Book Review: 'Plato at the Googleplex' by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

y reviewed by COLIN MCGINN

 Socrates was charged with the capital crimes of impiety and corrupting the young, which basically meant that he questioned the establishment view of the good life, thereby undermining proud Athenian exceptionalism. When asked what punishment he deemed appropriate for his "crimes," he suggested free meals at the Prytaneum, a kind of city hall, in appreciation of his lifelong contributions to the city (he was 70 years old...). This piece of impudence seems to have sealed his fate. Not only was he found guilty of a capital crime; he remained unrepentant about his crime! All he was doing, of course,was being a true philosopher to the end..The authorities just didn't care for his unorthodox teaching methods, even though he brought more wisdom into the world than anyone else had ever done before. He was thus condemned to death for the crime of excessive truthfulness, by a city that prided itself on its enlightened democratic virtue...

..The pompous Euthyphro confidently tells Socrates that the holy is to be defined as "what the gods love." Socrates points out that this gets things backward: The gods love the holy because it is already holy, not because they regard it so. In other words, things are not good because a supposed God approves of them; rather, God approves of what is good in itself, quite independently of his will. This Socratic argument undermines the entire idea that theology can provide a basis for morality and opens up a quite secular way of thinking about the nature of virtue. As Ms. Goldstein remarks, this was a seminal moment in the history of moral philosophy and indeed in the development of human civilization..

Rebecca Goldstein has written a timely book about our own age by taking us back to an earlier age—that of the ancient Greeks. She wants to know what the works of Plato can teach us about the life worth living, about politics, child rearing, love and sex, about knowledge and reality, brain and mind, truth, goodness, and beauty. Ms. Goldstein's book is felicitously written, impressively researched, insightful, important, entertaining and glowing with intelligence. Plato is brought marvelously to life, and, as a welcome corollary, philosophy is vindicated against what Ms. Goldstein aptly labels the "philosophy-jeerers"—those who rashly claim that philosophy has no intellectual substance or future in this scientific era.

"Plato at the Googleplex" consists of chapters of scholarly discussion followed by fictional accounts of Plato appearing in various contemporary venues. Thus we see Plato at Google headquarters on a book tour, Plato in a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, Plato as a consultant to an advice columnist, Plato interviewed on cable news and Plato's brain being examined in a neuroscience laboratory. Here Ms. Goldstein employs her novelistic skills to sparkling effect by weaving abstract concepts into concrete modern narratives. At a cable news station, he is grilled by one Roy McCoy, who is not a bit intimidated by his distinguished Greek guest: "Okay, so they tell me you're a big deal in philosophy, Plato. I'm going to tell you up front—because that's the kind of guy I am, up-front—that I don't think much of philosophers." Plato coolly responds: "Many don't. The term attracts a wide range of reaction, from admiration to amusement to animadversion. Some people think philosophers are worthless, and others that they are worth everything in the world. Sometimes they take on the appearance of statesmen, and sometimes of sophists. Sometimes, too, they might give the impression that they are completely insane."
Of course, Plato wins every argument hands down, though his interlocutors generally fail to see that. For instance, in a well-aimed chapter on the pretensions of contemporary neuroscience, Plato volunteers as a subject in a brain-imaging experiment. The smug and overbearing Dr. Shoket treats Plato and philosophy with jocular contempt, all the while demonstrating his utter ignorance of that whereof he speaks. Plato has no trouble refuting his naïve reductionism, according to which there are no persons, intentions, beliefs or other psychological states but only synapses firing mechanically in the void. The neuroscientist is confusing the physical mechanisms that make mental phenomena possible with mental phenomena themselves. I recommend this chapter to all those zealots who think they are on the verge of replacing traditional philosophy with brain science.
Ms. Goldstein's conceit may seem a bit contrived, but Plato's own dialogues were equally stagey, presenting Socrates in conversation, and frequently in conflict, with the figures of fifth-century Athens. Ms. Goldstein has forged something similar, hoping to cover an equal variety of subjects in an engaging manner: just government, the education of children, influence and persuasion, the unseen world of universals, the meaning of life.
About the possibility of moral experts, Plato argues against the idea that "crowd-sourcing"—relying on the aggregated responses of a large group—would be a good way to reach moral decisions, advocating instead the training of sound moral judgment in an elite group. Ms. Goldstein deftly deploys a comparison between expertise in orthodontics and expertise in morality—no one would choose an orthodontist who had not been especially trained in the field. Equally, Plato argues (and Ms. Goldstein agrees) we should make room for the idea of a professional training in ethics—straightening out our ethical teeth, as it were.
The education of children must, for Plato, appeal to the sense of beauty innate in every human being, so that the beauty of mathematics is essential to a proper mathematical education. Ultimately, education seeks to liberate us from illusion and egocentricity:.. 
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