Truth is a tricky business.
The chair question goes back to Plato’s Realm of Forms and the belief that the physical world is mostly a shadow of another world of ideas. We know that a chair is a chair because somewhere in our mind is this intangible thing we understand as a chair. In Plato’s mind, the “form” of the chair is the essence of its perfection. So, from this line of thought, when my class was looking at that object at the front of my classroom, they weren’t really seeing a chair in its purist form. They were seeing a shadow of a chair.
Clear as mud?
Fair enough, let’s talk about his Allegory of the Cave.
Imagine a group of people who are chained up inside of a cave. In front of them is a nothing but a blank wall. Behind them is a fire. These people cannot turn around. They can only look straight ahead. They can only stare at the wall. This is the world they have always known. They have never seen anything else. But, they aren’t the only things there. There is a fire burning inside this cave. There are other creatures like dogs and birds and people that pass behind them. The light of the fire casts shadows of these things that are projected on the wall. These shadows are what the prisoners see. They don’t see a dog, they see a shadow of a dog. But, since they have never seen anything else, that shadow of a dog is their reality. To them, that shadow is a dog.
For those who grew up in a Christian church consider the words of the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a dim reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
He’s saying that what we see simply isn’t the whole truth. There is another level, another realm, another universe, another heaven where perfection exists. The thing we see now is simply a shadow. Regardless of what we think we can observe, there is something more beyond our perception.
Reality, it seems, is only what we’re capable of perceiving.
Much of what we believe is reality is simply that which our senses are capable of translating into our minds. Our reality is defined by how high the resolution of those senses. The world we smell is not the world a dog smells because their sensory abilities dwarf our own. Likewise, the colors we see are far broader than most mammals. Our reality is not their reality.
The thing we tend to forget is that we’re not really taking it all in. There is always a border to our perception. Just because it feels like it’s high definition, doesn’t really mean that it is.
Our eyes take in much more data than our brain is actually capable of processing, or at least doesn’t feel the need to process. So, in order to conserve energy or sanity, there’s a filter constantly at work processing enough what it thinks we need to know, and tossing out the other stuff. Psychedelic drugs tend turn that filter down and allow users to experience everything from color to time more vividly.
Let’s go back to the cave. Imagine the chains were broken for one of the prisoners and suddenly he was free to move. He was able to turn and look around and see the fire. Seeing the fire would not only hurt his eyes but also break his reality. So naturally, he turns back to stare at the wall and the comfortable shadows. But, then imagine a guard drags him past the fire and outside of the cave into the sunlight. Now, everything he knows as reality has been broken. The light blinds him and he becomes disoriented and angry. But, slowly his eyes begin to adjust to new shadows, and then reflections and finally into the sun itself. He is now a creature of the light.
He has been enlightened.
The man, now capable of seeing things as they are and not simply shadows, wants to free his fellow prisoners and so he returns to the cave. But, now the cave is too dark for his eyes and he’s blinded now by the darkness as he was once blinded by the sun. He tries to explain the what he’s found, but his old friends just see him as a blind man who was broken by what he saw and react violently to anyone who tries to free them. There is safety among comfortable shadows.
This can also be seen in the opening lines of the gospel of John [which was written for a Greek audience] when Jesus is referred to as “The Word.” The original Greek would have used the word “Logos” where the English translation uses “Word.” But, in Greek, “logos” could better be translated as meaning “reason and logic.”
“In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” [Notice that reference to light? So, for the author of this particular gospel, Jesus was reason, logic and light. And, as we’ve discussed “the light” is the source of all reality. So he’s saying Jesus is the both logic and the source of all reality. Suddenly, this passage got a lot heavier.] “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”
Kinda feels like a guy coming back inside a cave after playing in the sun for a while, huh?
For Plato, this was what it was like to be a philosopher. Seeing a much bigger and brighter world that none of your friends are willing to experience.
It’s the girl who moved to New York from a small town.
It’s the college student who falls in love with the nuance of history and philosophy.
It’s the kid who realized they could be more than the abusive life they came out of.
The college professor who sailed out into the deep blue and realized he was seeing the stars for the first time.
It’s those who have seen the light.
Sometimes you just can’t go back home because it’s just too dark to see there anymore.
In this digital age, those caves and shadows can take a lot of algorithmically generated forms. It’s not just your hometown casting shadows. It’s also your TV and your phone. Tribes form from those shadows believing they’re each seeing the true reality. Then those tribes go war with each other, fighting over shadows.
As a professor, the job was often about dragging my students out of the cave. Sometimes they come willingly. Sometimes they’re kicking and screaming. Sometimes they run back in. And increasingly, they’re too nihilistic to care either way.
But sometimes, it’s about dragging myself out and reminding myself that it can hurt more than I can imagine. At least until my eyes adjust to the light.
Those shadows give us blind spots and those blind spots create a disconnect.