- George Ainslie - Breakdown of Will
- Arthur Versluis - Platonic Mysticism: Contemplative Science, Philosophy, Literature, and Art
- Reason and spirituality are not opposed to each other here, but are inseparably bound together. This is illustrated by Plato’s allegory of the cave which is a myth of enlightenment, of coming into the light. “Self-transformation and getting more in contact with the world are interconnected. It’s participatory knowing. I have to change myself in order to see the world, and then the world changes, so I change myself, and the world discloses itself in a new way, and so on.”. We call this ascent into reality anagoge.
- People have a deep desire to discover the truth, reality
Welcome to the fifth episode of awakening from the meeting crisis. Last time we talked about how the Axial revolution came into Greece. We first reviewed Pythagoras and then we concentrated especially on the figure of Socrates and the Socratic revolution. And we saw again how issues of meaning, wisdom, self transcendence are so tightly bound up together. We took a look at Socrates and we took a look at how he has a particular conception of wisdom in which what we find salient or relevant is closely coupled to what we find true or real and those two things, those two concerns – what is transformative about us and what is true of the world – are meant to be held together. And this was pivotal in Socrates’ method of trying to get people to realize how much all of us are so prone to having those two come uncoupled from each other and we become subject to bullshit and self-deception and that a life that is beset by self-destructive behavior is not a life that’s worth living. That a way to afford human flourishing is by developing the skills, the wisdom, to keep those two tightly coupled together and Socrates was so convinced of how important this was, in fact, to making a life meaningful that he was prepared to die for it.
And as I mentioned there was somebody who was a follower of him who was at his trial, not present at his death, but was deeply traumatized and affected by his death. And this is of course Plato. Now if Socrates was controversial, Plato is beyond even that statement! Every year there are hundreds of books written about Plato. This is why Plato is one of the foundations, not only because of his ideas, but as we’ll see there is an inexhaustibleness to Plato and his writing. We can come back to Plato! As a culture we come back at different times and see things we did not see before that are transformative and as individuals, myself personally, you can come back to Plato at different times of your life and Plato speaks to you in ways he did not speak before.
I want you to remember that because I’m going to try and suggest to you that that is a better model for what we mean by something being sacred than it being filled with some kind of supernatural presence. That what makes something sacred is that it’s an inexhaustible font of insight and intelligibility that’s transformative of us. That’s certainly the way many people in the ancient world read Plato. They were deeply affected by him. I would go so far as to say that Platonism or Neo-Platonism, as Versluis and others argue, is the bedrock of Western spirituality. And we’ll come back to that.
Now, Plato was traumatized by the death of Socrates. It’s deeply I think disturbing to him. Why I think that is because he keeps coming back to it and trying to understand… He wanted to understand how is it that the city he loved, the city he belonged to, Athens, could have killed this man that he admired and loved so deeply? How is it that his beloved Athens killed his beloved Socrates? So where as Socrates had this dilemma given to him by the gods Plato has this dilemma given to him by the death of Socrates. Plato wanted to understand how people could be so foolish and so what he is going to do is he’s going to take that to worlds mythology that we talked about: the lower less real world – and remember its mythological, it’s not meant to be literally two worlds but he’s going to take that two worlds mythology and he’s going to do something with it very different than what the Hebrews did.
Remember the Hebrews turned it into “this is where… Things are fallen now, but we’re moving towards a future; we’re progressing towards a future.” So they give a historical answer to how we move from the world of illusion to the world of reality. Plato is not going to give a historical answer. He’s going to give a scientific answer. Because Plato is deeply influenced by the natural philosophers that we talked about last time. And what Plato is in fact going to do is he’s going to create the first psychological theory in history. With Plato you can really see the beginning not just of science but the beginning of cognitive science. Psychology as a discipline begins in a very important sense. And I don’t mean this trivially like “oh yeah it started with that…” Plato’s psychology is still currently relevant right now in important ways which we’ll talk about.
So let’s get into that because this is again going to take us into these interconnected issues of meaning, wisdom, self transcendence, altered states of consciousness etc. I’d hope to show you how Plato, in trying to answer the question of how Athens could have killed Socrates, is ultimately influence not just by Socrates but also by Pythagoras. We know that Plato spent some time with the Pythagorean community and he seems to have gone through some kind of training in that community.
