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.

The process of Philosophy

Philosophy & Poetry
Philosophy & Poetry (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

Philosophy is a strange pastime. Scientists measure and weigh. Mathematicians wrangle axioms and logical steps. All other disciplines draw on these two fields, which are probably linked at deep level, but philosophy draws from nothing except thoughts and the philosopher’s view of the Universe.

 

Mathematics
Mathematics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, that’s not completely accurate because philosophy has to be about something and the only something we have is the universe. But philosophy does not have to be about the universe as we know it. What if there was no such thing as electrical charge, or, the prudent philosopher thinks, what if there was no such thing as the thing we call electrical charge. At a more basic level, what is electrical charge.

Lichtenberg
Lichtenberg (Photo credit: caddymob)

 

Philosophers are always getting pushed back by scientists as scientists figure what they think is the case. If there is a scientific consensus on what comprises an electric charge then that question no longer interest philosophers to any great extent. Philosophers mentally travel through the lands marked “Here be dragons”.

 

Dragon from PSF D-270006.png
Dragon from PSF D-270006.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophy is also interested in less “physical” things like ethics and morals, what comprises identity, predestination or free will, what can we know and what knowing is all about. How did the Universe come to exist, or more basically, why is there something rather than nothing?

 

If you look at this list it comprises extensions to or extrapolations from physics, psychology, physiology, medicine, biology, and other fields of science. Philosophy doesn’t use mathematics (usually), but it uses logical argument or should. It not (usually) built on axioms, so doesn’t have the rigid formality of mathematics.

Illustration of Plato's Allegory of the cave.
Illustration of Plato’s Allegory of the cave. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophers are big users of metaphor, such as Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. A metaphor of the expansion of a balloon was used as a philosophical explanation of the expansion of the Universe discovered by Edwin Hubble. Philosophers also imagine physical machines which do not yet exist and which may never exist, such as the ‘teleporter’ which makes a material object at point A disappear and reappear at point B.

Star Trek - Enterprise D Transporter
Star Trek – Enterprise D Transporter (Photo credit: tkksummers)

Quantum physicists have teleported quantum information from one point to another, but this is not the same as teleporting atoms. So far as I can gather from the Wikipedia article, what is teleported is information about the state of an atom, so the same atoms must already be at point B before the teleportation event, and the event is a sort of imprinting on the target atoms. It sounds like the atoms at point A remain in situ, so it is more of a tele-duplication process really. However I don’t really understand the Wikipedia article so I may be wrong.

Diagram for quantum teleportation of a photon
Diagram for quantum teleportation of a photon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The philosopher is not interested in the quantum nuts and bolts though. He or she would be interested in the process – is a person walks in to the teleporter at point A the same person as the person who walks out of the transporter at point B? Unless his actual atoms are transported by the process, which seems an unlikely implementation, the person at point A shares nothing with the person at point B except a configuration of a second set of atoms. Is the person at point A destroyed by the machine and recreated at point B? What if something goes wrong and the person at point A does not disappear when the button is pressed? Then we have two instances of the person. Which is the real instance?

Unknown Person
Unknown Person (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Notice that the philosopher takes a physical situation of travel from point A to point B and considers a special case, that of travelling between the two point without travelling the old slow way of travelling between all the intervening points and doing it quickly. There is no physics which can currently perform this task, but as usual, scientists are working to, one might say, fill in the gaps.

The Sci-Fi Fly!
The Sci-Fi Fly! (Photo credit: Carolyn Lehrke)

Many times the scientist is also a philosopher – he may have at the back of his mind the concept of teleportation when he creates his hypotheses and does his experiments, but he probably doesn’t concern himself with identity. That is still the realm of the philosopher at present, but if a teleportation device were ever created, it would stop being a philosophical matter, and become a matter of law and psychology and maybe some field that does not exist yet, just as the field of psychology did not exist at one time.

General Psychology
General Psychology (Photo credit: Psychology Pictures)

I’m trying to paint a picture of the area that a philosopher is interested in. If the whole of human knowledge is a planet, then physics and maths are part of the outer most layers of the atmosphere, the exosphere, and this merges with the depths of space are the domain of philosophy. At lower levels are things like chemistry, biology, psychology and other more applied sciences. Don’t look too closely at this analogy because I can see two or three things wrong with it, and I’m not even trying.

English: View of the crescent moon through the...
English: View of the crescent moon through the top of the earth’s atmosphere. Photographed above 21.5°N, 113.3°E. by International Space Station crew Expedition 13 over the South China Sea, just south of Macau (NASA image ID: ISS013-E-54329). Français : Photo des couches hautes de l’atmosphère terrestre. Polski: Zdjęcie górnych warstw atmosfery ziemskiej z widocznym przejściem w przestrzeń kosmiczną. Ελληνικά: Η Γήινη ατμόσφαιρα, η φωτογραφία ελήφθη από το διάστημα κι ύψος 335 χιλιόμετρα (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the main point I am making is that philosophy purposefully pokes and prods the areas beyond the domain of current mathematics and physics. Of course the line is not a definite line and there is a grey area. Some physical hypotheses verge into philosophy and some philosophical ideas are one step from becoming physical hypotheses. The suggestion that there be many universe like and unlike ours is one such suggestion that physicists are taking seriously these days.

