The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plato’s Cave

Stephen Hawking’s pronouncement recently that there is no ‘afterlife’ got me wondering why we even ask him these questions in first place. He’s not an expert on spirituality. His area is a cosmology which is based on a bunch of scientific premises that follow one another in a logical progression, and how does logic apply to questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life?

The short answer is: it doesn’t.

Asking Stephen Hawking if there are spirits is like asking the Pope the best way to boil an egg. Now, Pope Benedict may be an absolute ace at boiling eggs (OK, I’ll resist any jokes about eggs benedict). But if he is, it would be sheer serendipity and absolutely nothing to do with him being the Pope.

The pitfalls of logic as a cognitive tool is the underlying message of Plato’s Cave, a story the great philosopher tells in The Republic. So I thought I’d have a go at retelling it here:

However, before we start, there’s just one small caveat. Please don’t get me wrong. Logic is essential to normal everyday life. We wouldn’t be able to so much as get up in the morning and clean our teeth without it. But the limits of logic as a cognitive tool are told in a fictional dialogue between Plato’s teacher, Socrates, and another student, Plato’s brother Glaucon. And what becomes clear is that it particularly has limits when it comes to understanding the great truths about the meaning and purpose of life.

So let’s begin.

Plato’s Cave

The story of Plato’s Cave is about a group of prisoners who have been chained to each other since birth, and who are forced to sit facing a cave wall. Behind them is a fire. However, they can’t see the fire. They only occasionally see some flickering shadows on the wall when one of their jailors walks in front of the fire, or when a visiting theatre troupe puts on a puppet show to keep them amused. That’s all they ever see. Black flickering shadows. And so they are convinced that these black flickering shadows are all there is to reality and all their decisions about what they think life is about are based on these black flickering shadows.

Here’s a good diagram to show the set up.

Now just imagine if one of these prisoners were to stand up. Remember, they’re all chained to each other, like a chain gang. There’d be a hell of a rumbling in the ranks, because the standing prisoner would have tugged at the chains that bind them all, and so everybody would be affected.

“Sit down! Sit down!” they would cry. “You’re making life difficult for all of us.”

But let’s say that our chap who stood up — let’s call him Arthur ~ refused to sit down.

“I’ve had enough,” cries Arthur. “I can’t take it anymore!! There must be more to life than this!”

The general consensus would be that Arthur is having a nervous breakdown or a midlife crisis or the male menopause or anything, rather than agree that he is right. Group denial would set in big time and his family would hang their heads in shame at being associated with him.

“He’ll be wanting a Harley Davidson next,” one can be heard to mutter.

But Arthur is not to be put off. Next, we see that he has not only stolen the jailor’s key — he has also figured out how to unlock the chains’ padlock. With a turn of the key, he is free! And so he heads off at full speed towards the tunnel that he can see at the back of the cave, the one that has a light at the end of it.

One of the jailors immediately leaps up and calls to another:

“Go after him! Go after him! We can’t let him find out what it’s like out there in the sunlight! He’ll return and sow discord in the ranks. They’ll all want to go!”

But the other jailor just shrugs his shoulders and laughs.

“Why bother?” he says. “He will be blinded by the Sun by now. He will never find his way back. But even if he does, who’s going to believe him?”.

In other words, to those who’ve only ever seen dark, flickering silhouettes on a cave wall, Arthur’s account of endlessly rolling landscapes of beautifully sunlit meadows and sunkissed beaches with exotically coloured butterflies, birds and bees and fragrant blossoms would not only seem like a fantasy … it would also seem to be utterly illogical.

So no-one will ever believe Arthur, that there is a wonderful world outside the cave. It’s just not logical. Even if Arthur could find the right words, they wouldn’t make any sense because there would be no vocabulary to describe life outside the cave. And after a short while of his ‘ravings’, they would decide that he must have gone completely mad.

In fact, poor Arthur loses all credibility and standing in his community. But does he care? Does he heck!


 

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Shamanic Earth Magic

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4 comments

  1. Pingback: The Naked Shaman – Episode 2 | Ishtar Babilu Dingir
  2. Pingback: Search For Truth « creatingreciprocity

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