Why Richard Dawkins Fails to Appreciate Plato

by Benjamin Studebaker

The other day, Richard Dawkins had a go at Plato:

It’s not the first time. Dawkins has a thing for picking on Plato. He said this back in March:

Why does Dawkins like to rag on Plato? Because Dawkins is a thoroughgoing empiricist–he thinks that truth comes exclusively from observing the physical world. Plato fundamentally mistrusted reality. For Plato, the physical world was the world of appearances. Truth existed only on an abstract plane, in the realm of the forms. Human concepts and ideas are mere imitations of forms. Physical entities are mere imitations of concepts, which are mere imitations of forms. Artistic depictions of physical entities are mere imitations of physical entities which are mere imitations of concepts which are mere imitations of forms.

For Plato, physical objects aren’t as reliable as concepts, and even our concepts are deviant from pure form. Plato doesn’t run experiments because he doesn’t trust the physical world. If you’re trying to get something done in the physical world, Plato isn’t going to be able to help you very much. Science is interested first and foremost in how the physical world works. When we use science to develop technology, we are using science to create new devices for interacting with the physical world. Dawkins is a thoroughgoing empiricist–he thinks that there is nothing that exists beyond the physical, and he trusts the physical more than he trusts the conceptual. So for Dawkins, the idea that we would evaluate the physical world in terms of concepts is an attempt to subordinate the real to the imaginary.

It sounds plausible enough when we are talking about the physical world. The trouble comes when we start to talk about ethics and politics. These domains are about what people ought to do. To decide what we ought to do, we need some set of evaluative criteria by which to judge actions, outcomes, or decision-making procedures. If we are empiricists like Dawkins, we pick up our evaluative criteria by observing what it is that real, physical human beings happen to care about. But if we do this, we tend to fetishise our own values and those of the people around us. Unlike Plato, Aristotle was committed to empiricism to a significant degree. Because of this, Aristotle tended to suppose that the values of the Greeks around him were grounded in some way on nature. Greek society was full of hierarchies. Some Greeks were slaves while others were masters. Some Greeks were wealthy while others were poor. Greek men had citizenship rights while Greek women did not. Aristotle’s empiricism told him that if the people around him valued hierarchy, that meant that these hierarchies were natural in some way. He defended slavery, economic inequality, and the subjugation of women.

Plato did not trust that the values of the people around him had anything at all to do with the good. Plato envisioned an ideal city without slavery or property in which women could participate in rule. Because Plato trusted his concepts more than he trusted his observations, he could criticise the world around him much more thoroughly than Aristotle’s theory permitted.

Many early Christians took inspiration from Plato. Augustine, for instance, was deeply mistrustful of the physical world, believing that a preoccupation with worldly goods led people away from salvation. These early Christians were very critical of the Roman Empire’s ethical failings, but they also saw little use for scientific investigation.

Centuries later, Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle to create his natural law theory. For Aquinas, God’s will was expressed in nature, and therefore we could know God by knowing the patterns God created in nature. In this way, Aquinas created a bridge between Aristotelian empiricism and Christianity. This opened the way for the emergence of modern science, but it came at a cost–by associating the natural with the divine, natural law theory made it much more difficult for theorists to challenge prevailing values.

Ultimately, natural law theory would become associated with some critiques of the status quo, but these critiques were framed in a limiting way. A king could run afoul of natural law theory if the king demanded his subjects act in a way that was against nature. This forced theorists to spend a lot of time and energy arguing about human nature. Inevitably, their understandings of human nature were heavily coloured by the behaviour they observed around them. Accelerated scientific development came with an ethical price tag. If we praise the study of what is, we tend to diminish the study of what should be, and vice versa. Worse, when we praise the study of what is, we tend to understand what should be in terms of what is. What is becomes what should be. Today, empiricists argue that we should do whatever we happen to be motivated to do. The distinction between our desires and our duties is increasingly obscured.

Of course, Dawkins is right that there’s trouble when we go the other way, too. When we praise the study of what should be, we tend to understand what is in terms of what should be. What should be becomes what is, and that prevents us from developing the technologies that are necessary to make the world the way it should be. If what should be already exists on some other plane, we lose our incentive to make an effort to improve this one.

This is why we can never dispense with empiricism–but it’s also why we can never dispense with Plato. Without people like Plato, the scientists just invent rationalisations for whatever moral values exist in the world around them. We need to study both what is and what ought to be.