30 January 2008

Plato's Metaphysics

The writings of Plato, particularly the account of the “Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic, are arguably the most influential early philosophy texts in the so-called Western canon. The primary idea of this allegory, that sensory realities are only shadows or copies of Ideal Forms existing in the Intellectual World, has been revered, relived, pilloried, parodied, paraded, imitated, and excoriated by philosophers, poets, and artists ever since. You can read a translation of the Allegory here.

The basic idea is that everything you have ever seen with your eyes, touched with your hands, tasted with your tongue, heard with your ears, and smelled with your nose (or, to be more correct, sensed via those organs by the brain)—everything you have ever experienced via your physical body doesn’t really exist. Or at least not as you think it does. Everything is just a vague, dim, shoddy, cheap copy or shadow of its “real” original out there somewhere. The original itself, counter intuitively, isn’t more physical—i.e., doesn’t strictly compare to 3-dimensions objects the way 3-dimensional objects compare to 2-dimenstional ones—the way you might imagine. Nope. These Forms or Ideas are just that—Ideas. Whose ideas? Good question. But hang on to that question for a bit. So “reality” turns out to be far more like what we typically think of as unreality (you tend to think of an apple as being “more real” than an idea of, say, “I have an idea for a new story”). Things without physical existence are more real than those with physical existence. Hum.

So I’m going to have three assignments for my students in this post and subsequent posts on this topic, and I beg all other readers to join in and contribute their thoughts as well!

Assignment One: Identify or explain a problem with the allegory of the cave. Here are some problems I have pondered, or others have pointed out to me. You may use these problems to fulfill this assignment if you rephrase the problem or develop it further than I do.
1. Whose ideas are these? It is easy for a Christian, or any Monotheist, to say that these Ideas are God’s ideas; that the World of Pure Forms exists in the mind of God. But for an atheist, or polytheist, or agnostic, such an explanation might not serve—and it might not be philosophically satisfactory, even if it is religiously satisfying. At the very least, it creates an apparently impossible problem of transcendence: if God is Pure Form, Pure Intellect, completely separate from the physical, is it possible for human beings to enjoy any union with Him? Total and complete Platonism seems to rule out the Incarnation.
2. Why aren’t shadows “real”? hmm and I have been having an ontological debate about the necessary characteristics of being: about whether or not a unicorn is “real.” Is a picture of a unicorn real? Well, the picture has physical existence on the page; real ink/paints/pixels were used to convey that image to our eyes. The imaginary idea of “unicorn” exists; does that prove that there must be a Pure Form of Unicorn in Plato’s World of Forms, otherwise human minds could not conceive of it? A unicorn is a legendary animal; is it therefore a “real” legend, because it fulfills all the qualifications for being legendary? So then, why aren’t shadows “real”? They are real shadows, aren’t they? They have all the attributes required to make a real shadow: darkness, a discernable shape, two dimensions, motion relative to the object casting the shadow, size proportional to the object and to the source of light, etc. So why don’t they count as “real”? Maybe a shadow isn’t as good, or valuable, or useful, as the object which casts it, but isn’t a judgment of utility in an entirely different category from judgments of existence or being?
3. In the allegory, the firelight (symbolizing the physical sun) is falling on objects, which cast shadows (symbolizing all physical objects you have ever seen) on the wall of the cave. What do the objects symbolize? If they symbolize manifestations of the forms, that messes up the allegory. If the symbolize some kind of secondary form of the form, that doesn’t work. And the problem appears to me to be more fundamental than a mere semantic or literary glitch. It goes back to problem one. How can there be any commerce between the World of Forms and this material, sublunary realm? There needs to be some mediator through which the forms are translated from immutable immateriality into mutable materiality.
4. Historically, Platonism has been condemned because it tends to denigrate physicality. “Platonic love” in common parlance means love that is never physically consummated: a mixture of Platonism and Christianity (or at least Catholicism) may have contributed to negative attitudes towards sex specifically or physical pleasures more generally, leading from asceticism into full-blown mortification of the flesh.
5. The other side of problem #4 is the simple postponement of full existence into some afterlife. Christians are accused of this, too: we’re just waiting for Heaven so we don’t live fully now.
6. In the broader context of The Republic and Plato’s other writings, the Allegory of the Cave had a classist, sexist, and racist application. In the story, one prisoner gets free and eventually gets out of the cave, where he stares at light and more light until he is able to stare up directly into the sun itself, contemplating the highest truth, the Form of the Good. Yes, he. He is the philosopher-king, the guardian of the utopia in which women will be common property and only highly educated, privileged, and presumably Greek men are granted the leisure to live a life of contemplation and thus to rise to the highest level of existence. One wonders if they will be the only inhabitants of the “heavenly” world of Pure Forms?

