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Perception as Illusion
Old Ideas Renewed: Science, Philosophy, and Information Realism
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
We’ve been delving into the world of Plato of late… Thinking of his thoughts on democracy (that it always leads to tyranny), his larger views on political theory and of reality itself. It’s always worth considering this pillar of philosophy because his contributions have inspired so many throughout the ages… even to our here in now.
Indeed, although his theories are ancient, contemporary physics have recently renewed some of his ideas in a radical way. Jacob Bell explains below…
But you may ask, why are we becoming so Platonic of late, beyond the obvious need to study such an important philosopher? Good question astute reader!
You see, we’re getting ready for our first ever Member’s only Roundtable Discussion Tonight - starting at 5pm EST - to discuss the Allegory of the Cave, found within the Republic.
Members, check your inbox later today for the registration Link… And If you aren’t a member, there is still time to JOIN in order to take part in our conversation with author and philosopher, Benjamin B Olshin. Simply choose your subscription plan here:
But what of Plato’s most ambitious work, the Republic? In the words of Van Bryan:
In The Republic, the dialogue that is largely considered to be the most significant of Plato’s work, the philosopher makes a foray into political philosophy as he constructs a hypothetical civilization founded on wisdom and human flourishing. However, to say that this is all Plato accomplishes within the pages of The Republic would be to deny the numerous other philosophical contributions that can be found in what is often considered the most important philosophical text of western civilization.
Within The Republic, Plato manages to construct theories on ethics, politics, epistemology, and the nature of the human soul, all of which are supported by a series of eloquent and thorough logical arguments. Plato does all this while sewing a narrative that is enlightening while being unceasingly entertaining and engaging. It is for this reason that The Republic is often regarded as a milestone in the development of western literature as well as philosophical thought.
As such, we will begin tonight’s conversation with a brief overview of Plato and his magnum opus, The Republic.
I truly can’t wait to dig in!
In the meantime, enjoy this excellent article that will surely make you think differently about Plato, Philosophy and perception itself.
All the best,
Founder and Director
P.S. Once you have subscribed, we will send you the electronic version of the Essential Classics, our 644 page anthology of the greatest ancient Greek and Latin texts compiled in one spot… which will also be our resource for tonight’s conversation.
Old Ideas Renewed: Science, Philosophy, and Perception as Illusion
By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Plato’s theory of forms and the Allegory of the Cave are not only interesting within the history of philosophy, but hold relevance in regards to both contemporary philosophy and science. So relevant, in fact, that a new theory in physics postulates a concept quite similar to Plato’s.
But before we get to that, let’s take a quick moment to revisit Plato’s theory of forms…
Is Reality an Illusion?
For Plato, the world as perceived isn’t the ultimate reality. The objects of everyday life are but shadows of the forms. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato relates our false perception of the world of experience to the idea of shadows on a wall.
Imagine that you were chained up in a cave in such a way that you could only look at the wall in front of you. You couldn’t look behind you or turn your head in any direction. Behind you, in the distance, is a roaring fire. In front of the fire are a variety of objects. The shadows of those objects are displayed on the wall in front of you.
Not only would you be bored out of your mind, you would also be living in illusion…
If you knew no other life than that of the cave, the shadows would seem to constitute real objects of reality for you. They wouldn’t be simple phantoms or shadows of something which is more real, they would seem to be the most real, and they would make up your reality. For Plato, this is similar to our everyday experience.
In the same way that the shadows on the wall don’t constitute the ultimate reality of the objects from which those shadows are derived, the objects of everyday experience aren’t a true or perfect reflection of ultimate reality either.
The forms, being the ultimate reality, are universal, timeless, and perfect. The objects of experience are imperfect imitations of the forms. For example, a mathematical triangle is perfect in abstraction, but no perfect triangles can be found in nature. The triangles of our experienced world are but imperfect reflections of the ideal form of a triangle.
Just as the triangles of experience are but imperfect reflections of the true form of a triangle, it is the same with every object of perception, including things like beauty. Beauty has an ideal form of which the beautiful things that we perceive are but imperfect reflections. Therefore, the world as we perceive and experience it to be, is but an imperfect reflection of the ultimate reality of forms.
Although this is an ancient theory, contemporary physics has renewed the idea in a radical way. The idea is called information realism and was recently covered in an article by Scientific American.
Information realism claims that the objects of everyday experience are not a part of ultimate reality, but that they are perceptual illusions… Instead, what is considered to be the true or ultimate reality is the underlying mathematics or information itself.
The matter which allows us to perceive objects in everyday experience is merely derived from the underlying information. The information which underlies the objects of experience is the ultimate reality. Everything else is but a perceptual illusion.
Information Realism, just like Plato’s theory of forms, uses the epistemological method of rationalism, as opposed to empiricism, to come to such conclusions. Rationalists claims that true knowledge of the world is derived through the use of reason – independent of experience. Empiricists claim that true knowledge of the world is gained through experience and the use of our senses.
Science and Philosophy
Taking all of this into consideration, is the theory of information realism a scientific one, or a philosophical one? I would argue that it is philosophical in nature. In fact, many theories in contemporary physics seem to be more philosophical than scientific. Then again, philosophy and science were at one time a joint discipline – and even the great Isaac Newton was considered to be natural philosopher.
Some of the challenges that have been raised against the theory of forms, could also be raised against information realism. One such challenge regards the idea of an ultimate reality that is beyond any possible experience as unknowable in itself.
In other words, if ultimate reality exists in a world beyond ours, or if true reality is somehow beyond our scope of experience, how can we say anything meaningful about it?
How do we know what this ultimate reality is if we cannot study it in experience? How do we even know that there is an ideal world or ultimate reality which exists beyond ours? How do we know that such a reality is more than an abstract or mathematical artifact? How can we test these theories if the world posited by them is seemingly inaccessible?
It is difficult to make sense out of such theories, which posit a reality beyond our experience. It is difficult to say anything meaningful about an ultimate reality which is supposedly more real than our world. But it is ideas like these that inspire movies such as The Matrix, give philosophers more to think about, and may eventually reunite science and philosophy.
Become a Member now and join our Roundtable Discussion TONIGHT on the Allegory of the Cave with former Professor of Philosophy, Benjamin B Olshin… what does this allegory mean to us Today?