Tag Archives: Plato

Ontological Wallop

The structure of the world is shot through with a sublimity so sublime that it simply had to exist. …

The sublimity that had to burst into existence is not one that particularly concerns itself with us. Such a human-centered goodness would not pack the ontological wallop required to bring forth existence. (Plato at the Googleplex, pages 385-389.)

I like that phrase “the ontological wallop required to bring forth existence.” I’ll return to it in a moment. First, let’s look at a pretty picture.

Mandelbrot Satellite Bug

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What Is the Best Superpower?

When you were a kid, I’m sure you wished for a superpower. Aside from the obvious ones, like the ability to fly, the superpower I wanted most frequently was to be able to extend my reach across a room without getting up. This was in the days before remote controls for TV, if you can believe there ever was such a time!

During the current presidential election cycle, I’ve added another superpower to my wish list: the ability to convince people of my political opinions. That leads to the question that is the subject of this post.

Which of these superpowers is best?

  1. The ability to control other people’s thoughts so they agree with us.
  2. The ability to make the most sound argument possible for our views, even if our audience won’t necessarily be persuaded.

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Be Serious So You Can Stop Being So Serious

To philosophize is to prepare to die. Or, to truly take your life with the seriousness that philosophy demands, you can’t take your life all that seriously. (Plato at the Googleplex, page 303)

What is that about? If I’m so serious-minded that I’m preparing to die, aren’t I taking life pretty darn seriously?

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The Most Beautiful Moment

Why do we think something is beautiful?

Imagine looking at a canvas painted solely in your favorite color. For me, that would be orange. I might think, “That is a really beautiful orange. There’s something complex in it — some depth.”

But even though the painting was 100% my favorite color, I’d probably like some other colors nearby as well, right? I once saw this installation, titled 24 Colors — for Blinky at the Dia:Beacon museum.


rsz_24_colors_for_blinky

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Why Utopias Are Impossible — And Why You’re Already Living in One

What do all of these would-be utopias have in common?

  • The workers’ paradise of the Soviet Union.
  • Ancient Hebrew society as ruled directly by God, before they insisted on having a king.
  • The Puritan community in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  • Plato’s Republic.

I can think of two correct answers:

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Voltaire’s Truth-Loving Test in Candide

I’ve been collecting and posting tests of how much one loves truth, as proposed by famous philosophers. So far, we have

  • Plato’s test: Tell children glorious stories. Emphasize that the stories are true when they are, in fact, false. See which children can resist the stories’ appeal, and spontaneously protest as to why they are impossible.
  • C.S. Lewis’ Test: Upon learning that an ugly rumor about one’s enemies is false, is one relieved that even they aren’t as bad as all that, or does one wish to cling to the rumor?

Now for Voltaire’s.

For my entire adult life, this writer of the French Enlightenment was reviled as an enemy of God by every one of my acquaintances who was educated enough to recognize his name. I formed the impression that he was a villain who, entirely unprovoked, spent his bitter life writing polemics against Christianity.

Imagine my curiosity when I read Robert Ingersoll‘s Lecture on Voltaire, and learned that he was exceedingly generous and warm-hearted, a tireless advocate of liberty and justice, and may have done more than anyone else to abolish cruel and unusual punishments in France.

I decided to read the first of his works that I could get my hands on, and that happened to be Candide. In this book, the guileless Candide is raised in a castle and tutored by the philosopher, Pangloss, whose most memorable tenet is that we live in the best of all possible worlds. (“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles.”)

Almost from page 1, bad things begin to happen to Candide and everyone else in the castle, from which they are all driven out. Candide, separated from Pangloss for most of his tribulations, wonders whether the philosopher would maintain his sunny outlook in the face of so much distress.

Pangloss returns at the end of the book, having suffered at least as much as Candide.

Candide asks him, “When You were hanged, dissected, whipped, and tugging at the oar [as a galley slave], did you continue to think that everything in this world happens for the best?”

“I have always abided by my first opinion,” answered Pangloss; “for, after all, I am a philosopher, and it would not become me to retract my sentiments; especially as Leibnitz could not be in the wrong: and that preestablished harmony is the finest thing in the world.”

In the final chapter, Candide and Pangloss are living a quiet life on a small farm. Pangloss tries to convince Candide that Candide’s misfortunes, which were many and severe, are entirely compatible with this being the best of all possible worlds. “For had you not suffered them,” Pangloss says, “you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

Obviously and comically, the pleasures of citrons and pistachio nuts are as nothing compared to what both men have suffered. But they are all Pangloss needs to hold onto his doctrine.

I suppose there are many truth-loving tests one could extract from this book, but I’ll choose this one:

Our love of truth is inversely related to our stubbornness in holding onto our ideas, and the lameness of our rationales, as judged by an impartial, educated observer.

Euthyphro’s Dilemma

I still remember the moment when it dawned on me, as a Christian, that God could not be the source of right and wrong. I was sitting on a stool at our kitchen counter, next to the cereal cabinet (where I often found myself) when it popped into my mind, unbidden.

Do we say God is good because he conforms to an absolute standard of goodness, or must we define goodness as “how God happens to be”?

If God merely conforms to The Good, then he is not the source of it.

On the second option, the sentence “God is good” is redundant. We might as well end the sentence at “God is.” The word “good” contributes no meaning.

I later learned that this is a variation of a dilemma that Plato posed in one of his plays. He has Socrates ask Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Or, as the comic strip Jesus and Mo puts it…
Jesus and Mo - Euthyphro

This is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Various responses have been given, but none of them truly escape it.

All my adult life, I had believed that God was the source of Good. Without him, morals and ethics could not exist. Now I realized that if that were true, then right and wrong must be arbitrary — just rules God had made for no reason at all, or at least not for any reason that pertained to their intrinsic justice.

Ironically, my conviction that right, wrong and justice are real had had a lot to do with my becoming a Christian. Now that same conviction was to become an early factor in the unraveling of my faith.

I faced the choice of

  • admitting that right and wrong were just God’s caprice, or
  • admitting that God was not the ultimate source of Good, or
  • admitting that right and wrong do not exist.

Eventually (and for reasons that had nothing to do with Euthyphro’s Dilemma), I went with the second option.

How about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you believe in God.