Rewriting Plato's Cave: The Beginning
This is a short story I started after my Chinese philosophy class last Spring but have since abandoned. The idea was - after taking that class, I felt the main difference between the ancient Chinese vs Greek perspectives could be boiled down to their perspectives on Truth. For Plato it was something to be sought, something to see, something objective. Influenced by my professor Alexus McLeod, I wondered if we could think of truth as something to "be," rather than (or in addition to) something to see. Not having the idea worked out clearly and explicitly enough, I attempted to express it in a reworked version of the Allegory, entitled "Go back in the Cave: Become the Sun you once Sought." I've only written the first of the stages so far -- Comments welcome.
I. the Beginning:
Upon opening them, I discover I have eyes. I don’t know what to make of them and am at first unable to discern with them any intelligible figures or shapes. It is neither darkness nor lightness, chaos nor order. At first it is just nothing.
Then I realize I am not alone. I hear stirring beside me, and soft breathing. (I notice I am breathing too, when did I start doing that?) And then there are two others, and so there are four. We remain bewildered for what could have been a minute or could have been a century, merely sitting in stillness until a loud clattering noise drills into our eardrums. Sounds clatter and bang and they bellow and I wince. The sounds are followed by an image. A shape appears in front of me for the first time, flickering and dancing. A thousand more times this same sound is followed by this same shape and we learn to see it coming. We learn to imitate the bellow that accompanies it and predict it before it comes. It is the only break in the monotony we learn to call a day.
More shapes and sounds follow, and we develop a system for naming each of them. We find it useful to discuss the patterns of shapes and sounds, and to discover why sometimes the pattern seems to falter. We get very good at this, though some of us are better than others. With the structure of a single day set by the patterns of moving shapes, we find ways to occupy ourselves. Sometimes we just sing songs together, or tell stories about invented shapes we have never actually seen.
This is our whole world. We find meaning and purpose in our relationships with each other. We dream of discovering deep mysteries about intricate details of the shapes and how they come about. Even though every day has a general pattern, it seems we are always able to notice something new. We even seem to be able to effect change by bellowing just the right combination of sound patterns, though we are still not exactly sure why certain sound patterns cause certain changes in the visual shapes of our world.
Somebody once suggested there might be others, more people, behind us making those noises and producing those shapes. “Behind us?” another replied, “What do you mean ‘Behind us?’” This was because, though our heads only turned 180 degrees, 180 degrees for us was a full circle. Our geometry reflected this fact. We had left, right, up, and down – we had no forward and back. Why would we have such a concept? It simply made no sense. The wall in front of us was, quite literally, our entire Universe. To ask what is outside of that was like asking what is before the beginning of time. A senseless question. The wrong question.
“Sorry” said the first prisoner, “I must have been imagining things. I thought I heard voices that were coming from somewhere other than the Wall…”
“Somewhere other than the Wall?” the third prisoner said sharply. He was the psychologist of the group, always interested in making sense of our mental and physiological goings-on.
He continues, “Very strange, very strange indeed… for if a sound does not come from us, and it does not come from the Wall, the only other place it could simply be is inside your own head!”
“No, no, I didn’t really hear voices!” the first prisoner hurriedly retorted, worried we would begin to think him insane, and quite sure he really had only been imagining that the sounds coming from the Wall sounded like voices. He didn’t even know what he meant when he referenced behind us. He couldn’t quite grasp the feeling that he had had, but that made it all the more possible to simply discard it.
“Everyone feels like there must be ‘more,’” he thought to himself, “it is just part of being human. And even though there is not anything outside of this physical universe, the meaning I seek can still be found (or created). Anyway, it would violate parsimony to say there was some third thing other than the shapes and the sounds, causing each of them and yet magically making them coincide in the way that they do.”
As an aside, before venturing onward, I must make a note to my reader. You might think our lives were impoverished, that we were only deceived into thinking they could be meaningful. Maybe you would be right. But we were never in a position to compare ourselves or our experiences to anything other than what they were. We didn’t think of ourselves as prisoners. We conceived of our shackles as extensions of our bodies, and our lack of ability to move forward was never perceived as a limitation.
You might think that it would be sensory deprivation to only see shapes on a wall for a lifetime, but to us the spectrum of possibility of shapes was wider than that of your own night sky. We were able to perceive and conceive of distinctions between the shapes that even you, with all your clever distinction-making, would never dream of. Some people might say that gave us a limited perspective, but I could just as easily argue that it is your perspective which is limited, not because of the more beyond what you know but because of the more within what you do know. Yes, you can see shapes on walls too, but you don’t see them like we did. You may never be able to, though this is less of a limitation on you than is your inability to see why you would even want to.
If there is ineliminable reference to one’s perspective on the fact of any matter, it is the fact of what matters. You have no place to assign more or less value to our understanding of the natural world as a whole until you have experienced the world as we do.
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Jenelle is a grad student interested in philosophy of mind.