So Plato develops a particular theory about why human beings do foolish things and there’s different aspects of it but a good way to think about it is by relating it to something that we’re all familiar with. This is the experience of inner conflict. Inner conflict is when you have two strong motives that seem to be working against each other and you can see how this is immediately going to be relevant to existential meaning – to meaning in life because very often we feel most distraught, most anxious, or the most sense of being stuck when we have such inner conflict. When we’re divided against ourselves in an important way.
So here’s a classic example. So I like chocolate. I more than like chocolate. Chocolate has a deep attraction for me! So, recently I lost about 20 pounds. So I went on a diet. Now dieting is one of the most unsuccessful things that human beings can do. The recidivism rate is 95%. Recidivism means that within a year ninety five percent of people who were on a diet are back to their pre-diet weight. So the diet industry has a 5 percent success rate even though it makes billions of dollars. I mean I wish I had that success rate for my job. I wish I only had to succeed at 5 percent and I was given millions of dollars for that kind of work. You have to ask yourself “why does that work?” Well it works because of the problem. It’s such a pressing problem that people will grasp and pay money and anything in the hopes that it might work because what’s the problem? Well the problem is it goes like this… And we’ll talk about the cognitive science about this. “I know I should lose weight. There is the evidence, it’s clear and makes rational sense to me. I should lose weight. Yes yes. OK. I should lose weight.” And then I go home and there sitting on the counter is some chocolate cake! And that doesn’t quite capture it… It’s not just sitting there. It’s like (HUMMING NOISE) humming with its chocolaty goodness! …And it’s drawing me in… It’s sort of (TRACTOR BEAM NOISE) …And so you end up, often, just eating the chocolate cake!
Or another example you might be familiar with: procrastination. I know my students face this! “Yes. Yes. I have an essay due in two weeks. Two weeks! There it is. I should work on my essay tonight because if I start now I won’t be rushed. I know if I’m not rushed I’ll do a great job. I’ll have more time to research. I’ll be able to change my mind. I should start working on my essay tonight”. Somebody calls up: “Want to go out for some drinks?”… “Yeah!!!” …And you’re gone and you procrastinate. So we are clearly beset by this inner conflict and Plato… Plato gets this great insight. He gets the insight that there seems to be a deep connection between inner conflict and self-deception; self-destructive self-deception. So Plato posits an idea that has become, again, so natural to us that we just say “Oh yeah of course!” But, again, he comes up with it! Plato comes up with the idea that we have different centers in the psyche and each center has a different cognitive relationship to the world and motivates us in different ways and he represented this mythologically. He said that there’s a part of us that’s like a man. I want to say something here right now because although Athenian democracy is horribly sexist and treats women horribly. So remember that context because what’s intriguing is how much Plato was able to rise above that. Plato argues that women should rule as well as men; that women should be in the army as well as men. Now he doesn’t perfectly free himself, of course, from sexism but given the context I think it’s very admirable the degree to which he was able to do it.
Nevertheless he does use this idea of “a man” that’s in your “head” and represents “reason” and that man is motivated by truth; by what’s true. So he cares about truth and falsity. That’s what he cares about, and scope – he can go into very long term goals. And he can deal with very abstract entities like your health or a essay. Very abstract entities. So this is “health” and “I should lose weight; It’s gonna take me several months and I should do that because it’s true that if I lose weight my health will improve”. So why don’t I just do it? Well, because opposed to it there’s “a monster” and it’s, sort of, in my stomach and genitals and it represents appetite. Now it does not work in terms of truth and falsity. It works in terms of pleasure and pain. A very different set of norms. Now there’s nothing wrong with operating in terms of pleasure and pain. If you don’t have a capacity to work in terms of pleasure and pain you’re dead. So Plato doesn’t think the appetites are evil. What he wants you to grasp is that they operate according to different principles than the man. OK so they presume long term goals? No, immediate! “When do you want the cake?” “I want it now. Now! I’m going to the party NOW.” It works in terms of very superficial properties: “All I care about the cake is how it looks, it looks yummy!” I don’t have some in-depth analysis… It’s just “Aahhhhmmmmmm” (gobble noise) “chocolate, sweet YUM!!” So, very superficial! Again, that’s not necessarily bad! Often in life and death situations a superficial appraisal is exactly what you need. I don’t need to know a great deal about the inner workings of the tiger. I just need to know “Oh crap! Deadly! Get out of here…”
Now, notice how these are opposite to each other! Now I put a space between here, obviously because I’m setting you up for a third thing that Plato talks about. But before I do I wanted you to notice what Plato is doing with Socrates here. So Socrates didn’t really have a theory. He had a practice. Socrates’ practice, if you remember last time, was to get people to realize how often what they find salient is rushing ahead of what they find truthful. Remember that? What Plato was saying is “that’s not a coincidence. The reason why that happens is because we have different parts of the psyche that work this way”. This (MONSTER) makes things salient to you. Really catchy. Motivates you urgently right now. This (MAN IN HEAD) is the part that you use to understand! And see here’s what most of us face. This monster is constantly racing ahead of what we understand! Do you see? What Plato is doing is he’s explaining why we are so prone to bullshit! Why salience often exceeds understanding! We are perpetually vulnerable. Now we’ll talk about why we have this.
