Thursday, March 29, 2007

Getting nature exactly backwards

In his work Optica, Euclid developed Plato’s ideas about vision into a mathematical model. That model is useful to understanding perspective despite that its understanding of vision is exactly backwards. Both Plato and Euclid believed that vision comes from something leaving our eyes and perceiving objects out in the world.

I think of this sometimes when I’m out looking at some scene in nature. It seems more natural to think that I am reaching out to see my surroundings. My focus of attention seems to bring some things into more detail. It seems that I’m actively looking while the scene is passive.

Yet at this point in the scientific revolution there is no question that what is actually happening is that photons are flying at me from everything I see, from the smallest leaf on a tree to the smallest detail on a distant mountain. No only that, but there are many more photons I don’t see, all the ones that are flying around in different directions from the one very narrow range of directions that will enter my eye. As long as the sun is above the horizon, these photons keep this up. It doesn’t matter whether someone is looking or not. It’s interesting that people ponder whether a tree falling makes a sound if no one is listening, but not whether the sky is blue is no one is looking. Do we think vision is more real?

Besides how wrong our instinct is about how we see, thinking about this reminds me how much there is I’m not seeing. Forget about all those parts of the EM spectrum I can’t detect, from radio waves to x-rays. Just in the visible part of the spectrum, there are so many photons bouncing off the distant mountains that make them just as bright in every other direction as well as mine. If I could see all of them, the mountains would be much brighter, and in 3-D, too. But I only see the light I’m used to, the mountains I’m used to, not what they really are, despite my bias that my everyday perception of them is what they really are.

Just in those paragraphs there are connections to getting other things backwards. It’s actually the horizon that moves up, not the sun that moves down. Then there’s the issue that Plato thought there was an ideal reality for which the world of our senses is merely shadows. Despite Plato’s low expectations for this world, science has found an order to our world that many find stunning in its simplicity and comprehensiveness, one that is indeed perfect or nearly so, at least for those things we understand such as our molecular makeup and how electromagnetism is involved in that.

Some understanding doesn’t suffer from getting vision backwards or thinking the sun orbits the Earth. The rules of perspective don’t depend on which way sightlines are going. The tides are as predictable whether one understand the true relationship of the Earth, moon, and sun or not. But when it comes to looking for a fundamental reality, is that in this world or in some other place where Platonic ideals reside?

What is the true nature of those mountains I see everyday? Those who still believe Plato would have that true nature be in some perfect world, a world I think only intellect could love, except it does conveniently support the idea that there is a perfect God in contrast to our imperfect world. That idea continues to be part of many Christian theologies as it has been from the beginning.

In recent centuries, though, science has been demonstrating something. Modern optics lets anyone realize the above understanding that a mountain is lit up in many directions and how that relates to its 3-D structure and reflectivity of its surface. Satellites provide perspectives beyond anything I imagined standing on the ground. Geology shows not only the rocks that make up the mountain and erosion patterns, but now can show the mountain’s place in a much larger story of plate tectonics, how it is that ocean sediments can become the highest peaks in the world.

Plato can’t compete with that. And there are so many places in life where science now has built up an understanding far beyond what ancient people knew, such as with the biochemical and physiological basis of life and death. There is no need for Platonic ideals in understanding that.

Still some people hold out for Plato and tradition. My greatest wish for the intellectual discussions about this would be for people to seriously consider the possibility that Plato had the fundamental idea of a perfect world beyond our imperfect Earth exactly backwards. People have their own reasons for wanting God to be perfect and unchanging, more than just conservative Christians. What about the other possibilities?

What if the physical world is perfectly real, and the spiritual world adapts to that, whether that’s a more traditional God having only real materials and real human beings to work with, not some idealized “essence” of them, or a Spirit that is much less controlling than the traditional God, but is also quite used to dealing with the physical reality that is, not some master plan.

Did God really change from a tribal warlord to a more universal agent of love? Those who follow Plato must say no. God has always been perfect. We just see different sides to Him in different contexts. Again that’s not just conservative Christians saying that. I myself suspect that change is more about the people involved putting so much of themselves into their images of God than a change in God, but who knows? Maybe it isn’t all a communication problem between us imperfect humans and a perfect God. Maybe God has learned a great deal from watching us, and has changed His agenda.

Unfortunately there’s no science to open anyone’s minds when it comes to whoever and whatever God is. Some put God into the same universe we’re in, in everyone and everything. I don’t experience God that way. I think atheist scientists have it right when they say they find no need for God to understand our world and our life. Maybe even consciousness actually will be understood someday in a purely material way.

But I’ve experienced God, and He didn’t seem physical. He seemed both mental and beyond anything I could dream up, different from what I would have dreamed up if it had been truly up to me. Whatever explains that, it’s a real experience, though one I find easier to understand as the spiritual side of reality than the physical side that is my brain. That’s always where I start in thinking about God, from the God I’ve experienced. So many people start at the other end, from some Platonic ideal, wherever that resides. I think that’s exactly backwards. There’s precedence for that being the case.

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