Socrates in a brothel, being a buzzkill, chastising his student Alcibiades. [Image source: All images in this post are from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Socrates_in_paintings]
An Interrogation of Socrates
Part Two of Two
Outline for Part Two:
Summary of Main Ideas
The Structure of the Dialogue: What’s the Unifying Theme of this Sprawling Behemoth?
Interrogating The Republic: A cognitive scientist critiques the Dialogue‘s main ideas
This is part two of a two-part critique. Catch up on Part One.
EXAMINING THE REPUBLIC
Summary of Main Ideas in The Republic
The Republic begins with Socrates and Polemarchus debating: What does justice consist of? Polemarchus claims: giving to each man what is his due i.e. doing good to one’s friends, and evil to one’s enemies. Socrates asks: what if those whom one considers one’s friends aren’t really? Polemarchus: Then let justice mean doing good to good men, and evil to bad man. Socrates then demonstrates that doing bad to any man makes the target less of a man, by making him more unjust. Justice is the cardinal human virtue: so how can any action be just which injures, in another human, his/her cardinal human virtue?
Thrasymachus the belligerent Sophist then argues that justice is simply the interest of the stronger. The ruler can justly pass whatever laws he deems fit. For the ruled, then, following these laws constitutes justice. Socrates objects. Even if justice were to mean “what benefits the ruler, i.e. the strong” – as with “doing good to one’s friends,” above, the problem is that the ruler may pass laws that do not in fact benefit him. In this case, breaking these laws would further the ruler’s actual interest, and constitute just behaviour in the ruled. Socrates then challenges Thrasymachus’s fundamental idea. Socrates argues that, just as a pilot practices his art not for his own good but for the good of his art – so a ruler rules not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of his ruled. So how can a law be just that serves only the ruler, not the ruled?
Books II and III
The assembly then asks Socrates to offer his own view of justice. That’ll be hard, says Socrates. When it’s hard to see a thing at small scale, sometimes it helps to zoom out and look at the thing at a higher level of analysis. So, if we can identify what justice means at the level of the state, then perhaps we can identify what justice means at the level of the individual. This is when the Dialogue shifts from defining justice in the individual – to constructing the ideal state, the political embodiment of justice. This inquiry will occupy much of the rest of the book, but stick with us: we’ll get back on track, and you’ll see it’s all relevant to the one central investigation into the nature of justice.
Note: the word “politics” comes from the Greek word for city: πόλης. So politics is simply that which has to do with an organised collection of people. This linguistic-conceptual association explains the jump from studying the individual to studying the state. Incidentally, in modern Greek, το πολιτισμός means “culture,” which as we understand it today characterises a group of humans who have reached a certain specialisation of labour.
Socrates constructs two versions of his ideal state: first, a self-sufficient state where basic specialists provide for the simple needs of a small, outdoorsy community. The assembly agrees that, in practice, most states will quickly express needs that their territory cannot supply – and will therefore need soldiers to conquer and defend a larger territory. Socrates briefly excoriates this latter state as luxury-loving, thus unjust – but all The Republic’s remaining political discussion centres around this second, larger, well-armed state. E.g. Socrates frequently discusses the education of the warrior class, and recommends that the state’s rulers be trained in war. I want to know why Socrates abandoned his modest, peaceful, self-sufficient state for the warlike state. Why is war compatible with the ideal state, with the just life?
Unsurprisingly, a chief topic in the political discussion around this ideal state is education. How would the various vocational classes in this ideal state be educated?
Some features of how Socrates’s ideal state is educated and organised:
The state is segregated by class, but the classes are not hereditary.
The child of two farmers can become a philosopher-king, or “guardian” in Jowett’s translation. And vice versa. The ideal state is a meritocracy. Socrates believes in the early identification of the gifted, and in early streaming for all children – matching a child with what s/he’s best suited for. What Socrates does not believe in is rigid class hierarchy.
In this ideal state, men and women share in the same duties, at least in public life.
Women even go to war.
Socrates acknowledges differences between individuals of the same sex. Less notable to him are differences between sexes. Socrates wants individuals to become what they’re best suited to be. In a substantial subsection, Socrates argues that women who want to be, and are able to be, soldiers – should. Ditto guardians, farmers, etc.
