# 770: Ancient Philosophy Perspectives on Time, Perception, Reality, & the Qualities of Human Experience

peter-simpson-cunyDr. Peter Simpson is a professor of ancient philosophy at The City University of New York, and I met him at the Philosophy of Time Society session on the first night of the American Philosophical Association Easter Meeting 2019 in New York City. I interviewed Dr. Simpson about the Ancient Philosophy perspectives on time, perception, reality, and the qualities of the human experience. He breaks philosophy into three major areas where the ancients did “real” philosophy, the medieval period that specialized in theology, and the modern era which is focused more on science than philosophy.

He sees that there are a lot of discarded ideas by the modern Western mind, and that we’d do ourselves a lot of good if we’d take a look at what Aristotle or Plato had to say on topics ranging from the nature of time as a relativistic process of change, whether the ultimate nature of reality has more to do with mathematical quantities or experiential qualities, and how the moral and political frameworks focus more on the cultivation of virtual and character within the context of relatively small communities. We also do a bit of a deep dive into music as seen as ratios, and how the four Aristotelian elements described the qualities of phenomenological experience on a spectrum between hot versus cold and wet versus dry.

Overall, it’s a fascinating exploration of contemporary political, moral, scientific, and phenomenological issues as seen through the eyes of ancients. This interview was recorded in the context of a new podcast of The Voices of Philosophy, which explores a lot of the deepest open philosophical questions. There’s not a release date yet, but if you enjoy this spread this episode to others and let me know what you think on Twitter @kentbye.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So the way that I pick what podcast to air each and every day changes based upon what is arising in the moment whenever I wake up that day. So I went to go take a walk today, and I was really thinking about this interview that I had done with Douglas Rushkoff, and we had a little bit of this debate about Plato versus Aristotle. And not that one of us are really trained philosophers, but my whole approach is much more like Socrates, where I go around and just ask questions and try to talk to a wide variety of different people. And I felt like the longer that I'd been looking at both virtuality, artificial intelligence, and all these latest exponential technologies, the more and more I got interested in the more philosophical aspects. And so this past January, I actually went to the American Philosophical Association, and I did about 27 interviews with different people there. covering a wide range of topics from the philosophy of mind, from Chinese philosophy to ancient philosophy, and just covering what was happening in the world of philosophy. There's not a lot of reporters that are covering the philosophical beat or going to these conferences and doing these interviews. And so I found, though, that what I'm able to do is I go into these different environments and just ask questions and try to bring what I know based upon what all that I've learned from my life experiences, as well as covering VR and AI, to be able to try to fuse together all these different perspectives. And what I've found is that I'm super drawn to ancient philosophy, because I feel like that there's something that's been lost in philosophy today as it's currently practiced. But yet, there's still things that inspire me about how the ancients thought about the world. So that's a big reason why I've gone back and looked at Aristotle and elements as a model for describing the human experience. And it turns out that I had gone to this Philosophy of Time Society meeting to listen to these debates about McTaggart and these various different philosophical theories about the nature of time and what is time. And at this past conference at VRTO, I did this interview with this indigenous VR creator named Amelia Winger-Bearskin, and she, at the very end of the interview, she dropped on me I don't believe in time and I don't believe in individuality. It was like six more minutes before we had to stop the interview because she literally had to get on stage to have this whole discussion with Douglas Rushkoff. And so she dropped the most profound statement you could possibly tell me. It was like, she doesn't believe in time. So I didn't actually get a chance to unpack it with her. And yet in the conversation that she had with Douglas Rushkoff, she had this beautiful elaboration about what she meant about why she doesn't believe in time. And it's from this very indigenous relational perspective where you're seeing things as intimately interconnected. And, you know, I'm going to leave it to her. And hopefully once Douglas Rushkoff posts his podcast that he recorded there of team human show, I'll be able to take that excerpt and put it as an addendum. But I was really struck by her perspective and really caught Douglas Rushkoff off guard because he was saying we're running out of time. And she's like, well, I don't believe in time. So it was a little bit of like an antidote to this argument he was giving and he was completely caught off guard, but it gets into this deep essence about the nature of time. Well, Aristotle had a lot of very interesting perspectives about time that I think in some ways have maybe proved the test of time in terms of maybe he had things figured out about time in a way that people since him didn't necessarily understand as well. I see that there's other people like Alfred North Whitehead and process philosophy as well as Chinese philosophy that have a similar kind of approach of like looking at time to the lens of change. So I was at this philosophy conference, I had just gone to this Philosophy of time society special interest group and there was like this ancient philosopher that was in the back Talking about his perspectives on ancient philosophy and time and he left I went to go talk to him and do this whole interview with him coming from this whole perspective of looking at time, but also looking at the ancient philosophy perspective and One more note before I dive in here is just that when I went to the American Philosophical Association Eastern meeting, that was very siloed. I mean, there's all these different special interest groups and topics that are very specific to these very siloed niches. just the way that they scheduled the program, it was like, here, the ancient philosophers are going to be talking about this topic. And then here's the continental philosophers. And then, you know, mostly, it was like 75% analytic philosophy. And so it was a bit of this very reductive way of even structuring this conference. And it was very surreal. And I did about 27 interviews. And that's a deeper argument that I'll need to make through each conversation of potentially in its own separate podcast on the Voices of Philosophy podcast that I hope to launch at some point. But this interview that I did with this professor, his name is Peter Simpson. He's at the City University of New York. It was like the right moment to sort of take this conversation that I had with him and to release it right now. Because I feel like it's a key part of the deeper philosophical arguments that I am making on this Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Dr. Peter Simpson happened at the American Philosophical Association Eastern Meeting in New York City, and this was on Monday, January 7th, 2019. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:05:29.486] Peter Simpson: Okay, my name is Peter Simpson. I teach philosophy at the City University of New York, the Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island. My main interests have been in ancient philosophy, Aristotle, Plato, but also moral and political philosophy. My current interest though is related to a course I've been teaching at the undergraduate level, which is about reality and a puzzle that's raised by Erwin Schrodinger, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, who in a wonderful article called The Mystery of the Sensual Qualities, pointed out that the scientific account say of color, which is in terms of frequencies of light waves, is not at all like what we perceive. When we perceive red or blue, we don't perceive light waves of different frequencies. But that's what science tells us is really out there. And we scientists, or the scientists, are just as much seeing colors as anybody else, but talking about light waves. How do you put the two together, or how is it that we who see the world in terms of colors and not light waves, nevertheless start describing the world in terms of light waves, which we never perceive, and which are not part of our direct experience? Now, he leaves this as a problem unresolved. But, so I, well, I'm currently thinking of ways of resolving it. There are kind of two ways of doing it. One is to say that our direct experience is illusory in some sense, or internal to consciousness, representational. And we make an abstraction from that in terms of numbers and quantities, which we get through instruments. that scientists use, and we identify the world with the results of instruments. Or as actually Francis Bacon said way at the beginning of the scientific revolution, our senses are capable of judging instruments, but the instruments judge the world. So that's kind of like saying our experience is in our head. There's a real world out there that we somehow get access to through elements of our internal experience. Another way to say is, oh no, the scientific picture just doesn't describe the way the world is. The way the world is is the way we perceive it. So things are colored and whatever. Light waves and all the fancy things scientists talk about are just abstractions we make through measuring quantities of things. But those quantities don't exist as quantities. They exist only as parts of the real world, and the real world is what we perceive. So it's a kind of instrumentalist view that not really, it's more a kind of mathematical abstraction view. I prefer the latter view, that the real world is what we perceive and science is a kind of useful, instrumental, quantitative abstraction.

