Tethering the Platonic Realm...
I've been silent on this blog for too long. What about reactivating it with some reflections on its maybe somewhat cryptic title?
The phrase "untethered in the Platonic realm" comes from a committee report I received when I applied for a fellowship with a project to critically examine the philosophy underlying the open science movement. The feedback (as you may imagine) was somewhat less than enthusiastic. The statement was placed prominently at the beginning of the report to tell me that philosophy is an activity exclusively done in armchairs, with no practical impact on anything that truly matters in practice. The committee saw my efforts as floating in a purely abstract domain, disconnected from reality. I suspect the phrase was also a somewhat naive (and more than a little pathetic) attempt by the high-profile scientific operators on the panel to showcase their self-assumed philosophical sophistication. What it did was exactly the opposite: it revealed just how ignorant we are these days of the philosophical issues that underlie pretty much all our current misery. To quote cognitive scientist and philosopher John Vervaeke: beneath the myriad crises humanity is experiencing right now, there is a profound crisis of meaning. And what, if not that, is a philosophical problem?
Vervaeke's meaning crisis affects almost all aspects of human society. In particular, it affects our connectedness to ourselves, each other, and to our environment. We are quite literally loosing our grip on reality. And believe it or not, all of this is intimately linked to Plato and his allegedly irrelevant and abstract ideas. So why not try to illustrate the importance of philosophy for our practical lives with Plato's allegory of the cave (which is more of a parable, really).
I am part of an arts and science collective called THE ZONE. Together with Marcus Neustetter, (who is an amazing artist) we've created a virtual-reality rendition of Plato's cave, which allows us to explore philosophical issues while actually looking at the shadows on the wall (and what causes them). What follows is a summary of some of the ideas we discuss during our mythopoietic philosophical stroll.
I'm sure most of you will have heard of Plato's parable of the cave (part of his "Republic"), and are vaguely familiar with what it stands for: we humans are prisoners in a cave, chained with our backs to the wall. An unseen source of light behind our backs provides diffuse and flickering lighting. Shapes are paraded or pass in front of the light source. They cause fleeting shadows on the wall. These shadows are all we can see. They are our reality, but aren't accurate or complete representations of the real world. For Plato, a philosopher (and this would include scientists today) is a prisoner that manages to break their chains and escape the cave. As the philosopher ventures to find the exit, she is first blinded by the light coming from outside.
Now we come to what I think is the central and most important aspect of the story, an aspect that is often overlooked. As the philosopher ascends from the cave to the surface, she must adapt to her new conditions. Her transformative journey to the surface is called "anagoge," which simply means "climb" or "ascent" in ancient Greek. It later acquired a mystical and spiritual meaning in the context of Christianity. But for Plato, it is simply the series of changes in yourself that you must go through in order to be able to see the real world for what it is.
For Plato, the world the philosopher discovers is an ideal world of timeless absolute forms. This is what we usually associate with his parable of the cave: the invention of what later (via Neoplatonism and Augustine) became the religious and spiritual realm of Christianity, above and beyond the physical realm of our everyday lives. But before we get to the problems associated with that idea, let me point out one more overlooked aspect of the story.
An important part of Plato's parable is that the philosopher returns to the cave, eager to tell the other prisoners about the real world and the fact that they are only living in the shadows. Unfortunately, the others do not understand her, since they have not gone through the transformative process of anagoge themselves. Through her journey, the philosopher has become a different kind of person. She quite literally lives in a different world, even after she descends back to the cave. If she wants to share her experience in any meaningful way, she needs to convince the other prisoners to undertake their own journeys. My guess is though that most of them are pretty happy to stay put, chained as they are to the wall in the cave.
I cannot emphasize enough how important this story is for the last 2,500 years of human history. Untethered in its abstract realm it is not. And it is at the very root of our current meaning crisis, as Vervaeke points out (I've largely followed his interpretation of Plato above). There is a deep irony in the whole history. Plato's original intention with his tale of abstraction was to fight the superstitious mythological worldviews most of his contemporaries held on to, which were based on anthropomorphized narratives expressed in terms of the acts of gods, heroes, or demons. On the one hand, there is no doubt that Plato did succeed in introducing new, more abstract, more general metaphors for the human condition. On the other hand, all he did was introduce another kind of myth. He invents the two-world mythology of an ideal realm transcending our imperfect world of everyday experiences.
One of the most important philosophers of the early 20th century, Alfred North Whitehead, famously quipped that "[t]he safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." Whitehead also introduced the concept of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness (sometimes called the reification fallacy), which pretty accurately describes what happened to Plato and his cave: this fallacy means you are mistaking something abstract for something concrete. In other words, you are mistaking something that is made up for something real. Oversimplifying just a little bit, we can say that this is what Christians did with the Platonic realm of ideal forms. If this world you live in does not make sense to you, just wait for the next one. It'll be much better. And so, the abstract realm of God became a cornerstone for our meaning-making up until the Renaissance and subsequent historical developments brought all kinds of doubts and troubles into the game.
