Search For Truth


The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

In Plato‘s Republic, he asks us to imagine a Cave in which prisoners live from birth. These prisoners are chained in such a way that they can’t move their heads or bodies, therefore they all face the same direction. Behind them is a screen and behind that is a fire.

The prison guards move about behind the screen and the fire casts their shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners.  This is their reality.

Plato then asks us to imagine what would happen if one of these prisoners was released. This man would first find it difficult to look at the fire in the Cave behind him. But this difficulty would be nothing compared to what would happen if he was dragged above the ground, where he would be completely blinded by the natural light.

But gradually, the released prisoner would be able to look at shadows, then reflections, then objects themselves.  After that he’d be able to bear looking at the sky at night and finally – once he’d developed an ability to see – he’d be able to look at the day-time sky and the sun itself.

This famous Simile can be interpreted in many ways but one of the most useful is to see it as a description of the search for truth.

It’s a hard job this quest. It definitely requires us to move and often to be uncomfortable.  It’s easier to stay where we are and not bother looking for the reality of things. Plato refutes the idea that real knowledge can be planted in a human mind and instead suggests that it can only be acquired by making the effort to acquire it for yourself.  Because, according to Plato,

…the capacity for knowledge is innate in each man’s mind.(1)

But also – according to Plato – getting access to this knowledge within us requires a voluntary turn towards truth.

In other words – come on out of the Cave – it’s sunny outside and who knows what wonders you’ll see if you make the effort to search for truth yourself?

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(1) The Republic, Plato (To read The Simile of the Cave itself, click on More About…)

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The Laughter of the Gods


Plato's Symposium (Anselm Feuerbach, 1873)

Plato's Symposium (Anselm Feuerbach, 1873)

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods. (1)

Knowledge is a slippery customer.  History has shown us that progress requires us not only to investigate the world but also to approach this investigation with humility.  This humility is born of the realisation that knowledge is like a ladder and while we may be definitely resting on a real rung of that ladder, there are still countless rungs above us and out of our view.

Not Visible versus Non Existent

Even the physical universe can be difficult to truly ‘know’.  Sometimes we are unable to see a phenomenon itself – even with instruments – but we can see its effects. For example,

Electrons and other sub-atomic particles are too small to be observed directly, but physicists are able to infer their properties from the tracks they leave on photographic plates. (2)

If we have such difficulty with physical phenomena that can be relatively easily proven to exist at the very least, then what about human realities such as love and hope and sadness and courage and fear and faith?

We can now ‘prove’ the existence of emotions using sophisticated machinery but even so, we cannot, truly examine their reality with machinery. A brain-image of an emotion – let’s say fear – can show the parts of the brain involved but it cannot describe in any detail the exact nature of the individual’s fear or say what is causing it or why.

But everybody who has ever experienced a strong emotion like love or fear or anger or joy knows these emotions really do exist. So, what exactly is reality? Are the objects that we can see and feel and weigh and measure the only reality? If so, what about other objects that we haven’t discovered yet but will discover in the future – such as far away planets – are they not real? Do they only become real when we discover them?

It really does seem to be the case that – He, O men, is the wisest who, like Socrates, knows his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. (3)

TomorrowUnique Reality and the Unique Self

(1) Attributed to Albert Einstein

(2) Andre Kukla and Joel Walmsley, Mind – A Historical and Philosophical Introduction to the Major Theories, p.31

(3) PlatoThe Apology, (22d-e), The Last Days of SocratesPenguin Classics.