Thursday, November 29, 2007

what are rainbows, plants and people?

My little sister once had to do a nature collection for school. Leaves or rocks or beetles, I suppose. I suggested collecting say, ecological interactions. Uncomprehending stare. Well, soon enough, we were going about looking for seed dispersal and pollination strategies of plants and the animals that help them. She got the idea. Still, school is school, and so we had to yank off plant ovaries and genitals for the collection. Seeing how snapdragons learned to take advantage of passers by and having to protect a surprisingly rare orchid from motorbikers were highlights of our walk. When we got home, she began to take her plants out of the envelopes we had put them in. The Snapdragon was all wilted and flattened and the seedpods would not go "sproik". She was disappointed.

But Shanna, I said, do you really think that you collected what you saw out there? Nonsense! What you saw were waving green rivers being pulled up from the swampy soil by the sun into the misty air, funny shaped pink flowers being called to open up by pollinating insects, spring loaded seedpods being called into creation by the existence of wind, birds and mammals who could brush against them. All of it waving gently in the breeze, and being lit dappling by the afternoon sun through the leaves. You could no more collect a piece of snapdragon with your simple techniques than you could a river by lugging home a bucketful of its water and soil from its bank... or a square dance by bringing home one dancer. Think of that dancer trying to act out her part without her other fellow dancers around to interact with. She will walk forward expecting to be swung around by her corner, but nothing will happen and she will continue on out of the square, confused. No dance. No Snapdragon.

Or suppose, even more challenging, you wanted to collect a rainbow. Well, of course they are very rare. You have to wait for the right conditions after a storm. But there's one, lets go. I think it's just over that hill. So we climb up the hill. But, ho! Now it's over the next hill! Is it trying to get away? Look, you go around the next hill, and catch it from behind, and I'll stay on this one and maybe we can trick it... Well, did you catch it? No. But I see it right on your hill. No, its way down over those hills further on. Well I didn't see it move! Oh, it's going away anyway with the sun. Well where was the thing anyway? How did it fool us? I don't even believe it was out there at all!

Of course you can make your own rainbows with a garden hose on a sunny day, and do further experimenting. I think in optics such a thing is called a virtual image. As to questions like "where IS the rainbow?", and, "does it really exist?", well, I would say that the rainbow really does exist, but not anywhere in our Euclidean 3-space. You can't set up a system of 3 mutually perpendicular rulers on the ground (making a corner of a box) and do rainbow experiments with the hose and measure where the rainbow is in absolute space. Its position depends on the position of the viewers and the hose spray and the sun.

But if you set up a system of maybe seven mutually perpendicular rulers, plus one compass and one diameter inside a sphere then we can measure the CONFIGURATIONS of your head, a cloud of moisture, and the sun. We'll put the sun at the origin. For the three Euclidian distances of your head from the sun, and three more for the cloud of moisture we'll use six of the rulers. We'll use the last one to measure the size of the water droplets. Then the position of the diameter inside the sphere mimics the axis that you have your head tilted on, and the compass measures how far around you have your head turned. Now within a certain range of those measurements, i.e., the cloud must be between you and the sun and the droplet size must be within a certain range and you have to be looking the right way, you see a rainbow. We can say that the rainbow exists within that area of its configuration space.

Of course if you can't see colors then you don't see rainbows. And if you never saw a bow before you wouldn't call it a "rainbow". And if the Bible is part of your world-view, then you see something different again. Perhaps we should enlarge our measurement system of the rainbow's configuration space to include these conditions.

Perhaps what I have in mind is that our Snapdragon does not exist entirely in three dimensional Euclidean space, but some very high dimensional ecological configuration space. However, since the time of, let us say, Newton, Descartes, and Laplace, three dimensional Euclidean space has been THE space in which our experiences take place. Or perhaps it goes back further, back to when our ancestors learned to look for the surface of an animal running in 3-d space in order to catch it, or learned to manage the three dimensional space swinging in the trees, or looking a fellow flat in the face in order to communicate. However, this space is only one of any number that we could have learned to experience in.

In fact the physicists themselves have finally learned this. First there were the experiences (experiments) of the early explorers of the quantum realm. They were just unable to fit their results in our worldview of solid objects sitting in one spot of 3-D space at one time. Even today, quantum mechanics feel that they never quite develop intuitions about the quantum world. Not in the way that we all develop intuitions about crawling around in 3-space as infants. Even more recent are the explorers of supersymmetry space, the space where string theory thrives, who think that physical space has even more complicated dimensions than the one we used to locate rainbows in.

Or consider a fungus. Funguses interact with many kinds of creatures. If you were to imagine yourself a fungus and play at being a fungus for a while, what kind of space would you have your experiences in? Imagine an intelligent being who didn't move much, but communicated with his world by smell. What space would she have her experiences in? Think of how long scientists of her species would have to experiment before they discovered the three dimensional space in which solid objects move! According to some scholars (i.e. Heelan) we can even be conditioned culturally, or psychologically to see in different spaces. It is intriguing to speculate that perhaps people actually did not quite see in perspective before the invention of perspective drawing in the fourteenth century, or that perhaps Van Gogh actually saw the way he painted.

I wish to attempt to short circuit and reexamine some ancient strands of our culture/primate heritage: language, vision and consciousness. Our vision creates smoothly bounded objects and our language names and separates them out of experience. Our consciousness isolates them in time and stills their movement.

This paradigm must go: a world peopled by objects surrounded by their smooth impermeable skins, controlled by some immaterial demon up in the top of each one, communicating superficially and safely, surviving independently of their environment and of each other. It is absurd to think that we or any other Earth creature could sustain our existence without being interfaces or rivers through which flow great local portions of Earth's dancing. Similarly absurd is the possibility that each of us (as a specie) could have evolved as anything but a response to the local dances around us. Or that any of our personalities and entire psychic lives could have developed as anything but responses to the interpersonal milleu around us.

Even thermodynamically, the image of the static solid object inside a sack must go. We are in fact rivers through which energy, molecules, information, and time must flow; offered to us by those who come before, and called forth from us by those who are next. Block either end, and sustainable pattern far from equilibrium collapses, for we are not crystals. And to finally throw out the whole materialist, reductionist game, even the physicists have now given up the idea of matter altogether. The 'material' substrate of 'atoms' has been sought for so long, and all that we keep finding are dances of dances of dances... all the way in.

1 comment:

Sneb said...

Sounds like Alan Watts! I'm currently reading his "The Wisdom of Insecurity". Good stuff.