I spent the morning last Friday with two eighth grade classes in the first sessions of a unit I teach every year on “Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust.” I teach the unit with Jane Orme, the eighth grade language arts teacher at Liberty Bell Junior High School, and over the past four years we have worked each year to improve it. I thought I would write a series of posts on the unit this year.

The first class is an introduction to philosophy. We read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and talk about the questions it raises about how we can know things about the world, as well as related questions. We read the allegory aloud and then break up into small groups in each class, discussing a series of questions I give to the students on a handout, and then we come back together. The five questions on the handout are:

Would you want to be released from the cave? Why or why not?
What is like the cave in our world?
How is the way you understand the world, your ideas and beliefs, shaped by the actions of others?
Who has the power to shape your ideas and beliefs? In what ways is this good and in what ways is it not so good?
Are there things you know to be true? What are they, and how do you know them?

Usually most of the students immediately say they would want to be released from the cave, and so before I give them these questions I suggest that they think about the first question as follows: imagine that an alien from another galaxy appears to you and tells you that everything you think they are experiencing is an illusion (many of the students are familiar with the film The Matrix, and I compare this situation to Neo’s choice to take the red or the blue pill), and that you have the opportunity to experience the true world if you go with the alien. This will mean leaving everyone and everything to which you are attached, knowing that what you learn will likely transform your lives and make your relationships very difficult when you return.

As the students were analyzing the questions, Jane and I walked around the room in both classes and talked with the various groups. The students took seriously the difficulty of deciding whether to leave the cave. Most of them said they would do it, from curiosity, a desire to know the truth, and because they thought they would regret it eventually if they didn’t take this chance. Other students cited the fear that after they would returned they would experience great loneliness and isolation, as well as their need for security and familiarity, as reasons that they would choose to stay in the cave. One student reflected, “I think human beings have an ingrained need to be connected with other people, and leaving everything in our world and being the only one to know the truth would be too painful.”

In each class, when we came back together we had lively discussions about what is like the cave in our world and what we know to be true. The students quickly concluded that the whole world is like the cave, because, as one student put it, “everything we experience is based on rules and assumptions and beliefs that we usually just accept.” The students clearly recognized that there were many influences on their ideas and beliefs, and they noted that it’s difficult to know if anything you think or believe is uninfluenced by some external person or force. One student asserted, “Everything we think is influenced by something or someone. Our parents influence us. Our friends. Religion. You come into our classroom today and teach us to question things, and that also becomes an influence on what we think.”

When asked what they know to be true, the students agreed that once you start thinking about it, it’s hard to come up with something you know is true, as opposed to just believe is true. One student offered that he knew that he was sitting in the classroom. Other students disagreed, contending that he could be fooled into thinking he was experiencing something when in fact he was just hooked up to a machine (as in The Matrix) and just experiencing only in his mind what he thought was the external world.

I told the class about Nick Bostrom at Oxford University and his assumption that in the future advanced humans will be able to run “ancestor simulations” by creating virtual worlds run by virtual ancestors with highly developed virtual nervous systems. In this world, the number of virtual ancestors would be far greater than the number of real ancestors. Couldn’t the odds be good, then, that we’re all virtual ancestors? How would we know the difference?

“Okay,” responded a quiet girl sitting near the front of the room, “but what I can know is that if I’m thinking about what I can know, I can be sure that at least there is me thinking, even if that’s all I can know about myself or anything else.”

I thought this was breathtaking. I told her that Descartes had come to a similar conclusion almost 400 years ago when he was thinking about this problem.

And then, of course, the difficult question: does this lead us to anything else we can know? We talked a little about recognizing that the comfortable assumptions with which we conduct our daily lives might all be wrong, that they are at the very least open to question. Which I think is a central insight of philosophy.

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