We all know Plato’s famous Myth of the Cave – we just may not realize that we know it. After all, the Matrix trilogy was based on that concept. Some even ascribe Rene Descartes notion of “cogito ergo sum” to Platonic ideas. For those of us who know Latin, let’s show off a bit:
“Suppono, igitur, omnia quae video falsa esse…quid igitur erit verum fortassis hoc unum, nihil esse certi.” (Meditationes de prima philosophia)
Basically, nothing is certain when we consider how we obtain information – through our senses. This is why the entire empirical system lay in doubt. Descartes was building on the ideas of Francis Bacon, as well as Plato, when considering the fields of study known as ontology and epistemology. Ontology deals with the branch of study about how things come into being while epistemology deals with the theory of knowledge and how we come to acquire it.
When considering the modern context for thinking and how we acquire information, we must recognize that we are living in Plato’s cave allegory. It has always been the case, which is why the allegory proposed by Plato continued to be applicable throughout philosophical exploration for thousands of years. Yet, we can see that even today there are veritable points in which we can detect our “cave”.
One easy way to get a sense of our limitations of our own thinking is to look at the current election cycle. Social media has enabled people to get into greater contact with one another and through a more efficient medium. Instead of calling someone up, who had to be at home waiting by the phone, only to talk with them and sort through small talk and other social protocols to establish communication, we could just drop messages through our social media channels without all of the pretense. This sounds great for the more introverted among us and enables us to cut to the chase when communicating. Yet, brevity is not necessarily good for the human animal, once described by Aristotle as a “political” animal.
A side trip: Aristotle did not intend to mean the modern sense of the word “political”, instead he meant a social aspect resides in all of us. The polis was the relatively new form of existence for human beings and it was the essential building block for human existence in the Greek world. The polis is the physical city where people would come together to collaborate in order to live out more prosperous lives. What Aristotle was simply saying is that humans have naturally moved towards this solution – it was our evolution. We crave being social with one another; not in order to chit-chat but in order to move beyond the subsistence level of survival into an existence of thriving. We evolved from hunters into farmers. See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to get a better appreciation of this evolution.
Ok, we’re back. In other words, in order to establish a more efficient form of communicating with one another, we also lost what is at the heart of communication – interacting with one another. Interaction is a two-way street, we react and respond to each other’s cues. These may be positive or negative; they may be based on misperceptions or intentional. At any rate, we may be losing our ability to read one another and thereby understand one another. We simply drop information in places that have no context or even desire to be dropped. In short, we establish data points but receive no real feedback from them.
For example, most find a news item of interest that they then share on their preferred social media platform. Those that agree “re-share” it (or whatever terminology is used among these platforms), while those that disagree ignore it. Or, if it is emotive enough, they react to it by either confirming the content or denying it through a vitriolic response.
Note here, the emotive aspect of the news item. It must evoke an emotion in order for people to respond. This is a danger – because people only respond to things that they have an emotional attunement towards. This creates regrettable and reactionary responses usually at the height of emotion. There is no cool down period for rational thought allowed. Everything is instantaneous and filled with instant gratification.
As a result, we no longer seek truth through our interactions with one another, but instead only confirmation bias. This is different than truth in that people will prefer information that only supports their assumptions; truth requires us to grapple with other possibilities and keep an open mind before making a conclusion. In fact, it is the very birth of the scientific method through thinkers like Bacon and Descartes that has led to an establishment of science atop all other fields of study when it comes to epistemology. Yet, its reach has far extended beyond its original intent and created a cult of empiricism, but I digress.
Let’s put a finer point on this. Social media has only confirmed an emotional tendency in humans, especially in dealing with controversial information – information that threatens the self – to result in confirmation bias as opposed to truth seeking. The key is that confirmation bias is based on emotion whereas truth seeking requires a more rational approach. Which leads us to the final point – we live in a society that is deeply narcissistic.
