Thursday, May 16, 2013

[PHI 3000] Are we stuck in Plato's Cave?

In Plato's Cave analogy (The Republic, Book Seven):
Seated prisoners, chained so that they cannot move their heads, stare at a cave wall on which are projected images. These images are cast from carved figures illuminated by a fire and carried by people on a parapet above and behind the prisoners. A prisoner is loosed from his chains. First he sees the carved images and the fire. Then he is led out of the cave into ‘real’ world. Blinded by the light of the sun, he cannot look at the trees, rocks and animals around him, but instead looks at the shadows and reflections (in water) cast by those objects. As he becomes acclimatized, he turns his gaze to those objects and finally, fully acclimatized, he looks to the source of illumination, the sun itself.

Plato's Cave analogy can be used to illustrate the distinction between appearance and reality. In Plato's Cave, what visually appears to a prisoner is not what is real but rather an image or a shadow of what is real. For example, the prisoners in Plato's Cave have a visual appearance of the one who came back to tell them about the real world as shadowy black. But this is merely an appearance, since the released prisoner is not shadowy black. If this is correct, then one could make the following argument:
  1. We can distinguish between appearance and reality only if we can rule out the possibility that we are in Plato's Cave.
  2. We cannot rule out the possibility that we are in Plato's Cave.
  3. Therefore, we cannot distinguish between appearance and reality.
What do you make of this argument? If (3) is true, can sense perception give us knowledge of the external world?


  1. This is a valid and deductive argument though I question its soundness. Why is ruling out the possibility that we are in Plato’s cave the only determining factor in trying to distinguish appearance and reality? Can there not be other ways? Plato’s case is one example and is one of the applications, not necessarily the rule itself.
    Sense perception can give us a form of knowledge of the external world. However, it can take us to a point and certainly has limitations. For example, we may be presented with something through the lens of our eyes, but we still must process it and allow our mind to make the final judgment. The senses give us the material, but the brain will take the material and formulate it from that point forward to a more refined knowledge.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mike. Ruling out the possibility that one is in Plato's Cave may not be the *only* requirement for distinguishing between appearance and reality but it may still be a necessary requirement. For if one is in Plato's Cave, then all of one's sensory experiences are experiences of appearances (or shadows), not real things, in which case, there is no way to tell the difference between appearances and reality.

      But perhaps your concern is that this requirement (i.e., ruling out the possibility that one is in Plato's Cave) is too demanding, since it implies that most of what we think we know about the external world is not really knowledge.


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