[00:08:41.192] Kent Bye: And so this reminds me of the debate around qualia, as to whether or not there's the qualities of an experience, and whether or not that qualia is something that's a fundamental property of that experience, or if it's something that is more from a limitative materialist perspective, something that is maybe added by the perceiver based upon their own memories and their own lived experiences, that they're attaching to something, but it doesn't naturally exist within that entity within itself. And so it seems to be a deep philosophical question and debate around the difference between quantity and the qualia. So how does qualia fit into this?

[00:09:17.163] Peter Simpson: Well, the way I understand what qualia mean when they're talked about, I don't believe that they exist. And qualia seem to be something in consciousness or something added by the experiencer. So the quali red or yellow is somehow representational, at least that's what I understand. For me, Yellow or red is not qualia, they're the real surfaces of things. Red or yellow is on the surface of the seen object. Obviously, I and anyone else who sees it is perceiving it with their eyes, but they're not perceiving anything in their eyes or their brain or their consciousness. They're seeing something on the surface of the external thing. So my short answer to your question is there's no such thing as qualia.

[00:10:08.115] Kent Bye: I'm reading the book by Rick Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind. He really tries to cast the evolution of the Western thought over the last 2,500 years as a bit of this dialectic between Plato and Aristotle where Plato kind of represents that there are potentially this transcendent realm of ideal forms and that In some ways, in the current context, the mathematicians are carrying forth this platonic realism or mathematical realism, saying that maybe these mathematical objects are actually there, that they're discovered. And then Aristotle kind of represents the more pragmatist viewpoint of, in some ways, the Karl Popper's falsifying information or having a direct lived experience of things, but that let's not believe in metaphysical realms of ideal forms unless we can actually experience it in some direct way. I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on casting of some of these existential debates within philosophy as this dialectic between these same debates that were happening between Plato and Aristotle.

[00:11:04.248] Peter Simpson: Well, interesting thing about Plato is that he wasn't just this theorist about some ideal reality, however that's understood. He tended to identify with numbers or mathematics. So what you get from Plato is kind of two things. One, some notion of platonic ideas, and on the other hand, reality is mathematical. Heisenberg, the other great physicist, was deeply impressed by Plato's Timaeus, which understands things geometrically. Heisenberg was using it rather to understand things mathematically, but he was really impressed how Plato was trying to give some kind of quantitative ultimate account of reality. That dimension of Plato being ultimately a mathematician about ultimate reality doesn't seem to have played as big a role in the history of philosophy from Plato's day until actually recently with modern fancy, modern mathematical science. The sort of difference between Aristotle and Plato that you get almost in the beginning is really the status of the concepts of things. When we think about beauty or goodness or the form of a triangle, are we thinking of something that is somehow real in the world or a concept that we've grasped some transcendental way that then we somehow recognize in imperfect instances down here in the world. Well, Plato seems to have the view that we have this memory of the perfect instance and then realize it in the particular cases. Aristotle thinks we abstract it from the particular cases. And that distinction rumbles on quite a bit. I don't know how significant it is in terms of, say, the contrast between, I don't know, ancient philosophy and modern philosophy. I tend to look at the history of philosophy as ancient, medieval, and modern. The ancients were very good at philosophy in all kinds. The medievals, their genius was in theology, although they used a lot of philosophy, very fancy philosophy in the process. Our modern genius, I think, is in the sciences. I don't think modern philosophy, which is wonderful and various and quite remarkable, is our great achievement. Our great achievement is science. The great achievement of the Middle Ages was theology, and the great achievement of the ancient world was philosophy. So I don't put that much store by modern philosophy compared with ancient, but modern science, yeah, that's pretty impressive.

[00:13:58.917] Kent Bye: I know that the Greeks actually had two words for time, the Kronos time and the Kairos time. One, I think, was a bit of the Kronos as a little bit of the linear time or the fate of the unending march of time. You know, Saturn was eating its children, so there's a bit of an inevitability and determinism that's coming with one aspect of time. And another aspect of time is the Kairos, which is more the quality of the moment at the time. It's the right moment to act. But it's a little bit nonlinear, cyclical, maybe perhaps a little bit more of a phenomenological in our perception of time. Because at any moment, is this time, is it really dragging in my board? Your experience of the time could really be varying upon what you're actually doing. And so I'm just curious to hear your perspective, though, in terms of just coming out of the Philosophy of Time committee meeting here at the APA, American Philosophy Association, what your thinking is around time and maybe looking back also to this Greek concept of the Kronos versus the Kairos.

