by Jacob Bell
Perception as Illusion
Plato, along with his instructor Socrates, are often
recognized as the minds which began the western philosophical
tradition as we know it today.
Plato's theory of forms and the
Allegory of the Cave are not
only interesting within the history of philosophy, but hold
relevance in regards to both contemporary philosophy and science.
So relevant, in fact,
that a new theory in physics postulates a concept quite similar to
But before we get to that, let's take a quick moment to revisit
Plato's theory of forms...
Depiction of Plato's
Allegory of the Cave
Is Reality an
For Plato, the world as perceived isn't the ultimate reality.
The objects of everyday
life are but shadows of the forms. In the Allegory of the
Cave, Plato relates our false perception of the world of
experience to the idea of shadows on a wall.
Imagine that you were chained up in a cave in such a way that you
could only look at the wall in front of you.
You couldn't look
behind you or turn your head in any direction.
Behind you, in the
distance, is a roaring fire.
In front of the fire
are a variety of objects.
The shadows of those
objects are displayed on the wall in front of you.
Not only would you be
bored out of your mind, you would also be living in illusion...
If you knew no other life than that of the cave, the shadows would
seem to constitute real objects of reality for you. They wouldn't be
simple phantoms or shadows of something which is more real, they
would seem to be the most real, and they would make up your reality.
For Plato, this is
similar to our everyday experience...
Bust of Plato
In the same way that the shadows on the wall don't constitute the
ultimate reality of the objects from which those shadows are
derived, the objects of everyday experience aren't a true or perfect
reflection of ultimate reality either.
The forms, being the ultimate reality, are universal,
timeless, and perfect. The objects of experience are imperfect
imitations of the forms.
triangle is perfect in abstraction, but no perfect triangles can
be found in nature.
The triangles of our
experienced world are but imperfect reflections of the ideal
form of a triangle.
Just as the triangles of
experience are but imperfect reflections of the true form of a
triangle, it is the same with every object of perception, including
things like beauty.
Beauty has an
ideal form of which the beautiful things that we perceive are but
Therefore, the world as
we perceive and experience it to be, is but an imperfect reflection
of the ultimate reality of forms.
Although this is an ancient theory, contemporary physics has renewed
the idea in a radical way.
The idea is called
information realism and was recently covered in an
is Pointing Inexorably to Mind) by Scientific
claims that the objects of everyday experience are not a part of
ultimate reality, but that they are perceptual illusions...
Instead, what is
considered to be the true or ultimate reality is the
underlying mathematics or information itself.
The matter which
allows us to perceive objects in everyday experience is merely
derived from the underlying information.
The information which
underlies the objects of experience is the ultimate reality.
Everything else is
but a perceptual illusion.
just like Plato's theory of forms, uses the epistemological
method of rationalism, as opposed to empiricism, to come to such
that true knowledge of the world is derived through the use of
reason - independent of experience.
that true knowledge of the world is gained through experience
and the use of our senses.
Taking all of this into consideration, is the theory of
information realism a scientific one, or a philosophical
I would argue that it is
philosophical in nature. In fact, many theories in contemporary
physics seem to be more philosophical than scientific.
philosophy and science were at one time a
joint discipline - and even the great Isaac Newton was
considered to be natural philosopher.
Some of the challenges that have been raised against the theory
of forms, could also be raised against information realism.
One such challenge
the idea of an
ultimate reality that is beyond any possible experience
as unknowable in itself.
Is the world as experienced
In other words, if ultimate reality exists in a world beyond
ours, or if true reality is somehow beyond our scope of
How can we say
anything meaningful about it?
How do we know what
this ultimate reality is if we cannot study it in experience?
How do we even know
that there is an ideal world or ultimate reality which exists
How do we know that
such a reality is more than an abstract or mathematical
How can we test these
theories if the world posited by them is seemingly inaccessible?
It is difficult to make
sense out of such theories, which posit a reality beyond our
experience. It is difficult to say anything meaningful about an
ultimate reality which is supposedly more real than our world.
But it is ideas like
these that inspire movies such as
The Matrix, give philosophers
more to think about, and may eventually reunite science and