What about private life? To the extent that Socrates discusses the citizens’ private life, there are no differences by sex. His ideal state is a commune, where everyone in a given class lodges and boards together. Presumably the domestic duties typically undertaken by women are, in Socrates’s ideal state, performed by slaves – whose education, sex, and interests/abilities don’t enter the debate. Socrates does not explicitly mention slaves: the domestic economy of these commune families doesn’t seem to interest him, suggesting perhaps an unconsidered dismissing of what is typically women’s labour.
Socrates wants to ban the arts. Most arts indulge the passions at the expense of the reason, thus rendering citizens unfit for their civic duties. Socrates bans most types of literature and drama – bar hymns to the gods (since religion unifies the state), and odes on great men (to inspire citizens to greatness). He also bans most types of music, bar those that encourage a warriorlike or a philosophical spirit. The philosophical reason for Socrates’s objection to the arts will emerge towards the end of The Republic.
Books II+III establish, and reason out, a recurring feature of The Dialogues: Socrates’s dualism. Soul and body inhabit separate realms. Soul is prime: so all education must aim ultimately at enriching the soul. To do this, a thorough education and disciplining of the body are essential, and must be a lifelong pursuit. But the body is only instrumental.
In a well-educated soul, there is harmony between wisdom, courage, and temperance. Socrates proves that the parts of the soul are: an appetitive drive (passion); an avoidance drive (reason/self-control), and what he calls spirit (psychic energy). Similarly, the ideal state has three parts: traders (every occupation from farmer to potter through merchant), warriors, and guardians (rulers). In his deal state, men and women share duties in each social stratum. (The Dialogue Phaedrus, in the context of discussing romantic/sexual love, furnishes a vivid illustration of the soul’s approach/avoidance elements: the dark horse of passion and the white horse of reason pull at the soul’s charioteer, pulling him two ways.)
Justice means “each man doing the work for which he is best suited.” This view of justice argues for people minding their own business, and also supports the economic specialisation of labour that is the defining feature of civilisation.
Anna Karenina begins : “Every happy family looks the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Socrates claims: Justice always looks the same. Every just man, in whatever sphere of life, looks the same. Injustice exhibits plurality of form.
Referring back to Part One of this critique, this view of singularity-vs.-multiplicity makes sense. For Socrates, the Ideal has one form. Justice is an ideal; justice can only have one form. Injustice is not an ideal; injustice exists only in its real-world manifestations. Throughout Plato, one recurring principle is this: if something is good, it has one Ideal form; imperfect instantiations in reality will share certain features. If something is not good, it will appear in multifarious forms.
Polemarchus (Greek πολεμάρχος: “war-leader” or “general”) and Adeimantus interrupt Socrates. His claim that, in the ideal state, men and women will share in duties equally is too outré for them. They demand that he clarify why this should be.
Socrates argues that women and men share the same faculties. Women are overall the weaker sex; still, “many women are better than many men in many things.” QED.
Socrates’s egalitarian views are inextricably linked with his proto-Communist views. The best way to ensure political harmony in his ideal state is to make the whole city one family. (And it’s notable that, here as elsewhere in the Dialogues, “state” and “city” seem synonymous. Socrates’s Greece had distant a history of kingdoms, and a more recent history of Athenian and Spartan empires; but the city-state is the default template for “state” in the Dialogues.) In Socrates’s ideal state, the family unit is to be replaced with a barracks-style commune: where nobody knows who his parents are, who are his siblings and children. There is no private property, especially among the guardian class who are to live austerely.
Socrates is asked how this ideal state is to be implemented. Socrates now makes a telling observation about the ideal, the real, and the relationship between them: “We discuss ideals, not because they are fully achievable, but because they are something to aim for.” Socrates believes the ideal and the real exist on distinct planes (see Part One); naturally he believes the ideal is not achievable empirically. This view of the ideal as guiding the real is very useful. The existence of the ideal, and the impossibility of actually reaching it, d not nullify our attempts in this real world.
