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Out of the Cave, Into the Sunshine

The history of a divided world

Plato’s allegory of the cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“The senses give both us and the animals access to the natural world, but we humans have superimposed a second world by internalizing a poem, thereby making the two worlds seem equally inescapable.”

― Richard Rorty

The second world that Rorty references is, of course, the “True world”, or the Lap of Being. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, called this the noumenal world, or the world-as-such. This is in contrast with the world we experience through our senses. This is the objective world; the external world; the world of facts that don’t depend on human knowledge or perception.

Sometimes we call this second world metaphysical. Some world religions have this same concept of a “True World”, such the non-dualistic schools of Buddhism, who argue that the world we experience is mostly illusory. The concept exists also in Hinduism, in the form of the Veil of Maya, that divides our world of separate objects and mere appearances from the Brahman: the true nature of reality.

This approach to reality, like many philosophical ideas, can be found in the writings of Plato. Most are familiar with the Allegory of the Cave. Plato’s analogy in The Cave is that human beings, as we follow our sense data to sketch a picture of the world, are like people merely watching shadows on a cave wall. The shadows are cast by actual objects and light sources, but which are hidden from the vision of those in the cave. The shadows correspond to the representations we create in our heads for understanding reality, the sun shining outside is the True World.

The True World is the world of Forms, in Plato’s ideology. Our world of the senses merely represents these Forms as pale imitations. This is how Plato characterizes the natural world: a mere illusion. The perceptions of the senses are, at best, a facsimile of the Truth.

Plato was not the only Greek who felt this way. Heraclitus viewed the world as ever-dynamic, and likened it to a living fire. He argued that, to the extent that objects appear to us as substantial, separate things, this is only an illusion. Parmenides, on the other hand, argued that motion was the illusion. He claimed that change was impossible, and likened reality to something less like dynamic fire and more like rigid earth.

In these cases and in innumerable others, philosophers and theologians have always gone around arguing that the way the world appears to be is not the way the world really is. The consequence of this approach is always the same: the division of the world. In calling the world of the senses illusory, we necessarily must posit that the real world exists beyond the senses.

This division of the world appeared in its strongest religious form in the West with the advent of Christianity. Early Christians such as St. Paul drew a distinction between the immortal soul — the true Self — and the body, which was cursed with original sin. Paul writes, in Romans 7 (15–20):

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.

Paul laments that he wishes to do good, but still gives into temptation. He cannot find how to do the good, and ultimately concludes that it is the sinful flesh that inhibits his goodwill. If only the body would obey the mind!

The later Stoics shared this same preoccupation. Epictetus wrote of the passions as antithetical to reason, as something that had to be mastered. “You are a little soul,” he wrote, “carrying a corpse.”

So, too, did the Christians divide the world into the physical and the spiritual. Whereas the Greek philosophers saw a divided world insofar as they thought men lacked the proper wisdom to see the world for what it really is, the Christians ultimately concluded man’s wisdom (and his will) to be irreducibly deficient.

Original sin requires this deficiency. Man can’t simply live The Good Life by his own power, or perceive the ultimate truth with human eyes. Man must throw himself on the mercy of God, in the Christian metaphysics. The Good Life therefore cannot be attained in this life. The true world can’t be reached on earth. Christianity thus concludes that the True World is a world beyond — not just beyond the senses, but beyond all material existence. It is attainable to the pious. The Good Life is only found in the afterlife.

This is why, when Descartes inaugurated a new epoch in philosophy, he still capitulated to the Christian division of the world. Descartes says that he had set out to doubt everything that could be doubted. He naturally finds the body to be doubtful. But in the same meditation, he takes it for granted that the mind exists, and say that the ego is indubitable.

Of course, the fact that the mind and body can even be separated — often referred to as Cartesian Dualism of mind and body — is a prejudice borne on Christian teachings. In Christianity, the mind and the immortal soul are inseparable, and in some sense synonymous. Descartes says in his preface to the faculty at Sorbonne that the whole point of his Meditations is to the prove the immortal soul to the infidel by means of reason. Accordingly, he uses the terms mind and soul more or less interchangeably. But as for the soul and the body: they are not only separate, but opposed in their essence.

Immanuel Kant came along and ushered in a yet another new era of philosophy (philosophers are always being accused of creating new eras). Kant was, by temperament, a Christian. But, similarly to Descartes, he wished to find a foundation for his beliefs that was not based on revelation, but on reason.

