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The cognitive resistance

Photo by ALEXANDRE DINAUT on Unsplash

In Plato’s Cave Myth, people have been imprisoned since childhood in chains so that their legs and necks were fixed, which forced them to look at the cave wall in front of them. They could not see outside of the cave, each other and not themselves. Behind these prisoners was a campfire, separated from them by an elevated walkway and a low wall. On this walkway, free people walk carrying objects and puppets “of men and other living beings”. As they walked behind the wall, their bodies didn’t project at the bottom of the cave, but the objects and puppets they carried did. The prisoners couldn’t see what was going on behind them. They saw only the shadows that were projected onto the cave wall in front of them. The cave’s walls also echoed the sounds of people talking and the prisoners ended up associating these sounds with the shadows that they saw, judging that they were the ones who produced them. As this was the only empirical experience they had in their entire life, they took these artifact projections as reality and remained deluded.

Suddenly, one of the prisoners was released and saw the fire and the objects that cast the shadows. Initially, the freed prisoner was confused and reluctant to believe in the new reality that was unveiled before his eyes. As he left the cave, the radiant light of the sun overshadowed him, injured his eyes, and blinded him momentarily. In his pain, the freed prisoner moved away and went back to what he was accustomed to (i.e., the shadows of the projected objects) because, in this first moment of perplexity in the face of the new reality that was unveiled, those images were clearer than what his eyes were trying to see.

Denial was the first reaction of the freed prisoner after having his first glimpse of reality. The truth “hurts” when it is discovered and contradicts all our previous expectations and experiences. The individual’s first reaction, therefore, was to deny it; a defense mechanism. Some will be able to deal with frustration and “digest” the truth. Others will deny it to death.

The freed prisoner then thinks that the world outside the cave was superior to what he experienced in the cave and comes to take pity on the other prisoners who don’t know the liberating truth. After he recognized the deception in which he had remained throughout his life, the “staging” that until then deceived him, like his fellow prisoners, he rejoices in the change he has undergone and tries to share it with the companions still trapped in the cave, trying to take them on the journey he had just undertaken, so that they know the sunlight.

However, when the freed prisoner revealed to them the truth about the world, the other prisoner’s reaction was also denial. They didn’t believe him. They preferred to believe that his insolence at leaving the cave blinded him and caused some kind of dementia. Such blindness was caused by the journey outside the cave, prejudicing the poor colleague, causing in him serious cognitive and psychological damage. Surely, they shouldn’t undertake a similar journey. If they could, the prisoners would reach out and kill anyone who tried to drag them outside the cave. “How dangerous it is to free a people who prefer slavery!” (Nicolau Maquiavel).

Plato’s Cave Myth. Free photo by Wikimedia Commons

A concept that emerges underlying the cave’s allegory is the fear of the unknown. Such fear triggers in humans a cascade of psychological defense mechanisms that make them believe in what they want to believe and not what the evidence reveals to them. Wasn’t that, after all, the reaction of the (still) prisoners? Prisoners who have failed to “see the light” remain chained, trapped in their ignorance. And they preferred to stay that way! After all, the truth is “hard to gnaw”. They prefer to remain deluded. Wisdom, symbolically represented by light, blinds the eyes.

Safety is the third greatest need for a human being, standing behind only food and shelter, and one of the most factors that makes a person feel insecure is the unknown. Fear of the unknown causes certain responses in the brain in uncertain situations. Not knowing what will happen generates psychological suffering for most people.

We all have an experiential reality, we see a three-dimensional world, with objects, colors, and shapes, we listen to sounds, we taste flavors, we feel things. However, contrary to what we can imagine, our experiential reality doesn’t provide us with a clear view of what objective reality is. The evolution of the human mind has not shaped it to interpret experiential reality in a way that corresponds to objective reality. Instead, what evolution did was give us various skills so we could survive. Our brain is designed to make the best use of ambiguous signals. The human mind has evolved to recognize patterns and acquire stable and infallible knowledge, skills that have succeeded in surviving in hostile environments, in response to adaptive challenges our ancestors faced, such as avoiding predators and locating food. The human brain has evolved as a tool that demands stability and infallibility for understanding the world. In other words, we are not attuned to the truth, but we have tricks and skills.

