“Plato and his followers believed that before people are born, they exist in some other realm, where they know everything,” said the professor.
“That’s beautiful,” I said.
“Then when they’re born, they forget everything. And they spend the rest of their lives remembering all the truths they used to know.”
“That’s not so beautiful,” I said.
But it actually was, after I thought about it for a while. What’s more, it was akin to an idea I’ve held almost all my life. Whenever I’ve had a particularly great idea, or learned something on my own and felt that amazing rush of joy at my success, I’ve felt as though the idea was something “out there,” something of its own, waiting in its divinity for me to reach out and touch it. The idea that this feeling is actually the joyful relief of recovered memory made complete sense to me. I knew that Plato was wrong—as my professor said, the idea of some kind of preexistence is “goofy”—but I felt that he could be forgiven for his conclusion, goofy or no. I imagined him developing it: Socrates, sitting Indian-style on dusty tan ground, wrapped in bedsheets, facing a kneeling servant boy with a confused expression. “Look closely,” he says, and drawing on the ground, he sketches some arcane figures. The boy’s eyebrows draw together in silence, and Socrates feels similar rising frustration—but subdues this, and slowly redraws the squares and angles, explaining each step. Then as Socrates nears the end of the description, the boy’s squinted eyes widen. His gaze calms. A beatific smile spreads over his face. Turtles are born knowing how to swim to the ocean, butterflies know where their migration ends even if they were born halfway through its progress, and this illiterate child has the instinct for—what? Shelter-building? Gathering food? No—mathematics. Higher mathematics, in his day. “What could this be,” Socrates thinks, “but evidence that we gained these ideas from some place higher than this life?”
I remember when I first read a proof and understood it. I read a whole book about number theory. And slowly, truly imperceptibly, I noticed that even when I had original mathematical thoughts, I didn’t feel as though I had invented anything. I saw in my mind a great oblate spheroid hovering majestically in a pearly sky. From its gleaming iridescent surface, infinitely long needles of light radiated. And lucky me—one of those was shining on me full in the face and my head was enveloped in light. But what mattered wasn’t me or my head, and I hadn’t done any kind of creating. I close my eyes and think of that image and the feeling that came with it and I’m still convinced—truth is independent of human thought, of being thought. If everyone on earth died, if there was no one left to ponder, some ideas would still be sticking around, whether or not they were contemplated. They remain, because their truth is what the world is predicated upon.
This is even goofier than Socrates’s opinion, for at least he still connected truth with humanity, albeit preexistent humanity. Nevertheless, I’m willing to be goofy. I am positive there’s some way this actually happens. It’s the basis of all true knowledge. It’s out there waiting for us to tap into it.