Member preview

Plato’s Gaslit Cave

Who Decides What’s True or False? And What Happens When Things Get Weird?

A tense scene from the classic film “Gaslight” (1944) from which we get the modern term “Gaslighting.”

This essay riffs off lecture #5, “What Is Truth?,” in the Great Courses lecture series The Big Questions of Philosophy, taught by Professor David K. Johnson.

As we navigate our lives, we make decisions, large and small, based on what we’re reasonably confident is true about ourselves and the world around us. But is that confidence well-placed? If someone in authority (maybe strongly) disagrees with our confident truths, and asserts their interpretation as “the real truth,” does that make our truths false? Are we obliged to trade our truths for theirs?

How do any of us decide what’s true or false, anyway?


Truth Magazine, July 1901/Public Domain

There are many philosophical theories on how we should approach the question, “What is Truth?” In his lecture of that title, Professor David K. Johnson describes three of “the biggies” — the Pragmatic Theory of Truth, the Coherence Theory of Truth, and the Correspondence Theory of Truth.

All the definitions that follow are from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

A Pragmatic Theory of Truth holds (roughly) that a proposition is true if it is useful to believe. Peirce and James were its principal advocates. Utility is the essential mark of truth. Beliefs that lead to the best “payoff”, that are the best justification of our actions, that promote success, are truths, according to the pragmatists.

Many years ago, when my first marriage was crumbling, and I was an emotional wreck and suffering panic attacks, I went to see a Cognitive therapist. I thought I was going crazy. My therapist, Margie, saved my life in our very first session by telling me in no uncertain terms that “sane or crazy?” was a meaningless question. The only measure that mattered, she assured me, was whether or not I was successfully coping with the actual circumstances of my life. She couldn’t make me “sane.” But she could teach me how to cope with stress and sorrow and fear and anger and grief. She could teach me, in bullet-point, practical terms, what steps to take when I felt a panic attack starting, so as to stop it, or at least have a shot at keeping it from escalating out of control. She reframed my inner chaos in realistic, down to earth terms that made happiness and stability seem possible, with just a little sincere insight and effort on my part. All this in a single session.

Thus is the power of pragmatism.

In the wake of emotional upheaval, I had a running tape-loop in my head telling me things about myself, about my wife, about the meaning of marriage, about success and failure (especially failure), that were shredding my self-image and circling me round and round again to to a place of helpless rage. Margie helped me identify those scripts and replace them with language that led instead to acceptance and, eventually, joy, restoring my ability to cope and to live with confidence.

Were my old, self-destructive beliefs about self-worth and marriage and failure “false” because they negatively impacted my life? And my new beliefs that led to coping and confidence “true” because they dramatically improved my life? Regardless of the actual content of either of those beliefs?

A pragmatist would answer, YES.

Coherence Theories (of which there are a number)… account for the truth of a proposition as arising out of a relationship between that proposition and other propositions.

If all the propositions that make up a belief agree with one another and work together to support the larger belief, then, according to the Coherence Theory of Truth, those propositions are true. And by extension, the overarching belief is also true.

It’s easy to poke holes in other people’s beliefs when they’re supported by this theory — though we generally give our own beliefs a free pass. For example, atheists will often grant that, for devout Christians, the propositions of Christianity are self-consistent and lead to the conclusions they draw about Jesus, God and reality. But then they’ll argue that Christian propositions are not objectively true, and that they’re self-consistent only in the way the characters and plot of a novel are self-consistent without being true. Therefore Christian conclusions about reality are essentially fiction. It’s rare, in my experience, though, to find atheists willing to concede that Christians have a good point when they turn this exact logic on atheism, which is also built on self-consistent propositions that can’t be objectively verified.

In my own life, I have been both a devout Christian and a devout atheist, with brief stretches in-between as a devout Wiccan/Neopagan, devout New Ager, devotee of Scientism (the naïve acceptance that science has all the answers, based on reading popular science books and watching PBS documentaries), and a few more obscure things along the way.

I “do devout” with the best of them. Speaking from personal experience, I can honestly report that self-consistent belief systems universally feel true while you’re a believer, and consistently look false once you’ve moved on to another belief system.

But are such beliefs actually true while you believe them and find their propositions internally consistent? A proponent of the Coherence Theory of Truth would answer, YES.

Historically, the most popular theory of truth was the Correspondence Theory. First proposed in a vague form by Plato and by Aristotle in his Metaphysics, this realist theory says truth is what propositions have by corresponding to a way the world is. The theory says that a proposition is true provided there exists a fact corresponding to it.

This is the “common sense” truth we all use most to navigate life. Truth is what corresponds to the reality I can verify with my five senses. I can say it’s true that the book is on the table because — LOOK! The book is on the table! I eat food and wear clothing, rather than eating my shirt and wearing my dinner, because I can easily verify with my senses which things fall into which categories, and deal with them appropriately.

It’s also the theory of truth that scientific-materialist-atheists like Richard Dawkins beat us about the face and neck with when they screech various versions of “If I can’t put your God on this table and measure it with a yardstick, your God is a delusion!”