That’s why belief in falsifiable systems (which are stable and infallible) is so appealing to us. Something that seems right has a great chance to structure our intuitive judgment to be considered right, even in the face of contrary evidence. For a piece of information to be judged as truth, it’s enough to seem truth, without necessarily being truth from the evidence. This is how we first formulate belief in something and, after that, we develop arguments to justify it, that is, first we believe, and only then do we rationalize about what we want to believe.

The evolution of the human brain has developed a very efficient psychological strategy to develop an accurate, stable, and secure understanding of the facts: infallible beliefs. For being stable and not subject to uncertainty, infallible systems have a psychological advantage over systems based on uncertain and provisional knowledge, and this is a problem, as we shall see.

Plato. Free photo by Wikimedia Commons

In Antiquity, Plato launched the idea that sensible knowledge is misleading, and that reason is the only valid source of knowledge. But, after the contribution of several important philosophers, we can say, without fear of committing injustice, that modern rational thought was structured by René Descartes, who proposed to come to the truth through systematic doubt and decomposition of the problem in small parts.

René Descartes. Free photo by NDLA

Rationalism advocates that truth is achieved by the observation of natural or social phenomena and their explanation through reason, considered as the only authority in the way of thinking and acting and as the foundation of all true knowledge. The idea is that the prospection of truth made under the baton of pure thought surpasses the data offered immediately by the senses and by experience, which are unable to provide us with true knowledge. The real is ultimately rational, and reason can know it and understand the reality. Thus, rationalism privileges the argumentative, empirical, and deductive forms of knowledge as means to reach the truth about the nature of things. Enlightenment rationalism preached trust in reason, science, and freedom of thought, to detriment of myth, belief, supernatural, mysticism, faith, religious revelation, dogma, fanaticism, and intolerance.

Karl Popper. Free photo by Store Norske Leksikon

After Descartes, Karl Popper introduced the concept of falsifiability, that is, the idea that an assumption, idea, hypothesis, or theory could be shown false. For Popper, falsifiability would separate the set of false character information, such as pseudosciences, from the science ranking. All pseudosciences tend to be unfalsifiable, that is, there’s no way to prove false since it’s not possible to identify the alleged agent behind the process. On the other hand, every scientific theory is necessarily falsifiable. Thus, it would not only be rational thought to direct us towards truth but also the falsifiability of the theories formulated to explain natural phenomena.

A corollary of falsifiability is fallibilism, a general principle according to which people may be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or understanding of the world. Hence, they need to be open to new evidence, to contest some previously held position or belief, and to the recognition that any justified claim today may need to be revised or brought to light in the face of new evidence, arguments, or experiences. In other words, absolute certainty about any knowledge is impossible.

The problem is that rational, falsifiable, and fallible knowledge is incompatible with how the human mind has evolved. Rationality, skepticism, and uncertainty are not intuitive to our brains. What is intuitive to us humans are the search, act, and transmission of credulous, infallible, and “perfect” belief systems. To adjust to the human cognitive structure, the assimilation of rational, falsifiable, and uncertain thinking requires psychological effort, energy, and learning.

That’s why we humans tend to commit all kinds of logical fallacy of thought. The way human cognition works makes our way of analyzing the world tend to be erroneous in many situations. Usually, it’s not the rational intellection about the observable facts that influence our behavior in the social world, but rather our construction of natural and social reality. This often leads to perceptual distortions, inaccurate judgments, illogical interpretations, and all sorts of irrationalities. Because our brain has not evolved to be rational, we have an innate tendency to search, interpret, favor and record information that confirms our previous beliefs or hypotheses: confirmation bias. Because of this cognitive bias, superstition and prejudice tend to preponderate in our assimilation of reality and we tend to resist unintuitive scientific knowledge.

