Refuting the Zombie Argument, part II

So, we’ve established in part 1 that, among other things, the zombie argument can only have any weight if the conceivability of zombies can be justified. Of course, there is a justification offered. The argument goes roughly like so:

1.      You cannot refute the proposition that zombies are conceivable

2.      Zombies intuitively seem to be conceivable

3.      Therefore, zombies are conceivable

The reason this argument is considered a semi-valid one is that most philosophers accept that if a proposition “intuitively seems” to be true, and it has not been disproven by reason or evidence, this means that that proposition is true or at least probable.

Philosophers’ willingness to go from “we intuitively feel X to be true” to “X is true” or “X is probably true,” even on matters as complicated, misunderstood, and bizarre as philosophical zombies, is a completely unjustified arrogance. One thing you have probably already noticed if you’ve read my other pieces is that I am very arrogant, at least philosophically speaking – and yet I still would never even DREAM of proposing that my intuition is some magical window into the way things really are; that it can determine deep metaphysical truths on matters which (like zombies) my conscious, reasoning mind cannot even begin to understand. Yet in philosophy this “magic window into fairlyland” model of intuition (that is the accepted nomenclature) seems to be accepted by basically the entire discipline – if a philosopher can find any way at all of making an idea “intuitively plausible,” then the argument is considered compelling, no matter how tortuous or absurd the method of achieving intuitive plausibility is. And if a philosopher can find some way of making an idea “counterintuitive” then this is considered a compelling objection. This blind faith in our own intuition is both arrogant and completely unjustified.

The first reason this faith in our intuition is unjustified is that our intuition cannot somehow generate information that we do not already have. It follows that if our intuition does not have the right information to work with then any conclusion it gives will necessarily be based on bad information (what else would it be based on?) and therefore be unreliable. There is still very little understanding of the brain and how it produces (or does not produce) consciousness – and yet the zombie argument asks you to picture a working brain and decide whether it is sufficient to produce consciousness, and philosophers happily close their eyes and say “yes, I am picturing a working brain right now,” when in fact what they are picturing more likely resembles an opaque, grey, and squishy box, rather than an actual working brain.

Put another way: if you can accurately picture a zombie, complete with a working brain with all the massively complicated processes and subprocesses that the brain consists of, then you and your miracle of an intuition have surpassed all of humanity’s work on trying to understand the brain. On the other hand, if your picture of a working brain is massively incomplete, inconsistent, and on many counts just plain wrong – as it inevitably will be, due to humanity’s extremely limited understanding of the brain – then why would you expect your intuitive conclusions from such a picture to mean anything? How can your intuition give a good conclusion when it is working off of incompete, inconsistent, and inaccurate information? The only way you could believe that your intuition can give a reliable answer in a situation where reason and evidence have no claim is if you believe that intuition has supernatural properties.

Perhaps you will object to my assertion that there isn’t enough information about the brain to come to a conclusion regarding the zombie example. You may say that you don’t need a completely precise picture to draw conclusions – you don’t need to conceive a universe in order to conceive of baking an applie pie, in fact, you don’t even have to know how an oven works beyond the fact that it’s that hot thing the pie goes in. So why should you need to have a precise understanding of the brain to decide whether or not it is sufficient for consciousness? Isn’t just our everyday commonsense regarding the brain enough?

The problem with this is that I’m not asking you to invent a universe, or even know how an oven works. I’m just asking you to have some vague idea what the hell you are talking about before you start talking – and if this is impossible then DON’T TALK. If we had a broad, schematic understanding of what the brain does then we would be in good shape to talk about whether it is sufficient for consciousness, even if we didn’t know the physical details; but we don’t, and so we can’t. To return to the pie example, if someone really had no clue how to bake a pie beyond “well you mix some stuff together then put it in a hot thing,” would you really trust that person’s “intuitive feelings” regarding whether a specific ingredient is included? Of course not. Similarly, why would you trust your “intuitive feelings” about whether the brain is sufficient for consciousness when you don’t know what the brain does?

