In The Allegory of the Cave, Plato tells us about the prisoner who saw the light. But what is more interesting, is to think about the type of experience he had. At first, he is blinded by the light. His eyesight is damaged, and as he readjusts his vision and moves forward in the new landscape, he discovers the objects that, previously, he was incapable of seeing. But that is not the end of it. He is blinded by the sun once again. The prisoner repeatedly goes through the painful process of readjusting his vision. Analogous to this experience is how human beings learn new things. It is the same painful and inconvenient experience of redesigning one’s knowledge structures about the world.
The tragic part of the allegory is when this prisoner, with his hard-gained knowledge, returns back to the cave, to share what he has learned to the other prisoners, who remain, with their backs turned to the light, and mistaking the shadows on the wall for truth. The cave is the world of opinion, where each person is entitled to their delusion. But the enlightened prisoner is stumbling and unintelligible, incapable of expressing what he has learned into words, and so, he is ridiculed by the other prisoners. Think about how great teachers of the past such as Socrates and Jesus were persecuted.
We notice how, in life, the same pattern unfolds. The person who has attained new knowledge and desires to enlighten the community is never met without scorn and humiliation. Thus, the allegory captures an important fact about human psychology: we are resistant to knowledge. We prefer clinging on to opinions and delusions. But still, a part of us (the freed prisoner), seeks to go beyond this default state, towards truth, even at a great cost, and even if with great difficulty.
The freed prisoner, before he goes out into the light, is resistant to leaving the cave. He is almost dragged out of the cave. And the remaining prisoners refuse new knowledge. In general, human beings are resistant to change, even if it is good for them, and even if it is freeing. That is the foundation of confirmation bias. It is more comfortable to cling to illusions about the world, than make the painful choice of personal transformation. And on a certain level, such a reservation is not always irrational. Constant transformation is overwhelming and disconcerting. There is such a thing as too much knowledge, too much enlightenment at once. And this brings us to the second facet of human nature, that was then later discovered by Jean Piaget.
The proper way to update our knowledge structures is to do so gradually, by slowly integrating new information with the old, and making our existing knowledge, more complete and powerful. When the introduction of chaos is mediated with a rapid return to order, where new information is slowly and carefully digested, transformation becomes possible. We become capable of transcending our previous limitations. That is why gaining knowledge, after we have overcome personal resistance, is such a rewarding and enriching experience. It is one of the few things we can do that allows us to transcend ourselves, as Nietzsche would have us believe is the ultimate duty of man.
There are three possible attitudes (approximately) one can have regarding knowledge. One, is to become aversive to new knowledge, out of the fear that if too much chaos is introduced, the existing order falls apart. The second is to become addicted to new information, where one spends all their waking hours exposing their minds to novelty in fear of being oppressed by their existing knowledge structures. And the third attitude is one that falls between the two extremes, where the integration of knowledge occurs gradually and properly. It is not only a question of how frequently you expose yourself to new information, but also, how difficult the information you expose yourself to is. This is related to the concept of flow. The goal is to strike the balance between order and chaos, easiness, and difficulty. You are in the right place, when you are neither bored, nor overwhelmed.
Watch yourself as you work. When you notice that you are switching between too many different things, and your focus is too scattered, and there are too many ideas that you are thinking about, it is a sign of overstimulation. That is when you need to eliminate complexity. And when you find yourself, agitated, despondent, and searching for distractions — then what you are doing is too boring. You are not engaged enough. You are either doing the wrong thing, or you are doing something that you have mastered too well.
Procrastination, as I have discussed in In Defense of Idleness, can sometimes be a sign, not of a lack of discipline, but of your body’s physiological desire to do something else.
While The Allegory of the Cave is tangentially related to chaos and order, and the integration of new information, it is also about the dichotomy between knowledge and illusion. The prisoner who did not gain insight with ease, who struggled greatly, both psychologically and socially, was willing to sacrifice the comfort of the cave for a greater ideal. The construction of renewed knowledge structures or “seeing the light” is not done for its own sake. It is a conscious decision to wage war against one’s own delusions. To be able to see any light at all, you must admit to yourself that you are in a state of darkness, at least partially, otherwise, why would you bother going through the painful process of acquiring new knowledge?
What Plato understood was that man was constantly divided against himself. And he understood this, thousands of years before the advent of psychoanalysis. One part of man wants to see the true form of things, beyond the ephemeral sensual realm; another part of man completely identifies with the sensual realm and can see no meaning beyond it. But again, the sensual realm, that exists more in the present moment is necessary. The conflict is not to be viewed as a tragic state of man, but as an important mechanism in the psyche, that makes it possible for the mind to process complex information. There is too much data, and to process any of it, the mind must bring itself to the present moment, so that awareness can be focused on a single piece of data at a time. And yet, the sensual part of the mind that is responsible for present awareness, for the possibility of processing complex information, is at the same time behind all self-deception.
The ascent towards truth, the fight against self-deception, is necessarily an eternal struggle. It cannot end. And yet for Plato, the education that continues to remedy self-deception is natural and essential. It is ignorance that is unnatural. Usually, when people think of knowledge, they think of it as something static, like money. It is deposited into the brain (bank account) by a teacher, and once the learning process is complete, the student can then go home, pleased with what they have learned.
But what Plato teaches us is that learning is a dynamic interactive process, not a static one. Unlike a bank account, it is only possible to learn when you have committed your whole being and spirit to the pursuit of knowledge. In other words, you cannot learn anything passively. You are either all in, or you are not in at all — because to construct new forms knowledge in your mind, you must eliminate old forms of knowledge. It is a process of accepting that a part of your mind will physiologically be destroyed. That is, a physical neural structure will be destroyed, and what this implies, is that you must be very careful about what you choose to learn, because it is going to require you to change your identity. It then becomes obvious, that unless you require to transform your mental structures into unintelligible garbage, avoid feeding your mind garbage. Seek information that will not only be transformative, but transformative towards an ideal that is worth dying for, literally.
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.