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What I learned about the human condition from Plato’s Cave

1 Heart it! Radhika Mīa 6
March 8, 2018
Radhika Mīa
1 Heart it! 6

It is one of those queer things about humans — our eyes see only what our mind is prepared to comprehend.

When Freud first wrote about this oddity in humans, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre dismissed the idea as impossible: how can you know something and not know it at the same time?

It is also somewhat morbid to learn about the human condition that — “what people want to see never has anything to do with the truth.” — R. Bolano.

This paradoxical phenomenon looms large in us humans; and has for long been the subject of speculation in psychology, evolutionary biology and philosophy.

The mind has a peculiar ability to hold two opposing views at the same time: even if one part of the mind knows that something is true, the other part of the mind is able to convince itself that the same is untrue.

People defend themselves against any information that destroys the ideas and beliefs and biases upon which their realities have been constructed. So a reality filtered through perceptions and biases comes out on the other side possibly distorted and clouded — but is believed to be the truth.

The cave we all live in

In the Allegory of the Cave — more than 2400 years ago, Greek philosopher Plato explained why we perceive what we do, and why we remain prisoners of our own minds.

The allegory goes like this: a group of prisoners are chained inside a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. The prisoners can only see shadows projected on the wall — of objects passing in front of a fire behind them. They give names to these shadows. And because the prisoner’s have known or seen nothing else in life, these shadows become their reality.
And they have no desire to leave their prison — because they have known no better. They have known nothing else other than those shadows on the wall in front of them.

On the walls of the cave, only the shadows are the truth. In Plato’s view — is the world of illusion or falsehood. The world that we are all born into is such a cave — our reality is based on perceptions and biases. We are bound or imprisoned to this illusionary world idea.

But what happens if the prisoners are freed from the cave?

They will discover a world which they don’t understand. They will not understand that what they saw in the cave were only shadows. They discover a reality which is not what they thought it was. They discover that the light that was cast on the wall that created the shadows was in fact the sun. But what the heck do they know about the sun?

The human mind is bound to illusionary impressions and interpretations. Their reality is based on only what they can see or perceive with the mind — which is often far different from true reality.

It is only by coming out of the cave that one can begin to perceive the true form of reality — a reality different from the shadows on the walls of the cave.

But that is not all…

Plato says that it could also be that upon seeing a reality different from theirs — the prisoners turn away and run back to what they were accustomed to (the shadows on the wall).

Plato writes “… it would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning away to the things which he was able to look at, and these he would believe to be clearer than what was being shown to him…”

And responding to Sartre’s question — yes, we can know something and not know at the same time. When we are shown the truth but our minds are unprepared — it is impossible to see the truth. We are unable to take the world for what it is. Rather we would see the world for the illusion that it is.

Our human minds have the ability to deny the truth upon seeing it. We are challenged by the new reality — and in some cases our entire existence can feel threatened. We are discomforted by what we see. Our eyes hurt and so we turn away and return to the cave…

Do you think we have a way out of this dilemma?

My following article will attempt to suggest a way or two.

Radhika Mīa is a self-taught artist and writer based in South Africa.

I: radhika_mia FB: Radhika Mia W: (under construction)

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