Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Man gave names to all the animals

For a year at the University of Sydney, I attended the classes of John Anderson [1893-1962] in Greek philosophy. It wasn't very exciting stuff—a little like entering a fine-looking restaurant in Paris and being served a ham sandwich—for the obvious reason that philosophical thinking, like everything else, has evolved considerably during the two millennia since the ancient Greeks. Listening to the Scottish gentleman rambling on about Plato and Aristotle was equivalent to sitting in on mathematics lectures presenting the elements of Euclidean geometry, or attending a year-long course on the astronomy of Isaac Newton. I've already said that it was grotesque to be teaching a university course in Aristotelian logic at a time when this domain had been totally dominated for decades by so-called symbolic (mathematical) logic. As for delving into the complicated reasons why Socrates was made to drink hemlock for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens, that was a pure waste of time for students in the middle of the 20th century.

On the other hand, in the midst of all this antiquated mumbo-jumbo, I did appreciate one small but non-trivial item of philosophical culture: Plato's theory that things in the real world are mere imperfect instances of so-called universals, which are ideal models of a purely abstract nature, existing only in the mind of God. Funnily enough, my familiarity with Plato's so-called theory of ideas made it easy for me, many years later, to grasp the avant-garde approach to computer programming known as object-oriented programming. Here you start with an abstract class, which is then used to create effective instances of that class, referred to as objects.

For Plato, the countless dogs that we meet up with in the everyday world are merely instances of the divine concept of dog-ness, while cats are instances of cat-ness. And Bob Dylan seemed to be perspicacious when he pointed out that Man, in the beginning, had been obliged to give names to all the animals. This is exactly what a computer programmer does when he starts to invent the classes for an object-oriented project.

The only annoying aspect of Plato's theory is that, while it may be helpful for somebody who needs to master object-oriented computer programming, it is totally and unequivocally wrong as a philosophical explanation of our real world.

Richard Dawkins explains Plato's error brilliantly in the opening pages of his latest masterpiece, The Greatest Show on Earth, which I mentioned briefly a year ago [display]. Truly, if you plan to buy and read only one book in the immediate future, make sure it's this one, since this book proposes knowledge that is an absolute must for all informed and cultivated citizens of our day and age. The author asks a simple rhetorical question: Why has it taken so long for humanity to grasp Darwin's "luminously simple idea"? Dawkins replies that the fault lies with Plato. To understand evolution, you have to abandon your naive Platonic trust in concepts such as dog-ness, cat-ness or anything-else-ness. We exist in a perpetually evolving universe in which a single creature could well combine simultaneously a bit of dog-ness and bit of cat-ness. Or maybe this creature seems to exhibit a lot of dog-ness today, whereas his remote ancestors were better described as apparent instances of wolf-ness. In any case, there's an amazing aspect of Darwinian evolution that demolishes Plato's universals, not only in theory, but at a real-life practical level. This is the fact that the planet Earth has actually witnessed—at one moment or another, and for a lapse of time that allowed for procreation—a living specimen of every imaginable creature on the scale that separates pure dog-ness from pure cat-ness. To see why this apparently exotic claim can be made, you only have to envisage (if you have sufficient imagination) the last common ancestor of dogs and cats, which may or may not have looked physically like something in between a typical dog and a typical cat. (The chances are that it looked like neither.) Between that strange creature and a dog, evolution gave rise to a big series of intermediate animals that ended up looking more and more like dogs. The same can be said for the path from that archaic creature to a cat. So, we only need to imagine these two series of animals laid end-to-end (with their common ancestor in the middle), and we have obtained the real-life metamorphosis of a dog into a cat, or vice-versa. But, if Man had to find names for every member of this gigantic set of specimens, Dylan would be singing for centuries.

Long ago, when I first heard Professor Anderson describing Plato's theory of ideas, I was truly charmed by the image of our watching shadows cast by a camp-fire on the wall at the far end of a cave. It was a romantic Boy Scout metaphor, and I'm sad today, in a way, to realize that Plato's fire has gone out forever. Happily, though, Darwin has led us out of the obscure cave and into the light and warmth of the Sun.

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