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What would Plato ask a neuroscientist?

May 23, 2014 at 6:44 PM EDT
Can we reconcile the advancements of our modern world with Plato’s philosophical questions of free will? In “Plato at the Googleplex,” author Rebecca Goldstein imagines how Plato would approach neuroscience, the Internet and other technologies that make philosophy obsolete to some, but inevitable to Goldstein. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Goldstein to discuss.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight: a book that argues for the place of ancient philosophy in the modern world.

Jeff is back with a conversation he recorded recently.

JEFFREY BROWN: Our next guest tonight, Plato, the Greek philosopher. Well, not really, but what if he was able to join us, or to visit Google to discuss search engines or study brain scans with the leading neuroscientists?

How would our world look to him? What insights might he have for us?

Such questions and flight of imagination are tackled in the new book “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.”

Author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher, novelist, and winner of a MacArthur Award. She joins us now.

And welcome to you.

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN, Author, “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was the original impetus here? Was it to better understand our world through Greek philosophy or to make a case for philosophy itself?

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: It was to make a case for philosophy itself and also to get close to Plato.

He’s very elusive. We know very, very little about the man himself. And so in order to make the case for philosophy, I wanted to go back to the very beginnings of philosophy, to the Greeks, why did they do it, why did Plato do it, who was he, who were they, how similar are we to them?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but you — yes, that’s the last…


JEFFREY BROWN: That’s what you did, because, yes, you look at him back then, but you put him into our world.


I think there are great similarities between our society and the Athenian society, the beginning of philosophy and of science and of history and of abstract mathematics and timeless art and poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what’s the similarity to our time?

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: It’s an achievement-oriented society.

They were pre-monotheistic, right? They had a polytheistic religion and their society was saturated with religious rituals, but when it came to the question of what is life all about, of, do we matter, do we have to do something in order to matter, they attacked it in very secular terms.

And we are increasingly post-monotheistic when we think about our lives, and what is it to live the good life, what is it to live a life worth living? More and more makes us think about it in post-theological terms. And that makes us very similar to the Greeks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so you put Plato into the kind of situations I was describing, creating conversations, dialogues, as Plato did for his original character, if that’s the right word, right, Socrates.


JEFFREY BROWN: Was that fun for you to do?

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Well, it’s a lot of work, I have to tell you.

I — first of all, I really wanted to soak up the culture, so I didn’t just read and memorize the 26th dialogues, but all of the cultural artifacts, you know, the poetry, the tragedy, the Iliad and the Odyssey all over again to try to get a sense of what it was like, but then a sense of who Plato was, because, as you say, he creates this character of Socrates.

And we know pretty much what Socrates was like, or at least Plato’s invention of him, but who was Plato?

JEFFREY BROWN: You have him visiting a neuroscientist, right, and getting a brain scan.


JEFFREY BROWN: What are you exploring? What are you exploring in a scene like that?

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Well, I ought to tell you, by the way, that the first place I bring him is Google, the Googleplex.


REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: And he himself gets a Chromebook, and he is addicted to the Internet. So he gets brought up to speed really fast.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, very quickly into our world. Right?

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Into our world, and he’s taking MOOCs.



JEFFREY BROWN: And I of course love when he visits the cable television, because I would love to have him at the table.

But go ahead.

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: One of the great philosophical questions of our day is, you know, is — neuroscience is finding out that what is the material substrates of our mind. Is that answering all of these philosophical questions?

For example, the question of free will, the question of personal responsibility, the question of personal identity, if I am a brain that consists of a hundred billion neurons and a hundred trillion synapses, where is the me in all of this?

JEFFREY BROWN: Because we’re in that age of neuroscience, the brain tells us all, right? Yes.

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Exactly. Exactly. And things like am I responsible for my actions that’s all going on, on the level of the brain.

So the advances in neuroscience have made philosophy inevitable. You know, we have to…

JEFFREY BROWN: Wait a minute, inevitable, or because some people will say it would become irrelevant in another way because if that’s all answered materially, then what’s left? Because you’re making a case that philosophy still has this deep relevance.


And that’s what Plato is there to tell us. So, he gets into a conversation with this neuroscientist, two of them, actually, and he knows the neuroscience, and he is trying to figure out, is the neuro — the results that we have so far, is it answering all the questions that I asked about personal responsibility, about personal identity, about who we really are?

Or are people jumping the gun? Are they making too much of these scientific results, as important as they are? And I think and Plato thinks the role of philosophy is often to mediate between our scientific image, you know, what we’re getting of ourselves as it’s reflected in our scientific studies, and the kinds of other ideas we need in order to live coherent lives, like this is my life and I’m responsible for this life. Can we reconcile that with what we’re learning from science? And that’s, I think, very much the role of philosophy and that is what Plato is trying to do when he goes into that neuroscientific lab.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, finally, are you — in making an argument for the continued value of deep thought and philosophy and the humanities I think more generally, right, are you afraid that that’s being lost, that something important is being lost today?


Well, yes, I think that the humanities are floundering, to a certain extent, and there are many who say that they ought to just style themselves on the sciences. And I think that that’s a mistake, that the — I think the humanities always have to take science, our great knowledge that we get from science, into account, but then try to answer the human questions and try to make sense out of our lives, taking into account all of the scientific knowledge.

So I’m afraid that that big picture and that picture of sort of reconciliation between these different images that we have is being lost.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, thank you so much.