Nearly Lost Interview with Rebecca Goldstein

Today as I was going through my posts to get rid of broken links, I realized I had originally published this interview on the Leather Library blog with only a reference link on my own—dumb mistake, seeing as the Leather Library no longer exists. I might have lost the content of this interview forever had I not managed to find an unwieldy file titled “blog drafts” in my old computer.

Without further ado, here it is:


Originally published July 19th, 2014

They say it never hurts to ask.

I sent a few questions to Rebecca Goldstein’s website, thinking I’d get no reply. She’s a busy person, after all. But she was so kind as to respond to my questions with very thoughtful answers that I’d like to share with you as a follow up to my review.

I thank you for the lovely and thoughtful review of Plato at the Googleplex. I’m under a lot of time pressure right now, but I couldn’t avoid answering your thoughtful questions. Please forgive the inadequacy of the too-brief answers. —Sincerely, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein 

1. What is your best argument against scientific reductionism?

RG: I don’t know how you mean this question, since I don’t know whether you’re equating “scientific reductionism” with the materialist understanding of the mind. (By “materialist understanding of the mind” I mean that the mind is nothing over and above neurological processes). If you are, then I don’t have an argument against scientific reductionism. At this point in our scientific knowledge, it’s improbable that mind is anything over and above neurological processes. But if you mean by “scientific reductionism” the view that all information about the mind can be derived from neurological information (which might seem to follow from materialism but doesn’t) then I would be prepared to argue against reductionism. The best argument? Well, at least part of the best argument is to see that the materialist understanding of the mind doesn’t entail scientific reductionism. The mind is nothing else but brain processes but could we capture all that there is to a person—all the phenomenological richness and subtle overlays of deliberations, emotions, memories, moods, and so much more—from a description, no matter how complicated, of neurological processes?

2. Do you think Socrates was immoral in being politically abstinent?

RG: I don’t think that he was politically abstinent. He participated when he was called upon to do so, though he wouldn’t follow orders that he thought were immoral, as Plato tells us in the Apology. But more importantly, he considered the enterprise to which he devoted his life—trying to awaken his fellow citizens from their dogmatic slumbers (to use a famous phrase anachronistically) was itself political action. He involved himself in the life of his polis, hoping to effect change by getting people to rethink their assumptions. For him, good politics could only be the result of good philosophy. What he rejected—and this put him in opposition to his polis—was that ethics could be entirely absorbed into politics: to be a good person was to live the life of a good citizen as defined by the laws of Athens. Rather he thought that the laws themselves must undergo evaluation by the lights of philosophy. For a Greek, to think about the good life in isolation from one’s political responsibilities was idiotic. Almost literally idiotic. The word “idiot” derives from the Greek word for private, idios. To the Greeks, and this includes Socrates, to think that you can live a good life that is entirely private, with no thought of what you should contribute to your polis, was idiocy.

3. Why is it necessary for philosophy to make progress in order to be useful and deserving of study?

RG: I don’t think there’s any such necessity for philosophy to make progress in order for it to be worthwhile of study. I happen to think that some areas of philosophy have made progress and that the progress has been beneficial to society at large. I’m thinking specifically of progress in moral philosophy which has filtered out into progressive movements for individual rights. And then sometimes ideas explored in philosophy lead to scientific progress—sometimes to the creation of whole new scientific fields. Physics, psychology, linguistics, mathematical logic, computer science all were hatched from philosophy. And sometimes it’s the work of philosophers that drives some progress within scientific fields. Einstein, for example, used ideas he got from Ernst Mach to develop a key idea in relativity theory. These are just historical facts, and they point to some of the usefulness of philosophy, but not all of it. In fact, I’d say that one of the most useful lessons to be learned from philosophy, including those areas where progress of this straightforward type can’t be pointed to, is in learning about the limits of human knowledge and reason. Our continued bafflement over such questions as free will and the hard problem of consciousness and the a priori nature of mathematical knowledge is a good lesson in species-humility. And that’s useful!

Check out her book, Plato at the Googleplex.

12 thoughts on “Nearly Lost Interview with Rebecca Goldstein

  1. Pingback: Interview with Rebecca Goldstein | Diotima's Ladder

  2. I remember this interview. I didn’t realize that the Leather Library had disappeared. I know I used to source a lot of images in my blog posts to external resources. Watching those old images break taught me the same lesson, put everything you care about on your own site.

    I wonder what she means in her answer to 1 that materialism doesn’t entail scientific reductionism. Certainly we won’t understand everything about a person from only a neurological description, because a lot of that description will be in relation to bodily and environmental realities. I see that as more of an attempted reduction without all the relevant information, rather than a refuting reductionism overall.

