Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Plato's Cave is More Relevant than Ever

If you have never heard the phrase “cognitive dissonance” it’s one you need to be very familiar with, because it affects you (and me) directly.  Cognitive dissonance is a bias which makes us hold onto beliefs, even when presented with evidence to the contrary.  It is a normal human process to resist new information. It’s normal to distrust evidence that conflicts with your beliefs.  It’s even normal to accept wildly outrageous beliefs in order to support existing beliefs.

Plato wrote a deeply poignant work on dissonance even before the cognitive bias was identified in his “Allegory of the Cave”.  Allow me to give a brief introduction to the Cave before I move onto why it’s more relevant than ever.

Humans do not experience true reality. Stay with me on this one. We experience a version of reality that we construct through our senses, understanding, beliefs, culture, etc. Our individual version of reality is called a “paradigm”. I am sure you have heard the phrase “paradigm shift”. A paradigm shift is when you gain some information that is so overwhelming, it completely changes your perception of reality in an instant.

Author Stephen Covey (“7 Habits of Highly Effective People”) tells a story in which he was on a subway train with a father of three screaming, wild children who did nothing to reign in their unruly behavior. He let them run wild on the subway while staring into space. Covey constructed the reality that this man was the worst father ever. After several minutes of all the passengers growing irritated Covey finally yelled at the man, “can you please get your children under control? They are annoying everyone!” Covey said the man snapped out of it and said, “I’m so sorry. We just left the hospital. My wife, their mother has died and I don’t know how to tell them.”

That’s a paradigm shift.  Your perception of reality changes in an instant based on a modicum of new information.

Plato compares our paradigm to sitting in front of a wall inside of a cave, chained to a chair. Behind us, a fire burns which casts shadows on the wall at which we are staring. Also standing behind us are puppeteers who are casting shadows on the wall in front of us. We interpret those shadows and images as true reality.

This is how most people will spend their lives, Plato asserts. Always sitting and staring at this wall, believing what they are told is reality without question or complaint.  Plato goes onto assert that the “philosopher” is the one who will look around, see the exit to the cave and wonder what is there.  Plato asserts the chains that bind us to the chair are illusory and we are free to leave at any time. However, most people, comfortable with their belief, may turn around to see the cave exit but the uncomfortable light will cause them to turn around immediately and stare back at the wall to which they are accustomed.

That is cognitive dissonance.

Some people, like the author of this blog, absolutely have to know what is outside that cave.  Others are more comfortable saying, “no, thank you. I do not know what is out there, and frankly don’t need to know, I’m happy and comfortable with this wall.”

Neither cognitive position is superior to the other, they are just different. Some people are not emotionally equipped to step outside the cave. I get that. I am the opposite. I am not comfortable remaining in front of the wall, when I know something else is out there.  I don’t want to believe, I want to know. Others don’t want to know, they just want to believe.

Plato goes onto say that the philosopher who courageously steps outside the cave are the ones who experience the full breadth of reality in its full terror, awe, brilliance, majesty, and fright.  The ones who remain inside the cave never experience reality, but always remain in comfort.

Plato asserts it is then the moral obligation of the philosopher to run back into the cave and attempt to liberate the others. However, Plato warns, the ones who remain chained will sometimes fight you, violently, in order to remain exactly where they are.

That is cognitive dissonance. Don’t drag me away from my chains, I want to stay here and will fight you to do so.

The philosopher will be cheered by some, and hated by others.  Either way, it is their duty to liberate as many people as possible from their illusory chains.

The Matrix is a science fiction take on Plato's Cave
I find myself in the sometimes dubious position of the philosopher. I have a voracious appetite for truth. I have to know what is true, even if it requires me to destroy beliefs that I have held for years.  I work very hard at pushing my tendency to be cognitively dissonant (as all humans are) aside in order to pursue truth.  Occasionally this causes me to engage others who passionately hold that their shadows on the wall are better than everyone else’s. Sometimes my challenging these notions is not appreciated.

I have to know what is true, even if the truth is horrible. I prefer an awful truth to a comforting lie.
So how and why is Plato’s cave more relevant than ever? Because of the Information Age. Humanity has more access to information than we have ever had in the history of humanity. The speed and ability at which we can share ideas with people around the world is mesmerizing.

The tidal wave of information we have available to us simply means that at some point in the coming years, remaining cognitively dissonant will become harder and harder for each passing generation. In other words, those bound to their chairs will no longer have to willingly walk to the cave exit. The cave exit is hurtling towards us with great speed.