[00:14:58.492] Peter Simpson: Yeah, the Kronos-Kairos concept, I think you're right. The Kronos concept would seem to be just, you know, the boring fact of one thing comes and another thing follows, past, present, and future. The Kairos has a much more personal dimension, the right time, the opportune time, the time that matters to me that either I take or I somehow miss. But when it comes to time, and you're right, we've just come from a session on time talking about McTaggart's, A and B series, I'm reminded of Saint Augustine when he talks about time. First of all, he says, I know perfectly well what time is, unless you ask me. And then later on, he nicely distinguishes between the presence of time past, the presence of time present, and the presence of time future. So that the experience of time takes place in the mind, the thought, combining past, present, and future, all in the present thinking or experience of it. So now that we're doing this interview, our experience is a making present of the past, present, and future of this interview. Because if you think of a moment of time, it disappears into nothing. The present second is a split second, et cetera. So how is it that we have an experience of time Well, it has to be in the present, but it has to be a present that embraces past, present, and future, which is Augustine's remark. And I find that very insightful. Aristotle has another wonderful remark. He defines time as the number of motion with respect to before and after. And he therefore says there's no time without soul because there's no time without numbering. which is not to say that there's no motion without numbering, that things are moving, but there's no time, which is to say the numbering of time with respect to before and after, unless there are living beings that are aware of and that count motion. So what the implications of that, I don't know, but I think it's a fascinating thought.

[00:17:17.260] Kent Bye: Well, Carlo Rovelli in his book, An Order of Time, he actually dives into what Aristotle said about time, but also what Newton said. And the way that Rovelli recounts it is that Newton had this concept that there was kind of like this universal march of time, that it's all kind of like this uniform field. And that Aristotle tended to have a little bit more of a look at how this was looking at how things change. So it's more of a measure of things that are different. So it's a little bit more of perhaps like Alfred North Whitehead process philosophy of events changing over time. And it's more about the events and how they're changing, rather than this uniform field of time that we may conceptualize of. And specifically from a quantum gravity perspective, that Ravelli says that even from the point on your head to the point on your toe, that each point has a unique sense of gravity. And because of that, just from a quantum gravity perspective and also relativity, that there's a different time for every specific location. And so it becomes more difficult when you start to try to organize, like, what is this now? It kind of is specific to what point in space you're in relative to what that experience of that time in that specific space would be. But he was really recounting what Aristotle was saying in terms of it being more about change than this Newtonian concept of a uniform field.

[00:18:30.092] Peter Simpson: Well, yeah, I think that's right. Newton notoriously has this absolute notion of space and time. Aristotle's notion is relative. It's ultimately relative to the motion of the sun, which is how we typically measure time. So he would have been more inclined to go with Leibniz and the famous Leibniz correspondence. And it would seem in light of modern science that Aristotle's view and Leibniz's view about the relativity of time, as opposed to the absolute nature of time, is correct. Of course, Aristotle didn't have a notion of time being relativized to space in the way that, as I understand relativity theory says, so that the time of the stars that we see is several billion years ago, but we see them as they are now. We see now what they were so many billion years ago because of the speed of light. Well, OK, that seems to be some truth to that. I think if Aristotle had been aware of these facts, he would have said, yeah, OK, fine. Then there's a relativity to time in that way, since time is just the number of motion with respect to before and after. and you have to be close enough to the moving thing that you're using to measure time, then, okay, if you're further away, maybe that distorts the measure of time. Yeah, that seems fair enough. So I think, yeah, you put Newton against Aristotle, well, of course, Newton was a genius in many ways, but on the question of time, Aristotle seems to have won.

[00:20:13.465] Kent Bye: Well, one of the things that I've been going back and looking at Aristotle is specifically the elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and that usually the elements have been depicted in his physics as a model of matter and energy, basically his model of the world, and then drawing upon Empedocles and how there's this love and strife falling into each of these elements. Once we've got a more specific model of what actual reality is in terms of physics and everything else, that kind of theory of the elements has kind of gone to the wayside. But I still think that there's an element of the qualities of each of those experiences that could be talking about the quality of our experience rather than the specific quantity of that. Whether that's in virtual reality, which I cover, there's a certain dimension of the fire element being kind of metaphorically representative of the agency and the ability to take choice and make action, the air element being the mental and social dimension of all your cognition and rationality and being able to abstract things into language and be able to describe things mathematically. And then there's the more embodiment of the earth element of all your perception and all the lived experiences that are coming into your body. And then the water element being just the emotions and different dimensions of cycles of time. I really see there's a connection between water and time in terms of just cycles of consonants and dissonance that give us this contrast of tension being built and released that comes through music as well as and as in story and so I look at this more Pythagorean idea of That all is number but that and this is the quadrivium that they would say the quadrivium they would study math which is just numbers abstractly numbers in space which is geometry and Numbers and time which is music and numbers in space and time which is astronomy or objects moving through space So I've been really inspired by this Aristotelian idea of the elements and we're just curious to hear some of your thoughts on that Yeah, you talk about the elements

[00:22:08.702] Peter Simpson: Well, oddly enough, the way Aristotle talks about the elements takes us back to the first point we talked about, which is modern science's picture of the world in our own direct experience. Because while Aristotle talks about fire, earth, air, and water, the typical four elements of the ancient Greeks, he distinguishes them in a particular way. He distinguishes them according to the hot, the cold, the wet, and the dry. So the hot and the dry is fire. The hot and the wet is air, the cold and the dry is earth, and the cold and the wet is water. Now, what's interesting about that way of looking at things, which is very different from our modern scientific picture, is that it's done entirely in terms of perceptual qualities. And, you know, we were talking earlier about color, right? I say, well, color's real, but it's what's on the surface. It's, well, the same with Physical bodies. What are physical bodies? Well in our experience they're combinations of a hot cold wet and dry Or we can get kind of fancy about it so instead of going into the physics lab and splitting elements up if you go into the kitchen and you see how the chef or whoever is is combining hot, cold, wet, and dry things to produce a certain kind of meal with a certain kind of flavor, a certain kind of texture. That's the kind of thing that Aristotle has in mind when he talks about the elements and how the elements go to make up things. All right, now our modern scientific notion of the table of the elements and atoms and quanta and so on, okay, fair enough, you can certainly except that it allows us to do lots of weird and wonderful things. But again, it doesn't correspond to our experience of the world. Our direct experience of the world is the hot, the cold, the wet and the dry, and things along those lines. So if you want an account of the world as we directly experience it, aerosol is still pretty good. If you want the more fancy, mathematical, elaborate, experimental stuff, then sure, you go with modern science. And you can do lots of wonderful things with it, but it still doesn't describe the world of direct experience.