Which, for the record, I found grating and unconvincing even when I was an atheist.

So, is only that which we can see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and/or verify with scientific instrumentation true? Adherents to the Correspondence Theory of Truth would answer, YES.


Image Credit: Tim Morgan via Flickr/License

The problem I see is that reality, in my experience, is a far cry from neatly divided into easy true and false categories based on any of these theories.

Here’s a true story to illustrate what I mean:

As a Freshman in college, back in the early 1990s, I met a girl who said she was a witch. She actually used the term “Wiccan,” but I’d never heard that word before, so she settled on “witch” to appease my male cultural ignorance. She offered a general sketch of her beliefs, and as single, college-age boys are wont to do when an attractive girl is speaking words he can’t make sense of, I pretended to understand, nodding my head and saying things like, “That’s so cool… I totally agree…” etc. I huhum’d and “okay, then”ed through the part about spells and magic because, you know, #PopularScience and all that.

She was pretty and friendly. I liked her. But I did not believe her. The witch thing seemed like harmless fun to me. I accepted her “witchiness” the way you accept it when someone you like declares themselves an artist (or — God forbid! — a poet…)

In our Sophomore year, we had an early morning class together that started at 8:00 AM sharp. No excuses.

One morning, when my alarm went off at 7:00 AM, I launched out of my bed, and started toward the bathroom. One step into that journey, I discovered that my right leg had lost circulation in the night, and was numb-asleep. Dead to the world. When I put my weight on that foot in full stride, my ankle did a twisting three quarters turn and hurled me to the floor.

Yeah, it hurt. Bad. My circulation, and thus feeling, slowly returned as I lay there, gulping air between teary-eyed sobs, and the pain meter ticked higher and higher.

But still, class started at 8:00. No excuses. I steeled my will, pulled on some clothes, and hobbled to the bus stop. By the time I stumbled into class, my ankle had swollen to several times its normal size, and turned the shiny purple-black of a ripe eggplant.

My witch friend asked why I was limping, and I explained. She told me to roll up my jeans and pull down my sock, so she could see my injury. I did, and we both gasped in honest horror. It was that gross. Kids sitting near us scattered, the way a school of tuna scatter before a shark. I yammered on about my doctor’s office being right across the street from campus, and she told me to stop talking.

She very gently cupped my swollen ankle in both of her hands. She closed her eyes.

Then she smiled and let go. “All better!” she said.

I looked down. My ankle was still a fat, throbbing eggplant, the pain meter tick tick ticking ever-higher.

“Thanks,” I said in the lackluster way you thank your aunt when she says she’s “praying for you.” Geez.

She shrugged, and smiled again. We both turned toward the lecture firing up at the front of the room.

Forty-some minutes later, I was hobbling furiously across campus, on my way to the doctor’s office.

Then I noticed that I wasn’t actually hobbling.

I was walking normally. At a pretty impressive clip.

I stopped and gently pivoted a little weight onto that ankle. It felt fine. I walked a ways. No problems.

I crouched and cautiously rolled up the cuff of my jeans. My ankle was pink and healthy and back to its normal size.

I’m reasonably certain that my ankle was not just sprained, it was badly sprained before my friend laid her hands on it. A spontaneous return to perfect health in 40 minutes may not be medically impossible, but it does seem unlikely.

The placebo effect can’t really explain my quick recovery, either, because I resolutely did not believe my friend’s wordless laying on of hands had a prayer of working. If anything, my skepticism would have had a nocebo effect (the opposite of the placebo effect), and shot down any coincidental positive outcome.

But against all odds, there I stood/walked/ran. Healthy and healed.

I’ve been convinced since that day that ordinary people, in the everyday world, can learn to direct invisible forces to accomplish miraculous ends. My friend called it magic (which she spelled magick). Other religions/cultures call it by other names.

I’ve experienced its effects for myself, right here in my own physical body. I did not imagine any of the elements of this story. I know magick is real.


Image Credit:

But is magick TRUE? Or more narrowly defined for the purposes of this essay, can the story of my witch friend magickally healing my sprained ankle be reasonably judged a “true story?”

Let’s look at it through the lens of Professor Johnson’s three theories of truth.

Pragmatism: I strongly believe that my memory of the incident is accurate, and that my friend the witch demonstrated a miraculous dimension of objective reality that people can learn to access to heal others (and maybe do all kinds of other cool stuff, who knows?). As a consequence of this belief, my mind, since that morning, has been open to the magickal possibilities in all the people, and animals, and things, and thoughts around me. My inner world is a lively place, in large part, I think, because I’ve learned not to waste energy insisting the outer world sit still like a dead lump and submit to human measurement (take that, science). I’ve become a staunch defender of magical thinking.

On a completely subjective scale (which seems fair, since I am the “subject” of the story in question), I’d say this openness to wonder has had a significant, positive, long-term effect on my life.

So, pragmatically speaking, my tale is a true story about a real witch wielding real magick.

