Caves of Chaos

I’m a guy who loves philosophy. I would like to spend many, many, many days reading the great philosophers, something I denied myself by not dedicating myself to college. Trolling around through summaries of some of Plato’s dialogues earlier this week, I ran across one that I had seen before, but that for some reason struck me as very much like my experience trying to explain my shedding of faith to my still-believing friends.

Plato’s Cave is a well known and well-worn dialogue about the nature of the philosopher and enlightenment. It goes something like this (and may the better educated among us forgive me for my stilted attempt:)

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In a cave there are a number of prisoners who have been there since the day they were born. They are shackled and their necks chained in such a way that they can only face the large wall at the back of the cave. They cannot even see each other, though they can communicate.

Behind the prisoners is a wall that runs the breadth of the cave. Behind that wall is a large fire. From the front of the cave comes faint, diffused sunlight through the cave mouth.

Between the wall and the fire, actors walk back and forth, themselves hidden by the wall, holding up puppets and figurines and such in the shape of real world objects and beings. The shadows from these objects create shadows on the back wall of the cave. To the prisoners whose gaze is fixed on the back wall of the cave, these shadows are all they know of life, as they’ve never seen anything else in their lives. The perceive these shadows as real objects because they have no relative experience to inform them otherwise.

Suppose then one of these prisoners is freed, having looked at nothing but shadows all his life. He is forced to turn and sees the fire. The fire hurts his eyes, and so before he can make out any of the objects being held up, he scurries back to the comfort of his familiar experience at the back of the cave. To him, the shadows are the reality he knows and is comfortable with. Rather than face the blinding light, he returns to what he’s used to.

Suppose then the prisoner is forced not just to turn around, but is dragged out of the cave into the sunlight. His first glimpse of the sun is blinding and he turns away from it. But his comfortable reality is too far away to just return to. As his eyes adjust to the sunlight, at first he sees only shadows. Then perhaps he sees reflections of real things in a nearby lake, trees, animals, people. Then he sees those things himself. Eventually he looks up and sees the sky, the moon and the stars. Finally, when his eyes have acclimated enough, he can look up and see the sun that illuminates everything else. He can start to reason about the sun and all the things he sees.

Seeing this real world as far better than the one he left, he would feel sorry for his fellow prisoners and seek to convince them to join him outside the cave. When he returned to the cave, he would be blind in the darkness, much as he was blinded by the sun when he first was dragged out. His fellow prisoners would think that being outside the cave had harmed him, and that they should not allow themselves to be dragged out too. They might even kill or harm anyone who tried to do so.

Though I don’t believe it is stated (I can’t read Greek, you know) any exhortations he made to his friends would sound like the ravings of a madman. They would have no frame of reference to even understand what he was trying to describe. The text does say he would be ‘ridiculous’ (one translation, anyway – I haven’t read others) though this could be down to his impaired vision alone.

So, how does this relate to my deconversion?

Early in my post-Christian life, I tried to explain myself to a Christian friend of mine, who I call Titus for the purposes of this site. I said to him something to this affect:

You and I have lived on the same side of this tall wall and all we ever see is this side of the wall. Now I have climbed over the wall and I see what it looks like in all its glory. But when I try to describe it to you, you can’t relate because you’d have to see it too. But you can’t see it unless you actually climb over the wall, and once you’ve climbed, there’s no going back.

The reality that I try to describe and share with Christians is impossible for them to relate. Why? Because even if they try, they can only understand in relation to the shadows they see on the cave wall. Until they actually climb out and experience this other reality for themselves, we’ll spend most of our time talking past each other.

It’s a frustrating thing, truly. Despite my desire not to do so, I find in my Facebook and other online interactions that I will eventually (and ever more quickly these days) default to simply calling a theist stupid and walking away, or worse, calling a theist stupid, then sticking around for his or her response so I can then pile on the vitriol even more. It really isn’t fair, and really isn’t what I’d wished to foster in myself at the beginning of this journey.

I think we as atheists and self-proclaimed free-thinkers owe it to ourselves and those who are still staring at shadows to recognize that we perceive the world differently and have more patience in our interactions. At least more than they have with us (which on anecdotal evidence seems to grant us a lot of leeway.) We need to recognize that most of these believers are people of intellectual capacity, decent hearts, and good intentions, whose reality is defined by those shadows, the indoctrination of their youth and adulthood, and do a better job of keeping the vitriol out of dialogue.

Of course, when I say we, I mean me.

Not that our conversations should be staid and placid. Not that we shouldn’t hold our ground and insist on intellectual consistency and honesty in our debates.

Hell, I would even argue that ridicule and mockery sometimes have a time and place, but one must know their audience.

