In Plato’s cave, all the people trapped down there have a very different understanding of reality than the people outside the cave. They see shadows cast on a relatively flat surface standing vertically in front of them, and occasionally hear noises from behind them that they end up associating with the shapes. This world they live in, to us, is dark, monochromatic, and, well, wrong. But to them it’s all they’ve ever known, so why should they question it? Sure, it seems clear that the reality they are living isn’t quite right, but these people are quite happy to continue to sit in the dark, and to dismiss any ulterior idea about reality as a far out fantasy.
The cave people might seem rather stubborn and irrational in the act of dismissing something that those who have seen outside of the cave know to be true, but they would actually be acting quite rationally. If someone told you something that contradicts all of your firsthand knowledge, and if that person has no definitive way to prove what they told you is the truth, other than “because I said so” and the like, would you just disregard everything you know and believe them? No, of course not. That’d be absolutely ridiculous. Unbelievably irrational. Yet, upon hearing of this story, I tend to feel like the cave people are idiots for not understanding the world for the way the outsiders know to be true, even though the cave dwellers would be put in the same situation as my example.
Furthermore, if any one of the cave dwellers were to question their reality, and maybe even think up their own theory for what the world might be, they would still be incorrect about the state of reality; likely even more so than the others. To predict what the world might look like beyond the cave, or to even think that there is anything beyond the cave, would be like predicting what alien species we’re going to be irradiated by in the future. First of all, we’ve never met an alien species, and we may never know with any reassurance if there are any intelligent life forms in this universe, and if there were aliens that we could eventually come in contact with, how would we ever know if they would irradiate us at all? The whole prediction is absolute nonsense, and could never be actually true.
Thinking about the cave in this way can be a little unnerving, actually. Taking everything at face value is dangerous because the knowledge you would be given wouldn’t necessarily be all true. On the other hand, not believing what you are told would make it so nothing you knew was true, because the knowledge you could have been given had the chance of being false, and you wouldn’t want to believe something that is false. Either way you would be wrong about reality.
The analogy of Plato’s cave asks the one who hears of it to think of the commoner as the one in the cave, and the enlightened philosopher as the one living a free life in the outside world, but sometimes I fear that we are all in the cave, and none of us are any closer to being right than the next chained up cave dweller, and that the philosopher may actually be the cave dweller that disregards truth in place of fantasy. This is the cause of many existential crises, but somehow I find myself contempt with the only two things I know for certain in this world: I exist, and I will always be wrong about something. That may not be the most reassuring thing in the world, but at least it’s something. It’s good enough for me, anyways.