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Rated: E · Essay · Philosophy · #2293125
The Allegory of the Cave and Fiction
Nature doesn't ask your permission; it doesn't care about your wishes, or whether you like its laws or not. You're obliged to accept it as it is, and consequently all its results as well.
    ---Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

We have art so that we shall not die of reality.
    --Friedrich Nietzsche

I like realism in literature.  I want fiction to take me to places I can’t go and introduce me to people I’d never see in real life.  Realism in literature replaces one kind of reality—the reality I live and breathe in—with another kind of reality, one I imagine in my head.  It doesn’t matter if I visit that reality by reading a book, by going to a play, or by watching a movie.  Fiction transports me to alternate realities. Fiction reveals endless possibilities. 

But wait.  If fiction is just imagination, it’s not really real, right?  What’s real is what I can touch and taste, what my senses reveal. That’s reality, not words in a book or images on a screen.

Maybe.  But maybe there’s more to it.

The allegory

Imagine, if you will, prisoners in a cave facing a stone wall.  Behind them, a fire flickers, but none of the prisoners turn to see it.  Jailers might walk between the prisoners and the flames, but all the prisoners would see are shadows moving on the wall they face.  The jailers might hold an object, say a book, and the prisoners, seeing the shadow of the book, would mistake the shadow for the thing itself. 

Now imagine a prisoner turns and sees, in the dim flickering light, the flame, the jailers, and what they carry.  Such a prisoner now sees more clearly, sees the book itself and not the mere shadow.  The prisoner’s view of reality has just undergone a revolutionary change.  Never again will shadows seem real.

Thus begins Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  We can learn many lessons from this simple story.

The prisoners have constructed a reality from the shadows they see on the stone wall.  They might talk about it.  They might even conjecture about the nature of a book from its shadow. In a sense, they are making observations, collecting data, and drawing conclusions.  Just like a modern-day scientist.  Well, they’re not solving differential equations or other complex math, so it’s not just like a modern-day scientist, but the basic model of drawing conclusions from observations is there. 

Another thing the allegory reveals that observations depend on the observer.   As long as the prisoners face the wall, all they see are shadows.  Once one of them turns around and sees the light, their frame of reference changes and the model of reality in their heads expands.  The world itself doesn’t change, but how they think about it does. 

But there’s more.  The prisoner might spend many hours or days examining a book, touching it, turning its pages, examining the words scribed thereon.  But if the prisoner doesn't know how to read, the true form of the book will be forever hidden.  The prisoners' reality is still limited, not by what prisoners imagine but by what they can imagine.

In fact, our prisoner and the jailers are both in a dimly lit cave.  Most aspects of reality are hidden from them.  If they step outside, into the sunlight, what will they see?  At first, the brilliant light might blind them, but eventually they’d see leaves of green, and red roses, too.  They’d see our wonderful, wonderful world.  No doubt they’d want to return to the cave to spread the news

But back in the cave, the light is again dim.  With eyes wide open from the sun, we can imagine they’d stumble. We can imagine the tales they would struggle to tell.

Back in the cave, prisoners and jailers alike still live in a shadowland.  They might deduce the laws of the cave—how water flows and breezes blow—but oceans and thunderstorms are unknown and unimaginable.  The prisoner who has seen the light of the outside would seem apostate, or even perhaps insane. 

I sometimes think writers are like prisoners who have seen the light. 

Why  the allegory matters

The Allegory of the Cave is powerful.  It has had a profound influence on Western thought and the evolution of  natural philosophy, first to natural law, and, eventually, to science as we know it today.  There’s a direct line of descent from Plato’s forms to Newton’s Principia to Einstein’s General Relativity.  Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the Universe,” because Einstein, like Dostoevsky, thought of the universe as a clockwork, with knowable laws and an ultimate certainty. 

In fact, Einstein's expressed disdain for dice was intended as a direct rebuttal to quantum mechanics and, in particular, to the Uncertainty Principle.  Einstein believed in a deterministic reality and rejected the notion, implicit in quantum mechanics, that probability played any necessary role.  In his view, as in Plato's, nature at its most fundamental level is knowable, even if it's implacable as Dostoevsky’s ridiculous man asserts. .

In the Allegory of the Cave, different frames of reference lead to different interpretations of reality. Our frame of reference colors how we think about the information our senses bring to us, whether that information is shadows on a stone wall or the dazzling garden outside the cave.  As I walk through the real world, the one I can touch and smell, I carry with me a cultural frame of reference that includes Plato's forms, Newton's clockwork mechanics, Einstein riding an imaginary light beam, Bohr's atom, and much more. On top of this cultural frame are even more basic intuitions, some of which may be genetic.  The cause-and-effect sequence, for example, is doubtless ingrained in not only humans but other species as well. The same is probably true about the arrow time.

Beyond the allegory

So, what is really real?  I believe that the universe is what it is, not what I wish it to be.  I believe that we don't live by bread alone, but that we unquestionably do live by bread.  Reality acts on me: I stub my toe and it hurts; the sun warms my skin; I fall ill; I can die.  But I also believe that what is really real is a deep mystery.  Maybe we live in a simulation, like in The Matrix.  If such a simulation is possible, then a convincing argument can be made that it's virtually certain that we do live in a simulation. If that's true, either nothing is real or everything is real.

But it gets worse.  That cultural baggage heritage I mentioned?  The one that influences how I think about the world around me, the one where effects follow from causes, where the arrow of time advances and never retreats, the one that abhors spooky action at a distance...that frame of reference?  It's probably wrong. All of it.  If so, my walking, breathing reality, the one I think I live in, is as false as the prisoners' shadows on the stone wall.

For you see, something called Bell’s Inequality has upended Einstein’s deterministic reality and, with it, Plato’s forms and all the rest.  It turns out chance does rule, at least at the most basic level. The late, great physicist Richard Feynman once remarked that if you think you understand the surreal quantum world, you're wrong.  The universe is not only more mysterious than we imagine, it's more mysterious than we can imagine.

The allegory and fiction

What's all this mean for the author of fiction?  Well, fiction all happens in our head, whether we are authors or readers.  One lesson from the Allegory of the Cave is that our personal reality happens in our heads as well, structured by a frame of reference.  Authors can use all that baggage, that shared frame of reference, to stimulate the readers' imaginations and create compelling, believable worlds.  In doing so, they can sometimes even reveal truth. 

Hemingway said it best: "I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true."

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