Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Posted: 17 November 2007 05:57 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Imagine prisoners, who have been chained since their childhood deep inside a cave: not only are their limbs immobilized by the chains; their heads are chained in one direction as well so that their gaze is fixed on a wall.

Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which statues of various animals, plants, and other things are moved along. The statues cast shadows on the wall, and the prisoners watch these shadows. When one of the statue-carriers speaks, an echo against the wall causes the prisoners to believe that the words come from the shadows.

The prisoners engage in what appears to us to be a game: naming the shapes as they come by. This, however, is the only reality that they know, even though they are seeing merely shadows of images. They are thus conditioned to judge the quality of one another by their skill in quickly naming the shapes and dislike those who play poorly.

Suppose a prisoner is released and compelled to stand up and turn around. At that moment his eyes will be blinded by the sunlight coming into the cave from its entrance, and the shapes passing by will appear less real than their shadows.

The last object he would be able to see is the sun, which, in time, he would learn to see as the object that provides the seasons and the courses of the year, presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some way the cause of all these things that he has seen.

(This part of the allegory, incidentally, closely relates to Plato’s metaphor of the sun which occurs near the end of The Republic, Book VI.)[1]

Once enlightened, so to speak, the freed prisoner would not want to return to the cave to free “his fellow bondsmen,” but would be compelled to do so. Another problem lies in the other prisoners not wanting to be freed: descending back into the cave would require that the freed prisoner’s eyes adjust again, and for a time, he would be one of the ones identifying shapes on the wall. His eyes would be swamped by the darkness, and would take time to become acclimated. Therefore, he would not be able to identify the shapes on the wall as well as the other prisoners, making it seem as if his being taken to the surface completely ruined his eyesight.

For me, this analogy reflects my own feelings after becoming enlightened to the Humanist perspective.  In some ways I feel some compulsion to free those who are living in the cave of theism, but not as strongly, because I never experienced it like they do.

As I continue my journey of discovery, I feel that there may be new plateau’s of knowledge and understanding that I can reach by way of a kind of Platonic Idealism.  I have been wondering about other possibilities that I may currently be blind to, due to the perspective I currently have and share with others around me.

To break free of these binds I have begun to explore Futures Studies.  I understand that this kind of pursuit may be in conflict with a skeptical view favored by most Secular Humanists.  However, most objections seem to come from a lack of will to participate in any dialogue that includes concepts that are not born out of the reality they live in today. 

My question is, in spite of the desires for a different kind of world that embraces a more humanistic value system, why is it that most Secular Humanists are unwilling to participate in the development of a vision for a society that is more suitable to a Secular Humanist point of view?

Has our skeptical nature condemned us to a life that is forever in conflict with the reality around us?  Or, are we really committed to the development of communities that would embrace our views?  Is it not possible, even if not in our lifetime, to conceive of a community built upon Secular Humanist values?

Today, there are many communities built on Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Amish, Mormon, among other perspectives.  Would we not also benefit from the development of such a community?  Would it not help produce new generations of Secular Humanists?  Do we believe that the concept of building such a community has some sinister overtones that would go against our principles?  If so, what are they?

I want to leave this cave and live in such a community, I wonder if anyone else shares this desire?

Hey, this is my 100th post!  Whoopie!

[ Edited: 17 November 2007 06:02 PM by Charles ]
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Posted: 10 January 2008 09:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Right, quite a novel take on the allegory, nice.  Well, most of the people I know are agnostic/atheist but I get the feeling they have never particularly thought about it, so I like to be in a community or forum etc. where these things are discussed fairly and sincerely.

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Posted: 10 January 2008 12:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Unfortunately for us and fortunately for you, Hollis, the percents of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists in the U.S. are quite a bit lower than in England and Europe. 

Charles, I agree, but it’s difficult for many of these to out themselves because of the negative effects from some of the surrounding religious people.  For a number of years I was an adult advisor to a teen group.  I introduced them to critical thinking (with quite a few examples biased in my direction :smile:).  I brought in two articles written by teen age girls on why one was religious, and one an atheist, both giving their reasons.  Then I asked the group to discuss these and look at it from both their views.  By the end of the evening, all the group was was sympathetic for the christian girl who had been a boat person and seen members of her family killed, but they felt she was driven by emotion, not reason.  About 80% of the group said the other girl’s arguments made quite a bit of sense. 

Had I been a teacher, I would have subtly helped the kids be more open and accepting of views outside their own.  I just hope many teachers are doing that.  I think cartoons like the Simpsons, King of the Hill, and other similar ones discuss religion from both sides and help kids see different views.  I think many in our next generation will be far less fundamentalist and open.

However, as an old fud, I just no longer have the drive so I’m limited to posting on a few Internet forums.  Even that helps a little.

Occam

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Posted: 10 January 2008 01:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Occam - 10 January 2008 12:39 PM

However, as an old fud, I just no longer have the drive so I’m limited to posting on a few Internet forums.  Even that helps a little.

Occam, I like having an old fud like you on the forums.  I would have taken about 4 more questionable trips to the Unitarian church before I realized it was over the top spiritual, for my taste, if I hadn’t had your perspective in the process.  I wish I had exposure to critical thinking at a younger age.  I always feel like we have put our finger on the pulse of reason, truth and prosperity by identifying critical thinking and a significant majority of people insist on being cognitive misers.  When has thinking not payed dividends?