Anyway, relying on our intuition isn’t just bad because we don’t properly understand the situation. Even setting aside the fact that humans don’t understand the brain well enough to draw conclusions about it, philosophers are still wrong in assuming that their intuitive feeling is indicative of truth – if we had a good understanding of the brain it would be lazy and unreliable to say “well intuitively I think this is sufficient for consciousness” or “intuitively it seems like this isn’t sufficient for consciousness” – we could use that understanding, in combination with a thing called “reason,” to actually determine reliably whether or not the brain was sufficient for consciousness.

This intuition, that we are expecting to determine whether the human brain is sufficient for consciousness, is the same intuition that can’t figure out the Monty Hall problem: everyone who encounters the Monty Hall problem will find it intuitively obvious that the odds are the same whether you switch or not, whereas reason and evidence both inarguably show that it is best to switch. I’m curious; why haven’t philosophers used this counterintuitive finding to refute mathematics yet? “You mathematicians’ ‘axioms’ lead to a counterintuitive result; if your axioms are true then it is best to switch in the Monty Hall problem, but it is intuitively obvious that it doesn’t matter whether or not you switch.” Of course, the reason no philosopher has done this is because they know that here their intuition is in the wrong; philosophers easily recognize that their intuition is wrong when it can be demonstrated so, but they seem to think that if they can just find an area where you can’t prove their intuition wrong beyond all possible doubt, their intuition shifts from being a quick, useful, bundle of heuristics into being some sort of magical revealer of truth.

This intuition that philosophers seem to think allows them to know the truth on matters as bizarre, alien, and massively complex as the situations given in thought experiments is the same intuition that proves itself to be extremely unreliable whenever it can be put to the test. Even in everyday use it is suspect to confirmation bias, it commits the gambler’s fallacy, and any number of other errors: there is nothing magic about intuition that gives it power where evidence and reason are not present. If we can’t figure something out through reason and evidence then we can’t figure it out with intuition either. Any argument that relies on “intuitive plausibility” relies on something that is fundamentally unreliable, and thus is a fatally flawed argument.

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Refuting the Zombie Argument, part I

Recently while I was reading Philosophy, etc., I noticed that one of his featured posts was on “Understanding (zombie) conceivability arguments,” and so I took a look at his summation & two-part defense of (zombie) conceivability arguments. He argues that dismissive reactions to the zombie argument are generally due to misunderstanding it, and that if you accurately understand the zombie argument you will realize that it forces materialists to, at the very least, make serious concessions or commit themselves to ad hoc arguments. Now, I’d always been extremely dismissive of the zombie argument, and so I was curious to hear why I shouldn’t be; but after reading his pieces, I remain as dismissive as ever.

He never addressed the central problem of the zombie argument, which is what makes the zombie argument representative of one of the most embarassing tendencies in philosophy:  it uses the assumption that intuitive attractiveness indicates truth (or “probability” or “plausibility,” which are just weaker forms of the same error). Here that assumption comes into play as the basic argument for accepting the premise that zombies are conceivable; it roughly goes, “it intuitively seems like zombies are conceivable, and you can’t prove that they aren’t conceivable, therefore they are conceivable.”

Unfortunately, before I can explain why this assumption that intuitive attractiveness always indicates truth is so wrong there are some preliminary matters to settle; so this first post will preempt a few possible objections and clear up a few possible misconceptions.

First, when I say “conceivable” I mean it in the sense that Richard Chapell describes in his summary – that by saying something is conceivable I do not just mean something we can imagine or something that might be possible “for all we know” (as we can conceive, in either of these senses, of countless things that are in fact logically impossible – so saying zombies are conceivable in either of these senses is irrelevant), but instead, something that is conceivable is a coherent, logically possible concept.

A quick note on the intuitive attractiveness of zombies – personally I don’t find the conceivability of zombies intuitively obvious at all; in fact it seems very counterintuitive to me. But I don’t need to press that point, and so for the purposes of these posts I will assume that zombies intuitively seem like a plausible idea.

A possible objection I wish to preempt is that even if intuition is somewhat unreliable, it is sometimes “all we’ve got” – that it’s needed to determine what are good premises for arguments and whatnot. The idea is that foundationalism – the attempt to use only self-evident or similarly obvious and easily agreed upon premises – has failed to produce any useful or interesting results, and because of this failure philosophers need to use more controversial premises, based more on intuitive plausibility (“zombies seem conceivable”) rather than extreme obviousness (“if x = y and y = z then x = z,” or, “the sun will rise tomorrow morning”). Now, I agree that there’s a balance to strike – if you only accept the most obvious, uncontroversial premises imaginable, you’re not going to get very far. But philosophy seems to have gone very far towards the other end of the spectrum, to the point where the results may be interesting (although often they aren’t), but they are also completely wrong. What’s more, I think that much more can be done with extremely obvious premises and sound reasoning than philosophers seem to think; but that’s a matter for another post.

