Thursday, December 13, 2012

Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is so frequently cited and used that I hesitated even to write about it; but perhaps there are some who could grow from this rather brilliant bit of philosophy, so we will examine it today.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates presents a dialogue to help present his concept of reality. The allegory begins by assuming that there is a group of people chained in a cave, forced to face the same wall for their entire lives. They have sat in the semi-darkness of this cave their entire lives.

Behind them is a fire, casting shadows on the blank wall in front of them. They cannot see the fire or the ‘real things’ behind them—only their shadows. Nor can they hear voices or sounds behind them, but only the echoes off of the cave wall.

On this wall, the prisoners begin to study and try to interpret the shapes which they see, and interpret the echoes which they hear. The prisoners, having no knowledge of fires or shadow-casting, would assume that the shadows on the wall are real, actual things and beings. Further, they would assume that the echoes were in fact the speech (rather than the reflection of the speech on the cave walls). Since they have never seen reality, they would take the things they could see and hear to be reality.

After a great deal of study, they might be able to identify patterns in the echoes and shadows, such that they could predict what came next. Perhaps they could even identify reasons and theories which explained and predicted the shadows which they observed. If so, they would be considered quite clever and be seen as a true scientist—someone who had a theory of how the nature of their world worked, and could predict accurately which shadows would appear and when.

Next, Socrates says to pretend that a prisoner was freed from the cave. When shown the real things which created the shadows, the person would almost certainly be confused and not recognize the objects as at all related to the shadows he had been studying his entire life. Indeed, he would probably say that these were less “real” than the shadows, which through their scientific study were understandable and predictable. If the man were forced to go up above the surface, he would at first be blinded in the sunlight; but eventually his eyes would adjust and he would understand the sun and shadows, and realize that the things on their cave walls were less ‘real’ than the objects casting the shadows.

But what if this man were returned to the cave? Would he be seen as a wise advisor? No! In fact he would be seen as a great fool. His fellow prisoners would not understand why he did not love and care for the games of guessing shadows as they did. Also, they would not believe his un-provable and seemingly insane discussions about things casting the shadows. Further, his eyes—now adjusted to the sun—would be less capable of seeing the shadows on the walls, so he would be seen as a fool, less capable of understanding their ‘science’ as he was before.

Plato used this to argue that the things we see in our world are not the real things, but shadows of the truer thing (Ideas and Forms) reflected on the walls of our prison. And the role of the philosopher was to understand the Reality better, and try to explain it to those of us here—even though we may scoff at him as a fool for worrying with metaphysical ideas when we can see the “real” shadows quite well on our own.

The Christian Relevance

Though the early Christian church—particularly the Catholics—were always hung up on Aristotle, my ancient philosopher of choice has always been Plato. And I would argue that his allegory of the cave is the closest thing to the worldview of the modern Christian as can be hoped for.

Like Plato, we believe that there is a truer Reality than what we see around us today. As I argued in my book (Rise of the Time Lords – a great Christmas gift!), everything we know is a projection of God’s Truth onto the natural world. God is greater than our three-dimensional universe, and what we see here is less ‘real’ than the true Reality of His kingdom.

But, like Plato’s prisoners, we live in a world in which all we have available to us to study are the shadows of Reality. So our scientists study physics and biology and chemistry in an attempt to explain the world around us. And we have gotten so good at predicting events with our theories that we have come to believe that this scientific explanation is itself the reality. We stop simply using science as a power to be able to improve people’s lives, and begin to worship it as a philosophical end-goal on its own. As a result, we find ourselves becoming obsessed with the shadow instead of the reality: the reflection rather than the Source.

So we diligently study the world around us and—just as Plato guessed—we consider the scientists who can describe the natural world as the cleverest among us, and give them great respect in leading our future paths. And those who prefer to turn around and try to see the Source of these reflections always end up dramatically changed: the shadows on the wall are simply not as interesting any more, when they have tasted of Reality. The study of the natural world loses some of its appeal when we begin studying the Reality of the new kingdom. Further, our understanding that there is a greater Reality now actually seems to disqualify us from the ‘objectivity’ needed to succeed at the game of guessing which shadow will come next; just as Plato predicted, those who have experience with the true Reality behind it all end up having trouble adjusting their eyes and desire to the study of the lesser, shadowy things of this world. (And, also as he predicted, are opposed and ridiculed by those who study the shadows.)

This is the plight all Christians who love science (like I do) have to keep in mind. You can spend your career keeping science separate from your faith, deciding to learn about God by studying His creation—just as the prisoner could have decided to learn about the shapes by studying the shadows. This is the approach taken by many believing scientists and engineers, focusing their careers on studying this or that small part of science, learning to predict with great accuracy which shadow will next appear on the wall.

But we must never forget that these remain only shadows of reality. The true reality is behind us, and understanding it is both more difficult and more rewarding than simply staring at shadows on the walls. In many ways, the non-scientist has an advantage: never having been interested in the “shadows on the wall” to begin with, as soon as they are freed, they can turn and wholeheartedly embrace the God who was casting the shadows into our world. We scientists and engineers often become so entranced with our own study of the shadows that they become our obsession and, frankly, our religion.

If we are able to remember our perspective properly, though, then when we turn to study God our studies of the shadows on the walls will help us better see and appreciate Him. Knowing the shadows, we can better recognize His handiwork. We can see things that others do not see, and explain the shapes which cast the shadows in ways that the others did not understand. Being a scientist is only a disadvantage when you allow science to become your God, and allow yourself to believe that this world is the extent of reality. When you accept that there is a spiritual world and spiritual reality much greater than the three-dimensional physical world around us, then your scientific knowledge is a benefit, not a hindrance.


  1. I agree with you ideas. When I first read the Allegory I thought of the spiritual aspect...that the fire represented God or God's truth; that the prisoners represented our true selves or souls; and that the shadows on the walls were all we could "see" on this physical plane. I wonder if the Allegory was, in any way, an inspiration for the movie, The Matrix, which parallels the Allegory????

    1. Yes, the Matrix was (as far as I know) strongly influenced by this as well as Descartes' conjectures that we cannot trust almost anything we see around us as absolutely certain as we cannot directly prove that our observations have validity--we could be controlled, as he put it, by some demon.

  2. I read your post looking for an idea on a sermon in which I was to speak about reality. I like your view on the relation between the allegory and Christianity, and I hope to use some of these views in my sermon. Thanks for posting!

  3. Very interesting analysis Michael. Especially coming from a scientist like yourself. I find it very interesting that Plato refers to a highest Form of Good and that knowing it can illuminate everything else. I also find interesting that he says only students of virtue can achieve the Form of Good and apply it for the benefit of the society, as there are also those that will achieve great knowledge but without the virtue will use it for negative.