Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Arnhart & Forbes on Disappointed Platonism

Larry Arnhart engages Steven Forbes on the questions of “Darwinism vs. (Disappointed) Platonism” on his blog.  The two presented papers on a panel at the Midwest Political Science Association meeting in Chicago.  I plan to explore this topic more fully after I have digested the two papers, but I have a few comments to offer now. 
Here are two paragraphs of Larry’s blog post:
Most Platonists today are disappointed Platonists--people with Platonic expectations that are unfulfilled, because they accept Darwinian evolution as true, and therefore since all living forms have evolved, they cannot be eternal as conforming to Plato's intelligible realm of eternal Ideas.  Moreover, if everything has evolved, this must include moral and political order, and thus there is no eternally unchanging Idea of the Good by which we can see absolute standards of right and wrong.  Consequently, there are no moral absolutes, and we must accept moral relativism or nihilism.  Darwinism is "true but deadly" (as Nietzsche said).  And thus these disappointed Platonists become nihilists.
But if you do not have Platonic expectations, you will not be disappointed by the Darwinian conclusion that everything has evolved, and therefore human beings have evolved.  Without the Platonic assumption that morality must be grounded in a moral cosmology, you will be satisfied with a Darwinian explanation of morality as grounded in a moral anthropology.  Even if morality has no eternal grounding in a cosmic God, a cosmic Nature, or a cosmic Reason, human morality can still have an evolutionary grounding in human nature, human culture, and human judgment.  And thus in contrast to the disappointed Platonists, the satisfied Darwinians are not nihilists.

I weigh in as a satisfied Platonist.  Plato’s Socrates advanced a very bold interpretation of the world as it appears to common sense.  To mention only two general ideas, we can know a tree is because, just as there is one tree behind the various images of any tree that we encounter (an oak looks small at a distance but big up close), so there must be an idea tree behind all the various trees that we encounter.  Likewise, we can know the general rules of geometry without having been taught them because we were born knowing them.  Socrates advances these arguments as tentative, however.  He only claims that it is something like this. 
I hold that modern science presents us with a Kosmos that is intelligible because it is ordered by a number of eternal ideas.  What is the periodic table of elements if not statement of basic Platonic forms?  Plato’s Socrates was right, I suggest, in holding that we are born knowing the basic principles of geometry.  Darwinism confirms this, if it presents a rather different interpretation of reincarnation that is suggested in Plato’s Meno. 
It may be true that the laws of cosmology writ large do not include moral principles.  Perhaps the sun doesn’t warm the earth because it is good that it does so.  However, moral principles may well arise from laws governing organic nature generally and human nature specifically.  Human beings are part of the cosmos and so human nature is part of a complete account of cosmology.  If it turns out that the idea of the good plays a much more restricted role in cosmology than Plato’s Socrates supposed, that does not mean that it plays no role. 
Arnhart has this on his blog post:
Socrates teaches us that to know what is truly good, we must transcend the visible realm of Becoming in ascending to the invisible realm of Being, and finally ascending to the Idea of the Good.  But it's not clear that this answer is fully convincing or satisfying.  Socrates concludes the Republic with the myth of Er--a mythic story about eternal rewards and punishment in the afterlife.  The problem with this myth is that it's only a myth, and so it's not clear why we should believe it.  But the earlier answer--the Idea of the Good--is so incomprehensible that it's not clear why we should believe it either.
I agree that the myth of Er is just a myth‑a noble lie suggested for folks who are not philosophically inclined.  I do not agree that the Platonic idea of the good is incomprehensible.   

Socrates became Socrates (as opposed to one more philosophical conventionalist) when he realized that the cosmos can be comprehensible if and only if the principles that characterize it are, at least roughly, commensurate with the principles of our own common sense understanding of things.  That is why Socrates returned to the city and (initially at least) abandoned direct investigations into natural phenomena.  The keys to understanding nature lie in the opinions and especially in the contradictions between the opinions of ordinary people. 
The idea of the good is central to ordinary human understanding of such things as justice, beauty, and truth.  Socrates supposed that the good has to be part of our understanding of the larger cosmos or else that cosmos is beyond our understanding altogether.  That looks like a mistake, although it is too soon to rule it out.  Some of the scholarship on the origin of life has dealt with the immense improbability of that emergence by chance alone by supposing some kind of “unintentional forcing” operating in the physics of the earth just before life emerged.  If that turns out to be a viable hypothesis, Plato’s idea of the good may have a new cosmological purchase. 
There are two ways in which morality may be said to have natural foundations.  One is that human beings are by nature moral creatures, endowed by their evolutionary origins with a pallet of moral passions.  Forde apparently acknowledges that this is true, but somehow supposes that this but somehow seems to think that it cannot be the basis of genuine morality.  Is it because we get no moral credit for our instincts but only for free choices we make?  The second way in which morality can be natural is that moral behavior makes for the natural human good.  Human beings who choose to do what is right live better lives and help their family and fellows to live better lives.  There is plenty of room for choice here and every reason to suppose that Darwinian biology allows for it.  The idea of the good is necessarily part of any account of human morality.  
This Platonist is not yet disappointed.  

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