The second possible objection is that no good justification needs to be given for the zombie premise because, as David Chalmers says, “in general, a certain burden of proof lies on those who claim that a given description is logically impossible.” (Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: in search of a fundamental theory, page 96) In other words, Chalmers thinks that because he is arguing simply that zombies are “logically possible” or “ideally conceivable” the burden of proof is no longer on him; that the physicalists have to disprove or cast doubt on the idea of zombies or else physicalism is somehow refuted by default. This is not the case. The fact that there is a proposition (“zombies are conceivable”) which, if true, would render dualism true, is no more evidence for dualism than the fact that there is another proposition (“zombies are inconceivable”) which, if true, would render dualism false, is evidence against dualism. The only way either proposition can be used as evidence is if a convincing argument can be made for accepting it.

Chalmers seems to mistakenly think that conceivability is somehow “more likely” than inconceivability, as he thinks that the burden of proof is on the one arguing for inconceivability. This is obviously not the case; the negative (here, inconceivability) always outnumbers the positive (here, conceivability). Inconceivable ideas are by definition less restricted than conceivable ones; conceivable ideas have to conform to the rules of logic while inconceivable ones do not. There are more irrational numbers than rational, more possibilities than actualities, and there are more inconceivable ideas than conceivable ones.

Since it is easier for a proposition to be inconceivable than conceivable, if we are to accept that a given proposition is conceivable then we need a reason for doing so. The burden of proof is on the proponents of the zombie argument, not on the materialists. Of course, Chalmers (and other zombie proponents) do offer a justification: an intuitive one. I will explain why this justification is a bad one in part 2.

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Problems With How Philosophy is Taught

As I’ve hinted before, I have a lot of problems with how philosophy is taught. The biggest one is that students are taught a vast amount of philosophy that is just wrong. I know it is difficult in philosophy to prove something objectively correct, but what we are taught should at the very least not be demonstrably wrong and/or worthless… and yet much of what I’m taught can’t stand up to even this very easy criterion.

For example, in an Ethics class we were taught Kant’s views on morality. He argues we should only do things that we can make into universal maxims. Does anyone take this seriously? Well, I know some people do, but why? I just hate how completely irrational the idea of “it’s only right to do something if it’s right for everyone to do it all the time” is – circumstances play a huge role in everything else we do, why the hell shouldn’t they in ethics? Face it, consequentialism is the only reasonable ethical system… If we aren’t actually doing good then how are we being good?  Furthermore, any moral system that recommends helping murderers and Nazis has got some serious issues.

Another, much less controversial example: in my Contemporary British & American Philosophy class we were taught  about Russell’s thoughts on “mnemic causation.” Mnemic causation is the idea of an event being caused by a past event; for example if a kid acts scared of fire now, because of him getting burned by fire 2 months ago, then that is mnemic causation (as opposed to a person throwing a bowling ball, where the movement of the bowling ball is caused by something directly preceeding it). Russell tries to argue that mnemic causation may be “fundamental”; that when a kid acts scared of fire, this may not be caused by his brain state (which was altered when he got burnt) but may somehow be caused directly by the past event; that him getting burnt by fire is somehow reaching through to the future and making him act scared of it. He says he leans against the possibility himself, and stresses that it is only a possibility, but he nonetheless devotes a whole lecture to it and tells us about how it could make psychology fundamentally different from physics.

Why should I have to learn about this? Mnemic causation is absurd; there’s no more reason to posit it than there is to posit any other kind of supernatural influence on our behaviour, and it’s been basically completely disproven by now.

Another example: In a Philosophy of the Environment class, we learned about “Deep Ecology” which argues that our sense experience (e.g. walking into a forest and feeling that it’s a beautiful, interconnected thing) is “more fundamental” than science, and because of this our sense experience should be trusted over science. We should not have to learn this. I don’t care if there are philosophers who really uphold this view: it’s still ridiculous and obviously wrong. Even if we concede that sense experiences are “more fundamental” than science, that has nothing to do with which is more accurate.

