A Species In Denial

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Deciphering Plato’s Cave Allegory


And in the Process Explaining How
The Human Condition is Resolved




Written in approximately 360 BC as part of his great work, The Republic, Plato’s cave allegory is the clearest description I have come across of the entire situation associated with the human condition. Using the narrative of bound prisoners confined to a life in a cave, Plato provides an insightful description of humans’ life in denial of the human condition, and of the difficulties and the intellectual processes involved in solving and liberating ourselves from that life. A short interpretation of the allegory was included in the Introduction, but a more detailed analysis will help confirm and explain what exactly the human condition is.

Often the earliest work undertaken in a field of study is the most honest and therefore the most penetrating. Over time, the human mind perceives confronting implications in the work that it did not see initially, and duly puts in place protective denials. The result is that while the studies are made safe from condemning implications, they tend to become sophisticated in their evasiveness; intellectualised, sanitisedless honest and less penetrating. As will be described later, humanity has recently arrived at the point where many who go to university, our ‘centres of learning’, are taught deconstructionist, ‘postmodern theory [which elevates]…lying to the status of an art and neutralise[s] untruth’ (Jeremy Campbell, The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood, 2001). Page 84 of
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This essay will explain that alienation has grown exponentially with humanity progressing from a situation of no knowledge but total honesty some 2 million years ago, to a situation now of immense knowledge but no honesty. Plato’s cave allegory is a marvellous example of the greater honesty of earlier work. In it, he let all the truth about the human condition ‘out of the bag’, as it were, truth that humans have been trying to put back in the ‘bag’ ever since, starting with Aristotle, who began reductionist, mechanistic science’s narrow emphasis on objectivity and exclusion of subjectivity (this emphasis will be explained in full later). Now that the human condition is explained, the truth that Plato so clearly revealed can further verify the explanation.

The renowned 20th century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once described the history of philosophy as merely ‘a series of footnotes to Plato’. The issue of the human condition is the core issue in human life, the subject that philosophywhich is ‘the study of the truths underlying all reality’ (Macquarie Dict. 3rd edn, 1998)has tried most to grapple with. Given the difficulties humans have had even alluding to the issue of the human condition, such a clear description of the whole situation associated with it was a remarkable achievement on Plato’s part. The time of the early Athenian city state2,300 years agowas certainly a golden age in human history, a brief period of extraordinary clarity, when Plato and his courageous teacher and mentor, Socrates, together with a few other exceptional individuals, contributed almost all the alignment humanity needed for its journey from ignorance to eventual enlightenment of the human condition.

Plato wrote The Republic as a series of dialogues. In the case of the cave allegory, while it is ostensibly an imaginary conversation between Socrates and Glaucon, Plato’s brother, it is believed that it substantially reflects Plato’s own thinking as inspired by Socrates. The allegory begins with Socrates making a direct reference to the human condition: ‘I want you to go on to picture the enlightenment or ignorance of our human conditions somewhat as follows. Imagine an underground chamber, like a cave with an entrance open to the daylight and running a long way underground. In this chamber are men who have been prisoners there’ (Plato The Republic, tr. H.D.P. Lee, 1955, p.278 of 405). Interpretations of the original Greek differ, with a number of other translations stating ‘our nature’ rather than ‘our human conditions’, however there is no doubt that the material that follows is specifically about the human Page 85 of
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condition, in what must be one of the earliest, if not the earliest, mention of the concept.

This analysis of the cave allegory relies largely upon H.D.P. Lee’s 1955 translation of The Republic, and unless otherwise stated all quotes will be from this translation. However the following summary, taken from the 1996 Encarta Encyclopedia entry on Plato which was referred to extensively in the Introduction, provides a useful summary of the cave allegory and will also be referred to in this essay. It states: ‘The myth of the cave describes individuals chained deep within the recesses of a cave. Bound so that vision is restricted, they cannot see one another. The only thing visible is the wall of the cave upon which appear shadows cast by models or statues of animals and objects that are passed before a brightly burning fire. Breaking free, one of the individuals escapes from the cave into the light of day. With the aid of the sun, that person sees for the first time the real world and returns to the cave with the message that the only things they have seen heretofore are shadows and appearances and that the real world awaits them if they are willing to struggle free of their bonds. The shadowy environment of the cave symbolizes for Plato the physical world of appearances. Escape into the sun-filled setting outside the cave symbolizes the transition to the real world, the world of full and perfect being, the world of Forms, which is the proper object of knowledge.’

