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Random thoughts and views of Tim Young

Plato the friend of Atheists?

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There’s been a few occasions now where I’ve asked an atheist how they explain things from their naturalistic world view and I’ve been told “We can just appeal to Plato’s Forms as an explanation.”  I’m not sure if this is an ongoing trend, or just a few isolated instances.   One of the atheist even appealed to Plato’s Forms as an explanation for the cause of the universe…I’m not sure how that would work exactly, and unfortunately I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.  In any case, if they are going to appeal to Plato’s theory of the Forms, I suppose they should deal with the problems surrounding it.

 

 

What follows is an excerpt from a paper I had to wrote on the criticisms of Plato’s theory of the Forms as presented in his dialogue Parmenides.  This was the place in the paper where I discussed the problem called the “Third Man Argument.”  Sorry I know it’s a bit techinal, I’m just to lazy to rewrite it for the blog right now 🙂  Also the references at the bottom are what I used for the entire paper, not the excerpt…once again I am too lazy to take out the ones that weren’t used in the excerpt (man I’m feeling lazy today!).  In anycase, this represents one of the problems these atheists would have to deal with if they are to make Plato a friend of atheists.

 

 

The Third Man Argument

     The third man argument is probably the greatest (or at least the most popular) problem for Plato’s theory of the Forms.  As mentioned above, the primary role of the Forms is to explain predication.  The statement the Statue of Liberty is large” is supposed to mean that the Statue of Liberty participates in largeness.  But what exactly is it supposed to mean for the Statue of Liberty to participate in largeness, or, for that matter, anything at all to participate in largeness (or in any other Form)?  Plato’s gives the following answer in Parmenides 132c12 – d4:

In my opinion, the ideas are, as it were, patterns fixed in nature, and other things are like them, and resemblances of them-what is meant by the participation of other things in the ideas, is really assimilation to them.

 

 Plato’s view (given through the mouth of Socrates) is that the Forms are patterns, and insofar that an object resembles a Form, it participates in that Form.  Forms, then, are like paradigms and participation just is resemblance, i.e. resemblance of an object to the Form(s) it participates in.  Judgments of the sort x is F mean precisely that x sufficiently resemblances F.  Hence, the judgment “the Statue of Liberty is large” means that the Statue of Liberty sufficiently resemblances the Form of the Large.  For a person to make the Judgment “the Statue of Liberty is Large,” it involves that person being acquainted with the Form Largeness and seeing that the Statue of Liberty sufficiently resembles that Form (Rickless, 2007).  In fact, according to Plato, not only does the statue of liberty resemble Largeness, but every single large object resembles that Form as well.   This is true not only of Largeness, but of every other Form as well.  Plato’s assumption is that anytime there is a group of things that share a common nature (largeness, beauty, goodness, etc) there exists one Form “over” all the like things. This assumption has been called “One Over Many” (OM):

OM   – For any collection of things (a, b, c, etc) that are F, there exist a single Form by virtue of which they are all F.  (Cohen, 2006)

     A second assumption made by Plato is that a Form can be predicated of itself.  In the case of largeness, not only are the Statue of Liberty, Jupiter, and Great Danes large, but Largeness itself is large.  The same holds true for all other Forms as well.  The Beautiful is itself Beautiful, The Good is Good, Equal is Equal, etc.  This assumption has been called “Self-Predication” (SP)

            SP        F-ness is itself F (Cohen, 2006)

     At this point Plato’s theory runs into a difficulty. If predication is supposed to be explained by participation in the Forms, how does one explain predication with regard to the Forms themselves? Must the Form of the Large participate in itself?  Or does it participate in a different Form of the Large?  Is The Beautiful, beautiful in virtue of itself or some other Form?  Is the Good, good by virtue of itself or another Form that it participates in? On this issue, Plato assumes that Forms cannot be what they are by virtue of participating in themselves.  This assumption has been called “Non-identity” (NI)

            NI        F-ness is not F by virtue of participating in itself (Cohen, 2006)

     With these three assumptions in place a major problem arises for Plato’s theory as illustrated in Parmenides 131e8 – 132b2:

—And what now? What do you think of this?

—Of what? —I presume you believe that in each case there is one form because of [ej k ] something like this: whenever you think several things to be large, perhaps you think, looking at them all, that there is some idea, one and the same; hence you suppose that the large is one.

—You speak the truth, he said. —And what about the large itself and the other large things?

Whenever you look at them, with your soul, in the same way, will there not appear again one large thing [e{ n ti au\ mevga], by which [w| / ] all these appear large?

—So it seems. —So, another form of largeness will turn up besides the largeness itself that has come to be and the things that participate in it; and over all these again another, by which [w| / ] all these will be large; and thus you will no longer have one of each form, but an indefinite plurality. (as cited in Scolnicov, 2003). 

 

     The problem can be put this way:  If one considers a collection of large things—say, the Statue of Liberty, Jupiter, and a Great Dane—according to OM, there must exists one Form “over” them by virtue of which they are all large.  Hence the Statue of Liberty, Jupiter, and Great Danes will all be large by virtue of participating in the single Form of the Large.  However, according to SP, Forms can be predicated of themselves.  Hence the Form of the Large itself is Large, and the collection of large things will now consist of the Statue of Liberty, Jupiter, Great Danes, and the Form of the Large.  Since OM demands that there exist a Form “over” any collection of things with a common nature (in this case largeness), then there must exist a single Form over the collection of large things, i.e., there must exist a single Form over the Statue, Jupiter, Great Danes, and the Form of the Large, by virtue of which they are all large.  Lastly, by NI a Form cannot participate in itself, hence the “new” Form of the Large that exists over the “new” collection of large things must be numerically distinct from the Form of the Large.  But then there will be a new collection of large things, viz., the Statue of Liberty, Jupiter, Great Danes, the Form of the Large1, and the Form of the Large2.  By OM, there must be a new Form that exists over the new collection, and the process repeats itself ad infinitum. (Rickless, 2007)

Cohen, S. (2006). Criticism of Theory of Forms. Retrieved 2008

Copleston, F. (1946). History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Paulist Press.

Graham, D. (2007, Feburary 8). Heraclitus. Retrieved November 2008, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-parmenides/

Plato. (n.d.). Parmenides. Retrieved December 2008, from The Internet Classics Archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/parmenides.html

Plato. (n.d.). Phaedo. Retrieved December 2008, from The Internet Classics Archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/phaedo.html

Plato. (n.d.). Sophist. Retrieved December 2008, from The Internet Classics Archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/sophist.html

Rickless, S. (2007, August 17). Plato’s Parmenides. Retrieved Decemer 2008, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Russel, B. (1967). A History of Philosophy. Touchstone.

Scolnicov. (2003). Plato’s Parmenides. University of California Press.

 

 

 

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Written by Tim

March 10, 2009 at 11:39 am

One Response

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  1. wow Tim there is some great minds in the world. You could be one of them. God is awesome. He gave us minds to understand Him, but we have gone off the wall leaving God behind, as far as we think. My hope is people see the greatness of God through Life. That They may open there heart to Christ Spirit and open there mind to God and His power.

    Daniel Surges

    January 16, 2010 at 11:35 am


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