And of course we’re still taught Aristotle and Plato for some reason I can’t fathom.

So, why are we taught wrong philosophy? Usually because professors insist on teaching by philosopher, rather than by philosophy. I realize this is necessary to some extent because a philosopher’s ideas will tend to rely on and assume knowledge of their other ideas, but I refuse to accept that because of this we need to hear every single part of their philosophical picture; some parts of it will inevitably just be wrong (nobody’s perfect) and the rest of their picture will stand up just fine with the wrong parts cropped out; and if it doesn’t, then the entire picture is flawed anyway in which case it shouldn’t be taught at all.

There are three primary arguments in defense of teaching philosophers, wrong bits and all: these philosophers should be taught because they are are historically important, that the philosophers may be wrong on some points but they can still help “teach us how to think”, and that we don’t read philosophers for their arguments per se.

Given how often I hear the first reply, I feel I have to address it – that for example Plato should be taught because he was the first recorded philosopher, and he dealt with many of the problems philosophy deals with today, or that Kant should be taught because of the profound influence he has had on philosophical thought. I am disappointed that I need to reply to this at all; it should be obvious that being first or being influential does not make what someone has said any better or worse than it actually is. It may be important from a historical perspective, but if their sole importance is historical then that is no reason to spend years learning their ideas or reading their texts. Physics students do not spend years studying Aristotle’s account of physics. I’m sure Kant was influential, but this doesn’t make his ethics any less silly – and if there is a modification or development of some of his ethical ideas that isn’t silly then sure, teach me that, but you can safely leave out the bits where Kant claims that circumstances don’t matter, or where Kant says that lying is always wrong, and so on.

The second reply is that learning these wrong philosophers can help us learn how to think. This is wrong. You get good at something primarily by learning from or engaging with people who are already very good. This is universally true. From violin, to chess, to soccer, to physics, the teachers should always be ones who have a good understanding of the subject (even if they aren’t able to put that into practice well themselves, e.g. a coach who isn’t as fit as his players). How could learning and discussing bad philosophy possibly be a better teaching tool than learning and discussing good philosophy? I don’t improve at chess by playing against someone significantly worse than me, and similarly I don’t feel like I improve at philosophy by being repeatedly confronted with crappy ideas, especially not when I’m forced to learn all the intricate details that stem from the initial, obviously crap idea. Maybe if we just learned the bad idea and then learned why it’s wrong the excercise could have some small use since it could help us avoid common philosophical mistakes; this would be a lot faster too, since we’d get to skip all the intricacies that are based on a wrong foundation.

Another problem with teaching philosophers instead of philosophy is that students are forced to read from the original text of philosophers even though they were usually not good writers (by modern standards). For example, pretty much any philosopher born before the 19th century goes on, and on, and on, and on without getting to the point (or simply repeats the point about 8 times). Obviously it isn’t their fault; they are a product of their time. But since we can massively condense their work without losing any content, please, let’s do so. Forcing students to read 500-year-old english is no more excusable than forcing them to read Hegel in the original German. Plato can take ten pages to make an argument that should take 5 sentences; if we are keeping up the pretense that we are actually reading Plato for his philosophy then there is no good reason not to simply read summaries of his important arguments and ideas, rather than strict translations which preserve his excessive wordiness. If there are differing interpretations that are both good arguments then give a summary of each translation; not hard. And if you think that it’s important for philosophy students to be good at interpreting ancient, unclear writing then you have lost sight of what philosophy is supposed to be about.

And this leads us to the next problem with the approach to teaching philosophy, which is that we don’t actually read Plato for his arguments, do we? We read him like literature (in fact, my Ancient Greek Philosophy professor has even said this in class; although I’m sure he’d disagree with what I’ll say next). We don’t read him for the individual arguments he makes, which tend to be quite bad, but instead, because Plato is vague and extremely prolific in the ideas and frameworks he proposes, we see what we can read into Plato, like a game. I find it extremely troubling when I hear that there are disagreements over how to interpret some philosopher or other. The focus should not be what the philosopher thought, nor should finding a unique interpretation of a work be considered worthwhile in itself. The point of philosophy is to come up with useful ways of understanding life, good, and the world we live in, not to waste time wondering whether Hegel was right wing or left wing.

