Platonism is useful only when it's useful

By Razib Khan | August 16, 2011 10:44 pm

Below John Farrell posted an amusing comment:

Razib, are you implying there was no clearly defined ‘ontological leap’ from the animal to the human??? I’m going to have to clear this with the CDF in Rome.

The figure to left illustrates the simultaneous encephalization of diverse hominin lineages over the past few million years. When I first saw this result it kind of blew me away. I had known that Neandertals had the largest cranial capacities of any hominins to walk the earth, but to see how many diverse groups exhibited a secular increase in volume over time is still something to behold. It also reminds us that our own conception of “us” vs. “them” in a deep and substantive manner may be somewhat illusory. This element of fiction doesn’t negate the utility of the concepts. There are constructs and ideas which are highly valuable in generating inferences and scaffolding models, which nevertheless collapse under closer scrutiny. But we shouldn’t forget that our concepts are only approximations on the real order of things.


This is important when we consider ideas such as “species.” Species is the taxonomic level which has a clear and distinct aspect because of the biological concept, but even it exhibits artificiality. Dichotomies such as “human vs. animal” are not even right in any sense, but they do express our normative framework, where human perspective is privileged. This doesn’t mean that the human/animal distinction is without value, but it needs to be put in its proper context. It’s a means to an end.

And that’s the major problem I have with “what makes us human” type of questions in the manner posed by Svante Pääbo below. It’s a big and deep issue which we grapple with, but it’s not real in the way that the planet earth is real. Human distinctiveness is an abstraction of great convenience for our species in organizing our intellectual furniture, but at the end of the day it’s just a position in the parameter space of characters. Instead of putting the human/animal distinction into the instrumental category they are transformed into ontological ones. That makes sense for the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, but it is I think less than a fruitful avenue for a scientist.

  • Paul

    One of the big leaps Darwin made was abandoning a platonic, essentialist view of species (that individuals were imperfect implementations of an ideal design, which of course would be unchanging) and instead viewed species as populations of varying entities existing in the physical world. In the prior view, the variations of individuals were just unimportant noise.

    One might argue that this leap was one of his big steps. If species are not anchored to some ideal, one can then ask what (if anything) keeps them the way they are — or if, indeed, they do stay the way they are.

  • http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com Cory Gross

    I’m not even entirely sure it’s useful for the Pope anymore. I think one of the most interesting fields of theology right now is grappling with the ramifications of evolution. The major Christian denominations all accept that evolution happened, but still treat the universe like some discrete, finished *thing* with a Platonic ideal. When we actually shape our worldview by evolution, we see that the universe and life therein is not some discrete, finished *thing* with a Platonic ideal but an ongoing, still-in-process creative act with a goal, and that shift changes a lot of things.

    To be fair, most secular people still haven’t grappled with the theological ramifications of evolution either, just telling by the questions they ask (this includes, astonishingly, evolutionary biologists). For example, the problem of theodicy, or why would a good God allow evil. The very nature of the question assumes a completed world into which a flaw was introduced that it’s Creator is inactive in addressing, judged against a Platonic ideal of what the universe should be like. If one looks at this problem from an evolutionary point of view, it actually makes no sense. It’s basically asking Leonardo why his half-finished painting sucks and, consequently, if he’s really any kind of artist at all. One can’t ask why God hasn’t done anything about evil (past tense) when She’s still in the process of doing something.

    Anyways, sorry for throwing some theology in there. I just thought I’d mention that your perspective is more efficacious for us religious folk as well.

  • Nick

    Regarding the religious angle: If you espouse a Platonic/Abrahamic worldview, and you also accept evolution, then it follows that there is some moment in the past where people somehow changed from non-”human” to “human” more or less instantaneously. So one generation would have souls, but their parents wouldn’t. It’s philosophically, thelogicially, and scientifically messy, but I don’t see any way around it. This problem bugged me back when I was religious.

    A lot of folks don’t realize how much Platonism suffuses their worldview. If I had a time machine I’d go back and beat the notions of forms, essences, etc out of my younger self. They haven’t proved to be either helpful or accurate IMHO.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    FWIW, I believe I have seen a pretty cogent criticism of the graphic in this post, IIRC by John Hawks. My recollection is that correcting some issues with the data points that were driving the bend in the curve produces a much flatter curve. Apologies for not having the reference at hand.

  • Justin Giancola

    “If I had a time machine I’d go back and beat the notions of forms, essences, etc out of my younger self. They haven’t proved to be either helpful or accurate IMHO.”

