I can assume we are all familiar with the allegory of the cave, right? If not, well, follow that link for the crash course. I have generally thought about it only in passing because of its account of the blindness and clumsiness that follows illumination. A dream put me in mind of it, so I took a look at it again. It’s a funny allegory. Plato spends so much effort describing the shadows on the wall, but when he moves to describe the intelligible realm, what does he do? He uses the same visual register that defines the shadow realm. Which is sort of weird, right?
When he talks about the intelligible realm, sometimes he is talking about something that sounds sort of scientific while other times he is talking about ecstatic spiritual material. That makes me wonder if Plato might be conflating two distinct phenomena under the rubric of the intelligible world. Which leads me to wonder if the conflation might occur because he is experiencing them together, i.e., that spiritual inspiration is jumpstarting his theoretical work.
Geometry is definitely one of the keystone sciences of Plato’s time. The forms di definitely have something in common with geometric patterns as abstractions describing muddier objects in the material world. The standardization of geometry allows us to see ‘through the world’ to structures that can be generalized to many different situations. That generalizability gives them the appearance of both independance and reality, which leads Plato to postulate an independent domain for their existence.
Plato also talks about actual spirits, too. Socrates seems to take his daimon seriously and some of the descriptions in the Phaedrus and Timaeus, for example, seem intended to describe actual spiritual realms and spiritual beings. While the geometric-scientific knowledge he describes has some connection to this level, it is not clear at all that it is identical with it.
Plato seems to be aware of the tension even if he doesn’t quite know what to do with it. The Socrates of the Meno openly asks whether the sort of intelligible knowledge he describes might have an existence independent of the gods who promote it, but, nonetheless, in the allegory of the cave he places the forms in a separate realm that lies closer to the gods than to man even though we have reason to think it applies best to the shadows themselves.
I’m not knocking Plato; I have some 2400 years of people grappling with this at my disposal. We do still depend an awful lot on his formulations. What if the daimons and gods that Plato describes are as real as they come and connected to a spiritual world, but that the knowledge they bring belongs firmly to our own world? What if the experience of the intelligible realm is more theater than Plato imagined?
What we see in the allegory of the cave might be less a crash course in a higher realm but a demonstration of the material world according to simpler principles, stick figure theater or a graph. It may be a means of establishing that some fundamental commonalities exist through which communication might occur (akin to how PK Dick thought of Flow My Tears the Policeman Said as a signal test).
It could also be incidental to the encounter, a sort of productive glitch that occurs when we interact with spirits. I have often mused if we might be the equivalent of spiritual probes, launched into the material world, in which case these sorts of things might be the spirits trying to make sense of all the data, using the brain as a computation device.