Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Tuesday, 1 May 2018

The Assumption

Thank you for that helpful contribution, Dr Zoidberg.
Pseudoscience, stupidity and wrong-headedness are some of my favourite topics. Over the years I've looked at the different flavours of wacky beliefs people hold, the way they express them, and the reasons they come to some truly bizarre conclusions. While true idiocy should not be disregarded, by and large even intelligent people can be guilty of wanton stupidity. This obviously includes me, so you have to take everything I say with that in mind.

But there are a couple of Aeon essays going around right now which I think go too far in this regard. Both make the same essential point : that fringe lunatics and the like are basically normal people, but with different - possibly much higher - standards of trust and objectivity than the rest of us. This is a comforting thought, because it means that "we don’t have to attribute a complete disinterest in facts, evidence or reason to explain the post-truth attitude". They've just got the sources wrong, but are fundamentally open to rational argument and persuasion.

The essays are intelligent and persuasive, and the second in particular has many other points I entirely agree with. But this main point has a strong feel of being written by someone who has heard about loonies, but never actually gone and engaged with them. It might well apply to the silent majority of those who merely tacitly endorse fruitcake ideas - I certainly don't dispute there's some merit in it - but I doubt very much it applies to the vocal ringleaders.

So here I want to tackle a couple of important points. First I want to look at the underlying assumptions of science itself - not the messy process of actually doing science, but the most basic, fundamental assumptions of all. Then I'll see if these people are behaving in a way that is fundamentally compatible with scientific practise or if they reject this at a deeper, more fundamental level.


1) What is science made of ?



Another thing that helped prompt this post was a recent conservation with a very good friend of mine who happens to be a staunch atheist. He holds, essentially, that certain beliefs shouldn't be given the benefit of the doubt - that the scientific method must be correct almost by definition. Here I shall show what assumptions this rests on, but, much more fundamentally, why these premises are indeed (and can only ever be) assumptions, and why this is in fact a far more scientific approach in itself - and why it may not even be possible to do science if you don't make these assumptions.

To do this we'll need a basic working definition of science. Of course such a definition could easily take up an enormous amount of discussion by itself, so I'll just propose what I think is a useful, rough and ready description that should convey the essential meaning but might not stand up to rigorous philosophical scrutiny. Proof-reading this post when it was nearly done didn't reveal any obvious flaws, to me at least.

Science, I'd say, is the process of using rational methods to find out whatever is true about the universe. It doesn't necessarily always or entirely use rational methods (you can get lucky and literally dream up the correct answer), and likewise it doesn't always or entirely examine the real universe (you can construct theoretical models based on scientific principles but not expect them to apply to reality). I employ the word "process" in the definition because any process is unavoidably an extended, prolonged affair (not a discrete momentary act) and scientific examination can be incredibly complex. Yet if at some point a technique neither uses rational methods - if you've dreamed up or guessed an answer you still have to test it in a rational way - nor attempts to apply its findings to the real world, it is surely not science.

This definition is very broad, and arguably includes a lot of the so-called "humanities" subjects while excluding mathematics. You could, for instance, do a rational examination of a poem to analyse its sentence structure, or, oh, I don't know, a statistical examination of Plato. But in general I'd say that while there might be a scientific component to these topics, they also have other essential components of their own, such as subjective feelings and intuition. They could be seen as a mirror for science in that respect : they might not necessarily exclusively rely on emotions or internal reality, but they do require them at some point in their own procedures.

It should be apparent that this in no way disparages either science or the humanities, nor insists on firm boundaries between the two. They are both useful and valuable in their own fields, which sometimes overlap. Both can make use of (while being essentially distinct from) the other.

So what assumptions are implicit in this working definition ? Well, given the rather inexact nature of the definitions, the assumptions must be somewhat questionable as well. Still, this doesn't preclude an attempt at finding at least some of the underlying postulates on which the scientific method is founded. In less dedicated posts I've casually stated that science assumes the world is objective, measurable, and real, so let's use those as a starting point. Bear in mind that these assumptions apply only when someone is actually doing science, not necessarily all the time in everything they do. They do not have to be absolutely convinced of their unequivocal truth, they just have to (at the very least) accept and entertain these notions while engaging in scientific examination. That's what an assumption is, after all. I was also strongly reminded of this by this excellent online philosophy course, which really rams home the message that proof, in the strictest sense, is arguably impossible.


i) Objectivity

All forms of science, even those which examine the mind, are based around the notion that there is a world outside our heads. The world is, at least when we examine it, absolute. It does not depend on our own feelings and limited perceptions, except in that our own feelings and perceptions are part of the world. These may serve to limit our understanding, but they do not directly influence things beyond our direct, immediate, physical control. Being angry can cause us to smash things, but anger itself, when stripped of all its secondary effects on the body, causes no change except within our own minds.


Consider the alternative case in which the world was internal and that the only things which genuinely existed were our perceptions, if reality were nothing more than a dream, an illusion, or a simulation. Our thoughts, feelings, and truth would be indistinguishable. We could never know for sure if other people existed or if anything at all was truly independent of us. Reality could keep changing continuously and we'd have no way of knowing if our memories had changed. Two plus two could equal four, or five, or an exploding hippopotamus. There would be no reason whatsoever to presume the world was logical or meaningful.

That's the extreme case. A far more common alternative to the assumption of objectivity is that reality is a sort of objective illusion, which is internally largely and logically self-consistent. This shadow world is very much like our own, but because the physical laws which govern it are somewhat arbitrary and capricious, they can often be suspended. The world is occasionally haunted by ghosts, monsters, gods and demons with supernatural abilities, but most of the time logic prevails.

An even more extreme version has it that no such entities or other spooky phenomena exist and that the world is in fact basically the same as what we see, except that we're just a brain in a vat or a subroutine in a program. This is essentially pointless because there's no real difference between the observed and real worlds in that scenario except in matters of detail - if the observed world is illusory, there's not much reason to assume that brains or subroutines even exist externally, yet that is the usual presumption. But more on that later.

In The Matrix, the real world may be less pleasant than than the simulation but it's fundamentally the same - indeed it's based on a real, documented past. But there's no particular reason this should be the case : if absolutely everything is an illusion, what grounds do you have to suppose that reality operates logically ?
Objectivity itself is comprised, I think, of two other assumptions which do not always require each other. In its usual sense, what we mean by objectivity is that the world is both independent of and external to our thoughts and feelings. These are not quite the same thing. It's possible in principle to make an objective, logical, and even correct assessment of one's own internal feelings, all by oneself, without being influenced by those feelings - strictly speaking objectivity does not require externality, though often this makes things far easier. The externality of the world means that it exists outside our minds. This by itself does not require independence from our minds, since conceptually the world could be external but still directly dependent on our beliefs.

It's important to realise that being objective is not the same as correct. For example, one can construct a weather forecast, or a horoscope, that's entirely objective but completely wrong : neither independence or externality are sufficient for correctness; objective procedure is not at all the same as objectively correct. But a world that is by its very nature not objective cannot be analysed scientifically at all : you can't even have objective procedures, much less correctness, if reality is itself not objective.

So why is the objectivity of the world an assumption ? For the very simple reason that it's impossible to prove it's true. The conceptual possibility of the alternatives is itself sufficient to discredit any notion that the objectivity of the world is provable. If you were being continuously manipulated by Descartes' evil demon, or living in an even more complex and convincing version of the Matrix, you'd have absolutely no way to know about it, let alone demonstrate this to others. Given these two possibilities, that the world is or is not objective, we've no choice but to assume one or the other - there is absolutely nothing compelling us to choose one over the other save our own preferences. But for science, we must assume the former. To do otherwise is to replace objectivity with magic, but to not recognise that an assumption has been made is to fall victim to dogma, absolutism, and preclude the legitimate possibility that the world is fundamentally unscientific. And excluding possibilities without evidence is intrinsically an unscientific procedure, which is why our only hope lies in recognising the assumption that we're making. This doesn't mean we can't fervently believe our assumption is correct, we simply have to acknowledge that it's an unprovable belief.

If the boundary between objective, scientific reality and subjectivity is somewhat blurred by the idea of internally consistent illusions, it is at its fuzziest when dealing with quantum effects. There are, in fact, variants of the subjective nature of reality that are entirely reputable within the scientific mindset. The two most prominent interpretations of the weirdness of quantum reality are the Copenhagen Interpretation and the Many Worlds Interpretation.

The former essentially says that observation determines reality, which, even if not excluding the role of purely mechanistic observations, necessitates a role for conscious observers as well (though this does not forbid conscious observers from themselves being only a peculiar variety of mechanical constructs). The latter interpretation says that there is no unique reality and that all possibilities occur. If conscious beings have any sort of free will, then in this case their choices determine their experienced reality, but no more or less than any other possibilities arising from purely physical mechanisms.

Thus both have a role for minds, albeit rather weakly, and while both are considered extremely controversial (and sometimes deeply unsatisfying), both are also generally accepted as legitimate scientific philosophies. Neither suggest any direct role for emotion, only observation and choice. Most importantly of all, neither say that our subjective, internal reality is what directly shapes the external reality - they are simply weirder and more elaborate pronouncements that our interaction with the external world controls it, though in a very much stronger way than through simple physical control of our bodies. One may argue from other reasons why these ideas are not scientific, but purely from the perspective of objectivity, in my opinion they are sufficient.


ii) Measurability



The external, independent world must also be measurable. The world itself must be fundamentally capable of being measured, if only in principle - practical difficulties do not concern us here. And the observer themselves must be capable, with sufficient effort, to be able to make those measurements accurately. Of course this does not preclude them from making errors, but their own perceptions must be generally reliable enough that they can correct themselves meaningfully. Repeat observations of deterministic phenomena may give rare outlying values because the observer had an angry cat suddenly drop on their head from time to time, but the usual state of affairs is that their measurements are reasonably accurate. Errors can, in principle, be corrected through repeat observations.

Again quantum effects might seem to derail this pleasant idea, and to some extent this is true. The Uncertainty Principle does not forbid us from conducting accurate measurements, but it does limit our precision. In some circumstances, we can only give probabilistic estimates rather than hard values. It doesn't say that we can't measure things at all, only that we can't know their values to arbitrary precision. Which in general is also true of classical physics, since our measuring equipment is inherently limited anyway. That a particle might actually be a probability cloud is, from the perspective of pure measurement, not actually so different from us not being able to measure it with infinite precision and accuracy.

Clearly though, not everything is measurable. We cannot fly into the centre of the Sun or a neutron star and report back, because we'd die - and anything entering a black hole is doomed. However, with the notable and important exception of singularities, all of these are measurable - we assume - in principle. That is, their substances possess definite or at least probabilistic properties. Only singularities seem to defy this basic requirement, where conventional theories lead to infinities that are by definition impossible to measure. Most people believe this points to a flaw and/or incompleteness in the theory rather than reality having some rare exceptions which are inherently unmeasurable.

Simulation of what it would look like inside a black hole. Though the properties of space and time start to become fundamentally different within the event horizon, it's only at the singularity itself where they truly break down.
The role of the observer in this ties back to the idea of objectivity. Although they do have moods, biases, and incorrect ideas (and these internal constructs are themselves not necessarily measurable), this does not influence the external world directly. We cannot know for certain that each and every measurement was made correctly, but we instead have to assume that they were done with reasonable accuracy unless we have good evidence to the contrary. We again can't be sure that an evil demon isn't manipulating reality, or that we aren't living in an illusion with our memories being continuously replaced from moment to moment. We have to assume that this isn't true, that reality isn't so transient and our own skills are not so deeply at fault.

Without this assumption we have absolutely no basis for any of our conclusions at all. An unmeasurable world would have no basis for comparison, no justification for logic, and would be utterly inscrutable to analysis by any kind of rational methods. We have to assume that the world is measurable and our measurements are meaningful, otherwise the scientific analysis is impossible. And again, this is unavoidably an assumption because by definition we have no way to prove that this is really the case.


iii) Reality



Thus far we have a world which is largely external to and independent of our own subjective beliefs, save some small overlap wherein we, as part of that world, are able to influence it. The world is measurable and our own ability to measure it is generally accurate. If we open the box to examine Schrodinger's Cat, we might be influencing the state of the cat or selecting which universe we inhabit (though surely, as someone once quipped, it doesn't take the creation of entire universe to kill one cat), but in both cases we still have an objective and measurable reality - even if our measurements are neither always complete, precise, or accurate. Our perception is limited, but not wholly wrong.


But do we really have to assume that this external world is in some sense real ? Obviously something does exist. In principle we could be living in a fantasy constructed inside the true reality, and if it was as self-consistent as it appears to be, then we could scientifically analyse the nature of that fantasy without being aware that it was not, in that strict sense, real. The assumption that we are in the "true" reality is one of convenience, otherwise our entire analysis is meaningless as it tells us nothing about the truth of the universe - which is the explicit goal of science.

I suppose if you were happy enough to analyse a fantasy, you could get away with rejecting this assumption, but the point is that the fact we are in the "ground state" of reality has to be an assumption. It cannot be proven. This is subtly distinct from the notion that the world we see is objective, since we could in principle inhabit a world which is indeed external to ourselves and independent of our minds but still, in effect, someone else's fantasy. The assumption that our observations are of something real gives our findings an important additional level of meaning, since it follows that we are understanding what's really going on - not just studying the elaborate playpen constructed for us.

That said, it is possible to scientifically analyse a fantasy. Theorists do this with numerical models all the time, yet eventually they expect their results to be compared and contrasted with observations. If those observations are themselves another model, then in what sense have we made a meaningful comparison ? I would say that comparing two models to each other is a qualitatively different activity to comparisons of models with reality - even though the operational procedures might be identical. If you don't know which one is real, it's impossible to say which one is better in absolute terms. You can only make relative comparisons, which are not the same thing at all. So while this might be the least important of the assumptions underlying science, in my view it is still a necessary one.

Combining these three assumptions raises an interesting philosophical question which I shall only mention in passing : where do our imaginary, immeasurable mental constructs - justice, duty, mercy, the tooth fairy, that sort of thing - fit into all these ? They clearly exist in some very broad sense, but obviously not the ordinary physical one. For that matter we could argue that mathematics itself - the foundation of measurement ! - is a mental construct that just happens to apply to the external world. And where does the external world end and the internal world begin ? What, when you really get right down to it, exactly is a thought ? How does an electrical current in the brain become something so much more than that ? I for one have absolutely no effin' clue, so it's way easier to just say, "External world = real; Internal world = something else. Bam. Done, bitches."

All of this analysis suggests at least one additional assumption that I feel fairly confident about.


iv) Logic


This is a running theme in the above discussion but has not been stated directly. If the world is independent of and external to our minds, measurable and real, this still does not preclude it from being fundamentally illogical. It could be a mass of daffodils one minute and full of screaming badgers the next. At any stage it would be measurable, but it would be proceeding in a completely illogical fashion (unless someone can devise a logical theory of spontaneous badger generation, but the deeper point should be clear).


Therefore the assumption that the world proceeds logically, with cause and effect, is distinct from the others. Mathematics, we assume, does apply in the real world given the appropriate numerical parameters and an accompanying account of the physical processes. Our understanding of both maths and physics need not be complete in order for us to assume that the world is indeed governed by them. We need not even fully understand logic itself (certain quantum phenomena and time travel to the past may be regarded as unsolved problems), but a universe that proceeds on capricious, arbitrary whims or without some kind of underlying reason to it cannot possibly be analysed in a scientific way.

Reason, of course, is a loaded term, often conflated with deliberate purpose. Certainly the ancient philosophers (and the religious today) thought that an ordered universe was impossible without a divine will to control it. Modern scientific thinking tends to the opposite view : that a potentially capricious supernatural deity could lead to disorder and chaos, and that to suppose they had some grand scheme in mind is an assumption that science is justifiably unwilling to grant.