In my next metaphysical posting, there will be an “assignment” related to solving these problems, or suggesting ways that Platonism has been either misunderstood or reinterpreted to answer those, and other objections. So stay tuned and put your thinking caps on for a defense of the World of Pure Forms.

Then in the final Platonic post, I plan to ask you for alternatives to the allegory of the cave: for other understandings of the universe and meta-universe, if any; for other models of conceptualizing supernatural realities; for works of art or literature or other media that present an alternative worldview or a new way of visualizing Plato’s controlling concept. That’s the plan!


Rosie Perera said...

Hey, great minds think alike. I wrote you (Admonit) an email about 10 hours ago containing this paragraph, and didn't realize that just two hours prior to that you had written this post, to which this paragraph turns out to be a very apt response. And I might as well make this comment publicly, since it might spark more good dialogue.

I have been meaning to write a response to your position on the Platonic world of forms. I think it undercuts the freedom and dignity God gives us in actually creating new things out of our own imaginations if we say that the "idea" for these things existed in some other realm (God's mind) prior to our thinking them up, and we are simply taking a stab at it in a poor attempt at copying the original. I also think it is problematic to talk about the "idea" of, say, "tableness" as having some separate existence, as if there could be some perfect table somewhere in the mind of God and all our earthly tables are just copies, one step removed from the real thing. It denies the uniqueness and individuality of species and instances of things. Each and every table was lovingly made (well, OK, let's just talk about hand-crafted ones for now) and has its own design, its own characteristics -- maybe a darker spot in the wood on one corner or the particular way that the hinge was screwed on. There is goodness in the particularity of things that exist in the created world. To idealize the "forms" of these things takes away from their realness and substantiality. Yes, we all know how to recognize a table when we see one, but that is not because we are in touch in some way with God's ideal table, but it's because we have experience with seeing lots of tables and after a while we've come to understand what they share in common. Even now, furniture designers are still coming up with new ideas for making different tables which are still called tables though they might have weird angles or stand on five legs instead of four, etc. They are doing this because God has given them the ability to create things, not because he has planted the idea of a table in their mind and tasked them with trying to imitate it as best they can. And for a poet to think that any poem she is writing is nowhere near as good as the version of it God wrote ahead of time must be extremely frustrating and discouraging.

Darlin said...

I think that one problem with this theory [at least from a Christian perspective] is that if what we know on this earth, is not "real" or simply ‘shadows’...then ultimately there is one perfect form that this is mimicking, a mock-off so to say. In consequence, this means that what we know [to be real on earth] is not complete or perfect.
Furthermore, this means that only one model of whatever object can possibly be a perfect/real.
We are told in Scriptures that man is made [by God] in His own image. However, take a look around…. humans….though containing same characteristics….look different! It is true no man is perfect….but sticking to Plato’s theory, would we not be accusing God of making less than perfect creations, considering that only one model is a perfect form?
AND if in Gods mind is the perfect image of any form…. and he knows that no man is perfect and cannot reach perfection alone… then by giving us the knowledge of such a form, would he not be setting us up as failures, never being able to reach the perfect/complete destination of the product?
QUESTION: does this theory apply only to concrete things? Or concepts too?

AVA said...

“We are told in Scriptures that man is made [by God] in His own image. However, take a look around…. humans….though containing same characteristics….look different! It is true no man is perfect….but sticking to Plato’s theory, would we not be accusing God of making less than perfect creations, considering that only one model is a perfect form?”

Actually, the scriptures saying we are made in God’s image could technically support this theory. God (Jesus to be precise) is THE human, and every other human being on earth is just an imperfect copy of Him. That would also explain why we would get new bodies in heaven, because in heaven we would be “Real”, not just copies. Not that we are God, Jesus is more than just human, he is God and human, but we would look just like Jesus Human side. That would also potentially explain why Jesus couldn’t do everything He normally could do in heaven, because when He entered this world, His Humaness became just like every imperfect copy down here.

A few questions and thoughts I had about the cave allegory are:

1. How did the guy get free? It said he “was set free”, but by who? Or what? Knowledge? But wouldn’t that knowledge be flawed to, because we derive knowledge from observations, and those observations will be flawed because the things we observe are nothing more than imperfect forges of the original?