Ultimately it just isn’t worth it to put gargantuan effort into finding a way of interpreting Plato that seems pretty. The proper format for arguing philosophical ideas is broadly like this: you tell people your idea and why you think it’s good, then critics tell you why they think it’s bad, then you respond to that. Is there going to be any of this in an interpretation of Plato? No. It suddenly becomes more about finding interpretations of what Plato was saying rather than whether what Plato was saying is right, which is when we stop being philosophers and start being literary critics. As long as an interpretation isn’t obviously wrong, objecting to it seems to be considered unsporting. Ultimately the ideas that arise out of this kind of approach will be largely ineffectual, more aesthetic than practical.

So if I had to sum this up: Stop teaching me wrong, obsolete philosophy, and stop teaching it from the original text, which in addition to being wrong and obsolete will also be about five times as long as it needs to be and not nearly as clear as it could be.

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Aristotle’s Golden Mean

This critique of the Golden Mean is aimed at being a specific example of one of the general problems I listed in my last post – that ancient Greek philosophers routinely present theories that sound grand but don’t actually have any meaning. In this case, Aristotle says that the virtuous “amount” of a characteristic is a “golden” mean, found between two vices: one of deficiency and one of excess. For example, according to Aristotle, the virtuous amount of courage is found between two vices: recklessness (an excess of courage) and cowardice (a deficiency of courage).

However, this theory doesn’t actually help in finding virtue. Think about it: when you’re trying to find out what the virtuous amount of a characteristic is, all the golden mean offers is a tautological claim that the right amount is not too much and not too little (tautological because the good amount of a characteristic is defined as being the good amount of the characteristic).

And the virtue does not even have to truly be between two extremes. In the cases where an extreme amount of a quality is desirable, Aristotle just pretends that this desirable extreme is actually a mean. Take courage: there is really no way to have “too much” courage. So Aristotle takes the desirable extreme – being very courageous – and says it’s the mean, and then finds a term for courage that has negative qualities attached to it ( “recklessness”) and says that this is the excess of courage, as if the undesirable qualities implied by recklessness are actually directly caused by an excess of courage. This is clearly false; look at Gandhi, look at Martin Luther King Jr., look at martyrs, look at any number of amazing people who have had great courage without giving into anger or impatience. These people are not reckless, and yet clearly they have no shortage of courage.

People can try to dance around these issues by saying “sure Gandhi had a moderate amount of courage, given that ‘moderate amount of courage’ is actually defined as having a lot of courage, and sure Gandhi didn’t have lots of courage, given that ‘lots of courage’ is actually defined as being an asshole!” But that’s the point: Aristotle’s golden mean relies on screwing with definitions. If you are allowed to define qualities however you want you can explain away any good quality as really being a “mean”, but that isn’t helpful in the slightest. That’s simply engaging in the kind of behaviour philosophy is infamous for; wasting brainpower on something that is useless.

So, if it’s so useless, why do people like it so much? After all, the idea of a “golden mean” has been picked up and applied not only in ethics but pretty much everywhere else – “all things in moderation” is a well known proverb, and hell, this “golden mean” business has even managed to get itself classified as a fallacy.  The reason people use and like the golden mean is the reason people like and use any other proverb; it’s a shorthand to describe a fairly common situation, one where we realize that there can be both too much and too little of something. When it applies people think of it and go “oh hey it’s right again” and when it doesn’t apply it doesn’t really occur to them (and if it does, they can explain it away by messing with definitions a bit).

Aristotle’s Golden Mean is a classic example of what’s wrong with the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, and in fact what is wrong with a lot of other philosophy too: when all is said and done, it really tells you nothing at all. It might be useful as a proverb, but it certainly has no normative qualities and never will no matter how much work is put into it. Working on these useless Greek platitudes is just throwing good effort after bad; no matter how much you think about a theory without content it will still have no content.

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Ancient Greek Philosophy

One of my biggest sources of frustration with the teaching of philosophy is that it focuses far too much on good philosophers and far too little on what is actually good philosophy. Nowhere is this clearer than in a course I’m taking, History of Ancient Greek Philosophy, which is devoted entirely to teaching philosophy that is over 2000 years old, and is also mandatory in order to get a philosophy degree.

