Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Plato’s cave and the dangers of a limited world-view

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Plato’s famous cave provides an excellent illustration* of the dangers of e.g. censorship (cf. any number of previous texts), opinion corridors, distortion of literary works, echo chambers, and other limits on thought and perception.

*Not necessarily one intended by him, but it still fits well.

Consider someone (for now, voluntarily) sitting in a cave, facing one sole direction, and attempting to understand the world based on the shadows that move on the cave wall: How is this supposed to work? What is there to lose by turning around and trying to catch a glimpse of what happens in another direction? A glimpse of the actual objects, instead of their shadows? A glimpse of the fire? A glimpse of the other walls? Why not climb out of the cave for an entirely new set of perspectives and information? How can the wall-facers even know the extent of their knowledge and ignorance, let alone actually learn something beyond the limited and often distorted information of the shadows?

Yet, exactly this wall-facing is what many people do—most, in the case of the strongly religious or ideological (notably Leftists/PC-ists/Feminists). Indeed, they are similar to the prisoners of Plato’s cave even in that they often react negatively towards those who have seen something else or suggest other truths (also see an excursion below). The condemnation of the unseen without bothering to look at it first, is a recurring theme.

Now, I am not saying that those who do expose themselves to other walls, the world outside the cave, whatnot, will necessarily change their opinions—nor that they necessarily should (this will obviously depend on how well the old opinion fares compared to the alternatives; also cf. e.g. [1]). However, their opinions afterwards will be better—be it because they have replaced a flawed opinion with something closer to the truth, have modified the old opinion to be more nuanced, or have a greater legitimacy in believing the old opinion (should it have panned out, after all).

In contrast, the opinions of those who refuse to expose themselves to other ideas, perspectives, whatnot are next to worthless, being steeped in ignorance and too weakly tested—and those who deliberately constrain themselves prove their anti-intellectualism and misology, no matter what they might claim or believe themselves to be.

Then there are those (again, notably in the Leftist/PC/Feminist area) who deliberately try to chain others in front of that one wall. They try to censor or libel dissenters; force curricula to have an ideological character with a fix world-view; re-write children’s literature; promote ignorance of and/or distort history and scientific findings; … My feelings for them are better not put into words.

I have no objections to people who fairly promote their own opinions (world-view, ideas, whatnot)—this is the equivalent of describing the advantages or contents of a particular other eye direction or the surface world. I also raise no objections to those who attack other opinions with reasoning, factual arguments, sound science, and other intellectually honest methods.

However, very many chose very different methods, aiming at, directly or indirectly, preventing their victims from exploring other sources of information, other perspectives, etc. This is not limited to actively preventing access to these information sources and whatnots; it also includes unfair attacks (e.g. most cases of ad hominem), “science” hell-bent on proving a certain point,* indoctrination of those too young or feeble minded to think critically, and “channel flooding” through ensuring that all** channels that might reasonably be encountered by most people are filled with content supporting or pseudo-supporting the same idea. (These channels would then be akin to the wall, and the “flooders” to the movers of shadow-casting objects, who can further control and distort the perception of the world.)

*Legitimate scientists will often approach e.g. an experiment or a survey with the wish to see a certain conclusion; however, they try to build it fairly and are willing to adapt their opinions, should the results not be the hoped for. Illegitimate ones will often build the experiment/survey/whatnot so that the “right” result is bound to manifest, irrespective of the truth, and/or interpret the results in such a manner that it supports their thesis (even when someone more objective would come to another conclusion), and/or report their findings in a highly misleading manner.

**For instance, school-children will be so disproportionately exposed to the channel “school” in many areas (including history and social sciences) that agenda pushing among teachers or text-book publishers can do severe damage; college is not as extreme, with adults having more options, but poses a similar danger. For instance, until the 1990s or even later, the single most important source of news for most people in e.g. Sweden was the few state-owned TV channels, and anyone controlling these also controlled a disproportionate part of the information flow. Websites are mostly a contrast, seeing that anyone can chose to simply visit a different set of websites; however, if e.g. Google and Facebook selectively promote or penalize certain contents based on opinion, this could be seen as a further example.

Excursion on Swedish anti-Feminists and similar groups:
A particularly strong parallel can be found in the journey and treatment of most Swedish anti-Feminists: These, like I, usually grew up with a considerable amount of Feminist indoctrination (through school, news papers, political propaganda etc.), they eventually found that the Feminist world-view, even Feminist self-portrayal, did not pan out (by a mixture of critical thinking and exposure to alternate opinions/non-ideological science), and were then derided as ignorants in need of enlightenment by the Feminists when they tried to point out the many Feminist fallacies to others… This matches the scenario by Plato of a former wall-facer who is moved to the surface and considered deficient upon his return—for his failure to see the world in the same way as the remaining wall-facers.*

*A minor flaw in the analogy is Plato’s description of the returning explorers as being temporarily limited in sight until their eyes have adjusted to the darkness again. I am far from certain that I agree with this portion of his (metaphorical) discussion in any context, and it is likely intended to apply only in the context of education and politicians (or possibly the ideal vs. the mundane, or similar) to begin with.

Excursion on Plato:
At least the linked-to piece (covering Book VII of his “Republic”) is yet another example of writing that is poor, long-winded, and has a too low information density. The ever repeating, mindless, agreement by Glaucon is a particular nuisance—not merely introducing noise, but also being outright annoying after a while.* A much better approach to the dialogue format (if such a format is used at all) would be to have Glaucon go into opposition and force clarifications and/or stronger arguments. As is, such opportunities are limited to variations of him not understanding or understanding incorrectly—and even those drown in the constant amens.

*In a twist, this type of agreement is contrary to the spirit of the above. It is also a long way from the reputation of the Socratic method… (The rest of the “Republic” is on my short-term todo list, but I have no other direct experiences with Plato’s writings.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

December 26, 2018 at 10:43 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] Your insight blinds me like the sun does a cave dweller. […]

  2. […] *I have discussed similar topics, although often less generally, on a great number of occasions, e.g. in [1], [2], [3], [4], [5]. […]


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