To be fair to Plato, he did not see his two worlds as disconnected and completely separated realms the way Christianity came to interpret him. His worlds were bridged by the transformative journey of anagoge after all. And that is why his story is still relevant today. Some time between the Renaissance and Friedrich Nietzsche declaring God to be dead, Plato's ideal world became not so much implausible, but irrelevant for an increasing number of people. It no longer touched their lives or helped them make sense. The resulting disappearance of Plato's ideal world is succinctly recounted in Nietzsche's "Twilight of the Idols" in what is surely one of the best one-page slams philosophy has ever produced.
Unfortunately though, we threw out the baby with the bathwater. With the Platonic realm no longer a place to be untethered in, we also lost the notion of anagoge. This is tragic, because the transformative journey stands for the cultivation of wisdom. Self-transcendence has become associated with superficial MacBuddhism and new-age spiritual bypassing. An escape from reality. To come to know the world, we no longer consider our own personal development as important (other than acquiring tools and methods, but that is hardly transformative). Instead, we believe in the application of the scientific method, narrowly defined as rationality in the form of logical inference applied to factual empirical evidence, as the best way to achieve rigorous understanding. Don't get me wrong: science is great, and its proper application is more important than ever before. What I'm saying here is that science alone is not sufficient to make sense of the world. To achieve that we need to tether Plato's anagoge back to the real world.
To understand what's going on, we must concede a central point to Plato: there is much more going on than we are aware of. Much more than we can rationally grasp. Our world contains an indefinite (and potentially infinite) amount of phenomena that may be relevant to us; potentially unlimited differences that make a difference (to use Gregory Bateson's famous term). How do we choose what is important? How do we choose what to care about? This is not a problem we can rationally solve. First of all, any rational search for relevant phenomena will succumb to the problem of combinatorial explosion: there are simply too many possible candidates to rationally choose from. We get stuck trying. What's more, rationality presupposes us to have chosen what to care about. You must have something to think about in the first place. The process of relevance realization, as described by Vervaeke and colleagues, however, happens at a much deeper level than our rational thinking. A level that is deeply experiential, and can only be cultivated by appropriate practice. I have much more to say about that at some later point.
Thus, to summarize: the hidden realm that Plato suspected to be elevated above our real world is really not outside his cave, but within every one of us. An alternative metaphor for anagoge, without the requirement of a lost world of ideal forms, is to enter our shadows, to discover what is within them. This is what we are exploring with Marcus. Self-transcendence as an inward journey. Immanent transcendence, if you want. We are turning Plato's cave inside out. The hidden mystery is right there, not behind our backs, not in front of our noses, not inside our heads, but embedded in the way we become who we are.
Here we can turn to Whitehead again, who noticed that to criticize the philosophy of your time, you must direct our attention to those fundamental assumptions which everyone presupposes, assumptions that appear so obvious that people do not know they are assuming them, because no alternative ways of putting things have ever occurred to them. The assumption that reality can be rationally understood is one of these in our late modern times. It blinds us to a number of obvious insights. One of them is that we need to go inside us to get a better grip on reality. This is not religious or new-age woo. It is existential. As the late E. O. Wilson rightly observed (in the context of tackling our societal and ecological issues): we are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. We can gather more data forever. We can follow the textbook and apply the scientific method like an algorithm. We can formulate a theory of everything (that will be really about nothing). But without self-transcendence, we will never make any sense of the world. And we, as artists, philosophers, and scientists, have completely forgotten about that. Perhaps, because we're too busy competing in our respective rat races, and don't allow ourselves to engage in idle play anymore. But I digress...
There is the irony again: it's not Plato, but the scientists on that selection panel that are completely disconnected from reality. They've lost their grip to an extent that they'd never even realize it.
Where does that leave us? What do we need to do? There are a bunch of theoretical and practical ideas that I would like to talk about in future posts to this blog. But one thing is central: we can't just think our way through this in our armchairs. Philosophy is important. But I concede this point to my committee of conceited condescending panelists: philosophy is only truly relevant if it touches on our practices of living, on our institutions, on our society. It is time for philosophy to come out of the ivory tower again. We need a philosophy that is not only thought. We need a philosophy that is practiced. The ancients, like Plato, were practitioners. Let's tether Plato back to the real world, where he can have his rightful impact. Just like his philosopher who ultimately must return to the cave to complete her transformative journey.
Watch the first performance of THE ZONE in Plato's Cave.
VR landscaping and images by Marcus Neustetter.
Much of this blog entry is based on John Vervaeke's amazing work.
Check out his life-changing lecture Awakening from the Meaning Crisis here.
Or start with the summary of his ideas as presented on the Jim Rutt Show [Episode 1,2,3,4,5].
Life beyond dogma!