Platonic Cave

When I made a shadow on my windowshade
They called the police and testified
But they're like the people chained up in the cave
In the allegory of the people in the cave by the Greek guy.
They Might Be Giants, "No One Knows My Plan"

In Plato's famous allegory from The Republic, reality is not directly perceived. We are tied down, in a cave, in front of a fire, unable to see ourselves or anyone else, only their shadows; and as we see the shadows dance and interact, we believe the shadows to be ourselves, and the walls of the cave to be the world. (And we would find it difficult to see if brought into greater light.)

A Platonic Cave setting is one in which the cave is shown to be artificial. Stories in this setting frequently have to do with peeling back layers, trying to get closer to reality. Not the cave you only like as a friend.

A Cuckoo Nest plot uses this as part of a single episode's story.

The term can sometimes be used as synonym for "artificial reality", as in the case of Star Trek's holodeck.

Compare Cyberspace. May overlap with Lotus-Eater Machine.

Beware of spoilers beyond this point.

Examples

Anime and Manga
  • In Digimon Adventure, the "cave" is a cave. Matt, Sora and arguably Kari and Ken (Dark Ocean) all get stuck in the same cave that only exists because of their insecurity and sadness.
  • Ergo Proxy : The domes.
  • The Big O. Maybe. Possibly. Could be.
  • In Pale Cocoon, humanity is dwelling in great underground complexes restoring and filing data from the world how it used to be, mainly videos and an pictures. Surfacing is strictly forbidden. Bonus points for having the complexes be on the Moon, not Earth, which has been perfectly fine all along.
  • Referenced in the lyrics for Aura's song in .hack//SIGN.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena heavily implies that Ohtori Academy is something like this, with two characters, Akio and Anthy implied to have been there for centuries. In this case it also serves as a metaphor for adulthood, with "graduation" being symbolic of leaving childhood.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Rebellion: The entirety of Homura's Witch Barrier is this.

Comic Books
  • The Invisibles, where our universe is the intersection between two others. When someone is taken to The Invisible College, they are told "Imagine the world is the pattern on the wallpaper...well, now we're in the wall."
  • Morning Glories, played very literally.

Film
  • Independent film Cafe has people spending most of the film inside the cafe. It turns out the cafe (and possibly the world outside) is a computer program, with a quirky little girl as the program's avatar. It's a Platonic Cafe, if you will.
  • The Matrix, of The Matrix. The "cave" is a giant computer program.
  • The Truman Show. The "cave" is a town-sized TV show soundstage.
  • The ending of the movie Brazil. The "cave" is the main character's own mind after going insane under torture.
  • Partial example: They Live!, in which radio signals are beamed into our brains, causing us to see things inaccurately.
  • Dark City - The cave is an alien spaceship/laboratory made up to look like an American city ca. the 1930s.
  • The Thirteenth Floor - The cave is a virtual reality simulation inside of another virtual reality simulation.
  • eXistenZ - The cave is the virtual reality game. However, this trope is subverted when it turns out that transCendenZ is just as fake as eXistenZ. And the people who want to destroy the cave? Insane terrorists who want to stop you from playing video games.
  • THX 1138: The cave is the entire underground city, and the final scene where THX climbs the ladder and escapes into the sun is a clear reference to the "rough ascent" and transcendence as described in the allegory.
    • In a similar vein Logan's Run has people trapped in a walled city with no concept of what the world around them is like. Subverted in that they know there is something outside the city, but their concept of what it is happens to be completely skewed.
  • El Topo takes a very literal interpretation of this trope. Psychedelically.
  • Inception: The caves are dreams, which are oftentimes impossible to discern from reality.
  • SourceCode: A soldier is sent back in time in a military-crafted pod that is integrated with various electronic inside of it that require his maintenance. Later he discovers that the entire pod is an illusion created by his own mind while his severely damaged body is in a camatose state hooked into a machine.
  • Discussed in After The Dark. Zimit compares James to the observer-of-shadows, as a way of insulting James' intelligence. The ending depicts Zimit as equally blind, because his egoistical disdain for emotions means he cannot understand James and Petra's love- or the reason why it angers him so much.
  • This is one of the interpretations of the entirety of Total Recall (1990), and the film also heavily implies that this is indeed the setting after Quaid's dream implant.