    Ugh…go take a philosophy class again. I feel like beating some notions into you! ;p Or maybe you could just replace your brain with a measuring device and a calculator. -all in fun :)

  • Clark

    Nick, I’m not sure that follows. I’d be curious in how Razib takes on this. I’ve not followed the evolution of language wars the past six years or so. But if there was a biological change that enabled language where before there wasn’t then that really is a significant change. I wouldn’t call one group human and the other not. Further it’s probably some weird mixing of multiple genes tied to various environmental contexts. (Think the problem of language with feral children – clearly even if you have the adaptation this is something that will require a community experimenting to really become manifest) Probably even within the population where language ability rapidly became a successful adaptation you’ll have a range of capabilities for a while until language dominates. Once you get a sufficiently robust language then I suspect we all see how that population will quickly dominate other populations.

    The question then becomes if you arbitrarily call language users human and non-language capable people non-human is that bad? (i.e. taking this as a semantic issue rather than a biological one) Note this is independent of the whole issue of Aristotilean taxonomies or the like. I don’t buy in the least the Thomist twist on Aristotle with a substantial soul tied to language – but even for those of us more tied to a materialist styled ontology can we really say much here? It seems to me that the Thomist just argues that one necessary component for this adaptation isn’t just the DNA changes for language but also this mysterious ontological component. How do you falsify that beyond just an appeal to Ockham’s razor? After all the Thomist can claim that certain biological changes are also necessary. They accept that someone might have a soul but have brain damage (or just not developed due to a particular DNA) such that language use is impossible for that person.

    One surprising thing I learned last week from a different blog discussion is that this notion is actually much more from Aristotle than Biblical literalism.

  • http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com Cory Gross

    @3, Nick:

    There is a fairly simple solution to that dilemma, which is to dispense with the assumption of a soul. In fact, the NON-existence of an immortal soul is a basic tenet of Judeo-Christian theology when one actually goes back to Scripture.

    Basically, you are you. There is no kind of ghost or spirit or soul inhabiting a fleshy shell, to be discarded upon death when this essense of self floats up to Heaven. That whole idea of a disembodied soul floating up to Heaven is actually Gnosticism, a Greek idea hearkening back to Platonism that the Church delcared to be a heresy fairly early on. Unfortunately, this Gnostic idea that matter is evil and must escaped is one of Christianity’s most pernicious and widespread heresies.

    So anyways, you are you. Poke yourself, that is you. It jives quite nicely with science, what with there being no quantifiable soul. When you die, you “descend” into a state of existence that the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) calls “Sheol”, which is basically synonymous with “death”. You are dead, and that is all. For all intents and purposes it’s not all that different from the standard atheist view. Of course, there is the one exception, which is our belief that eventually we stop being dead. The Judeo-Christian afterlife is actually physical resurrection by God in some kind of perfected state at some undisclosed future date.

    In summary, there is no need, in an Abrahamic tradition, to carry on a belief in a soul. The best way around the problem you cited is to just not start with it.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    @Nick 3 and@ Cory 7

    The issue of whether animals have souls is not well settled theologically for Christians, often even within the same denomination, and your average Christian priest or minister devotes a significant amount of time in a career discussing it with his or her flock. Judeo-Christian doctrine is pretty clearly “conservationist” (i.e. calling for good stewardship of plants and animals incident to dominion over them who exist for mankind’s benefit) as opposite to “environmentalist” (i.e. protecting plants and animals as a value in and of itself). But, this stance doesn’t preclude animals having souls. After all, Judeo-Christian belief accepted slavery as reality until modern times, and no one claimed that human slaves lacked souls.

    Also, quite a bit of the worldview that Cory attributes to Platonism quite arguably has more to do with Zoroastrian influences encountered during the last Babylonian exile of the Jews and at points of time thereafter in the intertestamentary period that preceded Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism respectively. And, the Greek concept of a soul probably far precedes Plato although Plato certainly refined and clarified it.

    I’d agree that the earliest written parts of the Hebrew Bible doesn’t have a terribly strong conception of the soul, or the triparte sense of Heaven, Earth and Hell as distinct planes occupied mostly by human souls in the afterlife, or for that matter a genuinely monotheistic worldview. The realm of God and the Angels was more of a Mount Olympus than it was something akin to the heavenly gates guarded by Saint Peter or to the Greco-Roman Hades at that point.

