I’ve been re-listening to a series of lectures on Plato’s dialogues this month. I first heard this course back in the late 1990’s. _This time through, I’ve been inspired with reflections on Plato’s impact on the history of ethics, specifically with regard to the widespread opposition toward the revelations of science in our society.
The thing I’ve been noticing is just how suspicious Plato was of ‘science.’
Plato draws a line from the ‘naturalists’ in his day—especially the materialists (Democritus, etc); those who were beginning to give scientific explanations for things—to the Sophists. Naturalism and Sophism are portrayed as ‘impetus’ and ‘consequence.’ Specifically, it is suggested that by seeking out naturalistic explanations the materialists undermined traditional mythic explanations for why Greek society was the way it was and how its citizens should act. Plato saw naturalism as destabilizing ethics, politics and the possibility of personal excellence (άρετή). Plato saw the Sophists as having ‘ridden in’ on the ‘coattails’ of naturalism.
Plato portrays the Sophists as taking advantage of the early scientific demythologizing of long-standing cultural values; offering an extreme relativistic worldview – including interpretations of ethics, et. al. – in their place. If Nature can be explained rationally; then the gods are not the authors of social prescriptions and prohibitions; such as systems of morals, political authority and ethical values. This opened the door to a freedom to ‘choose your own values.’ Sophists took this to an extreme, suggesting – by persuasive rhetoric – that one set of values is just as good as another. The ethics of Sparta are one kind of good, and the ethics of Athens are another. Sophists could justify both by their rhetoric. Protagoras, for instance, could argue for one value system in one city (and get paid for his efforts) and then argue for another value system in another city (and get paid for his efforts). While there is a healthy social and cultural relativism, an extreme relativism was the vortex within which sophistic practice turned; it played on a total devaluation of ethics and denial of meaning.
There were no ‘absolutes’ for the Sophists (beyond getting paid).
Well, perhaps that’s a little caustic, but_
What strikes me, listening to these lectures again, is that we have here, in one of the ur-texts of the Western Tradition (Plato’s dialogues), a touch-point for the qualms many people still have about naturalism and science. One of the reasons often given for denying or rejecting the revelations of science is that what science shows us about reality undermines traditional ethics, social structures and our ability to find meaning in life.
I’ve encountered this objection a number of times over the years, and have attempted to argue against it in a blog or two. For years I have been exploring ways to re-ground ethics – even ‘traditional’ morals – in the world as revealed by science and mathematics. My thrust toward a ‘spirituality grounded in science’ has been, on one level, an attempt to allow ethics and morals to arise out of a naturalistic understanding of ourselves as ‘manifestations of Nature.’
When I first heard these lectures, I wasn’t dealing with this kind of objection overtly; though it was there beneath the surface—I don’t think I even recognized this undercurrent in Plato. Now, however, I see it so clearly. When I first heard these lectures, I was at the point where I was just starting to delve into science as a major tributary to the pursuit of wisdom and truth, and was more concerned with Plato’s epistemology and the various problems I was seeing with an Idealistic metaphysics.
I now see that we have in fact been struggling against this bias against naturalism and science for two and a half millennia. It is not a recent phenomenon; it didn’t just rear its ugly head in the 19th century in opposition to Darwin’s revelations about evolution. My impression is that Christianity took up this bias against naturalism early on in its development. _And it keeps resurfacing today. Too many religious people – and even some secular people I’ve met – are afraid of science because they think it threatens cherished beliefs and meaningful values. Are Creationists and all of those who hate evolution and fear science in fact the children of Plato? It seems likely. No doubt science threatens particular versions of beliefs and values, but as it reveals our nature to ourselves; showing us to be manifestations of Nature—it lays the ground for revaluing values and confirming potentially meaningful experiences of the world.
So why has this fear of science and naturalism been around so long?
It has been such a long-standing problem because there is indeed something behind it; Plato was not completely misguided in his analysis. I think that what he saw happening in his society was quite troubling, and I empathize with him. I think he was correct to see Sophistry as a negative outgrowth of naturalism, even if the link he saw was only a sufficient one.
Naturalism does not necessarily lead to Sophism.