I’m sure that when I imply that a course being devoted to 2000+ year old philosophy is a bad thing, most philosophers would object that being old, even 2500 years old, doesn’t mean that it’s bad – that old philosophy can still be some of the greatest philosophy ever written.

I completely disagree with this. Plato is terrible.

Now, please excuse me while I backpedal. I’m sure Plato was good, great, brilliant, or whatever else you want to call him, at the time he was alive. It’s just that his philosophy is no longer good in a modern context. Just like Newton’s Principia Mathematica was once the cutting edge of physics but is now outdated, and thus not taught from, so Plato’s philosophy, and that of the rest of the ancient Greeks, is outdated and should no longer be taught from, no matter how good it was “for its time.” Not that it has nothing of use, but only specific concepts should be isolated and paraphrased and expounded on by modern philosophers, leaving out all of the now-useless filler, fluff, and fallacies (which, for the record, is the large majority). This really shouldn’t be a radical proposition: it’s done in soft sciences as well as hard, and is in fact done by basically any subject that actually tries to get things done. There has been significant improvement in logic, morality, and clarity of writing since the ancient Greeks’ time, and this leaves the majority of ancient Greeks’ philosophy incoherent and irrational by modern standards.

For this piece I will focus on Plato, though I believe his problems can be found in the other ancient Greek philosophers as well. What are his problems? One: his logic is very poor; whenever he attempts rational argument he instead falls back on misleading analogies and fallacies. Two: his writing is unnecessarily verbose; he takes FAR too long to say what he says. Three: the majority of his philosophical “theories” offer no true predictions (they are unfalsifiable) and have no content, in addition to lacking good justification.

In support of problems 1 and 2, look at how Plato argues. The arguments found in Plato’s works are long and meandering; they never seem to even try to directly tackle the problem . Instead, Socrates’ arguments will comprise solely of a series of poor analogies and obvious logical fallacies. And each one of these fallacious steps will, instead of being a single sentence or paragraph like it should, be drawn out into a page or ten.

An example of Plato’s long, winding, faulty argumentative style would be when Socrates is asked in Republic why one should pursue a good life rather than pursue one’s own pleasure. He spends ~90 pages laying out a useless (more on this later) model of cities and the human soul, then suddenly concludes, without any good justification (not that there was any good justification to be found in the previous 90 pages either), that if you act selfishly your soul will be out of proportion and thus you will be miserable.

Maybe you found this convincing when you read the Republic, I don’t know. But actually look at the core of his argument: he is arguing that you should not act badly because if you do you will be miserable. Does anyone seriously think that it is impossible to be selfish and happy? I won’t take the time to argue this out here, but even if you do (somehow) think that it is impossible, realize that Socrates offered next to no support for this proposition. He spent over ninety pages on his stupid model of the soul and then all but skips over the only part of the argument that actually has anything to do with the problem at hand. His only attempt at justification is his assertion that acting badly will make your soul “diseased” and that “good practices lead to virtue, and evil practices to vice.”

Problem number 3 is a very common Greek theme, and also, in my opinion, the primary reason people like ancient Greek philosophy in spite of its myriad flaws. Plato (usually speaking through Socrates) will claim to have some incredible revelation – e.g. Socrates arguing in Republic that the human soul is composed of three parts: appetite, will, and reason – that in fact says nothing at all. In the case presented above, is there any way to disprove Plato’s claim about the soul? Of course not, because his model is so vague that it makes no predictions. There is no possible human behaviour that you could point to and say, “see, this person’s soul clearly must not be composed of appetite, will, and reason!” In other words, it is unfalsifiable. If you don’t believe this, let’s look at one of the predictions Socrates himself tries to draw from his theory; that you will be miserable if you act selfishly. This did not follow at all from his theory of the soul, but let’s assume it did for the moment. Imagine you found someone who clearly acted selfishly and, equally clearly, was very happy. Would Socrates bat an eyelid? No! He would declare that this person was secretly very unhappy, despite all appearances. And his compatriots, instead of challenging this ridiculous assertion, would cry “I cannot imagine anything more obvious, Socrates! Anyone who disagrees with this is most certainly stupid beyond belief!”