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Posted: 10 March 2008 03:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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The Cave, like so much in Plato, does open itself to a number of different interpretations.  Plato is one of those rare, great writers with whom what you get out of him is, to a large extent,  conditioned by what you bring with you.  I’ve always seen The Cave as consistent with much of the rest of Plato’s project,  which involved denigrating and devaluing this world (the world of “mere” phenomena) to a “higher”, “better” invisible world that somehow exists outside the phenomenal world, a world that exists,  in some sense,  “Up There.”  Christianity owes much to Plato’s devaluing of the real world and insistence on the reality of some “higher” world; I’ve long believed that the Council of Nicea had a lot more to do with the ideas of Plato than it did with the ideas of the crucified pretender to the throne of Judea.

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Posted: 10 March 2008 07:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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steveg144 - 10 March 2008 03:14 AM

The Cave, like so much in Plato, does open itself to a number of different interpretations.  Plato is one of those rare, great writers with whom what you get out of him is, to a large extent,  conditioned by what you bring with you.

Agreed.

steveg144 - 10 March 2008 03:14 AM

I’ve always seen The Cave as consistent with much of the rest of Plato’s project,  which involved denigrating and devaluing this world (the world of “mere” phenomena) to a “higher”, “better” invisible world that somehow exists outside the phenomenal world, a world that exists,  in some sense,  “Up There.”  Christianity owes much to Plato’s devaluing of the real world and insistence on the reality of some “higher” world; I’ve long believed that the Council of Nicea had a lot more to do with the ideas of Plato than it did with the ideas of the crucified pretender to the throne of Judea.

Yes, it can be interpreted this way; St. Augustine and other early church fathers were very strongly influenced by neo-Platonist ideas. It can also be interpreted a little more charitably as positing a group of abstract laws by which the universe works; these laws are not apparent to our ordinary experience of reality, since that experience is quite inexact and liable to error. Under this interpretation, that other world isn’t so much “higher” in any sense, but instead more real. That is to say, one can view the cave as a scientific allegory as well, an allegory about scientific enlightenment rather than religious or esoteric enlightenment.

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Posted: 10 March 2008 08:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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dougsmith - 10 March 2008 07:33 AM
steveg144 - 10 March 2008 03:14 AM

The Cave, like so much in Plato, does open itself to a number of different interpretations.  Plato is one of those rare, great writers with whom what you get out of him is, to a large extent,  conditioned by what you bring with you.

Agreed.

steveg144 - 10 March 2008 03:14 AM

I’ve always seen The Cave as consistent with much of the rest of Plato’s project,  which involved denigrating and devaluing this world (the world of “mere” phenomena) to a “higher”, “better” invisible world that somehow exists outside the phenomenal world, a world that exists,  in some sense,  “Up There.”  Christianity owes much to Plato’s devaluing of the real world and insistence on the reality of some “higher” world; I’ve long believed that the Council of Nicea had a lot more to do with the ideas of Plato than it did with the ideas of the crucified pretender to the throne of Judea.

Yes, it can be interpreted this way; St. Augustine and other early church fathers were very strongly influenced by neo-Platonist ideas. It can also be interpreted a little more charitably as positing a group of abstract laws by which the universe works; these laws are not apparent to our ordinary experience of reality, since that experience is quite inexact and liable to error. Under this interpretation, that other world isn’t so much “higher” in any sense, but instead more real. That is to say, one can view the cave as a scientific allegory as well, an allegory about scientific enlightenment rather than religious or esoteric enlightenment.

Actually I think it was meant as a defense for his concept of the Philosopher King.  A philosopher who is fit to become a guardian, will feel it his duty to those who were formerly his fellow prisoners to go down again into the cave, instruct them as to the truth, and show them the way up.  It was a way of showing the superiority of intellect over the power of the senses.

In other words, the senses can be deceiving, the philosopher, who uses his intellect to see past the veil of deceit, and uncover the truth, has the power to reveal these deceptions, and the duty to do so.

Plato’s cosmology, set forth in the Timaeus, had more influence on religion than the allegory of the cave.

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Posted: 10 March 2008 08:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Charles - 10 March 2008 08:48 AM

Actually I think it was meant as a defense for his concept of the Philosopher King.  A philosopher who is fit to become a guardian, will feel it his duty to those who were formerly his fellow prisoners to go down again into the cave, instruct them as to the truth, and show them the way up.  It was a way of showing the superiority of intellect over the power of the senses.

In other words, the senses can be deceiving, the philosopher, who uses his intellect to see past the veil of deceit, and uncover the truth, has the power to reveal these deceptions, and the duty to do so.

Right; I’m pointing out a corollary between being a platonic philosopher and being a modern scientist. I know that the corollary is not exact, but there are similarities.

Charles - 10 March 2008 08:48 AM

Plato’s cosmology, set forth in the Timaeus, had more influence on religion than the allegory of the cave.

Certainly; the Timaeus was perhaps Plato’s most far-out treatise.

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