In their book ‘The View from the Centre of the Universe’ Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams say this:
In their hearts, most people are still living in an imagined universe, where space is simply emptiness, stars are scattered randomly, and common sense is a reliable guide. In this imagined universe, we humans have no special place and often feel insignificant. (2006: 3)
What I want to begin here is a thought that parts company with Primack and Adams and their version of this heartfelt common sense. I want to suggest that common sense tells us that space is anything but simple and that humans do indeed have a special place. I want to begin though with the big picture of space before bringing it up close and personal.
Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the ‘paradigm shift’, articulated in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1968), postulated that occasionally there are major changes in the way that science understands (all or part of) the world. The most commonly-cited example of such a shift concerns space and how it is conceptualized. This is the Copernican revolution from an Earth-centered universe to one centered on the Sun; a revolution in which the old order of theories, models, diagrams, and mechanisms is dismissed in favour of the new. In Kuhn, it is a necessary consequence of this revolutionary overturning that what went before it becomes wrong and that apostles of the new, (after moving through a brief period of being heretics) become keepers of the new flame and upholders of the new truth. Old is wrong, new is right.
According to Primack and Adams (ibid) a more accurate understanding of what happens during these times is not a replacement of one truth by another but rather the re-interpretation of the data of the world such that it applies to a wider set of circumstances and covers a larger set of phenomena. They give the example of Newtonian physics giving way to the relativity of Einstein, an apparent paradigm shift in which new knowledge describes the universe in ways which are more complete than the old. What they point out however is that Newtonian physics is not rendered wrong by the development of this new science, it is simply redefined as a description of parts of the universe only; basically the middle-sized and slow moving parts; and as long as its methods are applied only to those parts it is as accurate, and more efficient, that any other model or method. It was, after all, Newtonian physics which put men on the moon.
This understanding of certain descriptions of the world having different applicability than others also applies to our understandings of space; the Ptolomaic picture of the Earth-centered universe is not ‘wrong’ in any transcendental sense, it is instead a local interpretation of the data concerning planetary movement. In many cases it is preferable to work with the assumption that the Earth is stationary and central rather orbital and peripheral. When we make appointments or set our watches we do not consider this as stating the location of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, or the number of degrees through which it has rotated. We refer to sunrise not Earthfall and we watch the Sun go down over the ocean, not the Earth turning its face away into the darkening night. For most purposes the Ptolomaic model of the universe in which Earth is the centre of attention is sufficient. This is not to say that when we use such Earth-centered concepts we are using a kind of lazy shorthand, or are being inaccurate. When the application of the Ptolomaic paradigm is limited to specific uses such as these it is as accurate, and more efficient, that the Copernican.
On the even more local scale of embodied experience, we can extend this notion of overlapping or simultaneous paradigms to include the apparently self-evident wrong-headedness of Flat Earth theory. The Earth when seen from space is obviously a ball and any depiction of the Earth as a two-dimensional surface is demonstrably inaccurate. However, in day to day life we routinely work with the assumption that it is indeed a flat plane, and are rarely proved wrong. When we measure a room prior to fitting a carpet, or stake out the foundations of a building, we do not take the spherical nature of the Earth into account. It would be perfectly possible to include this curvature in our calculations but since this difference would be insignificant (smaller by far than the variations in the landscape itself) it would be foolish to do so. It is at this level that embodied experience and the paradigms which make up that experience, become available as accurate, relevant theory.
There are, therefore, good pragmatic reasons why we might assume that the Earth is flat and why we might live large parts of our lives in the shadow of that assumption. Furthermore, there would be very little reason at all why we should develop an intuition which suggests otherwise. From the perspective of our evolutionary history there would be no benefit to be gained from this kind of abstract spherical knowing, in stark contrast with the distinct advantages claimed by those of our ancestors who cared less about such abstractions and more about the tiger hiding in the bushes at the other side of the, apparently flat, clearing in this forest. Given the tiny slice of human history during which knowledge of the curvature of the Earth would be advantageous, basically since the advent of extended seafaring, it is wildly unlikely that we would have a naturally intuitive grasp of this reality. Our phylogeny, as well as our phenomenology, constantly proposes and confirms our position as Flat-Earthers.
