Shadows of Reality

Silhouette of a woman in a cave looking at her...
Silhouette of a woman in a cave looking at her own shadow. The image can be used in philosophy (for example in Allegory of the cave) as well as to show psychological principles (for example Borderline personality disorder). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has people chained in chairs facing a blank wall. All that they can see are the shadows cast on the wall of the cave. When they break free from their chains they discover that reality is not what they believed it to be. In particular, they don’t know what the sun is, having never seen it before. The implication is that we cannot know reality and that we only see shadows of it and must make do with that.

It’s a nice analogy, and presages Kant’s noumenon and phenomenon, where phenomenon is what we sense or perceive and noumenon is what gives rise to phenomenon. Noumenon is fundamentally unknowable through human sensation, and perhaps corresponds to Kant’s “Ding an sich” (thing-in-itself), which I think of as the thing that gives rise to perceived phenomena, but is not and cannot be experienced through the senses or by other means (if such exist).

Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam,...
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The nice thing about allegories and analogies is that you can play around with them. Of course, if you push them too far they fall apart, but that is part of the fun. I’m going to push the Cave Allegory a little bit.

You see, the people in the chairs are not entirely without information about the outside world, aka reality. If the shadows move across the cave wall and they are not moving, then something else is! They won’t know what is causing this phenomenon, but they will notice that it changes in a fixed cycle. The shadows sweep across the wall, only for everything to go dark, and then everything repeats. Let’s call it a day.

If the people in chairs watch for long enough they may determine that there longer cycles. Sometimes the shadows reach higher up the walls, and sometimes they are lower. Let’s call these longer cycles years.

When one raises his hand one of the shadows changes. Some of the shadows are apparently related to the people in the chairs! The person in the chair will most likely come to associate one of the shadows with him/her self, and by extension would assume that some of the other shadows are people also.

He or she might not realise that his/her body is actually seated in a chair, and that the shadow which he/she associates with his/her self are merely outlines. This is a scary thought – if the analogy holds, is it not possible that the same is true of us? We may be seeing shadows and concluding that we are the shadows. Maybe there is a wider reality outside of our perceptual cave and we only need to turn around to see it.

However, just like the people in the cave, if we did wake to a wider reality, we probably would not understand what we are seeing – the people in the cave, when they freed themselves, found the sun to be incomprehensible.

I just realised that in Plato’s original allegory, the light that threw the shadows was not the sun but a fire. I’m going to acknowledge my mistake but let it stand, as it makes my point that the people in the chairs are not completely without clues about the wider world, even if their interpretations are wide of the mark.

Science and what was previously known as ‘natural philosophy’ are attempts to describe the shadows that we see. One of our shadows is the rising and setting of the sun. I’ve described elsewhere that the extreme doubter, the ultimate sceptic, doubts that we will see another sunrise, or rather, cannot see any way that we can know absolutely that we will see another sunrise (leaving aside for arguments sake the possibility that we drop dead – that is not what the issue is).

I don’t actually believe that we are sitting in any conceptual chairs, so we can’t leap out of them to get a wider view of reality in the sense of the allegory, but we do describe the world in terms of what we see, just as those in the cave do. We have no better access to reality than they do. We just have a better class of shadows as it were.

That’s why I find it amusing when the headlines read that scientists have found the Higgs Boson, or that they have detected gravity waves. Oh really? I do not suggest that the Higgs Boson has not been “found” or that gravity waves have not been detected, of course, but no one have ever seen the Boson or watched a gravity wave passing by.

One possible way the Higgs boson might be prod...
One possible way the Higgs boson might be produced at the Large Hadron Collider. Similar images at: http://atlas.web.cern.ch/Atlas/GROUPS/PHYSICS/Conferences/2003/aspen-03_dam.ppt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No, what they have in fact done is theorised about these things, designed experiments that should show a blip in a graph or find an anomalous number in the printout of their experiments, and this is what they see. They see the predicted blip or the anomalous number.

These results however based on existing theories. Starting from theories about matter and what it is made of. Atoms, you say? Oh OK, we have experiments (from long ago) which show that matter is made up of atoms. We know a lot about atoms from experiments and theories, but no one has ever seen one or held one in his/her hands. We are sure, though, that matter is basically made up of atoms.

English: Some common molecules and the atoms t...
English: Some common molecules and the atoms that they are made from. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, certain results of these experiments lead to the question of what atoms are made of. So we end up with a (very accurate) theory and experiments which show the existence of sub atomic particles. Some of these theories lead to the theory of the existence of the Higg’s Boson. It is required if some of the theories are correct.

I don’t know the details, but experiments have been done which reportedly appear to show the existence of the Higg’s Boson. What they show is results which are consistent with the stack of theories the top one of which predicts the existence of the Higg’s Boson, and the lower theories predict various behaviours down to the lowest level, those that theorise that matter is fundamentally atomic.

English: Crystal structure of vanadinite. Gray...
English: Crystal structure of vanadinite. Gray: lead atoms, orange: vanadium atoms, green: chlorine atoms, blue: oxygen atoms. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those are our shadows on the wall. We describe what exists by using theories based on what we can see. We see the blip in the graph, and celebrate our theory which is underpinned by other theories down to the lowest and most general theories. However, we can’t get out of our allegorical chairs and turn to actually look at what exists. That’s where the analogy breaks down – there are no chairs and there is no wall. However what we are looking at are shadows.