Is my story Coherent? Let’s look at the propositions. I met a girl who claimed to have special skills in the manipulation of unseen forces, based on her religious tradition and training. In response to an injury, she then demonstrated both the reality of said unseen forces and her skill in their manipulation by healing me with a brief touch, and whatever she was doing behind those closed eyes of hers. As a result of this incident, I believe in the reality of unseen forces people can learn to manipulate. I’ve experienced that reality for myself.

That’s pretty coherent. So, again, my tale is a true story about a real witch wielding real magick.

Do the events of my story Correspond to things in the world I can verify with my five senses? I can certainly verify, physically, that the injury occurred, how much it hurt, and how serious it at least looked. I felt that all with my own body. I witnessed the scary black bruise with my eyes. I heard my friend’s words with my ears. I felt her hands on my ankle. I felt myself hobbling across campus toward the doctor’s office, and consciously registered the absence of pain when I suddenly realized I could walk again normally. I even know the exact (brief) length of time involved, because it occurred in connection with a verifiable college class schedule. If that’s not corresponding verification, I don’t know what is.

Can I verify the unseen forces or their manipulation with my five senses?

Maybe not. But as I discussed in my recent piece on Occam’s Razor, I think the only reason anyone would hesitate to infer magick as the simplest explanation of my story is if they, a priori, reject magick as a possibility, because their belief system doesn’t allow for it.

Which hardly seems fair, when you think about it. Why should the unverified beliefs of skeptics trump the evidence of my own senses?

I’d say my story passes the Correspondence test, as well.

So, it’s true!

A real witch used real magick to heal my sprained ankle!

Case closed.


Image Credit:

But be honest. Even though my story passes all three truth-tests above, if you’re an American (I can’t speak for other cultures), the conclusion that a real witch used real magick to heal my ankle very likely doesn’t “feel true.”


I suggest it’s because we’ve been formally educated since at least grade school to divide the world into two neat, opposing existential categories — the real and the imaginary.

The true and the false.

My kids were actually tested in public school, for a grade, around the age of seven or eight, with True or False questions not too dissimilar from these:

Horses are real — unicorns are imaginary. True or False?

Magnetism is real — magic is imaginary. True or False?

Planning is real — luck is imaginary. True or False?

Gorillas are real — Bigfoot is imaginary. True or False?

Who decides the right answer to these kinds of questions? By what authority? Based on what evidence?

And it only gets worse as we grow up. Our culture surreptitiously works to teach us many far more nefarious lessons playing this same kind of true/false, either/or game our whole lives. Lessons like:

The Judeo-Christian God is real — the gods of other religions are imaginary.

The political and social needs of white people are real (i.e., to be taken seriously) — the political and social needs of non-white people are imaginary (i.e., to be disregarded when in conflict with the “real”).

The value of boys/men is real — the value of girls/women is imaginary.

And the one that most directly impacts this essay, but I wanted you to see it in light of the really awful statements above:

What science says is real is real — your own experience, if it contradicts the dictates of science, is imaginary.

Let that sink in a minute. Very often, because we’ve been trained to it our whole lives, the first person who will seriously question our ability to reason, our memory, and ultimately our sanity when we experience things science says can’t be real — ghosts, demons, UFOs, Bigfoot, angels, apparitions, mystic visions, theophanies, witches, magick, precognition, telepathy, any kind of supernatural phenomena (and I have personally encountered at least half of the items on this list)– is us.

We have been taught to gaslight ourselves.

Here’s the definition of gaslighting, from

Gaslighting is a colloquial term that describes a type of psychological abuse in which the abuser denies the victim’s reality, causing him/her to question him/herself, his/her memory, or his/her perceptions.

Then there’s this, from Brown’s Dictionary of Relationship Terms:

Gaslighting: A mind game. A common form of brainwashing in which an abuser tries to falsely convince the victim that the victim is defective, for any purpose whatsoever, such as making the victim more pliable and easily controlled, or making the victim more emotional and therefore more needy and dependent.
Image Credit: Welcome Images/License

In Plato’s analogy of the cave, we’re not just sitting around the cave floor singing kumbya and enjoying each other’s company. We are prisoners. We are in chains. The shadows on the wall that we mistake for reality are intentionally cast by “… men passing along the wall [behind us] carrying all sorts of vessels and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials…”

I suggest those men may represent cultural authorities we’re not allowed to question or contradict, be it the scientific establishment, academia, organized religion, oppressive governments, or cultural norms.

I suggest the fire behind us that transforms their vessels and statues and figures into dancing shadows is less a bonfire than it is a gaslight.

I suggest that before we can reliably answer the question What is Truth? we must first take a long, hard look at those in our midst whose agenda is to impose their truth on all we cave-dwellers, at those people and institutions that see us — and work to convince us to see ourselves — as defective or crazy when we rattle our chains, believe our own experience, and demand to think for ourselves.

Which may not bring us closer to the knowledge of Truth, but it does provide us with another useful tool for reliably identifying falsehood:

Any “truth” that can only been seen by gaslight is almost certainly deception.

Thanks for reading!