Socrates then describes some mechanics of the ideal state: mating, controlling citizens’ beliefs, and the assignment of individual to class/job based on ability.
Socrates explains why a philosopher-warrior is the best candidate to be a guardian of the ideal state. The philosopher keeps his eyes trained on the Ideal; other mortals perceive only the feeble and multifarious instantiations of Ideals. Ideals of beauty, of truth, of justice.
Socrates then explains why, in the current state of affairs, philosophers have a bad name. A bipartite explanation: (1) True philosophers are often tempted in childhood/youth away from philosophy into other pursuits; (2) Unworthy men then become drawn to philosophy: doing ‘her’ injustice (in Greek, ‘philosophy’ is a feminine noun) and thus dishonouring the profession. In the ideal state, only true philosophers will become professional philosophers; and, in this ideal state, philosophers will be loved by people, who see that their own wellbeing is the philosophers’ vocation.
Socrates next discusses the hierarchy of linked concepts: truth, beauty, goodness, and justice.
As the sun is to vision, so is ‘the good’ to the mind. The sunlight shows to the eyes physical objects as they truly are. Similarly, in the light of the good, we perceive ideas in their true nature. Socrates discusses the distinction between knowledge and opinion at length. In Greek the two words differ by one syllable: respectively η γνώμη and η γνώση. For Socrates, there is no confusing the one with the other. Knowledge is true; opinion is false. To graduate from opinion to knowledge is a steep and rocky road, not open to all.
In case this wasn’t clear, Socrates is an elitist. I don’t know how one can be a dualist without being an elitist. If Ideal is superior to Real, then of course farmers, merchants, and cooks will be inferior to philosophers. Socrates’s disdain for popular opinion – and thus his ambivalence towards democracy – is also very plain.
Book VII of The Republic begins with the metaphor of humans chained in a cave, seeing only by flickering lamplight, seeing only shadows on the walls. This extended metaphor makes several points:
(1) If all we can see are shadows on a wall, or reflections in water – then we’ll come to take that as the truth. When we do leave the cave and see the real world, the real world will offend and disturb us. This is the powerful idea that whatever we are used to seeing, we take for granted as the truth. This idea has weathered the centuries and continues to be central in our understanding of human cognition today. Habit shapes perception.
(2) With less justification, Socrates claims that – if people are brought from the cave into the daylight – then eventually they will accept and even prefer the daylight. Because they will see that it is daylight, and the surface world, that is the “truth” of which the cave’s shadows were a reflection. Empirical evidence suggests that shedding one’s beliefs is a painful process, which few of us undertake voluntarily.
(3) For Socrates, the cave is the realm of “vision only”; the daylight is the world of “reason.” For Socrates, the allegory of the cave illustrates his belief that human cognition ascends, via sensory perception, into the realm of pure and unitary ideas. But this ascending from empirical to real – from lower to higher – depends, for Socrates, upon the knowledge of the good that the soul already contains.
Socrates considers that all of us start life in the cave. Most of us stay there. Education can guide the best among us out of the cave into the daylight. Socrates wants philosophers – after they have, via education, have emerged into the daylight – to then revisit the caves in order to (1) get in touch with the common people; and (2) subject themselves to lowly temptations. Then, and only then, are philosophers eligible to become guardians/rulers. This explicitly applies to both men and women.
The best politicians will be those who rule, not for love of politics, but because they are the best qualified to rule. For, if they didn’t agree to rule the state, then they themselves would be ruled by inferior people (less just, less wise).
Hierarchy alert: Socrates discusses the five types of state, from best to worst. He correlates each type with the type of personality associated with it. In his view, as in the myth of the ages of man (Hesiod and elsewhere), the best type of state declines steadily into the worst type. Book VIII presents Socrates’s conflicting views on democracy.
Which human appetites are lawful, and unlawful? Now the Dialogue circles back to the question of defining justice in the individual soul. A human being can partake of true pleasure only insofar as s/he is just. Thus, injustice is its own punishment.