2. What make the “real” objects any more “real” than the shadows? They both exist, don’t they? Why do we assume that because we knew the shadow first and then saw the flower that the flower is more real? Who’s to say that maybe there isn’t some sort of double mirror effect going on, or something else that would make the shadows real, and the object just a copy?

3. Along the same lines as above, who’s to say that the flower itself is real, what if there’s a more “real” world than the outside world? I mean, if we have lamps and the sun in this imperfect world, couldn’t there be levels similar to this in the “real world”?

4. Why would we believe in the “real world”? I would equate this to a kid. I would say every person is born very trusting, believing everything he hears. A kid in preschool lies to this kid, telling him that the sun is a flashlight in the sky that God turns on in the morning and off at night. The kid of course believes him, but in later years, as he progresses through his science class, he reads in his text book about the earth rotating around the sun and such causing the sun to appear to rise and set. The kid now has two options. Believe the science book is telling the truth, and the kid was lying. Or two, disbelieve both the text book and the kid and think that he can never know the answer for sure. The point I’m trying to make is finding out something is false will make some people believe that now they are truly seeing, and will make others believe that nothing can ever be known for sure, that everything is a lie. Some people once duped believe the very next version of the truth presented, while others disbelieve all truth once duped.

It’s like your parents telling you santa clause doesn’t exist. Some kids trust their parents to be telling the truth the second time around, while others won’t believe anything their parents say again unless they can personally verify it with lots of outside data. And even more skeptical others will say that if they managed to believe a lie that long, what else are they believing in that could be a lie? Maybe God? Love? Friends?

5. Going back to the “what is the self”, where I said “I think that besides the physical bodies we possess, we have minds that can think and process information, and a soul that can feel things.” What if each of those things that make us a self (physical bodies, soul, and mind) is just an imperfect copy of each part of the trinity of God? By that, I mean, what if God is THE SELF, and each of us is an imperfect copy of Him, would our body, mind, and soul correlate to a different part of the trinity? It’s just an idea, I don’t even know if it would make sense, but the idea is one to think on…That would explain however why God says we are made in His image.

Not sure if any of these meet the requirements or not, let me know if I should try again…

Rosie Perera said...

Further reflections: I think Lewis's The Great Divorce is a brilliant thought experiment on what heaven might be like. However his imagined idea that things in heaven would have more solidity than things on earth is no justification for Christians who believe in the Platonic "forms" idea.

First of all, it's fiction, so one can't support one's theology from it. Nevertheless, I think he's onto something. I am among those who believe that heaven will have solid substance which we will be able to interact with, form and create new things (including art) out of, not like the clichéd pictures of people sitting around on clouds playing harps. (As my pastor pointed out once, only the harpists will be playing harps, as that would be heaven for them!)

When God created the earth's substance, he called it good. He means to redeem it and transform it, but not take away its physical existence and place us in a pre-existing other realm which is more physical than our own. Jesus' post-resurrection body (the only biblical hint of what heaven will be like) was able to go through walls, but it was tangible. His disciples could touch him and feel the wounds in his hands and side. Lewis is probably inspired by Jesus' wall-transiting ability in his notion that earthly objects are somehow less real or substantial than heavenly ones. But how might the physics of this work? Perhaps Jesus' molecules totally intermingled with those of the wall as he passed through. Maybe the laws of physics change somehow in the new heaven and the new earth. The way I conceptualize it (the way to articulate it only just came to me now): before the eternal kingdom settles in, heaven and earth are separate "places," Jesus went "up" to his Father and is no longer physically with us. But after, heaven and earth will interpenetrate each other in space and time. The physical aspects of earth will be renewed and become incorruptible, and the non-physical (spiritual) nature of heaven will become evident (or more evident than present) to all, in and through everything. When Jesus said the kingdom of God is among you, he was saying that the beginnings of this new coinherence of heaven and earth was already upon them with his first coming. But that it will reach its full fruition when he comes again.

The promise of a renewed creation that would be more substantial than the present reality (if Lewis is right in his imaginings), does not mean that such a place or reality exists already in a Platonic "form." At this point (if we can for a moment still talk in earth-bound chronology), these things exist as ideas in the mind of God, without physical presence. Not more real than what we have here. What would he be doing with a whole empty creation waiting for us to inhabit it and care for its gardens, etc.? His plan for our earthly things is to make them more perfect than they are now, but that doesn't diminish the reality of what is here.

