In the first part of this article (published last week), I stopped at the appearance on the stage of Plato and his ideas of what is real, as expressed in his famous cave allegory. Now, I jump right in and pick up from exploring Plato`s thoughts on the topic of reality. Afterwards, I offer some of my own reflections and close this final part of the article on a hopeful note.
Plato`s cave allegory intended to describe his views on the ordinary condition of most humans and what can be done to achieve a true understanding of the ultimate reality. For Plato, most of us are prisoners in a dark cave where we watch the shadows thrown by fire and think them to be the reality. It is an allegory in which we only perceive the particulars with our five senses, and rely on second-hand opinions given to us by others. However, we should strive to liberate ourselves from the darkness of the cave. The path toward the light of the universal truth and reality, he thought, lies in gradually grasping the absolute universals (as opposed to flickering shadows of the particulars) – something that can only be done by the intellect. This realm of universal truths is not perceivable by our five senses and, thus, for Plato, the only way is that paved by the intellect, which does not require to sense in order to understand (read the full cave allegory here). At the end of his dialogue with Glaucon, Plato says:
“… the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed – whether rightly or wrongly God knows.”plato through the character of socrates (c.380 BCE)
Besides demonstrating a good understanding of human psychology, and all other virtues that render this allegory an insightful story, I think Plato helps us grasp the following idea. With the aid of our senses, we perceive a representation of reality, not necessarily reality in-itself. In the first part of this article, when discussing Kant`s ideas, I referred to this concept as experiencing an appearance of reality instead of reality ‘as it is’. However, in his cave allegory, Plato argues that we have the capacity of becoming aware of this representation-perception. Such awareness would then count as the first step towards the light, leading out of the cave. This is, of course, a metaphor.
If we go back to the example of our perception of colours that I described in the first part of the article, then it may be laid out as follows. While we rely on our visual sense only, we see the red and the green of the traffic light and believe them to be real. This is us being the prisoners of the cave and believing the shadow reflections on the cave wall to be the reality in-itself. When we use our intellectual capacities, however, and understand that, in fact, there is nothing inherently colourful about the light, and that it is our own perception and interpretation of different light frequencies that ‘appear’ to us as different colours, then we have freed ourselves from the prison-cave. In other words, we have used our intellectual capacity to understand the reality in-itself (light frequencies) while still perceiving a certain representation of that reality (colours).
So – is the question of reality settled then? We know what is ‘real’, and what is not, we know how to get away from mere representation to that which is ‘real’ in itself, and having obtained all of this knowledge should satisfy us – right? Well, to some extent – yes. After all, I am sure most of us are satisfied with the improvements in our lives made possible by the scientific knowledge of what the world is really made of – for example, not having to suffer from a variety of diseases because medicine has established what causes these diseases and how to avoid such causes by, for example, improving levels of sanitation in our cities, as opposed to throwing all the waste out into the streets. Also, I would argue we are satisfied with not having to submit to a bloodletting ‘treatment’ of a sore throat or a headache because our bodily “humors” are out of balance (here`s a nice short article on the history of this procedure).
However, the question of reality has not been fully settled. All our knowledge about what the world is actually made of can only go so far. Remember our example of the colour perception and the real light frequencies. Now, look at this picture.
Whatever reaction and thoughts you had when looking at that picture, I am pretty sure they were not about how you perceive and interpret different light frequencies (at least, not as the first thoughts). Although, if you consciously think about it, you know that`s what it is. Yet, is that all it is, or even, is that all that matters? If yes, then it inevitably follows that all your thoughts and reactions that came so naturally to you were just an illusion, a mere ‘story’ that your mind ‘told’ you. Here we can see how closely linked are our ideas on what is real and what is valuable. In other words, if we limit our concept of reality only to the scientific facts and knowledge about what the world is made of, then we not only rob ourselves of accepting the richness of our experiences as something valid and valuable but also preclude ourselves from creating a sense of meaning in our lives (something that we all need). Why?
Because knowing what the world is made of is not the same as knowing what to make of the world. Scientific knowledge can influence how we live but it cannot render our lives meaningful. Even when we have an improved ‘know-how’, we still require the ‘know-why’ to respond to our need for meaning. From this perspective, the ‘stories’ that your mind ‘told’ you when you were looking at the picture above are very much real, true and valuable. They are also subjective. Thus, we can view the question of reality as consisting of different layers – one is the objective layer, which is not dependent on our mind for its existence (like the frequency of light), another is the subjective layer, which is dependent on our mind for its existence (like the colour perception and the ‘story’ in your mind when looking at the sunset picture).
I believe it is for our own sake not to deny either of these reality layers and also, crucially, not to equate them with one another. Each of them serves a valuable purpose, and it would be somewhat naive of us to expect that the objective layer should adequately answer the demands of the subjective layer (the opposite is also not a good idea, as we saw with the bloodletting ‘treatment’). After all, we tend to accept that there are various tools, techniques and methods for different circumstances, so why would we insist on having a single theory that should explain absolutely everything? As most of us know, the one-size-fits-all approach is rarely effective. Let`s see how modern metaphysics develops, especially alongside scientific discoveries. With the trend of interdisciplinary exchange, I hope we become more open to the idea of a nuanced, multi-faceted approach to understanding different layers of reality and ourselves.
(1) 4edges / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0); downloaded from the following page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Illustration_of_The_Allegory_of_the_Cave,_from_Plato%E2%80%99s_Republic.jpg