Shaking the Dead Hand of Plato

Last month I had the honour to chair Richard Dawkins when he gave a talk in Bristol about his new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” We exchanged respective signed copies of our books and I have been slowly working my way through his though I have to say I have not yet finished – a million writing deadlines of my own to complete.

But I did want to write a post on the opening to Chapter 2 entitled, “Dogs, Cows and Cabbages.” In it Dawkins, asks the question, “Why is it so difficult for people to accept natural selection,” and he gives the answer, that when I read it,   knocked me off my seat – essentialism. If you have not read SuperSense, a large proportion of it addresses this notion that we believe the world is inhabited by essences and that this explains many supernatural beliefs and practices. So you can imagine how gratifying it was to see it pop up in Dawkins’ latest book where he calls its influence, “the dead hand of Plato.”

However, if I had researched SuperSense more thoroughly I would have discovered that essentialism is also the answer given by Ernst Mayr for why people have a problem with natural selection. Mayr points out that since the time of Plato, people have assumed that there is a true identity to reality that cannot necessarily been seen directly. It’s like there is an ideal form for all the things we detect in the world. So there is an essential dog, an essential tree and so forth. All the variation we experience in the world is interpreted as some deviation from an ideal form – a form that is essential. But such a viewpoint is inconsistent with continual change and evolution. Origins of species through natural selection does not fit with the Platonic view and this is a point that I made in the book. You don’t have to teach children this. They naturally assume that all species are essentially different from each other and that’s why they have a problem with accepting Darwin.

Of course, I go further than Dawkins and Mayr in my theory. Essentialism is not just a belief about true identity. It manifests as a supernatural force that can contaminate reality. There is essential evil, essential goodness, essential youth, and indeed I would argue that we essentialize those things we consider unique such as individuals. I argue that an individual’s essence can contaminate an inanimate object or possession – maybe even a signed book. This is one reason why some people don’t want to touch or wear the killer’s cardigan. It also explains why we find the notions of duplication, genetic modification and all manner of procedures that violate the integrity of the individual as abhorrent. We are not necessarily aware of this way of thinking and as I have been at pains to point out, it may operate intuitively, but I think that every child born is still shaking the dead hand of Plato.


Filed under Research

16 responses to “Shaking the Dead Hand of Plato

  1. Though I rather like the phrase “shaking the dead hand of Plato”, I do think that it is actually the other way around (as I’m sure you’d agree) – Plato was merely spelling out what every little child ‘knows’. This is significant as I think this is a great example of the way in which scientifically naive philosophy tends to merely recapture, in a coherent and clear form, the fundamentally wrong-headed notions that people are naturally subject to. As such it is a great example of why philosophers must know the latest science and allow it to guide their work if their work is to be worth a piffle. And, yes, I am being rude about Plato… and those philosophers who are naive enough to keep repeating the old saw that philosophy is just writing footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. I could agree with that statement but only if the word ‘bad’ was added in front of the word ‘philosophy’.

    • brucehood

      Hi Konrad,
      Long time… hope you’re well. Well, you’re the philosopher – I wouldn’t dare to diss Plato myself.

      • I don’t think I was really dissing Plato – he had a good excuse for ignoring science and basing his work on naive notions, that excuse being that science had not been invented. The same can not be said for the many philosophers these days who seem to spend much of their time arguing that something must be a priori logically impossible even though, if they’d bothered to look, the methodology for actually doing is, as often as not, described in detail in the scientific literature.
        I went to a conference a week or so ago at which one person discussed at length the views of a well-known philosopher about evolutionary theory. When I told this person that biologists laughed at what the well-known philosopher was saying due to basic factual errors that rendered his position nonsensical, the person replied in a nonchalant manner, “Oh, I know that” as if it did not matter a piffle.
        Another philosopher, a very well known and well regarded academic, presented a talk on the problems with evolutionary theory. Although the speaker was clearly both very intelligent and very knowledgeable in some matters, and the talk was presented extremely well, the content was mostly a variation on worn-out creationist claims that have been doing the rounds of the internet and which it takes a fairly basic knowledge of the science to understand as baseless – the gist of his talk being that something as wonderful as human reason could not have evolved. Clearly, this man had a very solid grip on Plato’s dexter, or maybe sinister, manus.

  2. Yet another reason why it astounds me when people say there is a big contradiction between your work and Dawkins’. I’m about halfway through SuperSense, and I’m finding it to be perfectly complimentary with all of the other skeptical/atheistic literature I have read.

    The only thing I can imagine that creates the confusion is that you seem less concerned with denoting each and every time whether a given proposition is something people believe, or something that you specifically are asserting to be true, e.g. in this very post you write:

    There is essential evil, essential goodness, essential youth…I argue that an individual’s essence can contaminate an inanimate object or possession…

    Taken out of context, someone might be forgiven for thinking you were actually promoting essentialist beliefs. I see a lot of this stuff in your book, where it seems like you are giving the reader the benefit of the doubt, that they will be able to discern what you mean to be literally true vs. just a belief, and what you mean to say is desirable vs. just merely pointing out its existence.

    In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins is so repetitive about pointing out that thinking of a gene as having selfish desires is a metpahor, and that we need to continuously come back to the literal truth and do a reality check. He is also painfully repetitive at distancing himself from the naturalistic fallacy, i.e. he keeps saying that selfish gene behavior is not a good thing, that it just is.

