Home Concepts Decison Making & Problem Solving In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

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Experts are in trouble. And our whole society is in trouble. We don’t know what to believe and our experts often seem to have only a tenuous grasp on reality. As we have noted in this set of essays, these concerns are societal products of late 20th and early 21st Century thought. I would also note that there is a much earlier source: the voice of Socrates as heard through the writing of Plato. Socrates (Plato) offered a critique of ways in which we view reality –and how we should view the role of “experts”–through an allegory of the cave.

Plato’s Cave

Let’s briefly visit this cave. It is filled with people who have lived all of their lives chained to a wall in the cave. These people watch shadows projected on the wall in front of them. These shadows are being projected on the wall from things passing in front of a fire that remains lit behind them. The cave dwellers believe the shadows are reality.

Are we all living in a cave? Do we never gain a clear view of reality, but instead view only the shadows that are projected on the walls of our cave? We live with an image of reality (shadows on the wall of the cave) rather than with reality itself. Plato concluded that we have no basis for knowing whether we are seeing the shadow or seeing reality, given that we have always lived in the cave. Plato thus speaks to us from many centuries past about the potential fallacy to be found in a static objectivist perspective regarding the world—since we can never know whether we are living in the cave or living in the world of reality outside the cave.

Today, most of us live in a world that is becoming increasingly complex, unpredictable, turbulent—and contradictory. Turning back to Plato’s allegory, we live with an expanded cast of characters in the cave. First, there is something or someone standing near the fire in the cave. Part of the fire’s glow is blocked, thus limiting the shadow-images cast on the wall. The blocking feature can be a cultural or personal narrative that we absorb during our daily personal and collective lives.

Narratives and perspectives block out some of the light coming from the fire in the cave. Not only don’t we actually see reality, there is something that determines which parts of objective reality get projected onto the wall. Those holding the partition that blocks out some of the fire’s light have themselves grown up in the cave but may hold a quite different agenda from other cave dwellers.

There is yet another character in our contemporary cave. This is the interpreter, reporter or analyst—or the “expert”. We actually don’t have enough time in our busy lives to look directly at the wall to see the shadows that are projected from the fire (which we assume is the “real” world). The cave has grown very large, and we often can’t even see the walls of the cave and the shadows. We wait for the interpreter to tell us what is being projected on the wall and what the implications of these images are for us in our lives.

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