An Allegory of Two Caves

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Plato’s Cave.

The 5th century BC philosopher Plato, in his book The Republic, tells the story of the famous Allegory of the Cave. The allegory is a conceptual device to help the reader see the distinction between appearance and reality. In the story, prisoners in the cave see only the shadow shapes of real objects as they are projected onto a wall. There is a fire providing enough light to act as the projector of the images. Between the fire and the wall, the images are created by puppeteers who are hiding behind a parapet which prevents the prisoners from seeing them and their role in making images appear. As described by the scholar Francis M. Cornford:

A modern Plato would compare his Cave to an underground cinema, where the audience watch the play of shadows thrown by the film passing before a light at their backs. The film itself is only an image of ‘real’ things and events on the world outside the cinema. For the film, Plato has to substitute the clumsier apparatus of a procession of artificial objects carried on their heads by persons who are merely part of the machinery, providing the movement of objects and the sounds whose echo the prisoners hear. The parapet prevents these persons’ shadows from being cast on the wall of the Cave. (Cornford 1974:228).

According to Plato, only when the ‘prisoners’ are able to leave the cave and see the real world in sunlight, can they appreciate the difference between appearance and reality. In society, those with genuine knowledge, gained as a result of education and hard work, will be able to make enlightened decisions about what to do when governing. The governors, or what Plato called ‘Philosopher Kings’, are in the best position to make the distinction between appearance and reality and are the ones whose judgement should be trusted.[1]

The modern equivalent of Plato’s ‘allegory of the cave’ is ‘fake news’ and the inability of many people to tell the difference between appearance and reality. Similar to how Plato saw the lives of ordinary people in ancient Greece, most are ‘imprisoned’ in the filmic realm of appearance generated by social media and entertainment and believe that ‘appearance’ to be the one and only reality. They can have no uncertainty about this because they are not able to critically evaluate the possibility of illusion and trickery.

The Cave in Thailand

We have just witnessed a contemporary version of the allegory of the cave when a group of teenage boys and their 25 year-old soccer coach were trapped in a flooded cave complex in Thailand for 18 days. As part of a birthday celebration the team ventured into Tham Luang Nang Non or “cave of the reclining lady”, a local place of worship, admiration and mystery.[2] For them, it was also a rite of passage to mark the names of new team players on the deepest cave walls.

While entering the cave had been a known historical risk, the boys ignored signs that warned about this, especially during the monsoon season when flooding can cause sections of the cave to become submerged. Some locals had even warned that the signage was inadequate because of increased flooding in recent years, however, the authorities had not changed the warning signs in spite of that knowledge.

Most likely unknown to the boys and most elders of the area, the risk of flash flooding has become elevated in the last few decades as anthropogenic climate change has altered the monsoon patterns so that there is now greater variability in rain intensity and duration. A recent study on the monsoon in India concluded, “So, just about everything about the monsoon is changing – rainfall intensity, duration, frequency and spatial distribution.”

The boys (and their coach) failed to heed the warning at the entrance of the cave because past experience encouraged them into thinking that June 23 2018 was a safe day to enter the cave and an expectation that the heavy monsoon rains would not start until July when the monsoon historically began. Thousands had successfully completed such excursions before so it was reasonable to believe that they would be safe. In this belief, there is good support for the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s story of the inductivist chicken:

Experience has shown us that, hitherto, the frequent repetition of some uniform succession or coexistence has been the cause of our expecting the same succession or coexistence on the next occasion …

And this kind of association is not confined to men; in animals it is also very strong. A horse which has been often driven along a certain road resists the attempt to drive him in a different direction. Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who usually feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been more useful to the chicken. (Bertrand Russell 1974, The Problems of Philosophy, 34-35)

Combined, the power of the legend of the cave and past historical experience, meant the boys were literally trapped in a false expectation that their excursion would lead to their successful birthday celebration and the initiation ceremony in a ‘normal’ cave and a safe exit from it. The elders in the area were in no position to be the philosopher kings because their knowledge was incomplete and they fell ‘foul’ of the inductivist fallacy.