The good life comprises of taming one’s creaturely impulses, and balancing the elements of the soul (wisdom, harmony, and temperance). The perfectly just man can exist only in the perfectly just city. (In unjust cities, the unjust man who acts just will thrive – as Thrasymachus indicated early in the Dialogue. But Thrasymachus doesn’t intervene in Book IX.)
Socrates now explains the foundation for his objection to the arts. By introducing yet another hierarchy. A hierarchy of kinds of things. At the top is the Ideal: of which there is only one. The ideal Human Being. The ideal State. The ideal chair. Below that are the range of physical instantiations: a few just men; a just monarchy and a just democracy, a strong chair, a passable chair. Below this second level is a third level. Artistic productions. Plays, poems, paintings, statues.
For Socrates, art imitates the second level of physical, real objects (chairs, governments). Thus, art is at two removes from the ideal. Art is an imitation of an imitation; that’s why it is worthless. There exists an ideal state (top level). A just ruler then enforces some version of this (middle level). Then comes an artist, who imitates the ruler’s imitation of the Ideal (bottom level in Socrates’s ontology of kinds of things).
This is an odd view. Socrates claims that he who paints a table is imitating real tables, made by real carpenters. He doesn’t consider that a painter consults a vision of the ideal table – just as a carpenter does. Socrates also doesn’t consider that art – like carpentry or statesmanship – has its own set of guiding principles, which the good artist must master. For Socrates, art is just “imitation,” pure and simple. Thus inherently inferior.
The Structure of the Dialogue: What’s the Unifying Theme of this Sprawling Behemoth?
The Republic is a sprawling work written in ten Books. In Part One of this critique, I noted that the Dialogue’s apparent lack of structure makes for disjointed reading. By the Dialogue’s end, there’s no such confusion. The Republic has one unifying theme. Justice. The Republic undertakes intrepidly many discussions, which seem lengthy if interesting asides. But one theme recurs – and, in Book X, explicitly resurfaces. Justice.
The Republic’s unifying concern is defining the nature of justice in a human being and in a state, and in delineating the conditions for justice. If you read The Republic – and I recommend that you do – keep this unifying principle in mind. It will guide and illuminate your reading, and you’ll have a better reading experience than I did.
Critiquing main ideas from The Republic as a Cognitive Scientist
The Republic engages with many topics: from the nature of the mind/soul, to political philosophy, to sex and gender roles, to moral philosophy. Today Plato is still central to philosophy , and philosophy is still central to the hard sciences. The philosophy of cognitive science relies heavily on ideas articulated by Plato, and developed/debated by later writers. For millions of laypeople, dualism, sexism (as in Plato’s other works), and a specific type of idealism continue to define worldviews and ways of evaluating scientific evidence. The Republic makes large claims about human nature, supporting these with arguments that may seem valid. It is worthwhile to subject this seminal work to empirical scientific scrutiny.
So let’s examine five claims from The Republic through the lens of contemporary cognitive science. As a cognitive scientist, this is the kind of analysis I feel most confident in offering.
Socrates’s Claim #1: Men and women are suited to sharing the same duties in public life. In his ideal state, men and women both work as farmers, soldiers, and rulers.
Contemporary Cognitive Science: In this recommendation, Socrates anticipates modern science. In the vast majority of measurable cognitive traits, men and women overlap: most men are like most women, and the average man is very like the average woman. One notable sex difference emerges at the extremes of the population distribution (the bell curve). At both ends, there are more men than women. E.g. on the IQ spectrum, more men than women are intellectually disabled. And more men than women are intellectually “profoundly gifted” (IQ of 180+). Men are more likely to occupy the extremes of any trait at both the high and the low end. Note: these outliers are a tiny proportion of all men.
In The Republic, it’s Socrates’s claim that women should serve with men in the military that draws his interlocutors’ interest, and compels Socrates to justify his assertion. So let’s examine contemporary sexism specifically in the military. The draft, and the military personnel policies, of many nations still discriminate on the basis of sex. In some countries women are exempt from the draft. In others, women can enter the army only in non-combat roles. What, if anything, justifies this sexism? NOTE: these are investigations into the possible logical bases for military sex discrimination, not into its ethics.
