We often fantasize about what people from the past would think of our current technology. What would Hannibal have done if he had tanks instead of elephants? What would Ghandi do if he had access to nukes? While some of these fantasies may never be answered, it can still be fun to think about how different historical figures would react to modern technological developments.
A question struck me one day during my Aesthetics class: what would Plato, the famed philosopher, think about virtual reality? In his Republic, he seems to be against images, poetry, and art as a whole, so do his arguments extend to VR as well? We will examine Plato’s writings in his Republic and see how his ideas would apply to virtual reality.
Plato’s Theory of Forms
Before we can discuss Plato’s potential thoughts on virtual reality, we have to launch into a quick summary of how Plato views art and the world. This may seem somewhat irrelevant at the moment, but you’ll see the connection by the end of the article.
In Book X of his Republic, Plato talks about different levels of existence an object can have. What exists most of all is the idea (or “form”) of an object. For Plato, the idea of a table exists separately from any individual physical table. This seems to make sense; after all, you don’t need to have a physical table in front of you in order to think about what a table is. The form is what makes a table a table (or it’s “table-ness”). When a carpenter decided to create a table, he isn’t creating the idea of table-ness himself; rather, he is shaping the wood so that it participates in the form of table-ness.
According to Plato, forms have the highest level of existence. This means that forms exist in a more real way than any individual thing does. In the same way that a human is higher than a rock (since you have a mind and a rock doesn’t), the form of a table is higher than any individual table.
The forms, then, are closer to the truth than any table is, since Plato believes that the truth exists even beyond the forms.
For our next step, let’s look at a painter. A painter can also create a table, but there’s a difference between a painter’s table and the table made by a carpenter. Instead of creating something which participates in table-ness, the painter is creating an imitation of something participating in table-ness. The carpenter needs to know what makes a table a table in order to create, but the painter only needs to understand the single table which he is drawing.
In fact, the painting is not even based directly on the table. He’s not drawing a table – he’s drawing a single perspective on a table! He is drawing what the table looks like to him, so Plato thinks he’s yet another step away from the form of the table and the truth.
Thus, the painter is creating an imitation of an imitation of an imitation of a form, or an imitation of his perspective of something participating in a form. That’s quite far removed from the form (and thus the truth) itself!
Plato’s Thoughts on Imitation
Plato, however, seems to condem such imitations. He calls imitative art, or art made to look like something else, “an inferior who marries an inferior, and has inferior offspring.” Why is this? Plato says that, at this point, the art is too “far removed from truth […] and [it has] no true or healthy aim.” The art is so far from the truth that it no longer relates properly to the truth, but rather it only feeds our passions. According to Plato, art (and other similar practices like poetry) are made not to help us with logic, but rather to feed our passions and appetites. Plato believes that our lives should be dictated by reason alone, and thinks that anything which might distract us from reason (and thus from the good) is bad. He thinks that “hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State,” as all other modes of poetry will corrupt society and lead the people away from the good.
Now, let’s apply this logic to virtual reality. Plato would almost certainly be against virtual reality, claiming that it corrupts society. Plato would likely put VR in the same category as art: it’s an imitation of a perspective from which you could view a given object with a certain form. It is again three steps removed from the world of the forms and thus far removed from the truth. He may even argue that creating objects in a 3d environment is counterproductive since, like the subjects of a painting, the objects can’t be interacted with in any meaningful way.
He would likely argue that VR is made solely to satisfy our irrational appetites and that it has no practical, real-world value. He may take a pause, however, when he sees some of the practical uses of VR. While many people use VR for entertainment, virtual reality can be used as a tool to design products before their release. Car companies like Ford and McLaren use VR to help speed up the designing of their vehicles and not simply for entertainment.
I believe Plato would have to admit that virtual reality can have a practical purpose (and thus doesn’t only serve our bodily desires), Despite this, I believe that he would still argue that VR is removed from the truth and that it should not be allowed. Plato would not allow an exception for the practical uses of VR. Even if he did allow such an exception, he would still insist that VR shouldn’t be used for entertainment purposes; only for practical use.
Is that it? Does this mean that VR must be relegated to the trash bin, never to be used? Is it such a corrupting force that no one should so much as even look at a VR headset? I don’t believe so, but I didn’t have time to write a proper response yet.
I had a response written up, but as I was reviewing this article before publishing it, I realized that my original argument against Plato doesn’t properly refute Plato’s position. It presented my own argument as to why VR should be acceptable, but on re-reading my section, it seemed that my argument wasn’t related to Plato’s argument and thus wasn’t a good response to it. I decided that, rather than presenting my argument now, I will work on a separate article and post my original argument (along with arguments which properly refute Plato’s) when it is finished.
I do have quite a few other topics I would like to write about, so I may not get back to writing about this for a while. Whenever I do post the follow-up, however, I will be sure to update this article with a link to my response.
Feel free to subscribe at the bottom of this page if you’re interested in my follow-up! Also, if you have any advice or any arguments I could use in that response, feel free to leave a comment and I may use your arguments in my follow-up article.
Epilogue: Miscellaneous Plato’s Quotes from Book X of the Republic
The imitative art is an inferior who marries an inferior, and has inferior offspring.
And now we may fairly take [the poet] and place him by the side of the painter, for he is like him in two ways: first, inasmuch as his creations have an inferior degree of truth—in this, I say, he is like him; and he is also like him in being concerned with an inferior part of the soul; and therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small—he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.
[…] hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State. For if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State.
[…] there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry; of which there are many proofs, such as the saying of ‘the yelping hound howling at her lord,’ or of one ‘mighty in the vain talk of fools,’ and ‘the mob of sages circumventing Zeus,’ and the ‘subtle thinkers who are beggars after all’; and there are innumerable other signs of ancient enmity between them.