No, reason in this context really means something far more basic - the mere notion of causation itself. Nothing happens, we assume, without something to cause it. Hume pointed out that we cannot actually prove causation in the very strictest sense - we only directly observe correlation. This makes our notion of a logical, coherent universe another assumption, though only in the sense that we cannot absolutely prove something totally unpredictable won't happen at any moment. Few people indeed would grant that causation itself is on unstable ground, though in the most rigorous sense it isn't actually proven.

Note that science also, in a strict sense, does not preclude there being an intelligent, careful being directing everything, thus being the root cause of absolutely everything - it neither rejects nor accepts this possibility but simply ignores it as irrelevant. Instead we only assume that cause and effect do actually operate, that one thing can cause another, that nothing happens without some cause - though that can frequently be fantastically difficult to determine.


v) Finite


Thus far I think my series of assumptions are all reasonably safe, and that though some might contest certain aspects of what I've described, few scientists indeed would disagree with the main points. For this final point, I'm likely venturing into far more suspect territory.

We do not know for certain that the Universe is finite in spatial extent. There is however very compelling evidence that is is finite in time and expanding, strongly implying that it is also spatially limited (though not necessarily bounded). If true, the content of the Universe must also be finite, though enormous. In such a case it becomes easy to understand what we mean by a fraction - half of all the stars might be red and half might be blue, the fraction of stars with planets is some number, etc., because the total number of things is fixed.

It's far less obvious if we can assign fractions in the case of an infinite universe - the measure problem. While some infinities are bigger than others, and you can do some mathematical operations on infinities, defining fractions turns out to be especially difficult - perhaps even impossible. Just as with singularities discussed earlier, infinity introduces an unmeasurable aspect to the universe, with all the problems that entails. Recall that singularities are generally supposed to not really be of infinite density as relativity predicts, but indicate instead some flaw in the theory that has yet to be resolved (whilst granting that the theory may be useful and correct in other cases). In the case of an infinite universe, or multiverse of universes, this escape clause is not possible. Thus an infinite universe becomes unscientific because it would be fundamentally unmeasurable.

Worse, its contents would become unmeasurable. A probability value is a type of fraction, and if you can't have fractions, you can't assign probabilities. If you flip an infinite number of coins, an infinite number of them will land heads up, another infinite set will land tails up, another infinite set will land edge on, and yet another infinite set will spontaneously quantum tunnel through the floor... Events that normally happen frequently in the quantum world but that have insanely small probabilities at macroscopic scales would not longer be limited by their fantastic unlikeliness. In some parts of the Universe broken eggs would reform into their original structures, water would freeze at boiling point, and the Loch Ness Monster would eat everybody.

Oh, you could save us from this hellish death of causation easily enough, but the price would be high indeed. We could, by an incredible fluke, just happen to be living in a region in which everything proceeded exactly as though causation meant something when in fact it was all due to random chance. Whilst such a scenario would still concede that the world was objective, it would utterly abandon any notions of measurability, logic, and in a certain plausible sense it would also relinquish the idea that it was real : how can you say which one of an infinite number of absolutely identical objects is the real one ? "Real" and "copy" cease to mean anything at that point. Everything we value most about the scientific endeavour would be gone.

Therefore I say that the Universe should be assumed to be finite. If we don't, we risk making science both pointless and impossible. Once again though, we cannot really prove the Universe isn't infinite in extent (or, strictly speaking, in time), so we must take this as an assumption. It's also important to note that infinities can be merely bothersome in some cases and even useful in others. The problems only occur when infinity is used to abuse probability, such as in the Many Worlds scenario where literally everything only ever happens by chance. Similar abuses are possible in samples which are merely very large, if one resorts to saying that an unlikely event only happens through chance and does not seek an underlying physical explanation. Great care must be taken to distinguish between truly random processes (in which exploiting the effects of chance is legitimate) and physical processes which occur repeatedly (in which case chance plays a role, but physics must also be accounted for).


An infinite, fractal or otherwise repeating universe could perhaps be made logical if the more probabilistic elements of quantum theory could be rendered back to something strictly deterministic. Like a sine wave or the Mandelbrot Set, such a universe need not contain necessarily everything conceivable, or random events happening without cause, but only feature endless variations on a theme. Some events permitted by quantum theory that are currently thought to be fantastically unlikely would have to be made truly impossible for this to happen. The size of the universe at any given moment would have to be finite in order to solve Olber's paradox, and you'd probably need some sort of cyclic process in order to prevent it either expanding or collapsing to oblivion. The problem of unique identity would still remain, and since we don't have a handle on the underlying cause of causation itself, I'm not convinced there really would be a way to prevent ludicrous events happening for no reason. I treat this possibility with the utmost caution.



Can these assumptions be disproven ? 



I've stated elsewhere that scientific theories can disprove their own more superficial own assumptions, such as the existence of dark matter or the age of the Universe - provided of course one remembers that assumptions are being made. What about these much more fundamental ideas ? Recall my attempt at a definition of science : the process of using rational methods to find out whatever is true about the universe. If we make all of the above assumptions, and then conduct our scientific inquiries in accordance with the vast array of other scientific principles and practises we need to carry out an investigation, is it ever possible that we could actually disprove any of them ? Could science actually disprove itself ?

I believe the answer is yes. There is little point in carrying out a scientific inquiry if you limit the conclusions you're allowed, though of course some conclusions are very much harder to reach than others. But we probably could disprove all of the above assumptions, thereby ending the use and value of science. Again, we'd have to remember that these are assumptions in order to be able to question them at all, but, being so fundamental to the scientific process itself, only a fool would demand anything less than the very best evidence possible before they decided that issues so basic ought to be scrutinised to explain their apparently incompatible observations. It would be an act of truly monumental stupidity to declare that because an observation can be explained by abandoning these foundations of science, that they are necessarily flawed - literally anything could be explained in this way. What we absolutely must not do, however, is to declare things to be impossible because our assumptions forbid them. That would be the most unscientific approach of all.

Here are some ways I suggest we might be able to disprove our assumptions, at least in principle.
  1. Objectivity. The independence of the external world could be disproven if someone's thoughts and feelings could be demonstrated to control it without any apparent causal connection. The externality could be disproven if their imaginings and reality could not be distinguished, if their thoughts could become physical constructs at will.
  2. Measurability. Like the single standing stone of Lancre which is so magical no-one is able to count it, measurability could be disproven through the existence of an unmeasurable object. That is, under conditions where measuring devices survive and function correctly, something must be shown to be unmeasurable (giving different results to the same observers using the same methods), be that either probability measurements or more definite numbers.
  3. Reality. If the visible external Universe suddenly stopped existing, or a supernatural phenomena such as a ghost or a demon was well-documented, this would be powerful evidence that what we generally observe is not the deepest level of reality. In the latter case it would have to be shown that the observations really do defy logic. In the former, in which an individual or group awake from a dream, then provided the "real" world was shown to be at least as coherent as this one, then there'd be (at least) no way of knowing which one was real, and good grounds to doubt that either of them were the ground state.
  4. Logic. As above, the existence of phenomena inexplicable by causation would satisfy this one. Most supernatural phenomena would fit this category, though some might be possible to explain rationally.
  5. Finite. This one is much harder. In principle in an infinite universe we could be inhabiting a region where all of the other assumptions permanently appear correct by chance alone. While we can say that observations are consistent with a spatially and temporally finite universe, we strictly speaking can't rule out that either of those might be deceptive. It is even possible that both are infinite, given that the outrageously improbable events allowed by quantum mechanics must occur somewhere in an infinite realm. I think it might be genuinely impossible to really prove that this one either way. The situation would improve considerably if we could somehow presume that the rest of the universe was similar to our own and evolving in a similar, logical and consistent manner. 
I write this very much in a contemporary context. As hinted at, it's unlikely that it's a black and white case of science being valid only if these assumptions are correct, but useless if any of them are not. In the past the logical and rational philosophers accepted mind as intrinsic to the ordering of the cosmos (it would be a step too far to ever call this a scientific assumption, however); if we constructed a virtual reality that was as convincing as this one we'd have to concede that our reality was unlikely to be the true one; if the measure problem could be solved through advancements in mathematics then infinity would no longer pose such a challenge; maybe it would even be possible to devise an alternative to logic itself. It's a fascinating question as to how far the modern scientific approach can be warped before we'd have to say that it was no longer providing the same basic intent or functionality as it does currently. But that is beyond the scope of the current post.

While I was writing this, The Conversation produced a nice little article in like vein which will bring us on to the second topic. This article points out that one flawed argument used by those who deny (some or all) scientific findings exploits the assumptive nature of science : if you don't really know anything without making these assumptions, then your inherent uncertainty, they say makes my position stronger. The error is that questioning these most basic assumptions actually makes any other counter-position possible, which is very different from saying that it makes any one particular counter-position more likely. If you don't know anything, then anything is possible. Why does the Flat Earth get more of a claim to correctness than an invisible jelly monster that's controlling everyone's minds using insane sausages ?

This alludes strongly to the power endowed in science by these assumptions, which I shall return to later, without undermining its even more fundamental basis of philosophy (which, as a quest to discover how we can know anything at all, is granted by its very nature much greater freedom to interrogate the principles of science - it does not have to automatically accept them itself). If, and I stress if, you can shift the arena of debate into the rational or irrational sectors depending on the issue at hand, then all sides are forced to acknowledge the assumptions they're making. This is a powerful asset in any debate. So now we should turn to the second topic, and whether this or other approaches can help those who accept the scientific world view in operating with those who don't.



2) What about the people who challenge these assumptions ?



So we've established a not wholly unreasonable definition of science and a set of assumptions on which it relies. We've shown that these are indeed assumptions, at least given our present understanding. But it's absolutely to vital to remember that within those assumptions, science is fully capable of establishing its conclusions with extreme confidence and even exact proofWithin these assumptions, but only within these assumptions, and accepting that it is neither complete nor perfect, the scientific method is an undeniable work of astonishing achievement.

What, then, of those who reject those conclusions and the arguably related phenomena of people with other (e.g. political) beliefs that make no damn sense ? Are these deep, intelligent thinkers who have thought carefully about the basis of science and then rejected it ? Or are they are just bloody mad ?


Nutters versus the truth



While the first of the Aeon essays is concerned explicitly with pseuodscientific, irrational beliefs, the second is more focused on the political arena and people not hearing opposing viewpoints. Yet both claim that their respective groups of apparent nutcases are actually just people with different standards of truth. They state that these people behave rationally and sensibly, but simply reject certain sources and insist on more rigorous levels of proof than the rest of us. I shall concentrate on the second essay, as it goes into considerably greater depth than the first. I apologise to the author if they were more strictly intending their essay to apply only to the political arena, but I do think that bullshit and post-truthism result from common causes both in politics and pseudoscience.
We don’t have to attribute a complete disinterest in facts, evidence or reason to explain the post-truth attitude. We simply have to attribute to certain communities a vastly divergent set of trusted authorities. Listen to what it actually sounds like when people reject the plain facts – it doesn’t sound like brute irrationality. One side points out a piece of economic data; the other side rejects that data by rejecting its source. They think that newspaper is biased, or the academic elites generating the data are corrupt.
The trouble is that if you actually do go and engage with people, you will find that they generally are being wholly irrational, and all too often it sounds very clearly like brute, outright stupidity. In my experience hardly any of them are really more concerned with being objective than the rest of us. Flat Earthers, in particular, tend to be religiously motivated, and like Creationists, will automatically disregard anything from any source whatsoever that contradicts their existing view. Even their own senses cannot be trusted, because, to be blunt, "God did it". Such a reasoning is by its very nature not objective in the slightest : indeed, it is an explicit denial of objectivism.

Other crackpot viewpoints tend to be of similar ilk, albeit with superficially different motivations : they tend to try to alter the facts to fit their views rather than the other way around - committing that unpardonable sin of thinking that what they already know is a fact, and so anything that contradicts it must be wrong by definition. They cherry pick to an absurd degree, holding whatever supports their view to be unimpeachable but anything else to be obviously wrong, with little consistency as to which source supports or disproves them. But the essay has a strange and unjustified insistence that they behave otherwise :
And, in many ways, echo-chamber members are following reasonable and rational procedures of enquiry. They’re engaging in critical reasoning. They’re questioning, they’re evaluating sources for themselves, they’re assessing different pathways to information. They are critically examining those who claim expertise and trustworthiness, using what they already know about the world. It’s simply that their basis for evaluation – their background beliefs about whom to trust – are radically different. They are not irrational, but systematically misinformed about where to place their trust.
Well, no, not really. They may well have a capacity to process information to form and evaluate conclusions in a logical manner, and I'm sure at least some of them really are, in effect, simply victims of chronic misinformation. But I think it would be a terrible mistake - or at best an oversimplification - to infer that this is what happens in the majority of cases.

Those who aren't interested in challenging their own views are not really being rational at all (or if you prefer, they are not engaging in critical thinking). If you go around only seeking out sources which support your existing view and insist that others must be discredited by definition of their obviously wrong conclusions, without examining the reasoning behind those conclusions, you are hardly being rational. You have already formed a viewpoint and are being an evangelical activist. You are not interested in the truth unless you actively examine contrasting viewpoints and try your best to give them a fair hearing. These people aren't "engaging in critical thinking" in the slightest - there's no real skeptical inquiry going on, they are simply rejecting sources based on their content.


Scientists behaving unscientifically : how to engage a scientist in debate



To be scientific about opposing viewpoints, you have to try and search for your underlying assumptions - ideally the deepest assumptions of all, ones you might not even be consciously aware of - and examine their effect on your conclusions. Scientists hold even empirical measurements as potentially subject to revaluation*, but they don't reject (though they may not immediately entirely trust) them because they don't like them. In contrast, continuously rejecting a conclusion on the basis of what it says without ever examining how it was formed is an entirely different, wholly unscientific approach.

* You might wonder, then, how there can be any facts at all in such a system. At a deep level, we might say that instead of the measurement itself being a fact, it was only a fact that someone claimed to have reported a measurement of a particular value. You can probably see that if we took this too far we would indeed be left with nothing - how do we ever trust anyone's measurements ? This again alludes to measurability as an assumption, and the shallower, more practical consequence is that we simply have to trust that values were reported correctly (see below).

Note the emphasis in that last point. While thus far I've largely been describing ideals, now comes the time when we must temper them with practicality. That is, no-one has unlimited skills, resources, or patience. Someone only need apply the assumptions and goals of science when they are actively seeking to undertake science, not when they're deciding what to eat for dinner. Likewise, if you're arguing with someone on the internet, you have no good reason to feel entitled that they should respond as a paragon of scientific virtue if your argument defies all scientific principles.


Furthermore, scientists do not go around questioning absolutely everything the whole time, because that is unproductive and stupid. It is absolutely integral to the scientific process, though not an innate feature of science itself, that some ideas can be rejected after suitable examination. Without this, progress would be impossible. Had we possession of some perfect artificial intelligence, we might just continuously feed it data and it would continuously re-evaluate all conclusions, but alas we have only our meagre, mortal brains to actually understand what the data means. It's a consequence of the assumption of measurability that we simply have to trust that measurements are generally reported correctly.

Questioning the very basis of science is a fine thing in a philosophy lecture or even in the much lesser medium of a dedicated blog post, but you can't expect everyone to do this either constantly or on demand. Within the scientific world view there are some conclusions which are very much stronger than others, and if you suddenly come unasked out of nowhere and challenge them with little or no evidence, you can't expect a warm and welcoming reception. Scientific conclusions are hard-won, and it is sheer folly to abandon them at the slightest provocation. Furthermore, individual scientists very often do hold those basic assumptions as ideological beliefs, which you can't very well expect them to alter on your say-so, but more on that in a bit.

So what if you do want to go and engage a scientist in an open discussion ? By far and away the best means to challenge them is the conventional arena of scientific debate : the peer-reviewed publication. This sounds pretty extreme, but it's the best method to be be taken seriously. It is, after all, how mainstream conclusions were formed in the first place. In some ways it's an astonishing level of double standards to demand that you can circumvent this as though you had a note from mummy.