One justification is the fact that women’s reproductive resources – gestation and lactation – are much more biologically expensive and intensive – than men’s (i.e. sperm). If an army were to be wiped out, then its home country would suffer more in terms of next-generation population effects if the army were all-female, than if it were all-male. Because: one man and 100 women can repopulate more effectively than one woman and 100 men. This biological sex asymmetry in minimum obligatory parental investment leads to a social phenomenon: even in developed nations, childcare – rearing the next generation – falls primarily to women, making women less expendable. So if the choice were between an all-male and all-female army, most nations should logically choose the former.
But, this biological-social sex asymmetry in reproductive resource explains neither (1) Banning all women from all military roles; nor (2) Sex discrimination in contemporary combat situations – where neither fist-vs.-fist not sword-vs.-sword is the default mode of conflict resolution.
A second possible justification is that, while men and women are similar on most cognitive traits, physically the differences are clear and uncontroversial. Intermale mate competition has lead to the average male being taller, wider, and heavier than the average female. Sexual dimorphism refers to differences between sexes in a species: evolved over millions of years over which males and females faced different challenges to survival and reproduction. These differences can cause males to dwarf females, like elephant seals as gorillas. Or they can cause the extravagant appearances of male birds-of-paradise (the females are inconspicuous in appearance). Humans show moderate sexual dimorphism. Differences in strength and mass decline with physical training, but remain. So in combat situations where small differences in physical attributes are decisive, both parties at war would prefer to send their biggest, strongest, fastest individuals – likely to be males. Again, these physical differences are a questionable basis for sex discrimination in the contemporary military.
Third, the continuing implicit belief in large sex differences in cognition. This belief is, as we saw, mostly bogus.
However, note the existence of literature, and well-founded views to the contrary. See, for instance, James Damore’s well-researched and cogently argued memo, which drew ire.
On this note, it is important to remember that research into sex differences is a scientific question entangled with politics. More broadly, science is not free from ideology. The social and behavioural sciences – from anthropology to cognitive science – are dominated by left-leaning liberals. Liberals subscribe to a cluster of related, and empirically problematic ideas: the idea that a human is born as a blank state, that all differences between men and women are social, and that humans are happier and nicer in their uncivilised state. These ideas coalesce to form the Standard Social Science model. These ideas influence which scientific studies get funded, which findings get published, and which scientists with heterodox views get ostracised. Whenever we read scientific studies, or read about “the consensus,” we need to keep in mind that scientists are, like the rest of us, political beings. They have beliefs and affiliations that – generally despite good intentions, rather than from malice – skew their ideas of what is true, of what topics merit research, and of what research findings are credible.
This is an argument not for scientific nihilism, or for science denialism – but for informed scepticism. Science is above all a way of evaluating data to reach justifiable conclusions about the world.
Back to sex asymmetries. We know that research into cognitive differences finds few or no differences: men’s and women’s minds are largely similar. What about our brains? Do men’s and women’s brains differ?
The only brain difference confirmed so far is differences in gross brain weight, which is largely explained by sex differences in body weight. What does this biological asymmetry in brain size say for about cognitive differences? There we run into murky waters.
The relationship between brain and mind is complex, and is still very much in the process of being elucidated by neuroscience and cognitive science. Neuroscientists are building knowledge about which brain injuries lead to which cognitive differences; and, conversely, how to deduce neurological injury from cognitive-behavioural abnormalities. But extrapolating from brain differences to cognitive differences on such a large topic as sex differences is, at this point, scientifically unfounded.
In short: So far, the research on sex differences in brain and mind supports the idea that men and women are much more alike than different. So Socrates’s recommendations for men and women to share similar duties in public life is strongly supported by current neuroscience and cognitive science. Elsewhere, Socrates makes sexist pronouncements. Here in The Republic, Socrates is prophetic: his argument is sound and his conclusion seems radical even today in some parts of the world.
Socrates’s Claim#2: Mind and body are separate.
Contemporary Cognitive Science: Descartes inherited dualism from Plato, and passed it on to modern biological and behavioural science. For Descartes as for Socrates – and for any religious person today – mind and body are composed of fundamentally different types of matter. The mind is superior, and the mind-to-body channel of communication is privileged over the body-to-mind.