The ‘wisdom of the elders’ was no longer relevant in a region where anthropogenic climate change had changed the base-line expectations about monsoon rain. How were they to know that from June 23 to June 28, “… though the total June rainfall in the area, 9.6 inches, was only slightly higher than average, five of those inches fell between June 21 and 28, according to Eric Leister, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather (See: Kendra Pierre-Louis 2018).

Hence, climate change has altered the expectations of predictability and risk, the boys and their coach had become victims of the inductivist fallacy within their own allegory of the cave. The ‘scientist kings’ had given warnings about the changing monsoon and its heightened risks, yet the boys and a region, dependent on tourism and pilgrimage centred on the attractor of the cave, were effectively deaf and blind to their message.

Seeing the Light

 The successful effort to rescue the boys and their coach from the cave has huge implications for all people over the world. Past experience of weather-related events is no longer a sound basis for making decisions. Inductive reasoning has always been at risk of miscalculation, but now, the risk due to an erratic climate has become unacceptable for all forms of planning.

The Thailand cave incident was potentially disastrous for the boys, and their extraction was dangerous for all concerned (indeed, a Thai ex-Navy Seal died in the rescue effort) yet it told us something valuable about humanity. There has been universal praise for the collective nature of the rescue effort. Collaboration between people from different cultures with diverse expertise made possible what seemed for a while to be an impossible situation. The value of life, in this case, boys and a young man, was sufficient to muster a massive collaborative effort. An immediate and clear danger to them all was identified and dealt with.

Contrast this response to the chronic danger that is now being confronted by millions of young people world-wide who are effectively dealing with their own massive cave. The adult world that currently governs their lives is largely infatuated with a world of shadows. They even have their own mini-theatres, the small screen devices and virtual reality headsets to keep them perpetually in the world of appearance.[3] Global leaders such as the President of the United States, Donald Trump, who deny the reality of climate change, prefer to live within the cave of Fake News and its Twitterings. His view is ‘certain knowledge’ to him as he knows no distinction between appearance and reality. He doesn’t even know that the cave he is trapped within is flooding and about to drown all those, including his own family, within its depths.

The knowledge to advise or prevent the boys from entering the cave was not made available to them. The knowledge to prevent the rest of humanity from entering such a cave is not being made available to them either. A global consortium was able to re-enter the cave to rescue the boys from the world of shadows, however, the big issue that remains is how enlightened ones will be able to enter the ‘cave of denial’ in order to bring its occupants back out into the sunlight.

The truth of anthropogenic climate change has been learnt the hard way by the boys and their rescuers, and it is a lesson that must now warn their elders and leaders on how to avoid being drowned in the cave of denial. It is a lesson for the whole world.

To learn the truth about climate change requires time, effort and education. With such knowledge, political power becomes a gift to all human communities, for as Plato argues, leadership should be seen as a burden rather than a source of self-interested temptation. The section on the Allegory of the Cave in The Republic ends with these thoughts:

… the truth is that you can have a well-governed society only if you can discover for your future rulers a better way of life than being in office; then only will power be in the hands of men (sic) who are rich, not in gold, but in the wealth that brings happiness, a good and wise life. (Plato, The Republic (Cornford Trans) 1974 OUP, 235. V11.520).

The philosopher kings in The Republic may have been replaced by scientist-kings in this century, but the story is the same. Power is easily corrupted by appearance and fake news. Good governance requires a community of scholarship and a detailed knowledge of reality and the critical ability to distinguish between it and appearance. The allegory of the two caves is now available to us all to leave the darkness of denial and to emerge into the sunlit heat and power of the reality of climate change.


[1] In the contemporary context, given a heightened degree of public ecoliteracy, we could all become philosopher kings.

[2] As part of the history and the mystery of the cave, there may even be a sexual connotation for young men as the legend of the cave tells that it was the hiding place of the Princess of Sip Song Panna and her low-status lover. The lover was killed by soldiers sent by an enraged father while the pregnant princess committed suicide by stabbing herself at the loss of her love. The shape of the mountains around the cave are thought to be those of a woman lying on her back. The water flowing through the cave complex is said to be the princess’s blood. Entering the cave is thus a symbolic ‘rite of passage’.

[3] The same technologies can deliver liberation from ‘appearance’, however, the dominance of commercial interests running the www ensure that information is, at best, loaded in favour of particular appearances.