Now, let’s go back to the dieting example. What helps though? There’s certain strategies you can use of course to improve… (How you frame things, and we’ll talk about that later.) But typically what’s one of the things that improves people’s chances of losing weight? They join a group. Like Weight Watchers. Or they join a study group to avoid the procrastination. Why? Well here’s an important thing. You are not just a biological creature. As I’ve been arguing throughout, you’re also cultural. You have evolved across… You are the result of evolution that has crossed several species in which you come wired to learn about abstract symbol systems, use technologies (both physical and psycho-technologies). So you have a lot of powerful cultural, socio-cultural motivations.
So he compared this to a “lion” (between “man” and “monster”), because lions are social animals. Lions have been associated with honor because that’s what this works in terms of. It works in terms of honor and shame. Honor is to be respected by those you consider your peers. To be shamed is when you feel that you have failed to be gained respect from your peers. We should not confuse shame and guilt. They are not synonyms. Guilt is when you feel that you have failed to meet your own ideal of who you should be. Shame is when you have lost the capacity to get respect from your peers. Now what’s interesting is that, and this is Plato’s point…. That this part of us can pursue intermediate scope. Because we’re cooperating with other people, it doesn’t operate just short term. But it doesn’t quite operate abstract theoretical, it works within the socio-cultural domain. So it can pursue mid-term goals. Not just immediate goals, but not abstract symbolic goals, but socially agreed upon shared goals. And it works on the cultural aspects of things. Not their abstract meaning or they’re superficial meaning but they’re cultural. Their shared meaning. The way we can share it with other people.
Notice how much you want to share with other people your experience. I’ve been saying this for years… I still see people doing it, even people that I’ve talked to. People will reliably do this. They’ll be eating something, they’re trying it for the first time and they’ll go “oh this tastes horrible, have some!” They’ll give it to somebody else because you want to have that – in addition to whatever immediate response you’re having – you want there to be a shared cultural meaning to what’s happening in your experience, and there’s good reason for that because as I’ve been arguing throughout your connection to distributed cognition is one of the most powerful ways you increase your cognitive power over the world.
Now, he sort of represents this (“lion”) as being like in the chest. And this has to do because we feel a lot of our social emotions and motivation in the chest: pride and honor and shame… Things like that. Now “this” is problematic for us. What should go “there” (between Reason and Appetite)? Because the Greek word doesn’t have a direct English equivalent. Sometimes people put “emotion” there. That’s not quite right. Sometimes people put the word “spirit” there. That’s closer, but the problem with “Spirit” is it has all kinds of spooky associations with it. I’m not going to translate it. I’m just going to leave it as is. This is your THYMOS. This is the part of you That is motivated Socially.
So, Here’s an interesting idea Plato has… There is a lot of potential conflict in this system. There’s a lot of potential conflict in this system. What you want to do is get it properly ordered. When you don’t order it, think about what this means… Salience and understanding and participation get out of sync with each other. And then we’re subject to bullshitting; we’re subject to self-deception. The more inner conflict we have, the more likely we are to engage in self-deception, because these two (HEAD AND MONSTER) are out of sink and the more likely we will become very egocentric. So when people are suffering, especially inner conflict anxiety, they tend to become more self-centered even selfish. Because when you are experiencing inner conflict you’re getting a sort of threat signal, “things aren’t right”, and when people are under threat they tend to become very egocentric. Again that’s adaptive.