I know that the typical response here is that while Plato’s theories may need some fleshing out, they are a great starting point for thought and discussion. I simply disagree. Philosophically speaking, these theories have no content. Not only that, but they have have no relation to the truth; they are usually extremely arbitrary, as in the case of the tripartite division of the soul. Socrates came up with the division out of nowhere (at least, he had no good justification, neither rational nor intuitive, for it) and only made it work through making the idea vague enough that it made no predictions. These vague “theories” are only helpful for sparking discussion and thought in that they mislead people into thinking they have some degree of  understanding of an issue when in fact they have none (e.g. thinking they know the basic way the soul/mind works because of Plato’s “theory” of soul). Poor Socrates has become what he hated!

A more specific problem with Socratic dialogues is… the people Socrates dialogues with. The characters opposed to Socrates seem to serve the sole purpose of breaking Socrates’ speech into manageable bites, punctuating his speech with some variant of “Yes,” “Certainly,” or “Of course.” Nowadays we have invented the paragraph, which renders these other speakers largely obsolete. I suppose that they are also occasionally allowed to serve as straw men, if they are lucky. In these cases, their job is to present an opposing idea, and then immediately revert back to their default  setting: “agree enthusiastically with everything Socrates says, no matter how absurd.”

Going back to problem number 2, Plato takes forever to say anything, spinning what should be a single sentence into a page or more. This makes it very difficult to quote his argument directly so that I can show why it’s fallacious; instead I have to attempt to paraphrase his arguments, which takes away weight from my claims. But there is a brief moment in Plato’s discussion of the soul, why we should be good, and so forth, where Plato is far more succinct than usual, although he still takes about three times longer to communicate his idea than a modern philosopher would (not that a modern philosopher would ever, ever try to make this argument). This moment is when Socrates “shows” that concepts that work for cities will necessarily work for individuals:

“Socrates: Well, then, are things called by the same name, whether they are bigger or smaller than one another, like or unlike with respect to that to which that name applies?

Glaucon: Alike.

Socrates: Then a just man won’t differ at all from a just city in respect to the forms of justice; rather he’ll be like the city.

Glaucon: He will.”

My main point in quoting this is to show how terrible Plato’s logic is (by modern standards). Here he literally argues that a city is just a really big person (or, to be generous, a large collection of people, not that this makes his argument any less invalid), and that because of this what applies to a city must also apply to a person. And this is someone we are expected to learn from?

Incidentally, this quote also shows how Plato is unnecessarily hard to read: “are things called by the same name, whether they are bigger or smaller than one another, like or unlike with respect to that to which that name applies?”  How about: “Are like things called by the same name, regardless of size?” The answer being “no,” and also being, “a city is not a really big person Socrates, come on.” To be fair, the quote I’m hammering here is from the translation in the book I was given for ethics class, but a different translation words this section in much less certain terms. So maybe this is partly a translation error. But you know what? Whatever. I don’t think anyone can deny that in Plato, even extraordinarily simple concepts are wrapped up in big, long sentences filled with unnecessary words. This makes it harder to pin down what Plato is saying, which is an invaluable asset when so little of what he says is of any worth. However, given that our motive here should be to conduct philosophy, not to hide the fact that we have nothing of value to say, there is no reason to read strict translations of Plato; instead he should be thoroughly paraphrased if he is taught at all.

To conclude, Plato’s logic is generally bad, examples being his terrible “city” argument and his complete non-argument for why we should be good; his theories are usually useless, e.g. his tripartite theory of the soul, and his writing is far longer than it needs to be, e.g. pick up anything by Plato and read it and you will see this is true. Because of these things there is no reason to teach directly from Plato or focus on Plato’s ideas.

I realize that this piece is not by itself very convincing; I have drawn entirely from one specific section of Republic and have still relied primarily on paraphrasing his argument rather than quoting (hopefully I didn’t distort the truth; if so I didn’t do so intentionally, but rather out of extreme incompetence) But I still maintain that my general claims about the problems with Plato and the rest of the ancient Greeks are true. This piece isn’t intended to definitively prove the claims true, but to lay them out so that I can prove them in the time to come, and so that hopefully you will start to recognize these problems when you next read Plato (if you hadn’t already).

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