Confirmation bias works like this: when a person believes in something, his/her mind works by valuing the information that confirms this belief and invalidating those that contradict it. This person has overconfidence in his/her personal beliefs and maintains or even strengthens those beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence. He/she then passes to justify his beliefs seeking evidence that confirmed it, blinding his sensitivity to the evidence that contradicts what he/she already believes. That’s why religious beliefs, conspiracy theories, and fake news provoke much more emotional appeal than scientific facts and true news. And so, people believe in things that have no evidence in tangible reality or even have evidence contrary to what they believe in.

People also tend to settle inconsistencies between two beliefs or between their beliefs and their behavior, a phenomenon that is known as cognitive dissonance. For this, they build mental bins, which are mental structures within which the individual elaborates justifications to accommodate concomitantly incompatible beliefs. With this, they can understand and accept systems based on fallible principles, such as scientific knowledge, and, at the same time, endorse infallible systems such as religion, mysticism, and superstitions.

The Cartesian approach defined the basis of the modern scientific method. While it’s not perfect, the scientific method is the best instrument available to reach the truth. The development of the scientific method can be compared to the release of the prisoner from Plato’s Cave. Carl Sagan used to compare science to a candle in the darkness, the light that illuminates the pitch-black of ignorance.

For Plato, the human condition is always linked to the impressions that are received by the senses, such as the fire that casts light (and shadows) on the cave’s walls. Even though our initial cosmological interpretation is an absurd misrepresenting of reality, it’s difficult for us to free ourselves from the bonds that hold us to the human condition — we cannot release the phenomenal state, just as prisoners couldn’t free themselves from their chains. If, even so, we could escape our servitude, we would find a world we couldn’t understand — the sun is incomprehensible to someone who has never seen it —; we would find another “kingdom”, an incomprehensible place, because, theoretically, it is the source of a reality superior to what we have always known; is the realm of the “pure form”, of the “pure fact”.

The cave’s allegory has all sorts of symbolism. For example, the cave symbolizes superficial physical reality. It also represents ignorance, since those in the cave take what they see as the only possible truth. Ignorance is still archetypically symbolized by the darkness that involved the prisoners, because they cannot know the true objects that form the shadows, leading them to believe that shadows are the true forms of objects. The chains that prevent prisoners from leaving the cave suggest that they are trapped in ignorance, as they prevent them from knowing the truth. The shadows projected on the cave’s walls represent the superficial truth, the prisoners’ illusion. Light symbolically represents wisdom, as even the faint light that enters the cave allows prisoners to know forms. The freed prisoner symbolizes those who understand that the physical world is only a shadow of truth, and the sun that shines in the eyes represents the highest truth of ideas, of knowledge.

The cave’s myth also has a political dimension — let us remember that the dialogue is inserted in the book The Republic. Excellent people should follow the highest of all studies, that’s contemplating good. Those who have ascended to this highest level, however, should not remain there but must return to the cave and dwell with the companions, participating in their works and costumes. That one who reaches the light, the true knowledge of the cosmos, can and must return to the conviviality of his fellow men to free and govern them. He/she is a “philosopher-politician”, destined to make his wisdom an instrument of the liberation of consciences and social justice.

In the Cave Myth, Plato shows us that the path to truth is, in fact, tortuous, painful, tiring. He realized, albeit intuitively, more than 2,000 years ago, that rational thinking requires cognitive effort, because it needs to “swim against the current”, to fight against human intuition, which pushes us in the opposite direction. To achieve the truth, we need to develop a true cognitive resistance, to go against our nature.

The vast majority of people act like cave prisoners, trapped in their cognitive biases. They prefer to remain deluded to know the non-comforting truth. But for Plato, the one that frees itself from illusions and rises to the view of reality is that it’s really free.

In the last of this journey of cognitive resistance, the light is waiting for us, radiant, dazzling. Only those who can walk this tortuous road, who seeks the truth wherever it takes him/her, see the sunlight, become enlightened one, can see the highest truth of ideas, realize that the senses reveal us only a shadow of truth. And then he/she reach a kind of “nirvana”, and is finally truly free!



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