[00:24:33.998] Kent Bye: Yeah, I've been coming to a very similar conclusion because the essence of the hot, cold, wet, and dry, which I think is normally referred to as Galen temperaments as well, because Galen took that to be able to have a theory of medicine. But those different dimensions of the hot, cold, wet, and dry, in some sense, are a polarity point of hot and cold, where it's really a spectrum. where you could be a certain degree quantitatively, but your experience of that could fall on a relative spectrum of extreme hot and extreme cold, but it's somewhere in the middle and that in some ways there's a polarity point between those two extremes. And I think in some ways Empedocles was trying to say that the genesis of these elements was love and strife, which there's another polarity point, but if you look at Chinese philosophy, it was a yin and a yang. Which, in their perspective, the yang was the day in the solar, and the yin was the night in the lunar. So, you have this contrast between day and night, and over the course of a year, there's an equal amount of both darkness and lightness. But, at the essence, it's the yang energy going outward, of making choices and taking action, which could be the fire and the air. And the more yin dimension of the water on earth is more receptive. And so you're actually receiving different dimensions. And so there's energy going outward and energy being received. The sun is putting out light and the moon is reflecting it. And so I see that there is a way to take these spatial metaphors that we get from natural philosophy to be able to then have more of a way of describing the qualities of experience. And from my perspective in designing virtual reality experiences, you have to have some philosophy for experiential design, which is how do you modulate human experience? And from what I've started to come to some sort of initial philosophy around my own experiential design is that you have to find the polarity points of those different dimensions of whatever quality you're talking about. If you have those extreme polarity points, then you can start to then modulate and see the different trade-offs based upon those.

[00:26:29.784] Peter Simpson: That sounds very interesting to me. I don't have too much to say about it, other than I think you're right that if you're going by the world of direct experience, which is the world we live in, then the kind of things you're looking at and the way you're trying to use them for whatever purpose you have, that seems to make more sense than just following the scientific mathematical abstractions, which are very good for other things, like, I don't know, sending lunar spaceships to the moon. But in terms of our direct experience, a very different approach is necessary. So I would agree with that. And you mentioned

[00:27:08.937] Kent Bye: music? Music is numbers and time, but yeah.

[00:27:12.381] Peter Simpson: Right, well actually I have, I've been studying elements of the tuning of music, particularly the piano, which uses the tempered scale. This is actually another element I think of experience versus mathematical precision, because The modern piano, which kind of gives a measure for most other instruments, is tuned to the tempered scale, which means that between every semitone on the piano, there's actually the exact same interval. It's measured in what we now call cents, a musical term for the distance between intervals. So every semitone on the piano is 100 cents, and you have 12 intervals in an octave, so it gives you 1,200 cents an octave, but those measurements of notes on a piano don't give you the intervals of a fifth or a fourth or a third in the strict sense, because those intervals are measured in terms of ratios. So a fifth is three to two, a fourth is four to three, a major third is four to five. Those intervals understood as whole number ratios don't translate into whole number of cents. So the interval of a fifth on a piano is not quite a fifth in the sense of a 3-2 ratio. The same with the fourth, same with the third. Which means that when you're listening to music on a piano, you're not getting those interval differences. And the ear, as is not hard to understand, naturally responds to the interval, if you imagine sounds as sound waves, which we do, a fifth would be the higher note of the interval with a frequency of three, the lower note with a frequency of two. So every so often the two notes would coincide. So every three peaks of the wave of the higher note would coincide with every second peak of the wave of the lower note. That natural coincidence of the waves is naturally picked up by the ear. But that doesn't happen on the piano because the intervals are never precisely kept. And that, I've just been exploring or thinking about the ways in which that affects the way music affects us. Because if we're not hearing intervals, but distortions of intervals, whenever we hear music, however nice it sounds, what is that really doing?

[00:29:53.155] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know there's some musicians in some communities that are trying to do alternative tunings that tune to 432 hertz or whatever. There's ways to kind of try to account for what I think is referred to commonly as a Pythagorean comma, which is like this difference that you're talking about here, that there's a bit of our experience of music that's been perverted by this tempered scale, but there's a more mathematically sound and harmonious version that we're being denied.

[00:30:18.417] Peter Simpson: Well, exactly. Actually, the Pythagorean comma is rather interesting. It refers to the fact that you can't divide an octave equally into a series of fifths. There's something called the cycle of fifths. On a piano, you can start with one note, go up a fifth, go up another fifth, and you keep doing this and transposing down octaves as you go, and eventually you should return to the same note. So 12 fifths should bring you back to the octave. Well, in fact, it doesn't. If you do it in terms of the number of cents, It turns out there's a difference between the octave you get through the Pythagorean cycle of fifths and the octave that is a 2-1, and it's an interval of 24 cents. And that's the Pythagorean comma. And a tempered scale is basically a way of trying to get a single octave with all the notes in the octave squashed a little bit so that you can get rid of the 24 cent extra. And that's essentially what happens in a tempered scale. You take essentially two cents off each interval in the scale. And that way you can get 12 fifths within an octave. The cost, of course, is that you lose the pure intervals of fifth, fourth, and third, and several other intervals. In fact, no interval in an octave on the piano is a pure whole number ratio except the octave.

