Is the sky blue
or is it green?
What it is to you
may not be to me.
But if it is,
No matter what you
or me see
Our perception may mock
but what is,
No matter what you see
For if it does exist,
it exists as it is
and not as you
or me see
So, is the sky blue
or is it green?
what it is,
as it is.
No matter what we see!
Is the truth something that is relative and subjective, being dependent of our perception? Or is the truth an objective, firmly founded reality of how things are, and independent of our perception?
This question has been thoroughly dissected since the beginnings of philosophy as we know it. And because it has so, I want to concentrate primarily in Plato’s theory of knowing, as presented in his Republic, especially through the allegorical story of the cavern. It is interesting to see how Socrates’ disciple describes this cave as inhabited by men who have been captive since “childhood, having their necks and legs chained,” and been forced into seeing only what is presented to them. The description of chains clearly points out the state of slavery in which these men (we) live. They have been there from childhood, in a dark cave. Which means that they had no choice but to be born into this slavery, and once in this obscure existence, all they could do is see the shadows of the figures presented to them by the puppet masters, who are not seen since they work behind a wall behind the slaves. Now, it is important to remember that they are completely chained and hence what they see is not the reality of things themselves, but the shadows of man made figures presented to them. As the slave begins to be freed from the darkness of the den and is able to see around it, and all the components in the cave necessary to create this façade, he begins to recognize that what he knows is not necessarily true. But just a subjective concept of what he thought to be real. A mere opinion, formed by himself and shaped by his enslaving surroundings. However, once the slave is outside of the cave, he begins to see the light that with all its intensity radiates from the sun, and recognizes this light to be exponentially more bright and powerful than the light produced by the fire in the cave. And even though, the once slave is now outside the den and is now able to see for himself how things really are, he must first grow accustomed to seeing things for what they really are in the light of the blinding sun. A process indeed, given he has spent his whole life in a dark cave. In other words, the contemplation of things as they really are is the true measurement of freedom from the darkness of the man made matrix in the cave.
Now that we see the nature of the slavery and the nature of the liberation from slavery, we must clarify one of Plato’s most unique theories. The theory of the Ideas. For it is through this theory, that Plato exposes his stance on knowledge of truth as a process of liberation from the darkness of mere opinions to the light of the knowledge of the nature of things. To Plato, everything that exists must have an Idea, this Idea is the foundation or essence of that which exists. These Ideas are all eternal and not susceptible to the laws of change of the physical world, and they exist separately from the things themselves, in a perfect and incorruptible world. For example, a dog exists, and we know it is a dog, no matter it’s size and color, because we know the Idea of dog. And we will never really know the dog until we contemplate the Idea of dog. This Idea is always the same and it is perfect, not able to be corrupted by our thoughts or nature. And so it is for everything that exists. An Idea for everything physical and invisible, the Idea of Good being the most noble of all Ideas.
Now, I am not necessarily in favor of thinking that things exist because they have a perfect Idea that supports that thing outside of the thing itself. Or as Aristotle questions, how could a thing exist, if its essence is outside itself? However, this is not the route I want to take this investigation. My main purpose in using Plato’s theory of Ideas is to clarify that in order to attain a perfect knowledge of anything we must come to the contemplation of that thing’s essence. We must contemplate the Idea, or the essence of that object, to know the object. The slaves in the dark den were only able to see the shadows of puppets presented before them. Therefore, there only knowledge is based upon their opinions and guesses of what that shadow of an image really is. The one that seeks to get out of this cavern, must transcend mere opinions, to eventually, as one is outside of the cavern, be able to form an intelligent hypothesis of what the blindingly bright light of the sun shows. But even these hypothesis are not the purest way of knowledge. Because the slave is not used to seeing the world as it really is, and now since he is outside the cave and being blinded by the sun and the clarity it sheds on the nature of things, it is hard for the once slave to form proper conclusions of what it is he sees. But once he becomes more accustomed with the light, he does not need the opinions, nor his hypothesis, because he can now see things for what they are. According to Plato, the philosopher has now reached pure knowledge, for he contemplates the essence of things (the Ideas), and not their shadows, or the interpretations made of those shadows. To conclude this part, I must say that true freedom of the cavern lies within the ability to free oneself from misconceptions and being able to know things for what they are.
