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!