Now, we’re going to come back to this. But we want to do a little bit of cognitive science. “Why do we…? What? Why?” (MOCK QUESTIONING OF PROCESSES ON THE BOARD) OK… It makes sense that we have this (LION, IN THE MIDDLE) as a motivation because we’re social creatures. One of our greatest adaptations is our ability to cooperate together. So, you throw me into the African savannah on my own and (PFFFFFT SOUND) I’m dead soon because I don’t have great claws, I don’t have great teeth. I’m like… What a silly structure, right? I’m teetering around on two feet almost always losing my balance. I can’t run quickly. Everybody can see me from a long distance because I’m towering above the grass. My throat and my vital organs are nicely exposed for any predator. This is a bad!! But you know what I can do? I can get together with a bunch of other human beings and we can get some pointy sticks and some dogs and then we can kill everything on the planet!
Hyperbolic Discounting / Temporal Discounting Our ability to work together has always been adaptive. So we know why this (LION) is here. But why does this (MONSTER) have so much more power than this (MAN). Well, there’s actually an important reason and this has to do with some work started by Ainslie and others on what’s called “Hyperbolic discounting” or “temporal discounting” and what easily and other people found is that this pattern of behavior exists across species. It’s not just something that human beings engage in. You can find it across species. It’s even more universal than something like flow. It’s not just universal amongst human beings. It’s universal across many species. So this is a deeply adaptive mechanism.
What does this mechanism look like? So this is called discounting (VERTICAL AXIS), and this is a little bit confusing. Discounting is how much you are reducing the salience of a stimulus. The more you discount the less salient something is, the less it stands out for you, the less it grabs your attention. This axis (HORIZONTAL) is time in a tense sense. This is the present (LEFT AT ORIGIN) and this is the future (EXTENDING OUT TO THE RIGHT).
So what I’m showing you is what’s happening to discounting which means how much a stimulus is losing its salience. And this is what it looks like. This is what the curve looks like (DRAWS CURVE ON BOARD). So a present stimulus has a large degree of salience to it – Remember the monster? Something that’s in the future, especially as it gets into the far future, much less salience to it. That’s why the monster can override the man. But why? Why do we have this? Well this is actually very, very adaptive. That’s why it’s a universal phenomena. How is it adaptive? So I want you to think about doing… you’re about to do something here… I don’t smoke – I do diet, but I don’t smoke – but let’s suppose I was doing this… Here’s ‘right now’ and I decide to smoke a cigarette. And that could have one of two options: I get a cough here, or I don’t get a cough there, or something like that… now notice – and I’m doing this very simplistically! I’m not saying that whenever you do something there’s only two effects from it! I’m just doing it simplisticly, in a very simple manner so you can understand the point. OK? Now, the probability of now happening is 100 percent because it’s happening. The probability of each one of these happening (cough/no cough) is 50 percent. Now if it goes this way then there’s two more effects, the probability of each one of these is twenty five… and so on… So do you see what’s happening. As you move into the future the probability of any one of these events occurring is going down very fast.
Now here’s the thing. This is this is actually adaptive. You should pay less attention to things that are less probable of happening. That actually makes good sense. The less probable something, an event, is the less attention you should give it. Imagine if you didn’t have this! Imagine if you didn’t screen off things that were low in probability. Think about how you would be overwhelmed by all the possibilities. So if I get out of bed I might twist my ankle slightly and that might slow me down getting to class. And if I slow down getting to class that might have an impact on my mark. And that might cause me to fail my course. And then if I fail my course that might disrupt my degree and that might cause me to fail in my career. And then I’m going to end up in Buffalo alone married to a lamp or something!!! Now that’s ridiculous right? Now it’s possible. It’s not impossible! Except the last part! I can’t really get married to a lamp.