But far more common, in my judgement, are people who aren't out to actively discredit science, nor are they genuine pseudoscientists or highly intelligent people who for whatever reason have got some wrong-headed notion stuck in their brains. Most people just aren't that interested. Rather, all they want is a bit of speculation and perhaps some insight into something they've got a passing interest in; they don't have the same level of expert knowledge, but they are at least somewhat curious about other possibilities. They may have a preference for one over the other but not necessarily a dogmatic conviction. Or, as the old saying goes, when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Most people don't need to be hammered, they need to be listened to and engaged using techniques of reasoning. It would be absurd to expect such people to suddenly spend years of their life learning things they have only a passing interest in, and equally preposterous to dismiss them completely - that should be reserved for the most extreme morons who really are rabidly anti-science. Great care must be taken to distinguish between people behaving (temporarily or chronically) anti-scientifically, saying that the principles of science are wrong, and unscientifically, where they say that they are merely inapplicable.

Therefore, if you want to engage in the more common but less rigorous debate with strangers on the internet, the premise and informality of discussion needs to be stated. I discovered this first hand not so long ago, and could have saved a lot of bother if I'd paid more careful attention. The poor bloke was at pains to state that he didn't want me to accept something as true, but just assume it was for the sake of discussion.

Being incredibly dense, I didn't realise this until he basically shouted it at me with a megaphone. Finally the light bulb moment occurred and I realised that I could proceed without professing some belief I didn't hold. I felt both assured that I was not going to be subsequently held hostage to my idle, frivolous speculations in the future, but was only engaging in an enjoyable, rewarding form of play : whilst entertaining the possibility of a different world view, I wasn't being asked to abandon my own. Had this chap proceeded in the more usual way of mouthing off about dogmatic, closed-minded scientists not listening to opposing viewpoints, it would have been just another slanging match; insisting that one already knows the answer will cause scientists, just like everyone else, to become defensive. It also helped that I already thought of the instigator as a basically decent guy who wasn't on an anti-science crusade.


Dealing with different conclusions


Another scientific dispute settled with brutality and shocking violence.
As regards both alternative scientific theories and political viewpoints, it is certainly possible to reach radically different conclusions based on the same data; I don't mean to suggest that anyone deviating from the scientific consensus (or indeed my own strongly left-liberal political leanings) is being a moron. Far from it. For example, of the people who regularly engage on my threads, I think just about every single damn one of them has got at least one opinion on which I think they're being really quite thick. This doesn't mean I don't like them, because, you see, the reverse is also true : I don't think I entirely disagree with any of them. Everyone's got something useful to say about something. And yes, I'm sure quite a few of them think that on a least a few issues I'm behaving moronically - and of course some fraction of this will be correct. You know what ? That's fine. We don't have to "agree to disagree". We can simply disagree, and still be friends. Unless you're a Nazi, that is.

Now this doesn't mean everyone is going to eventually come to the same conclusions or hold no moral convictions or ideals whatsoever; this, as the second Aeon article points out, would be "more than we could reasonably expect of anybody". You can't expect everybody to hold rational views about everything unless you're a total plonker. But, it's good practise to remember that some people disagree because they too are critical, rational thinkers who've taken the time and trouble to examine issues in detail, but that doesn't oblige you to agree with them. All that can be reasonably expected of a genuine truth seeker is that, circumstance and time permitting, they engage in a sincere effort to find the truth and honestly question their existing views.

For example, I've got followers (and in turn follow) people with whom I profoundly disagree regarding, say, Brexit, gun control, abortion, religion, capitalism, gender equality, UFOs, free speech, etc. I don't think most of these people are lesser idiots who are stubbornly refusing to see reason, I just disagree with them. That said, there are some views and combinations of views which are red flags. I'm unlikely to befriend someone who disagrees with me on all of the above issues (there's no point in just constantly having an argument), and there are some views so utterly stupid that I would seriously question the intelligence of anyone holding them, just as I would if someone told me that water isn't wet*. I think it's both reasonable and unavoidable to have some beliefs that just won't budge.

* Let's have no smart-alecy BS about wetness being perception, thankyouverymuch.


Recognising when things are hopeless



All that being true, I find it undeniable that some people are virtually lost causes, unless one is prepared to invest a truly enormous amount of effort into changing their minds. The second Aeon essay makes the important distinction that there are two kinds of limiting thought bubbles that people fall into, though I prefer my own terminology to describe them.

The simplest kind of bubble is one in which opposing viewpoints are not present. This is what I would call an echo chamber-: you're just hearing the same ideas repeated. Other ideas are excluded and never enter your social circle, not necessarily because you're attacking them but because you simply ignore or aren't even aware of them. Even the wisest people of all can only process the information they have access to.

The second kind of bubble is more sinister. Members of this are more like cultists : it's not that they merely disregard or even attack other viewpoints, but they attack other people because they hold opposing views. Those inside this kind of filter bubble are already aware of the opposing arguments but reject them. They do listen, but they take alternative views as evidence of the bias of the other side and do not ever entertain the possibility that they might be correct. In effect they have been inoculated against outside beliefs, allowing them to hear them but never accept them, even provisionally. They have made a far deeper ideological shift - they are so convinced they already know the facts, that anything challenging those facts is wrong by definition. The essay goes on to describe how it is possible, but exceptionally difficult, to reason with such people.

Do scientists sometimes fall into in such bubbles ? Inevitably yes, including the second. Even within science there are different modes of thinking at work. The best kind, in my view, is of a philosophical nature - a position for once which is neither at the extremes nor in the middle of the spectrum. These scientists sometimes stop to consider their underlying assumptions, the nature of the reality in which they operate, and entertain opposing viewpoints from time to time for the sake of curiosity. The curious, philosophical scientist is never stuck for very long with a dogmatic conviction, though they may weight some possibilities more strongly than others, and few if any are always questioning everything - that really would lead to being so open-minded your brains fall out. It's just that they are able and willing to do so from time to time.

The more sinister kind of thought is scientism. These kinds of scientists can be extremely intelligent and skilled at processing data to form a conclusion. They may even be genuinely curious in certain matters. But they are rarely of a philosophical inclination; they do not stop to consider their underlying assumptions or even admit they are making assumptions at all - their conviction of the five assumptions discussed earlier is so strong that they think of them as factual, and therefore anything going against them is wrong by definition.

There is a middle ground, of course. Such people accept the basic assumption of science as assumptions, but are disinterested in ever examining them. They say that propositions which violate these assumptions are inherently unscientific, and therefore it's beyond the remit of science to study them. They stop short of actually attacking unscientific ideas and world views because that holds no appeal to them either. This perspective is closest to the scientific approach itself, but arguably not as beneficial as the more philosophically-minded scientist.


Discussion serves multiple purposes



While in any debate it's very bad form to attack your opponent rather than their argument, it's nonetheless important to establish the nature of the person you're interacting with and the intention driving the discussion on all sides*, including your own. The latter isn't always obvious. For instance, for as long as I can remember I've been asking my mum questions and sometimes I don't agree with her answers. Her invariable, legitimate response has always been : "well why did you ask me then ?". After several decades, a lot of higher education and philosophical ponderings, I think I may finally have an answer.

* While it's worthwhile to be aware of the different ideals of how to respond to something you disagree with, this won't help if you don't also understand who you're dealing with. The idea that "small minds discuss people" is nonsense. Don't let the need to avoid insulting the other side prohibit you from trying to understand them.

In this context there are three sorts of discussion. One of these is education : the person asking a question wants an answer and expects the other person has it. They accept that they themselves don't already know the answer and want to learn what it is, requiring an external source to provide it or instruct them how they might find out. People often tend to assume that's why people ask questions in the first place, but this isn't always so - hence my mum's mild indignation. If the question isn't asked, or the debate is not entered, in a spirit of true and free inquiry, then it's not acceptable to give any-old answer. It's only in the mode where one side presumes the other has a greater knowledge and understanding that they surrender their own right to examine the response.

The second sort of discussion is where someone already believes they have the answer or at least a part of it. They might be asking further questions to evaluate their own (self) knowledge against other people, seeking to establish if their (own) views are consistent. They may also be unconsciously aware that they already hold a position on something, but they are not actually cognisant of what it is. This discussion is one of self-discovery, to raise their deeper view to a more conscious level. It might also be that the person already has all the necessary mental equipment and inner beliefs in place to form a position, but they are lacking some knowledge to fully formulate it, and they want another person's more developed opinion to help them construct their own. The point is that people can be participating in this kind of investigation without even being aware of it - and often the unfortunate matriarch will be equally clueless as to what's going on. It's certainly not the default assumption usually adopted during a discussion. While I was deep in my readings of Plato, I tried on a few occasions to actually participate in discussions like this. But, not being quite able to articulate what I was doing, I stupidly forgot to attempt to, making the conversations helpful but with more ruffled feathers than I intended.

(Of course there's another more trivial interpretation of why people ask questions and reject answers : they may not know the right answer, but they know enough to determine which one is wrong. If I ask why the sky is blue, and you say it's because it's full of smurfs, then I'm justified in rejecting your explanation even though I myself might not know the actual reason. I'd obviously overestimated your intellectual prowess.)

So long as one is aware of the purpose, the first two sorts of discussion can be highly productive. However the third sort, which is very common, is much less useful : activism. The first two types occur between the sorts of people who are, at least at an unconscious and basic level, willing to change their minds. The latter happens when someone has already made up their mind and wants to promote their own viewpoint, with no expectation that someone will seek or be able to persuade them in the process. They are explicitly saying, "here's what I think and why you should agree with me, I don't need to think about it myself any more"*. This mode of thinking is not wholly awful, but it is very difficult to change someone's opinion on that particular matter.

* Nothing is more irritating than clickbaity internet articles that do this. There's a world of difference between saying, "here are the facts and some interpretations, draw your own conclusions", "here's what I think about this", and, explicitly, "here's why you should think the same as me". Persuasion is respectable goal, but such an obvious declaration smacks of propaganda and devaluing disagreement. Strong convictions are best expressed implicitly, unless you at least make an effort to be tactful towards your opponents.

Activists are tough. Yet, if you are convinced that their viewpoint is wrong and needs to be dismantled, you could begin by undermining the factual foundations of their conclusions. Starting by attacking their ideology is rarely a good idea - this is usually a core part of a person's identity, and their very physiology is telling them not to believe you. Paradoxically, while people don't like explicitly being told what to think, they can be tremendously vulnerable to manipulation. A summary of some techniques can be found here. In brief : tackle the "facts" they think are true which have lead them to their own conclusions and beliefs, and let them come to their own conclusions independently (or at least think they have). If at all possible, don't leave a gap - argue for uncertainty, but present possible alternatives without enforcing them. Try and understand their deeper beliefs before attempting to change their more superficial conclusions. You may not have to shift their more valued ideology at all, if you can demonstrate that an alternative conclusion is compatible with it. Examples can be found here.

All this shows why discussions about post-truth and bullshit are so important. If people don't even care about the facts, then arguing with them rationally is useless. Most probably, some do and some don't. It's not that those who don't can't be reasoned with, it's just that you need to use more emotive techniques for them - otherwise they will view you as a cold, unfeeling monster. Conversely, appealing only to emotion to those who are more concerned about facts will be equally unsuccessful - they'll think of you as a wishy-washy ignorant woo-woo merchant. Pick your battles carefully, and seek to engender a sense of goodwill. As the second Aeon article rightly states :
We don’t simply trust people as educated experts in a field – we rely on their goodwill. And this is why trust, rather than mere reliability, is the key concept. Reliability can be domain-specific. The fact, for example, that somebody is a reliable mechanic sheds no light on whether or not their political or economic beliefs are worth anything. But goodwill is a general feature of a person’s character. If I demonstrate goodwill in action, then you have some reason to think that I also have goodwill in matters of thought and knowledge. So if one can demonstrate goodwill to an echo-chambered member, then perhaps one can start to pierce that echo chamber.
This also hints at why the method in The Conversation will only be of limited help : only a small subset of the Flat Earth ilk will be vulnerable to realising that abandoning the scientific method leads to abandoning all scientific knowledge. That small group will be those who have fallen victim to chronic misinformation, and/or have simply not realised the magnitude of the broad implications of their specific claim. These kinds of people have indeed not much abandoned the tenets of science : they only inhabit echo chambers, not cult-like exclusion bubbles.

In contrast the majority of pseudocscience acolytes unfortunately have begun to reject logic and rationality, but not entirely. Most, perhaps, are not wholly irrational, so in that sense the Aeon essays have a point; they selectively cling to logic even while denying its broader findings. If you tell them that the Flat Earth requires entertaining a host of other (scientifically) ludicrous other ideas, they'll only respond with mountains of "evidence" as to why their particular theory is correct and all the other are bollocks (trust me, I've spend far too much time around such people), not so much accepting or discarding scientific methodology as wantonly abusing it. Pseudoscientific findings are engendered by psuedological methods : rational here, irrational there, without consistency. This is what makes it so frustrating to come to grips with - believers clearly are inherently capable of behaving reasonably, it's just that on some issues they absolutely refuse to. They are highly reluctant to concede that their views necessitate that the world is not the objective, logical place they would (often) genuinely prefer it to be, because they don't really understand what we mean by objective or logical - they're rarely capable of grasping the basic assumptions of science.

The most extreme variety of all are actually sometimes more intelligent : they recognise that they're being irrational and that proposal doesn't fit in the remit of science. These people rarely try and persuade scientists, dedicated to rationality, that they should be irrational instead - because they know the response will be a straightforward, "no". It is perhaps inherently flawed to suppose that you can reason rationally with people conscious that they have rejected rationality, and vice-versa, so neither side is even capable of interacting much with the other. In my experience such people range from the utterly bizarre, who have rejected logic for reasons not even they understand, to deep, ferociously intelligent philosophers. For all that the world makes little sense and has seemingly little coherency without a scientific approach, and that self-consistent theories are only possible within the assumptions of science, the Universe is under no obligation to behave as we would demand of it.


3) Summary and Conclusions



It's all tremendously confusing. But there are quite a few take-home points from all this. First, let's sum up the nature of science and its assumptions :
  • The scientific approach and world view rests on key assumptions that the world is objective, measurable, real, logical, and finite. All of these (and perhaps others) are inherently unprovable - if any of them were not true, it would be extremely hard and likely impossible to guarantee that the world behaves in accordance with modern scientific notions. Ultimately, they really are, and can only ever be, assumptions. There is no question of "admitting" they're assumptions, because they simply are so.
  • Within those assumptions, science is a truly formidable edifice. That is not to say it is even remotely completely or perfectly accurate - its very nature demands flexibility. Yet it is capable of remarkable levels of confidence : if it can rarely give a complete or unequivocal answer, still it can give an answer which is sufficient for the basis of actions.
  • Science is capable of disproving itself, at least in principle. It absolutely does not follow that any viewpoint requiring scientific assumptions be suspended automatically disproves science, just that that viewpoint is fundamentally unscientific.
  • While science might never be able to deem that its key assumptions are really true, there are ways in which all of these assumptions can be tested. However this is dependent on the system itself, not the people participating in it. Dogmatic thinking can ensnare anyone, scientists and non-scientists alike, if they confound their unprovable assumptions with facts. 
And then we should break this up for readability, and move on to what we've learned about people both doing science and disagreeing with it. Those conscious of the scientific method and philosophy behind it will be aware (at some level) of the assumptions they're making and tend to admit them; crackpots seldom do. If you can manage to get people to admit what assumptions they're making, and thus shift the debate to the arena of rationality or irrationality as appropriate, you've gone a long way to getting them to start thinking. Which is, and I can't stress this enough, absolutely no guarantee they'll be any good at it. Anyway :
  • Scientists are people too. You cannot expect them to be wholly rational about absolutely everything, nor infinitely patient or available on demand. While some are abject ideologues, convinced that rationality is magically a fact by definition, others are very much normal people just getting on with their job, neither crusading for rationality nor attacking dissenters, ignoring rather than examining or championing the underlying basis of the process. Others, perhaps the majority to different degrees, are philosophical and curious, but even these are not performing seals obligated to abandon cherished assumptions through pure whimsy, any more than an artist should be expected to work "for exposure".
  • Debating scientific issues with doubters ideally requires an understanding of oneself, the other side, and the purpose of the debate itself. Some people are just misinformed about methods and facts, victims of echo chambers. Others are in a more cult-like state of indoctrination : the aggressive activist style of thinking makes them resistant to counter-arguments and even bolstered by them
  • Even the most rational of people do not necessarily agree on everything and may hold strong opposing convictions on certain topics. Someone who is in "activist mode" will be very hard to persuade and the method used highly dependent on the individual. Scientific conclusions cannot be fought with irrational, emotional arguments, and irrational, emotional arguments cannot be countered with cold logic. 
  • ... but if you do have to argue with an activist, don't try and go straight for the ideological jugular. If possible, instead try and undermine the factual or emotional basis of specific conclusions little by little. Argue for uncertainty but present alternatives, preferably ones compatible with existing ideologies. Demonstrate goodwill, don't criticise someone's intellect (even, or especially, if they don't have much of one) or tell them what particular fallacy or bullshit tactic they're using, and remember that changing their superficial conclusions may be much easier than altering their deep-rooted ideological beliefs. Hold your own convictions, don't tell them what to think, and try and lead them to form a new conclusion by themselves. Get them to entertain hypotheticals.
  • If you yourself venture into activist mode at times, never sink into this permanently. Always allow yourself a space in which to coolly and soberly reflect on yourself away from the judgements of others, entertaining alternatives if, for nothing else, than for the sake of fun. Feel free to fail. Improvement is only possible through change.

