The Cave Allegory

The story: [Republic: Book VII by Plato]

Imagine, you live in a cave. Your whole life has been here. You are chained to face a dimly light wall. Every so often a shadow passes by. This is your reality. Others who share your life speak with you and talk about these shadows. You give the shadows names like Cat, Horse, Car, Plane etc. Everything you can conceive, at this point, is in the shadows.

One day you are torn from that chair and turned around.Blinded at first you see nothing. As your eyes adjust you see that all this time there was a fire. In front of this fire passed statutes. These statues are even more perfect forms than the shadows. You now see what a cat, horse, car and plane look like. You think to yourself how foolish was it to believe that the shadows were all that there was.

Again, you are being dragged away. This time out of the cave. You are blinded even more so than from the fire. After your eyes adjust, the first thing you see are the shadows across the ground. You see forms more perfect than the statutes and are overcome with new insight. The sun shines over all of these perfect forms and you feel obligated to tell your fellow dwellers.

You return to the cave and tell the people what you have learned. You tell them that the shadows are not truth, they are imitations of the truth. To them, you look drunk. You sound like a fool. The ramblings of a mad man, who has lost his mind. Burdened with fear, they stone you to death for your heresy.

An explanation:

Everything that existed in the cave is what Plato is describing as the sensible realm. This is what we can see and what we believe based on senses. The shadows are our senses and merely imitations of what he calls “the form”. The imitations are often referred to as particulars. The form’s; which govern the particulars, exists within the intelligible realm.

This realm of the intelligible is the exterior of the cave; where the shadows are thought and the real manifestations are the forms of everything. This is the realm of thought and understanding, where the sun (his form of the good) brings light to the perfect, immutable, eternal and intelligible forms.

The form of the good is what Plato believes is the perfection of all forms. Everything that is manifest into a particular is governed by the good. Particulars can be governed by multiple forms, and are governed to greater and lesser degrees.

The purpose:

This idea of forms and particulars is Plato’s epistemological and metaphysical argument. This is how he describes reality and knowledge. He expresses his argument in this way to show that seeking knowledge is a difficult path, as it was for the escaped dweller. Also, that when explaining your new founded knowledge you can be branded a fool by others, and even killed like his mentor Socrates. (Curiously enough that is the character he chose to tell this tale.)

Descartes’ Meditation 2

img_0231Now, imagine we are in the reality in which Descartes finds himself describing. We cannot trust anything as conventionally real. Trapped in a nightmarish matrix where all of reality is but a facade. Feeling disillusioned Descartes carries onward with his task.

Do I exist?

The basis of his proof of existence appears first in his spontaneous exclamation. “[I]t must finally be established that this pronouncement “I am, I exist” is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind.” Even if he is deceived by a malicious evil genius, he must exist in order to be deceived. This insight allows him to affirm he exists in some manner. He may not be Descartes, human, male or even anything he has predisposed himself of being. He can be sure that he exists as a thinking being.

This is an astounding revelation in so that he can only claim true his own existence. Everything external of the mind, however, is shrouded in doubt. Even the existence of his own senses and body. It must be said, he does not believe you should act upon this idea that everything external may not exist.

After identifying his existence to be true; he attempts to classify in what manner he exists. More plainly in what form he might embody. He first scratches at the idea that he is a man or rational animal. This is still external to the mind. The next is his body and his nourishment intake, again they are external to his thinking self.

What if I stop thinking?

He goes on further to suggest that he exists as far as he is thinking. Is it possible that if he stops thinking that he would utterly cease to exist? He believes this to also be true. If he ceases to thinking then he no longer exists. Think about this for a moment, do you exist when you are not thinking? If you are alone in the woods, and nobody’s there to see or hear you, and you stop thinking, did you cease to exist?

The next concept he challenges is that of change in a material he has been observing. He notices how wax changes from the form of a candle to melted wax. The wax still exists in matter, yet is not the same as when it was solidified. What then, in the concept of wax, did we truly grasp?

To be continued…

Up next: “Concerning God, That He Exists”

Descartes’ Meditation 1

img_0231Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is an impressive work deducting the nature of knowledge and reality. This critical epistemological work is filled with difficult concepts. My goal is to breakdown the main concepts for you, the reader, so that you may obtain more of the dense content. There are three main ideas to tackle in this first meditation. The dissolving of trust in our sensory knowledge, the dream state and the ultimate deceiver hypotheses. This will all make sense in the end of this brief digest. 

Please, enjoy.

Descartes opens meditation one by describing his current perception of his metaphysical dilemma. The foundation of the issue is all of his knowledge lies in what he considers “false opinions.” He intends to shed these opinions by withdrawing himself into solitude. The first step he conceives, is not to dissolve each opinion but larger ideas in which the particulars derive.

Is seeing believing?

The first foundation of knowledge in which he disputes is the knowledge we obtain from the senses. “ never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once.” He describes our senses as in some cases deceiving us. Imagine, if you will, that you are in a desert. You look towards the horizon, dehydrated, and glance at a beautiful oasis. The water so real you are embraced with relief. No longer enslaved to your despair and thirst. Now as you reach the oasis, it is clear it was only a mirage. Were you deceived by your senses? This is an example of what he concludes as casting doubt upon the knowledge gained from this mode.

Are you awake?

Even still, if we assume our senses can be dishonest, we can be sure we are still sitting here reading this digest. Comfortable, engaged, enticed and awake. However, this is our next predisposition to dissolve. Descartes imagines we are not sure that we are awake. Remember for a moment the last dream you visited. While asleep did you feel as if the dream was reality? Were you aware that you were dreaming? How do you differentiate between asleep and awake?

Since we can not be sure that we are either awake or asleep, Descartes rejects the knowledge we suppose we know in this way. This leaves us with only one truth remaining. All we can be sure of is  “arithmetic, geometry and other such disciplines.” The principles of science and mathematics are all that remains.

Are you a brain in a vat?

Now, the grail of mind altering revelations is that of the evil genius. Not even the remaining knowledge of science and mathematics can survive the master mind. A more modern rendition of this idea is that we are brains in a vat deceived by some external authority in such a way that when you go to count the sides of a triangle, you count three. Now imagine if you will that this was false and you are really being deceived each and every time you do this. Imagine adding two and two and getting four; yet, the real answer is forty-two. How then can we even trust our capacity to reason or articulate mathematics?

Meditation one leaves us with some doubt in regards to our reality. Do not give up now, we will reestablish some sense of reality in meditation two. He discusses the mind-body problem and delivers the most famous quote: “Cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I exist.”

To be continued…

Up next: “The Mind and Body”