In fact here’s a hypothesis I have. (Notice the word I used please.) I think one of the things that goes wrong in people who experience generalized anxiety disorder is that this (HYPERBOLIC DISCOUNTING) is not working well enough: It’s not screening off and making low salient, low probability events! So highly anxious people find things salient that they shouldn’t. They find low probability things too salient. So this is really adaptive This is why you have it. But there’s a problem with it. This is a problem with any adaptive machine and you’re going to see later why this is the case…
OK let’s go back to the cigarette smoker… I smoke, and through a long chain (OF FORKING PROBABILITIES) this is me dying in Hamilton. This is the event of me dying in Hamilton. Lung cancer in my left lung. I’m not going to write this all out. This is me dying in Hamilton of cancer in my right lung. This is me dying in Toronto. Cancer left right. This is me dying in Burlington because… And so on…. There’s all these different deaths. Now here’s the thing. Each one of those deaths has a low probability of occurring, right? Do you see that? Each one of those deaths has a low probability of occurring. But here’s the thing about me, and I bet you I share it with you, I don’t want to just avoid death in Hamilton – although that would be a particularly bad death – I don’t want to avoid just dying in Hamilton – I’m from Hamilton so I’m allowed to do tha – I want to avoid death! I want to avoid all these deaths. Think carefully – and I’m using this very technically, but I’m speaking accurately – I want to avoid death in the abstract. I don’t want to avoid this death or this death or this death or this death. I want to avoid all possible deaths. I want to avoid death in the abstract.
Now here’s the thing… The chance of each one of these deaths is very low. But if you pull them together the chance that cigarette smoking will lead to a premature death is very very high. So what does that mean for me The hyperbolic discounting blinds me to this because it’s not very probable. Blinds me to this because it’s not very probable blinds me to each one of these because each, individually, they’re not very probable. But in blinding me to each you know it it blinds me to? What they share in common. It blinds me to what they all have in common and what they all have in common is a premature death. By blinding me to what they have in common – what they abstractly share – this adaptive machine actually has me take another puff on a cigarette and sets me on the course towards cancer or emphysema.
Do you see? Now please remember this. This is going to be a theme we’re going be coming back to again and again and again; I mentioned it before when I talked about Flow. The very machinery that makes you adaptive is the machinery that makes you prey to self deceptive self-destructive behavior. Part of what meaning and wisdom have to do is they have to wrestle with that unavoidable reality. The unavoidable reality is that you can’t you can’t throw this away. You can’t throw away this machinery because if you throw this adaptive machinery away you’re doomed. You can’t get out of bed because you’re overwhelmed by crippling anxiety. You can’t throw it away but you can’t just let it run untutored because then you smoke the cigarette, you eat the cake, you go to the party and you harm yourself in a self-deceptive, self-destructive fashion.
So what do you need to do? Here’s the monster. What you need, and what we developed, is we developed an ability – especially here in the frontal lobe area – to form abstract thought. To abstract what is in common in the distant future and symbolically represent it to ourselves. That’s what the man does. The man can grasp the abstract thought of avoiding the premature death. But the man is so weak! The man’s weak because you don’t want him to be able to shut this off. You want him to be able to override it, but in a very minimal sense because that’s so adaptive. So Plato is deeply Right! In fact I think Plato so deeply right that that’s why we keep discovering this division.
Freud divides the psyche into these three things: a super ego, the ego the id. There is a movement in the 90s in neuroscience to talk about the reptilian brain, the mammal brain, and the neo-cortex… We keep rediscovering this platonic division. But Plato had an interesting idea. He said “you know what, The man can learn.” The man is capable of grasping theory, abstract symbolic representation of the case. And the Lion really isn’t capable of theory but what the lion can do is the lion can be trained. You can use your reason to train your lion. How do you do this? Well this is where Socrates is so relevant. And this is why Plato writes dialogues. Because what Socrates did was he took reason into the social arena. Socrates goes into the marketplace and dialogues with people. There is this social interaction happening and the social interaction is being wed to rational reflection and to inspiring people to try and overcome self-deception. And so using a Socratic Method, the man can train the lion. And then the man and the lion together can tame the monster. Not kill it. But tame it. And what you want is you want that teaching of the man, the training of the lion and the taming of the monster so that something happens. You reduce as much as possible the inner conflict. Plato describes wisdom as an internal Justice within the psyche in which the man has been taught, the line has been trained and the monster has been tamed so they can get along together as much as is possible.
This is what’s known as an optimization strategy. If I let the monster rule, everything else shrinks to a minimum. What you want is you want the right coordination of the parts of the psyche so that each can live as much as it possibly can without putting the other two in danger. When you can get that inner harmony, that optimal relation, so each is living as much as it can without putting the other ones in danger, this mutuality of the most existence, for Plato, this is to experience a fullness of being. This is to be as fully alive as you possibly can be. It is also to experience a kind of peace because your inner conflict has dropped.