Christians think they’re trying to save our eternal lives. We’re just trying to encourage them to dig deeper, to realize that they’re wasting a good chunk of the only life they’ll have on an empty promise.

I will do better.

Well, most of the time anyway.

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6 thoughts on “Caves of Chaos

  1. Pingback: Your Best Shot | Why I No Longer Believe

  2. I like the analogy 🙂 I was somewhat amused by your conclusion, though:

    ‘Christians think they’re trying to save our eternal lives. We’re just trying to encourage them to dig deeper, to realize that they’re wasting a good chunk of the only life they’ll have on an empty promise.’

    I’m amused because there are many Christians who have had the precise same experience – of living in shadows and coming into the light – and who would think that it is the atheist who is living in the shadows. So I’d say that dialogue is about more than having patience. It’s about recognising that my shadow is your light and that my light is your shadow and that neither of us can be certain that we are seeing things as they really are.

    • It’s funny, I considered that angle/idea when I wrote this article. Looking back I’m a little disappointed I didn’t pursue it further for a couple of reasons. One, it’s simply a good question. Two, I think that the comparison is not as equal as it might appear on the surface. There are really three states in view, if you will.

      First is the pre-Christian Commitment state. It’s usually a default agnosticism, one signified by a lack of application rather than any conscious decision-making – though not always, of course.

      Second is the Christian Immersion State, which includes viewing the universe and its elements through a strict (though varying between sects) filter of theology based in interpretation of the bible. This, of course, severely limits inquiry as aspects of reality that don’t conform to this filter are reinterpreted to fit, often against the flow of evidence.

      Third is what I’ll call the Post-Christian State, in which one sets aside the Christian filter and does one’s best to view reality in full sunlight, if you will. In this case, one still has access to the previous filtered view, and sees from without its limitations. One doesn’t lose the ability to interpret according to that filter, but one now sees (or tries to) from without, and has access to any and all other filters.

      So while the question is a good one, I don’t think the implication of the question is true. My old friend Titus does not have access to my view, because he cannot at this point remove his particular interpretive filter. I can look through his filter if I so choose, but I can also set it aside and see plainly.

      • Hmmm. Not convinced.

        Firstly, I don’t think it’s possible not to have filters. We are children of our culture. As such, our world view is formed by the ideas prevalent said culture. Some of those influences will be conscious, some unconscious. Any or all may prevent us from seeing clearly. They may prevent us from gaining a full appreciation of where we are and they may prevent us from gaining a full appreciation of where others are. As we grow older, we may become aware of more and more of these filters, but we will never eliminate them.

        Secondly, as I have already said, there are those who have moved in the opposite direction to the one you describe. And I don’t mean people who started with a pre-Christian unthinking agnosticism. I mean people who have viewed the world from an entirely rational, freethinking, atheistic viewpoint and subsequently came to see what they would describe as a problem with that viewpoint.

        Thirdly, there are plenty of Christians who have taken a good, long, hard look at the rational, freethinking, atheistic view and decided that the world really is brighter in the Christian world. Their outlook will probably have changed. It could hardly do otherwise. However, they have chosen to remain as Christians.

        Having come from the place that you have, I’m guessing that you will have as much difficulty accepting the last option as your friend Titus finds it to accept where you are. There is an undercurrent within atheism that assumes that eventually everyone will ‘see the light’ and religion will become known for the nonsense that it really is. Personally, I don’t find that assumption to be any more attractive than that of the Evangelical Christian who delights in telling others that they are on the road to Hell. Both suggest an arrogant superiority that seeks to diminish the humanity of all those who don’t subscribe to their point of view. In short, they fail to recognise the value in the other.

      • **Firstly, I don’t think it’s possible not to have filters. We are children of our culture. As such, our world view is formed by the ideas prevalent said culture. Some of those influences will be conscious, some unconscious. Any or all may prevent us from seeing clearly. They may prevent us from gaining a full appreciation of where we are and they may prevent us from gaining a full appreciation of where others are. As we grow older, we may become aware of more and more of these filters, but we will never eliminate them.**

        While I see where you’re coming from, I still can’t entirely agree, especially when we’re considering religious traditions as filters vs. skeptical inquiry.

        Such conversation often devolves into meandering questions of epistemology, but trying to keep it at a reasonable level, I’ll repeat something I’ve addressed in a few different places. As humans we have 5 senses that represent the full scale of our ability to interact with the universe. Barring specific disability, these senses are common to all and function fairly identically for all humans.

        The rational/skeptical inquirer accepts input via these senses and evaluates them solely on what they imply or indicate, to the best of his or her ability. That person also engages with others with whom they can compare inputs and see that, yes, they are receiving the same input (they might interpret it different ways, to some extent, but that interpretation is open to challenge by any and all viewing the same sensual input.) They follow the indications (evidence) of that input to draw their best conclusions.

