Plato's Cave Revisited

[Note: this post was prompted by a Quora question. My answer is provided in this blog post. Others are given on Quora at the hyperlink.] 

Atheists: Where do you stand in Plato's cave, and what are the other three groups of people from your perspective? As you can see in this picture, there are four kinds of people: 

  • those watching shadows
  • those who understand shadows
  • those who are on the way out of the cave
  • those that are out of the cave

My Answer

I’m puzzled that the question is directed to atheists. The heart of the allegory of the cave concerns fundamental epistemological and cognitive issues. Its theological and spiritual aspects are interesting but secondary, I think, to those core concerns. Theistic, agnostic, and atheistic views are likely to vary, but they are all capable of presenting a viable answer. To me, the question is better addressed to philosophers in general, or to no particular group at all, since all those answers are likely to invoke (or reject) theological and spiritual aspects of our cognitive abilities and capacities.

As an example, atheists' answers in particular must rely on scientism alone as it is rooted in Enlightenment naturalism and rationalism. As for where they would sit or stand in the cave or outside it, or on the way to or from one or the other, I expect they would be among all those groups - none of the four groups specified necessarily rules out atheism (or any other theology or religion). 

Regarding the four groups:

  • Did everyone out of the cave come from the cave, or are there fifth and sixth groups who either know nothing of the cave or know of it but have never entered it? 
  • Where do the people come from in the first place? Are they born into the bottom level or placed there as newborns? Is this a subtle view of a class-ordered or caste society? 
  • Where did the cave come from? Is it a natural formation or was it constructed in this form? Either way, who put it to this use and who oversees its ongoing operations and activities? 
  • Is there any conclusive evidence that "out of the cave" isn't just a vastly more complex and cognitively convincing "cave?" 

It may help to consider contemporary allegories dealing with the same concerns - cognition and epistemology. Two I expect many of us will easily recognize are The Truman Show and The Matrix franchise. These movies are equivalent to Plato’s allegory, transformed by Hollywood craft and effects, but keeping the arc and theme of the story intact. Here is the essence of what both the ancient allegory and those contemporary movies are about.

  • cognitive dissonance - basically, Cognitive dissonance as explained in that Wikipedia article as “the (internal) mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an actions contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.” I prefer the concept of 
  • semiotic dissonance, however, which subsumes the conventional definition of cognitive dissonance but expands and extends beyond it to include states of complete and total cognitive deception and delusion constituting a false reality or ‘irreality’ that may be self-imposed or even independently conceived, engineered, constructed, and implemented by external parties, powers, and forces for the explicit intents and purposes of mass totalitarian oppression, enslavement, tyranny, and control. This irreality establishes  
  • epistemological imprisonment - through which all sentient and sapient aspects of cognition are constrained and distorted (if self-imposed), or (if externally devised) manipulated and controlled for the creation, maintenance, and exploitation of the irreality thus created and the captives within it as means to achieve the ends of the ruling power elite.

It is especially important to realize that the most effective irreality of semiotic dissonance and epistemological captivity is not necessarily unpleasant, painful, or even stressful. In this most insidiously seductive form and nefarious mode, most of its victims will have no awareness or recognition of their enslavement. On the contrary, most will adamantly reject the idea that they are in any way deceived or delusional, and will forcefully insist that their lives are true and real, even quite meaningful, fulfilling, and rewarding. 

Hence the crucial question: which of the following is the true reality, and which is the dissonant irreality?

  1. We the people of earth freely exercise our inalienable rights, including those of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The US is a constitutional republic and representative democracy. As the most powerful country on earth, the US has moral obligation and authority to empower other people and nations to recognize and exercise those same rights and to adopt the same governance. Furthermore, the US has manifest destiny and just cause for the judicious use of military power and force to defend those rights and to establish and uphold that governance against all enemies foreign or domestic.
  2. The vast majority of humans are victims of semiotic dissonance and epistemological imprisonment orchestrated and exploited by an elite plutocratic oligarchy and their corporatocracy. They exercise global power with virtually absolute control, lacking any humane, moral, or conscionable character or bearing, driven solely by greed, hubris, and depravity. This irreality is imperceptible but the oppression and tyranny hiding wide open within it is nonetheless totalitarian to the core.   

Are these two scenarios jointly exhaustive and mutually exclusive as factual and true description of life on earth today? Or is it a false dilemma with a path between its horns to a different, truer, actual reality? If semiotic dissonance and epistemological imprisonment are the actual but imperceptible facts of human life today, is escape even possible? Can the cave be destroyed, The Truman Show cancelled, the red pill acquired and swallowed, and The Matrix overthrown? 

Exercise for the reader: can you name other highly similar or equivalent allegories (e.g., in film, print, or other media)? Would Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, or Eyes Wide Shut qualify? How would you interpret current events (such as the presidential 2016 election) from the perspective of the two alternate realities described above? Does Noam Chomsky's documentary film, Requiem for the American Dream, imply that #2 above is correct? 

P.S. As an evangelical Christian, of course, the spiritual and theological issues are anything but "secondary." They are both primary and transcendent. But the aim of this post is to present a more inquisitive and religiously unbiased perspective. Obviously my sociopolitical biases are showing, but I think that's precisely what Socrates would have wanted, especially since the cave allegory appears in the political philosophy context of The Republic.