Now that we have concluded that true knowledge is not an opinion but a knowledge founded on the truth of things, we can come closer to dissect what relativity really is and whether truth is relative or not. Something that is relative, by definition signifies that it is dependent upon something else, consequentially, not absolute. For example, the knowledge that the slaves had of reality in the cavern was very relative, because it depended completely upon the circumstances created for them, it wasn’t absolute. But without true knowledge of the truth, their perception of reality is only based upon their opinion. If the shadow of a figure of a tree was presented to them, being ignorant of what a tree is, they had to manufacture an explanation of what that shadow really is. This explanation can consequently be completely different from what the shadow of the figure of the tree really represents. A tree. This then means that the ‘opinion’ we have of something has no real influence upon the real nature of that object. If I believe that an ant is an elephant, no matter how much I convince myself of that, it will really never have an effect on the fact that the ant is an ant and not an elephant. And if we are blessed with knowing that the ant is an ant, then it will particularly have no effect on it either. Except that you are not in falsehood. This suggests, that things are what they are independently from what we think they are. Therefore reality is not relative but objective.
If the soul does in fact exist, it will exist, as it does, with no influence on its existence whether we believe in its existence or not. This is also the case for the properties of the soul. Say someone claims that the soul is immortal, and another that it is not; the truth about the subject does not depend upon our perception of it but on what it really is. The soul is not going to stop being immortal because one desires to believe so. And so it is with everything that is. It is, as it is, and not as it is perceived. We may perceive a star as a minuscule speck of light in our night sky, however, in all reality that star may be twice the size of our sun. What I am getting to, is that our perception is not a measure by which we can determine the truth of things. Instead, we must go to the thing itself and contemplate it for what it is and not what it seems.
Someone may argue that everything in life is very relative. Bringing as an example the different preferences we have in day to day life. Some enjoy a soda more than a glass of water. Others may think that darker skin is more attractive than lighter skin, or that Mexican food tastes better than Indian food, and some may prefer an epicurean philosophy to a Christian one, etc. However, if we look closer into these preferences, whether physical, emotional, philosophical or spiritual, we see that they have a very pragmatic and sophist approach to reality. Where truth is what we want it to be, a server of our own purpose, but not what it is. Preferring a soda instead of a glass of water, is solely a judgment of our own self that is determining one to be better than the other, not for what it is but for what we think. Someone may believe that a girl that is a brunette will make him happier than one that has blonde hair. But this argument has no logical validity in it. Her hair color is not a truthful determinant on whether you shall be happy or not. Such a preference is really only an assumption of the ego. And so it is with preferences, which are real thoughts that are relative to our ego. In which we determine things not by what they are but what seems better for us. Not as truthful, logical and valid statements but as personal and subjective preferences that are not necessarily in tune with reality, but that can very well be a fruit of our imagination. Like the slaves in Plato’s cavern, who were determining reality by what they judged it to be, and not by what it really was. It wasn’t until the slave became accustomed to the light of the sun that he was able to become aware that his relative opinions and judgements were completely distorted from what is. And so it is with us, we must do the same and do it diligently, because a cavern has indeed been built around us that seeks only to show us shadows of figures and not the real things. Take for example the common misconception that success is directly related to the acquisition of power. Some may perceive this to be true, and will dedicate themselves arduously to possessing more as a means to be happy. However, others may perceive such idea as not being true, and seek success in a different way. So it is evident that our perception of what is real, is indeed relative, however, the fact that it is so does not mean that reality is relative, it only means our perception is.
We have clearly showed how something is whether we know of it or not. The outside world is a reality to the slaves in the cave. And even though they didn’t know anything about it, it exists, they were in that reality, but had an erroneously subjective account of it. But that reality didn’t change the slightest just because they had a different view of it. This indeed proves that truth cannot be subjective or relative, but that truth is objective and firm. It is, whether we believe it or not. The only thing subjective about reality is our perception of it, which clears for us the path that we must tread; one where we must diligently sweep off all the misconceptions and egoistical judgments we have created about reality, because those false ideas are not true. If such is the case with all that is true, then how much more must it be for the Source of All Truth?
Written by Andres Angulo
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