[00:31:49.627] Kent Bye: Well, because you're looking at Aristotle and you've kind of broken up the ancient, the medieval, and the modern philosophy as being relative to philosophy, theology, and then science, there seems to be a lot of the work that Aristotle was doing that maybe laid down a lot of the groundwork for science that continued. But yet there seems to be a certain dimension of your work in ancient philosophy that could potentially add things that came from those ancient thought and to recontextualize How people think about or do different things in science? I'm just curious what those things that we could grab from Aristotle and to add to our modern day that are beneficial I

[00:32:34.962] Peter Simpson: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I think just reading anything of Aristotle is instructive and enjoyable. But I suppose one of my main interests has been in politics. And I did write, as a kind of spoof some time ago, an imaginary Account of the American Constitution as if written by Aristotle, what would Aristotle say? if he were to talk about the American Constitution and by extension just about any Constitution in the modern world because they're relatively similar well, one interesting things that he says is that choosing Political office by election is not democratic It's oligarchic. The obvious reason that, well, especially nowadays with election campaigns, the only people who stand a chance of winning office, let alone of running for office, is to be well-known, rich, and prominent. And there are very few of those. And that's what an oligarch is. An oligarch is the few and the rich. That's an oligarchy ruled by the few and the rich. Well, the mere fact that the people vote really makes a difference if the people who end up ruling are the few and the rich. So Aristotle would describe the modern American constitution as an oligarchy and not as a democracy. And another wonderful remark he has recommending that the terms of office be relatively short. He's thinking of maybe a year as the longest time you should serve in office. And he says, It's not as easy for those who rule a short time to commit crimes as it is for those who rule a long time, which seems exactly right. So you look at our own contemporary politics and you see politicians in office for years. I mean, some of them may be decent people, no doubt. For Aristotle, that would be a very bad way of running a country. Not only is it extreme oligarchy, you're wide open to corruption of all kinds.

[00:34:55.893] Kent Bye: Well, didn't Plato say that some of these states should be ruled by philosophers? And did Aristotle also believe that?

[00:35:03.775] Peter Simpson: That's an interesting comment near Plato's view that philosophers should be rulers. There is a remark attributed to Aristotle that we have in some ancient source. Aristotle allegedly criticized Plato and said that philosophers shouldn't rule. Instead, rulers should listen to philosophers. Partly because Aristotle had a sense that the genius and the virtues required to be a good ruler are not the same, quite the same, as those required to be a good philosopher. Yeah, so that's what Aristotle said on that particular score, which is... And I suppose, yeah, you want intelligence and prudence in your rulers, but you don't necessarily want them to be philosophers.

[00:35:52.913] Kent Bye: Well, in talking to other people, I heard that Plato was saying that the ideal size of a city should be around 5,000 people or so. And that if you look at technological entities like Facebook, you have this 2 billion plus users on the same platform. In some ways, it's come this. huge government that is managing the affairs and the rules of billions of people and that seems to go against what the concept of what Plato would think of as a reasonable size of how to actually manage collective affairs. So I'm just curious to hear, what do you think Aristotle would say in terms of if he were to design his ideal city state or government, what would it look like?

[00:36:37.801] Peter Simpson: In the modern world, well, I think both Plato and Aristotle were convinced that the point of politics, the living in community, a civilized, developed community, is so that human beings can develop and become perfect as human beings, which means virtuous, morally virtuous, intellectually virtuous, and they understand politics as ultimately all about making people virtuous, which is directly contrary to the standard notion of liberalism, which says, that the state exists to allow people to pursue their own vision of happiness, provided they let others pursue their vision of happiness as well. Plato and Aristotle would say, no, happiness is a particular definitely definable thing, the life of virtue, and you can only become virtuous by practice and habituation, which can only be done if you have the right laws that you're subject to from youth up. So the reason why you want your communities to be small is so that you can focus on virtue. Because if all you know about someone is some things they say on Facebook and they live thousands of miles away, you don't know what their character is, so you know nothing about their virtues. And so you can't help them in that respect and they can't help you. Or they might actually harm you if they're lacking in virtue. So I think Aristotle and Plato would be pretty much appalled by the way in which we have huge governments, the kind we do. Well, their awareness or their knowledge of such governments would be like the great empires of the ancient world, like the Persian Empire was what they knew of in particular. a huge sprawling nation, which they didn't seem to think much of, barbarian versions, and they much preferred something the size of one of the Greek polis, or even smaller, where people could devote themselves and be trained in the development and practice of virtue. This idea of small communities ruling themselves, although they could have alliances. So it wouldn't necessarily be isolated communities. They could have alliances of mutual defense and assistance. That actually fits in with the vision of the American Revolution, which at its beginning didn't have the Constitution. It had what we call the Articles of Confederation. which was much looser and left much more authority, not only in the states, but within the states, in local communities. All that was kind of changed by the Constitution, so we now have this grand monolith of the United States, which was never the original vision and wasn't what the American Revolution was about, oddly enough.

[00:39:39.629] Kent Bye: Well, it's interesting to think about how there's so many dimensions of technology and books and ways of communication, mass communication, that didn't even exist in their time of Plato and Aristotle. But yet, it sounds like they're a bit of like libertarians in the sense of wanting to keep things Small but also have this dimension where if everything's ordered around virtue Then it's more about how people are related in communities and connected to each other like in a real embodied way if you can't observe Someone's character by what they're doing and acting but there's ways to do that in terms of seeing how Actions are carried out over time. Even if it's in a mediated through digital technology so I'm not so convinced that it has to be and located in a specific geography, but it seems like most governmental organizations are centered around geography, but yet we do have this big monolithic United States government. But yet, I guess it's a deeper question as to whether or not you think trying to project into the minds and consciousness of both Plato and Aristotle, given all the context and changes, if we would kind of identify them as a bit libertarian in today's context.