One of the main criticisms levied against the fundamental assumptions of science is that this seems to undermine the scientific world view. In my opinion, it does the exact opposite. It neither weakens nor cheapens the scientific achievement, but instead strengthens it immeasurably : the fact that its assumptions are disprovable is a tremendous power scarcely found in any other cosmogony; the admission that they are unprovable is a testament to its genuine commitment to truth and a powerful shield against dogmatic thinking. It opens new possibilities without abandoning the old, enforcing the strength of its conclusions without necessarily labelling dissent as heretical. And within those assumptions, it restores science to something like, though very much messier than, our schoolbook picture of a process of testing, falsification and proof. Absolute right and wrong becoming comfortingly achievable again, albeit rare, whilst not denying shades of grey nor, paradoxically, insisting on unquestionable doctrine. It really is the best of both worlds.

There is little sense in battling those who truly deny science by using scientific methods, any more than one would expect scientists to be coerced by irrational drivel; rather, they should be persuaded that its benefits do not exclude the virtues of more intangible perspectives. Argue factual and rational disputes primarily using scientific methods, and emphasise the emotional and moral aspects for debates which are driven by those quandaries. Allow the humanitarian and scientific viewpoints, which are not mutually exclusive nor incompatible, to flourish in their respective arenas, and instead of the forlorn hope of winning an impossible battle when ideological clashes do occur, seek instead compatibility and deny the conflict. The extremists, and the extremely stupid, are virtually beyond salvation, but the clash of the reasonably capable and ideologically less motivated (a conflict weaker in dispute but more numerically significant), might just be largely averted.

Finally, this acknowledgement of these assumptions - leaps of faith for some, entertaining notions for others - offers the prospect of a world which is richer, more wonderful, and more terrifying than found in any dreary textbook, religious text or cultist lunacy. It is partly through this admission that the scientific process ceases to become another means of control, yet another belief system using knowledge and belief to oppress rather than enrich, and transcends to a philosophical, genuinely curious search for the truth. That is the power of questioning the most basic assumptions of all, opening possibilities beyond intellect or fanaticism. No other human endeavour is so liberating, so unifying, as this unlimited, astonishing exploration of the reality of ourselves.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Building Better Worlds (IIC)


Welcome, unfortunate reader, to the third and final instalment of my thrilling, award-winning deserving series on Plato's Laws. If you've made it this far and haven't read Laws itself, you've probably got a worrying fetish for tedious analyses interspersed with occasional internet memes. Fair enough, I guess.

In part one, I looked at the purpose of the law according to Plato : to encourage and enforce moral behaviour. Laws and the citizens are both a mirror and a lens for each other - the law reflects society's current beliefs, but it also examines and controls it, and in turn society is instructed by but also examines and controls its own laws. The simplistic solutions of having one entirely subject to the other (the law or government as an unarguable authority) were revealed, albeit circumspectly, as fatally flawed.

In the second, I conducted a laborious statistical analysis of the laws of Magnesia, though with little examination of its lesser regulations and general culture. This showed that the laws were set in a fairly consistent scheme to punish crimes appropriately to the nature of the crimes. But it also revealed inconsistencies that are otherwise difficult to discern in the 200+ page original text : the law reacts differently to different people committing the same crime, with little (and often contradictory) reasons given for doing so. Despite its lofty goals, Laws remains a primarily philosophical rather than practical work. Yet ironically, however flawed the reasoning may be, it's the philosophy in which the dialogue really shines.

To examine this we must now go deeper into Magnesian everyday life. We've already examined it on the surface level, but we need to examine individual laws and regulations in more detail. In doing so we may hope to better understand the reasoning behind the fictional state, and far more importantly, what lessons this brilliantly broken work might hold for us today. How the state deals with ordinary life is just as important as how it deals with crime.


What's it like to be a Magnesian ?


The most obvious, sensible way to proceed is through a comparison of the theme song from the Lego Movie, so let's do that.

Everything is awesome !
No. Only certain, carefully-defined things are awesome. Everything else should be avoided or face punishment.

Everything is cool when you're part of a team
Most definitely yes. Civil harmony is very important. The only things more important are religious devotion and the pursuit of virtue.

Everything is awesome when we're living our dream
It's foolish and presumptuous to think you know best. You should do whatever your betters tell you to do. Harmony is only found with the correct balance between freedom and servitude.

Everything is better when we stick together
Indeed. Cooperation between citizens benefits both the individual and the state.

Side by side, you and I gonna win forever, 
Failure is an important teacher and we should not win unless we deserve it.

let's party forever
No. Festivities may only occur at the proper time as specified according to religious laws. Political parties lead to bogus laws which have no claim to be obeyed.

We're the same, I'm like you, you're like me...
It's true we must all be raised on the same educational system, but that is a means to discover which of us is more suitable to legislate and govern, as well as impart knowledge. We must all strive for the same virtue and religious practises, but we're all good at different things. We must combine our different skills for mutual benefits.

...we're all working in harmony
Now you're beginning to understand.

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you're part of a team
Everything is awesome when we're living our dream
I believe we've sufficiently addressed these issues already.

(Wooo)
3, 2, 1. Go
It's very important for a legislator to have a firm grasp of mathematics.

Have you heard the news, everyone's talking
They should only describe their fields of expertise. It is improper for ordinary citizens to talk about matters about which they know nothing.

Life is good 'cause everything's awesome
That is thanks to our moderate policies of regulating private lives for public benefit.

Lost my job, it's a new opportunity
That can only occur if you've been removed from office for dishonourable conduct. You must find another, very similar job at once. Changing professions is illegal.

More free time for my awesome community
Magnesia salutes your devotion to the state and will see that you get a good reputation as an honest citizen.

I feel more awesome than an awesome possum
We don't have possums.

Dip my body in chocolate frostin'
Nor do we have any chocolate.

Three years later, wash off the frostin'
Antisocial behaviour will not be tolerated. Those who are so barbarous in private as to not attend to their basic bodily needs are sure to be disreputable in their public affairs.

Smellin' like a blossom, everything is awesome
You sound weak and effeminate. A good citizen should experience hardship so they properly appreciate the benefits of our state.

Stepped in mud, got new brown shoes
Only shoes made by authorised tailors are to be permitted.

It's awesome to win, and it's awesome to lose (it's awesome to lose)
It's awesome to be a just person by nature. The second most awesome thing is to become a just person as a result of correct, corrective disciplinary action.

Everything is better when we stick together
Side by side, you and I, gonna win forever, let's party forever
We're the same, I'm like you, you're like me, we're all working in harmony
Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you're part of a team
Everything is awesome when we're living our dream
The repetition of the song, pending the corrections we've made, is very important to continually reinforce our messages of indoctrination. No harm can come from saying a good thing twice.

Blue skies, bouncy springs
Springs should be ritually purified if anyone is found guilty of polluting them by religious means.

We just named two awesome things
Commendable, provided the name gives an accurate indication of the objects, since naming has a correct procedure rather than being defined purely by accepted convention.

A Nobel prize, a piece of string
Civic awards are very important, string less so.

You know what's awesome? EVERYTHING!
What a way of carrying on ! Do you think my previous objections were wrong, or that my proof was some worn-out scrap of clothing and now you need a new, immaculate proof ?

Dogs with fleas, allergies,
Animals found causing pollution must be put to death or sent into exile. Diseased citizens should see a doctor.

A book of Greek antiquities
Family heirlooms are tolerated, but the ideal state would have no concept of private property.

Brand new pants, a very old vest
Try togas instead.

Awesome items are the best
You have only provided examples of awesome items, not defined awesomeness itself.

Trees, frogs, clogs
They're awesome
As long as they're found in the appropriate places and used correctly.

Rocks, clocks, and socks
They're awesome
Rocks that injure our citizens are to be thrown outside the boundaries of the state.

Figs, and jigs, and twigs
That's awesome
I suppose there are worse things in the world...

Everything you see, or think, or say
Is awesome
Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you're part of a team
Everything is awesome when we're living our dream
We've been through this.


Okay... I suppose we probably do need to look at things a bit more carefully. There are two aspects which I found particularly interesting : education and freedom. Freedom because Plato's principles, I think, we could still learn a lot from today (his conclusions leave a lot to be desired), and education because I found the work extremely provocative. Both of these are heavily interlinked and permeate every aspect of Magnesian life, so I'll be going on about them quite a bit.

This is a massive topic, so how to tackle it without boring the reader witless ? Let's try charting the life of a typical Magnesian citizen.


Infancy



Good news ! Unlike in the Republic, where children are seized by the government soon after birth and raised communally by the state, Magnesian children live with their parents. Bad news ! In stark contradiction to his own loudly-stated view that people shouldn't speak on matters they know nothing about, Plato's got some weird advice on parenting techniques. For example, big strong nurses should carry children everywhere until the age of three, keep them well wrapped up until the age of two, and always ensure that they're in motion "as though they're permanently on board ship". Why ? God knows. The only reason he doesn't propose an actual law for this is because, mercifully, he realises everyone else would find it ridiculous. More positively :
I belong to the school of thought which maintains that luxury makes a child bad-tempered, irritable, and apt to react violently to trivial things. At the other extreme, unduly savage repression turns children into cringing slaves and puts them so much at odds with the world that they become unfit to be members of a community.
The text is a little confused here, but what Plato seems to be indicating is that up until the age of three, kids should be protected from all forms of unpleasantness. The idea is that that's when they're most susceptible, and liable to learn fear too soon and so grow up as cowards. But it's not perfectly clear, because while he starts developing this idea, he suddenly refutes it with no explanation. While he also says :
The right way of life is neither a single-minded pursuit of pleasure nor an absolute avoidance of pain, but a genial contentment with the state between those extremes.
... he doesn't go on to describe how this should apply for infants, who were until then treated with the utmost delicacy. I suspect he simply means that there's a temporal component to it - protect the very young completely, but then gradually introduce them to the unpleasant realities of life. That way they get used to suffering and can cope when it happens without collapsing into blind, furious hatred.


Childhood


That bald guy with the beard has the creepiest stare ever.
Things become less ambiguous after age three :
In the fourth, fifth, sixth and even seventh year of life, a child’s character will need to be formed while he plays; we should now stop spoiling him, and resort to discipline, but not such as to humiliate him. We said, in the case of slaves, that discipline should not be enforced so high-handedly that they become resentful*, though on the other hand we mustn’t spoil them by letting them go uncorrected; the same rule should apply to free persons too.
* This seems fine in principle, slavery itself notwithstanding, but see last time for just how much harsher the punishments towards slaves would be.

The youngest children are to play together communally, supervised by nurses and slaves but with no specific intervention by officials except to prevent chaos. At age six and above the sexes are separated and formal lessons begin. Although this isn't a law in the text, the intention is very clear that this is to be compulsory and universal, with no distinction on class or gender :
Children must not be allowed to attend or not attend school at the whim of their father; as far as possible, education must be compulsory for ‘every man and boy’ (as the saying is), because they belong to the state first and their parents second.
At this stage of life, the games don't end... but the state does step in. As usual Plato acknowledges that his proposal may seem far-fetched, but he thinks it's absolutely essential for the state to regulate children's games at this stage :
All legislators suppose that an alteration to children’s games really is just a ‘game’, as I said before, which leads to no serious or genuine damage. They don’t appreciate that if children introduce novelties into their games, they’ll inevitably turn out to be quite different people from the previous generation; being different, they’ll demand a different kind of life, and that will then make them want new institutions and laws. 
His solution, inasmuch as this is even a problem at all, is that games become run by the "church", remembering that there was no such formal institution in polytheism but that Plato was pretty determined to invent one. The sanctification of the games would make them very much harder for anyone to propose changing, in case they dishonoured the gods. This ultra-conservative view, that novelty "is the biggest menace that ever afflicts a state", is a constant thread through Magnesia, and our young citizen will grow up never permitted much in the way of creativity at any stage of life. It goes some way to explaining that odd statement about the laws being unchangeable that we looked at in part one, though it is, of course, extremely strange to hear someone who spent their life refuting common beliefs advocating for rampant conservatism.

Anyway, as for lessons, both sexes get an identical education. There are two kinds of lessons : cultural and physical. Rather than trying to instil a love of learning, the cultural lessons are more about indoctrination through singing and dancing, of which Plato goes on with obsessive, fanatical and tiresome devotion as to the precise forms each should take.

Both genders also get identical physical education, including (especially, as he puts it) in weapons training. He's really very emphatic about that indeed :
Let me stress that this law of mine will apply just as much to girls as to boys. The girls must be trained in precisely the same way, and I’d like to make this proposal without any reservations whatever about horse-riding or athletics being suitable activities for males but not for females... I now know for sure that there are pretty well countless numbers of women, generally called Sarmatians, round the Black Sea, who not only ride horses but use the bow and other weapons... I maintain that if these results can be achieved, the state of affairs in our corner of Greece, where men and women do not have a common purpose and do not throw all their energies into the same activities, is absolutely stupid. Almost every state, under present conditions, is only half a state, and develops only half its potentialities, whereas with the same cost and effort, it could double its achievement. 
Plato then gets derailed by all the stuff about cultural indoctrination, so it's difficult to chart the precise course of our growing Magnesian. Certainly weapons training begins at age six, and the intention really seems to be to develop male and female soldiers alike. Later on it's made explicit that young women should train in armour and be familiar with battle maneuvers : at the absolute minimum, they can defend the state in the event of an invasion. And in another way we see a remarkable level of toleration :
Foreign teachers should be hired to live in these establishments and provide the pupils with complete courses of instruction in both military 
Rather than corrupting the purity of Magnesia, foreigners are actually encourage to participate in the most important civic project of all ! This is contradictory with the very notion that Magnesia will be the best state to live in : if it was, how could its education be given over to those who are the least familiar with it ?

There's a gap between ages seven and ten, because Plato gets derailed by the protracted discussion on what kinds of songs (presumably including epic poems - later there are mentions of "written works not set to music", so singing plays the role of literature for a while) and dances the younglings should get, but from there the education programme resumes :
About three years will be a reasonable time for a child of ten to spend on literature, and a further three years, beginning at the age of thirteen, should be spent on learning the lyre. 
Well, the children must work at their letters until they are able to read and write, but any whose natural abilities have not developed sufficiently by the end of the prescribed time [there isn't one] to make them into quick or polished performers should not be pressed.