Kant was troubled by the limitations of empiricism as they’d so far been determined — in the aforementioned limitations of representing the world through our sense faculties. In his Critique of Pure Reason, he showed that the limits of the human intellect were drawn within the realm of phenomena: the natural world. We construct representations of phenomena we encounter in our mind’s eye. But our reason cannot lead us to any conclusions about the noumenal world, other than that it exists.

The German philosophers after Kant wondered whether we can even say anything about this second world. Neo-Kantians, including some physicists and biologists, attempted to do experiments based on these philosophical ideas. If the reality we experience is only a representation created by sense organs, then different sense organs of different organisms should lead them to construct a different reality.

But whatever knowledge we learned about this process still came to us through the senses. It seemed inescapable that, as much as we could learn about the phenomenal world, the noumenon was out of our grasp.

We can learn everything we can through empiricism, but a transempirical reality is not forthcoming. Schopenhauer, a student of both Plato and Kant, said as much in his essays:

Just as we know of the earth only the surface, and not the great, solid masses of the interior, so we know empirically of things and the world nothing at all except their appearances, i.e. the surface.

And thus, the philosophical project of dividing the world ends as most philosophical projects do: with the foundations of knowledge destroyed, rather than with new ones laid.

The second world, when considered from the standpoint of reason, is not just unattained, but unattainable. We can never know anything meaningful about that which is beyond human knowledge, because all the knowledge we have is, by definition, human knowledge.

What if we could somehow heal this scar of division, that mars our picture of the world? How could we go about such a thing?

Perhaps the problem isn’t with the natural world: the world as phenomena, or as “mere appearance”, as we have designated it — and thus denigrated it. By categorizing the world as an illusion, we’ve called into question its value. All the value has been invested into this untouchable “True World” in the meanwhile.

But that’s exactly where the problem lies: with the second world, the “True” world. The one we’re always seeking, and which always slips out of reach.

Now that we’ve concluded that the second world is truly unattainable, it can be safely dismissed. Perhaps what we’ve imagined as the “True” world has, in fact, always been the “False” world.

The world of particle physics is just as real as this “middle world” of organisms and objects that we inhabit, and just as real as the level of perception on which we normally interpret the world. But outside of the specialized sciences, the world of particles is not how we experience the world. Where we designate a single object, it might be just as valid to designate a trillion particles. Every “thing” we encounter is merely an experience, which we disconnect from the interdependent world of physical and biological laws only for utilitarian purposes.

What would reality beyond our senses “look like”, anyway? What would it even mean to talk about the way something looks, if we didn’t have eyes — or some kind of visual organ — to process that “thing”? All of our perceptions come to us through the sense organs. Take away the sense organs, one by one, and any talk of our ability to perceive the world, or to even conceive of it — becomes more and more incoherent. Every “thing” we talk about only becomes a thing by becoming sequestered from the rest of reality by our sense experience — but this sequestration is itself a falsification.

Are we any closer to the “True” world now that we know a thing or two about particle physics? The answer is simple: all the information we have about particle physics comes to us through empirical means — through the sense organs. All knowledge about particle physics is still encapsulated within our language and the linguistic boundaries of our conceptual thought.

By contrasting the world of particles versus the single object, it’s not my intention to suggest that the particle world is more real —again, it is just as real. We do not get any closer to the bedrock of reality by studying particle physics, if indeed anything like that even exists. We simply gain more sophisticated knowledge about our phenomenal world.

For us, reality exists within the nervous system. Every mind that has ever existed has been grown in a body, as an inseparable part of that body. If we one day succeed in creating self-aware, self-conscious, artificial general intelligence — it will still be a mind embodied within circuitry and microchips. Even if it exists in the form of code, on the cloud, that cloud will be hosted by some kind of physical hardware. Whereas we have no examples of disembodied minds — and even find the idea inconceivable — we nevertheless have plenty of examples of mindless bodies: what else would one call an ant, or a single-celled organism?

For some reason, we’ve imagined the possibility that our minds can be separate from our bodies, that we can have some perception of a reality outside of our nerves and organs. Why?

Is it because we’ve been steeped in monotheism, and therefore see the world as created by an intelligence, God — and imagine the cause of the world itself to be a disembodied mind?

Is it because we’re afraid of death, and the temporally limited nature of the body? We want our “Self” to be something freed from the body?

Is it simply that, in the modern age, we’ve come to identify more with our intellect than with our bodies?

