Plato’s Caveman Story: Seeking Happiness through Shadows vs Transcendental Reality
Plato’s famous caveman story has many interpretations. In my view, the story is a perfect fit to understand our search for happiness in different dimensions. I invite the readers who know the Caveman Story to share with us their interpretation in terms of happiness. What does it mean to live in a cave and seek happiness through pursuing shadows? Is it possible to escape the cave and find out the ultimate reality behind the shadows? Is it necessary to do so to be happy? What are our shadows in the modern times? If you want to know my answer, please read the article below:
Happiness of the Caveman
In his book, The Republic, Plato asked us to imagine a cave where some people have been imprisoned from birth. They are chained by legs and necks to make sure that they can gaze only at the wall in front of them. They can see neither each other nor even their own bodies. Behind the prisoners, a fire burns with continuous flames. A walkway is between the prisoners and the fire. Thus, the fire produces shadows of any object passing on the sidewalk. The prisoners see nothing but shadows. They think the shadow is real. For instance, if a goat is passing by, the prisoners would see the shadow of a goat. They would hear the sound as well. They link sound to shadows and think the sound comes from shadows. After telling the story, Plato asks us to guess whether it is possible for the prisoners to know the reality behind the shadows as long as they are chained. Actually, knowing the reality is to find an answer to an existential question regarding the shadows. Therefore, knowledge of the shadows is strongly linked to life satisfaction.
We think the cave allegory works well to explain our multi-dimensional happiness model. Obviously, for the prisoners, the shadow is the reality. They know nothing beyond the shadow. Thus, their happiness is the function of having, doing, being, and meaning through their perceived reality. Now, assume that one of the prisoners pursues happiness through accumulating shadows. He chases shadows on the wall with his eyes and counts them as his own property. He has a powerful memory to keep track of his belongings. After many years, he ends up having thousands of goats, sheep, cows, etc. He considers himself the real owner of those shadowy objects. He is proud of his wealth. He even thinks that he is better than other lazy prisoners. Is it possible to count him happy and satisfied? Not at all. Why? It is because we know that shadows cannot bring us real satisfaction. It is nothing but ultimate self-deception.
In reality, the cave is the material/physical world in which we are born. We are no different from those prisoners. We are bounded to live within certain physical laws and space. Like the prisoners, we do not see the ultimate reality behind the shadowy existence of material objects. Thus, we think of shadowy physical objects as reality. If we do not penetrate into the colorful (meaningful) reality behind the observed shadowy phenomena, we would consider life to be dull and boring.
The good news is that since Descartes, we are well aware of the difference between observed phenomena and ultimate reality. We have learned that colors are nothing but different wavelengths of light. Similarly, the entire material reality is nothing but a wave-like shadowy emergence within the vast ocean of the subatomic world. It is evident that what we see is only our perception of reality, not the reality itself. We are bounded to have a certain perception of the universe. However, through science and philosophy, we clearly know that reality is different from our perception. Thus, we face a similar challenge as the prisoners: (how) can we know the reality? How can we set ourselves free from the chains?
Faith and freedom
For some people, faith is a way to free ourselves from the cave of the material world and see the reality behind the desired shadows. There are two ways to go beyond the shadows. One is to believe in the reality beyond shadows in the form of a wish without any verified evidence. The other way is to study the shadow and find convincing evidence for the transcendental reality. We call those in the first category “skeptical believers” because they are not sure about the ultimate reality, therefore, they seek satisfaction in worldly things. We call those in the second category “transcendental believers” because they transcend beyond the observed phenomenal reality and pursue satisfaction through something beyond this world (transcendental). Skeptical believers might believe in life after death; however, they live their life as if there is no life beyond this world. If God and hereafter are real, they are ignorant of this reality, like those who deny any reality. Therefore, their ultimate objective is to seek satisfaction in this world. Transcendental believers have conviction about the reality based on verified evidence or self-conviction. For the first group, faith brings certain additional comfort; for the second group, faith brings transcendental transformation.
Faith and Happiness for Skeptical Believers
For skeptical believers, faith is an interactive term in the happiness equation increasing the temporal meaning. In other words, they seek satisfaction in this world with utility and meaning from worldly having, doing, being, and believing as an interactive term for meaning. Using the cave metaphor, they believe that there is a reality behind the shadows but are pursuing happiness by chasing shadows similar to everyone else. Thus, the belief brings some relief by helping to ignore the pain associated with death. However, it does not change the attitude toward worldly life because it is just blind faith, not firm conviction.
Shadow and satisfaction
Using the cave metaphor, we think faith is to know the meaning of shadows. It is to know the reality behind the shadows. Of course, it is to live in line with this belief. Thus, we agree with Tolstoy that skeptical believers cannot reach full life satisfaction. Even though belief brings them certain relief, they are doomed to experience the ultimate dissatisfaction in life. Indeed, once Tolstoy concluded that faith is the only path to real-life satisfaction, he explored the deeds of the religious establishment (the Church). He found it insincere and fake: “These believers of our circle, just like myself, living insufficiency and superfluity, tried to increase or preserve them, feared privations, suffering, and death, and just like myself and all of us unbelievers, lived to satisfy their desires, and lived just as bad, if not worse, than the unbelievers….” He denounced the Church and turned toward “the believers among the poor, simple, unlettered folk: pilgrims, monks, sectarians, and peasants.”
