Saturday, January 21, 2012

Jesus and Plato's Cave

The letter below is from an old Internet acquaintance, Matt, who is a convert to the Catholic Church from Anglicanism. He wrote this in 2002 to someone else as part of a debate. When I received a forward of it, it proved very fruitful in my knowledge of Jesus Christ versus non-Christian religions. As you are about to read, Plato realized the necessity of a person who must come from outside the world to tell humanity which observations are closest to the truth. Plato was right. Jesus is the Man from "outside" Who comes into our world to reveal the truth of God and humanity. He indeed claimed this role when He spoke: "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world" (John 8:23).

First of all, it is not the mark of an intelligent conversation and debate to simply contradict the person you are debating with and believe that you made a good point. Any point that one makes must be proven. You may deny the existence of a reality apart from those who observe it, but if that is the case, it does you no good to even bother debating; you have nothing to debate if reality exists only in the "small world of the viewer." You see, I deny that very category. It does not mean that I believe my interpretation of reality is truth. This is the biggest mistake you make when you try to classify my philosophy. In my philosophy, I don't have to view my perception as being "the truth" -- that is why I do not speak of "my truth" -- because, I know that my point of view could very well be wrong and not conform with "true reality"!

Your philosophy denies something that is very important: it is called self-evident facts. You assume that all facts are merely self-perceptions that not everyone sees. However, I deny this. I believe there are certain truths that are so obvious that only a madman can deny them. Believe it or not, "God exists" is not a self-evident truth. They are much simpler than that. For example, it is self evident that it is good to do what is right and right to do what is good. You might deny this and argue against it, but step back for a moment and realize that you are only doing so because you think that arguing against the point is a good thing to do! No one in their right mind ever does things because they believe they are completely evil things to do -- no one does evil for evil's sake -- they tend to do it because they believe there is something good about what they are doing (this goes even for the devil).

"The world exists" is self-evident. To deny that means your definition of "exists" would have to be nonsensical. Even if there were some strange being unaware of the fact that this world exists, it would not change the fact. You were arguing that facts depend upon perception. Actually, the only role perception plays on the matter is whether one is in a position to acknowledge the fact or not -- it has no effect upon the actual nature of the fact -- what that fact is, what it means, etc.

We are going to go a little deeper in philosophy. Imagine a cave for me. Inside this cave, there are human beings. These men are bound into place by chains, and their heads are locked in a position where they always look forward. All of these people always face towards this one wall. Between the wall and the people, there is a ledge that goes down. They cannot see down that ledge, because they are chained, but the ledge is not very deep anyway. Underneath them, there is a fire; the light from that fire, which reflects off of the cave wall, is all of the light that they have. They cannot see the fire directly -- all that they see is the light off of the wall. Often times, many different things go past that fire; the men cannot see these things directly, but they can easily see the shadows cast upon the wall.

Now, I know this story is not realistic, but continue to bear with me. These men, since all they ever see are the shadows of things, and nothing else (since they have been in this position since birth and know of nothing else), come to believe that these shadows are the actual things themselves. Now, let us pause for a moment. I want to tie in our worldviews before I go further. From my understanding, here is what you appear to be teaching. You seem to be saying that "truth" is simply the way that each one of those men looks at the shadows. If a mountain lion goes past the fire in the cave and projects an image upon the wall, and some men interpret it to be a squirrel, then it is a squirrel to those men. You are arguing that it is "their truth."

Now, let's pretend I was one of those men in that cave, and you were another, and I was discussing this with you. I think that you mistakenly believe that my perception of those shadows is what I am calling "truth that exists apart from the viewer" -- that I believe I am right and know the truth and that everyone else is wrong in their perceptions. However, in actuality, such a view could not be further from what I believe, because I do not claim to know what I call "the truth," at least not in whole.

My view also does not call the wall with the shadows on it "truth" for they are the things we see in distorted manners. If that were the truth, you would be right: everything would depend upon perception because nothing can be clearly seen. Personally, I think that you are trying to call this wall "truth", but that is not what I am referring to as truth. Instead, what I call "truth" are the actual things that pass by the fire! In real life, we could refer to these things as the "form" of a thing (or its "essence/nature"); it is that part that goes beyond what we can see up front. This is something that goes beyond what we can examine up close -- all we can examine are outer appearances and the effects of the essence. I think that you mistakenly believe that I believe that the way I interpret the facts is the truth and that my worldview understands the essence of things completely. No reasonable person believes this. When one accepts that truth exists outside of one's self, one also has to accept that he does not understand it completely and thoroughly, and that he is probably in error on different points because the truth is not always in clear view.

Therefore, I have to accept that I am in error on certain things, and thus my view is not "the truth" but merely a perception of it. But this does not mean that "true forms/essences/natures" do not exist, but it does mean that I nor anyone else (except God, of course) can fully understand them. All philosophies fail in certain regards because all they can work with is the shadows, and the true forms underneath are beyond their grasp.