The answer could be any or all of these. Whatever the reason for seeking after this “True” world, this world independent of humanity, this world of disinterested, dispassionate truths, this world-in-itself, the lap of Being… can we now recognize it for what it is? Can we recognize the human vanity contained in all our efforts to transcend the human?

And if we can recognize it, might we try, instead of attempting to transcend the human — to transcend this “True” world?

What happens if we get rid of it? What is left?

What is left is not the “False” world, nor a world of “mere” appearances. What is left is a human world. In fact, this is the only world we know, that we’ve ever known, that we ever will know. It is the only immediate reality we experience. It is the world of: love, hate, pain, pleasure, beauty, ugliness, good, evil, cold, hot, high, low, stress, happiness, life, death. Humanity.

Therefore, it is the only world of any importance. What could be more important to human beings than our loves and our hates? Who can question the feeling of pain, or of pleasure? Who can really question whether they truly love their children, or whether those same children are just mere appearances constructed by their sense organs?

The “True” world has been used to distract us from the real world. This has its advantages too. Occasionally the real world becomes so painful that we need to escape from it. Or maybe we just need to know escape is possible. That there is some escape from all of this. Occasionally the pain of this world gets so intense that we need the comfort of having a happy ending to it all. Perhaps this will be one of the things we’ve lost once we abolish the “True” world.

And yet, what opportunities will lie before us once the “True” world is finally over and done with, and no longer holds any sway over the human imagination? When we all finally look to this one, real, immediate world as the only reality? When we all recognize that this is the only life that we’ve each been given? That this is the only world that we’ve all been given? That there are no do-overs, second chances, or escape clauses?

You either live this one, real life — or else you’ve squandered the most precious thing you’ve ever had. The only precious thing, in fact, since life is what creates the possibility for something being precious. Can we handle that responsibility?

Suppose that we can’t. Well, in that case, we’ll have peaked our heads out of the collective mist of superstition, and said, “No thanks”. That will be the story of humanity: a retreat. We will be the animal that retreated to the primitive.

But suppose that we can live with this responsibility… imagine what new horizons would now be open to humanity! Life would become even more beautiful, tragic, terrifying, wondrous. Imagine how much more valuable life would become! Imagine how much more meaningful!

What we have just described here is a macro-history of man’s relationship with metaphysics. At least, the central aspect of Western metaphysics.

What follows is Friedrich Nietzsche’s description of the same macro-history. It was, in fact, my inspiration for this article to give a longer, more detailed description of what Nietzsche is talking about here, for the reader who is less familiar with the history of philosophy and our millennia-long conversations about these things. Now that we’ve examined that history, Nietzsche’s concise, lyrical descriptions of this history will make a great deal more sense.

Nietzsche’s symbolism at the end plays with light and darkness. This metaphysical division — this scar that we’ve gorged into the world’s flesh — is our longest error. It is the longest shadow cast upon the human heart. It has disfigured our entire history. For Nietzsche, once we abolish all dogmatic world pictures, we can begin living in the real, immediate, human world.

The passage that follows is from The Twilight of Idols.

The history of an error

1. The true world attainable for a man who is wise, pious, virtuous, — he lives in it, he is it. (Oldest form of the idea, relatively coherent, simple, convincing. Paraphrase of the proposition ‘I, Plato, am the truth.’)

2. The true world, unattainable for now, but promised to the man who is wise, pious, virtuous ‘to the sinner who repents’). (Progress of the idea: it gets trickier, subtler, less comprehensible, — it becomes female, it becomes Christian…)

3. The true world, unattainable, unprovable, unpromisable, but the very thought of it a consolation, an obligation, an imperative. (Basically the old sun but through fog and skepticism; the idea becomes elusive, pale, Nordic, Konigsbergian.)

4. The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And as unattained also unknown. Consequently not consoling, redeeming, obligating either: how could we have obligations to something unknown?… (Gray morning. First yawn of reason. Cockrow of positivism.)

5. The ‘true world’ — an idea that is of no further use, not even an obligation, — now an obsolete, superfluous idea, consequently a refuted idea: let’s get rid of it! (Bright day; breakfast, return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato blushes in shame; pandemonium of all free spirits.)

6. The true world is gone: which world is left? The illusory one, perhaps?… But no! we got rid of the illusory world along with the true one! (Noon; moment of shortest shadow; end of longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)

I therefore look forward to this high noon, when all shadows are shortened until they more or less vanish: when we are no longer darkened by the fables of metaphysics: when man can come out of the cave and once again live in the sunshine of the real world.

Albert Bierstadt — Autumn Woods (1886)



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