Trains, boats and planes

Refugees arrive in Travnik, central Bosnia, du...
Refugees arrive in Travnik, central Bosnia, during the Yugoslav wars, 1993. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a horrifying refugee crisis going on in Europe where floods of people from the Middle East are trying to get into the richer and stabler countries like Germany and the UK. They are fleeing wars and persecutions in their own countries, and are paying ruthless individuals to transport them mainly in overloaded boats from Asia to Europe.

Tragically, people are being killed in this process, as people are stifled in trucks and drowned falling from boats or suffering similar misfortunes. I haven’t heard of cases, but it would not surprise me to learn that unscrupulous have been killing refugees and taking whatever small possessions that they have.

Children of the United Kingdom's Children's Mi...
Children of the United Kingdom’s Children’s Migrant Programme (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether a person is a refugee or merely a migrant, they are leaving one country for another because they believe that life will be better in a new country. Such movements are older than the human race itself. It is believed that the human race evolved in Africa and relatively quickly spread though much of the then accessible world. Members of the “Homo” family of species at that time were widely spread in Eurasia as well as the home continent of Africa.

The Homo family of species spread through much of Europe and Asia probably as a result of their intelligence and their high rate of breeding. Being hunters and gatherers and increasing population would put pressure on scarce resources, forcing families and groups to travel further for food and resulting in migrations in search of food.

This is a recreated vector image in SVG. The o...
This is a recreated vector image in SVG. The original “Human_evolution_scheme.png” was made by José-Manuel Benitos. The following was stated by the original author: “Simplified scheme of human evolution, it does not try to be trustworthy, but a symbol of this process” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course there would have been many other factors, but I’ll not go into that as I don’t know much about early human migrations. One effect of the rise and spread of humanity was the decline of the other Homo species. I assume that there is a link between the two phenomenon as they happened, apparently, at about the same time.

Maybe a cleverer Homo Sapiens stole the resources that the other Homo species needed, or maybe the other Homo species succumbed to some influence that did not affect Homo Sapiens, such as a disease or a climate change. Maybe our ancestors destroyed the other species in a pre-stone age holocaust. I’ve not studied the literature on the subject, so I’m ignorant of what was the likely cause of the decline of the other Homo species.

English: Human evolution splitter view
English: Human evolution splitter view (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever happened in those early days appears to have left the human race the urge to keep moving on. This urge has prompted us to send people to the moon and to send spacecraft to all (local) parts of the universe. Of course refugees in general don’t have much choice in the matter. They need to move or they are dead.

There is probably a spectrum stretching from migrant to refugee that covers all people who change countries or even regions. At the one end you have the forced movement of people between countries, by the authorities or an invader, through people fleeing war or persecution, to those who flee unpopular regimes which won’t actually kill or persucute them, to those who choose to migrate for political, cultural, reasons, right through to those who like to experience a different living environment.


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I’ve changed countries myself, and though my migration was voluntary and for a better life, it was a huge upheaval to move countries. You have to leave friends and relatives, all the things that you have known, much of which you may miss, to pack up your life and relocate it to a new country, where the culture is different if not in type then in detail, and you do not know how you will cope.

Of course, voluntary migrants have it easy in comparison to the refugees. They often cannot bring any possession with them, and they may not like the culture (which may espouse a different religion of course) and the likelihood of them returning to their original homes is remote. As refugees they will almost certainly miss their countries more than a person further up the migrant-refugee spectrum would.

Remains of an Orthodox church in the city cent...
Remains of an Orthodox church in the city center. The church was destroyed during the war but has since been reconstructed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, some voluntary migrants suffer at some stage from home sickness. Perhaps when an elderly relative dies and they cannot return for the funeral, or when a sibling who has remained in the “homeland” has a child. I’ve seen home sickness triggered by a simple treat brought by a visitor from the “homeland” that is unavailable in the new country.

I’ve not suffered very much from the syndrome myself, but I’ve known people who have and it is not a trivial thing. Home sickness can make a person physically ill, and if they are frail, it can even kill them. It can seriously disturb a person’s mental health, especially if they are prone to depression or similar mental illnesses. I’d say, however, that almost every single person who leaves one country for another suffers from it, except perhaps those of a persistently roving disposition.

"Homesickness Can Be Cured" - NARA -...
“Homesickness Can Be Cured” – NARA – 514527 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some voluntary migrants cannot cope with living in a new country. These are the ones that pack up and go back “home”. It may be culture, it may be relatives, it may be what you can buy in the shops, but these people make the decision to return from whence they came. I used to wonder why they did it, until I went back for a couple of years, and found that I hated it and couldn’t wait to get back to the new country. After that I had more sympathy for those returning migrants.

This contrasts strongly with refugees, who, although they see their target countries as being better than their homelands, are going to face a hugely different culture, possible religious and racial intolerance, all without the safety net of being able to return to their homelands. Even if they are able, at some time in the future, to return, it is likely that their homelands would have become strange and alien. Likely other people will be living their, with new customs and even religions.

We have a phrase which describes the process of settling in a new land, or adapting to local customs, to making friends and watching children forming bonds with others in the new country. It’s called “putting down roots”. Let’s hope that the refugees all find a place where they can join happily with the local society and put down some roots. Not to forget their homelands totally, but to rejoice in their new homeland. Those of us who are voluntary migrants should welcome these “involuntary migrants”.


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