    And yet even still, people accuse Dawkins of anthropomorphizing genes and of promoting a strong-conquer-the-weak philosophy. This despite his willingness to make tedious caveat after tedious caveat. So perhaps it is no surprise, then, that with your writing style refusing to engage in such tedium, people sometimes misunderstand your point as well 🙂

    • brucehood

      I think you are right James… I tend to be naive in my writing and make lots of assumptions without following through with the necessary caveats etc…
      I wouldn’t say that I am promoting essentialism.. just pointing out how prevalent it may be and trying to understand why it is so common.

  3. No worries, I think it’s clear to careful readers that you aren’t describing essentialism as being literally true. I’m just not surprised that less discriminating readers (*cough*journalists) have so wildly misunderstood/misrepresented your views.

    OT, there is some auspicious timing in regards to events in my life coinciding with reading your book:

    One thing I am really enjoying are the frequent allusions to studies of infant/childhood development. The story about the 4-, 6-, and 8-year olds attempting to balance the weighted rods was especially thought-provoking.

    Anyway, the timing is cool, because when my son was born nine months ago, we got this flyer from the hospital soliciting volunteers to participate in experiments at the infant behavior lab at the University of Rochester. My wife was really excited about it, and I was intrigued as well, so we called them up and gave them our info. They called us back for one experiment at four months, but apparently the really interesting stuff starts around eight months, because we are going today for our second time in three weeks — just as I am going through SuperSense.

    All of the experiments so far have been of the “how long does an infant stare at this image/sequence of images vs. this one” variety. So when you allude to those type of experiments in your book, I’ve all of a sudden got a quite visceral picture of the whole process 🙂

    Of course it also makes me a little wary of the conclusions of such studies. With an infant, there is no way to completely subtract the parent or some other supervisor from the equation (it is quite a feat to get an infant to sit still enough for eye-tracking software to correctly calibrate itself even when an adult is holding them in place!), and although they go to great lengths to blind the parent — a visor so they can’t see the screen, and pumping music through noise-cancelling headphones for experiments where there are auditory cues in the video — I still wonder if how much unconscious contamination could be taking place…

    Anyway, I could go on about this, but I won’t. In any case, it is a lot of fun, and neat that the timing coincided with reading your book. I feel like my enjoyment of both has been enhanced.

    • brucehood

      Give my regards to Prof Dick Aslin if your wife runs into him.. he is an old friend of mine.

      • Hmmm I suspect we might have walked right by his office yesterday. I am sure I read his name somewhere, either on a door or on a piece of paperwork or something. Next time they call us back I will try to pass on your regards!

  4. I put Darwin’s Signature up for sale, banking on the Essentialist illusion.

  5. Tim Harris

    I sometimes wonder if science wasn’t born in Europe because many European ideas about the world and the universe came to seem ridiculous… by which I mean chiefly Christian ideas, against which science had to prove itself (and still does) and things like Platonic essentialism. I do not think a Taoist, for example (I have lived in East Asia for over 30 years), would have any problem with evolution, and certainly he or she wouldn’t subscribe to any Platonic essentialism – the flux of forms is taken for granted; but this means that science had nothing really to push against in East Asia, as it did in the West, nothing to define itself against. Perhaps, paradoxically, Western science owes something to Christianity and the ridiculous ideas it has tried for so long to uphold.

    • Tim, that’s a very interesting idea. I wonder what somebody like Rodney Stark who keeps on insisting that Christianity helped the development of science would think of it. I suspect he would not like it. And that would be a good thing.

      It does seem to me that often it takes a simplistic and incorrect idea to actively create the environment for a better understanding of a topic. My own example would be the way in which evolutionary psychology has been very successful despite its oversimplifying assumptions. I tend to think that evo psych’s various shortcomings are actually helping to push forward the discussion toward more satisfactory evolutionary explanations of human behaviour.

      However, I do think that a certain rationalist attitude is necessary for the anomalies to have any weight. And it is definitely thanks to the likes of Plato (and not Christianity) that this attitude has been an element of European culture. There, I said something straight-out nice about Plato.

    • I’m not sure I necessarily buy the premise that (all other things being equal) a Taoist would be less likely to cling to Creationism than a Christian or a Muslim or what have you. At least, I’m not willing to accept it at face-value. Maybe it would prove to be true after all.

      But I do think the extent to which eastern/western religious philosophy influenced other aspects of those societies is a fascinating question.

      Eastern religious thought, with its emphasis on change, may be less prone to ideas like unchanging Platonic essentialism, but vitalist ideas run rampant — and in a way that is a form of essentialism.

      I don’t know, I’m just rambling at this point.

  6. There is as large of a variety of philosophical positions in the East as in the West. Likewise, non-philosophical simple superstition abounds in both the East and the West. To speak of the East or the West in generalization is begging for gross misunderstanding.

  7. @ Bruce
    I find that unchecking heirarchy of comments make them much easier for people to follow. Otherwise chronicity is lost and if coming from an e-mail, it is tough to know where the new comments are.

  8. Bruce,
    You inspired me to post a suggestion list containing directions. Click this link to find out how you too can have a cleaner looking Blog ! 🙂

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s