In contemporary cognitive science, dualism is all but dead. Scientific materialism is the paradigm of the day: all phenomena, physical or psychological, share common causation. Mind, brain, and body are a tripartite system linked so intimately that their boundaries are fuzzy. “The mind,” as an emergent property of “the brain-cum-body” complex, is a subject just beginning to be understood. What is clear is that we are able to explain most cognitive phenomena of interest in purely biological, material terms. We need not appeal to “the soul.” The physical, the social, and the psychological all operate ultimately in the same realm. This tripartite view of human reality, first proposed in medicine, shapes current theories of the interactions between mind, brain, and body.
More interestingly, we are only just beginning to understand the effect of our body and physical context on our minds. Embodied cognition and situated cognition study how the location of my brain in my particular body (male/female; healthy/sick; old/young), and in my particular physical and social environment (living in a safe/unsafe environment; living in a society with a skewed/even sex ratio) powerfully influence my cognition.
In short: dualism was one of Socrates’s most powerful ideas. But, ultimately, baseless.
Socrates’s Claim #3: Socrates’s tripartite ontology of the psyche: approach, avoidance, and spiritedness
Contemporary Cognitive Science: The approach/avoidance paradigm is popular for studying human and nonhuman animal behaviour. Contemporary understanding of this dichotomy differs somewhat from Socrates’s. But, again, Socrates’s conception is prophetic, capturing two powerful instincts that push and pull us in different ways.
Socrates relegates to the “passion/approach” drive of the mind all that we today call instincts; whereas his “avoidance” drive is what we call today self-control. So, in its details, Socrates’s view contrasts with contemporary science.
We know that instincts themselves can drive both approach and avoidance behaviour. I am drawn to sweets or fatty foods (approach instinct). I am also repelled by snakes, strange men, foods that’ve made me sick before, and pain (avoidance instinct). Both approach and avoidance are drives: inborn or learned behaviours that are preconscious and reflexive. I have to exercise willpower – Socrates’s “avoidance” element – not only to avoid eating sweets, but also to put up with a painful medical procedure. I deploy self-control to override my approach instinct in the former case, my avoidance instinct in the latter. Instincts and self-control occur in different circuits of the brain.
In our search to pin cognitive functions to parts of the brain, the neuroscience discourse has shifted from “brain areas” to “neural circuits.” Scientists speak no longer of “instinct being controlled by the limbic brain” (or “reptilian brain”), but rather of a circuit involving several brain areas that participates in motor reflexes – or in transferring memory from the short-term store to the long-term, teaching me about a new source of pain or pleasure. That being said, we do know that instinctive behaviour is under control of circuits involving the limbic system; and self-control relies on various parts of the frontal cortex and their two-way (feedback and feedforward) communication channels with the limbic system.
Socrates’s third psychic structure, “spiritedness,” was called in later centuries “animal magnetism” “animal spirits,” and “psychic energy.” This structure corresponds to various concepts in theoretical and psychometric analyses in cognitive science.
The “valence” of an emotion refers to its intensity. “Ecstasy” has higher valence than “contentment”; “rage” has higher valence than “irritation.” What Socrates calls spiritedness varies between individuals. On Cattell’s 16 Personality Factor scale, “ergic energy” or the “relaxed vs. tense” dichotomy refers partly to this construct. On the popular Big Five personality inventory, “Energy” is one of the five subscales of the Introversion-Extraversion scale (high scores on “Energy” bias an individual towards Extraversion as opposed to Introversion). On Eysenck’s neurobiological approach to a three-factor personality scale (Psychoticism, Introversion-Extraversion, and Neuroticism-vs.-Emotional-Stability), Introversion-Extraversion has implications for the physical energy a person expresses based on their brain’s excitability. Eysenck defines Introversion as a high level of baseline cortical arousal, and a high reactivity to additional stimuli. Eysenck’s view is that, in introvert’s brain, at rest, already has a lot going on; this is why introverts dislike additional stimulation. Modified versions of Eysenck’s theory have in fact linked differences in brain functioning to personality differences via his construct of cortical arousability.
