Abbott’s Flatland and Plato’s Cave

Try to explain a variation in color to one who has monochromatic vision. Try to explain the third dimension to a being of Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland. Try to explain the abstract to a being who lives in a world of absolutes.

As humans, our experience of the world is often one of absolutes. We are convinced that either something is or it isn’t. The absolute language we apply to fixtures in our world makes understanding relative aspects of our world exceedingly difficult. If individual perspective is responsible for an individual’s experience of reality, then reality is defined by an individual’s perspective. This idea goes against how most of tend to view the world. That is to say, if we know A+B=C, if we have extensive personal experience to support the idea that A+B=C, and someone tells us A+B=Q, we may be quick to dismiss such a notion. But this dismissal may not be entirly justifiable. Let’s put this in flatland language: If you say A+B=square and I tell you A+B=rectangle, am I disagreeing with you? Certainly not. Basic geometry tells us that a square is a kind of rectangle. Both terms would be accurate in such an equation.

This absolutist perspective many of us hold binds us to a simplified version of the truth. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave paints the image of prisoners chained inside an underground cave, bound to face a wall of this cave for their entire lives. Although they see shadows of the things passing in front of the fire behind them, they have been given no insight into the sources of these shadows or anything outside the world of this wall. Given that the prisoners could converse, it is theorized that they would create names for the figures they saw on the wall in front of them, believing the “truth” was simply the shadows before them ( So what is it that makes us so sure we are not simply naming shadows?

We people have often died for our beliefs. We have often killed for them. And for what? It is scary to think we may just be watching shadows. What would stop the source of one of these shadows from coming up behind us and cutting our throats? This desire for control would seem to inspire us to feel significant discomfort when an opposing perspective is presented. If we do not know all we think we know about the world, how can we anticipate potential threats?

It is this fear that inspires some to say “My god is the correct god. All others are wrong…I will be rewarded while all others will be punished…Any logic supporting the contrary is flawed because my personal history tells me I’m right.” This logic takes an individual’s perspective and declares it is universal. But unique perspectives are as numerous as people on this planet. We say something is either the product of magic or science; it is the product of God’s work or ours; it is evolution or creation. What is it that causes us to believe these forces are contrary?

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