Caves, All the Way Up

This is part 13 of the ‘Missing Axioms’ series of essays, you can learn more and read the rest at:

A chromatic display of grey-scale accompanied by the brownish bottle of product, the white-on-red of an electronics outlet until I dissolved into red-on-white. Disassociation in the beauty of RGB until I realised erectile dysfunction ‘medicine’ was being advertised to me.

“[…] picture the enlightenment or ignorance of our human condition somewhat as follows. Imagine an underground cave, with a long entrance open to the daylight and as wide as the cave. In the chamber are men who have been prisoners there since they where children, their legs and necks being so fastened that they can only look straight ahead of them and cannot turn their heads. Some way off, behind and higher up, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them runs a road, in front of which a curtain-wall has been built, like the screen at puppet shows between the operators and their audience, above which they show their puppets.” ¹

Plato’s allegory of the cave invokes our experience of enlightenment and ignorance. A classic metaphor extolling the virtues of one who can “walk towards the fire”². Knowledge of our past ignorance is not only “painful” but leaves us temporarily “dazzled” in regards to the shadows we thought to be a ‘true’ representation of whatever ‘reality’ is supposed to mean³. This is essentially the story that Western philosophy tells itself, a binary one of enlightenment, one either has knowledge or is delusional. In abstraction this feeds into some shared notion of epistemological truth. However, this is likely a simplification of the virtuous archetype of the Western canon: the once ignorant ‘cave dweller’, who ventures up above and attempts to share his enlightenment with those still trapped in the darkness of the cave. Even if it makes them a martyr.

There is one fundamental thing this story misses, however, a hole in the plot. What if its all caves, all the way up? What if our cave dweller, knowing of the enlightenment of the surface has merely completed level 1?

If only the enlightened dweller had lingered on the surface for a little while longer he would have discovered that the trees where hollow, the clouds constructed of polystyrene, the sun was LED. and that they where the subject of a reality television show.

Six months from now after numerous focus groups, a meeting of the board members and some crunch-time editing The Cave, season 1, had been allotted a prime-time slot on the network’s most popular station. Viewers where amazed at the concept and loved the argumentative drama when the dweller returned to convince his comrades of their illusion. The viewers being in an illusion of their own, under the assumption that the ‘dwellers’ where adopted as orphans from some ‘shithole’ country. The truth being a human synthesising operation which would keep everything moving for season 2 and the previous ‘dwellers’ inventively recycled for use in cattle fodder.

When you wake up, how certain are you that you are in fact where you fell to sleep? We don’t really check that we’re are in the same place. We don’t tap the walls checking for new hollow areas and we don’t rip up the carpet ‘just in case’. The intellectual tragedy of humanity is our heuristic processing, if we thoroughly checked each shrub and brick in our neighbourhood each day just to check nothing was amiss we would never get anything else done. On the other hand this leaves the problem of knowledge as one prone to limitless illusion. An unyieldingly repetitive Gettier problem resetting itself across time and confounding the finite denizens of existence.

It is in this respect that I call philosophy, inasmuch as it is the task of dispelling illusion, an intractable problem. The search space for a solution becomes exponentially greater as we dispel the previous set of illusions. Illusions are hydras, once dispelled multiple avenues of potential illusion spawn at the resolution of the previous. What we consider ‘settled’ stands only to be de-bunked or affirmed as a simulacrum. We keep finding new caves when we thought we where at the surface with no indication as to wether the next enlightenment will be the true light or simply the studio equipment of a darkened soundstage. It is in the exponential intractability of epistemology that we remain profoundly trapped.

¹ Lee, D., 2007. Plato, The Republic (Rev. Ed.). p.241 BK VII. 514 a-b.

² Lee, D., 2007. Plato, The Republic (Rev. Ed.). p.242 BK VII. 515 c.

³ Ibid. 515 d.