Adolescence

After that we lose specificity again. Plato is much more concerned with the actual teachings than the timing and duration allotted for each subject. He probably doesn't mean that from ages 10-13, children should do nothing at all except learning literature, and then another three years doing nothing but lyre-playing - that wouldn't fit with the rather broad-ranging, general education proposed. This includes mathematics and geometry, astronomy, and hunting. While not everyone was to be educated to the same degree, absolutely everyone was to be given at least a basic grasp of everything.
A man, at any rate, will fall a long way short of such godlike standards if he can’t recognise one, two and three, or odd and even numbers in general, or hasn’t the faintest notion how to count, or can’t reckon up the days and nights, and is ignorant of the revolutions of the sun and moon and the other heavenly bodies.
So our young Magnesian will grow up to be quite the polymath. She will know how to sing and dance, how to honour the gods, how to fight in armour and plan battle tactics. She'll know how to read and write, all about poetry and prose, how to play the lyre, basic mathematics and geometry, and have some knowledge of the stars. And she'll ride horses, practise archery, javelin, and the slingshot. In short, she'd make a great heroine.

Of course, the men would be similarly intellectually and athletically diverse, but insisting on such a level of equality for women - especially based on observations of the barbarian tribes - was incredibly novel.
All of this is in stark contrast to Plato's proposals elsewhere to make people uber-specialists. This was advocated strongly in Republic, with everyone doing a single job their whole lives, and also features here. Earlier in the work :
I insist that a man who intends to be good at a particular occupation must practice it from childhood: both at work and at play he must be surrounded by the special ‘tools of the trade’. For instance, the man who intends to be a good farmer must play at farming, and the man who is to be a good builder must spend his playtime building toy houses; and in each case the teacher must provide miniature tools that copy the real thing.
The problem is, how do we know what the young citizen will either want to do or be good at when he grows up ? We don't. The compromise solution seems to be that everyone gets this well-rounded education, and then when they've settled on a vocation they must stick with it until the bitter end.

There's nothing particularly special about the teenage years in Magnesia, except that after the age of puberty girls should no longer compete in athletic contests naked (all children and adult men should be naked during sports, as was standard practise at the time). As for younger children, these competitions involve running, horse riding, archery, slingshot, javelin, wrestling, and armed combat. The only difference for women seems to be that their participation isn't mandatory (there's no actual law saying men must compete though), but if they want to participate "then they should be permitted to do so and not discouraged".

300 may have been the gayest movie ever, but that lack of armour didn't come entirely from nowhere.
While there are provisions made for youthful intemperance in the laws, such as the greater chance of getting into a fight, this is to be tolerated but never encouraged. Alcohol is forbidden completely until age 18, and only permitted in moderation until age 30 (in general Plato seems to think that youth doesn't really end until 30).


Adulthood



Making More Magnesians

So our polymath Magnesian has reached the age of citizenship (or residency if they're born to a foreigner). They now have to fulfil a whole series of obligations to the state : find work, marry, produce children, and serve in the military - but not necessarily in that order. Actually the precise age at which compulsory education ends and citizenship begins is ill-defined at seems to be variable - roughly between the ages of 15 and 20. At all times, in almost everything they do, they must be controlled (to varying degrees) by the state :
The citizens join in marriage; then children, male and female, are born and reared; they pass through childhood and later life, and finally reach old age. At every stage the lawgiver should supervise his people, and confer suitable marks of honour or disgrace... every gentleman must have a timetable prescribing what he is to do every minute of his life, which he should follow at all times from the dawn of one day until the sun comes up at the dawn of the next.
The activities prescribed for which citizen vary according to age. For girls, virtually the first thing they'll be doing is getting married, whereas men get to wait rather longer :
The age limits for marriage shall be : for a girl, from sixteen to twenty (these will be the extreme limits specified), and for a man, from thirty to thirty-five.
So there must be a minimum age gap of ten years between man and wife, and possibly as much as 19. Which is immediately and brazenly in contravention of human nature : I don't mean that partners should have a small age difference, only that some of them are damn well going to. There are more contradictions here - later Plato specified that men should marry before the age of thirty.

Now, as far as pregnancy goes, there could potentially be some health concerns, and maybe a belief that it was unhealthy for a woman to have children later in life, in which case at least the young age of a bride would make sense (though it would still not explain the older groom). But that doesn't seem to be the case either :
If children come in suitable numbers, the period of supervised procreation should be ten years and no longer. But if a couple remain childless throughout this period, they should part.
Which, morality aside, is hopelessly vague. "Suitable numbers" aren't specified, nor is there any period in which at least one child should be produced. Accepting this ten year period means that both of our couple will now be outside of marrying age, so what's the point of forcing them to part ? What does that accomplish ? Later, some exceptions are described, but they cause equal problems :
If a wife dies and leaves male and female children, we’ll lay down a law advising, though not compelling, the husband to bring up his existing children without importing a stepmother; but if there are no children, he must be obliged to remarry so as to beget sufficient children for his home and for the state. If the husband dies, leaving an adequate number of children, their mother should remain in her position and bring them up; but if it is judged that she is too young to live unmarried without injuring her health, her relatives should report the facts to the women in charge of marriages and do whatever seems advisable to both sides; and if there have been no children born as yet, they should bear that in mind too. (The minimum acceptable number of children is to be fixed by law as one of each sex.)
So it seems that remarriage is possible outside the range specified for first marriages, which makes little or no sense. Also, the final statement is problematic because elsewhere it's clearly stated that either gender alone will do - there's no compulsion to produce both genders, because that's impossible to guarantee. Our young Magnesian couple are going to have terrible difficulties figuring out if they're behaving legally in the bedroom.

And what if they just want a bit of rumpy-pumpy without the worries of pregnancy ? Well, whereas it seems perfectly "natural" to demand a 10-20 year age gap between the partners, loving the same gender is a big no-no. Bearing strongly in mind the rampant homophillia displayed in other dialogues (especially Symposium in which it homosexuality is described as better than than heterosexuality) :
But homosexual intercourse and lesbianism seem to be unnatural crimes of the first rank, and are committed because men and women cannot control their desire for pleasure.
Again this all comes down to the idea that excessive pleasure causes corruption and vice. This includes heterosexual pleasure, but homosexual pleasure (and sodomy in general) is apparently particularly bad because it doesn't have the beneficial side-effect of producing children.

In the context of the full Platonic corpus, this is a seriously strange idea. Homosexuality has been seen as normal and even necessary, and even in the Republic (where these new ideas begin to gestate) sexual gratification is seen as necessary to prevent the citizens from driving themselves to distraction. Why this rather fleeting pleasure has now become such a problem is anyone's guess. Was Plato getting old and forgetting that'd managed to do some sterling philosophy in his younger, more hedonistic days ?

Regardless, Plato decides to prevent homosexuality through religious and social disgrace. He holds that incest is prevented by the stigma attached to it, and thus the same can be done for homosexuality. Historically, this hasn't proven effective, but he wasn't to know that. Heterosexual urges are to be restrained, though not entirely prevented, by making the citizens love privacy and hate publicity. Oddly, this leads to an implication that prostitutes and adultery are to be legal provided the citizens keep their mouths shut :
Alternatively, while suppressing sodomy entirely, we might insist that if a man does have intercourse with any woman (hired or procured in some other way) except the wife he wed in holy marriage with the blessing of the gods, he must do so without any other man or woman getting to know about it.
Which is just downright bonkers.

OK, so our citizens are likely all going around fornicating madly in private and feeling very confused about their supposedly unnatural urges for the same gender (so not much different from today, really). But there's more to being an adult than screwing and raising little Magnesians. They've got to find a job, enrol in the military, become teachers, practise religion, engage in trade, interact with other states, receive visitors, become civil servants and leaders... all kinds of things.


Military service



The Greeks were a warlike people who didn't see much immoral about bashing each other about a bit. Rather they'd see avoiding war as craven and cowardly. Magnesia's military would be almost entirely for defence - this state isn't going to steal off its neighbours or become piratical or anything like that. There'd be no point, given that growth for its own sake serves no purpose. The state is quite content to be the right size, and growing larger would just make it harder for the citizens to remain virtuous. War must only be waged for the sake of peace.

Still, military training is a necessity. Plato sticks to the citizen-solider model of the day : professional armies didn't arrive until a couple of generations later with Philip II of Macedon. Men are required to undertake military service from twenty to sixty; women up until fifty (probably because, despite offering them absolute equality of opportunity, Plato saw women as weaker than men in general). This compulsory military service for men (and optional for women) doesn't necessarily mean that they're removed from all other obligations for some extended period. Drills are to be held at least once per month in peacetime, but that hardly seems adequate to maintain a competent army. There's not really much else specified about how often one should undertake military service.


A job is for life, not just for periodic religious festivities


Plato doesn't actually say anything about riding pigs, but whatcha gonna do ?
Most of the time the citizens will be farming, as is apparently the proper activity for a gentleman. Their land will be initially allocated by the state. It must be able to provide everything the citizens require "and not a foot more is needed". The idea is that, with their desire for goodness above profit, and seeing how they already live in "modest comfort", they won't want to expand for their own ends or reduce their neighbours out of spite. They could potentially all farm communally, but that runs the risk of disputing who harvests what. So instead they have their precisely defined areas, but :
Each man who receives a portion of land should regard it as the common possession of the entire state. The land is his ancestral home and he must cherish it even more than children cherish their mother.
Farming is to provide the bulk of the state's resources, so that it may be self-sufficient and thus limit the motivation for both internal and external disputes. Re-arranging slightly a passage from book V :
The citizens’ wealth should be limited to the products of farming... there should not be much money made out of menial trades and charging interest, nor from prostitutes.
And lo, suddenly there were hookers. No idea why. Anyway, I've edited this quote (lightly) as it mostly deals with money, which we'll get back to. But another valuable point here is that Plato is much looser with language in Laws than his other dialogues. In his purely philosophical examinations, he is necessarily extremely strict; here, he uses words in a more liberal, everyday fashion - "limited" clearly not meaning "forbidden"*. Of course, the translation is important, but it's worth bearing this in mind. The use of "not much" is important here too.

* I'd say that a "limit" is not necessarily a very strict quantity, but "limited to" implies something much firmer. 

Still the state cannot avoid the need for professions beyond farming and prostitution. Now, here's an unfortunate reality about Plato. He's famous for admitting his own ignorance, which he does very often and loudly. But there's an element of snobbish humblebragging about it : he looks on the "menial" jobs as well, menial. It's like he's saying, "I don't know anything about unskilled labour" as a means to draw attention to how refined, intelligent, and civilised he is. He's far above the lowlier sorts of employment.

Another aspect to this is that he sees certain jobs as being more vulnerable to corruption. His snobbishness is by no means total - art and literature are seen as vitally important, elsewhere he states that Socrates is learning music. His disdain for the unskilled professions arises only in part because of simple snobbery, but also because they induce vice :
But just picture to yourselves some eminently virtuous men forced for a time to go in for inn-keeping or retailing or some similar occupation... We’d soon realise how desirable and pleasing each of these trades really is, and if they were carried on according to honest standards we’d value them all as highly as we do our mother or our nurse.
Whereas, he says, what actually happens is that corruption sets in that the innkeepers become more like hostage-takers than hospitality managers. It's not the profession itself that's bad, it's that either it attracts corruptible people and/or it induces corruption. Similarly, while he disdains menial labour, he also does at least (repeatedly) acknowledge its usefulness and his own lack of abilities - that he should defer to these people when he does need their advice; if he ever did require a shipbuilder, he'd never presume that his philosophical skill would be of any assistance to the poor fellow.

Anyway, carpentry, metalworking, shipbuilding, construction etc. don't really get much treatment, save for a superficial description that no-one should practise two trades : they can only do one job for life, as in the Republic. What's much more surprising is that citizens, according to law 39 and the accompanying text, aren't allowed to become craftsmen : 
No citizen of our land nor any of his servants should enter the ranks of the workers whose vocation lies in the arts and crafts. A citizen’s vocation, which demands a great deal of practice and study, is to establish and maintain good order in the community, and this is not a job for part-timers.
Which is flat-out nuts if we take it literally : it would imply a vast population of slaves and foreigners. In effect, it would be taking the Spartan model of society and replacing the Spartiate military elite (supported by the Helot slaves) with a citizen elite dedicating themselves entirely to virtue and, for some reason, farming. So, these guys at the top of the heap are apparently presiding over an ever-changing (foreigners normally have to leave after 20 years) population of slaves and foreigners who educate their children and make all their stuff.

Nope, I don't think so. More learned fellows than me may disagree, but I simply don't believe this. There's no way Plato intends to dedicate every aspect of life besides farming and military service solely and exclusively to foreigners and slaves. It just doesn't make any sense. For one thing, the best teacher of virtue is surely someone immensely virtuous, and anyone besides a citizen isn't going to do as good a job. For another, what the hell's the point of giving the citizens a broad education if all they get to do is bloody farming ? Cavalry astronomer-farmers, why are they the pinnacle of civilisation, hmmm ? And why would any foreigners come to this state at all if they know they can't stay and won't be allowed to make much money ?

Therefore I reject this interpretation utterly. Far more likely, in my opinion, is that this law and discussion are another one of those contradictory parts of the text. Like the one about the law being unchangeable but discussed daily and experimental, or theft being only punishable by fines but also, oh yes, also by death and whippings and all kinds of other things. No no, what's going on here is another major flaw. The only sensible interpretation is that Plato doesn't mean that foreigners and slaves should have exclusive powers over so much of the states' needs, just that they're able to participate in these projects. Citizens should only be prevented from the more vulgar professions if they're to be found to be actually causing them to become worse people.

How the citizens or foreigner's employment is to be determined is nowhere specified.


A universal basic income ?



However they earn their living, residents are neither allowed to become too wealthy, nor too poor. Plato is rife with descriptions of how excessive wealth causes corruption. Discussions of the problems of too little wealth are much rarer, likely because his fellow citizens had more difficulty grasping why having too much money was ever even possible. But there are a few. If the body is so debilitated that you can't function, or you have so little wealth you can't afford to live, you're in trouble. You may even be forced into criminal behaviour : "poverty that drives us by distress into losing all sense of shame"; "driven by poverty to quarrel with each other"; "the distress of grinding poverty", as he says. Moreover, wealth inequality causes jealousy which may eventually incite violence :
Now the community in which neither wealth nor poverty exists will generally produce the finest characters because tendencies to violence and crime, and feelings of jealousy and envy, simply do not arise... extreme poverty and wealth must not be allowed to arise in any section of the citizen-body, because both lead to civil disintegration. It is a battle against two foes, wealth and poverty — wealth that corrupts our souls by luxury, poverty that drives us by distress into losing all sense of shame.
The solution is not to abolish money entirely. Rather, as in most things according to Plato, we must go for the middle ground. We need to provide everyone with the benefits that having a modest amount of wealth provides. Near the start of Republic, there's a rare acknowledgement that without some minimum level, it's hard for anyone to function well :
A good person wouldn’t easily bear old age if he were poor, but a bad one wouldn’t be at peace with himself even if he were wealthy... Wealth is most valuable, I’d say, not for every man but for a decent and orderly one. Wealth can do a lot to save us from having to cheat or deceive someone against our will and from having to depart for that other place in fear because we owe sacrifice to a god or money to a person.
So poverty must be prevented as well as excessive wealth; poverty causes immoral behaviour and wealth prevents it, but only to a degree. Finance is not the only factor at work here, and in other cases too much wealth can (which is not to that that it always does) have the opposite effect.