[00:40:46.427] Peter Simpson: Well, libertarian in the sense of not being keen on big centralized government, but not libertarian in the sense of wanting no training, even coerced training, in virtue. For them, the political community is all about making people virtuous. And you can use the laws for that and use coercion as necessary. So that's in a way not libertarian. And that's why they thought it had to be done on a local scale. But I suppose you're right that, you know, you can communicate with people electronically. You can talk with them over the phone or Skype them or whatever. And presumably you can develop a sufficiently close relationship in that way that you would get to know the other person's character. and that you could help to promote each other's character. But much more effective for all of us, even now, is the communities we live in or create for ourselves, even in a big city like New York. People don't live in New York, they live in their little part of New York, where they have their community and kind of generate their community around themselves, at least as far as they can, because with all the building and changes going on, communities get disrupted. And oddly enough, that's also something that used to be part of the American experience, maybe up until the end of the Second World War, the 50s or so on, when you had, in just about all parts of the United States, what would now be called ethnic enclaves. So you had the Irish here, the Italians there, the Poles there, and whatever. So New York City was really a collection of different ethnic enclaves. Parts of New York City still are. Parts of Brooklyn, for instance. Well, those ethnic enclaves, as you might call them, or neighborhoods, where there was a definite ethnic identity. And if you were Irish, you lived with the Irish. You were Italians, you lived with the Italians. even went to the different churches if you went to church. They created something like a kind of ancient Greek polis or community, where of course there was a strong sense on some notion of virtue, particularly because these communities even today where they exist, tend also to have a religious dimension to them. So there'll be some connection to some church or some religious idea that's animating the community, which would be fine for Plato and Aristotle because for them religion was a significant part of communal life and they were perfectly in favor of public worship.

[00:43:38.417] Kent Bye: So for you, what are some of the biggest open questions that are driving your work forward?

[00:43:44.901] Peter Simpson: Oh. I wasn't expecting that question. Well, currently there are two things I'm doing. One I already mentioned to you, which is this idea of the real world that we experience and its relation to the scientific world, which is also related to the idea of, is there a difference between what it is to be alive and what it is to be, say, a robot? Is there a difference between an artificial intelligence or a robot and a living being? And I think there is a clear distinction, but I'm still thinking about that. That's something I'm working on. Another thing I'm working on, which is my medieval element, because not only am I interested in the ancient philosophers, I'm interested in the medieval ones, partly because they were such excellent commentators and developers of ancient Greek thought. Well, I have a special fascination with John Duns Scotus, one of the great theologians. and also from Scotland, where my father was from as well. So I'm translating, for my own interest and for others' benefit, lots and lots of scotus from Latin and trying to make sense of what he's saying, because he's a very involved, subtle thinker, just trying to make sense of it and put it in a way that is accessible to others. It's a project I'm undertaking. It's a long process because there's a huge amount of stuff to translate. But it's actually proving really enjoyable and challenging.

[00:45:22.867] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of philosophy is and what it might be able to enable?

[00:45:32.935] Peter Simpson: Well, that's a difficult question. The value of philosophy for the larger community, I think, is less in terms of particular theories that philosophers might have about, I don't know, the human mind or whatever, as the insistence on thinking things through carefully and logically. It's very easy to get caught by superficial reasoning and appeals to emotion. which philosophy, if you do it properly, will at least give you some chance to think yourself through and not be caught by superficial arguments. That's probably the main value of it. I'm not sure that, as it were, the grand theories are going to make much difference. But if people can be encouraged to be more thoughtful and more calm in the way they think, that would help.

[00:46:33.492] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the philosophy community?

[00:46:38.997] Peter Simpson: Keep thinking. And keep thinking outside the box. Don't stick to the tried and true. Or, well, stick to the tried and true when it is tried and true, but be open to different possibilities, which may mean possibilities that have been discarded and that we used to embrace before.