If this seems ludicrous then it is worth noting in passing that the Copernican model tends to promote an understanding of the universe which is as partial in its own way as the Ptolomaic which preceded it. A casual interpretation of the Sun-centered model seems to indicate a stationary star orbited by moving planets, but of course, in relativity, nothing is stationary in absolute terms and by most accounts the Sun itself is hurtling at several thousand miles an hour in the direction of Andromeda, with the planets flailing around it like the loose reins of a runaway horse. Copernicus put his thumb on the Sun and momentarily arrested its wild flight and, in doing so, revealed a pattern in the relationship of the movement of the planets, but the Copernican map is not of the territory of the real solar system, any more than a 2-dimensional map of the Earth is an accurate rendition of the real globe. It is more a graph or schematic showing the pattern of relations he discovered.
What I want to suggest here is that, whilst we are able to fully grasp the idea of the Earth as a ball spinning in the empty space that Primack and Abrams attributed to common sense, in fact this sense is anything but common. In point of phenomenal fact our senses tell us, and told thousands of generations of our ancestors, that we are standing on a plane, beneath a dome of sky, looking out to a horizon that encircles us.
This is one of the experiential logics of embodied space that I believe structure our cognition and that I want to explore. This organised perception of space, in which the organising principle is the human sensorimotor system, contributes to the repertoire of structures which allow meaning and thought to emerge.
All space, from the most counter-intuitive of Einstein and Hilbert to the most transparently familiar of Newton and Descartes is rendered sensible through the confabulatory cognitive operations I have talked about earlier. Yet it is this embodied phenomenal space which perhaps we are most comfortable describing in terms of a ‘poetics’, as indeed Gaston Bachelard did in his most famous book ‘The Poetics of Space’ (1994). The philosopher Michel Foucault had this to say about Bachelard’s work, which resonates strongly with the sense I am groping for here:
“Bachelard’s monumental work and the descriptions of phenomenologists have taught us that we do not live in a homogeneous and empty space, but on the contrary in a space thoroughly imbued with quantities and perhaps thoroughly fantasmatic as well. The space of our primary perception, the space of our dreams and that of our passions hold within themselves qualities that seem intrinsic: these is a light, ethereal, transparent space, or again a dark, rough, encumbered space; a space from above, of summits, or on the contrary a space from below, of mud; or again a space that can be flowing like sparkling water, or a space that is fixed, congealed, like stone or crystal.” (1986:23).
Embodied phenomenal space has a poetic logic of its own; the local interpretation of universal laws that our bodies obey and perform. This space, I would argue, is the one which most readily provides the capacity in which meaning and thought might emerge.
BACHELARD, G. (1994) The Poetics of Space, Boston, Beacon Press.
FOUCAULT, M. (1986) Text/Context of Other Space. Diacritics 16.1 22-27. (online at http://korotonomedya2.googlepages.com/Foucault_OfOtherSpaces.pdf)
KUHN, T. (1968). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
PRIMACK, J. R. AND N. E. ABRAMS (2006). The view from the centre of the universe. London, Fourth Estate.
As has already been argued, perception is a function of the sensorimotor systems, and the different modalities in which that sensorimotor system operates, the different physical senses of touch, taste, sight etc, gives structure to that perception. If Mark Johnson is correct in claiming that perception is one of the capacities from which meaning and thought emerge then the structure of meaning and thought, the organised and coherent relationships between ideas, must in turn emerge in part from structures within perception. In other words, our ability to think in organised and meaningful ways is reflective of our ability to perceive the world in organised ways.
The organisation of perception comes from the regular and consistent ways in which the physical senses operate. To take the visual sense as an example, different wavelengths of light appear to the visual system as different colours, but these differences are not random or disorganised. The colours of the spectrum always follow one another in regular and predictable ways and this regularity (as well as the range) provides an organising template for meaning and thought to base themselves upon. Similarly, there is a consistant relationship in the apparent visual size of an object and its distance from us; objects that are further away seem smaller than those close up. This also is a feature of visual experience which has structure and regularity that can be adopted by conceptual cognitive functions. Other sensory modalities, hearing, touch, taste, olfaction, proprioception, have their own set of organised variables which enlarge the number of possible structures that might be utilised as frameworks for meaning and thought, and the relationships between the modalities provides additional complexity. Some sense perceptions echo one another closely; the shape of an object tends to be similarly perceived both by the hands and the eyes; whereas other senses complement one another through their difference; the colour and the sound of a musical instrument overlap one another only at the margins.
In ‘The senses considered as perceptual systems’ J.J Gibson writes that “the senses can obtain information about objects in the world without the intervention of an intellectual process” (1966:1). It may be more accurate to say that it is not that the senses work without the intervention of intellectual processes, but rather that their operation is constructive of intellectual processes. Furthermore, the structured differences that the senses detect in the world and which we experience as perceptions give structure to the meaning and thought that make up these intellectual processes.
Gibson, J. J. (1966). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
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