Thought — 2 Min Read

Plato’s Cave

by Case Greenfield, April 12th, 2023

Thought — 2 Min Read

Plato’s Cave

by Case Greenfield

April 12th, 2023

According to Plato we live in a reality that is not the real reality and we must try to see real reality. That is the purpose of philosophy. I say, yes, we must see the true nature of reality, but our distorted perceptions of reality often are very beneficial.

You are probably familiar with the allegory of the cave by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. If not, here’s the short version (source: Wikipedia):

In the allegory “The Cave”, Plato describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality, but are not accurate representations of the real world. The shadows represent the fragment of reality that we can normally perceive through our senses, while the objects under the sun represent the true forms of objects that we can only perceive through reason. Three higher levels exist: the natural sciences; mathematics, geometry, and deductive logic; and the theory of forms.

Plato’s mentor, Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are actually not the direct source of the images seen. A philosopher aims to understand and perceive the higher levels of reality. However, the other inmates of the cave do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life.

My art is all about “mind models”, the realities that we create to shape ourselves. Actually this is an extension or variant of Plato’s cave. Plato states that we normally only perceive a fragment of reality. I agree. But the higher levels of reality Plato refers to are all very rational (natural sciences, mathematics, etc.)

With mind models, I tend to take it a bit further, or in a different direction if you wish. I tend to see ‘different levels of reality’ in the way of social psychology or neuroscience: the realm of naive realism and indirect realism. Simply stated, I believe that our perception is – often or mostly or maybe always – blurred by cognitive biases – assumptions in our head about the world around us that are so strong that they tend to overrule correct perception of reality (and when other people tell us we see it wrong we ‘know’ they are uninformed, irrational or biased).

In many previous stories I talked at great length about mind models.

I also believe that there is a evolutionary basis for mind models. I wrote about it in my story Think And Fight. The idea is simple. Sometimes, or maybe often, to increase our chances of survival it was more helpful to have a slightly unrealistic optimistic view on our situation, which gave us the strength to continue fighting – even in quite hopeless situations.

And some people – like Donald D. Hoffman (see my Think And Fight story) – take it even a step further. They say, that trying to understand the truth, the real nature of reality – the ‘philosophical’ approach – often is a much worse strategy for survival than developing the right traits – skills, tools – for winning the evolutionary competition – the fighter’ approach. In other words, using mind models as a tool for evolutionary survival is a better strategy for survival that trying to find out the exact nature or reality.

And, psychology and neuroscience teach us that the main purpose of our brain is survival of ourselves, as individuals and as a species. So, the brain is wired to create mind models for survival.

And this is where it gets interesting. Plato said that we must understand the true nature of reality. By studying reality. I say, yes, we must understand the true nature of our – distorted – perception of reality. But we must not part from it, we must not think it is something bad. It does have a purpose. The problem, though, is to find out what mind models are effective, hence useful, and which ones hamper us in our quest for survival and success. Because not all mind models help us. Some do, many do, some or many don’t.

In my art, I try to create awareness about good and bad mind models.

PS. (April 20, 2023) — Is ChatGPT the new Plato’s cave?

In a recent article, Diego German Gonzalez talks about Chat GPT as the new, contemporary Plato cave. He refers to a The New Yorker article by science fiction writer Ted Chang, who says:

Even if it’s possible to restrict large language models from participating in authoring, should we use them to generate web content? This would make sense only if our goal is to repackage information that is already available on the Web. Some companies exist to do just that; we generally call them content factories. Perhaps the fuzziness of the language models is useful to them, as a way to avoid copyright infringement. Generally speaking though, I would say that whatever is good for content factories is not good for people looking for information. The rise of this type of repackaging is what is making it difficult for us to find what we are looking for online right now.; The more text generated by large language models is published on the Web, the more the Web becomes a blurrier version of itself.

Could we have created a new Plato’s cave? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Reality is still to hard to bear for us, apparently.

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