is me that is separate from whatever is outside of me. That would be two.

So when asked, “How many things are there?” You can answer one, two, or infinite. What do each of these answers mean? Maybe you should read a philosophy book and find out, you scrub.

Many people assume that philosophy is actually pretty useless. It can really only get you a job teaching philosophy, and its practical uses are pretty much nil. You can’t eat it; it can’t move you about on four wheels, or even two wheels, so why bother?

If Socrates was a real person, he might have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. It is better to critically analyse yourself and your surroundings as it will lead to a more fulfilling existence than not doing these things. John Stuart Mill, someone who is definitely a real person, said:

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify.

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.

Being able to think critically, not only about yourself but about the world, can have some practical effects as well, such as the ability to engage in political debate or understand social issues that might pertain to your community or yourself. But perhaps this is a little too pretentious. There are those who would argue that the simple life has its own merits, and that being able to enjoy a cold beer and a football game is the greater experience over fretting over the validity of escapism.

If one accepts that scientific pursuit is of value, such as finding out which elements make up a rock on the moon, then perhaps one might expect there to be value in questioning why there are rocks on the moon in the first place. Martin Heidegger’s question, “Why are there essents (translation: things that exist) rather than nothing?” is described as being the original philosophical question. Why even is there a universe wherein rocks and moons can exist? If curiosity in regards to the material universe is valid outside of the drive for profits, then it follows that curiosity in regards to other aspects of the universe is equally valid.

Maybe a materialist would argue that there cannot be anything other than an empirical universe and so to question why things are is meaningless, but Karl Jaspers raises an interesting counterpoint:

“If by “world” I mean the sum of all that cognitive orientation can reveal to me as cogently knowable for everyone, the question arises whether the being of the world is all there is.”

 It is a little naïve and narcissistic to think that only what we can experience with our heavily flawed sensory organs, or comprehend within the limits of our human intellect, is all that there can possibly be within this universe. Friedrich Nietzsche puts it even less politely:

“Would it not be rather probable that, conversely, precisely the most superficial and external aspect of existence—what is most apparent, its skin and sensualization—would be grasped first—and might even be the only thing that allowed itself to be grasped? A “scientific” interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it be one of the poorest in meaning.”

 I do appreciate a man who flat out calls science stupid.

But maybe you reject metaphysics. Maybe this is all there is, or you subscribe to the belief that if we can’t experience it, or it doesn’t materially affect the universe in such a way that we can measure it, then it is, again, meaningless and pointless to discuss. Of course this doesn’t take into account that we could possibly experience it in some way outside of our sensory or intellectual selves (for example the accumulation of Karma, perhaps, which affects us but not in a way that we would ever be able to materially measure) but let’s just ignore that point for now. Let’s say this is all there is.

Do you think that it’s important to discuss what’s good and bad? Or even to come up with an idea as to what “good” even means? Heidegger agrees that there is no imminent practical use of philosophy, but says, “We cannot do anything with philosophy, [but] might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us?” Adam Smith was a philosopher of economics, from whence we obtained capitalism which now dictates how our entire world is run. Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes have offered their own views on the economy which have affected the world in their own significant ways as well. The philosophy of René Descartes dictates how we view our sense of self: as a discrete subject separate from the rest of the universe. Philosophy can change entire paradigms.

But maybe changing the world still isn’t good enough. You want a practical job that’s not a professor. Something with prestige. Plato argues that philosophy isn’t only practical, but it is the ideal for leadership. He advocates that any type of ruler should be a philosopher in its most literal sense, as a lover of knowledge. A lover of knowledge would endlessly pursue it, and in doing so would be able to apply any knowledge gained to the society underneath him or her. With knowledge as one’s passion, the love of power would not exist, and there would be a disdain for rule that the philosopher would possess: another quality for governance that Plato found necessary.

So start a revolution based off of The Republic, and then your philosophy major can finally net you a ballin’ career path… which, um… upon reflection, still doesn’t actually pay all that well.