Do ideas refer to facts in reality, or do they have an existence and meaning independent of reality?
This is an old question that goes back to the birth of philosophy in Ancient Greece, and if it seems like an arcane intellectual issue for the eggheads to argue about, think again. It’s an issue you can see lurking behind the daily news and shaping crucial questions of public policy.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato was the guy who developed the notion that ideas and concepts have a separate existence independent of reality, that they exist in a “realm of pure forms” we can only understand by turning our eyes and minds away from observation of the world. Ideas to the Platonist are things, more real than the actual things of concrete reality.
More than two thousand year after Plato came up with this idea, you would have a hard time finding a purer expression of it than in this argument in favor of so-called Modern Monetary Theory from Stephanie Kelton, an economics professor and a senior economic advisor to Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Here it is, in the form of a weird kind of poetry.
The carpenter can’t run out of inches
The stadium can’t run out of points
The airline can’t run out of [frequent flyer] miles
And the USA can’t run out of dollars
If you feel like your brain is going to melt, don’t worry, you’re normal. So let’s unpack this.
The first observation I can make, as someone who has actually done a bit of carpentry, is that a carpenter absolutely can run out of inches. He can run out of inches of space in a room in which to fit a built-in cabinet. He can run out of inches in the length of the lumber he is using. He can build a piece so big that he can’t fit it into the room where it’s supposed to go, because he ran out of inches in the doorframe. I’m not necessarily saying I’ve done this, I’m just saying it could happen.
But this assumes that the concept “inches” refers to measurements of specific objects and places in the real world, all of which exist in specific, limited lengths.
This was the view of Plato’s student Aristotle, who became his philosophical antipode. Aristotle argued that all ideas are derived from and apply to particular things we observe in reality. The contrast between these two philosophers was famously summed up in the center of Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, which shows Plato pointing upward toward the otherworldly realm of disembodied ideas, while Aristotle gestures outward at observable reality.
Professor Kelton’s brain-melting argument about money only makes sense from the Platonist perspective, if you view ideas as having an existence independent of concrete reality. The carpenter cannot run out of inches—if you view “inches” as an abstract measurement of theoretical space that exists only in the realm of the mind. The minute you see inches as measurements of specific things in the real world—which is the only way you can actually use that concept—then the whole fantasy falls apart.
It’s helpful to apply this realistic, Aristotelian perspective to the other examples Kelton cites. Maybe the stadium can’t run out of points, but the stadium isn’t trying to win the game. In reality, Texas Tech sure as heck ran out of points against the Cavaliers last month. And can the airline run out of frequent flyer miles? They can if they don’t have enough seats on enough flights to redeem them.
As to whether the US government can run out of dollars—just watch us. We can run out of dollars because we can run out of goods on which dollars are a claim. Again, this assumes that dollars are not a mere fantastical abstraction but are claims on actual wealth in the real world, which is where dollars are actually used. It assumes that just because you can imagine a government spending unlimited dollars to pay for unlimited things doesn’t mean it’s actually possible.
Kelton’s Cloud Cuckoo Land economics is a pretty flagrant example, but there are more subtle versions out there, including the reaction to a controversial ruling about a South African athlete, as described in a very good overview of the case in Quillette from former Swiss runner Doriane Lambelet Coleman.
The athlete in this case in Caster Semenya, a runner who competes as a woman but who, because of a rare genetic anomaly, benefits from extremely high levels of the male hormone testosterone. Here’s why that’s a problem.
The female range for testosterone is categorically different from the male range. In general, males have 10 to 30 times more T than females. Most females, including most elite female athletes, have T levels in the range of 0.5 to 1.5 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L). For men, typical values are 10 to 35 nmol/L. The reason there is a gap, with no overlap between the ranges, is that beginning in puberty, the testes produce a lot more T than ovaries and adrenal glands combined. And so the IAAF maximum of 5 nmol/L for women has been set, generously, to reflect the upper bound of T levels that can be produced even by polycystic ovaries.
No single tool is perfect for these purposes, but testosterone comes pretty close. Sport already tests for T levels as part of standard anti-doping controls, and it is much less intrusive than other diagnostic techniques used to determine sex. Most importantly, it’s the best single physiological marker for sport’s purposes. That’s because the primary reason for the sex differences in the physical attributes that contribute to elite athletic performance is exposure to much higher levels of testosterone during male pubertal growth. Those physical attributes include power generation, aerobic power, body composition, and fuel utilization. Compared to females, males have greater lean body mass (more skeletal muscle and less fat), larger hearts (both in absolute terms and scaled to lean body mass), higher cardiac outputs, larger hemoglobin mass, larger VO2 max (i.e. a person’s ability to take in oxygen), greater glycogen utilization, and higher anaerobic capacity.
The result of this differential is the performance gap between males and females that justifies the existence of a women’s category in competitive sports.
