Updated: Mar 9, 2019
Plato's Republic was probably the first book I read that I took seriously. I was told to read heaps of books and I never really enjoyed it. I'm sure everyone knows what I mean when they were told to read a book for school. We are forced to read it and so it looses it's enjoyment. However, I generally didn't like reading at all.
Plato's Republic was different. It was something new that really intrigued me. The part that really stood out to me was the allegory of the cave. In it a bunch of prisoners are in a cave chained so they can't move or turn their heads and are looking only at a wall. They only see the shadows of different objects which they believe are real objects themselves because that is all they know. As Plato puts it, "...in every way they would believe that the shadows of the objects we mentioned were the whole truth." Plato then talks about how the process of enlightenment after a prisoner was released would be slow and painful because he would have to be introduced to whole new concepts and see greater and greater light which he wasn't accustomed to. This whole story got me thinking so much about life and the nature of truth. How could we know whether we were the prisoners chained by our own false sense of reality? How could we embrace the pain of real enlightenment and endure this process until we could finally see the sun (the truth) itself?
These are some questions that are also explored in two movies which explore this concept of waking from a lie. The Matrix and The Truman show. The Matrix is about Neo who descends down the rabbit hole to discover that his entire reality is a simulation. He is only able to escape from the Matrix with the help of those who are already enlightened. The second movie is the Truman show which is about Truman Burbank, a man who grows up in a fake world created as a reality television show for the entertainment of the whole world. He only awakes from his lie through seeing the inconsistencies which make him question his reality.
So, how do we know we are living in a lie? How do we know we have the truth? Honestly, these were questions that used to haunt me a bit. It is a scary idea that everything we believe could be wrong. It hurts because so much of our lives is built around what we believe. What Church one may go to, what suburb they live in, who their friends are, what hobbies one enjoys, etc. Our beliefs are the foundation of our lives. To change this foundation means ripping up what we have built upon this foundation and starting again. For many of us this seems like way too much hard work and so we find ways to maintain our cognitive dissonance. If someone questions our beliefs, we get defensive and start creating new ways of trying to explain our way out of our logical inconsistencies. Take someone who argues that there is no such thing as existence. They would argue that nothing exists. However, how could they make that argument in the first place if they first didn't exist and second if the argument of non-existence itself didn't exist? It is clear that the argument isn't logical. However the person may try to make excuses to hide their cognitive dissonance. They may argue that the argument isn't even real because it's all in his head. However, he still fails to account for how his head exists. The excuses can go on and on. Obviously, existence exists. However, what if you were the person who believed something like the cognitively dissonant person above? How would you realise that you believe something that is obviously wrong? Are you willing to be found wrong and if so, how wrong?
I think that last question is probably the most pertinent one. Most people are willing to accept that there is a certain percentage of their beliefs that are probably wrong. However, this percentage relates to outer and non-essential beliefs or ideas and not based upon core beliefs and values. Before we move on we should probably explain this concept of outer and core beliefs. A person's worldview or belief system is very much like a building. Like a building, a belief system is ordered this way where one has Core beliefs, Foundational beliefs, Primary beliefs, and Supplementary beliefs.
Core beliefs are those beliefs which are common to all humans and are the Earth on which one builds their beliefs. These beliefs would be like Truth is opposite to falsehood, Existence exists, etc. These are indisputable beliefs common to all humans that if they were questioned that it would bring into question a person's sanity because they are so core to having beliefs in the first place. Without these Core beliefs it would be impossible to have coherent, sane beliefs at all. If these Core beliefs are built on unstable ground then the whole building will collapse.
Foundational beliefs are beliefs that are pivotal to one's entire belief system but that may be disputed without bringing someone's sanity into question, although their intelligence may be. These deal with underlying values that a person may uphold to be of great importance which form the rest of their beliefs. For religious people it may be the value of faith, for militant people it may be the value of duty, for doctors the value of care, for hedonists the value of happiness or pleasure, etc. These are the foundational values which lay the start of the rest of the building.