However, what they do is not useless because, the philosophers realize this, know that they only have shadows to work for, but nonetheless acknowledge that the forms do in fact exist and that they are worth trying to understand. That is what philosophy tries to do: it looks at those shadows, talks to others, and tries to figure out what it is that the shadows are truly representing. When five people look at a shadow, try to discern what it is, discuss it and make points why it cannot be this or why it must be like that, they are far more likely to understand what it is than the man who just looks at it by himself. Only a fool believes that how he sees things is the Truth (as I am defining it); the wise man acknowledges that he is limited and is not working with necessarily all of the information. I believe the error you are making is that you are assuming the shadows are the things themselves, that there is nothing making those shadows, and that hence that we all have our own views about the shadows and thus we are all correct. As I said before, I believe you mistakenly believe that I believe my view of the shadows is the Truth, and that everyone else is mistaken in their view of the shadows. In reality, all I am saying is that there are forms making the shadows, and that they are the truth, not the shadows themselves or even my (or anyone else's) view of the shadows.

You believe my worldview is small, and I can understand why if my understanding of your view of my view is correct. However, I hope that you can see that compared to my view, it is in fact your understanding of truth that is small, not mine.

I will tie this story in with Christ and the Truth that Christ teaches, now. Christ is not a philosopher -- I believe he is something different. Let's go back to our cave for a moment. Imagine that a new man came to that cave. This man claims that he has come from outside this cave. He also teaches that he has actually seen the animals and objects that make these shadows. He is received in different ways -- some people laugh at him -- they believe that the shadows themselves are the objects. Others listen to him some believe him, others believe he is a food -- they know there are objects creating the shadows but how can a man see them? It would make sense that these people would ridicule this new man, even if he were really telling the truth! It seems apparent that some would even say that he is calling his own "perceptions" of the shadows the actual forms causing the shadows! However, for the sake of the story, we will assume that this man has actually done what he claims to have done.

Now, if he were to teach men about what these things really are that are creating the shadows, what he was teaching would be truer than what the people who only saw the shadows claimed they saw. He would be more correct, because what he was teaching would be in closer conformity to the actual forms behind the shadows than the men who saw only shadows could ever hope to be. That man himself would be completely correct. The people who listened to his explanations would be more correct than the others, although they would still be wrong a good portion of the time, considering that they never actually have seen the things themselves, only heard the man's explanations. Now, imagine that this man set free the men who were willing to follow him out of the cave to learn about these things and see them for themselves. When they returned to the cave, they would certainly be correct a large portion of the time (we cannot say all of the time -- they are not as familiar with these forms as the man who was from outside the cave). People would most certainly call them fools, because they claim to know the things that could not be known! Not everyone would choose to he freed and follow this man out of the cave, because that would mean a drastic change in how they view things around them, as well as ridicule.

I think that you err because perhaps you view Christ as being one of the many men looking at shadows on the wall. In reality, He is the man from outside the cave Who wishes to set us free and show us things as they really are, if only we would follow Him outside. When it comes to religious beliefs, we do not believe it is our own views that are "truth." Rather, we believe that Christ Himself, as the man outside the cave, has showed us these things through the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, you can insult the one who claims to have seen the things with his own eyes, rather than just the shadow, but that does not change the fact that the man saw it with his own eyes. Nothing one of these men told the other men could convince them that they actually saw these things with their own eyes.

That is why Christians claim to know these things: we have seen them with our eyes through the help of the one whom we follow, Lord Jesus Christ. This is the leap of faith: whether we decide to believe him or whether we believe him to be a liar. You called living on faith "safe" and your method "dangerous." I think you are wrong. Your method is staying inside of the cave and believing that the shadows are actually the objects and that we can never see the actual objects. My method is trusting the claims of a man who offers to take me outside the cave, while I know that he could very well lead me deeper into the cave if he is lying.

There are two types of faith: there is blind faith and there is informed faith. Blind faith is the faith one has when one is raised to believe a certain way, and never questions a thing. That is safe, I suppose. But, there is nothing more dangerous than making a leap of faith on an informed decision: making the conscious choice to make that leap. C.S. Lewis made that leap; so did a man named G.K. Chesterton. If the men who are stuck in the cave were able to, they would kill the men who claimed to have seen the outside because they make the wise men of the cave look foolish and they are disruptive to the way the cave people have come to have. The world itself has never hesitated to kill Christians when it was able. Christ said, "The world will hate those who follow Me, because the world hates Me." As I said before, following Christ in faith, when one is truly following Him, is very dangerous.

By the way, you might think that I invented this story about the cave or a Christian philosopher made this up, but that would be incorrect. It was actually made by a man named Plato, who lived about 2300 years ago. He made the entire story of the cave, and the idea of the man who came from outside the cave was his, not mine, but it just ties in perfectly with Christ, because Christ is the only man in this world Who has come from outside this world, this universe. I only hope that you will actually consider the things I have said here, rather than just dismiss them as being written by someone “less enlightened” than yourself.
Thanks Matt! Peace of Christ be upon you.