virus: Rationality in the Cave

Sat, 06 Mar 1999 17:21:21 -0800

Prisoners chained up in Plato's cave develop a self-correcting system for cutting and controlling the shadows on the wall. Their science is validated by increasingly consistant predictive success. Of course, one of the prisoners gets out of the cave for a bit. She walks on the grass under the sky, feels the breeze on her cheek, soaks up the sun's warmth, takes in a multitude of unfamiliar sights, scents, sounds, tactile and proprioceptive sensations and struggles with focal selection.

Of course, she is returned to her place in the cave. At first, because her eyes are adapted are to light levels higher than she'd ever experienced in the cave, she is unable to see the shadows on the wall, and when her eyes do re-adjust, she is unable to treat the shadow games with the gravity that her fellow prisoners do. She tries to explain what she has experienced, but she has only the vocabulary developed to describe the shadows on the wall with which to try to convey to her fellow cave-dwellers what she experienced outside of the cave.

We all know this story, so I'll cut to the chase. One of the prisoners is insistent that the rationality of the cave bodes ill for the notion that there is an "outside." Cave Rationality (CR) is pretty labirythine stuff, so it's hard to be sure, but none of the big shadows in view just now lend any credence to this whole "outside" business, and more to the point, he doesn't like being told that the CR at which he is impressively adept is somehow inferior to this fuzzy "outside" bullshit.

Because she can't present any sort of convincing case for her experience using CR (she doesn't even try--the absurdity of such a project prompts lingering bouts of maniacal laughter) the CR silverbacks label her continued belief, which flies in the face of all available evidence (or seems to at first blush--again, this CR stuff is pretty complex, and nobody can credibly claim to have followed its every twisting corridor to its final conclusion), faith. And what is faith? Faith is exempting in principle some representation(s) from rational criticism.

In this case, the representation which the CR silverbacks insist that she isn't willing to question is the proposition that the range of phenomena which CR can cut and control is in fact a rather small and pale subset of what there is to experience. She KNOWS that this is the case, but since she seems to be back in the cave for a while, she's certainly willing to play the CR game. She listens carefully as one of the silverbacks lays out a CR trail that leads from a set of shared observations and concervative axioms to the conclusion that any experience of getting outside the cave is a hallucination, and within the realm of CR, he makes a pretty convincing case. Given her experience, is the silverback's case likely to convince her that her memories of having been outside are mere delusion, or is it more likely to demonstrate to her the very limitted scope of cave rationality?

Now, one of the prisoners who is situated close to her, and who was never one of the CR superstars detects an unfamiliar scent on the prisoner who claims to have been outside the cave, and what's more, her story just seems to "ring true" to his ears, and the unfamiliar scent, for him, adds credence to her story. This prisoner is now a believer. The silverbacks don't smell anything out of the ordinary, of course, and what's more, CR doesn't recognize "strange smells" as legitimate evidence.

The silverbacks roll their eyes dismisivley at the new believer. She has infected the believer with her faith. The silverbacks call the believer's acceptance of her story "faith," and they apply this same lable to her belief that her experiences were something other than a hallucination, but wouldn't you agree that his belief and hers are rather different? They can be expressed in CR semantics with the same string of representations, but they arrise from very different sets of experiences.

Suppose the believer, while only marginally proficient with CR, is charismatic and a good speaker and he manages to convice a few other cave dwellers to share his belief. They believe on the basis of his convincing rhetoric. They did not catch a whiff of the unfamiliar oder that won over the first believer, and so their belief has a different causal history than that of both the one-time escapee and her charasmatic convert. Still their belief can be described in CR lingo as being identical to both that of the one who'd actually been outside and that of her first convert. It's all "faith" to the CR silverbacks.

That group of believers raise their children in the faith. By this point, it seems to me that you've got at least four different kinds of belief in the escapees story, but in CR semantics, it's all the same thing; faith.

All the kids raised in the escapee's faith live in the cave, and they all have to use CR to play the shadow games which are the currency of cave life. Some of them see that appearent conflict between CR and their faith and renounce the faith. Others try to reconcile the two and do some pretty aggregious violence to CR in the process. The silverbacks like to point to this group as the paradigm exemplars of "the faithful."

Others don't worry too much about the contradiction. They play the shadow game and strive for the rewards it offers and pay lipservice to the idea that there is an outside because doing so gives them a place in the community of the "faithfull" and the support of that community.

A few of these kids try to get out of the cave to see for themselves. They try the various methods reported to have worked for previous seekers and have a wide variety of experiences. Some don't get very far at all and are conviced by their experiement that CR really is the best game in town; the only legitimate way to slice and dice. Others come back disoriented and talking what the CR silverbacks consider to be complete arse dribble. After a while, they settle back into the cave routine and take up the shadow games once more, and the CR crowd take this resumption to be a vindication for CR. Other's return from their escape attempts and say nothing of their experiences. Perhaps they have seen things that CR suggests lie only in the realm of hallucination and delusion and remain on the fence. It's hard to say, as they ain't talkin'.

My point:

People come to form their seemingly irrational beliefs in a variety of ways, and to ignore the causal history of these beliefs; to catagorize and define them strictly in terms of their semantic content; to say faith equals x is to opperate with a very blunt instrument.