The Poetry of Reality
The writer and comic trickster Robert Anton Wilson defined the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics as indicating the following: that the equations of QM do not describe the quantum world but rather describe the systems of thought we need to create in order to be able to think about that world. What I want to explore here is the extent to which this insight about the relationship between the world and how we think about the world might be extended out of the queerness of quarks and bosons and applied to the middle-sized stuff of lived experience. To paraphrase Wilson, I would like to claim that we do not experience the real world, but rather the systems of cognition we need to create in order to live in that world. Systems which I think are best described as ‘poetic’.
In a lecture that Richard Dawkins presented as part of the Tedtalks series in 2005 he referred to physical matter as a ‘useful fiction’. Our experience of the apparently solid table in front of us and the apparently solid wall around us is, he claims, a product of our brains interpreting the relationship between our (middle sized) bodies and the (middle sized) objects of the world. Physics determines that the relationship between two medium sized objects is generally one of non-penetrability; we cannot routinely walk through walls or pass our hand through the surface of a table. If we wish to avoid repeatedly banging into walls and other matter then the survival imperative of an evolutionarily determined brain requires that this dangerous relationship of non-penetrability be dramatised.
As for touching, so also for seeing. The visibly material existence of the world come to us on waves of light but ‘light’ also is simply the word we use to describe another drama staged by our brain. The play of light is scripted by those parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that are capable of passing through the pupil of the eye and activating receptors in the retina. Other parts of the spectrum pass by us and through us undetected, and because we have no receptors for these they do not figure in our experience. To the extent that we talk about them at all we do so using obvious and evident metaphor (as when we talk of ‘ultra-violet light’ which is neither violet nor light as we know it), or we acknowledge our phenomenological ignorance and call them something like ‘X-rays’, signing them off with the classical pseudonym of non-identifiablility. The light that we see, and which significantly determines what ‘seeing’ is, may not appear to be metaphorical as these invisible other lights are, but its transformation from disturbances in the electromagnetic field to the visually experienced world can, I believe, also be best understood as a ‘useful fiction’ and the stuff of poetry. Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown and we see the light reflected from walls and similar objects and feel these entities as ‘solid’ and as ‘hard’. The appearance and the hardness of matter, and matter itself in this understanding, is a mythic story belonging to the physical, biological and evolutionary history of every human. A story told to us by our brain so that we might better navigate the world of the middle-sized. Force is understood as substance, the gravitational bending of space is understood as falling.
Roger Jones describes this process in ‘Physics as Metaphor’ in which he cites Owen Barfield who cautions us ‘not to confuse a percept with its cause’ (Barfield 1957: p.20). Jones goes on to say that ‘what I call matter is neither what causes my sensations (presumably atoms and electric fields do that), nor equivalent to my sensations (which are a complex of tactile impressions and visual images). Matter is something I construct mentally out of my sensations. This conversion of pure sensation into a perceived object, Barfield calls figuration’. (Jones 1983: p.201)
This is not to say that matter or reality is an illusion or that it does not exist. Nor is it to say that it is some kind of relativistic social construction. Rather it is an acknowledgment that the physical world is always seen through the dark glass of our own embodiment. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, not just science but the entirety of lived experience is the poetry of reality. Cognition dramatises physics and turns it into matter, and experience itself is an act of poetry.
Barfield, O. (1957). Saving the Appearances. A study in idolatry. Faber & Faber: London.
Jones, R. (1983). Physics as Metaphor. London, Abacus.
Dawkins, R. (2005) Queerer than we Suppose. TED Lecture. Online at http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_dawkins_on_our_queer_universe.html