The Allegory of the Theater

SUBJECT: Metaphysical Interpretation

L. Kurt Engelhart

In his Republic, Plato asks us us to consider a strange venue within which human understanding takes place, the Allegory of the Cave. Here I describe Plato's venue in contemporary terms, reinterpreting it in the "light" of recent observations on the nature of consciousness.
Where Am I? Who Am I? The Universe and You (Me)
The Universe as Theater The Nature of Reality Email

Where Am I?

Picture consciousness, and your own awareness, as floating somewhere disembodied in the void we understand as the universe. Let your awareness travel toward that sphere we experience as the Earth. You come down through the atmosphere and into a bustling city, where, there on a sunlit noon-day street crowded with pedestrians, you seek your own body.

How will you know your own body when you see it? How will you even recognize one of those images and shapes of every color, size and texture as being in any way related to "you?" Maybe you are a car, maybe a tree, maybe a pigeon. All of these entities are arrayed before you in a whirl of mystifying complexity. You are drawn toward a figure relaxed on a park bench and, suddenly, everything goes dark.

You are aware of warm smells, a light breeze, noises of traffic and talking, and a hard surface supporting you. You open your eyes. Surrounded by buildings, people, vehicles and the entire universe, you remember you need to get back to work.

Who Am I?

I see myself, and you see yourself, in the world we inhabit. A lot of evidence supports the idea that our "self" is the first thing we can identify as our consciousness develops. When things happen, they happen to "me." Feelings and other sensations are uniquely "mine." Hands, feet, and other things that happen to me as I develop are first identified as being specific to me, and mine. A long time later, in development terms, I understand that "you" have similar characteristics, outside and inside.

I have no difficulty in distinguishing characteristics that are mine from those that are yours, because mine are attached to me. However, this is only known after acquiring sufficient experience with these things. We notice that certain things are responsive to our desires and we conclude that these things belong to us as individuals. If we lose control of something we thought was ours, we suffer a distinctly disagreeable loss to our identity.

The Universe and You (Me)

Since we understand that our self, and the universe around us, develops as a result of our experience, our original consciousness has to be a thing "outside" of the universe as we experience it. We observe the universe, and the world around us, as if it was a theater observed by a disembodied awareness.

At first, we do not understand who created the theater. We are required to create rational explanations for the existence of this world before we can understand it and the place our self inhabits in it. Because our consciousness seems obviously associated with one of players (the one where we look out of its eyes and feel its sensations), we understand that player as being our self.

We observe the worldly embodiment of our selves and we notice that there are other bodies with the same configuration. We conclude that these must be other bodies like our self and that these bodies must each contain a consciousness like our consciousness. We do not come to these conclusions in isolation but by conversing with these other selves and coming to an agreement about who we are, where we are, and what we are doing here

The Universe as Theater

Our collection of stories about the universe and everything (including ourselves) that is in it is the only way we have of understanding the reality we all experience. Whether this experience is good or bad theater completely depends on how well we do our job of writing the script. We are discovering more every day about how the script could be made better. However, every change in the script has to have a rational seque, a smooth transition to a new way of understanding the plot. What has already been written has a strong influence on what (rationally) can be written, and understood.

Doing this job of writing the script properly depends a lot on understanding that there is a script and understanding the nature of the script writing process. Essentially, there has to be a script on how to write the script. That is what I am trying to write here.

I want to emphasize that I am trying to describe the way the larger script is written, not how the script should read. We need to decide together what should be in the script, and we already have made much progress on the script for how we make decisions together. That script is called "democracy," and Plato, the writer of the original "Allegory," wrote substantial parts of it.

The Nature of Reality

Reality is a social construction. A symbolic universe can be constructed by any individual but it is the effect of social influences that brings that universe to its full potential. A mutually acceptable construction is possible only because of the common foundation upon which the structure is based: DNA. DNA provides virtually identical symbolic objects for each subject and provides shared archetypes giving these objects fundamental meanings. From there, the shared ability to manipulate symbols and use them for tools within a cooperative setting generates the reality, or realities, we all experience. As adults, we all forget we were not born with the reality we inhabit intact. We eventually reify that reality and use it as if it was absolute. Our success at the reification project, that takes much of our lives, is recognized socially as our competence.

Let's work together to make sure we are producing a comedy rather than a tragedy.

Index of Essays

Please e-mail your impressions