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Columns

A Quarantine of Forms

By Patrick M. Magee, Contributing Opinion Writer
Patrick M. Magee ’21 is a joint Philosophy and Physics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

In March, on the eve of leaving Cambridge, I asked a particularly wise friend of mine if he had any book recommendations for quarantine. Without missing a beat, he responded: “The Dialogues of Plato.” Plato, he told me, is a philosopher for times of crisis: a thinker who puts chaos in the context of the eternal. Later philosophers may have gotten more right, but few were better at sensing the underlying transcendence of reality.

Plato, of course, lived in his own time of upheaval: born in the wake of a plague that killed a quarter of Athens, he would live to see his city conquered by Sparta, and was himself later sold into slavery. But my friend was referring to the Dialogues’ content, not their historical context. In the world of the Dialogues, the physical universe is a mere shadow, a pitiful dilution of ultimate reality. Behind the chaos we encounter in everyday life, Plato maintains there subsists a timeless world of Forms — a heaven of unchanging objects corresponding to the changeable objects we observe below.

Among the most important of these Forms are the numbers. Each time we engage in mathematics, argues Plato, we rise up to the realm of Forms, where we encounter the Forms of numbers underlying their particular instantiations. When we recognize that two cats and two dogs each exemplify the number “two”, we do so by engaging with the Form of Two, an abstract, immaterial object present in each set of animals. And in communicating with this realm, we come to realize that we, too, are immaterial — immortal, eternal beings who will outlive our earthly shells.

Nowadays, many of us find it hard to take this kind of talk seriously. Prescientific generations had their excuse for fantastic theories, but we know better. In the palm of our hand, our smartphones have access to more information than history’s greatest libraries. Neuroscientists have mapped the brain and correlated parts of its activity to consciousness. Our best science references matter in motion, not minds or Platonic Forms. From this perspective, there’s simply no room for the transcendent in the modern world, no lacuna in our theories for the immaterial to slip in.

The assumption in this view is that modern science has made it difficult, even impossible to hold to ancient understandings of the transcendent. What’s fascinating is that nearly the opposite is true. In the last 100 years, developments in physics have reaffirmed the fundamentality of mathematics to the universe — and in a subtle way, pointed towards the centrality of consciousness.

When Plato argued that a hidden realm of numbers undergirded reality, he did so with thin empirical corroboration. Nowadays, the supporting evidence is overwhelming. Our physical theories plumb the depths of mathematics, relying crucially on group theory, complex analysis, and differential geometry in their formulations. Quantum field theorists plow through infinites to obtain predictions accurate to a part in a trillion. So great is our reliance on mathematics that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene P. Wigner once termed its effectiveness “unreasonable,” while MIT physicist Max E. Tegmark deems it evidence that, despite appearances, the universe is really an abstract, mathematical structure — a Platonic view if there ever was one.

Nor has the advance of science crowded out an immaterial understanding of the mind. The orthodox formulation of quantum mechanics relies on the notion of a conscious observer to such a degree that several of its formulators, including Wigner, Erwin Schrödinger, and John von Neumann, simply concluded that consciousness was non-physical. And in recent writings, Christof Koch has arrived at the same conclusion on neuroscientific grounds, postulating that consciousness is a fundamental constituent of the universe. This view, known as “panpsychism,” has gained significant traction in the philosophical community, most notably through the writings of David Chalmers and Galen Strawson.

None of this is to argue we should be Platonists, or even that the views I’ve listed here are correct. In their details, most strike me as pretty implausible. But in our age of reflexive materialism, the trends implicit in these views should give us pause. If not developments in science, what accounts for our reluctance in appealing to the transcendent? What makes it so difficult to believe in what many of the ancients took for granted, when the evidence for their conclusions is stronger than ever?

In the rush of online classes, I never got to the Dialogues. But when I do, I’m hoping I’ll take them a little more seriously than before. It’s a chaotic world, and we could all use a little transcendence.

Patrick M. Magee ’21 is a joint Philosophy and Physics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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