While it's not quite explicitly stated anywhere, the overall impression from Plato (to me at least) is that wealth is both a direct cause of corruption and an attraction to the corruptible : almost anyone can be manipulated into immoral behaviour given the right conditions, but those more prone to being corrupted are more likely to be choose those vocations which tend to vice. Management of the citizen's wealth, it seems, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for them to remain virtuous - but it's even more subtle than that. It's more like people should (ideally) have as much wealth as will prevent them, as specific individuals, from doing harm and as much as will allow them to do good. For some this will mean they should be very wealthy indeed, whereas others should live more modest lives or even, when it comes to it, suffer execution for their degenerate ways. Total equality would be ludicrously unfair ("indiscriminate equality for all amounts to inequality"). In Meno :
Wealth and the like, are at times good and at times harmful. Just as for the rest of the soul the direction of wisdom makes things beneficial, but harmful if directed by folly, so in these cases, if the soul uses and directs them right it makes them beneficial, but bad use makes them harmful
Republic also features the character of Clitophon, apparently a wealthy but relatively virtuous individual.

In Magnesia, while not everyone has equal wealth, "no one will go without the necessities of life". This will prevent the poverty that causes acts of criminal desperation, but they certainly won't be given unlimited resources. In fact the means to prevent poverty is not really very clear. The principle, or at least the goal, of the modern concept of a UBI is there, but the implementation certainly isn't. The intention seems more that everyone should have sufficient resources from their land to be able to maintain themselves at least in "modest comfort". So their income is generally earned rather than assumed - it's more like a very healthy minimum wage than a UBI.

What about those who can't work : the young, elderly, injured, and stupid people ? Children are to be raised by their parents (orphans are appointed guardians, and described at some length with particular compassion), and elderly cared for by their children : "repayment of all that anxious care and attention they lavished on him, the longstanding “loan” they made him as a child". The young men must construct public "warm baths for the old folk". Involuntarily, accidental injuries I'm not sure about. Lunatics are to be maintained by their families, and there's always manual labour available for simpletons. The implication is that the minimum wage is always going to be sufficient for someone to support themselves and their dependents through any conceivable period of distress.


Too much of a good thing



Now we must turn to the opposite case : extreme wealth. There are to be four financial classes in society, according to a citizen's net worth. The wealthiest will be no more than a few times wealthier than the poorest, which has a simple enforcement mechanism : any excess they accumulate is to be taken by the state. This very efficiently prevents extreme wealth inequality, as well as limiting the motivation to want to earn unlimited money. Or does it ?

There could be unforeseen consequences of this. Citizens who earn so much money for the state might not directly benefit themselves, but they could be seen as valuable assets for society and more liable to earn powerful civil and political positions. This is obviously not the intent, but since extreme wealth is never punished with anything other than a fine, it might just be the end result.
A man’s exceptional wealth [or in this case, income earned for the state] is no more reason for a state to confer specially exalted office on him than his ability to run, his good looks, or his physical strength, in the absence of some virtue — or even if he has some virtue, if it excludes self-control.
Fortunately, there are laws in place against "money grubbing" that should prevent this, removing the guilty party from all state benefits and giving them a poor reputation. Additionally, citizens will "not be over keen to avoid marrying into a poor family or to seek to marry into a rich one", since partners should complement each other. So there is to be no social stigma attached to the poor whatsoever*. Preventing greed and cravings for power might requires stronger measures in practise, but an effort has at least been made.

* While the society has a financial class structure, changing wealth changes your financial class - it's largely a label for tax purposes rather than a rigid class system.

With the caveat that wealth is not the sole or even necessarily a cause of vice, by and large Plato views it as a very strong incitement to vice. Though some people do exist who are not susceptible to its effects, they are a small minority - and no harm will befall a good citizen by restricting their wealth, so long as they have enough to have to keep themselves and their dependents in some degree of comfort.
A man who is seized by lust to will find that in the event he does his soul no honour by such gifts — far from it : he sells all that gives the soul its beauty and value for a few paltry pieces of gold; but all the gold upon the earth and all the gold beneath it does not compensate for lack of virtue.
Virtue and great wealth are quite incompatible, at any rate great wealth as generally understood (most people would think of the extreme case of a millionaire, who will of course be a rogue into the bargain).
There then follows a very interesting discussion on how only amoral behaviour can acquire the greatest monetary wealth. This contrasts with previous reasoning wherein goodness brings wealth rather than wealth bringing goodness. Here, Plato has it that good men necessarily limit their income to virtuous methods, whereas evil men exploit all sources. In so doing they becoming financially richer, though to the ruin of their souls : 
To be extremely virtuous and exceptionally rich at the same time is absolutely out of the question. ‘Why?’ it may be asked. ‘Because,’ we shall reply, ‘the profit from using just and unjust methods is more than twice as much as that from just methods alone, and a man who refuses to spend his money either worthily or shamefully spends only half the sum laid out by worthwhile people who are prepared to spend on worthy purposes too.
Good men do not lack wealth, but they necessarily have less than the maximum available. Wealth itself - or the lust for wealth, at least - actually induces vice, whereas the love of virtue restricts wealth, though it does not lead to total poverty. However - and this is important - it does not automatically follow that the wealthiest members of any society are automatically the least virtuous : the above discussion is system dependent. It pertains to the systems Plato was trying to replace, not the one he was proposing.

In Magnesia the incentives to excessive accumulation have been entirely removed and, in effect, no-one has the equivalent of a superyacht. The Magnesian system is designed with the goal that making wealth by nefarious means should be difficult and undesirable, ideally impossible and disgusting, but moreover, simply having too many resources in absolute terms is also forbidden. It's a combination of managing both wealth and wealth inequality, limiting the availability of excessive pleasures, preventing greed and jealousy all at the same time.

It's worth pausing here to ask which is actually the greater inducement to vice - extreme poverty or excessive wealth ? Within each demographic, what fraction are criminals and how many remain virtuous ? Which one does the more harm to society ? We can probably all think of examples of each of the different possibilities (good rich people, bad rich people, good poor people, and bad poor people), and I'm going to propose the following exercise. Try and think of - and I mean you should actually go away and do this - examples of :
  1. Rich people you admire because of their wealth. You view their wealth as a mark of success, think they deserve it (possibly but not necessarily because they've earned it), and wouldn't admire them so much if they weren't as wealthy.
  2. Rich people you admire in spite of their wealth. That is, their wealth has nothing to do with why you admire them; they might be using their resources to assist whatever it is they do that you like about them, but they'd still be trying to do the same if they weren't as rich. Equally, their wealth and/or fame might actually be making things (in some ways) more difficult for them but they persevere anyway.
  3. Poor people you admire because they're poor. Whatever it is these people are doing, they would either be unable to do it if they were rich, or you would stop respecting them if they became rich.
  4. Poor people you admire in spite of their poverty. They'd be unchanged or assisted by wealth, but don't let this apparent difficultly stop them from doing the essence of whatever it is you like about them.
When you've thought of some, try and work out you're reasoning behind it and if you're being consistent or not. Do you admire one celebrity businessman because they're rich but think others are wealth-obsessed idiots, or do they each have individual characteristics that set them apart ? Do you think some people doing charity work are laudable because of their low resources but others are better because they've achieved more ? And then, for a bonus round, try and think of people you despise because of each category... well, being honest enough to admit for section 3 that there are people you hate because they're poor ought to be interesting...

But while members of each category do exist, which one dominates after accounting for the size of each demographic ? And does it do more harm to society to have rich corrupt people, who can more easily render harm to large numbers of innocent people, or large numbers of poor corrupt people, who can elect moronic leaders and demagogues and fight against their intellectual superiors ? I don't know - but it's currently in vogue to talk of "elites" not in the sense of Olympians but as patriarchal snobs, and I confess I don't really understand where this comes from. Apparently the latter are somehow worse than demagogic racist bigots. But more later.

Anyway, it's easy to get carried away with Plato's narrative and say, "yes of course the wealthy are the more dangerous, it's so obvious when you put it like that". This is especially true for a financial lefty like myself. But whether this is demonstrably true, I don't know. The prominent among the wealthy have a tendency to involuntarily incite polarisation simply by virtue of their wealth. How many of the rich are in fact perfectly decent, honest, innocent people ? Because you'd probably rarely hear about those people, and if you did, some people would doubtless come out with bullshit about demanding they give all their money away to starving Siberian orphans, or something. It's very possible - strange as it may seem - that our system, like that of Magnesia, is actually reasonably effective in preventing excessive wealth acquired by unjust behaviour.

(I was hoping that this interesting and much-discussed paper on the role of luck in financial success could provide some insights. Alas, it does not. It's not at all clear if there's any single root cause or causes to the wealth of the elite : talent, luck, malevolence, ruthlessness, or some combination of these or other factors. Though there is at least some weak evidence that money doesn't always provide a good incentive; anecdotally I'll vouch for this.)

In this topic we should probably treat Plato as we would any other source of anecdotes. No, you do NOT dismiss them out of hand with a cheer about anecdotes not being evidence. They are evidence that a particular thing happened for a particular reason, i.e. that being rich made some people that Plato knew become degenerate and immoral. Accepting that in no way binds us to accept that this is what actually happens overall.


Entertainment


It's worth remembering that all these intellectual philosophers played a really stupid drinking game.
We've already seen how the Magnesians must be forbidden from excessive pleasures and even excessive desires, resulting in wealth regulation. Taking the laudable principle that private behaviour must be regulated to prevent public vice, it should come as no surprise to find Plato again taking this to extremes. The people and the state being one and the same, with ultra-conservatism unhindered by toleration, they have nowhere any escape from state regulations from childhood games to religious festivities.
Excessive laughter and tears must be avoided; one should try to behave decently by suppressing all extremes of joy and grief.
Which is not to say that citizens are never permitted any extreme pleasures at all. Sex is obviously allowed, albeit with the main purpose of childbearing. Drinking is another. As we've seen, drinking is banned for the under 18's, permitted only in moderation until 30, but full adults are actually encouraged to get drunk regularly :
When he reaches his thirties, he should regale himself at the common meals, and invoke the gods; in particular, he should summon Dionysus to what is at once the play-time and the prayer-time of the old, which the god gave to mankind to help cure the crabbiness of age. This is the gift he gave us to make us young again: we forget our peevishness, and our hard cast of mind becomes softer and grows more malleable, just like iron thrust in a fire.
This will make them less embarrassed about singing the religious songs that help bind the state together, managing rather than forbidding extreme pleasures - even drinking parties have a purpose. Similarly, soldiers on duty are never permitted wine, nor are slaves and magistrates and jurymen. More oddly, wine is not permitted for anyone during the day.

That's wine and women dealt with. Songs and literature are similarly micromanaged. Plato dedicates huge amount of text to precisely defining what kind are permitted and what are to be banned but the theme is very clear : they must create good citizens who believe that moral acts are always rewarded and immoral acts are always punished. In particular they must never, ever believe that the gods are unjust (as we saw in more detail in part two) :
The thief or thug mustn’t think ‘There’s no shame in this — after all, the gods do it themselves.’ That is neither plausible nor true, and no one who breaks the law by such an act can possibly be a god or child of gods.
But more generally, while fiction is allowed, it must conform to the standards of promoting virtue and chastising disobedience. Works must be pre-approved before they can be recited :
Right from their earliest years we’re going to tell them stories and talk to them and sing them songs, so as to charm them, we trust, into believing that this conquest of pleasure is the noblest victory of all... an author may put before the public anything the minister approves of, but if it is censored, the author must not perform it to anyone. We should be absolutely daft, and so would any state as a whole, to let you go ahead as we’ve described before the authorities had decided whether your work was fit to be recited and suitable for public performance or not.
Comedy is to be allowed, but only by slaves and foreigners. Citizens may find it entertaining but its main purpose is to teach them to recognise buffoonery so they don't fall into that trap themselves. And it must only be in a spirit of fun, never used to mock people*. Unusually, comedies require novelty, "and the performances must always contain some new twist."  The preference for the state, however, is very much for noble, thoughtful tragedies.

* Though the text is very unclear on this point - there may be an exception for mockery intended in a spirit of fun rather than as insults. Plato contradicts himself in the space of a few sentences here.

All this is of course nothing but deliberate, careful propaganda :
The souls of the young can be persuaded of anything. The only thing the legislator must consider and discover is what conviction would do the state most good; in that connection, he must think up every possible device to ensure that as far as possible the entire community preserves in its songs and stories and doctrines an absolute and lifelong unanimity.
Songs in particular are tackled with a rabid, obsessive zeal. Plato views this as the origin of civil disobedience, which deserves a lengthy quote :
Music proved to be the starting point of everyone’s conviction that he was an authority on everything, and of a general disregard for the law. Complete license was not far behind. The conviction that they knew made them unafraid, and assurance engendered effrontery. You see, a reckless lack of respect for one’s betters is effrontery of peculiar viciousness, which springs from a freedom from inhibitions that has gone much too far. This freedom will then take other forms. First people grow unwilling to submit to the authorities, then they refuse to obey the admonitions of their fathers and mothers and elders. As they hurtle along towards the end of this primrose path, they try to escape the authority of the laws; and the very end of the road comes when they cease to care about oaths and promises and religion in general.
What Plato seems unable to grasp is that some things are fun precisely because they're not real. A child playing with a toy does not really want a dinosaur to come along and eat everyone; an adult watching porn does not really want... well, err, best not go there; gamers certainly don't really want to unleash armies of armoured elephants with lasers for eyes that can crush entire cities beneath their mighty feet. In certain circumstances, people actually are able to distinguish fantasy - even moral fantasy as well as literal fantasy - from reality. Granted, they might be influenced by fiction, but the degree to which Plato thinks this will be the case seems absurd : "give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile" is an approach he applies with extreme liberality. Denying such basic self-expression, rather than providing them with an emotional outlet, seems like a recipe for disaster to me. People don't tend to like being oppressed, especially when it's so blatantly obvious. And regulating completely irrational pleasures as though they were logical and sensible seems like a fundamental error anyway.

Though the robotic elephants might be fun.
Entertainment in Magnesia, like the laws themselves, provides a continuous form of education founded on the principles that the answer is already known (and no further research is required), and that people are extremely susceptible to all messages. And when the best answer is already known, freedom becomes a vice - as in Magnesia, so in all real-world ideological tyrannies. This is why the Nocturnal Council (as discussed in part one) was introduced so gradually, since the principle that the state needs to improve itself runs against the idea that it's already achieved perfection. As in Republic, the irony of a free-thinking philosopher proposing to curtail free speech is tremendous, but perhaps the Council hints at a certain reluctance. We'll return to that later.


Civil service



All this regulation is going to require a hefty government to administer and enforce. Anyone in a position of authority should realise :
No one will ever make a commendable master without having been a servant first; one should be proud not so much of ruling well but of serving well — and serving the laws above all.
Unlike the uber-specialists of the Republic, many civil servant positions demand multiple occupations - and not all menial labour either. Perhaps the most versatile role is that of the Wardens. Primarily they act as a police force, but they also go around digging fortifications, making sure building codes are up to scratch, keeping the countryside healthy, and even acting as junior judges for moderately serious crimes.

With a degree of freedom and choice unavailable to citizens of the Republic, Wardens are to be elected. Each of the twelve tribes of the state elects five Wardens, who can then appoint themselves twelve assistants, with voting compulsory for all citizens. The only restriction on the candidates is, surprisingly given the discussion on wealth, that they must be from the upper property classes. Which would be less odd if they weren't described as therefore being "men of some calibre", but perhaps it's a bit much to infer some link between wealth and morality from this one snippet.

The probable small population of the state is worth remembering here : something like 50,000 - 100,000 people, though the number of eligible citizens will be toward the lower end. That gives a mere 4,000 or so candidates for any office in each tribe : a not inconsiderable fraction of the electorate will personally know the candidates, and, almost certainly, everyone will personally, directly interact with them on at least a few occasions - the barrier of media between electorate and elected is not present. Which is unfortunately far harder to do in a much larger state without creating an enormous, unwieldy bureaucracy.


As in the Republic, these officials are kept in check more by working conditions than they are by other people. Additionally, like all civil servants Wardens are not immune from prosecution by ordinary citizens. And while wealthier than the rest (though not very much, since wealth inequality is alwyas low), they take a financial hit for their two years of service, being given only meagre food rations and are forbidden from hiring servants or slaves. Plato also has this peculiar obsessive zeal with getting the Wardens to partake in communal meals (laws 8 and 9), in order to force them to get to know each other. Only much later did I realise that this feels especially bizarre because an awful lot of people do this today anyway.

