Plato's Allegory of the Cave

A short essay on Plato's Allegory of the Cave in response to a lost question from a test in my Spring 2016 Ethics class at the College of Staten Island, edited for clarity and amended to reflect my updated perspective on the topic.

For readers unfamiliar with Plato's Allegory of the Cave, here's a short film illustrating the allegory and explaining some of its popular interpretations.

Plato's Allegory of the Cave serves to illustrate the notion that our ideas of what things are is essentially removed from and inferior to the deeper reality from which they proceed. When we percieve objects through the biased lens of our inherently limited individual perspectives, knowing them by relationship to us and to one another, we miss their fundamental nature, which cannot be known within the limited framework of a mortal human mind.

Therefore, the world as we know it is not the world, but a distorted and illusory emanation of a truer reality inaccessible to normal human consciousness. Television, video games, and especially the newly emerging technology of virtual reality all offer us in the modern human world a more easily understandable metaphor for the idea Plato attempts to describe with his allegory to a much more primitive and less immersive form of illusion-technology. In all of these cases, the screen plays the same limiting role as the mortal mind does in reality, producing distorted representations of things which have a truer existence beyond its pixelated edge.

There is great merit to this notion; though Plato had scant more than his own common sense to support it, neuroscience and experiments involving altered neurology have since shown us clearly that there is much data we receive through our senses which must be discarded, summarized, symbolized, or fudged in some way in order for us to rapidly put together a coherent, functional model of reality from moment to moment. Furthermore, other sciences such as chemistry and physics have shown us that there is much at play in our experience which cannot be percieved directly through the senses at all; therefore, even if our brains were capable of including all sensory data in our reality-models, there would still be plenty of information left out. So clearly there is much missing from our limited experience of the world, and this is to say nothing about the limitations of our minds in conveying to our conscious self the totality of even our own internal associations and emotional responses in each moment, as should be evident to anyone who has ever found difficulty understanding or communicating exactly how s/he thinks or feels about something

I would disagree however with the notion that there is such a thing as a “fundamental nature” of anything percieved beyond perhaps the raw qualia of the experience before thoughts, contextualization, and interpretation come into play (perhaps). This does not mean I believe that the world as we experience it is “real,” or that I dispute the idea that there is a truer, deeper reality beneath the appearances we percieve through our limited reality-tunnels. I just don't believe that this truer, deeper reality, if it is something accessible to consciousness, can ever be something final or fundamental; rather I would imagine that it too is a relative illusion containing or obscuring yet higher truth to be revealed.

Imagine that out somewhere in the universe there exists some highly-evolved extraterrestrial species with a mega-brain capable of accurately and comprehensively modeling every detail of a life like yours or mine beyond anything we could hope to accomplish with our little swollen ape-brains. Even the least intelligent members among this species can look at you and see your entire life from birth to death and understand every one of the interwoven causes, intentions, and coincidences contributing to every part of it, to see all through you and around you, to see all of your thoughts and even the thought processes in the back of your mind of which you are unaware. They could tell you exactly which incidents in your upbringing contributed to your bad temper or body-insecurity, and to what degree each incident contributed, and all of this would appear obvious to them at a single glance. They could diagnose any human illness immediately, as any viral or bacterial infection would be visibly contained in their model of you.

Were you or I to temporarily grow such mega-brains ourselves, and gain the ability to perceive reality on such an incredible scale, through a conscious experience containing exponentially more data than our usual experience, it would likely appear to us as if we had broken through to the true, fundamental reality beneath our previous illusion; suddenly we would feel as if we have understood everything and are without limitation. But could we, from this state, ever hope to understand the complexity of the alien brain through which we are experiencing it? Could we know the thought processes in the back of this new mind as well as we can understand, from this level of awareness, all the thought processes of our previous human mind? Of course not! In order to process that level of neural complexity, we would need an even more complex brain to observe it.

Fundamental truth, then, is something inherently restricted from conscious awareness, as the nature of consciousness is to limit, to build models, to focus on what's deemed important for its current purposes and leave out the extra. If fundamental truth is not something accessible to consciousness, it does not exist, or is meaningless as far as I am concerned. I reject the argument that there simply must be an ultimate reality on which all these levels of animal-to-human-to-hypothetical-extraterrestrial consciousness stand and which all ought to evolve to reach. To assert that there “is” such a reality means nothing, as there is no possible way for any real or concievable being in the infinite multiverse to do anything with such knowledge.

The only possible meaning such a concept might have would be as a goal not to reach but to strive towards. I would say, however, that it might be more useful to keep our eye on just the nearest level of higher awareness for now, and ultimately strive to increase the capacity of our consciousness indefinitely, rather than to use the unnecessary and potentially disheartening motivational device of an essentially unreachable end goal. It is certainly true that such a goal (of ultimate union with the final, true reality containing all knowledge at once) better serves the purpose of continuing human evolution through higher stages of consciousness than would an attitude of complete resignation to and satisfaction with our current level of awareness (which would have us sitting comfortably in the cave with no desire to escape), but it also brings along an expectation of final rest and completion which will certainly be disappointed when it comes to pass that every new level of awareness achieved reveals itself to be still, in some way, incomplete.

So to amend and update Plato's allegory, yes, we live in a virtual reality, but taking off the headset would not reveal to us the “fundamental nature” of what we have previously only beheld as illusions on a screen. Rather, we would only find ourselves in another virtual reality, immersed even more deeply in the images projected by a new, much more sophisticated headset, which masks from us yet another virtual reality, and so on, and so on, and it's turtles all the way down. The closest thing we as conscious beings can achieve to final union with a transcendent, all-encompassing, capital-T “True” reality is a wholehearted devotion to the endless task of higher and higher consciousness evolution. If there can be said to be an ultimate reality or “fundamental nature” of things beneath appearances, it is not the new illusion which lies behind the headset and outside of the cave; rather, it is the ongoing process of headset removal and cave escape itself. Surrender and devotion to this process here and now is where humanity may find its truth and purpose, never in some far-off dream of perfect, simultaneous knowledge of all being.

This short film powerfully illustrates a modern and, in my view, more accurate version of the allegory.