The metaphor of the sun and fire, the meaning of existence and the demystification of God

Before explaining the reason for the cave existence we need to examine what the ‘sun’ and ‘fire’ represent. In The Republic, prior to presenting the allegory, Plato introduced his ‘world of Forms’, particularly the idea of what he termed the ‘Form of the Good’. In explaining this term he said that ‘the highest form of knowledge is knowledge of the essential nature of goodness’ (p.268 of 405). He proceeded to talk about the ‘steps in the ascent [of reason] to the universal, self-sufficient first principle’ (p.277), also stating that ‘the final thing to be perceived in the intelligible realm, and perceived only with difficulty, is the absolute form of Good’ (p.282), and that ‘Good, then, is the end of all endeavour, the object on which every heart is set’ (p.269).

When Plato was pressed to explain ‘the Good’ more directly than he was able to do in the above quotes he said, ‘I’m afraid it’s beyond Page 86 of
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me’ (p.270), but agreed to do so by means of an allegory, in which ‘the Good’ was compared to ‘the sun’. He said that ‘the Good…gives the objects of knowledge their truth and the mind the power of knowing…[just as] the sun…makes the things we see visible…The Good therefore may be said to be the source not only of the intelligibility of the objects of knowledge, but also of their existence and reality; yet it is not itself identical with reality, but is beyond reality, and superior to it in dignity and power’ (p.273). He talked of ‘objects [being] illuminated by daylight…[just as they are] by truth and reality’ (p.273), adding that ‘the sun…controls everything in the visible world, and is in a sense responsible for everything’ (p.280).

With the benefit of the discoveries of science it is now possible to explainand with the understanding of the human condition available, it is now safe to admitthat the ‘absolute form of Good’, the ‘highest form of knowledge’, the ‘universal, self-sufficient first principle’, is what was referred to in the Introduction as the cooperative, loving, selfless ideals of life. While these are the ideals ‘on which every heart is set’, the ideals that every human aspires to live by, they are also the ideals that humans’ competitive, aggressive and selfish reality has been so at odds with, and which humans therefore found so condemning. The truth of the ideals of life is a truth that stands above the fact of humans’ divisive reality, it is a truth that, as Plato said, ‘is not itself identical with reality, but is beyond reality, and superior to it in dignity and power.’

It is necessary to explain the greater significance of the cooperative, selfless, loving ideals of life. It was very briefly mentioned in the Introduction that the theme of all existence, in fact the ‘universal first principle’, is the development of order or integration of matter. This integrative theme of existence is described in detail in my book Beyond in the chapter ‘Science and Religion’. Negative entropy, like gravity, is one of the physical laws of existence. This law states that in an open system, such as Earth’s, where energy can come in from outside the system, in Earth’s case from the Sun, matter becomes ordered and more complex. Negative entropy causes matter to self-organise, order itself into larger and more stable wholes. It forces matter to integrate, develop order. Thus, due to the influence of negative entropy, atoms have organised themselves or come together or integrated to form molecules, molecules have then integrated to form compounds, compounds have integrated to form single-celled organisms, single-celled organisms have integrated to form multi-cellular organisms, and these in turn have integrated to form societies. Page 87 of
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Humans are surrounded by evidence of the development of order of matter.

The scientist philosopher Arthur Koestler acknowledged integrative meaning in his 1978 book, Janus: A Summing Up, in a chapter titled ‘Strategies and Purpose in Evolution’: ‘One of the basic doctrines of the nineteenth-century mechanistic world-view was Clausius’ famous “Second Law of Thermodynamics”. It asserted that the universe was running down towards its final dissolution because its energy is being steadily, inexorably dissipated into the random motion of molecules, until it ends up as a single, amorphous bubble of gas with a uniform temperature just above absolute zero: cosmos dissolving into chaos. Only fairly recently did science begin to recover from the hypnotic effect of this gloomy vision, by realizing that the Second Law applies only in the special case of so-called “closed systems” (such as a gas enclosed in a perfectly insulated container), whereas all living organisms are “open systems” which maintain their complex structure and function by continuously drawing materials and energy from their environment…It was in fact a physicist, not a biologist, the Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger, who put an end to the tyranny of the Second Law with his celebrated dictum: “What an organism feeds on is negative entropy”…Schrödinger’s revolutionary concept of negentropy, published in 1944…is a somewhat perverse way of referring to the power of living organisms to “build up” instead of running down, to create complex structures out of simpler elements, integrated patterns out of shapelessness, order out of disorder. The same irrepressible building-up tendency is manifested in the progress of evolution, the emergence of new levels of complexity in the organismic hierarchy and new methods of functional coordination’. Koestler proceeded to talk of ‘the active striving of living matter towards’ order, of ‘a drive towards synthesis, towards growth, towards wholeness’. He said ‘the integrative tendency has the dual function of coordinating the constituent parts of a system in its existing state, and of generating new levels of organization in evolving hierarchies’ (pp.222226 of 354).