The rest of the Magnesian offices of state follow a similar pattern : elections which offer a limited but important degree of choice - compare this to the Republic, which offered only "freedom from" and virtually no "freedom to" at all. Ministers for any position must already be experts in that office - you can't elect carpenters to become choirmasters. In the struggle between the elites and the masses as to who should rule, Plato is firmly on the side of the elites. Here, forced to compromise his ideals, he allows everyone to have an equal say but limits their available options. Presumably this would be less damaging than the other way around : giving only a few people the choice would create too much inequality in society. Instead, citizen's choice is tempered by expert oversight.

The extent of this oversight varies depending on the office in question. Some elections are almost entirely free, whereas others are more like the Boaty McBoatface poll or the Brexit referendum : strictly advisory in nature. Likewise the complexity of the electoral process varies from individual tribes having a single vote to the entire state proposing vast numbers of initial candidates in huge, multi-round elections. The most extreme exception to this comes for priests and priestessess :
Appointments should be made partly by election and partly by lot, so that a mixture of democratic and non-democratic methods in every rural and urban division may lead to the greatest possible feeling of solidarity.
Though even here the Expounders, high priests who determine religious laws and rule over the lesser religious officials, are to be elected. In general, the freedom of the citizens is an asset to the state, but only because they've been well-educated and because the damage it can cause is (intended to be) minimised. It's a largely representative democratic system, though terms of office can sometimes be for life. I couldn't find any evidence that the citizen Assembly would ever make any direct decisions, i.e. there are no referenda in this system.
A system of selection like that will effect a compromise between a monarchical and a democratic constitution, which is precisely the sort of compromise a constitution should always be. 
Elsewhere, Plato's one major concession to the populists-versus-elites debate is that experts make the best liars because they know the most facts (see Hipparchus and Lesser Hippias), which is why a ruler needs both skill and moral virtue. For this reason not a single person in Magnesia is ever above the law. There is even a further concession : unlike in Republic, guardians can have guardians. While it isn't as developed as the modern concept, perhaps the basic notion of having different people act as safeguards on each other (such as the priestly Expounders) has been reached after all.

The Law Guardians are perhaps the most important civic officials. Their role is to fill in the thousand petty details Plato left unsaid, at least within the initial ten year formation period. They also act as senior judges who can deal with any cases too serious for the Wardens, they appoint senior executives to certain roles (e.g. nursing), they determine the national curriculum, they regulate what sort of songs are allowed (within Plato's guidelines), regulate markets, rescue orphans, administer property deeds, and form the bulk of the Nocturnal Council. 37 such individuals are thought to be sufficient for handling these extensive duties.

Law Guardians themselves are to have guardians, in the form of Scutineers, which Plato reckoned to be "the single most crucial factor determining whether a state survives or disintegrates". Like the Expounders, these elite judges and supervisors of the highest state officials are to be elected by the entire state. They too can be held to account even by the lowest citizen. There's a stated intent to have the Scrutineer's themselves scrutinised, but it's poorly developed - little more than the fact they can be brought to trial. Of course, you can't have an endless line of officials whose only job is to examine other officials...

One last safeguard should be mentioned. The main body of government is the Executive Council, consisting of 360 members elected annually. But only 30 of them are active each month - the rest attending to their personal affairs. There's very little chance for them to abuse their power even if they're repeatedly elected, though that also means they each get very little experience in government. The Roman Republic had a not dissimilar system for its consuls, though not for the entire executive.

Overall, given all the other constraints on the officials, one could reasonably argue that there's sufficient separation of powers into different groups (and it's certainly better than having everyone else subject to some supreme authority) for a theoretical discussion. But the basic purpose of doing this is very much implicit, not explicit : the link of having each body examine the other in a closed loop is not quite made; the overlapping members of the different councils demonstrates that Plato had all the pieces but never quite got them to snap together.

In any case, the modern system clearly isn't immune to abuse either. No political construction has yet been devised which can wholly resist the seditions and perversions of cunning malevolence, manipulative ignorance, or obsessive ideology. Plato's task is a monumental one. In its inevitable failure, we may still glimpse hints of corrections to our own follies.


Sociology Trek : The Next Generation



We've already looked at childhood from the perspective of children. Let's round this off with a look at education from the perspective of parents and teachers. How should they decide what to teach to which children ?

If the role of Scutineer demands high moral fortitude, the office of Education Minister is the most challenging of all. This office is "by far the most important of all the supreme offices in the state", and consequently it is absolutely essential to appoint "the best all-round citizen". The reason, says Plato, is that "man is a wild animal", and if properly educated then all is well, but if not he "becomes the wildest animal on Earth".  As usual this is an elected office, though with particularly restrictive limitations : the Minister must first be a Law Guardian, over 50, with natural children, and elected not by the general populace but by all the officials except the Councils and the Executive. The term of office is to be no more than five years.

As will be evident by now, the purpose of education is to persuade children to
accept right principles as enunciated by the law and endorsed as genuinely correct by men who have high moral standards and are full of years and experience, and find pleasure and pain in the same things as the old.
Again, accepting that the correct answers have already been established, the fierce conservatism here makes sense (an alternative, more charitable interpretation would be that civil strife stems primarily from discord, so whichever method of running the state is adopted, it must be preserved - evolution might be just about possible, but never revolutions). But there is one final major topic we must address : to what extent does education actually matter ? Clearly it can influence people's actions, but can it also affect them in their more fundamental aspects of beliefs and abilities ?

The modern way to phrase this is "nature or nurture", which Plato looked at as either a process of discovery or change. In the extreme case of the latter, absolutely everything about a person's beliefs and intellectual capacity is dependent entirely on their upbringing. Taking the opposite view, with education only as a case of discovery, the innate abilities of a person are never altered by their environment - education can only cause them to know more facts*, but never improves their understanding of those facts beyond their pre-existing capacity to do so; the purpose of schooling is only to find out who's best at what.

* In Meno and Ion, Plato discusses the even more extreme possibility that education merely discovers which facts a person already knows through divine will. We may safely discount this one, however : in any case that knowledge is supposed to be hidden from the person's conscious mind until the process of discussion uncovers it deep within their soul.

Another way to look at this is that education and laws influence citizens in three ways : through direct control of their actions, through influence of their beliefs, and possibly by either finding or altering their abilities.

Controlling actions is trivial, and is the usual sort of compulsion and persuasion, with the law acting as a deterrent and ultimately providing physical barriers (i.e. imprisonment) to prevent some behaviours. The hope of the theory behind this is that this crude surface-level restriction, while a successful method of protecting the innocent population, conceals a more subtle effect : altering the beliefs of the citizens as to what they should do, ethically speaking. Of course this is not always perfect, as acknowledged by the discussions on repeat offenders, but it's pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that it has at least some effect. In all cultures, the majority of citizens at least begin with the idea that their way of doing things is the only way and that other ideas are wrong-headed; what seems obvious to one group can seem impossible to others :
Thanks to some providential necessity, Sparta and Crete have a splendid and — as I was saying — astonishing institution : communal meals. But at present, unhappily, the rest of the human race has not progressed as far as that, and if you’re wise you won’t breathe a word about such a practice in other parts of the world where states do not recognise communal meals as a public institution at all... the very mention of the correct policy will be met with howls of protest. But perhaps this state will be different.
It seems inescapable that education does alter beliefs. As I've discussed at length elsewhere, some people seem to be able to continually alter their opinions throughout their life, like re-forging metal, whereas others have minds like clay that can only be moulded and baked once. For this reason, a state seeking constancy must provide both a sound education to its youth in the playground and to its adults through its laws.

Of course, if and when the opinions of the state as to what's moral do change then it's got a problem in how to deal with the more inflexible citizens. This is why the question as to whether education affects abilities is important : if education can actually prevent this rigid mindset, without sending them to the opposite absurd extreme, then its precise methods become extremely important. If this way of thinking is a function of nature rather than nurture, then it only matters what the children learn initially, making it extremely important to instil a deference for authority figures and to select the more adaptable citizens for the highest civic positions - the Magnesian strategy.

Another reason is more obvious, but its consequences are no more trivial for that : any state needs citizens with sufficient abilities to run it. Acting in combination with moulding beliefs, the education system must create enough citizens who are willing and able to occupy the important offices of state. If it really can create critical, intelligent thinkers, it may have problems of being too successful. Such people tend to be highly opinionated, and aren't likely to want to confine themselves to tedious but essential labour. And there's perhaps an even greater danger :
Total ignorance over an entire field is never dangerous or disastrous [as long as you don't participate in it]; much more damage is done when a subject is known intimately and in detail, but has been improperly taught.
This is one of my favourite quotes. A little knowledge, it's often said, is a dangerous thing. This is usually taken to mean that someone might know a few pieces of information but not others, or not understand their connection. The principle is the same here, but Plato is pointing out that things can get even worse - you can know a good many facts about a topic but not understand any of them (try reading this, for example). That widens the scope for misunderstandings even further. So education had better get things right or everyone is in serious trouble.

But I've digressed slightly. The issue at hand is whether education can really alter fundamental abilities like critical thinking. Now there are surface-level abilities, like flute-playing, and then there are the deeper abilities required to carry those tasks out. What everyone's after are those surface skills : no-one is motivated to have better manual dexterity, hand-eye coordination or a good memory for their own sake - they want to be able to play the flute.
In many cases the son of a good player would turn out to be a poor one, and the son of a poor player would turn out to be good. But as flute-players, they would all turn out to be capable when compared with ordinary people who had never studied the flute.
In the mass of mankind you’ll invariably find a number — though only a small number — of geniuses with whom it is worth anything to associate, and they crop up just as often in badly-ruled states as in the well-ruled.
In general, different people are able to acquire different "superficial" abilities with different levels of ease. That suggests that when they come to try and learn them, they already possess the more fundamental requirements. This works for both physical and mental processes : if you're already strong, a fast runner, and a good communicator, you'll have some advantage learning football; if you already know about emotional biases and alternative hypotheses, you ought to find it easier to manage a debate.

Critical thinking is of course teachable at least to some degree in some people. The question is whether, say, people who enrol in a philosophy class already have the natural abilities required, and the teaching simply helps them discover and exploit this, or if it actually does bestow them new, fundamental capabilities they would never have acquired without it. Does it change their brain in the same way that exercise and healthy food change the body ?


But clearly it's at least possible to learn a wide variety of mental tricks that can help us gain apparently new skills, and this can have dramatic consequences such as (arguably) the Flynn Effect*, where IQ scores seem to be continuously increasing. We may be able to, in effect, leapfrog our own innate brute-force limits by using these different tools, accomplishing the same task by different methods - the equivalent of using a bicycle instead of learning to run faster. The end goal may be achieved by supplying the appropriate knowledge provided the tools needed to exploit it are already in place. The maximum extent of this is unclear; it seems reasonable to propose that some minimum level ability is needed to exploit these tools (at least to their full potential). There's a nice throwaway line in Star Trek which reveals that in the future, young children learn calculus : different people certainly do learn more successfully through different methods, but is it really possible we could simplify learning to this extent ?

* I'm rather skeptical of this. Reading Plato it's abundantly clear that genius has existed throughout history, and while we might now be able to answer questions that Plato could not, it would be a step too far to suggest our capacity to mentally process information has actually increased.

Of course, that remains to be seen. And it now seems likely that nature does play a very important role in determining those underlying abilities required to use those mental tools, just as it does physical attributes. The idea that it takes ten thousand hours to become an expert is a (fairly obvious) myth, and at best this varies drastically between individuals. Plausibly, some people can never become experts at certain things. A caveat is that perhaps different educational methods delivered at the right time might influence this, but just as genetics is a factor in physical aspects, it seems very unlikely that it plays no role at all in abilities.

All of this matters in the construction of a state. Freedom and education are inextricably linked : if you can indeed educate people to become intelligent (being able to process information to form a correct conclusion) and virtuous, a more democratic system is preferable. If you can't - if only a smaller fraction will ever achieve both the skills and ethical standards necessary for leadership - then rule by an elite is more sensible. Modern democracies are founded on the premise that everyone is basically capable of doing this :
When the debate involves political excellence, they [the Athenians] accept advice from anyone, for they think that this particular virtue, political or civic virtue, is shared by all.
... but that for various reasons people choose not to. They're too busy developing their own specialist skill sets and/or they're just not interested in statecraft. But they could do it, if they wanted to - or at the very least they have enough ability to judge who'd be a good representative for them. Whereas it's common to willingly admit to not understanding maths, science, or confess that one does not have the physique of a demigod...
My dear Crito, don’t you realise that in every pursuit most of the practitioners are paltry and of no account whereas the serious men are few and beyond price ?
... it's much rarer for someone to claim they don't understand politics or politicians - this field is seen as an exception. Plato disagreed. And perhaps he had a point : currently it seems increasingly as though people in general just don't understand politics in the slightest, choosing as their representatives sexual predators who claim they can shoot people with impunity or millionaires who demonise the poor. Is this because our education system has failed or because humans are innately far more susceptible to manipulation than we'd like to give them credit for ?

The problem with rule by the masses seems to be one of stupidity : they lack the skills necessary to govern, but cannot bring themselves to admit it. Presently the tide of evidence is waxing towards the conclusion that people are indeed extremely vulnerable to various forms of manipulation; doubtless a better education system could be constructed, but the magnitude of the stupidity of the choices of the masses beggars belief. When a world leader habitually talks in word salad, it becomes very difficult indeed to give his electorate much intellectual credit - the finer details of critical thinking do need to be taught, but the absolute basics ought to be obvious just from living in the world. The majority of people are perhaps not innately unethical, but their susceptibility to manipulation leads them to immoral beliefs and ignoble acts.


And on the other side, the problem of the elites is not their intelligence, but their virtue. Experts do indeed make the best liars, as Plato said, and the ruling elites hardly seem to have the interests of the masses at heart. Rather they seem determined to keep the mob down, to provide them with enough to subsist and service their so-called superiors but not enough to ever improve themselves. They seek, not always successfully, the fawning stupidity of the great unwashed, realising that their goals are achievable not by the impossibility of fooling all of the people all of the time but by the far easier method of fooling most of the people most of the time. Their success ends on those occasions when the masses, always rendered sufficiently but not entirely idiotic, find a populist candidate able to persuade them of the misdeeds of their rulers. And now the trap shuts : a bunch of credulous morons, long kept ignorant by a corrupt elite, suddenly believe themselves capable of acts of which they have not the slightest apprehension.

Which effect is stronger, and which has the worse consequences ? The innate ignorance of the masses  - half the population are below average by definition - or the manipulative malevolence of the elite ? The two are perhaps intertwined and not so easily untangled : it does not really matter which comes first, since a sufficiently intelligent (relative to everyone else), malevolent leader will be able to induce stupidity in the voters; and sufficiently stupid voters will invariably elect corrupt leaders. It's often said that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities, but implicit in this is that those who are capable of believing absurdities are capable of committing atrocities : to wholly blame either the rulers or the ruled is a serious error.

This is why it's important to emphasise Plato's requirements that leaders be both skilled and moral, whatever method is used to find them. Whether it is easier to find such a ruler or promote genuine wisdom in the wider populace, I know not. Plato, in the end, seems to have decided in preference of the former. He notes (in Gorgias) with despair the previous failures of all the supposedly great Athenian statesmen that met with unjust deaths : even the finest rulers and rhetoricians could only ever win the crowd temporarily, and were incapable of fundamentally changing the nature of the beast. Perhaps Plato's own failure to convince the masses played a role as well. The failure of the Athenian state can be at least partially attributed to a failure of education; mistakes - even your own ones - are only good teachers provided they do you so little harm that you can recover from them.