    But, I’d also suggest that factors like Jewish burial practices from the earliest known times, which are more similar to ancient Egyptian practice more closely than that of the pagan Indo-European language speakers, are suggestive of a stronger sense of a soul than the early Hebrew Bible (where the strongest mythic influence is probably Sumerian, e.g. the story of Moses in the river, which closely matches the legendary life of one of the early Sumerian kings), would seem to admit in its words alone. Early Jewish folk belief may have been considerably more accepting of the notion of a soul than it scholarly theologians were.

  • Chad

    I’m not sure if you’re ignoring the mind/body problem, or if you think it doesn’t apply… Or maybe you think there isn’t a problem?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I’m not sure if you’re ignoring the mind/body problem, or if you think it doesn’t apply… Or maybe you think there isn’t a problem?

    the last.

  • http://blogs.forbes.com/johnfarrell/ John Farrell

    @Cory 2. The major Christian denominations all accept that evolution happened, but still treat the universe like some discrete, finished *thing* with a Platonic ideal. When we actually shape our worldview by evolution, we see that the universe and life therein is not some discrete, finished *thing* with a Platonic ideal but an ongoing, still-in-process creative act with a goal, and that shift changes a lot of things.

    Yes. In fact, I think part of the Catholic Church’s reluctance to fully explore evolution is that the Vatican knows this will entail having to completely re-think its dependence on ‘natural law’, which itself, I believe, assumes an essentialist view of human nature. This is no small order. And frankly, I think the Church’s official theologians have neglected science for so long now that they just don’t have the resources to do it: not enough theologians currently with the background in science, and nowhere near the ‘farm system’ they could count on to address it in the near future.

  • Nick

    #7: Agree with your post, but it’s hard to see mainstream Christianity abandoning the concept of a soul anytime soon as it’s a critical part of the theology.

    #11: I hadn’t thought about natural law in a while, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. A sample: “Drunkenness is wrong because it injures one’s health, and worse, destroys one’s ability to reason.” So presumably, there is a point at which one additional alcohol molecule flips a metaphysical switch and changes one’s state from sober to drunk, which changes the binary state of sin from zero to one. One molecule! In other words: yeah, a lot of essentialism, and a lot of re-thinking to be done.

  • imnobody

    “So presumably, there is a point at which one additional alcohol molecule flips a metaphysical switch and changes one’s state from sober to drunk, which changes the binary state of sin from zero to one”

    This is silly. Of course, drunkenness comes in degrees, the same way that wrongness. This thing about a mollecule is a straw man fallacy. Nobody claims that.

  • http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com Cory Gross

    @12, Nick:

    That was just my point: belief in a soul not only is NOT a critical part of mainstream Christian theology, but it’s actually not a part of mainstream Christian theology AT ALL. The soul snuck in as part of the “folk religion” version of Christianity which is not, it must be said, overwhelmed with sound theology. Unfortunately, too many people’s impression of Christianity is formed by their encounters with the folk version – the civil religion that could be anything and would probably look much the same regardless of the label – rather than the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the genuine article.

    And man, if you don’t think that being shitfaced incapacitates one’s reason, regardless of whether its a switch (strawman!) or by degrees, then you’ve evidently never had the misfortune of taking care of drunken friends.

    @11, John:

    That can probably be said of most mainline denominations as well. Despite my own thoughts about the significance of this field of theology, it seems like the most that can be hoped for from the established churches is to not be Creationist, which is unfortunate. But if history shows anything, its that the Catholic Church can finally heave its bulk when it absolutely has to.

  • John Roth

    @14 Cory

    I’m not sure where you’re finding your “mainstream” Christian theology. If you abandon the notion of a soul, you abandon the notion of an afterlife, which in turn invalidates the notion of Heaven and Hell. I’m not sure you can get more mainstream than that. To the best of my knowledge, the only Christian denomination that abandoned Hell was the Universalists (universal salvation), and they eventually merged with the Unitarians, who are no longer regarded as Christians in any sense of the term.

    To look at it another way – if there is no soul, then there is nothing to be saved, and the entire Christian enterprise is false since it’s based on the notion of salvation. You might as well become a Buddhist.

  • Clark

    Cory I’m not sure what you are calling mainstream Christianity but in all the mainstream major formal theologies I’m familiar with the soul is pretty prominent. And the conception arrived at by Thomas Aquinas seems hard to call “folk religion.” I’ve heard Aquinas called many things but someone doing “folk religion” isn’t one of them.

