top of page

Episode 5: Plato and the Cave

Updated: May 1, 2021

Previous episode: Socrates believed that wisdom involved keeping salience and truth closely coupled together. In fact, he was so committed to this belief, that he was willing to die for it. Read my post on episode 4 here.

In this lecture, Professor Vervaeke talks about Plato and how he used what he learned from Socrates and Pythagoras to understand why we often fall prey to self-deception, how to cultivate wisdom, and the process of self transcendence.

Plato's Dilemma


Plato was deeply traumatized by Socrates’s death. He could not understand how the people of the city he loved so much could be so foolish as to kill someone as good and wise as Socrates. So just like Socrates had his dilemma with the Gods, Plato had a dilemma with the city and the death of Socrates. In order to understand how this happened Plato used the two world mythology that was introduced in lecture 3. The Hebrews viewed this mythology through a historical lens; they saw it as a progression from one state to another. Plato on the other hand, used the two-world mythology to find scientific answers to his dilemma; he used his learnings from both Socrates and Pythagoras to do so.

The Man, the Lion and the Monster

Plato described the experience of being foolish as an ‘experience of inner conflict.’ Inner conflict refers to a situation where one has two strong motives that seem to be working against each other. This could be anything from an existential meaning crisis, to feeling anxious to any experience where we feel divided or against ourselves in some significant way. Think of the times you were on a diet and gave in to those late night chocolate binges or the times you wanted to work on a project but couldn’t say no to a night out with your friends. Perhaps, in the moment we try to convince ourselves that the cake or the night out is the right decision. Plato noted that there is a deep connection between inner conflict and self-deception. And so he came up with an idea (that’s natural to us now) that we have different centers in the psyche, that motivate us in different ways. He represented this through the myth of the man, the lion and the monster. The man is motivated by the truth and represents rationality and reason. The man cares about those long term health-related goals and doing a good job on that final project. He knows that in order to satisfy these long term goals, small but crucial steps need to be taken every day. But it’s not so easy, because of the monster. The monster works in terms of pain and pleasure, rather than truth and falsity. The monster only cares about instant gratification; how good that cake tastes and how much fun that night out with your friends would be. This is not a bad thing, in a life and death situation we need something in our psyche that’s driven by pain and pleasure in order to protect ourselves.

So the man and the monster are opposites; the monster makes things salient to you and ‘catchy’ for you like the cake or the fun night out. The ‘man’ is what we need to understand that neither the cake nor the night out take us closer to the truth and what we truly care for. The monster is constantly trying to race ahead of our true understanding of reality, this is what Socrates meant when he said the salience of things often exceeds our actual understanding of them.

To understand what the ‘lion’ is, think of the dieting and the project examples again --- what typically helps a person when they’re trying to manage their weight or a student trying to finish a project? In several cases, group accountability does the trick. It’s no secret that we’re socio-cultural creatures and thus, have powerful socio-cultural motivations. This is the part of our psyche that Plato referred to as the ‘lion’. The lion works on the basis of honour and shame. Honor refers to being respected and admired and shame (NOT the same as guilt, which is a more personal emotion) refers to what happens when you lose the capacity to be respected, and admired. The lion is driven by powerful motivations because we deeply desire to share our experiences with people. If something tastes really good or really bad, we often want other people to try it too so they understand what we mean. We want our experiences to have some shared cultural meaning to it. There is good reason for this --- our connection to distributed cognition is one of the most powerful ways in which we increase our cognitive power over the world. The Greek word for this part of us that’s motivated socially is called ‘thymos.’

Plato realized that there’s a lot of potential conflict that could occur in this man-lion-monster system (think of how this inspired Freud’s idea of the ego, superego and the id or MacLean’s idea of the reptilian, mammalian and the neocortical brain). He suggested people should aim for perfect order between these three components so that salience, understanding and socio-cultural participation are all in sync with one another and so we are not subject to bullshit and self-deception. He realized how dangerous the misalignment of the man, the lion and the monster is for us and the extent of inner conflict it can cause it. We are also most selfish and egocentric during this misalignment. When we're anxious, we’re often so zoomed into our problems that they spiral out of control. Being egocentric is adaptive when it’s a life-threatening situation but dangerous when we experience this inner conflict on a daily basis for things like procrastinating on our projects and binging on those pieces of cake.