Significantly, in terms of behaviour, ‘the integrative tendency’ requires ‘coordination’, as Koestler said. It requires that the parts of the new whole cooperate, behave selflessly, place the maintenance of the whole above maintenance of self. Put simply, selfishness is divisive or disintegrative while selflessness is integrative.

The concept of ‘holism’ is an acknowledgment of integrative meaning. The ‘alternative culture’ has embraced the word on the superficial basis that it refers to the interconnectedness of all matter; Page 88 of
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however the true, deeper, core meaning of holism is ‘the tendency in nature to form wholes’ (Concise Oxford Dict. 5th edn, 1964). The concept of ‘holism’ was introduced by the statesman, philosopher and scientist Jan Smuts in his 1926 book Holism and Evolution. He conceived ‘holism’ as being ‘the ultimate organising, regulative activity in the universe that accounts for all the structural groupings and syntheses in it, from the atom, and the physico-chemical structures, through the cell and organisms, through Mind in animals, to Personality in Man’ (p.341 of 380).

Teleology’, ‘the belief that purpose and design are a part of nature’ (Macquarie Dict. 3rd edn, 1998), is another word that, like holism, has been used to describe the integrative, cooperative, loving, selfless purpose or meaning or theme or design in the universe.

‘Holism’ and ‘teleology’ acknowledge the ‘universal first principle’, as Plato referred to it, of the cooperative, integrative purpose or meaning of life and indeed of all existence.

As was also briefly mentioned in the Introduction, and is also explained in the ‘Science and Religion’ chapter in Beyond, this truth of the cooperative, integrative meaning of existence has been termed ‘God’ in the metaphysical, religious domain, such as in monotheistic Christian mythology. ‘God’ is the metaphysical term that has been used for integration, the ‘universal first principle’ of life, the ‘absolute form of Good’.

With regard to God being negative entropy, the physicist Stephen Hawking said ‘I would use the term God as the embodiment of the laws of physics’ (Master of the Universe, BBC, 1989). Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, the position once held by Isaac Newton. Another leading physicist, Paul Davies, has similarly said that ‘these laws of physics are the correct place to look for God or meaning or purpose’ (God Only Knows, Compass, ABC-TV, 23 Mar. 1997), and that ‘humans came about as a result of the underlying laws of physics’ (Paul DaviesMore Big Questions: Are We Alone in the Universe?, SBS-TV, 1999).

In a feature article titled The Time of His Life that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2002, Hawking elaborated on his comment about God being the laws of physics. Written by Gregory Benford, a professor of physics at the University of California, the article recorded his recent meeting with Stephen Hawking at the University of Cambridge. Benford reported that at one stage he commented that ‘there is amazing structure we can see from inside [the universe], with which Hawking agreed, saying, ‘The overwhelming impression is of order. The more we discover about the universe, the more we find that it Page 89 of
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is governed by rational laws. If one liked, one could say that this order was the work of God. Einstein thought so…We could call order by the name of God, but it would be an impersonal God. There’s not much personal about the laws of physics’ (2728 Apr. 2002). (Later, in The Demystification Of Religion essay, in the section, ‘The demystification of God’, some of the main problems humans have accepting the demystification of God will be examined, in particular the problem that interpreting God as the laws of physics seems to destroy the personal, spiritual dimension that humans have come to associate with God.)

‘God’ is the personification of the negative entropy-driven integrative cooperative, loving, selfless ideals, purpose and meaning of life. The old Christian word for love was ‘caritas’, which means charity or giving or selflessness (see The Bible, Col. 3:14, 1 Cor. 13:113, 10:24 & John 15:13), therefore ‘God is love’, or unconditional selflessness, or commitment to integration.

In another of his dialogues, Timaeus, Plato recognised the Godly, integrative theme of existence. He wrote, ‘God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the other’ (tr. Benjamin Jowett, 1877).