copyright Joshua Carl Davis 2010 all rights reserved
Excerpt from Chapter 6 of Metaphysics and the Meaning of Life by Joshua Carl Davis
If one wants a real answer to the question that Stephen Hawking is asking, one must get into metaphysics and epistemology, and this leads us back to Plato and Aristotle. A good place to begin is by assessing Platonic metaphysics.
It is clear that Plato has little regard for the touchable stuff all around us that we call matter. For Plato, the world around us is the lowly by-product of the ideal world of “Forms,” out of-which this world is generated. The world of Forms is experienced before birth and after death, and it is this world’s dependence on that world that makes reality intelligible.
Plato’s invention of the world of Forms is not merely a dispassionate, rational solution to the epistemological problems set forth by Heraclitus and Parmenides. I believe that Plato, in his disregard for this “stuff” all around, and his preference for intellectual pleasures and the ideal world of Forms, is also expressing an intrinsic pessimism towards the reality that surrounds us. That is to say, the theory explains two things. On the one hand, since the world of Forms is unchanging and knowledge is not possible in a state of continual flux, the world of Forms explains why knowledge is possible. But, on the other hand, it explains why this world is imperfect. It explains why injustice can seem to prevail in this world, as it did when Plato’s teacher Socrates was executed in Athens. According to Plato, the root causes of injustice and unintelligibility are the same. All around us we experience only imperfect representations of the ideal world, and this applies to objects and actions. Our souls are impure because they are corrupted by matter, and our knowledge is imperfect because it is also corrupted by matter. In a word, the theory of Forms explains both how knowledge is possible and also the fact of suffering.
It is undeniable that such an outlook finds sympathizers all around. Plato’s popularity as a philosopher exceeds Aristotle’s, evidenced by many famous romantic quotes praising the former, but few for the latter. Admired, though Plato’s theory may be, it is our job as philosophers to assess whether or not it holds water. The words of Aristotle come to mind.
"It would seem to be obligatory, especially for a philosopher, to sacrifice even one’s closest personal ties in defense of the truth. Both are dear to us, yet is our duty to prefer truth."
How are we to decide if Plato’s theory is correct or incorrect? One of the arguments a philosopher can use to try to get at the truth in his “non-empirical science” is the reductio ad absurdum argument. This Latin phrase means “reduction to the absurd.” It means that, if the direct implications of a theory or idea lead to consequences which are quite evidently false, then it is evident that there is something wrong with the theory or idea itself.
Now, let us consider Plato’s epistemological point of view. Matter is the principle that makes objects unintelligible, but also makes them objects of our sensation as opposed to our intellectual understanding of them. The objects around us in daily life are not intelligible in themselves without participation in the “world of Forms,” and, in fact, are a distraction from our genuine grasping of the truth. This theory implies that, if it were possible somehow to escape entirely from the distractions of the senses, then one would come closest to a genuine grasp of reality. This implies the absurd notion that sensory deprivation is a valid method of gaining new and more perfect knowledge. It would mean that a child deprived of sensory stimuli from birth would be wiser than one allowed full usage of the senses! This is one demonstration.
Along these same lines, if Plato were correct, one would expect dream-life to be more “real” than waking life, because, when one dreams, the senses are not engaged, and the objects one relates to are not made of matter. This is a second point.
One can also argue that there is a paradox at the heart of Platonic metaphysics. On the one hand, Plato has everything non-physical, good, and immortal: Forms, souls, the intellect. On the other hand, Plato has everything physical and transitory: matter, the body, and emotion. Intrinsic to this way of viewing things is a paradox. If matter has such an effect on the soul and Forms, then it must have a nature of its own. If so, then it ought to have a Form. This is problematic and gives rise to an argument that Aristotle employs, and that troubled Plato, called the “third man” argument.
There is evidence that Plato tried to get around the problems of the “third man” by viewing reality as a gradation between being and nothingness, thus placing experienced reality somewhere in-between. But the problem is still recalcitrant.
While elegant, when considered as a whole, the Platonic world-view suffers from its dualistic core. In reality, matter is never encountered without a form, and the intellect is never encountered totally devoid of emotion. In noticing this, the genuine philosopher cannot help but to be discontent with Plato’s view and its implications, and tends to try for a theory that is better able to synthesize these opposites into a more dynamic picture of reality.