Furthermore, there need not be an exact one-to-one correspondence between every thing which exists in our earthly lives and what will be in the heavenly kingdom. If there are, let's say, 3 billion tables on earth, falling into about 200 million different styles, that doesn't mean there will be (or already exist) 3 billion (or 200 million) perfect table forms in heaven that these ones are faulty replicas of. It just means we will have a new earth where tables will be better made. People won't carve their initials in them to vandalize them. They won't have those annoying imperfections when one leg is slightly shorter than the others and it wobbles. When we sit at a meal around them, we will have true fellowship and communion, we won't have all the ugly inter-personal garbage that we bring to the table when we eat together now.

All I'm saying is that the very best concepts of what heaven might be like do not necessitate a Platonic view. The Platonic system of ideals falls short of the glory of God, in my opinion. It is not based in Scripture (not that there can't be some truths that the philosophers arrived at independently of biblical revelation), so it shouldn't be held in such high regard by Christians.

Iambic Admonit said...

AVA: thank you very much for your response; that's exactly what I was looking for! Well done.

Rosie, I'll have to wait until I write the next post to reply to some of your comments; I don't think Platonism is totally unBiblical, but I'll write more about it soon. Meanwhile, thanks for your beautiful words about heaven, and especially for bringing in Charles Williams's "coinherence"!!

Iambic Admonit said...


According to Plato's theory, concepts are closer to the Forms, since another name for the Forms is "Ideas." So since "Justice," for example, is an abstract concept, it can only imperfectly be put into practice in this material world; the pure Idea itself is in the world of Forms.

Thanks for your thoughts!

Rosie Perera said...

Before someone else notices and pounces on it, I should qualify my parenthetical remark that Jesus' post-resurrection body is "the only biblical hint of what heaven will be like." Of course, the Bible says more about heaven than that, but what I meant is that's the only time when people on earth got to see and experience something of what life in heaven would be like and report it to us as eye-witnesses, as opposed to seeing something in a vision and having to speak about it in symbolic or apocalyptic terms because it was too dazzling to understand and describe.

littlesarah said...

Ok, a lot of the problems and inconsistencies I found in Plato's allegory of the
cave have already been mentioned, but here are the problems that seemed to
stand out the most to me.

Who can be "enlightened"? Since Plato wrote "the Allegory of the Cave" I
am assuming that he felt that he himself was enlightened. How did Plato know
that he was fully enlightened? Doesn’t that defeat the logic; I mean the people inside the cave didn’t know they were missing anything, when the one man came out how did he know that he wasn’t missing anything? If I found out that everything I ever believed to be realities were, in fact, just shadows of realities I would certainly question these new and “real” realities. How would I know that there was not something even more “real” out there? How would I know if the realities I was seeing now weren’t just more detailed “shadows”? And why was just one man “enlightened”? Plato, as I said before, must have met his requirements for “enlightenment” or whatever he called it. But why was he enlightened? And why was only one man in the cave enlightened? Was it because he was a male
and a Greek philosopher? If it was then isn't "enlightenment" somewhat
superficial and available for only a select few. It Plato's cave allegory,
the man who broke free from the chains, did anyone help him? Or was it
fate? If it was fate, then there is no need for knowledge, because he just, by chance, found his way to the top of existence, the top of the class, or whatever the “outside” is technically in his allegory. If no one helped him up from the bottom of the cave, if no one broke his chains for him then no one taught him. So in a way, Plato seems to be taking teaching out of knowledge. I don’t know if I’m making any sense whatsoever but I think the allegory would make more sense if there the people in the cave were not as solitary. I don’t understand how they could possibly know anything…I mean, if you left a baby locked in a box since birth (you’d have to excuse the need for food and drink and light, and so on as Plato did in his allegory) would the baby grow up and understand how to walk? Let’s say he heard people talking from outside his box. Would he no what the words meant? Would he know what a word was? It also seems like Plato is promoting the idea that we are born with a fundamental sense of knowledge, that we know certain thing instinctively. Well, either that or the “if you put monkeys in a room with a typewriter over many many years they would type Shakespeare” idea. One more example that is easier to think on is the life of Helen Keller. Could she have learned anything with without teachers? In a way she was like the men in the bottom of the cave, she could not see (they saw only shadows) and she could not hear (they heard only a few basic words that couldn’t have meant much to them). If I showed you a shadow and said plate when the shadow came up on the back of the wall would you know what it was or what it was for? With only a dark outline and a mixture of sounds to create the word would you know what it was? If you had no former knowledge? Is Plato portraying some form of instinct that is above and beyond animal instinct?