Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s ode to philosophy, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, imagines a collision of worlds: What would happen if Plato, the famous philosopher, suddenly appeared in the twenty-first century? In the ensuing dramas, staged in the dialogue form that Plato himself created, Goldstein has Plato discussing the possibility of crowdsourcing ethics with a Google employee, debating a psychoanalyst and a self-proclaimed “warrior mother” on how to raise children, helping an advice columnist sort out her readers’ romantic conundrums, and much more. These anachronistic set-ups, which freely explore Plato’s thought, alternate with more straightforward expository chapters on Plato and the society he lived in. The end result is a book that simultaneously gives a fair exposition of a formidable ancient thinker whilst exploring his relevance to modern life.
Goldstein, a novelist and philosopher, pulls off what could have easily veered into the corny or preachy with tact, humor, and, most importantly, a fairness that delves into Plato’s ideas without specifically condoning any conclusions, a skill that Plato himself perfected in his dialogues. These dialogues make Plato’s ideas accessible to a general audience while also keeping him fresh and exciting for those who study or have a background in philosophy.
Take, for example, the eponymous chapter of Plato at the Googleplex, which finds Plato about to give a talk at the famous search company’s headquarters. Accompanying him is his snarky media escort Cheryl and a software engineer named Marcus. One can see Goldstein’s talents as a novelist shine through; these characters are not merely empty mouthpieces for ideas, but fully realized people who imbue the ensuing philosophical conversation with their vivid personalities.
This dialogue explores the nature of moral expertise, with Plato arguing his classical position that only experts who have devoted their lives to the study of morality should be trusted on the matter. Other people, Plato argues, have no chance of living a good life. Goldstein supplements Plato’s playful but accurately imagined dialogue with direct quotes from his writings, making sure his positions never stray from the ones he took 2,400 years ago. Cheryl, voicing the outrage at his insistence on a moral aristocracy that I’m sure many contemporary readers share, stresses a more egalitarian vision. Marcus, inspired by his work at Google and by Cheryl’s well-meaning but philosophically unsophisticated relativism, advocates for a hypothetical crowdsourced morality, in which everyone’s opinions would go into a weighted algorithm that would spit out the correct answer. Goldstein models her dialogues in Platonic fashion, not arguing for any one view, but simply exploring, refining, refuting, and putting forward ideas freely.
The expository chapters placed before each dialogue attempt to flesh out and provide context for the themes that will be explored in the subsequent dialogue. These are much needed, as the dialogues by themselves are not enough to fully grasp Plato as a philosopher. As someone who studies philosophy, not history, I have always read Plato without giving much thought to the context of his writing, so Goldstein’s exploration of the culture and history of Classical Athens was much appreciated.
However, these expository chapters often feel a bit disorganized and overlong. One of Goldstein’s main theses is that Plato’s Socrates (Socrates is the main character in Plato’s dialogues) undermined Athenian exceptionalism (she coins the term “Ethos of the Extraordinary”) by arguing that virtue exists independently both of what other people think of you and of the polis (the Greek city-state). In short, virtue can only be obtained individually. At least three whole chapters are devoted to hammering home this thesis when one could have sufficed, especially since it took up space that could have been spent analyzing Plato’s more arcane (and to me more interesting) metaphysics and epistemology. This, however, is a minor criticism.
Another thread Goldstein weaves throughout the book is a rebuttal of what she dubs the “philosophy-jeerers”—people who think that philosophy is completely outdated and has been replaced by modern science. Many of these prominent philosophy-jeerers are also leaders of the humanist and atheist movements. Goldstein quotes the famous physicist (and humanist) Lawrence Krauss as saying, “Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads.” He goes on to say, “People in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.” Krauss isn’t the only scientist and humanist idol who feels this way. In a recent interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson remarked that studying philosophy “can really mess you up” because “if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world.” Even Richard Dawkins and other New Atheists have disparaged philosophy in favor of scientism. Perhaps they are mistaking philosophy for theology, an important distinction.
Goldstein rebuts these criticisms handily. Simply placing Plato in modern settings such as a cable news show or an fMRI machine metaphorically shows philosophy’s continuing relevance. Goldstein also concedes that “Plato got about as much wrong as we would expect from a philosopher who lived 2,400 years ago.” However, she argues, the very fact that we are able to see how wrong he was proves that philosophy has indeed made progress, contrary to the philosophy-jeerers’ jeers. Throughout the book Goldstein makes clear that Plato’s main contributions weren’t the conclusions he came to, but the questions he asked.
The final dialogue of the book pits Plato against a jovial neuroscientist who dismisses philosophers as those who “hold down the fort until the cavalry, who are the scientists, arrive.” What the neuroscientist doesn’t understand is that his contention that science is the only viable route to knowledge is itself a philosophical position that requires philosophical justification and has its own philosophical ramifications. Plato and the neuroscientist go on to debate the nature of the mind. I must admit, as a student of philosophy and psychology who has done some thinking about this subject myself, I am sympathetic to the neuroscientist’s claims that our notions of free will, intentions, and even the self are undermined by science because they are simply reducible to deterministic electrochemical neural impulses. However, I also recognize the important place philosophy has in understanding these scientific advances, just as Plato does when he argues that brain processes are merely the cause of our conscious experience, not identical to conscious experience, a philosophical distinction that helps us interpret the science.
Goldstein fends off these secular philosophy-jeerers while also making a convincing case for understanding Plato as the starting point for the secular worldview. During the Axial Age, a term coined by Karl Jasper to describe the period from 800 to 200 BCE, when all the major modern religions and philosophies were founded, humanity was preoccupied with existential questions. Many groups such as the Jews, Hindus, and Zoroastrians sought to console themselves with God. While Plato wasn’t an atheist, he did think that the way to fend off existential despair lay not in an external being such as God, but rather within ourselves, as we enlarge ourselves through wisdom. Platonic dialogues show humans appealing not to revelation or a higher power but to each other in an attempt to gain knowledge. In fact, Plato could be downright antagonistic towards the belief in a higher power, such as in the first Platonic dialogue I ever read, Euthyphro, in which he argues that if God condones things because they are good, then there is a higher moral order than even God, and therefore God serves no purpose in determining morality. All of this is illustrated beautifully in Goldstein’s dialogue where Plato visits a Bill O’Reilly doppelganger on his news show and rebuts his repeated attempts to equate the good life with a belief in God.
For most of us, college is the only time we have to grapple with the questions of philosophy. After that, it’s out into the real world where we have to go to work, make a living, take care of the kids, run errands, and do chores, leaving no more time for esoteric, abstract questions about the nature of reality. This book challenges that notion in a well-reasoned, expressive, and comprehensive manner that can and should be appreciated by philosophy lovers, philosophy-jeerers, and everyone in between. Just like Plato at the Googleplex, philosophy is as relevant as ever.