        The religious traditionalist receives all of this input as well, but in evaluating such input, first eliminates all possible interpretations that conflict with his or her chosen filter, whether it be the Bible, the Quran, or some other spiritual work.

        Those two processes are not similar at all. And while the rational seeker can be influenced by culture, the very methodology of removing filters and accepting the implications of the evidence viewed is a stepping out into sunlight – seeking illumination by removing the barriers that enable the viewer to see the sunlight.

        **Secondly, as I have already said, there are those who have moved in the opposite direction to the one you describe. And I don’t mean people who started with a pre-Christian unthinking agnosticism. I mean people who have viewed the world from an entirely rational, freethinking, atheistic viewpoint and subsequently came to see what they would describe as a problem with that viewpoint.**

        Good point, although I’ll quibble on a couple of levels. One, I’ll bet the examples of that are much harder to find, and I’d be willing to bet that in any honestly told conversion story from an individual who was an active atheist, that you’ll find one or more specific *leaps* not at all indicated by observation, but rather an emotional response to the implications of the evidence at hand. For instance, the last atheist -> Christian conversion story I read (and I wish I could remember who had posted it – probably one of the myriad writers on Patheos) the individual literally said that they had to believe because all of this couldn’t have just come from nothing. That’s a leave-taking in itself, and inserting a filter of assumption over the input. I’d even venture that the filter this man inserted was a product of earlier exposure or indoctrination that provided a ready made salve to the emotion he experienced.

        The second quibble is that I think it will be many times more difficult to find a Post-Christian rationalist who reconverts for purely rational reasons. You’ll find emotional reasons, such as the “atheist blogger” last year who converted (I believe to Catholicism) basically to please her boyfriend (fiance – again my memory tests me.) That’s not a rational inquiry of input, that’s simply an emotional reaction and, again, a recognizable filter. That’s not the active identifying and removing of filters during inquiry. That’s the addition and dependence on one to address an emotional issue.

        Thirdly, there are plenty of Christians who have taken a good, long, hard look at the rational, freethinking, atheistic view and decided that the world really is brighter in the Christian world. Their outlook will probably have changed. It could hardly do otherwise. However, they have chosen to remain as Christians.

        Again, I will bet that I could point out emotional filters in that response to input. I appreciate that this is likely your viewpoint, but I think if we start drilling down to more specific examples, the filters will be there to identify until one can do one’s best to shed them and work in the other direction.

        **Having come from the place that you have, I’m guessing that you will have as much difficulty accepting the last option as your friend Titus finds it to accept where you are.**

        Rather I would say that it isn’t a matter of acceptance, but that you really haven’t made a case for it.

        **There is an undercurrent within atheism that assumes that eventually everyone will ‘see the light’ and religion will become known for the nonsense that it really is.**

        I won’t lie – although that’s not really attributable to *atheism* so much as Humanism/Secularism. Atheism is a belief/non-belief status statement regarding a particular claim, not a system of belief. Humanism, OTOH, is a belief system that, among other things, regards religion as a delusion that divides and prevents peace and progress. To that extent, I do hope everyone *sees the light.* The actual sunlight that’s outside, and everything it shows, not some mythical light one must be convinced exists before one sees it.

        **Personally, I don’t find that assumption to be any more attractive than that of the Evangelical Christian who delights in telling others that they are on the road to Hell.**

        And there we can identify an emotional filter. Whether it’s *attractive* to you is irrelevant to the rational truth of the matter. The style of delivery may leave something to be desired, but the identifiable facts are what matter.

        **Both suggest an arrogant superiority that seeks to diminish the humanity of all those who don’t subscribe to their point of view.**

        Telling you there’s no evidence for a religious tradition (filter) isn’t arrogant superiority if it represents the actual state of reality. If you have specific evidence for a religious claim, a religious claim you came to by open-minded consideration of the universe around you, under the full gaze of sunlight, then you are welcome to state your evidence and I, and millions of others, will view that evidence and, if it’s clear to most or all that your evidence says exactly what it says, we’ll gladly adopt your interpretation, and maybe even extrapolate on it to the good of all.

        What diminishes the humanity of all is the rank dismissal of our human ability to observe and evaluate the universe around us in favor of a religious tradition, the adoption of which forces one to eschew rational inquiry to accept.

        **In short, they fail to recognise the value in the other.**

        Oh, I think most skeptics are aware of the value of religion, in its time and place. But we now know where the rain comes from, how volcanoes work, what causes earthquakes, and so on. If a religious filter has value, one can assert that value and submit those assertions to rational inquiry.

        Which, to the best of our ability, we’ll do without filters.

        Cheers.

  3. Pingback: The Last Five Years | Why I No Longer Believe

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