Arousability involves the reticular activating system in the brainstem.
The amount of energy an individual expresses emerges very early in life, and is measured among infants as temperament: some infants are more energetic, mischievous, and bold than others. Defined this way, “energy” is in its various precise manifestations in the cognitive science literature is thus a true personality factor. It emerges early, remains relatively stable, varies between individuals, and usefully predicts observable behaviour.
In short: Socrates’s division of the mind into appetitive, avoidance, and energy elements roughly fits with contemporary ideas from neuroscience and cognitive science. The cognitive systems of instinct, emotion, self-control, and arousability correspond to distinct neural circuits, and their functioning predicts measurable outcomes. In his breakdown of the human personality, too, Socrates was, in broad outlines, prophetic.
Socrates’s Claim #4: The soul already contains preprogrammed Ideals. (Truth, Beauty, Goodness; The Ideal Chair.) These ideals guide the development of perception, morality, and reasoning. Ideal Chair in my mind lets me see and evaluate actual chairs with my eye.
Contemporary Cognitive Science: Has mixed views about whether we are born with preloaded programmes – and about what, and how detailed, those programmes are. Let’s look at four types of primitives/programmes that cog sci think we’re hardwired with:
1. We know that all humans are born with a programme for learning natural language. Language development follows predictable sequences in all human infants. Nearly every normal child learns to speak, or to sign. In infancy, language is acquired without explicit training – all that’s needed is for the infant to be near speaking adults. We’re born with the ability to learn, not just words, but rules of grammar. When we’re born, we have the potential to acquire any of the thousands of extant human languages: we’re prepared to learn any grammar, orthography, and phonology. As infants, we hone in on the characteristics of the specific languages we’re hearing: what sounds does it use? What is its grammar structure? We learn to speak easily and effortlessly. Reading and writing are much harder skills, requiring deliberate training. So language is one of the programmes that we are born with.
2. Our perceptual systems are also preprogrammed with primitives and information-processing structures. We are born blind, but our visual systems develop quickly – using input from the outside world that is processed by preprogrammed neurocognitive systems. Our visual systems have feature detectors that compute shapes, edges, textures, colours, and orientations. For most of us, vision feels effortless. We open our eyes, and the world is just there. Perfect and clear. I see a hundred objects; I know what each one is; what colour it is; how far away from me it is; how fast they’re moving; and how I can interact with it. I can recognise objects from different angles, and colours under different lightings. But all this instant, effortless knowledge is the product of enormous and expensive neural computations happening in our occipital lobe and association areas.
How do Ideals figure into our preprogrammed perceptual systems? Interestingly, parts of our visual systems do have ideals: neurons in some layers of the visual cortex respond more strongly to an idealised cartoon face than to any actual human face; respond to a black-and-white perpendicular line more strongly than to the perpendicular-ish edge of any real tree or building. So ideals in this very concrete sense are part of our perceptual systems. NOTE: all these neurons do their work below the level of consciousness. A few dozen of my neurons may “prefer” a cartoon face to a real face. I, as a person, do not.
So: we are born with enormously complex preloaded programmes that contain assumptions about what this world is like. For instance, our preloaded visual systems assume that the primary source of light is above us – which then guides how our visual systems decode, from the 2D retinal images, the world out there: what is shadow, what is crater. Without this assumption and a thousand others, we would not be able to see. The world as it is would not makes sense to a brain born without hundreds of millions of years’ worth of accumulated assumptions about what the world is like. These assumptions are embodied in our brain as specialised neurons – each of which works on specific input, under using specific rulesets, outputs specific information, and is networked to others in very specific ways. Thanks to this hardware-software complex, vision feels easy.
It’s not. We trained computers to beat world chessmasters in the 1990s. In 2020, researchers in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics are still struggling to teach computers how to see with anything like the speed, accuracy, and economy of human vision.
What’s true of vision is true of the other senses, and for motor movement. We inherit brains prepared to work with our bodies. Like learning a language, learning to walk takes time. But that we can do it at all is because our brains come preprogrammed with ways to speak, ways to see, and ways to walk – and with assumptions about what is the nature of human language and of the world which I must see and in which I must walk.