Primary beliefs are ideologies or religions that people subscribe to. It may be Sunni Islam, it may be materialistic hedonism, it may be Existential nihilism, it may be Stoicism, it may be a mix of a lot of different ideologies and religions. However, these are the frameworks which people fall back upon to consider their beliefs and figure out what it is they believe about certain ideas. These primary beliefs are the house that is built. It is the most substantial part of the whole belief system but can be more closely dissected without destroying the whole building i.e. removing a wall or something like that.
Supplementary beliefs are beliefs which a person doesn't hold on too strongly and are there mainly to fill a gap in their belief system. It could be very obscure ideas which the person hasn't given too much thought to or an idea that someone has thought about but doesn't really hold a position on one way or another. These are like the furnishings of the house and can be moved, removed, updated, or added at will.
So which level are you willing to be wrong on? I think most people are happy to give up their position on their supplementary beliefs which they don't put too much energy into maintaining. However, what about the deeper levels? Philosophers often enjoy going straight to the core and questioning those beliefs because it makes them appear to be intelligent. However, when they question these beliefs and come up with theoretical answers explaining how Existence may not exist, they lose touch with reality and most people will dismiss what they say as insane and not founded in the reality they know. However, philosophers may also help make sure that through testing the soil that one can build their beliefs on solid ground that won't shift. They make sure that one builds their house on rock rather than sand. Core beliefs take a lot of energy to maintain because it's impossible for someone to change them without knocking down the whole house and moving to whole new places. The foundational beliefs and primary beliefs do take a lot of energy, but not as much to maintain because they can be changed but they won't have to move from their spot. Depending on how dependent a person is on these foundational beliefs may shatter their whole belief structure which takes a great deal of energy and effort to build up again. Unstable or illogical beliefs take the most energy to maintain whereas logical and reasonable beliefs take the least amount of energy to maintain. However, with enough energy any belief can be moved or changed, destroyed or built.
With this in mind let us return to our original question at hand. How can we know whether we are right or wrong? All of our beliefs are opinions on the truth. Our beliefs can be contrary to the truth or in line with the truth. Therefore, there are really only two types of beliefs. Truth and opinions. We can assume that our core beliefs are generally truth because for us to have sane beliefs our core beliefs need to be true or for us to be able to build our house there had to be stable ground to build upon. However, after this level truth and opinion become the warring sides of a gigantic battle. In many ways we are actually fighting truth with our opinions. In this battle, for us to come to the enlightenment spoke of by Plato, we have to lose.
It seems weird that we would want to lose our own battle in order to gain enlightenment but it's true. If the war is between Truth and Personal Opinion then the more we lose this battle the more truth wins. We become too attached to our own opinions that we become ants trapped in honey after seeing the sweetness of having power over our own truths or prisoners attached their chains only seeing the cave wall. In reality though the more we get stuck and trapped in this honey, the more we rely on it and the harder it becomes to free ourselves. We become like those other prisoners that when the enlightened man came back to tell the other prisoners of his experience with the light, they rebuked him because he seemed blind trying to re-adapt to the darkness of the cave. For these prisoners they have become trapped by their opinions, that someone with the truth seems like someone trying to deny us the sweetness of the honey we are stuck in. However sweet the honey may be, you have lost everything outside of the honey from it's entrapment. However fanciful the shadows may be on the wall of the cave, you are still prisoners. There is a lot of liberty in being able to have the power to decide what you believe in, but it's liberty from a benevolent authority. Truth is a harsh but benevolent dictator. Away from truth is only anarchy and chaos. For us to want to discover the truth we have to reject the sweet honey that entraps us and lose the battle to truth in our own beliefs no matter how devastating it may be. The question then doesn't become, "Am I wrong?" but "How wrong am I?"
For Truman it meant leaving everything he believed was true. His family, his friends, his community, everything he abandoned for the sake of Truth. For Mr. Anderson, not only did it mean leaving his simulation, but it also meant embracing a fight to free others from the lies they were living in against those who would prefer them to remain in the lie. For us, it means humility. Humility to be wrong. Humility to be ashamed at how wrong we are. Pain to rid ourselves of the honey that entraps us. Pain to see this new light with naked eyes. However, for the sake of Truth. Isn't it worth it?
"And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted." (Matthew 23:12)