Literature
  • Robert Heinlein's short story "They" has the protagonist catching on to the fact he's in a cave when someone running the world messes up and it's raining outside one window and sunny outside another. They send in a psychologist to try to convince him that he's schizophrenic.
  • Used in Shelley's Frankenstein in the Creature's narrative.
  • The protagonist of William Gibson's book Neuromancer is at one point inside a virtual reality program, sitting by a bonfire, inside something very reminiscent of a cave.
  • In The Great God Pan, the scientist responsible for the whole plot did the experiment because he believed in this theory, and wanted to expose part of the "real" reality to ours. Whereas this is true or not is not specified, but given the fact that an Eldritch Abomination is running around it is likely so.
  • In Isaac Asimov's I Robot, the story "Reason" revolves around a robot who becomes convinced that the space station on which he works is his entire universe, and the duties he performs on the station are rites for a deity.
  • In the Horus Heresy novel A Thousand Sons, Thousand Sons primarch Magnus the Red retells the story in an effort to convince the Emperor that he should allow continued exploration into sorcery. He fails, and although his legion is censured for its use, they continue to use it with disastrous results.
    • In this case the Emperor is trying his damnedest to keep the cave in place, since he knows what's lurking outside the cave is utterly horrific. And Magnus has long since made a bargain with one of those horrors, which is precisely what shoots his case in the foot.
  • Heaven by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen happens mostly in the real world, but it involves Lotus-Eater Machine "worlds", and contains one scene like this. An initiate to the deeper secrets of the religion setting up these fantasy worlds is shown inside one like them and then returned to the office where he was. His instructor argues that the virtual reality he experienced was real, and he disagrees. He says that what is really real is this, meaning his surroundings, at which point he's awoken and realizes that was actually another simulation, used just in order to make a point when he'd start going on about it being more real than the first one.
  • The modus operandi of Philip K Dick. Many, many, many of his stories involve counterfeit worlds or unreliable representations of reality, often as a Tomato in the Mirror reveal:
    • Eye in the Sky has the main characters trapped inside solipistic manifestations of the main characters' minds, where reality bends to the Confirmation Bias of their subjective beliefs.
    • Time Out Of Joint, similar to The Truman Show, has the main character discover his seemingly-idyllic suburban '50s life is a sham created by the military.
    • In The Man in the High Castle, protagonist Mr. Tagomi concentrates on a piece of art so hard he becomes unmoored from his own reality, where the Axis powers won World War II, and briefly wanders into ours.
    • The Penultimate Truth features a literal Platonic Cave, where the good little worker bees are in massive underground vaults constructing autonomous weapons while news reports of the eternal war ravaging the surface of the Earth are piped in. Turns out the war ended a while ago, and those autonomous weapons make great landscapers for the elite who have hoarded all the wealth.
    • Ubik has Joe Chip discover the time-regressing world he's caught in is actually his dying dream as he lingers in suspended animation.
    • VALIS is outrageous about this, mirroring the author's nervous breakdown, when he believed he was communicating with an alien satellite that tried to convince him the Roman Empire was constructing a fabricated Gnostic reality to trap people's souls and make them forget that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ happened very recently. Amazingly, he then wrote himself into the book as the voice of reason for the protagonist, pointing out he may just be having a psychotic break.

Live-Action TV
  • The setting of Life On Mars... maybe.
  • The Shibuya in Sh15uya is explicitly stated to be a virtual replication in the opening of the show.
  • Doctor Who:
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: Professor Moriarty discovers that he's a character in a holodeck fantasy, and it even gets down to the point where he is questioning the memories and personality he was programmed with, rejecting them for a chance at a new identity and existence. When Picard fails to live up to his promise, a follow-up episode has Moriarty trapping Picard and Data in one of these briefly leading Picard to muse that their own reality might be a Platonic Cave.
  • Star Trek: Voyager has the Q create a representational reality that reflects the basic ideas of the Q Continuum for us mere mortals (though they don't try to fool the humans into thinking it's real, it at least suggests that there is more to reality than they're capable of handling).
  • In the Supernatural episode "What Is And What Should Never Be", Dean struggles to recognize that the Wishverse is not real and was only a fantasy created to allow the djinn to drain his blood.
  • In Babylon5 G'kar tries to use this idea to explain a point of his philosophy. When his acolytes don't get it he just gives up and starts spouting nonsense metaphors.

Tabletop Games
  • Mage: The Awakening. Reality itself is the "cave," a "fallen" portrayal of the limitless wonder of the Supernal Realms. And even for those who manage to break the ropes and turn around to look at the way out, there are demiurges guarding the mouth of the cave, and a trench before you can even get to them.

