Sunday, October 6, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Plato's Cave

Explain Plato's theory of forms, using his story of the cave as an illustration. Is Plato's theory of reality ( metaphysics) materialistic, idealistic or dualistic? Explain!

Philosophers before Plato had discovered a problem. They said things were real. And yet, the things kept changing. Was a little tiny sprout just coming out of the seed a tree? Was it still a tree 20 years later was when it was tall enough to climb on? Was it also a tree when it had leaves and in winter when it's leaves all fell off? What about after lightning struck it and it fell over dead? Obviously, it was still tree, but what did it mean to say it was a tree? What made it a tree in all those different, changing states?

We all have in our minds a set of characteristics which we say equals a tree. You could call this a form. Things that meet the form in our minds are called trees.

But Plato took this idea much further.

He said contrary to all the evidence of our senses, that this world was not the real world. He explained this using the analogy of people in a cave. He said individuals stuck in a cave and unable ever to look behind them and see me the opening to the real world would see only shadows cast upon the wall of that cave by the real things out in the real world. Since this was all they had ever known, they would assume that the shadows where the real things. He said that that is the way we see reality. What we think is real is just distorted shadows of the actual objects in a higher reality.

In that higher reality we could find the perfect and actual forms of the things we saw in this world. It is important to note that he was not simply referring to physical things. He felt there was also a perfect form of love, of friendship, and of other intangible concepts.

What we saw on this world was confusing and hard to define because they were, after all, only distorted shadows of the real, pure, and unmistakable forms. He so deeply believe this that he is often quoted as having said, "If we are to discuss the cosmos, we must not look at the stars." To us this seems foolish, as scientists have discovered so many facts by looking at reality. But remember, according to Plato, no matter how hard we work at understanding what we see in this world, everything that we see here is just a distortion of something far greater and much more real.

Perhaps the most common example given of Plato's belief is the fact that there are many different kinds of tables here in this world. Plato insisted that there was a form of the perfect table in the other world. All our tables are called that only because, to some extent, they match that perfect Table Form.

It is important to understand Plato did not believe that these forms were physical objects in a physical space. In his mind they were too perfect to be merely physical. They were ideals and they were contained in an ideal space. Exactly what that means, he never made clear. Nevertheless, unlike the men in the cave who could, at least in theory, break free and walk out into the real world, that ideal space is not available to us.

Since Plato talks so much of the real world of ideal forms you might think he was an idealist. But he wasn't a pure idealist.
Since Plato says that however transitory and imperfect it may be, our world is at least temporarily real, and what reality it does have is given to it by the nonphysical forms, he is a kind of dualist. In other words, there are two parts to reality. One is temporary, imperfect, but at least real to our senses. The other is the ideal world of perfect forms. This is the, one might say, real reality. It is perfect, unchanging, and eternal.

A materialist believes that the reality which surrounds us is the only reality. Nothing exists except matter and energy as science understands them.

An idealist believes that nothing in what we would call the real world is real. An idealist believes that everything that seems real is created by mind and therefore is immaterial. That is, there is no actual matter; it is only an illusion created by the mind.

Since Plato believes that the real world does exist, even though he believes it's only a temporary and flawed distortion of the ideal forms, he believes in the existence of both. Therefore he is a dualist.

Plato was also a dualist in that he believed that the mind or soul was contained in the body yet was separate from body. He believed that after death a soul would travel on to be born in a new body. The body was not the person, the soul was the person. The body was only a container. Think of a person getting out of a car and moving into a different car. That gives you a good image of this concept.

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