Wednesday, May 28, 2014

This Is Not a Blog Post

"You shall not bow down to idols or worship them, for I, Yhwh your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."
~ Exodus 20: 5-6

In my calling as student of scripture I find myself confronting paradoxes on a regular basis. The text from Exodus contributes to a paradox when we note that almost no two successive generations of Israelites were faithful to Yhwh; their history is a pendulum of back-and-forth commitment to God. How, then, can punishment or blessing be promised so categorically across generations?

Add to the paradoxes of scripture those of theology--the Incarnation and Trinity, to name the two catholic examples--and I find myself swimming in apparent contradictions.

You might imagine, then, how a book entitled Paradox (Margaret Cuonzo, MIT Press, 2014) caught my eye. Cuonzo offers, in a handbook-sized volume, a brief historical survey of classic paradoxes, various solutions to them, and intriguing descriptions of how paradoxes function in our world.

Paradox reads easily by virtue of its conversational style. As a 210-page book with such a sweeping trajectory must, it keeps the reader moving through Zeno, bald people with full heads of hair, bivalence versus excluded middles, and philosophy of science. The writing has the tone of a professor who has invited us over for lunch on a summer afternoon to chat about her favorite topics. Paradox is a friendly read.

This amicable flavor, however, does not neutralize the challenging character of the material. Cuonzo does not shy away from tackling the conundra of the Liar's Paradox, the Sorites Paradox, or whether scientific inquiry can actually prove anything. She also offers a helpful way of thinking about solutions to (or ways out of) paradoxes by drawing distinctions between typical approaches. In a mind-stretching effort, subjective probability is enlisted to produce an novel assessment of paradoxicality, by which we might determine which paradoxes are more paradoxical than others.

At these innovative junctures the work of Paradox shows its limitation. Subjective probability has its usefulness, I think, but the premise of a paradox is precisely that statements assembled together show inconsistency under the objective order of logic. Introducing subjectivity at the place where objectivity presents the challenge seems dodgy. I am not convinced that paradoxes, even with Cuonzo's rubric of subjective probability, can be ranked quantitatively. She has convinced me that their solution-types bear out qualitative differences, but numerically assessing paradoxicality is, I think, not especially helpful.

The book's real power is in showing that struggling with apparent paradoxes bears the fruit of important distinctions and, in the realm of science, further discovery. However we evaluate, categorize, or quantify paradoxes, it is in struggling with the seeming contradictions in life that we uncover our assumptions and discover new ways of thinking. The work of swimming through life's inconsistencies is some of the most important work of all. For the fascinating, challenging, and entertaining opportunity to learn this lesson, I am grateful for Cuonzo's work.

~ emrys

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Socrates Must Die

I very rarely purchase a book because I see it advertised in a magazine. In fact, it has happened only three times in my life, and all of them in March of this year. I read the advert for Rebecca Newberger Goldstien's Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away (2014) and immediately got online to order my copy.

Goldstein is a fully-credentialed philosopher with a brilliant analytical style and a penchant for narrative. Plato at the Googleplex masterfully weaves together a full introduction to the work of Plato and a tantalizing rendering of what Plato would say to 21st century interviewers. I write "full introduction," because Goldstein writes in such a way that a reader who has never picked up a Platonic text can merge quickly into the stream of his thought, but also in such a way that readers familiar with the biographer of Socrates will learn something new. And they might even be challenged in ways even Plato himself did not imagine.

Every other chapter is a move deeper into scholarly--but often playful and always accessible--analysis of Plato and his Socrates in situ in the 5th-century B.C. The chapters between are imagined dialogues between Plato (magically transported to 21st-century America) and various characters: a media escort at the Googleplex, a thinly-disguised FoxNews interviewer, and two radically different child-rearing experts, to name a few. I found myself drawn in by Goldstein's dialogical style, alternately enjoying new ideas, laughing aloud, and knitting my brow at philosophical zingers.

In spite of the book's title, Goldstein does not spend much energy building a direct argument that philosophy won't go away. The arc and sweep of the book does that heavy lifting: the plausibility of her imagined interviews with Plato draws the reader out of the cavern of the mundane. We are carried gently into the realization that yes, pursuit of "the real-the beautiful-the good" is still the bedrock of human life and yes, those that don't grasp this truth are staring at the back of a cave.

The power of Goldstein's work is epitomized, for me, in one point made about half-way through the book. She gradually builds a persuasive case that Socrates' real offense--the real reason that the Athenians decided he must die--was declaring that being a good Athenian citizen did not make one truly virtuous. Many of us--even those who have never studied the works of Plato--have heard the assertion attributed to Socrates, "The unexamined life is not worth living." This phrase seems innocuous philosophical banter at best, navel-gazing trope at worst, if it stands alone. But in its context, where Goldstein places it like a gem in the perfect setting, the phrase is destabilizing and offensive.

I live in a nation whose government has been described as "a bad form of government but better than any other," which claim I am inclined to believe. And I believe that a life lived as a "patriot" in the United States may be much better than a life lived in loyalty to a good many other lesser things. But I also see patriotism too often conflated with virtue, the latter being something that requires exhaustive (and exhausting) examination and dialogue which do not privilege the assumptions of patriotism. Goldstein's masterful new dialogues of Plato brought me further into the light of our pursuit of "the real-the beautiful-the good." I take new zeal for the examination of life from her erosophy--her passionate pursuit of wisdom.

For anyone who is interested in Plato's work, who enjoys well-written dialogue, or who seeks wisdom with a passion, Plato at the Googleplex will be a rewarding experience.

~ emrys