As The Shadows Dance in Plato’s Cave

Of the many great philosophers of ancient Greece, Plato was perhaps one of the most astute thinkers.  Plato’s legacy, topped only by Socrates, who was arguably one of the most intellectual men ever to have lived, is varied and covers many topics.

Plato was a classical philosopher, mathematician, and student to Socrates, and was the founder of the Academy in Athens.  Along side his mentor – Socrates – and his student – Aristotle – the three are responsible for laying the foundations of Western Philosophy and Science.

Among the many philosophical works written by Plato is The Republic, which is a Socratic Dialogue from around 380BC, concerning the definition of Justice[1], and the order and character of both the Just City and the Just Man.

In this work, Plato uses allegorical imagery to present a model of reality that has been the focus of philosophical debate even up to today.  Though as we’ll see, modern physics may be giving more weight to Plato’s argument than it initially deserved.

Plato’s Cave is an allegorical description of reality as Plato saw it, as a dualistic façade, wherein the observer – the self – is merely watching shadows dancing on a cave wall.  The hypothetical dialog between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon is one of the first examples of this type of reasoning found in antiquity, and it asserts a scenario in which, what people observe and take to be real, is actually illusion.

In The Republic, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained and held immobile since childhood: not only are their arms and legs held in place, but their heads are also fixed, compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which people walk carrying things on their heads “including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials”. The prisoners watch the shadows cast by the men, not knowing they are shadows. There are also echoes off the wall from the noise produced from the walkway.

Socrates suggests the prisoners would take the shadows to be real things and the echoes to be real sounds, not just reflections of reality, since they are all they had ever seen or heard. They would praise as clever whoever could best guess which shadow would come next, as someone who understood the nature of the world, and the whole of their society would depend on the shadows on the wall.

The repercussions of the above are clear.  It is to suggest that our world, our existence, is much greater than our capacity to perceive allows.  It suggests that those people who are fixed to observe the shadows cannot know the true quality of the world, since their view is hopelessly limited, and were one of those poor souls to escape his bindings, he would find himself in a state of transcendence.

This may seem like a fanciful idea, as though it belongs, reposed, in philosophy classes within our higher learning faculties.  Though there are those who disagree, namely Dr. Brian Greene: physicist, cosmologist and scientific philosopher.

In his most recent book – The Hidden Reality – Greene lays the foundation for a number of ways of looking at reality through the rose coloured glasses of quantum mechanics.  He uses his superb knowledge of Classical physics, string theory and M-theory to weave a tapestry of knowledge in the very idea of reality.  One theory, offered late in the book relates to Plato’s Cave allegory, in an oddly familiar way[2].

It is essentially offering a paradigm shift from the school of thought that says that the focus of physics is on things – planets, rocks, atoms, particles, and fields – wherein it is suggested that the focus should be on a more abstract fundamental entity: information[3].

“[Something akin to] an architects blueprints being realised as a skyscraper, the fundamental information is in the blueprints.  The skyscraper is but a physical manifestation of the information contained in the architect’s design[4].”

Thus you can start to see a glimmer of familiarity with Plato’s Cave allegory.  The basis of the idea is straightforward enough, though the science of it, black holes and super-string theory is quite convoluted.  Our senses are attuned to show us the physical manifestations of the basic information being presented to us in reality, but this is an illusion.  The real foundation of reality is in the information itself.  And thus emerges the Holographic Principle.

Greene, through the use of theoretical work done by physicist John Wheeler, who suggests that modern physics needs to begin to focus on the fundamental information rather than on things, lays out a model of reality in which our senses play tricks on us.  Where what we see and feel are false manifestations of a deeper reality, one we are incapable of experiencing.  Though it is one we may be capable of quantifying mathematically.

What’s doubly fascinating is the idea that Plato could have come up with such a concept in ancient Greece, with no more than his mind, and that his words ring true in certain versions of modern quantum mechanics.

Are we all bound in a cave, helplessly watching shadows on a wall, doomed never to realise the full scope of our world? Perhaps we are, but there is equal chance that our evolution will push us in new directions, slowly giving us the faculties with which we can decipher the real essence of the universe.


[1] It is from this work that I draw the quotation of Socrates -”…as for me, I know only, that I know nothing”- wherein he chastises his pupil for being too arrogant and believing his knowledge of the subject to be supreme.

[2] Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality; Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the universe, A Borzoi Book published by Alfred A Knopf, Chapter 9.

[3] Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality; Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the universe, A Borzoi Book published by Alfred A Knopf, pg 239.

[4] Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality; Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the universe, A Borzoi Book published by Alfred A Knopf pg 239

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