    Now one can, especially from a Protestant conception, critique all the conceptions of soul. But even in pre-Christian Judaism it seems an important conception. One can argue that it entered Judaism via Hellenism and that there was no original conception of say resurrection. One can also argue that the notion of a soul isn’t necessary for a doctrine of resurrection. One can argue that references to soul in the Bible are more typically about a way of being rather than an immaterial substance. But I have a hard time seeing the idea of the persistence of the personhood past death as anything but a key component of Christianity in all of its various forms. One might adopt a notion of materialism such that there is a resurrection but no immaterial soul. But it seems to me that’s much more a fringe view than anything found within the mainstream of Christian thought. (Which is fine of course – I’m not talking about how reasonable any of these views are – personally I have problems with most conceptions of soul myself)

  • amphiox

    A lot of folks don’t realize how much Platonism suffuses their worldview. If I had a time machine I’d go back and beat the notions of forms, essences, etc out of my younger self. They haven’t proved to be either helpful or accurate IMHO.

    If I had a time machine, I’d consider going back and beating those things out of Plato, preferably when he was young and before he was famous. It might have saved the rest of history a lot of trouble.

  • supersnail

    “A lot of folks don’t realize how much Platonism suffuses their worldview. If I had a time machine I’d go back and beat the notions of forms, essences, etc out of my younger self. They haven’t proved to be either helpful or accurate IMHO.”

    I find these ideas are much more interesting as models of psychology/ai…especially the theory of forms. state of the art models of object recognition rely heavily on learning some abstract set of parameters (the form) in a hierarchical model that governs how each specific example is generated.

  • http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com Cory Gross

    @15, John and 16, Clark:

    “If you abandon the notion of a soul, you abandon the notion of an afterlife, which in turn invalidates the notion of Heaven and Hell… if there is no soul, then there is nothing to be saved, and the entire Christian enterprise is false since it’s based on the notion of salvation.”

    “But I have a hard time seeing the idea of the persistence of the personhood past death as anything but a key component of Christianity in all of its various forms.”

    Here’s the thing: what you’re saying here is that Christianity is about the salvation of souls so that they can take on an independent afterlife of either floating up to Heaven or down to Hell. But that’s not Christianity. That’s Gnosticism.

    Christianity, in its theologically sound form, talks about the salvation of PEOPLE, not souls, and the bodily resurrection of the dead in the “New Heavens and New Earth”. If you read the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which are the basic confessional doctrines of mainline Christianity, they confirm a belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come” and that Christ will return “to judge the living and the dead”. In fact, there is no “persistence of personhood after death” apart from God’s judgement to resurrect a person.

    Clark, I would suspect that amongst those theologians you mention, if they’re not just taking a soul for granted (which, unfortunately a lot do… but sometimes even very bright theologians take things for granted: I had a jolly time in a theology class picking apart Oswald Bayer, one of the best modern theologians, because his basic understanding of sacrifice and atonement in the Old Testament was wrong) then their views are more complex than you may be interpreting them to be. That is certainly true of Aquinas, whose commentary about a soul really shakes down to humans as rational beings, and the soul is not actually that disconnected from the body.

  • Justin Giancola

    So Platohaters, if we were to pretend we are in Phaedo how would some of you refute Socrates’ argument? I’m imagining a lot of “Cause.” or “Cause… science!” ;p

    I’m not trying to say what is The Truth, rather I feel like some people are brushing aside rather callously one of the foremost great minds without the decency of addressing them in their forum, as if you being in the present- say where we study the brain- gives you some higher ground in saying what is a logical argument.

  • Clark

    Cory, the problem is that every has their own view of what Christianity in its “theological sound form” teaches. (i.e. what they pick from the Bible or the history of Christian thought to throw out) It’s hard to really discuss such vague comments. Certainly, especially in the liberal Protestant tradition of the early 20th century a lot of theologians willing to jettison a lot of traditional theology and even much of the Bible. Interestingly such reconceptions of Christianity haven’t proved popular. Among the academic elite it quickly becomes apparent it’s just easier to be atheist or agnostic and focus in on ethics or do what say they did in France the end of the 20th century and have a quasi-religious discussion of Being (even though the discussions in practice are largely completely reconcilable with atheism). And of course liberal protestantism hasn’t been popular with the public. Typically (as in Europe) you end up with people who just like the trappings or tradition or religion and not the content. i.e. religion as a bit of scenery much like people want old buildings or furniture from their nation’s past kept around. Everyone else seems to move towards more “conservative” religions and the liberal variety lose membership.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just think it makes discussing theology problematic. At a certain point you’re better off just calling it philosophy influenced by certain religious texts. Once again nothing wrong with that. Heidegger was at least something like an atheist but clearly was very influenced by the writings of Paul. Ditto Badiou and many others. (Not so much in the analytic tradition for various reasons)

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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