This, then, is why Plato spends a thousand pages extolling the wonders of philosophy and the importance of considering different ideas, only for his world-building exercises to conclude as pseudo-authoritarian realms where free speech was something of a scarce resource. It is not irony - Plato's sin is not hypocrisy, but arrogance. As with all things in Plato there's an appropriate way to do anything and a correct person to do them, and misuse leads to error; he would see nothing wrong with restrictions on speech any more than we would see anything wrong with restricting handguns from children (oh, wait...). Free speech and thought are powerful, valuable assets to those with the wisdom to use them correctly (such as himself), but those who do not can create very great harm :
When young people get their first taste of arguments, they misuse it by treating it as a kind of game of contradiction. They imitate those who’ve refuted them by refuting others themselves, and, like puppies, they enjoy dragging and tearing those around them with their arguments... But an older person won’t want to take part in such madness. He’ll imitate someone who is willing to engage in discussion in order to look for the truth, rather than someone who plays at contradiction for sport.
The evil forces of greed, hatred and intolerance are too strong and too irrational to defeat through pure reasoning - few people indeed are so sincere in their search for truth that they can properly handle their own emotions. Those that do have that rare combination of skills and virtue should be allowed to freely discuss the best ways to live, taking input from the rest but not really bringing them into the discussion itself. They shouldn't try to shape people into becoming philosophers like them; instead they should only seek to get them to behave according to their philosophical conclusions through rhetoric and compulsion. Giving everyone an equal voice is, according to Plato, manifestly stupid, but they do get some say : they participate in the Assembly of the whole state, get to choose which rulers govern them, and have absolutely equal rights to bring anyone to trial. Moreover, leadership is to be based on ability, not on creed or caste or gender. Like the Republic, Magnesia too is a meritocracy, but with a previously unrecognised acknowledgement that people will never be satisfied without some degree of choice... though as usual, Plato's idea of a moderate position looks like a very different one to what anyone would consider acceptable today.
This is what we must practice in peacetime, right from childhood — the exercise of authority over others and submission to them in turn. Freedom from control must be uncompromisingly eliminated from the life of all men, and of all the animals under their domination.

Summary & Epilogue

If there is a single underlying message from Plato's ethical philosophy, it's surely appropriateness. Morality is viewed as objective, but not absolute. This is no immovable, fixed standard of anything by which every individual can be judged uniformly : it is instead highly individualistic. Everyone should have what is appropriate for them : the right amount of money, the correct friends, the proper amount of authority over others; they should enjoy the right activities, read the best books, sing the right songs, think the right thoughts and speak the right speech.
Considered in itself, no action is either good or bad, honourable or shameful : how it comes out depends entirely on how it is performed. If it is done honourably and properly, it turns out to be honourable; if it is done improperly, it is disgraceful.
For evil people, this will mean little or no rights at all - they should be prevented from doing harm to others and ultimately put to death. For truly good, incorruptible people, this should mean near total freedom, authority and control over everyone else. The principle of self-examination so powerfully expressed in the Apology has been, in a sense, developed to a logical (though by no means necessarily correct) extreme towards examination by the most qualified people. Contrary to my earlier conclusions, the restrictions on thoughts and speech are not intended as ironic after all : they are entirely consistent with the principles that education has a limited capacity to alter abilities and virtues, and that some things are only virtuous if done correctly by the right people - otherwise they become destructive when the wrong people do them badly.

But this level of individualism is simply not possible in reality. Even if such a committee of the wisest people could be appointed to run everyone's lives for them, people would not accept their seemingly arbitrary decisions. The compromise is the Magnesian legal system : laws which are clearly stated for all to see; a communal authority that everyone can accept, or at least view as fairer than decisions unbound by any rules at all.


A group of vultures is called a committee. I suppose laws are a better alternative to that...
Magnesia also makes an important compromise in another way, giving citizens a not inconsiderable degree of choice. It could have been a purely legalistic society, replacing the philosopher kings with pre-set laws, and indeed the earlier sections of the work suggest that might have been the initial intention. But just as people won't accept the arbitrary decisions of a committee, nor will they accept the absolute restrictions of law to utterly rule their lives. So, they must be allowed some self-determination, but, in keeping with the conclusions of appropriateness, they are not to be given a completely free hand. That would render them vulnerable to the forces of rhetoric, malevolence, and (their own) stupidity, because, in a direct democracy (as he says in Republic, Laws and elsewhere) which allows its citizens too much freedom and personal responsibility :
... all these things together make the citizens’ souls so sensitive that, if anyone even puts upon himself the least degree of slavery, they become angry and cannot endure it. And in the end, as you know, they take no notice of the laws, whether written or unwritten, in order to avoid having any master at all.
Extreme freedom can't be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery... Complete freedom from all authority is infinitely worse than submitting to a moderate degree of control. Both servitude in excess and liberty in excess are very great evils, but in due measure both are great goods.
Plato's conclusions as to what "moderate" means in this context leave a lot to be desired. Yet the basic principle is followed by all law-adhering societies : restricting the freedoms of those it deems incapable of dealing with them responsibly.

Plato was living in an age of extremes where he saw a constant flux of constitutional change from direct democracies to abject tyrannies and unelected oligarchies. As an attempt at a moderate alternative, though of course very much a product of its cultural conception, the Magnesian system is sophisticated and credible. It bears some similarities to modern Western practises, but has some fundamental differences as well. While the principle of rule of law is now something of a dogma, the idea of representative democracy is frequently accepted more as an unavoidable necessity than with any genuine enthusiasm.



The Magnesian system elects representatives with Sir Humphrey's principle as a laudable goal rather than an ironic failure. Unlike actual governments, there is no party system in the Magnesian government*, with voters (sometimes the whole populace, sometimes other ministers) directly electing individual ministers. Plato spends some considerable time on the notion of a state being at war with itself - something which rival political tribes surely epitomise. The idea is that the candidates should represent neither the people nor their party, but only justice. To that end ministerial offices are generally limited to a single term, though they typically last continuously for years compared to the one month per year for the rest of the Executive. There is also no position equivalent to a ruler; no obvious authority position by which a single corrupt politician could usurp the state.

* Plato stated that no system of government (democracy, oligarchy, tyranny) was a "genuine political system : the best name for them all would be ‘party rule’, because under none of them do willing rulers govern willing subjects." How this is supposed to apply to a democracy I'm not sure : possibly he's referring to the fact that a ruling party is never elected by a united populace; about half of the people have to tolerate a government they don't want at each election.

Magnesia is largely a reaction against the direct democracy of Athens : everyone already accepted that tyranny was a problem, so there was perhaps less need for Plato to devote this as much attention. This doesn't mean, despite the ideal of a benevolent despot, that Magnesia would be any less defended against despotism than populism. It is simply that despotism is seen as equally awful, not especially awful as we'd probably see it today. On the Persians :
Our verdict was that their corruption increased year by year; and the reason we assign for this is that they were too strict in depriving the people of liberty and too energetic in introducing authoritarian government, so that they destroyed all friendship and community of spirit in the state. And with that gone, the policy of rulers is framed not in the interests of their subjects the people, but to support their own authority : let them only think that a situation offers them the prospect of some profit, even a small one, and they wreck cities and ruin friendly nations by fire and sword; they hate, and are hated in return, with savage and pitiless loathing... they inevitably become so stupid that they proclaim by their very actions that everything society regards as good and valuable is in their eyes so much trash.
The intention is to a create a society ruled by justice, not demagogues or the mob. Are its defences against malevolence and stupidity sufficient ? Dunno, but it does have some. Stupidity is curtailed by a highly valued education system, a complete lack of any mass media (though of course there was no conception of such at the time), a fierce conservatism with a small c, a deference for expertise, and limited political influence of the mob. They are to be further placated by comfortable lifestyles with great (though not total) financial equality of all citizens, a largely meritocratic capacity for self-determination (albeit far less than we'd tolerate today), and the ability to make meaningful political choices tempered by the limited authority of any political institution or office. They have a real voice in government, they are actively protected from government abuse, but they are not its masters.

Some of the measures against stupidity also defend against cunning malevolence : the lack of media, conservatism, deference, wealth equality, and limited duration and authority of any political office. Additionally, the penalties for offences committed by those in power are unanimously higher than those of ordinary citizens committing the same crimes, any ordinary citizen can prosecute them, there are no political parties to fight against, and no leadership positions to aspire to. By far the biggest weakness is a failure to separate powers from the executive and legislative bodies; the attempt is there but incomplete. Assuming that was corrected, there would really be no way to elect a tyrant to office, since changing the law is difficult.

But tyranny is one thing and populism another. How would a populist with a flair for rhetoric prosper ? They could in principle persuade others to follow their villainous ways, thus circumventing the limited powers of any one office. Such people are a problem in modern democracies even if they seek not tyranny but a single ideologically-driven goal, even from outside the political system. Here, though it is not directly discussed in a political context, the intention here is perhaps that strict state censorship would take a dim view of rabble-rousing. Extreme freedom - the freedom to enslave others - is viewed as an evil. Plato has effectively weaponized conservatism here, with (at least in intention) the demi-paradise preserving itself very aggressively, channelling the natural stubbornness and inflexibility of citizens to forbid the state from deviating from the path of righteousness. If the correct answer has already been found, doing things differently doesn't make any sense.

Of course, the correct answer probably hasn't been found. In fairness to Plato, the current pace of technological change, which opens up possibilities for living undreamed-of in classical Greece, was scarcely imaginable. But again we return to the paradox discussed in the first part : perfection requires change, and Plato's own novel ideas of equality would have been dismissed by a less liberal state using his own laws (thus making him a sort of highly progressive conservative). Yet perhaps in that very quote about the inflexibility of the laws we see a hint of a more flexible attitude to debate, with the agreement of the entire citizen body being necessary (supposedly) for change, indicating their active political involvement; in the very existence of the Nocturnal Council, perhaps we sense a certain reluctance to abandon free-thinking inquiry. Perhaps the citizens are allowed to discuss but not to proclaim, to get them to freely discuss moral issues but only, with great deference to their authority, allow the experts to make the final decision :
You see, people in general don’t fall so far short of real goodness that they can’t recognise virtue and vice when they see it in others; even wicked people have an uncanny instinct that usually enables even an absolute villain to understand and describe accurately enough what distinguishes a good man from a bad.
Without a compromise of this nature, in general censorship looks to be perhaps the biggest threat to the state. Two critical factors are at work here : 1) the desire for self-determination and the need to make meaningful choices, even ones which are harmful mistakes; 2) the related notion of whether wisdom is determined by nature or nurture. It is absolutely vital to account for these when deciding which form of government is appropriate.



Both the absolute and relative values of the citizens are important for these criteria, making this a complex problem. For instance if everyone was a complete thickie and couldn't be improved with education, and demanded total freedom about everything, then disaster would be absolutely certain. If they were less insistent on choice, the the model of replacing rules with unquestionable laws (set by a wise outsider) would be a sensible option, as would a benevolent unelected despotism or oligarchy. At the other extreme, if everyone was a genius, either by nature or nurture, then only a direct democracy would make much sense and law would become an unnecessary hindrance. That solution is consistent with the philosopher kings and uber-specialists of the Republic, which wouldn't make any sense unless education altered its students (since everyone is quite clearly not a genius by nature, with the caveats about superficial and underlying abilities discussed earlier).

Somewhere in there is a region where a representative democracy is the functional solution, where a broad education is useful for discovering who's best at what and has some limited actual influence. Citizens need to have a distribution of intelligence and skill sets, but the majority of people need to be capable of at least detecting bullshitters and idiots so that they won't elect them. They need to be flexible enough to be open to persuasion, yet capable of rejecting, or preventing from enacting, decisions so harmful they cannot recover from the consequences. They need to be allowed to make meaningful choices, but not completely unrestricted ones. Freedom under law works extremely well if the electorate are smart enough to elect those more intelligent and virtuous than themselves; it fails miserably if they are undermined by moronic arguments and empty promises.

The Magnesian system is a pragmatic sketch of a political system. Some of its ideas, most notably a representative system of government with a reciprocal relationship to the law, have been implemented with no small degree of success. Others, particularly censorship and telling people what to think, have been abused by despots and ideologists. But to conclude with an assessment of the relative merits and difficulties of Magnesia would be entirely missing the point of the exercise. Instead, let's finish with some principles of statecraft itself - ones we can learn from Plato's success and failures alike :
  • Consider the end goal. Don't implement a policy because you think it's intrinsically good - consider how people are likely to actually respond. And then when you do enact a policy, consider whether it's working as intended or not. Take an experimental, evidenced-based approach, and learn from the successes and failures of others. Plato had a tremendous insight into how people respond due to ignorance and manipulation, but in other areas he falls into naivety.
  • The nature of the government depends on human nature. The system can control actions and influence beliefs, but it may or may not be able to affect actual abilities. In any case, it must certainly account for different abilities. Different systems of government all have merits - even despotism - but only if they properly consider what people are capable of and especially to what extent, at the deepest level, education really matters. The system by which the government and the people communicate is equally critical, but alas Plato was in a era where there was really only one option for this.
  • Any system of government will be affected by the people it governs, and they in turn will be affected by it. It must present people with a real choice, or they will not accept it, but this by itself is not enough. It cannot allow all choices : some freedoms you only give to people to prevent them doing the very actions you ostensibly allow (forbidden fruit syndrome). It cannot allow the state to produce warring factions within itself, instead of having genuine discussions. It should not make an enemy of the truth in the name of choice. 
  • To deal with these complexities, the correct form of government is likely to be not merely a blend of democracy and monarchy, as Plato said, but of all forms - at various times despotic, oligarchic, corporate, socialist and democratic depending on the particular situation in hand. It should always seek to limit the direct power of any individual and the damage of the mob alike, whilst allowing both the masses and the elite a voice, always seeking to allow discussion and influence but curtailing control of any faction, preventing the authority of senior figures from harming those under their care.
  • It seems to be easier to make people worse than to make them better, but some aspects of human nature can be employed beneficially in this way. Conservatism works if you've established a correct result; a certain amount of reluctance (but rarely an outright denial) provides a beneficial caution. A natural desire for extreme pleasure and wealth could also perhaps be diverted to productive ends, though Plato opts instead to temper them.
  • The goal of a state is primarily to help its citizens. It should always use persuasion first, from education to subtler nudges and direct instruction. It should provide its citizens with the best possible opportunities to succeed and care for them when they cannot help themselves. It should, as discussed, also listen to its citizens - the state and its citizens help each other when they can : sometimes, each will have to save the other from themselves. But, when all else fails, the state must be prepared to take sterner measures. That some will always defy the laws does not mean the law is useless; that some people will always debate the legitimacy of any authority does not mean that anarchy is the only option. In the end, some people will always behave idiotically - and the law must deal with them, or its assistance to the community is rendered ineffective.
Well that, I think, wraps up my lengthy tirade about Plato and statecraft in general for some time yet. Plato does not, of course, have all the answers. But anyone who approves of freedom under law and the need to give people a voice in government must concede that he certainly did have some. Other lessons, such as the dangers of direct democracy, some of us are only now beginning to re-learn, and many others are actively refusing to, demanding that they should be in unfettered control despite the self-destructive tendencies their own inadequate natures lead them to.

The challenge remains to determine the nature of the human condition : how much of our abilities are learned, how much can we influence this, and how many are down purely to genetics or other factors we cannot control ? If we can improve people's ability to perform sincere and accurate self examinations, or if they are forever trapped by their own natures, then the whole edifice of government must be shaped to account for this : perhaps our leaders are cruelly manipulating us, or perhaps we're all too intrinsically and irreparably stupid to elect good leaders.

To proceed, we must take one final lesson from Plato. Unlike the inquiry by pure reason advocated in Republic, we should adopt the actively experimental approach found in Laws. Test how people really behave, not how you'd want them to behave. Account for their genuine abilities, not what you'd like them to be capable of. This is almost certain to result in all political idealists - liberals and conservatives, socialists and fascists, despots and democrats, anarchists and princes - confronting their opponents successes and their own unpleasant truths. But it is only in this way, following Plato's flawed but deeply sincere commitment to a search for the truth, can we hope to build a happier and more prosperous future.