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Plato’s Forms & Morality

Everyone is talking about Leah Libresco’s recent conversion from atheist blogger to Catholic blogger. To be honest, I really don’t know anything about her. I stumbled on her blog briefly at the beginning of the year when she misrepresented something I said. I called her out on it and she apologized.

I don’t really know anything else about her aside from what is being talked about on the Friendly Atheist and on her own blog. I did read her blog post where she explains why she converted to Catholicism and it seemed pretty weak to me. It seemed to stem from some variation of the C.S. Lewis idea of the “Moral Law” so I thought I would talk briefly about that. This isn’t necessarily to refute her, but rather just a jumping off point about this issue.

Libresco seems to be a supporter of the Platonic Forms of morality. The idea is that there is a metaphysical world that contains the essence of an object or concept. For instance, while there are several different types of chairs, Plato believed that there must be an original “Form” of a chair that all chairs copy. If we extend this to morality, it seems that Libresco is arguing in favor of a universal Form for each moral virtue (and perhaps one for each vice as well).

The problem she ran into is with the question of Form creation. Who created the Forms? That leads to deities and for some odd reason it took Libresco to Catholicism. She lost me there, but I think the problem wasn’t with the question of who created the Forms, but rather with the concept of Forms themselves.

I love Plato, but he wrote 2500 years ago and while he was very smart and had a lot of great ideas we have learned a lot since then. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that all of Philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. He is correct, but it is important to note that Plato isn’t all of Philosophy.

I think Ludwig Wittgenstein presented a much more plausible explanation for why like things are labeled the way they are. Instead of saying that there is this universal Form for a chair, Wittgenstein talks about how all chairs share a “family resemblance” and that is why they are all labeled as chairs even though they all look different. In the case of chairs, the resemblance is in their use. Anything that has the primary purpose of being used by one person to sit on is a chair. There are things that aren’t chairs that we use as chairs too.

Then the question would be – who decides on these family resemblances? But unlike the question of Form creation, this one doesn’t require a deity. We decide the family resemblances. If I point to a chair and someone tells me that it isn’t a chair, I will sit on it and use it as a chair. Maybe it is just a box, but in sitting on it, I have turned it into a chair.

Sure there are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part this explanation is much plausible and doesn’t deal with metaphysical worlds or deities. On a side note, I am still a little curious as to whether or not Leah Libresco now believes in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist.

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