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REALITIESThe need to explain creation and all that followed is quite possibly the most enduring activity of thought. Throughout the history of western culture it has taken many forms, all of which have about them the air of universality, or at the very least, inevitability. Since the renaissance, this activity has morphed into basically two combatant camps, the believers in faith and the pursuers of proof: is existence, and its attending realities a result of a singular who, or a multiple what – divine intervention or laws of Nature? Some argue for both. Here, in these essays, my interest lies solely in exploring some theories of reality that have emanated from certain disciplines in the sciences and humanities.
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© Noel Gray 2016
Book cover: original photograph by Christopher Burns (on unsplash.com), digitally altered by Ondina Press
Realities is the second book in a series that covers a period of twenty-five or more years of academic writing by the author. Some essays in this series have previously appeared as book chapters in other scholars' publications, while several have appeared as articles in numerous American, Australasian, Middle Eastern, and European academic journals. Other essays originated as conference papers, and several as invited responses to keynote and conference speakers; a few have been re-drafted from guest lectures given by the author. The last in the series, Screens, is a scaled-down version of the author's doctoral thesis in which he initially developed his early ideas concerning the philosophy of geometry. Other elements from the thesis also appear throughout the rest of the series.
The themes included in the entire series range from philosophy to geometry, from aesthetics to cultural studies, and from science to fine arts. Many have either as a central or as a cursory element the role that geometry, and by extension, the image, play in the production and construction of meaning in both the sciences and the humanities. Others touch on the truth claims made by various disciplines, while some seek to examine obliquely the porous nature of what many disciplines consider their boundaries. The role and mercurial nature of specific metaphors is also a recurring theme in many of the essays.
In most cases, the texts have been wholly or partially trimmed of their original academic format in the hope of making their contents more appealing to a wider audience.
Chaos and Nyx, the blacked-robed goddess of Night, reigned over the shapeless mass that was everything. Their son, Erebus (Darkness), eventually dethroned his father and married his mother. In turn, their children Æther (Light) and Hemera (Day) dethroned their parents. With the assistance of their only child, Eros (Love), they created Gæa (Earth), and Pontus (Sea). Eros used his life-giving arrows and pieced the cold heart of Earth. The disc-like shape that was Earth became emblazoned in colour, and Gæa, aroused from her slumber, created Uranus (Heaven) so that she may be cloaked in beauty. Gæa and Uranus finally dethroned their creators and later became the parents of twelve awesome and immensely powerful children, the Titans, all of whom Uranus quickly banished to the dark abyss (Tartarus). From this hell eventually arose the youngest of the Titans, Cronus (Time). In line with his heritage, he dethroned his father who subsequently laid a curse on his usurper: he would devour his children. And thus, it became so evermore.
The need to explain creation and all that followed is quite possibly the most enduring activity of intellection. Throughout the history of western culture it has taken many forms, all of which have about them the air of universality, or at the very least, inevitability. Also, inherent within their constructions is the imperative of replacing their predecessors, along with invalidating their contemporaries. By definition, there can only be one theory of existence. Yet, those who once ruled supreme, or who are currently in competition, are forever tenacious and impossible to replace or invalidate completely. This unwanted but continuous co-existence is a torturous affair, giving birth in turn to countless bastard children, all engaged in the Battle of Truths.
Since the renaissance, this altercation has morphed into basically two combatant camps, the believers in faith and the pursuers of proof. Both sides have brought an abundance of benefits to western culture, and an abundance of detriments. In earlier times, before the pursuers had gained a foothold, it was called the battle of the gods; now it ought more aptly be named the defence of origins. Namely, is existence a result of a singular who, or a multiple what? No doubt history will continue to weigh the balance while the conflict rages, a contest that is seemingly unstoppable in its fervour, particularly when waged by those few who believe that intolerance is a winning strategy.
However, putting aside the possibility of any victor, or even a lasting truce, all theories of existence contain a structural fault: they must exclude themselves from their own theory; they must speak as an impartial observer in order for the theory to gain its desired and credible universality. The only problem is that they are inherently embedded in the very thing they are attempting to explicate. It is difficult to see how getting the fish-out-of-the-water, so that the floundering creature may impartially explain the nature of water, is to be accomplished. However, they have both tried: the believers in faith rely on an absent signifier, God. The pursuers of proof also appeal to a distant enabling force, inviolable laws of nature. The first is omnipresent and unfathomable; the second is universal and knowable (albeit, never completely). The first sees change as divine will and hence ultimately inscrutable; the second as lawfully prefigured yet constantly influenced by initial conditions, hence never indisputably predictable.
Accordingly, reality suffers a cleavage in both schemas. In the first, it is split along the lines of unknowable intent and perceivable occurrences. Clearly, in times of disaster or personal loss this gap can expand into a yawning abyss that pushes faith to its limits. In the second, order and disorder divvy-up reality between them, unsure as to which flows from which, although the current scientific consensus is that order, in the final form of entropy, will eventually constitute the lawful direction. However, Nature's daily preference for disorder, allied to its endless and mushrooming creation of self-generating systems (neg-entropy), seems to stand as something of a bulwark to this inertial climax. Because ism-investment is the father of professional entrenchment, one may suppose an agreed upon solution is not likely to appear anytime soon.
However, that aside, my intention in the following essays is not to rehearse whatever internal or external tensions exist in either or between faith and proof. Rather, my interest lies solely in exploring some theories of reality that have emanated from certain disciplines in the sciences and humanities. This exploratory endeavour examines different realities through a variety of lenses, ranging from the parable to the philosophical, from the mathematical to the technological, concluding with an example from the world of literature. The leitmotiv throughout, either directly or by inference, is that of geometry, specifically its status as the royal road to truth.
Plato's Cave Parable is among the most influential metaphors shaping generations of western thought. The image of the shadowy subterranean world is thought provoking in the genius of its construction. It is quite simply a masterpiece of persuasion. To wit:
A group of prisoners are shackled to the floor of a cave and are unable to do anything other than look straight ahead. Directly behind them is a head-high wall on the other side of which men are carrying above their heads various vessels, statutes, and figures made of a variety of materials. Behind these men a fire is blazing, the light of which casts shadows of the moving objects onto the cave-wall directly in front of the chained captives. The head-high wall blocks all but the projection of the objects' shadows. Hence, the prisoners' reality consists of nothing but the moving shadows they see on the cave-wall, along with their own, stationary ones.
In due course a prisoner gets free and makes his way upwards to the mouth of the cave and finally out into the daylight beyond. However, during his upward journey he draws closer to the fire in the cave, the glare of which irritates his eyes. In this state he is no longer able to see the shadows he previously took for reality. He subsequently becomes aware that what he originally saw as reality was merely an illusion, and that the physical, moving objects he now confronts are a truer reality than their shadows cast by the light of the fire. Eventually he makes his way out of the cave into the glare of the overhead sun. Once again, his sight is momentarily irritated and he seeks refuge gazing at the mirror surface of a nearby pool of water. In this he sees reflections of the sun and moon, (and those of people, presumably himself included.) When night comes he is able to look up and see the reflections' origin: the heavens are full of stars, etc.
This ancient cinematic-like construction, moving from projection to reflection, establishes one of the basic principles underlying the entire Platonic schema: namely, representations are second-order truths, forever subordinate to the upper reaches of intellection. The corollary being: the truth to reality resides in pure, ideal forms that can only be approached through uninhibited thought, thought that is free of the physical vicissitudes and chains that affect and bind the senses, i.e., representations.
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