Video Games
  • The Plant setting in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The level is blatantly patterned on the workings of Metal Gear Solid, though the player is likely to dismiss it. We later learn the game is a False Flag Operation devised by Raiden's handlers to emulate the MGS1 crisis: a nuclear threat, soldiers in revolt, two VIPs to rescue, a scientist who knows about Metal Gear's weak point, and various traps which are copy & pasted from the previous game. As a metaphor, the entire plant is just camouflage which crumbles away when Raiden discovers it.
    • Raiden's private life can count as one. The government goes to especially cruel lengths to control him, even modeling an employee's looks based on his psyche profile and paying her to act as his girlfriend. Even his career is a hoax.
  • Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - The cave is the world created by the magical book.
  • Oracle Of Tao has this as the punchline of the original story. Ambrosia is so worried that she might be having a Dying Dream, or not be real in the first place that she freaks out when God explains the true nature of reality. She's actually the only one who exists. Oddly enough, things get more interesting after this happens, and there's an entire Playable Epilogue based on this new reality.
  • Star Ocean: Till the End of Time reveals that the entire universe is a simulated reality and, consequentially, everyone in it is an AI program.
  • Fallout 3 has this in the form of Tranquility Lane, a VR simulation of a 1950's cul-de-sac neighborhood in which Dr. Stanislaus Braun, depicted as a girl named Betty, repeatedly tortures, kills, and resurrects the residents. The Vaults themselves may qualify for the residents who were born there and have never seen the outside world.
  • In Bloodborne, it is heavily implied that the entire world is merely a dream world created by entities called "Great Ones". The "Yharnam Sunrise" ending flat out reveals that it is this trope.

Web Comics

Real Life
  • Several physicists have suggested ontologies that Plato would have been proud of:
    • Cosmologist Paul Davies, along with a good number of other scientists, philosophers and theologians, believes that the universe is nothing more than a very powerful quantum-digital computer. He even proposed an experiment that could be performed pending developments in computer engineering.
    • Max Tegmark thinks that only math exists, and that what we perceive as real, is nothing more than equations tricking themselves into thinking that they exist in a real world.
    • And probably weirdest of all, after considering the philosophical consequences of the violation of Bell's Theorem, Bernard d 'Espagnat concluded that the Laws of Physics are nothing more than the shadows of a panentheistic god.
  • Pythagoras believed that numbers were the true nature of everything. This became an empirical theory by Issac Newton, who would codify how to use mathematics to describe physics.
  • In a very real sense, we don't perceive anything but shadows. You think you see other people, but that's just Electromagnetic waves stimulating your retina. What you hear is just molecular vibrations. What you feel is just pressure picked up by your nerves. Humans do not have one single sense that directly perceives how we interpret the data we receive from the environment. In other words, You Cannot Grasp the True Form of everything around you, and what you see is just an illusion created by the brain trying to make sense out of everything.
    • Also the fact that we're all living slightly in the past. All signals take some time, an incredibly small amount of time, but still, for the brain to interpret after they're received, and even take time to reach the observer.
    • More significantly, it would take a very long time to perceive all the tiles in your bathroom in the level of detail you believe you see them in. Your eye looks at one or two in detail then perceives the whole wall in low quality and your brain just assumes that those vaguely tile-like blobs look the same as the tiles you saw in detail. Most optical illusions exploit weaknesses in this step.
  • The Balinese believe something very similar to this. Everything we see and experience is a reflection of the real world. The sacred theater of Bali includes wayang (reflection) plays using flat puppets made of leather behind a lit screen, so all you see is their shadows.
  • Some Native American tribe believe this also. To get into the real world, you have to dream. Crazy Horse was one of many holy men known for the ability to be in both worlds at once.
  • The Brain In A Vat, a concept where, if your brain was floating in a vat of life-supporting fluid, and wired up to a supercomputer designed to simulate reality, processing output from your brain and responding with appropriate input, there would be absolutely no way at all for you to determine that this was the case.
  • When "Young Earth" creationists have attempted to explain how we can see the stars, when many of them are so far away it would take more than 6,000 years just for their light to reach us, one of the answers given is that God simply created beams of starlight already on their way to us. By this logic, for the next 99,994,000 years until we start seeing "live" starlight from the Andromeda galaxy 100 mly away, we'll just be looking at a projection of it. Even more fun, every supernova we've ever witnessed comes from a star that never physically existed, there's just been a beam of light traveling towards us for thousands of years to point out where it would have existed if it had...
    • Which is at least logically consistent. If you believe God created adults, the product of a childhood that never existed, it's reasonable to assume the stars were created at a certain age, with the light having traveled from them as far as you'd expect light to travel from a star of that age.
    • The idea is occasionally referred to as Last Thursdayism since if you accept the concept there's no way to tell when the real world begins and the fake one ends.
  • The color magenta is something your brain makes up when it sees red light and purple light at the same time. There is no "magenta" wavelength.