Escape from Plato’s cave

Many years ago, while in the basement of my house, I formed an intention to do something – I have forgotten what – and got up from my couch to do it.  About half an hour later, I realized I was doing something entirely different.

What had happened?  Nobody interrupted.  Nothing distracted me or stood in the way of realizing the original intention.  I just ended up doing something else.  The question posed itself, with uncanny force:  who’s in charge of me?

Since that long-ago moment, I have known that some indeterminate portion of human activity is beneath the threshold of awareness – the usual term is unconscious, but I prefer nonconscious, because it’s more like the working of a machine than, say, Freud’s tortured repressions.  These aren’t painful memories we have cast out of consciousness.  These are behaviors taking place wholly behind the back of the conscious mind.

Research has confirmed my intuition:  I have touched on this theme before.  The degree of human automaticity remains in doubt, and it’s hard to see how that might change.  Can a completely mechanical contraption prove to itself that it is devoid of conscious will?  But I believe we can assert, without drowning in paradox, that a larger part of our behavior than we credit is controlled by the Night side of the brain.

Time Magazine (via Instapundit) has reported on the work being carried out in this field.  One recent paper, available only behind the payment walls of Science, makes the case that “under some conditions, actions are initiated even though we are unconscious of the goals to be attained or their motivating effect on our behavior.”  The authors contend that the pursuit of goals is often driven “by the social situation without conscious awareness of the activation and operation of the goal.”

If this isn’t drastic enough, the gist of a second, older paper is easy enough to deduce from the title:  “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being.”

I won’t dwell on the experiments behind this line of research.  They have the virtues and vices typical of cognitive science:  extremely clever, extremely artificial.  And, for what it’s worth, I don’t believe I’m in the grip of an unbearable automaticity.  To some unknown degree, I am free, following pathways, even at Night, laid down under the light of freedom.

Still, an honest reckoning must take notice of the nonconcious.  I am a mind and a machine:  and often the former is bamboozled by the latter.  Like all humanity, I am a dweller in Plato’s cave, mistaking shadow for substance, offering reasons for my actions which justify rather than explain.  The knowledge I possess – the books I read, the experience of a lifetime, the thoughts I think and write down in this blog – always must stand on shaky ground.

This is cause for modesty.  Next to courage, modesty is the noblest of the virtues, and it is the rarest of all.  Modesty teaches us to listen.  The guy with the loud voice and the contradictory opinion may actually be right.  Modesty also encourages a respect for received wisdom – the creeds and lifeways of one’s culture – because only an accumulation of perspectives, such as a culture contains, can prise substance and truth from flickering shadow.

The question “Who is in charge of me?” doesn’t have an easy answer.  I am responsible for my actions.  In the culture that has shaped my life, personal responsibility is the basis of morality and law.  Yet I must lean heavily for support on this culture which insists on my personal sovereignty.  Irony or paradox – doesn’t matter:  both are dissolved by the modesty necessary to a dweller of Plato’s cave.

There is a natural, if immodest, reaction to the human predicament.  Clever, educated people imagine they can escape from Plato’s cave:  somehow they think they, and they alone, can shed the burden of the machine and live on mind alone.  The argument sounds implausible, but has an illustrious lineage.  Plato himself embraced it.  He invented the cave for lesser beings, not brilliant minds like his own.

The two papers highlighted above cite the evidence, draw conclusions about the power of the nonconscious, and leave the reader to work out the consequences.  Not so Time Magazine.  The lesson it draws from the uncertainty of human knowledge isn’t modesty but regulation.  We are to fear mind control by advertisers; one brilliant expert is quoted as saying that “policymakers are beginning to understand that ‘personal choice’ may be a weak counter to heavy advertising.”

The answer?  “Remove such stimuli” – an antiseptic way of saying “government control over the means of persuasion.”

For this to work, however, two propositions must be shown to be true.  First, Plato has to be right in his belief that a few superior minds can transcend the power of nonconscious stimuli.  Such enlightened types would never get up from their couches to do anything other than what was intended.  Second, “policymakers” must belong to the class of superior minds.

No research I am aware of allows an escape hatch from the human condition.  The machine keeps a tight grip on the aging philosopher no less than the lusting teenager.  We are reasonably certain today, for example, that Plato’s own explanations, whatever their symbolic merit, fail the test of reality.  Sadly but predictably, Plato was a dweller in Plato’s cave.

As for the idea that politicians transcend potent hardwired urges, it is laughable enough to spare us the need for refutation.

The Times Magazine expert worries about a “toxic environment” created by advertisers who show smiling models on a beach drinking cola and eating fast food.  Because we can’t resist such stimuli, he implies, our rulers must remove them from the environment.  Yet every choice entails a tradeoff.  The stimuli of power, of control over people’s lives, is every bit as irresistible as a model’s most charming smile.

Between the slob who inflicts a Coke and Big Mac on himself, and the “policymaker” who inflicts his ideological-biological urges on me, the call, I think, is an easy one.


One Response to Escape from Plato’s cave

  1. Jackson says:


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