We now know beyond doubt that we come preloaded with language-learning abilities, as well as with complex programmes that allow our perceptual and motor abilities to function. But these are not the kinds of preloaded neural programmes that Socrates had in mind when he spoke of inborn Ideals.
3. Ethics. Are humans preprogrammed with ethics? This kind of ideal begins to approach what Socrates called ‘Ideals.’ Truth, Justice, Beauty. This question merits intensive examination. The state of the science suggests that humans do express notions of fairness and empathy very early in life, and across cultures. So Socrates’s view that humans have an innate sense of The Good or The Just seems borne out by science.
4. Are we born with ideals in other aspects of life? E.g. The Ideal Mate; The Ideal Home; The Ideal Friend?
Evolutionary psychology, the lovechild of biology and sociobiology, posits that we enter the world with numerous predilections. We come prepared not just to learn language and to see the world. We also come prepared to be sociable. To distinguish between male and female, kin and stranger, friend and foe. To prefer sweet things and dislike bitter or sour things. To learn a fear of snakes more quickly than a fear of flowers – or of guns and cars, much more dangerous to us today than snakes. Evolutionary psychology (EP) suggests that we enter the world not with blank hard drives, as suggested by the Standard Social Science Model – but with hard drives preloaded with dozens of useful programmes. These are called Evolved Psychological Mechanisms.
Evolved Psychological Mechanisms include modules optimised to solve particular problems of survival and reproduction that our ancestors faced repeatedly. How do I choose which fruit to eat? How do I select my friends? How do I select, attract, and retain mates? How do I apportion my limited resources between my competing offspring – and other relatives? How do I decide what’s a good place to live? In EP, each survival problem demands specific inputs, outputs, and information-processing rules. Dividing my energy between growing vs. reproducing is as sophisticated a programme as the visual programme that works out whether that’s a dog or a wolf hiding behind that bush. Both programmes are largely nonconscious. Some EPMs may contain templates: the ideal fruit; the ideal father of my children; the ideal vantage-point.
EP, and its central idea that the mind does not enter the world blank – are gaining ground in mainstream cognitive science. Note: EP does not claim that we are born with a huge list of rigid rules. “Apple is good.” “Snake is bad.” “Be kind to others.” “Be kinder to family than to strangers.” What EP does give us is predispositions to learn certain things. Just as we’re born willing and able to learn language, so we’re born willing and able to learn who our relatives are. To help our relatives, and to avoid mating with them.
In short: cognitive science and neuroscience have established that we come into the world programmed with ideals in some sense, and predisposed to learn certain skills (language; how to read people’s emotions in their facial expressions and tone of voice), fears (of snakes, of strange men), and affiliations (to babies, to animals/cartoons with babylike features). Just as we are born with immune systems that are prepared to learn to defend us from pathogens, so we are born with brains that are prepared to learn how to speak, perceive, and distinguish fair from foul.
The difference is this: Socrates believed we are born with ideals in the theoretical sense: Ideal Chair, Ideal Poem. Science suggests we are neurally preprogrammed with predispositions spanning everything from ethics, language, sensory perception, and social cognition.
Socrates’s claim #5: The arts corrupt and weaken the mind.
Contemporary Cognitive Science: There’s no evidence for this. Participating in the arts, whether visual or literary, whether as creator or consumer, seems to improve cognition in children, in older adults, and in people with psychological disorders.
Socrates lived 2,400 years ago. Socrates was not an empirical scientist. He was an abstract thinker. Insofar as his philosophical ideas fall short of contemporary scientific knowledge, we can’t hold it against him that his theories, based on reasoning from the ideal, fall short. What’s remarkable is how prophetic and well-reasoned his central ideas were – even scrutinised through the critical lens of contemporary science.
Plato’s Dialogues remain well worth reading for historic, literary, and philosophical interest.
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Are you a scientist, or interested in science? When you read philosophy – or fiction – do you analyse the text through the lens of science? Does this analysis enhance or detract from your enjoyment of the text? Is it worth reading texts that make claims about empirical reality that have now been disproved?
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