Plato’s Cave, Flatlanders, and Us
The Allegory of the Cave was an allegorical scenario and dialog described by Plato in his work “The Republic.” In it, a number of prisoners occupy a cave and are forced to only look in the direction of a wall. Behind them is a huge fire. Between the prisoners and the fire, people walk along a walkway, their shadows being cast upon the wall and echoes of the sounds of their footsteps reflecting off the wall. Given that the prisoners have been in that position for their entire lives, this is their entire reality. They have built a reality around the shadows and sounds emanating from the wall. Their “futurists” are the ones who can best predict the next shadow. Plato then imagines what might happen if a prisoner were released and free to discover the truth about the world; what created the shadows, and what lies beyond the cave. If he attempted to explain the truth behind the “shadow reality” to his former fellow prisoners, he would likely be shunned as they would fear and ridicule his outlandish perspective.
In 1884, Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote a novella called “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” in which the characters lived in a two-dimensional world. Originally intended to be a social satire about Victorian culture, it is now often referenced by scientists and mathematicians who imagine the possibilities of higher dimensions. In Flatland, the Flatlanders can’t conceive of a reality with three dimensions. When a sphere visits their world, all they can perceive is a 2D slice of the sphere and so they remain unconvinced that higher dimensions could exist. Interestingly, even the sphere denies the possibility of spatial dimensions higher than three, despite his conviction in his argument with the flatlanders that there is a spatial dimension higher than their two. It seems that everyone is stuck in their physical reality, with little imagination nor open-mindedness to the possibilities of a greater reality.
We are amused as we read these stories. But are we any different? Have we become any more enlightened as to other possibilities since Plato’s time? In some contexts, perhaps. Believers in some new age philosophies, followers of some ancient eastern or shamanic traditions, certain practitioners of the use of entheogenic plants, and even fundamentalists in western monotheistic religions will acknowledge that our reality is but a subset of a much greater one. But that is the spiritual side of the great divide. From a scientific perspective, there are very few who appear to be willing to think outside the physical reality box.
Physicist Thomas Campbell, in his “My Big TOE”, and Steven Kaufman, in his “Unified Reality Theory” have developed comprehensive theories based on experience and rigorous logic which demonstrate that our physical experience is but a tiny subset of a much larger and more complex reality. But how many scientists and rational thinkers buy into the idea? Not many. They are too busy living in Flatland. Or Plato’s Cave.