For a society that has had its social and political order anchored in a mythological tradition (e.g., Homer, The Torah, the Bible, the Koran, etc.), there are ‘reasons’ why things are the way they are. “The gods made the world after their own devices.” “God created the Heavens and the Earth in six days.” Those ‘reasons’ are mythological, not historical—much less scientific. They ‘explain’ humanity and human society in a metaphorical way that allows people to function; and not just to function—but to aspire to be good, or to be wise, or to be honorable, or to become enlightened – and any number of other potential, positive goals.
Mythology gives us a ‘logic’ for self-realization.
It could also be said that myths give people a ‘logic’ for how to live life well. So long as mythological stories are not mistaken for some literal, ‘scientific’ explanation of the world, mythology can function in a healthy, positive spiritual way. _And every pre-scientific culture had its own mythology, with its own logic, justifying its own valued paths for self- and social- realization. Then along comes science, and a rational, empirical explanation of the Earth & Cosmos begins to be revealed which causes a ‘tectonic’ shift in the ground beneath a mythological worldview.
What does it mean to live life well, if what the myths (i.e., scriptures) once told us about life and the world is not ‘true?’ —This question reflects the initial conflict between the old myths and science; it points to the first stage in demythologization—one through which it is often difficult to navigate a course. _I know it was for me! But there are other ways to ground our existence and find value and meaning other than in one or more of the old mythologies. Navigating the changing ground as natural science reveals a new understanding of the world is a spiritual and mystical adventure; one well worth the undertaking.
Plato lived and wrote in the crux of the first demythologization of human consciousness at the arche of the Western tradition. What can be called ‘natural science’ emerged in Greek society in the century or so before Plato, and the ideas put forward by natural philosophers and early mathematicians were often experienced as a ‘threat’ to the traditional mythological justification of social norms and values. The Sophists stepped in and offered people an extreme relativistic understanding of life and the world, just as certain modernists have done. Plato saw this relativism eroding values, and sought to lift people out of the morass and up to new heights of self-realization through participation in permanence (the World of Forms) over against change (the Heraclitean River).
An heroic program, if ever there was one!
… However misconceived. As a stop-gap against amelioration of meaning and anomie, it was perhaps a valiant exercise to pursue a path toward transcendence. By doing so, Plato showed that the path of the Sophists was not the only option. But in the long run, Plato’s project was escapist. It did not embrace and work out an understanding of our objective situation in the Earth & Cosmos. It devalued our bodily nature, it set up a bias against the emotions and poetics that has haunted us ever since, and it put rationality and reason on too high a pedestal. Today we realize that the emotions are an integral part of human experience, and that poetics enhances human existence. Creativity is a primary human capacity; we are homo creativus as well as the “rational animal.” There is a kind of knowledge associated with healthy emotional experience, and so long as it is not mistaken for rational knowledge or scientific knowledge of the world, then it is valuable as contributing to human wellbeing.
I am convinced that value and ethics, meaning and all social good can be grounded in a naturalistic understanding, at least today, in the 21st century, given the progress of the sciences and philosophy over the last 500 years. Plato was right to criticize the Sophists and attempt to set up an alternative to their extreme relativism, but he was in error in thinking that ethics, value, meaning and the social good could not be grounded in naturalism. He was wrong to fear naturalism and science. Perhaps in his time – the 4th to 5th century BCE – science was not far enough advanced to allow for a naturalistic ethics or an earthen aesthetics that would uplift, sustain and edify human becomings. The ancient Greeks had only experienced the first tremors in the ground beneath their mythological world. Today, I think, such an ethics and aesthetics is possible, and the more science reveals to us about Earth & Cosmos and our place in it, the more we can find meaning in a naturalistic worldview through devout philosophical reflection.
It is unfortunate that 2500 years after Plato identified the link between demythologization and Sophism so many people are still struggling to free themselves from a worldview grounded in mythology; so many people have felt the tectonic shift beneath their belief systems and refused to heed it. It is also unfortunate that the second half of the 20th century saw the rise of Post-Modernism and ‘Deconstruction’ which, at their worst, were simply new forms of Sophism. Until we develop a mature naturalistic ethics and an earthen aesthetics we will perhaps never be free of the kind of extremist ‘relativism’ that sees all language as a game and all ethics as a mere personal choice without any ground.