Hyperbolic Discounting

So why does the monster have so much more power than the man? This has to do with a concept called hyperbolic or temporal discounting. This phenomenon exists across species, not just human beings, because it is an adaptive mechanism.

Hyperbolic discounting refers to our tendency to choose a smaller-sooner reward instead of a larger-later reward. ‘Discounting value’ refers to how much one reduces the salience of the stimulus. The more you discount something, the less salient it is, the less likely it is to grab your attention. The x axis represents time. So the present has a higher degree of salience and something that is in the future is much less salient. That’s why the monster so consistently overrides the man. Think of how easily we make terrible choices in our lives. For example, say you want to smoke a cigarette right now. If someone were to draw a large probability tree diagram to lay out the long term effects of this action, one of the possibilities could be you dying of lung cancer in Hamilton, Lima or New York. Each of these specific deaths has a low probability of occurring, just like another specific death in any other place. But that’s not the point, because we don’t want to avoid a specific kind of death in a specific place, we want to avoid death in general. Even if the chance of each one of these deaths occurring is low, if we pool them all together the chance that cigarette smoking will lead to premature death is very high. But when we’re picking up that cigarette, hyperbolic discounting blinds us to the idea of death (makes it less salient) because each specific death event is not highly probable. And in blinding us to each specific death event, it blinds us to what they share in common --- premature death. That’s why it’s so easy to take the second puff, it’s because abstract but very real concepts like ‘death’ are not salient but perhaps the stress we’re experiencing, or the social pressure we feel, is. In making us fall prey to hyperbolic discounting in these situations, our cognitive machinery sets us on towards the course of cancer, increasing the probability of premature death each time.

However, hyperbolic discounting is also highly adaptive. It is largely driven by pain-and-pleasure and helps us survive in fight-or-flight situations. The danger emerges when this machinery extends itself to other aspects of our lives. Notice how the very machinery that makes us so adaptive in one sense, is the same machinery that makes us fall pretty to self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour. The answer doesn’t lie in throwing this machinery away (precisely because it is adaptive) but in tutoring it the right way so that you don’t smoke that cigarette, eat that cake, and procrastinate on that project.

So how can we solve this problem?

The man is weak in the face of the monster. But as mentioned before, it’s not a good idea to get rid of the monster completely. Plato had an interesting idea. He knew that the man could learn and grasp theory, and so he proposed that the man can train the lion. In lecture 4 we spoke about how Socrates would go into the market place and converse with people --- he paired rational thought with social interaction to inspire people to overcome self-deception. Plato proposed that we can use the man to train the lion and that together they could tame the monster to reduce inner conflict.

Plato described wisdom as internal justice. According to him in order to experience a ‘fullness of being’ there has to be an inner harmony and perfect coordination between all three parts of the psyche. Notice how as we reduce our inner conflict our self-deception goes down. As inner conflict is reduced, egocentrism reduces (it's the opposite of a situation where we’re zoomed into ourselves and our problems) and self-deception goes down. This enables us to be more in touch with reality, which is one of our biggest meta drives. Say for example, if you’re in a satisfying relationship right now -- would you want to know if your partner was cheating on you? Or would you rather stay in a happy bubble of denial? Most people claim they’d want to know the truth even if that came at the cost of their relationship. This is because we care about what's real.

So two of our most important metadrives are being met in the Platonic model -- the drive to reduce our inner conflict and the drive to get in touch with reality. They also reinforce each other -- as we get more inner peace, we start to pick up on real patterns, as we pick up on more real patterns in the world, we feel more at peace with ourselves and our inner conflict is reduced. This increases one’s ability to ‘know thyself’ in a socratic sense --- as we get better at picking up on real patterns in the world, we get better at knowing who we are and our ability to teach the man, train the lion and tame the monster improves. In this manner we can reduce inner conflict, get more in touch with reality and get more in touch with who we are.

Notice how deeply self-transformation is interconnected with getting more in touch with the world -- this is participatory knowing. It’s not about forming beliefs about something but about the ability to transform and change ourselves in order to pick up on real patterns in the world. Participatory knowing is not not just about knowing with the mind but knowing through an embodied sense.