    But I wonder if she’s coming at it from a Chalmers’ Type-B materialist viewpoint, which says that the mind is materialistic, but still not reducible to physical processes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It took me a long time to realize the Leather Library disappeared too, and when I finally did, I forgot that I had numerous posts linked to it. Believe it or not, those LL links weren’t the only ones that were messed up. A couple of people who never comment here actually wrote to me privately to tell me my links were broken and wondered if I could repost the content (one for a Heidegger video which I had somehow switched off to private and another for an interview with someone else). I’m very very slowly trying to fix all these issues, but such problems are scattered all over the place. Lesson learned indeed!

      I hear you about the images. I’m starting to use my own whenever possible, although sometimes that’s not possible.

      As for your question, honestly, I’m not sure I understood then what she meant by her response, and now I have even less understanding since it’s been so long since I read her book. I was hoping someone else might get a deeper understanding from it.

      I find that people stumble onto my blog and read things I’ve posted many years ago, which has me suddenly taking a look at my blog as a whole rather than just the last few posts. Anyway, fixing all this old stuff is a daunting task. We’ll see if I follow through!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Totally understand not remembering. And I definitely know what you mean with people stumbling on old entries. I occasionally get comments on old posts. When those come in, the first thing I have to do is re-read the post itself, and sometimes some of the discussion thread, so I can understand the context of what they’re saying, and to be sure I still believe whatever views they’re commenting on.

        I generally don’t worry about fixing the old stuff. There are a lot of dead images, videos, and links in my archives. I might fix an old entry if someone comments on it, or I notice they shared it. But with several hundred entries, most of which never get attention, the idea of going through all of that is just too much.


        • I don’t blame you…It would definitely be an enormous undertaking for you since you post so much more frequently than I do. I doubt I’ll go through all of mine (if I’m too lazy to post more often, I’m far too lazy to do a comprehensive edit), just the ones that seem to get a consistent trickle of traffic. We’ll see if I even get that much done!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Congratulations getting Rebecca Goldstein to respond to three of your questions. I like some of her prose, and she is a thoughtful podcast participant whom I’ve seen from time to time within the annals of YouTube. I can get in synch with her answers to #2 and #3, but the first part of her answer to #1 is obviously wrong and biased to me… but after all: she is a materialist, so no surprise. Her distinction between ‘scientific reductionism’ and a materialist conception of the mind makes sense to me in that she seems to hold that not all phenomena within the rubric of ‘mentation’ would ever be accessible to purely scientific (materialist) analyses, even though she holds that all such phenomena are entirely caused by or due to strictly material neurological processes. Thus, she concludes, a full ‘reduction’ is not possible.

    I would point out to her that the presumption that science and its methodology must strictly concern itself with material aspects of things is just that: a presumption. A choice. Not something which follows from any sort of logical argument. And that, as Nagel indicated, this presumption took hold about 400 years ago and has slowly congealed into dogma which is not permitted to be scrutinized. But I would not get far. Because I watched a full 20 hour seminar session which she participated in about a decade ago (with the likes of Dennett, Alex Rosenberg, Massimo Pigliucci, and Stephen Weinberg) on the topic of solidifying reductive materialism against a recent phalanx of doubters. They had the religion, and particularly Rosenberg was vehement that no reconsiderations a la “Nagelian Crap” should be tolerated because it is “mesons and baryons” (or was it hadrons… who cares?) all the way down.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. Busy week, though don’t ask me what I’ve accomplished by it!

      Anyway, yeah, Goldstein was surprisingly quick to answer my questions and very gracious, which is partly why I felt bad for letting the interview just disappear into the aether.

      The part I get stuck on with her answer to the first question is the idea that mind is nothing over and above neurological processes. I don’t know about that. But I suppose I would equate what she’s calling materialism and scientific reductionism. And I have heard reductionists claim that someday we will be able to capture all the phenomenological richness of the mind from neurological processes (I think it was an intelligence squared debate…not sure…)

      I’m okay with science limiting itself to its material territory. What I don’t like is when it goes outside its own rules and bounds and claims not to be doing just that.


  4. That’s one of the confounding things about the interweb, the fragility of links. I’ve learned to be very careful about links to videos (especially music videos), and while I’ve been absolutely shameless in using images I’ve found, from the beginning I uploaded a copy. About the only target I’d use for an image link would be Wiki, and even Wiki isn’t 100% stable.

    So, good that you found you had a copy of the text! The interweb is notoriously forever, yet links are fragile. Another of life’s dualities. (I think there’s a good argument to be made that the interweb has not lived up to what many envisioned — the meta-tagged repository of human extelligence. Instead, it’s more like a vast garbage dump. Lots of useful stuff, but lots of crap, and much of it stinks.)

    Regarding Goldstein, I’m obviously not alone in puzzling over answer 1. Interesting that an apparently staunch materialist would disagree everything we are can be reduced to neural correlates. I assume she understands that Mary does have a new experience upon seeing red for the first time.