I can empathize with Plato’s conundrum and his project of inspiring people to look beyond the world of mere change and seek the permanent and perfect world of the Forms. I relate to the thrust of his project, without accepting his criticism of science and naturalism. There is a need for inspiration; for meaning-building experiences and a philosophy that backs-up these experiences and makes them reliable. I allow that Plato’s World of Forms may actually refer to the ‘world’ of concepts in our minds; our ability to construct ‘perfect’ templates for things that exist. But such an idea also needs to be grounded in naturalism; in cognitive science and neurology. Over the last decade and a half, I have crossed-over the boundary between mythology & science, and found meaning in a naturalistic worldview. And so, here I now stand.
CODA –Plato, Science and Transcendence II
I am continuing to listen to the lecture series on Plato, and as I get into the heftier dialogues, I realize that my own project – of constructing an earthen spirituality – perhaps has a certain oblique resonance with Plato’s project, while shifting the foundations of Platonism.
Plato thought natural science was responsible for the erosion of values and meaning, integrity and knowledge in his time. He thought the Sophists, who rode-in on the coattails of the naturalists, were mis-educating the Athenians; ruining their souls and making them unfit for social life much less for enlightenment.
To a extent, he was certainly right, especially about Sophism (and, today, of Post-Modernism), which in its more extreme versions (e.g., the rhetoric of Gorgias) makes out that there is no knowledge, that we can’t act ethically, and thus the only thing worth living for is to “do your own thing,” justify your actions to others, and get everything you can for yourself (or for those in your group).
Like Plato, I also detest the degradation of value and ethics, meaning and purpose in modern life, one of the sources of which is certainly the emergence of “extreme relativism” in a number of venues. Relativism – at its best – was a move away from Absolutism; and it was – in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries – a wedge against ethnocentrism, racism and rampant nationalism (a secularized cousin of the former two problems; a more sophisticated version of tribalism). The late 19th and early 20 century relativists argued, rightly, that there are many ways to live life well; people are not ‘ignorant barbarians’ just because they dress, act, eat and speak differently from you. This kind of relativism has wrought the positive possibility of pan-human equality. What I would like a naturalistic spirituality to do is to counter the abusive and demoralizing extremes to which relativism was taken in the late 20th century and, complimentarily, to critique the ‘return to absolutism’ under the guise of ‘reclaiming’ mythology and religion.
The project of naturalistic spirituality is, for me, one of grounding transcendence in Earth & Cosmos—in what is known through the revelations of science. Transcendence is itself a naturalistic phenomenon. Our brains are wired in such a way that what are called “transcendent experiences” are possible—without reference to an external source or impetus (i.e., astral planes, divinities, God or Goddess, etc.). There does not need to be any ‘supernatural’ order or being(s) for us to experience transcendence. We can have transcendent experiences because we are human; because we are the particular kind of animal that evolution has ‘made’ us to be—and these experiences can enhance our lives in a variety of ways.
This does not preclude the possibility of an actual transcendent realm or being(s); it is just that there is no evidence for such Transcendents, nor is there need to appeal to them in order to experience “going beyond/ above/below” (pick your directional metaphor) our normal waking consciousness and entering into a transcendent state.
I think that ethics can also be grounded in a scientific, evolutionary worldview. One key to this is that we are social animals; we have survived and succeeded by virtue of cooperation with others of our kind and through alliances with other animal species that we have domesticated over the course of our evolutionary history. All of our ethical systems flow from the basic biological fact of our evolutionary propensity for cooperation, which is our particular hedge (a general mammalian trait, evolutionarily understood) against extinction. Individuals emerge from the social group, differentiating themselves through experience, self-assertion and elf-expression. A significant portion of social ethics functions to keep individuals integrated into the larger group without suppressing their individuality. Different societies and social groups balance the individual and the community differently, but in the deepest analysis, I think, we will find that the purpose of both social behavior and individualism will be tied to cooperation, which is our particular species tactic for survival.