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Plato’s dream and our modern nightmare

Plato’s dream and our modern nightmare

In a recent conversation a friend of mine described our modern understanding of the world around us as a conspiracy theory of the grandest proportions.

We posit theories which tell us that the phenomena we witness are merely ephemera resulting from an underlying structure of whirring particles—not even atoms anymore, but subatomic particles in such categories as bosons, leptons and quarks. This conspiracy gives us the theater that is our everyday experience, experience that cannot be explained in its own terms, but must be understood to be the result of forces hidden from our eyes and ultimately from all our other senses. The surface of things cannot be trusted.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato gave us the first version of such a world in his theory of forms. Everything in our everyday existence is a pale imitation of ideal forms in the real world, he said. The perfect tiger exists in a different dreamlike realm where it offers a template for an actual tiger. The perfect chair in this other realm acts in a similar way. Our world is not the real one, but a mere ghost orchestrated by the real world which we can never know directly.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant appeared to update Plato with his categories of understanding. We humans understand the world using a sort of pre-programmed set of categories. Because of this we can never know a thing-in-itself. We are forever separated from the world we live in, doomed to perceive mere shadows as in Plato’s metaphorical cave.

Today, having arrived at the subatomic level, we build huge particle colliders to break matter into ever smaller bits, trying to get to the nub of existence, but never imagining that the world just might be “turtles all the way down.”

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