Sunday, June 8, 2014

Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein subtitles her provocatively titled book "Why Philosophy Won't Go Away." She has a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton and has written three novels, The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light, and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed 36 Arguments which includes an appendix (available on the web) that points out the logical flaws in every argument. I.e., just because we can't explain it doesn't mean that God did it.

Plato at the Googleplex is a hybrid. It is both an explication of Plato's key thoughts and imaginative dialogues between a 2,400-year-old Plato and contemporary figures: A Google engineer, a Freudian therapist and a tiger mother, an advice columnist, a cable news host, and a neuroscience researcher. In alternating chapters, Goldstein alternates chapter between a history of Plato's life and times and an account of his classic dialogues: What is a good life? What is knowledge? What can we know? The Myth of the Cave. The Death of Socrates. And more.

Following each chapter on Plato and his thought is a chapter in which Plato confronts contemporary issues: Could crowd-sourcing be better—more valid, more accurate, more true—source of moral thought than experts? What can you say to a Freudian psychoanalyst and a tiger mom who disagree on the proper way to raise a child? How would Plato respond to a cable talk show who denies there can be morality without religion? And, perhaps more basically, what has Plato to say to a neuroscientist who claims that science has answers all questions of free will and moral agency? Now that science has either answered (or seems able to answer eventually) all the Big Questions, what do we need philosophy for? Let alone the thoughts of some Greek who lived 2,400 years ago.

Goldstein argues—persuasively to my mind—that we need philosophy to address questions like these: Do the 1 percent really contribute more to society than the 99 percent, and if they do, should their contributions be recognized in the form of increased privileges or increased obligations? Is the role of the state to protect us or perfect us? Are there dangers of mixing entertainment values with politics, and if so, what are they? Do professional thinkers who come out of universities and think tanks have a role in statesmanship? Is their expertise useless or worse in the practical political sphere? Are ethical truths inextricably tied to religious truths? Are all truths—ethical, religious, scientific—no more than cultural artifacts? Is reason sufficient—or even necessary—to guide us through life...? And more and more.

Plato at the Googleplex is wonderfully stimulating and readable. For someone with no background in philosophy, the book is, I think, a first-rate introduction to Plato and his thought with its relevance to today's issues. For someone who has a background, it is thought-provoking and challenging. I suspect there are philosophy professors all over the country reading the book and looking for flaws in Goldstein's arguments and scholarship. I wish them luck. Meanwhile, the rest of us can enjoy an intellectual banquet.

No comments:

Post a Comment