So this is very powerful. One of your meta-drives – in addition to all the drives people have – they want to have whatever they’re having without inner conflict. They want to be at peace with themselves. This of course is a powerful meta-drive that you can tap into. Because if you have a strong drive within you to get this inner justice, to realize wisdom, to get this fullness of being, then I can appeal to it. I can appeal to it Socratically. But notice that this has an important component to it because as I reduce inner conflict my self-deception goes down. And as I reduce my inner conflict I’m less egocentric. Both of these things are making me more in touch with reality. So I’m reducing inner conflict, but the effect that’s having is that I’m getting a clearer vision of reality because my self-deception and egocentrism is going down. Now that matters because, as we’ve seen before, you want to be in touch with reality. You have a meta-drive. Philosophers have various thought experiments for talking about this.
One I’ll sometimes do with students as I’ll say: “Imagine the following: you go home one day and your parents say ‘come on, come here I want to show you something’. And you say ‘what?’ And they take you to this hallway that you’ve walked down a thousand times before. And they press on a part of the wall that for you has never meant anything and when they press a door opens and there’s a room in there and there’s TV screens and there’s videotape and there’s pictures of you at all stages of your life. And then they say the following to you: ‘Just before you were born, nine months before you were born, we were hired by the government to have you. This is part of an experiment. The government gave us scripts to memorize. And we did this as a part of a government experiment. We don’t actually love you or care about you at all. We’ve just been following the script. Doing what we’ve been doing because the government has hired us to do this. But we’re but we’re obligated, now that you’ve turned 21 to tell you the truth! We don’t care about you! Now, we still have to keep doing this when we leave the room. You can forget all about this if you want… And we’ll just say what we’ve always said we’ll tell you how much we love you. We’ll make sure that your needs are met. Just know right now that none of that is how we truly feel, Okay?’”
Now I ask people “how would you feel?” And they’d go “well I’d be devastated!!” But I say “but nothing’s changed! They’re going to still say all the same words to you. They’re still gonna treat you exactly the same way…” And what people say is “Well it’s no longer real!”
Here’s another thing I’ll do with people, I’ll say: “How many of you are in satisfying personal relationships?” Quite a few people put up their hands and then I’ll say: “how many of you would want to know that your partner was cheating on you even if that meant the destruction of your relationship?” Almost everybody puts their hand up. They’re willing to destroy this relationship, that’s giving them so much happiness, because they don’t want it to be fake. They want it to be real. And we’ll talk later about why this need to be real is so important. But I want you to understand what Plato is talking about here. Notice that two of your most important meta-drives are being met in the Platonic model. You’re reducing inner-conflict and you’re becoming more in touch with reality. Now that feeds on itself in an important way. I get better on picking up on “real patterns” in the world. My skill at picking up on real patterns is improved because I get a clearer vision, I get better at tracking real patterns. But what does that mean? Well, as I start to get more inner peace, I start to be able to pick up on real patterns. I get the skill, the vision ability. But of course what I can do is I can apply that to myself: Socratic self knowledge. As I get better at picking up on real patterns, I can apply that to myself. I can get better knowledge of myself.
As I get better knowledge of myself, I can better teach the man. To be a good teacher, you have to know your student better. As I get better knowledge of myself, I can teach the man, I can better train the lion, I can better tame the monster. So notice what’s happening here: I improve a little bit; my skill at picking up on real patterns. I use that skill on myself to increase my self-knowledge and get better patterns, which means I reduce my inner conflict. As my inner conflict goes down, I get a clearer vision of reality. As I get a clearer vision of reality. I get better at picking up on real patterns, which means I improve myself knowledge, which means I reduce my inner-conflict… and you see what happens? This starts to spin like ‘this’ – These two sides feed into each other and reinforce each other and improve each other. And this is wonderful for you because you’re becoming less inner-conflicted and you’re coming more in contact with reality.
