Consciousness and Illusion: From Plato’s Cave to the Matrix
Down the centuries many thinkers have been convinced that how we both perceive and conceive the world can be very misleading if not downright deceptive. Humans no longer primarily depend on the sensory and instinctual facilities that our fellow animals exclusively do. Our instincts and perceptions are subordinate to the cultural education that we receive as children; and that cultural education is covertly political. The vehicle of education is language – the communication device par excellence. Human language is a complex system of abstraction: from shapes on paper (writing) to various sounds (speaking) not to mention gesture and expression. A child will take many years to master this system to a point where it doesn’t need its parents to survive. Because we do not live in nature the mastery of language is our primary survival tool.
Of course human culture lies within nature but its technology intervenes at every level in our relationship with it. Part of the reason we find ‘survival’ or ‘back to nature’ documentaries particularly intriguing is because we have become so alienated from the natural environment that we are vicariously entertained by the helplessness others experience when thrown into it. The complexity of language has reached a point where it allows us to make grandiose claims about our understanding of both nature and culture and, the point of this essay, about the relationship between the two.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato presented us with a celebrated thought experiment concerning the relationship between perception and cultural illusion. It featured prisoners chained in a cave in such a way that they could only see shadows of the world on their cave wall. Their perception of the world was necessarily extremely narrow but their sense of sight was not impaired. Plato used this as both a metaphor for how misleading sensory perception alone can be and also to illustrate that we are all, to one intellectual degree or another, prisoners of our culture. In this case these were actual prisoners who were represented as the victims of political manipulation by those with power over both perception and information. Among the many implications of this line of thought are (a) that there exists some kind of independent superior ‘reality’ and that (b) our inability to witness this realm is caused by the limitations of our cultural (linguistic) context and/or by its manipulation by the powerful to inhibit our access to it. Plato was something of an elitist and he believed that only a small minority were capable of seeing through the illusion of culture and power. Why is it that most of us are so reluctant to subject our received values and perceptions to any level of serious critique?
Certainly some are more predisposed to abstract thought than others. For socialists the balance between thinking and action has always been understood in terms of a praxis which, hopefully, enables us to avoid both intellectual philistinism and intellectual elitism. But we know that without subjecting personal paradigms to a critical process there is little hope of understanding the seductive power and potential manipulation of language. I recently overheard someone claim that Dolly Parton was a socialist because of her charity work. Such a statement would not have been possible without the continual subversion of the word and concept by both the politically ignorant and the politically astute. The ego rebels against any proof of intellectual manipulation. Our identity is very dependent on what we think we know and any attack on our intellectual integrity is felt as a profound threat. Many retreat into cynicism; the last refuge of the insecure because it both protects the ego and relieves us of any need for political activity. It would seem then that the reluctance to subject the inherited political paradigms to any criticism is partly to protect our identity; this is the main psychological consequence of individualism.
Of all of the political concepts individualism is one of the most powerful and corrosive together with being the most illusory. Illusory because mankind has never before lived at such a level of global interdependence where every element of the means of life is socially produced. But the ideology of capitalism has to insist on anachronistic individualism to defend the minority ownership of everything. The consequence of this is to lock us all into a tiny egotistical prison cell where others are seen as competitors rather than as the only way to express our humanity (as a community). As you read this, if you are not a socialist, it is probably challenging many of your most profound political values. But before you put it aside answer one question: has anything you eat, think, feel, wear or understand not been socially produced? From your ability to read these little abstract shapes on the page to your very consciousness of existence, these are all socially produced concepts. So having this wonderful inheritance from our species why do we feel so profoundly alone and continually threatened? It is because we have been conditioned to feel this way by the manipulation of information and perception. As to how we might overcome this illusion we must turn to a favourite concept of not just socialists but to almost all who have seriously considered the problem; levels of consciousness.
In the film The Matrix we are presented with a scenario where humanity is merely a source of energy harvested by sentient machines. To keep them ignorant of their slavery mankind is distracted by an illusory environment (our everyday world) generated by computers. A revolutionary group has discovered the reality behind this illusion and seek to destroy it by converting those who have suspicions to their cause. Sound familiar? That is the socialist modus operandi and this journal is our version of the ‘red pill’ which, in the film, is offered to those who wish to see what lies behind the illusion. Of course we part company with the narrative in its search for a messianic figure because, unlike the film’s writers and Plato, we believe everyone has the potential to see through the illusion. Revolutionary consciousness is primarily created by the contrast of the professed values and promises of a ruling ideology compared with the reality (for the vast majority) of living in the world that these ideas seek to defend. Many of great intellect, who being unaware of this (Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawkins for example) are condemned to live in Plato’s cave or the matrix despite their intelligence. Socialism needs no magic red pills, Messiahs or philosophic geniuses; it needs you. Illusions can be comforting and even fun but all of us, deep down, need to know what lies behind and beyond.