Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein seems to be the latest rotten tomato flung at scientism (see here and here for other not-so-fresh salads offered). From Clancy Martin in The Atlantic:
The question that Goldstein’s book sets out to consider is what we mean by progress, and also what we mean by meaning. Her goal is to do more than prove how relevant philosophy still is. She aims to reveal how many of our most pressing questions simply aren’t better answered elsewhere. Much of what we take for progress delivers answers that miss the point, distort issues, ignore complications, and may be generated by badly formulated questions in the first place. Goldstein also wants to show us that figuring out how to live a meaningful life is something very different from understanding the meaning of special relativity or evolution. We are deluged with information; we know how to track down facts in seconds; the scientific method produces new discoveries every day. But what does all that mean for us? As the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed:
Whatever the one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the foregoing … Thus, no generation has learned from another to love, no generation begins at any other point than at the beginning, no generation has a shorter task assigned to it than had the previous generation.
Another way to put it might be that every generation could use a Plato to tackle those genuinely human lessons. That is the creative, verging on wacky, premise that has inspired Goldstein’s approach to demonstrating why philosophy won’t (and had better not) go away. She transports Plato into the 21st century and, adopting his own preferred literary form, puts him into fictional dialogue with a variety of contemporary characters.
Goldstein, like Plato, is at her strongest when showing us that some questions just won’t go away. But she’s not about to deny philosophy plenty of credit for coming up with its share of answers, too—and for setting scientists on their way in searching for theirs. The list of philosophical leaps is impressive: most notable, perhaps, is the 17th-century idea of individual rights. Goldstein reminds us that virtually every scientific area of inquiry began with a question or an insight from a philosopher. Democritus proposed the atom; Ionian philosophers invented what we now think of as the scientific method; Aristotle founded biology. In mathematics and physics, she observes, the metaphysical problems considered by Plato are still being debated.
And from the Wall Street Journal review:
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.
The people to whom philosophy is irrelevant are, on examination, beneath it.
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