Plato’s Republic: What cave are you living in?

March 19, 2012

“The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”–Socrates

Unlike a computer that makes no meaning or connections between the information it retains, your brain relies upon connections. It stores related sensory data together, which enables you to recognize patterns and make predictions. For example, you may not think you are always finishing someone else’s ____________ (sentence), but you are. You are always engaged in prediction.

Our memory storage and retrieval systems are geared for prediction and speed, so that we can act and react quickly to avoid or subdue threats. The ease and speed with which we predict can lead us to feel secure in our knowledge and ourselves. But we shouldn’t fully trust our knowledge and ourselves, in part because our system of memory storage and retrieval is built on shaky foundations. What we once believed to be true–and upon which our future predictions are made–may no longer be true or may now only be partially true.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Socrates imagines a group of prisoners who had been shackled in a cave for their entire lives. They see shadows (cast by firelight) move along the wall and hear echoes made by people in the world outside. But, having never seen the world outside the cave, the prisoners assume the noises are made by the shadows themselves. Were the prisoners to be unchained and exposed to the real world, Socrates asserts, they would believe shadows to be more real than what they saw. Eventually, they would forge new patterns of memories and new beliefs, based upon a preponderance of evidence.

Unless you’re faced with a preponderance of new evidence or a shock akin to what those prisoners faced, you’re unlikely to forge many new significant patterns of memories and beliefs. After all, our brains lump all new sensory data in with the old.

Examine your beliefs and assumptions regularly, since they may be based on false or misleading narratives/memories. Test and challenge their truthfulness, so that both your current understanding and future predictions are more accurate.

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