Caving with Plato


The Squares have uniform colour but are not flat

I recently spend a morning at The Design Museum in London. The Breathing Colour exhibition by Hella Jongerius was great. There was a quote from the guide “A Shadow Philosophy” p24 Breathing Colour, Hella Jongerius. It links Plato’s philosophy to the work on our perception of colour.

We don’t see colour in an unbiased way. Lighting, shadows and materials all affect how we see things in the world.

Plato’s Cave; Understanding of the world is derived from shadows cast on the wall from passing objects. The shadows are the prisoners reality, not the objects that cast them. The prisoners have no experience of real objects, and yet they give names to them, and extract an understanding of them, purely from the shadows.

If they step outside the cave and see the real world, they cannot go back. Their colleagues in the cave would not believe them of the world outside.

Outside in the Real World

Those outside see a true world, and it’s so much richer, with only the shadows cast by reality being seen by those in the cave. How privileged we are to see the world as we do.

What we see of the world outside is seen through our biased lenses. There is so much we can’t see, either because of a physical bias, like the spectrum of the wavelengths we see and hear, or because we can only really see the things we have name for, that make it through our cognitive biases, because they are unusual, and we’re paying attention. Or maybe they reinforce what we believe.

We cannot ‘see’ things that we cannot name. To understand new things we need a new language. Knowing that our perceptions are biased we should seek out as many viewpoints that use different language to describe what is seen if we care about getting out of our cave.

Caves all the way down

We should also know that outside of our cave, we’re just in another cave, seeing and talking about things that people who never left the old cave can’t comprehend.

The understanding we get from the shadows on the wall of our cave are all we have, and all we can have. We’re working with our limited and biased information receptors, and we can only see using the bandwidth provided by our current lens, our current cave.

Limits of Metaphors

Metaphors revel and conceal insights. Their power is also their weakness. When writing this I first used the metaphor of the cave ‘above’ and ‘below’. Above / Below suggests a hierarchy of caves and knowledge. This made me feel uneasy  with above being better and below worse, and there being a top cave. So I changed it to say different. I feel happier with this. There isn’t a place where we can see see reality outside of our biases.

In fact, Anil Seth argues that our brains hallucinate our reality. Reality is our brains filling in the gaps in the limited information we have.

What we perceive has as much to do with out internal pattern matching than what is received though our receptors. Our internal pattern matching depends on the patterns we’ve matched before. Ouch, we’re locked in our cave.

This has big implications when talking to others about our ideas, and we are looking for the right thing to do. How do we know when we have enough ways of looking at things?

This short video on Plato’s Cave below suggests that people get angry when their ignorance is pointed out. Plato was killed for his beliefs, and he likes pointing out other people’s ignorance. It could be that a perspective that makes you angry is the one that you don’t want to be without?

When we’re looking to make or suggest the right thing to do, how can we know we’ve got enough perspectives?

Critically challenging our understanding

An approach called Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) may help us to systematically challenge our perspectives. CSH asks us, and the people affected by the situation to challenge the decision boundaries in use for proposed action. Asking are these shadows on the wall sufficient? Do I need to go to a different cave?

In CSH we get others to answer the same questions we’ve answered and we see the differences.

This diagram from Sjon van ’t Hof shows how we can question motivation, power, knowledge and legitimacy.


I’m suggestion that there is no correct answer to the question of how many perspectives. There isn’t a hierarchy that can be scaled, but we can be critical of the decisions we make in a repeatable systematic way, and be open to challenge.

There may not be a reality out there, but we can still try to understand and act in the best way we can.






Yes, and ....

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