By a “performance gap,” Coleman means that if individuals with male-level testosterone levels are allowed to compete against normal women, none of them will ever have a chance of winning anything. Semenya seems to have a genetic anomaly that results in ambiguous genitalia but does produce testes, which pump the body full of male hormones, resulting in a kind of natural equivalent of doping.
If you want to get a sense of the impact this can ave, check out the case of transgender powerlifter Mary Gregory, who “smashed” female powerlifting records with a performance that is utterly unexceptional for a biological male. That’s why the Semenya case is important. It’s a skirmish to prepare for the battle over transgender athletes, because if no objective standard can be established to describe the difference between male and female athletes, then the very existence of women’s athletics is threatened. Here’s how Coleman describes the results.
Without an eligibility rule based in sex-linked traits, we wouldn’t see female bodies on any podium. Equally important, without such an eligibility rule, it’s unlikely that societies could continue legally to sustain separate girls and women’s only sport. The set-aside is premised on inherent biological differences between the sexes. If that basis were eliminated, it’s unclear how the classification would pass muster under standard legal anti-discrimination analysis.
In America, the Title IX anti-discrimination law has been used for decades to require schools and universities to plow money and effort into athletic programs for women and girls, and now “gender identity” activists are trying to turn it all into a cruel joke.
That phrase, “gender identity,” is the crux of the issue. Is one’s sex, for the purpose of sports, determined merely by how you “identify”—that is, merely by an idea in one’s own head? In effect, the activists backing Semenya want to use the concept of “woman” while separating it from its physiological basis. They want the concept as an abstraction divorced from concrete reality.
In philosophical terms, they are exploiting something Platonists have always had a hard time with: the borderline case. The Greeks puzzled endlessly over this kind of paradox. An ancient riddle put it this way: “A man who is not a man sitting on a chair which is not a chair throws a stone that is not a stone at a bird that is not a bird.” The solution to the riddle is that a eunuch sitting on a stool throws a pumice stone at a bat. Plato himself used a version of this, and this was why he thought we needed to separate the realm of pure forms from the real world, because the real world would always be full of these ambiguous examples that would mess up the neat logic of his concepts.
Aristotle’s formulation of the Law of Non-Contradiction was an answer to this, in which he explained that “a thing cannot both be and not be, at the same time and in the same respect.” It’s the “in the same respect” that is important. Rather than throw up his hands at the existence of ambiguities, he sought to define them and clear them up—to solve the riddles.
Like the eunuch in Plato’s riddle, Caster Semenya is a woman who is not a woman. She is a woman in some respects, but does not possess some female traits that are relevant to athletic competition. The Aristotelian solution is to look at reality, to define the issues clearly, and to set a rational criterion for dealing with a borderline case. The Platonic solution is to apply the concept of “woman” as a subjective abstraction, never mind the specific facts of the case.
Here is one last example, just to show that this approach to words and concept is not limited to any one side of the political debate. These underlying philosophical issues are too widely absorbed in a culture to be crudely partisan and keep popping up in subtle ways.
I wrote recently about the “Charlottesville Hoax” mythology, which attempts to gloss over and rewrite the meaning of Donald Trump’s comments on the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. As I identified it, the key issue is that when President Trump referred to “very fine people,” he was referring to specific people at a specific event, the tiki torch marchers on the night of August 11, who were in fact white nationalists. So when he then says he’s not talking about white nationalists, it rings hollow. Here is how I put it. “He is saying, in effect, that he condemns the white nationalists but also that the people marching with torches and shouting at the Jews were very fine people.”
So how do people defend the idea that Trump’s condemnation was unambiguous? Simple: they act as if his words are bland, abstract generalizations that do not refer to specific objects in reality. So when Trump talked about the “very fine people” who were just there to protest against the removal of a statue, it doesn’t matter that he was talking about a specific group of people at a specific time. What matters is the abstraction, and if we can imagine that there might be some people somewhere who fit that abstraction, then Trump is proven right.
This has gotten worse since Trump recently doubled down on the “very fine people” claim, and it became even more of a partisan imperative to back him up. Since then, it has become conventional wisdom on the right that of course these statue-loving history buffs were out in droves in Charlottesville that day, despite the absence of evidence for such a thing. It is a victory for the white nationalists that they could never have hoped to achieve on their own, presenting them as part of a coalition with the reasonable mainstream of the right.
My favorite examples of this are the people who reply to me on Twitter that they know a guy who knows a guy who was there. Because they want the abstraction to be true, the facts to fit that abstraction must exist. This is the Platonist approach to concepts, harnessed to the imperatives of political partisanship.
Big philosophical ideas may seem arcane and removed from everyday life, but they are attempts to capture basic alternatives about how we think and live and make choices. They identify what people are already doing, and they either break down or reinforce those thinking methods and choices. That’s especially true for a theory, like Platonism, that has had thousands of years to entrench itself in religious and academic institutions. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see it popping up in the news.
But better philosophical ideas have also had their opportunity to spread, and they can help us to detect these philosophical absurdities and fight back against them.