Religious, but secular
The key difference between skeptical believers and transcendental believers is that the former pursues life satisfaction in this world while the latter thinks it is not possible to be satisfied with anything or everything in this world. This is very much in line with a comprehensive definition of secularization by Charles Taylor (2007). In his masterpiece, A Secular Age, Taylor made a forceful argument that most religious people are actually secular. He gave three definitions of secularity. First, it is the separation of church and state. Second, it is the diminishing importance of religion in social life. Third, it is the pursuit of satisfaction in this world. In his view, anyone who pursues satisfaction in this world is worldly (secular). He claimed that in the past, religious Christians did not believe that you could reach satisfaction in this world even if you have everything you want. They used to believe that life satisfaction is possible through something that transcends this world. Thus, their objective was not to seek satisfaction in this world. They had a certain mission to fulfill in life. They would be happier with what would come beyond this life.
Within the cave analogy, Taylor’s argument means that pursuing satisfaction through shadows is to be secular. In other words, if one believes the reality behind the shadows, one has to have a different attitude toward the shadows. A person who knows shadows and the reality behind with a sense of certainty could not be satisfied with shadows. He/she would not engage in the pursuit of shadows like the chained prisoner. Indeed, in Plato’s story, one of the prisoners would manage to escape from the cave. He would initially be blind to the reality, given the intensity of the light. Once his eyes were adjusted to the light, he would see the reality behind the shadows he knew in the cave. He would feel sorry about his time lost not knowing the reality. He would pity his friends. He would go back to the cave to correct their belief. When he got into the cave, he would be blinded for a while again due to the adjustment from the light to the darkness. He would begin telling his friends the truth behind the observed shadows. He wanted to help them by freeing them from the cave. Of course, the friends could not digest this radical change in their perceived reality. They had lived their entire life pursuing the shadows. They did not want to know that their efforts gave them nothing but deception. They rejected the suggested reality and claimed that their friend lost his mind when he got out of the cave. The prisoners, according to Plato, would infer from the freed man's blindness that the journey out of the cave had harmed him and that they should not undertake a similar journey.
We argue that it is inevitable to ask some existential questions as we seek happiness through meaning after failing to find happiness in the hedonic dimension. As we see people around us claiming to find happiness through spirituality, we will explore a suitable one if we are not completely biased toward faith. We will find life to be more meaningful with a spiritual path as long as we think it has answers to our existential questions. However, we cannot avoid questioning the authenticity of the answers. Though Dostoevsky famously said that he would prefer Christ with the promise of eternity rather than truth without eternity, it seems that, in modern times, many people prefer so-called scientific truth over Christ. As Charles Taylor said, if we do not have verified belief, we might fear that our strong desire for God, or for eternity, “might after all be self-induced illusion that materialists claim to be” (Taylor 2007, chap. 16). If we do not have compelling evidence showing that we are indeed on the right path, we will eventually sink into doubt and desperation.
Faith and Happiness for Transcendental Believers
Using Plato’s cave metaphor, we can define transcendental believers as those who transcend the shadow and find reality. But how? We think that it is possible by studying the nature of shadow. In that story, the prisoners were not able to see the source of shadows. They could hear the sounds, but they were thinking that the sounds were coming from the observed shadows. If they had studied the shadows carefully, they might have realized that the difference between shadows could not produce different sounds since, in reality, the nature of shadow is the same, but the shape differs. They might have realized that the nature of shadow is not able to produce any sound if they compare the properties of the shadow with their own qualities.
Similarly, in this world, as is well-documented in science when we study the profound reality of matter, we will find out that everything is made primarily of the same essential fundamental components such as electrons and protons. The only difference between fundamental elements in the universe is the number of electrons and protons. For instance, what makes hydrogen different from oxygen is that the former has one electron while the latter has eight. If we go further down in the subatomic world, we will find that the same basic ingredients such as quarks or strings are the source of material reality. Thus, similar to the shadow in the cave story, all observed differences are composed out of one thing. As it is not possible to ascribe different sounds only to varying sizes of shadows, it is not reasonable to assume different objects are anything but the outcome of a different number of basic elements.
Furthermore, the properties of the effect have nothing to do with the properties of causes. For instance, salt is made of sodium and chlorine. Both elements are poisonous if they are consumed alone. However, strangely, when they come together, they become a necessary substance for the human body. In reality, if we combine two different poisons, we will get an even stronger poison, not necessary nutrition. Thus, as we study the nature of cause and effect, we shall realize that the observed causal relationship is like a shadow that cannot be responsible for the effect. The effect comes from transcendental reality, not observed phenomena.
The distinguishing trait of transcendental believers is that they have a conviction about the transcendental reality. The conviction could be based on verified evidence or self-conviction without any evidence. As long as they are convinced that there is an ultimate reality behind the shadows, they will not seek satisfaction through the shadow-like world by having, doing, being, and meaning. They will seek satisfaction through transcendental reality behind them. Of course, it is not easy to identify the type of faith people have. We think the attitude toward death is a good measure of one’s faith. Skeptical believers would have higher death anxiety compared to transcendental believers.
Furthermore, transcendental believers would look forward to dying while skeptical believers would love to live forever in this world. Transcendental believers also reflect on the endless blessing of the All-Loving Maker of the universe. They feel endless appreciation as they think that they are special guests benefiting from aspects of the entire universe.
(The article above is from the related discussions in 3D of Happiness)