What would Plato think of
What would Plato think of computers?
Last September, I read Plato's Republic, which seems to be a defining part of a U of C education and provides the over-arching context for my social sciences and humanities classes. Of course, the point of the book is to define and understand the nature of justice. Justice, as Socrates defines it, is 06the having and doing of one09s own and what belongs to oneself07 (IV, 434a). In other words, Socrates continues, justice is a carpenter doing the work of a carpenter and getting what is due a carpenter; or a shoemaker doing the job of a shoemaker and getting what is due a shoemaker. Therefore, injustice would be someone not doing that which he is best suited to do. Socrates equates justice with the idea that each thing has one function for which it is best suited.
(As an aside, it is interesting to note that this application of justice changes for the philosophers. By the reasoning above logic, given a philosopher, his function should be philosophizing and contemplating the form of good. But Socrates reverses the interpretation of function for the ruling class, so that given the function of ruling; the people best suited for it are the philosophers. Thus, while the philosophers would rather spend their time 06in the region of the pure07, they must spend their time 06dwelling in the cave07. I believe that the question of 'What compels philosophers to return to the cave to rule?' is an unresolved paradox of the Republic)
So, what would Plato think of modern computers? Do they do the function for which they are best suited? In one sense, computers do many functions: they are a communications tool, a research tool, and an organizational tool. In a more basic and fundamental sense, the essence of a computer: the processor, does only one function. Addition. Lots and lots of addition.
From the latter perspective, a silicon processor is best suited for the function of addition, and that is what it does. But if we add a layer of abstraction, or complexity, and begin to interpret the output, we realize that these chips have applications to virtually everything - hence the ubiquity of computers.
Could this mean that human thought is also reducible to simple addition within the neurons firing in our complex brain? So much for sentience being a uniquely human phenomenon.