2-step branching in many-worlds theory
2-step branching in many-worlds theory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of these ideas are not new and many have been used in what has been called “science fiction” for many years, especially the parallel universe theory. Time travel is another common science fiction theme. Although these ideas are used and developed by authors of fiction, physicists have adopted such ideas to advance science, though I don’t mean to suggest that scientists have directly borrowed the ideas of science fiction authors. It is probable that many ideas actually travelled in the opposite direction, from science to fiction.

English: Minkowski diagram of the twin paradox.
English: Minkowski diagram of the twin paradox. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since philosophy is at heart discursive and not rigidly analytical (in most cases), there is more freedom to expand on ideas that are not what is called “mainstream”. Because of this freedom it is likely that (like economists) no two philosophers will agree on anything, but they will have fun arguing about it.

 

The Argument Sketch
The Argument Sketch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Related articles

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Plato extended

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...
Plato

Plato conceived the idea that each and every real physical object is an inferior representation of an idealised “Form”. Forms were supposed to be “more real” in some sense than the ordinary real world objects that the Form idealises. Wikipedia says this, in its article on the theory of Forms:

These Forms are the essences of various objects: they are that without which a thing would not be the kind of thing it is. For example, there are countless tables in the world but the Form of tableness is at the core; it is the essence of all of them.

There are several issues with this approach. For instance, when one looks at a table, one can count its legs. Many tables have four legs, while some may have more than four and some may have less than four. Some may rest on a pedestal and so have no legs at all.

So what is the essence of a table? It seems that there are many attributes of tables that are variable, like the number of legs, which is pretty shoddy for an ideal of an object. One could define a table by the uses to which it is put, but again the uses to which a table can be put are variable. We have writing tables, operating tables and pool tables. It seems that there is no attribute can be found which has a single value which makes a table a table.

For Plato the Form of a physical object is the richer of the the two. In the Analogy of the Cave, the real world objects were mere shadows of the Forms. However, it appears that the real world objects have to be richer than the ideals of the objects. This derives from the necessity of distinguishing one real object from another. This table here is different from that table there (in spacial location if in nothing else), and specific location is an attribute that the ideal cannot have.

like being in the Plato’s cave
A shadow in Plato’s cave

Computer scientists have a solution to these issues, based around the concept of an “object”. An object is a container which may contain other objects, properties, or actions (called “methods” in the jargon) and which belongs to a class of objects. A table object for example may contain zero or several leg objects, it may contain the property of being wooden, and may contain the actions or methods of “lay”, “dine off”, “clear”, and so on.

English: Showing the main components of a class
Objects

Included objects can be considered parts of the object like the legs of the table. The properties are descriptive of the object, such as “wooden” or the property of “has four legs”. The actions or methods are things that you can do to the table, such as “dine off” it or “lay it for dinner”.

All objects belong to a class of objects and are called “instances” of the class. Each class is unique. There is only one class called “table” for example, and all table objects (instances of the class) derive or in other words are instantiated from it.  A class is also a container and may bring properties and methods to the derived instance, so the table class may contain an action or method of “lay for dinner” and a property of “has four legs”.

English: Diagram of relationship between objec...
English: Diagram of relationship between objects and classes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So far so good. The Form equates to the class and the real world object to the instance object, so the computer science model aligns with Plato’s model. However the computer science model has a few more wrinkles which Plato’s model doesn’t.

Firstly, when the object is instantiated in the computer science model, the new object doesn’t have to incorporate the properties and actions or methods of the class that it is modelled on. For example, if the new table is used for writing letters, then it doesn’t need the action or method of “lay for dinner” so it can omit it. On the other hand it may benefit from a “clear space” action or method! It would probably carry over a “has four legs” property if the class supplies it. The instantiation process is very flexible! Class properties and actions or methods can be included in the instance or new properties and actions or methods can be created, if required.

Secondly, each and every object can implement one or more classes. This is a fancy way of saying that it can pick and choose properties and actions or methods from one or more classes. In other words a table object may be made of wood, hence, to use the jargon, it inherits from the class of “wooden objects” the action or method “polish”. We can polish a wooden object, and we can eat off a table object, so we can do both off a wooden table.

English: answer to the question: Draw an inher...
Inheritance diagram

The point of all this is to address some of the deficiencies of Plato’s theory of Forms. Plato’s idea was that any table object derived from an archetypal table Form, which was not a real world object but still existed in some sense. The idealised Form was considered “purer” and was the essence of a table, comprising only those attributes shared by all tables. The difficulty here is finding any attributes that every table has, and which no “non-table” has. Using the extended Platonian scheme, if you extract all the properties and actions or methods that are not common to all tables, it seem that you might be left is an empty Form.

Empty
Empty (Photo credit: joshwept)

That may seem to be a disadvantage of this approach, but it is a strength. What sort of object do you get if you have an object which contains two box objects and a plank object? If you add the action or method of “eat off” you have a “dining table object” possibly with a property of “make-shift”.

So, under this extended Platonian scheme, what actually makes a table object a table object and not some other type of object? That’s actually a lot harder question than the question of what is a table object. Evidently it is a more subjective question as people will disagree what constitutes a table.

table with chairs
table with chairs (Photo credit: srqpix)