Plato has a famous story. A parable. A myth, in the sense that I’m talking about in this series. It’s called “The Parable or the Myth of the Cave”, and it’s a way of talking about this – the relationship between these things. Notice two things here… You need to remember this! Notice how much self transformation and getting more in contact with the world are interconnected. This is participatory knowing! I’m not over here as an impartial passive observer, just forming true beliefs about this; I have to change myself in order to see the world and then the world changes and then that puts a demand on me to change myself. And as I change myself the world discloses itself in a new way. And so on and so forth. This is participatory knowing. I’m not just changing my mind. This is not just knowing with my mind, this is knowing with the very machinery of myself.
What’s Plato’s myth? Here is the surface (drawing on the board) …pathway going down …that leads into this inner cavern …There’s a fire here …There’s people chained to chairs so all they can do is look at the back of the cave …Then there’s other people walking in front of the fire and it’s casting shadows onto the cave because of the firelight and they’re hearing the echoes… And what Plato says is “people take the shadows and the echoes to be the real things because they’re chained. They’re caught up”. But what happens is an individual gets free! And what does that individual do? That individual turns and sees the fire. That allows them to realize that the shadows and the echoes aren’t the real things. They’re shadows and echoes! And what happens is the person’s ability to notice the real patterns – as opposed to the merely correlational patterns – is changed. Remember we talked about that? People start to see… They start to realize “oh these are what real patterns feel like, as opposed to what I thought was real”. You get the taste for reality developing, and that taste means they start to look around and explore! And then they realize there’s a path there’s light coming through it and then they start a journey upward. Now notice how this journey works. When they take a step forward, they’re blinded by the light. And they have to wait. They have to wait for their eyes to adjust. The self has to be transformed. And then once the eyes have adjusted they can see how to go and then they take another step and then they’re blinded again. And there’s this slow process and Plato kept talking about… At various stages they have to stop because they’re blinded and then they adjust and then they gain the ability to see where they couldn’t see before. It’s this participatory transformation I talked about, and eventually they come up here and they look around.
And what are they looking for? They want to see the source of the real light. The light that’s allowing them to pick up on the real patterns. Where is this light that shows the reality of things coming from? And not only is it showing the reality of things, this light is the source of the life of things. Whereas this source? Of understanding and light? And they look around and of course they glimpse, because they can’t stare at it directly, the Sun. And it’s overwhelming. It’s beyond their comprehension. But they see it and it fills them with a kind of awe. And of course what they do is they go back down into the tunnel rapidly, and they get here, and they try to tell their fellow prisoners what they saw. But of course they’re stumbling around because their eyes don’t work anymore in that darkness. And they’re saying things that make absolutely no sense to these people. And so they ridicule them and if they could they would kill that individual. And of course this is an allusion to Socrates.
First of all notice that, contrary to what people think, “enlightend-ment” is not just an Eastern idea. This (Myth of the Cave) is a myth of enlightenment: of coming into the light. It’s a myth of self-transcendence and self-transformation. It’s a myth of coming – and I mean “myth” in the sense that we’ve been talking about – it’s a parable of coming in to greater and greater contact with reality. See, notice the story is “You pick up on real patterns that challenges you, it blinds you and then you transform to pick them up and then you’re unable to move forward, then you confront those real patterns again… And you’re doing that cycle that I talked about. There’s a Greek word for this ‘ascent’ called “Anagoge”. This is the “Anagogic”, or the “Anagogical” aspect of Plato’s idea.
Notice what he’s doing… He’s taking the movement between the illusory world and the real world and he’s turning it into this account of how you can make your lives rationally more meaningful. You can become more fully alive and more at peace in conjunction, in concert with, you coming more and more in contact with the real patterns that make sense of reality. You can satisfy, in a mutually supporting fashion, your desire, your meta-drive for inner peace and your meta-drive to be in contact with reality. This is what Plato calls wisdom – a fullness of being. We become more and more real ourselves as we become more and more at peace so that we can more and more realize the real patterns. We conform ourselves more and more to reality… And you may say “this is kind of a crazy story!” Is it? Is it? …because here’s a story from 1999: There’s all these people and they’re trapped in a world of shadows and unreality. It’s called “The Matrix” and they need to wake up and be welcomed to the real world and the character that’s in there is “Neo” from Neoplatonism: the “new man”. People flocked to that movie and all it is, is “this” (points at board and The Myth of the Cave) with some great martial arts and some interesting science fiction special effects!
