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Plato's Allegory of the Cave

January 11, 2017


We live in a world of mysteries, weirdness, and madness.


You're in for a long haul. This might not be to your liking. But this famous adage of Jean-Jacques Rosseau always comes to my mind.

"I know full well that the reader has no great desire to know all this, but I have the desire to them of it."

Anyway, there's no harm in trying. See how far you can go.

Going deep into the world of atoms reminds me of the kind of life the people live in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In a symbolic way, Plato described it in the form of dialogues with his mentor Socrates as the principal speaker, conversing with a certain Glaucon (supposedly Plato himself) to answer humanity’s fundamental concerns:

- What is the ultimate nature of reality?

- What or who are we?

- Why are we here?

- What is our future?

In the cave were people who had been living there since birth. In front of them is an endless movie projected from a digitized camera through a laser beam at their back. Their daily lives revolved around watching this movie.

Chained on their feet and unable to see the projector at their back, the prisoners inside the cave gradually identified themselves as the actors and actresses in the movie.

They became part of the movie whose roles were already written by an invisible scriptwriter, their actions choreographed by an unknown director.

Having known no other world, they considered the cave as the only reality, unaware that they were simply playing a role designed for them.

They refused to leave their seats, much less get out of the movie inside the cave. There was no other reality except the one they were seeing and experiencing inside the dark cavern. There is no other world but this dark hole.

Then the plot changed. Some prisoners were allowed to turn their backs and see the movie camera suspended steadily in an elevated platform behind them.

Soon they realized that the world they were calling the only reality was merely an illusion, a material expression, and a shadow of the light emitted by the laser. What they perceived as real was unreal.

They wandered around the dark cave and soon discovered a little opening that led to the outside world, which they were unable to approach at first because of the glaring light. After a while, they drew closer and were able to have a quick look at the outside.

Still unknown to them, many feared and returned to their respective seats, preferring instead to continue the kind of life they had been accustomed to.

Others became curious and explored the outside world. Once outside, they immediately experienced another kind of life. The light was so bright, its glare dazzling and annoying them, having been used to the darkness and shadows all their lives.

Outside, they were free to do what they wanted, wandering and moving to and fro but not really knowing where to go and what to do. Their lives outside were chaotic and confusing.

Overwhelmed by the sights and sounds, the changing seasons of the times, the vastness of space, as well as the freedom they were not familiar with, they gave up and returned to the dark cave, preferring life inside the rabbit hole, so to say. It was their home.

Of those who refused to go back inside, some found life very difficult. Recidivism often took its course. Many went back in and out of the cave. Eventually, however, a few got settled in their newly found world.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave also depicts what it means to live in the atomic world. The quantum world is a dark world, undetectable to our senses. Unlike that of the cave, instead of real people, tiny particles move restlessly around the place.

An observer watching outside would immediately realize that these particles move in incoherent, inexplicable, and mysterious ways.

Particles jump from one region to another leaving no traces in between, tunneling through solid particles regardless of distance, inability to predict where they go next, or whether they will reappear at all or not, and if they would, where they would land next. It is as if they are living in many worlds and possess many lives of their own.

The same observer would soon find out that the life these particles live is the same holographic representation of the digitized movie projected through a laser beam and that their story had already been written by a scriptwriter.

To the observer, the quantum world is a mysterious and baffling world since things and events occur without any regard to the classical laws of physics and the principle of cause and effect.

Even a genius and persistent observer like Albert Einstein is unable to explain this world. He tried. He once said:

"Nature shows us only the tail of the lion. But I do not doubt that the lion belongs to it even though he cannot at once reveal himself because of his enormous size."

But he failed and can only exclaim that the behaviors of these quantum particles are "spooky." He and many of his colleagues, including the founders of quantum physics, failed because they remained too engrossed in using the tools and standards of classical physics.

To this day, scientists are still in a race to discover that one formula that could explain and unite the classical/relativist and the quantum worlds in a coherent way, using the tools and standards of physics.

I believe the Cosmos will not reveal to them in full unless they get out of their box and explore what is outside. ###