Plato book cover and Rebecca Goldstein headshot

Exploring the relevance of philosophy with “Plato at the Googleplex”

Why doesn’t philosophy progress?

Plato is still just influential as ever, but Democritus is not shaping modern physics nor is Aristotle a serious voice in modern biology.

In 2014, Rebecca Goldstein’s book “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away” aimed to answer the question. The book takes a novel approach to exploring the relevance and value of philosophy in modern times by imagining Socrates visiting the Googleplex and engaging in philosophical discussions in various modern settings.

Personally, I found the premise of the book to be a bit gimmicky — modeled on Dialogues, each other chapter featured imagined discussions but it all too wooden. While it may be an interesting thought experiment to consider what Socrates would make of the world today, I think the book could have achieved the same goals without the need for such a contrived setup.

Despite my reservations about the book’s premise, I did find some value in the discussions that took place. Goldstein makes a strong case for the continued importance of philosophy in the modern world, arguing that it can help us to think more critically and deeply about the complex issues that we face as a society.

Goldstein, who is married to Steven Pinker, whose books I’ve read, certainly contributed to modernizing the themes. Give it a try. My notes are below.

My notes:

  • Plato known for pristine preserved Ancient Greek (not just philosophy but also language); his dialogues showed us Socrates but who was Plato?
  • Socrates spoke on human condition; Plato widens it
  • Author argues conditions of Ancient Greek were already there.
  • Normative statements are those that use “ought”
  • Karl Jaspers called the period 800-200BCE the “axial age” because of so many intellectual leaps
  • Despite Greeks having lots of religious rituals, todays secularists inherent their thoughts
  • Greeks didn’t use spirituality to answer why a life matters. They looked internally to determine that we must exert ourselves to live
  • Ethos of extraordinary : Plato has Socrates say in Apogy: “the unexamined life is not worth living”
  • Plato in his late twenties was moved by Socrates being executed in his 70s. Formed philosophy
  • “Philosophy” translates to love of wisdom
  • Cicero “To study philosophy is to prepare to die”
  • Hilary Putnam The Meaning of Meaning: if two earths are exactly the same except for what we call water, is it the same thing?
  • Moral relativism of Plato: infanticide in Sparta is a Civic duty, other places it is immoral
  • Mathematical Platonism
  • “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Whitehead
  • Philosophy Karl popper: science is defined by falsifiability
  • Plato was skeptical of the new technology of writing things down because he feared we wouldn’t really learn it
  • Why doesn’t philosophy progress? Plato still influential but Democritus is not in physics nor Aristotle in biology (naming animals)
  • “Scientific methodology is the arrangement that allows the reality to answer us back“
  • Mathematical departments are cheaper than physics or other sciences wirh labs and experiments.
  • Mathematics is a way to convert coffee into theorems. Philosophy is even cheaper because you don’t need erasers
  • Legend that Pythagoras sent his student Hippasus out on a raft to drown after he discovered irrational numbers
  • Kurt Goedel’s incompleteness theorem
  • The classic philosophical question: why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Thales and Anaximander of Miletus are orig. Thales famously said everything is made of water (perhaps a metaphor)
  • Philosophy is all argument now, not dialogue like Plato
  • Platonists believe there are truths out there to be found. Goedel on mathematical certainty: “ The axioms force themselves upon us as being true”
  • Do mathematicians discover mathematics? It is philosophically and scientifically unresolvable (Reminds me of this book I loved)

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