Art & Aesthetics Art Blog
I had just sat down to read The Matrix and Philosophy when I realized...there are squirrels on my roof. I can't see them, but I can see their shadows on the lawn as I look out of the window on this sunny morning. I'm reminded of Plato's Cave: the one with the campfire inside and the prisoners beyond that, facing the back wall so that they can never see anything but shadows cast from the fire light. My world view from here on my comfortable leather couch does have its parallels with that ancient scenario. The cave allegory highlights the gap between shadow and substance; appearance and reality. But unlike those prisoners who know of nothing about the world outside of shadows on the wall, I recognize that there probably are squirrels loping along the ridge of my roof. Still, there remains a shadow of doubt in my mind. Maybe it's just a prankster with hand puppets up there (on the roof, not just in my head).
Perception is a three-way affair: It takes an object, an observer, and the medium between them. Let's say I shine a spotlight on your face in the dark. Now I can see color, texture, and facial features (my, what squinty eyes you have) instead of just a dark silhouette where your head has blocked the light on the wall behind you. The angle at which I aim that light beam alters my perception of you. With the light overhead, like natural sunlight, you are easy to look at. But point the light upwards from below your chin in the dark and, whoa - scary! And even in the best light, we lose the details in the distance. In other words: Seeing is not necessarily believing.
Language also conveys "second-hand" views and likewise distorts reality with word play. That's why Plato didn't cotton to poets: too much drama, not enough description: Roses are red, and donuts are - Doh! (Sorry, wrong Homer). But seriously, people will blindly accept the mediated words of poets, priests, and pop-stars. We all tend to pass judgment on people and things we don't really know. Today, as always, we must weigh the verbal accounts of anybody with an agenda - that ilk of zealots and hucksters who sell anything from ideological dogma to mortgage-backed derivatives.
Experience is the essence of knowledge, or as we philo-sofa types call it - epistemology. Wisdom is how you use that knowledge. Rene Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." But how much can we really know about anything besides ourselves? The answer: not nearly as much as we believe. And even then, our perceptions are colored by our prejudices, emotions, and cheap sunglasses. If shadows represent the lowest rung of the comprehension ladder, then reflections and images are only slightly higher. And just when you think you've got reality pegged, context changes everything because the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Plato's Allegory of the Cave suggests that we must not only step outside into the proverbial sunlight to better discern the details that enrich our lives, but - as a matter of duty - parlay those details into ideal forms of justice, honor, and the odd toga party.
Meanwhile, are those shadows that I see from squirrels on my roof or just a puppet master with a couple of sweat socks? I can't be absolutely sure. But if I had to bet my life on it, I'd go with squirrels. And, sure enough, I now hear the patter of tiny paws on the eaves, and then - voila! There they are! A couple of furry nut-bags suddenly leap into plain view, scurry twice around the tree trunk just outside of my picture window, and then chase their shadows across the lawn and back out of sight. Well, now - back to my book.