[00:47:01.362] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. Thanks very much. That's been enjoyable. So that was Dr. Peter Simpson. He's a professor at the City of University of New York, focusing on ancient philosophy, specifically Aristotle and Plato, as well as a focus on moral and political philosophy. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, Well, I love the way that Dr. Simpson talks about how he sees these different eras of philosophy where there's ancient philosophy where they were really focused on like real philosophy from his perspective. And then you move into medieval philosophy, which really got into both critiquing and analyzing and commenting on Greek philosophy, but also mostly into theology. And then this modern era of science, that the real success of this era has been more of the science more than the philosophy, which I found really interesting, because a lot of things that Dr. Simpson is talking about is how there's this tension between the quality and the quantity. And that in some ways, it sort of mirrors this platonic way of looking at things in terms of mathematics and number versus Aristotle, which seemed to be a little bit more embodied and looking at these qualities and these polarity points between the qualities. So it's interesting to think about this tension when it comes to like the philosophy of mind, like what is consciousness? And also, what is the nature of reality? Is the nature of reality these numbers, these abstract quantities? Or is it more phenomenological? Is it more a basis of a subjective perception of our consciousness? Is consciousness fundamental and more of a fundamental fabric of the basis of reality? Most of the philosopher of minds that you'll find at one of these American Philosophical Association meetings are these analytic philosophers who are mostly on this whole strand of a limited materialism, which is saying that all of our consciousness is just an illusion, that the world is basically quantities and numbers, and that there are no qualities, and that any qualities that we are perceiving is just like a perceptual illusion, that things are being constructed in our minds, but it's really this information loss to this true nature of reality. And I think that Dr. Simpson is saying, well, maybe we should question that from this ancient philosophy perspective, because maybe it's the flip, and maybe it's the quality that is the primary. And whatever it ends up being in terms of the nature of reality, I think is always going to be like this existential philosophical question. But Part of my argument, I think part of the argument that Dr. Simpson is making is that we have this closed-minded sense of this model of reality that in some ways, you know, I had this conversation with Douglas Rushkoff where I was talking about this dialectic between Plato and Aristotle and both Douglas Rushkoff and Dr. Simpson was both making this argument saying like, hey, you know, this platonic way of looking at things is to try to reduce things down to a number, to these quantities. And that in some ways, that is how all of science is being driven. Unless it can be reduced down to a number, then it doesn't exist at all. So if you only look at things through the lens of being a number, then you can miss a whole other realm of all these other dimensions of reality, or at least from the human experience perspective. So I was debating with Douglas Rushkoff and saying, hey, maybe we need to go back to Plato. And he's like, well, there's these other people that are saying we need to go back to Aristotle. And then I came out of that conversation saying, well, maybe we need some sort of balance of both. And I think that's actually what we need, is that some sort of balance between that more platonic way of looking at things and looking at these mathematical models. But recognizing that the map is not the territory, that these mathematical constructs don't necessarily represent every single dimension of the nature of reality. Gödel and his incompleteness theorem, I think, is something that has been a huge inspiration to me. And just to be thinking about this in a little bit more of a pluralistic way, and to say that, you know, there's these different lenses where you can gather all sorts of amazing information if you look at the world through the lens of mathematics and science, but there's going to be all sorts of different things that you completely miss. And Gödel basically proved that in terms of saying that any consistent set of logic is going to either need to be Consistent or complete so you can pick one or the other and because we want to have consistency then it's going to be incomplete and so there's going to be things that you know are true that you can't prove are true and Just a little bit of a thought experiment in terms of science Science and philosophy of science if you're saying that is the basis for ontological reality Then you need to be able to repeat things and be able to falsify things well there's all sorts of things within the human experience that you can't repeat you can't falsify and Like if I say I'm in love with this person, then is that provable by science? And if not, then does that make it not true? So I think there's things like that that are in the realm of our perceptual direct experience that are beyond the realm of science. And I think that's where looking at the more Aristotelian ways of looking at these spectrum between these qualities, you can start to model different dimensions of the human experience in a way that you can't if you just turn things into quantities. I think color perception is this very interesting thing that he's talking about here, as well as music. Both of these are things that we have a subjective phenomenological experience of these things, but when you turn it down into numbers, then it has a completely other different model of reality. And in some ways, if you look at what is happening with quantum mechanics you have the wave particle duality where things do get reduced down to numbers and then you have these probabilistic waves of possibility that mathematically could be represented in all sorts of different ways depending on how you interpret the quantum measurement problem. It could mean from Everett's perspective that there's many different parallel worlds that are happening at the same time. time, it could mean for more of the Copenhagen interpretation or that consciousness is potentially collapsing the wave function that there's some sort of direct interfacing to our subjective perceptual reality that is somehow collapsing that wave function. And that's our act of observation that is somehow quantumly entangled into the entire system. The quantum measurement problem is this huge open question, but the quantum wave function and the complementary nature of quantum mechanics is saying that there is this duality between numbers and this more qualitative aspects of this wave of probability. And so I think that we can look at that in terms of when you look at the world through one lens, you kind of collapse looking at it through the other lens. So I feel like virtual reality and this shift towards artificial intelligence, neural network architectures, it's all about creating these architectures that you give AI these direct experiences that then they're able to make these qualitative judgments based upon, is this a cat or a dog? And then it's able to, from that spectrum, be able to make a qualitative decision. And computer vision, like that's the foundation of all the different innovations that have happened in computer vision. But if you look at it just broadly, you have these other areas of the human experience that are much more better described by qualities. And so that's a big reason why I wanted to go to the American Philosophical Association to say, well, what is it about these qualities? And what is it about, from Aristotle's perspective, he had this spectrum between hot, cold, wet, and dry. And from that, he's able to derive the different elements where fire is hot and dry, air is hot and wet, the earth element is cold and dry, and the water element is cold and wet. So you have this polarities between these two extremes to be able to derive these different elements. And for me, I look at these different elements to say, you know, the fire element being active presence and your sense of agency and will into different experiences, and then the air element being the mental and social presence of any of the abstractions, and the earth element being the embodied experience, your sensory experience, and all the ways in which you have this sense of embodied presence within the world. And then finally, the emotional presence is these constant and dissonant cycles of the emotions that give you this sense of time. And so the basis of which the ancients looked at describing the world was through that more phenomenological experience of these qualities. And I think because we've had this turn towards science, we've disregarded and not looked at some of these different perspectives. But part of the deeper argument that I'm making, especially in the conversation that I had with Dr. Simpson, is that it's worth going back and looking at how do we actually retrieve some of the things that were lost or neglected or discarded And I feel like that is what I least saw at the American Philosophical Association. That is a huge venture in terms of how do you break out of these silos that we've created? So one of the things that I came away with from that conference was that it'd be much better if they had like a interdisciplinary from all these different perspectives, whether it's from ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy, religious philosophy, you know, science, whatever perspectives, if they were to pick one topic, say love or time or perception, and have all these different people from these different perspectives to be able to have these open-ended salons, then that would be so much better than what was there, which was essentially philosophy that was ruled by the philosophy of science, where there's this overwrought peer-review process where you have to submit things over a year in advance, and then it gets peer-reviewed, and then there's a reply. and then that's peer-reviewed, and then there's a reply to a reply, then that's like peer-reviewed. So essentially, you have all these peer-reviewed processes for all the presentations that people are getting up in front of the room and just reading word for word something that was written over a year ago. And from my perspective, I come from much more of this Socratic, like in