It is my intention as I hope the few regular readers of this blog realise to take some of the central ideas of Socrates and Plato and make them more “simple” to grasp and understand rather than harder. Also, I hope readers realise that I am a great “enthusiast” of Socrates and Plato rather than their greatest critic. I feel it is necessary to mention this latter point since several of my recent posts to the Socrates 4 Today blog may seem very critical – accusing parts of Plato’s writing of being dry, tedious, unnecessarily complicated, and on occasions simply out of date when it comes to matters of science and various other subjects. Let me confirm to readers – that while still an enthusiast – I stand by the comments I have made on some of the Plato’s texts. For example, we cannot simply read Timaeus’ scientific account of planet earth or its place in the cosmos without accepting that medicine, cosmology and most other branches of scientific thinking have moved on enormously in the last two millenia and rendered many of his ideas and explanations simply out of date and inaccurate. However, I still recommend reading or perusing this text Timaeus and others of this type in order to see the scope of the work and for the questions and ideas it stimulates its readers to ask themselves and consider. One of the many beauties in Plato’s writing is that these questions and ideas will be different in all sorts of ways depending on the individual that is reading any given text – according to their talents, experiences, and particular areas of interest.
Having lulled you my friends and readers with a comfortable beginning to my short piece, let me now try and provoke in you some ideas and questions of my own using some more recent examples. Firstly, Socrates suggests that ideas exist by themselves in some other world or place or form – as well as there being “particular” examples of those ideas in this world - and I suppose most readers here understand this to mean that as well as examples of say ‘justice’ or ‘beauty’ or ‘circle’ here in our world – perfect examples of these concepts exist in the other world. (I mention here that in the dialogue Parmenides, a young Socrates is unsure whether this theory of perfect ideas or forms also applies to inelegant and insignificant things like hair, mud etc.)
Let us now take some up to date example like mobile telephones and all those communication satellites that circle the earth today. Do perfect examples of these ideas also exist in another world – or only particular examples like the old Nokia I have in my jacket pocket in this world? Well, although it may seem that I am talking perhaps light heatedly I am perfectly serious when I say that I am completely open minded to the notion that in some way the ideas for mobile phones and satellites – once they have come in to existence – then exist for ever more in some way or another. This of course, for Socratic- Platonic philosophers like ourselves, begs the question of whether the ideas for mobile phones and satellites has existed for thousands of years already – and only now in recent decades has been discovered or “recollected” by us. My purpose in this short piece is not to persuade readers one way or another – but rather provoke them to contemplate such concepts to some degree themselves. That clarified, I would just like to add one further query at this point – and that is if some mild kind of meteor shower completely destroyed all those communication satellites does the idea of the satellite still exist. At first glance it appears so since of course we still have our knowledge and ideas about them and our need for them – and this would no doubt prompt those of us responsible for such things – to dig out the old plans, diagrams and blue prints so that new “particular” examples of those satellites could be made to replace the old ones. No great problem with that. However, a bigger question is that were that meteor shower to be much more extreme so that humankind were wiped out completely along with all those satellites (and let’s say mobile phones as well for the point of this argument) – would not the ideas for mobile phones and satellites still exist “out there” in one way or another – just waiting to be tapped into again or recollected by a species like our own with the ability to take advantage of those ideas – in a similar way as perhaps early humans may of done with the ideas for the wheel or stone arrow head?
A related matter I think worth considering to some degree is the notion of a “species or individual member of that species” with the ability to tap into – or recollect – or apply those ideas. Apples, coconuts, bananas and all manner of fruits and other objects have fallen on people’s heads since the very beginning of time and no doubt will continue to do so. There was nothing very special about that “particular” apple that dropped on Sir Isaac Newton’s head – but Newton jumped up and realised something very special so the storey goes – and came up with his ideas of mechanics and gravity which have been the corner stone of physics for centuries.
Had Pasteur died the day before he discovered penicillin and the cleaners gone in to tidy his laboratory – they might have clicked their tongues at the recently deceased professor for not washing up his petri dishes properly – and then ‘tragically’ washed that little bit of mould down the sink that has since saved tens of millions of lives and incalculable suffering. Thankfully Pasteur lived long enough to discover penicillin.
How many of us still exclaim “Eureka” when sliding into an over full bath of hot soapy water at the end of a busy day – and indeed how many people enjoyed a warm bath before Archimedes jumped out of that one particular overflowing bath realising that this was going to be a great way of finding the volume of odd shaped objects.
So even if the ideas do exist “out there” in some way – just waiting to be discovered or recollected - clearly it is not everyone who is going to be able to access all and every idea; although as one relaxes in that deep bath it may be an attractive idea……..
As mentioned above, quite frequently in Plato’s writings we come across suggestions and explanations which have clearly become out of date, and sometimes other arguments which may be rather dry and detailed in the way they are explained. However, what we need to do if we are to become “real” philosophers ourselves – is not merely be critical of other people’s ideas and explanations on various topics, but to begin to have our own ideas and explanations for things.
What Do You Think? Has the idea of mobile phones already existed for thousands of years? Would it still exist after the human race were extinct? If as the latter philosopher Proclus suggests – as individual human beings we are microcosms of the complete universe with the potentials of the whole universe within us – has the idea for the latest mobile phone been within us - or some people at least - since birth?