Philosophers today often dismiss Plato's Theory of Forms as an outdated and failed attempt by a pre-modern thinker to explain knowledge. However, cognitive scientist John Vervaeke offers a radically different take on Plato's theory and how it ties in with recent debates about the nature of intelligence. John Vervaeke is a professor at the University of Toronto and the creator of the popular YouTube lecture series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.

This episode is available as a video on YouTube, in addition to the normal audio format.

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Transcript of the Episode's Prologue

Everyone knows the story of Plato’s Cave. Even if you haven’t read Plato’s own account of it in the Republic, you know some version of the story. Because it has been reused, repurposed, and reinterpreted by countless authors, playwrights, and movie directors. Perhaps the most famous recent adaptation is The Matrix. If you’ve seen that movie, you know the basic outline of the cave. It’s a story of awakening, of realizing that everything you thought was real in fact isn’t, and of the painful but exhilarating journey that leads to the discovery of what truly is real. 2400 years later, this story arch still captivates us. We feel its power. But what about the theory of knowledge that Plato intended his story to illuminate, the so-called theory of forms? How does that theory hold up today? It’s been criticized by philosophers, it’s often mocked by students. But what does the latest cognitive science have to say about it? That’s what we’re going to find out today.

Hi, thanks for tuning in to Ancient Greece Declassified. I’m Lantern Jack. And today, I’m excited to have with me someone who will be familiar to many of you, if you’ve spent any time on the internet searching for answers to deep questions. John Vervaeke is a cognitive scientist based at the University of Toronto, who is perhaps most well known to the general public on account of his YouTube lecture series called “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.”

The premise of the series is that we modern humans of the 21st century are experiencing a meaning crisis. Science and technology have made our lives so different from those of our ancestors, and have led us to cast aside or try to cast aside things that used to be integral to human life, like ritual, religion, and various wisdom traditions, with the result that many of us feel a lack of meaning in our lives.

In the series, Vervaeke attempts, among other things, an archaeology of human thought. He examines the various pivotal shifts in our ways of thinking that happened over the last several thousand years across various civilizations. And that is partly what we do on this program, except our approach is more narrow and historical, focused as it is on the ancient Mediterranean world, while Vervaeke approaches these paradigm shifts from the perspective of modern cognitive science, and looks at e.g. how these innovations in thought reflect how our brains work and where they failed or succeeded in giving us meaning.

One common point of interest that we have is Plato’s philosophy. Vervaeke discusses the cave and the forms in episode 5 of The Meaning Crisis, and we discussed the Cave in a previous podcast episode. It’s not on Youtube, but if you’re interested it’s episode R7 on our podcast feed, at Ancient Greece Declassified.

I invited Vervaeke on the show because philosophers today often dismiss the theory of forms as an outdated and failed attempt by a pre-modern thinker to explain. But I’m curious to know what a cognitive scientist would have to say about it. So without further ado, John Vervaeke, welcome to ancient Greece Declassified.