The Parable of the Cave

Plato believed that we are like prisoners, trapped in a cave. Our ‘reality’ merely exists in the shadows and echoes we’re exposed to, but we do not know this. When an individual gets free, it allows him to turn around and see the fire which sheds the light, and realize that the echoes and the shadows are not the real thing. They then follow the light source and start a journey upward, out of the cave and towards reality. At first the light is blinding and so they have to adjust and accommodate (their ‘self’ has to be transformed in a sense) as they go along to see the reality around them. As they move forward into the light, they start to pick up on real, causational patterns rather than correlational ones (the difference between causation and correlation patterns is written about in episode 2 pt.1). They also see the sun, the source of all the light that’s allowing them to see these patterns and it’s overwhelming. The light is beyond their comprehension and it fills them with awe. They run back into the cave to go tell their fellow prisoners what they saw but the prisoners don't understand it and ridicule them.

Think of how Socrates tried to help people see the truth in reality, and how he was treated for it. This is the myth of enlightenment, self-transcendence and self-transformation. It is a myth about getting in touch with reality. Importantly it points to how real patterns in the world challenge us and how our self-transformation enables us to see reality even better, which in turn challenges us again. The Greek word for this ascent is anagoge. This is the anagogical aspect of Plato’s idea. He takes the idea of the ascent from the illusory world to the real world and makes it an account of how we can become more at peace with ourselves and come closer to reality. This process not only satisfies but reinforces two mutually supporting metadrives -- our metadrive for inner peace and our metadrive to be in contact with reality. This is what Plato calls wisdom or ‘fullness of being’. In fact this template is used in several popular stories, we just don’t realize it. Think of The Matrix, for example. It involves these people who are trapped in a world of shadows from reality. They need to ‘wake up’ be welcome to the ‘real world’. The character Neo is also an allusion to Plato (short for Neoplatonism, meant to signify the new ‘man’). Think of the importance of the myth in lecture 3, and how it conveys perennial problems. The reason people love this movie is because it uses perennial patterns faced by our ancestors and by us today; problems of parts of the psyche being in conflict with each other, the problem of being caught up in an illusion and the possibility of liberation and a ‘fullness of life.'

Plato’s myth is also heavily influenced by Pythagoras’s idea of self-transcendence and ‘rising above.’ He talks about idos (an idea influenced by Pythagoras’s dedication to pick up on real patterns in the world) which refers to the real patterns that are being discovered in the world. These patterns are a pathway we have to understand something that’s real. But these patterns are not just what provide us the knowledge, they are also what make something what it is.

Work done in the field of the Psychology of concepts shows that often when experimenters ask people what a bird is they tell you about how it has ‘wings, feathers, beak and how it flies; they offer a feature list. Although people believe that this is how they know what a bird is they are mistaken in an important sense. Because one could satisfy the feature-definition by putting some wings, feathers and a beak on a table and then throwing it up in the air. But that’s not a bird. What’s missing is the structural functional organisation (the Greeks called it logos),--- the way all these features are structured together to make the bird function as a whole. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts (a gestalt, as the Germans call it).

In lecture two part one, we spoke about how we pick up a lot of real patterns in the world implicitly. In this case, we know what a bird is, we have some sense of the logos or the structural functional organisation of a bird. But it is hard to explain what the logos or the SFO and how the features are structured together to function as a whole. Our grasp on birds and what they are is most of the time intuitive, and not explicit.

We often have an intuitive grasp of the logos/SFO of things. And the logos/SFO is not just how the thing is integrated together but it's also how our minds can be integrated with it. This real pattern is not only how you know something but it is also the pattern that makes it be what it is. This is a very different idea of knowing. When we really know something, we conform to it. We become like it in an important way. We get in our mind the same real pattern that is in the thing. It is the real pattern that allows us to know the thing and enter a state of reciprocal realization.

This is an idea that’s going to be taken up by Plato’s greatest disciple Aristotle, and will be covered in the next lecture.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. If you liked this post, please share it and subscribe to my blog/add yourself to the mailing list so you get a notification when I post. Thank you for your time.

244 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page