This parable… This is what I mean about a myth! This isn’t a story from the past right. The reason why you go to The Matrix, and people still watch it and talk about it is because it’s a myth. It sings to you. It speaks to you now because it talks about perennial problems that you face. Problems of the psyche being in conflict with each other. The problem of being caught up in illusion, out of touch with reality, and it presents the possibility of liberation and self-transcendence and a fullness and enhanced meaning in life. It’s a myth of wisdom that is perennially relevant because it’s not about the past. It’s about what’s happening in you right here, right now.
I want you to notice a couple of things about this. I want you to notice, first, how reason and spirituality are not opposed to each other here. They’re inseparably bound together. I want you to notice how Plato is putting Socrates – The Socratic project (because Socrates is how you get “the Man” to teach “the lion”, how you get to realize your own foolishness) – with Pythagoras. Because here’s the self-transcendence; the rising above yourself. The radical transformation of your consciousness and cognition that Pythagoras talked so much about. Now this is such intrancing and enriching and empowering myth – a perennial parable – that it’s going to be a constant refrain throughout the West. People are going be coming back to it again and again and again.
I want to talk now more about the Pythagorean side of Plato just to bring out a few things. So, Plato talks about… He uses a term “idos”, and that gets translated into the word “form”, and when people hear the word form they hear “shape”. It also gets translated into the word “idea”, when they hear idea they think of “concept”, or an idea in your head. That’s not what Plato means. He’s using that word, and It’s much closer to our word like a “paradigm”… he’s using a word to talk about the real patterns that we’re discovering in reality. Now there’s an interesting thing about these real patterns: They’re both the access – the pathway we have to understanding something; the pathway we have for getting at the reality of something (because those are the real patterns), but they’re not just the affordance of our knowing, the real patterns are also what make something be what it is.
This is work also from the psychology of concepts and how people understand things. We asked people what a bird is. They’ll say the following. “Oh yeah well I know what a bird is, right… it has wings feathers, beak and it flies! There you go! That’s a bird!”. They give you what’s called a ‘feature list’. And then you take that… And then you can get involved in a very long process – which I think has largely been something of a mistake (we’ll come back to this), No. Not totally (not a mistake) because it’s important in science – but I’m thinking that the way I understand something is by having a definition of it in terms of the correct features. Now there’s a problem with this. Although people believe that this (feature list) is how they know what a bird is, they’re mistaken in an important sense because I could satisfy this definition in the following way: I could put a couple of wings on this table, a bunch of feathers, a beak and then throw it all up in the air! I have wings, beak, feathers and flight! Do I have a bird? No, I don’t! I have a bloody mess because what’s missing is something more important. What’s missing is the structural, functional organization… The way all those things hang together… The way they’re structured together so that the bird functions as a whole. What’s missing from this is the “Structural-Functional Organization” that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The Germans have a great word for this – “Gestalt”. In English we don’t! The Greeks have a good word for this (S-FO): the word “logos”, although a word that’s being discussed a lot today. I think it needs to be discussed a little bit more carefully.
Now here’s the thing I want you to realize. Remember we talked about how you pick up on real patterns, and a lot of those patterns you’re not picking up an explicit sense of. You know what a bird is. You have some sense of the logos of a bird. But if I ask you “what is that logos? What is the structural-functional organization? And most of what makes a bird a bird is found in that logos. But if I ask you “what is the logos of a bird? How do these all structure together so they function as a whole in which the whole transcends simply an accumulation of it‘s parts..?” You can’t tell me!! That’s what the research shows in fact. You can’t tell me! Your grasp is intuitive. So notice something very interesting here. You often have an intuitive grasp of the logos of things and the logos is “form” where form doesn’t mean “shape”, form means something more like “formula”. It means the structural functional organization and that form, that logos, is not only how the thing is integrated together, it’s how your mind can be integrated with it. Remember this logos, this real pattern, is not only how you know something but it’s also the pattern that makes it be what it is.
So this is a very different idea of knowing. You saw it already in the myth of the Cave. But when I really know something I conform to it. I become like it in some important way. I get in my mind the same real pattern that’s in the thing because that real pattern is what allows me to come to know the thing and to enter into that reciprocal realization with it.
Now this is going to be an important idea. This is an idea that’s going be taken up by Plato’s greatest disciple. Somebody we’re gonna talk about next time when we’re together and that’s Aristotle. Thank you very much for your time.