    But honestly, I’ve gotten very askance at the whole field of human consciousness. It’s a bit like MOND versus dark matter, or supersymmetry and string theory. The field is stalled pending new discoveries, and the field seems to have a very high level of bullshit and waffling. As with fusion power, I’ve rather lost interest until something new comes along.


    • So true about the internet being a mega info dumpster. That’s a huge problem, sifting through all the junk to get to the good stuff. I’m surprised there are more websites promising to sift through it all and deliver better results. But then there might be websites for sifting websites for sifting websites…kind of like those obnoxious companies that promise to search for the best deal on hotel rooms.

      The other day I was actually wondering about how this abundance of information applies to generations and their group’s relationship to music. I was watching a movie about a guy who worked for a record label (so naturally he knew a lot about popular music). He was trying to impress a girl by rattling off all the artists she must’ve listened to in high school based on her age. I had only barely heard of them. Stuff like Taylor Swift…I know the name, but I couldn’t name a song or even hum a tune. Then he listed his era’s groups, and I could tell I was the same age as the writer because I not only knew all of them, but loved all them. He had me completely pegged. I thought it was a nice idea that each generation shares a (pretty damn specific!) set of musical references. In other words, if you went to high school at the same time I did, there’s no way in hell you could not know Nirvana or Pearl Jam. Then I wondered whether that’s the case for kids today. Do they listen to the same music? There’s so much out there now, it seems unlikely. But if they don’t, that means they’ll miss out on that shared experience. Maybe it’s no great tragedy, but if that’s the case, I feel sad for them.

      Until this response, I was actually not initially under the impression Goldstein was a staunch materialist, but that was my own extrapolation from reading her book. I haven’t listened to her lecture (or at least I don’t recall having done so…)

      I hear you on the consciousness debates, although for me it’s because they seemed very much like the same debates people have been having for a very long time, only now couched in a tedious new lingo. I usually find it a bit too much in the weeds, and with too much taken for granted.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the bloat of the internet and the music thing you brought up (and I’ve had similar thoughts) both speak to the downside of our success as a species. I’m old enough to remember when there was no “internet” (interweb, actually; the internet has been around a bit longer than the web). I was, and still am, blown away by how the web protocol took off and took over the world. We now assume internet access as we did phone access. There’s just too many and too much.

        I, too, have wondered if there will ever be those huge mega-bands that everyone flocked to. For me it was Fleetwood Mac and other 1980s monster bands. Perhaps I’m out of touch, but it doesn’t seem like those exist anymore. Again, too much. It’s as if, rather than the handful of acts promoted by record labels, every local band in the country uses the internet to offer content. Same with TV shows. So many that, although some shows are popular in the moment, nothing persists or really stands out. Music, TV shows, and a lot else. Too damn much of everything.

        I’m reminded of the song from Bat Out of Hell, “everything louder than everything else!”

        I’m not at all familiar with Goldstein and was keying off what others said about her being a staunch materialist. Her response does seem to speak from that POV, but I could have been misled by other comments and my own interpretation of her words.

        Yes, I quite agree about consciousness debates. Same old arguments over and over. Tedious in the extreme to me, but I’ve always been a “what’s new?” kinda guy.


        • In a way I’m glad I didn’t have access to the internet when I was growing up, though if I’d been given a choice at the time I most definitely would’ve chosen otherwise. I don’t think I would’ve gotten sucked into the abyss of Facebook (or whatever the equivalent is that kids like these days), but I would’ve been on YouTube ‘learning’ how to play songs on my guitar, without having to figure out anything myself by ear. Not that I’m really great at it now, but I think it was a valuable effort with lots of little benefits gained.

          Fleetwood Mac was pretty big for me too back to middle and high school, mainly because I had a friend who was crazy about Stevie Nicks. But my small group of friends listened to a lot of classic rock, and in that we weren’t typical of our generation. (The day I heard Pearl Jam on a classic rock station, that’s when I knew I was an actual adult. Unfortunately that was a long time ago.)

          I like that artists can get their work out there without the gatekeepers, and a great deal of talent has been brought to light thanks to the internet, but yeah, someone’s gotta sift through it all and as the pile grows, we have less and less time to do it properly.


          • It’s definitely another aspect of the two-edge sword thing. The ‘web has huge benefits but it’s also been disruptive socially. We might just be in a transition stage, and eventually we’ll find a better level, but some social changes do leave permanent scars (atomic power, for instance).

            I do think one issue today is that we spoon-feed children and adults too much. We gain much self-esteem (and no little pleasure!) from figuring things out, or building things, for ourselves. A lot of my YouTube animations are trivial, the equivalent of a child’s fingerpainting, but I have fun figuring out how to make them.

            On balance, I’m glad about the ‘web, but it’s gotten like near Earth orbits — so choked full of junk that navigating it can be perilous.

            Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.