Creating The Narcissistic Society
This is confirmed by the very fact that we use social media to create echo chambers around our assumptions. We close off any information that may contradict or challenge our beliefs. Belief, it should be noted, is not a choice but based on conviction – which is emotional and not based on objective information or evidence. As a result, we are self-serving in our interactions and only align with those who share our like-minded views or we move towards what is often referred to as “trolling”, to use the vernacular of the day, in which we gang up on and attack those who do not share our views.
All of this is dangerous. We have a bedrock for Orwellian group-think that often results in totalitarianism – the very thing George Orwell was critical of when he wrote his book, 1984.
The other reason this is dangerous is because it drives us not only towards more totalitarian forms of government, but further away from the very principles that founded our society here in the United States. Socialism, by its very nature, creates a selfish society. A great demonstration of this can be seen here:
Socialism, through entitlements, creates an ungrateful society. After all, how are you supposed to be grateful for something that you are entitled to? The problem with entitlement is not in the concept itself, but in its misapplication. Entitlement has to be checked by two other forces – responsibility and accountability.
Responsibility requires one to fulfill a certain duty. An individual is responsible for making sure something gets done. This is why power is bestowed among certain people an, in fact, one of the reasons why some jobs pay more than others. A foreman would earn more than the others working on his team because this person is responsible for the work that needs to be done and also because this person, taking on the role of leadership, is going to operate unsupervised as well.
Which leads us to accountability. The power that is granted to people for accomplishing tasks also means that this empowered individual is beholden to those who give the power – either directly or indirectly. Accountability is a two way street, those who are granted power must fulfill the obligations of their title or office for those they represent, otherwise they could (and should) be replaced.
Entitlement comes after responsibilities are met and accountability measures have been overcome.
Entitlement without responsibility and accountability, however, create a selfish society. The politics of entitlement will reflect this selfishness and be used to manipulate society. It will result in a de-incentivized society with no need to push the boundaries of knowledge for self-mastery, let alone betterment of society as each individual will only be looking out for themselves and their interests. “What’s in it for me?” becomes the mantra of that society and, as a result, they will give up their power and sovereignty to those who can give them the most entitlements. Ironically, it was John F. Kennedy who challenged his electorate by stating, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I say ironic because it is the Democratic party that most strongly supports entitlement programs as a “champion” for the common man.
When the political system’s sole focus is to provide entitlement programs for its constituents, a totalitarian state emerges whereby its citizens are nothing more than clients and dependents. The path back towards independence and freedom becomes contaminated by a deep rooted mental contagion that is very hard to disentangle. Culture gets corrupted.
Emerging From the Cave
So here we are, sitting in our digital caves and only seeking confirmation bias. We are blind to the rest of the outside world and dare not venture into it because we are comfortable right here, staring at the screen of a reality that is made in our own image. In fact, we are encouraged to do this. Steven Crowder explains this effect on our current election cycle.
This is vanity and narcissistic. To live life unchallenged in our thinking is nothing short of selfish. It is also a life lived by giving away our own power. There is no opportunity for self-mastery and growth as a result.
All sorts of scapegoats are being blamed for this – the irresponsible journalism of today’s media, capitalism, an obsessive youth-oriented culture, religion, et cetera. All of this is a dangerous powder keg primed to blow but we are overlooking the simple solution, which is the irony: it is you, yourself.
The solution is the choices that you make that could stop this slide but it requires you to get uncomfortable with yourself and with your world real quick. It requires you to remove the smartphone-turned-virtual-reality-device that is strapped to your head. It requires you to actually go out and interact with people because, in doing so, we won’t simply be seeking the most convenient mode for interacting with one another, moving us outside our comfort zones, but putting us in contact with new ideas.
All of this is a direct challenge but there is no one to blame but ourselves. This is also the heart of the idea that created our current, freedom-loving society and its dissolution will take it away from us. We are required to step outside of the cave, like Plato reminded us all those thousands of years ago, and acquire information in ways that Descartes and Bacon outlined. Yes, both of them also doubted the nature of the information gathering process through our senses, but that also should be applied – a healthy dose of skepticism should be kept close by when consuming information anyway. This is how we liberate ourselves from the cult of the individual, which is reinforced through our social media echo chambers and our limited interactions with one another in our daily lives.