the moment, hey, let's talk about things that are arising right now. That was completely opposite of the way that the current analytic tradition of philosophies being practiced right now. And that in some part is because they're completely ruled by the philosophy of science. And so there's this deeper question of like, why? Why do you need to have philosophy that's peer reviewed? Shouldn't you be able to just have a conversation and then be able to make the philosophical arguments live in the moment? So that's much more of my approach. So my gonna be going into that debate and argument so much more into a deep dive and then the voices of philosophy podcast because it's a bit of a Diversion from what I'm doing here at the voices of VR but part of my frustration is that there's all these different aspects and information from all these different disciplines and domains and this is just an example where you get to see how someone from a completely different perspective coming from the perspective of ancient philosophy actually is some of the most cutting-edge perspectives when it comes to perception and what's happening in the nature of describing the human experience. So that's what I see as a trend that's happening in VR is that it's trying to be this interdisciplinary melting pot And part of the project that I've been trying to do is trying to come up with the philosophical framework that would allow me to pull in all these different perspectives and be able to navigate this from a more pluralistic perspective. So I think there's grains of truth in all these different perspectives. What I think Dr. Simpson is saying is that there's a little bit of this bias of being able to look at things as being old or ancient, therefore no longer relevant, and that that's something that we need to get over and that we need to realize that there's these cycles that happen. In some ways, it's more of that Kairos perspective, which academically, you don't get time from this perspective, a monochronic perspective or a polychronic perspective. The monochronic perspective is a lot more Newtonian. Which is like this uniform flow of time and even though we are adopted things like general relativity We still have like a direct embodied experience that time is this arrow of time that's moving forward But from our physics perspective, it's not moving forward or backwards. It's kind of agnostic. It's going both directions in this weird symmetrical way and but we don't necessarily always have a direct experience of that and until we look at time through a phenomenological lens, where we start to see, hey, there's the past, present and future are embedded within this context, we're in this moment, and then we see something and it reminds us of something that happened in the past, and somewhere that we want to be in the future. And so a polychronic way of looking at time is much more from like Carlo Rovelli, who does the relational quantum mechanics, and his way is much more of this process that's unfolding. So it's very similar to process philosophy, but I think it's more close to Aristotle's perspective of time, which is that looking at changes, and that those changes are relative to two things. And so you have to take these two objects and see how they're relative to each other, and that how those change, then you can get this sense of time. The way that we measure time is the earth relative to the sun. the sun relative to the earth which gives you this sense of the day or the moon relative to the earth which gives you this sense of the lunar month which is roughly equivalent to the month it's not exact but it's pretty close you know it's on the same order of magnitude and then if you look at the course of the year then you have the sun going through the 360 degrees of the zodiac in order to do this complete revolution which is if you look at the perspective of the equinoxes it's this equal amount of light so the the time in which that there's equal amount of lightness in the day and the night is the beginning of the vernal equinox in the spring. And that gives us the sense of the year. And so you have these different ways of looking at how time can be described by the relationships of these two different objects. And that's what Dr. Simpson was talking about in terms of music, because music is all about those ratios. But then when you try to turn it into those numbers with the tempered scale, then you start to lose a lot of the magic of that music. you know it still sounds okay and you're able to create all these chords and chord progressions but there's something about those natural frequencies that he's saying that our body can hear and that when you start to use the tempered scale you start to lose that a little bit and so I expect to see in this era we're going to see a lot more alternative tunings that go beyond those tempered scales and I'm starting to see that in terms of the different types of music healing and you know, shamanic practices and the type of music that's used within these ayahuasca rituals or these psychedelic experiences with psilocybin. So I feel like there's this whole sort of underground of movement that's happening with music, but it's interesting to look at music from the perspective of those ratios. And that's part of the reason why I go back to the quadrivium, because it starts to look at all these different things, whether it's mathematics, which is just the numbers, abstractly the numbers in space, which is more of the geometry and architecture, And then the numbers and time, which is described as music, these consonants and dissonance cycles that give us this tension release, that gives us this sense of engaging our emotions, which gives us this sense of time. And then finally, there's the numbers and space and time, which is objects moving through space, which is described by astronomy. So you have like this mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy have all these different aspects of how they're connected in these different ways. And so you can look at all these different experiential aspects of mathematics and music and architecture, as well as objects and bodies moving through space through the lens of these ratios of how it's these entities that are related to each other and how they're unfolding at many different cycles at different scales. And so. Going back to this idea of the monochronic versus the polychronic the monochronic is just looking at things from that linear perspective It's like the Newtonian uniform flow of time And I characterize that as a little bit more of the Kronos way of looking at time But the more Kairos is the quality of the moment of time it's more about these entities in these objects that they're related to each other in different ways and these cycles that are unfolding and that there's these ratios of these different entities that are related to each other and so within music you have the beat and so you have like four beats in a measure and then that repeats that is one unit then you have larger melody that's unfolding but also the chord progressions and then you have the different phases of the music and so you have all these different cycles that are happening at different scales and they're all kind of put together into this experience of music. And so that's in some ways why I think that these rhythm games within like Beat Saber and Soundboxing, Box VR, and then Cloudhead Games just released a trailer of a video that they're releasing called Pistol Whip, which is this combination of something like Superhot with Beat Saber. So it's a rhythm game shooter where you're moving around, but moving through space. And Superhot is another example of your body moving through space and it affects time. And so there's these new experiences that we're having of spatializing music and moving our bodies through space and how that affects the world around us in these virtualized environments that are giving us these different experiences of music and time and space and objects moving through space. So in just looking at virtual reality, there's this open question of what is the philosophical foundations for us to start to make sense of some of this. And so I guess the deep thrust of the argument that I'm making in this podcast and throughout a lot of the work that I'm doing here is to go back to the ancients, go back to these other non-Western ways of looking at the qualities like Chinese philosophy or even from the analytic tradition Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy and I hope to sort of elaborate on that quite a bit more with talking to other philosophers like it did in this podcast on the Voices of Philosophy podcast, which I hope to launch at some point I don't know when hopefully it's gonna be at the right time right now. I'm just trying to dig through this backlog of all these different interviews and conversations and I Like I said, I don't know what's gonna happen each day. I can try to promise and to plan it out, but the way that this seems to be working for me right now is just to wake up and to follow the thread of where it leads me, and today it led me to dig up this interview that I did in the context of a completely different podcast, but I think it's relevant to a lot of topics that have been talked about here on the podcast, here at the Voices of VR. Eventually, I would love to have just one podcast where I could talk about all these different topics and it makes sense, But I think it's kind of reflecting and mirroring the fractured nature of the way that we break up different things. And so I'm likely gonna launch these other podcasts at some point, I don't know when, but my goal is to eventually just be able to have everything into a centralized podcast. Because VR isn't necessarily encompassing all the things that I wanna talk about, it's really about the architecture of the human experience. But it's at least the thing that I have the audience for and start to build out. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for going down this little rabbit hole of philosophy. If you enjoy this, then please reach out, let me know, share this podcast. I think there's some interesting perspectives. And also, you know, I am hoping to expand and grow out what I'm doing here on the Voices of VR podcast and on all these other podcasts. And if you enjoy this trajectory of where I'm going, then please do support this podcast. This is a listener supported podcast. So I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can donate and become a member today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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