[ by Charles Cameron — Castoriadis brings in the Requiem (redux) as Eddington compares the physical table and the physics table — plus a note on education, attn: Zen ]
French 19th century provincial kitchen table in elm, photo: Haunt Co NZ
Philosopher of science Charlie Huenemann quotes Schopenhauer in the opening of his provocative piece Reality is Down the Hall on 3 Quarks Daily today:
It is therefore worth noting, and indeed wonderful to see, how man, besides his life in the concrete, always lives a second life in the abstract.
In the course of his discussion, he quotes Sir Arthur Eddington‘s two descriptions of a table.
Eddington’s first description:
It is a commonplace object of that environment which I call the world. How shall I describe it? It has extension; it is comparatively permanent; it is coloured; above all it is substantial. By substantial I do not merely mean that it does not collapse when I lean upon it; I mean that it is constituted of “substance” and by that word I am trying to convey to you some conception of its intrinsic nature. It is a thing; not like space, which is a mere negation; nor like time, which is – Heaven knows what! But that will not help you to my meaning because it is the distinctive characteristic of a “thing” to have this substantiality, and I do not think substantiality can be described better than by saying that it is the kind of nature exemplified by an ordinary table.
Eddington’s second description:
It is part of a world which in more devious ways has forced itself on my attention. My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed; but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself. Notwithstanding its strange construction it turns out to be an entirely efficient table. It supports my writing paper as satisfactorily as table No. 1; for when I lay the paper on it the little electric particles with their headlong speed keep on hitting the underside, so that the paper is maintained in shuttlecock fashion at a nearly steady level. If I lean upon this table I shall not go through; or, to be strictly accurate, the chance of my scientific elbow going through my scientific table is so excessively small that it can be neglected in practical life.
Huenemann’s point is that, as he puts it:
Our official position on the matter, as educated beings, is that Eddington’s second table – the scientific one – is ultimately the real one. .. The concrete table turns out to be an illusion. It arises somehow from the abstract world as does a mirage from heat and the bending of light.
Hunh? But then again, as Howard Rheingold said back in 1990:
We habitually think of the world we see as “out there,” but what we are seeing is really a mental model, a perceptual simulation that exists only in our brains. …
Cognitive simulation — mental model-making — is what humans do best. We do it so well that we tend to become locked into our own models of the world by a seamless web of unconscious beliefs and subtly molded perceptions. And computers are model-making tools par excellence, although they are only beginning to approach the point where people might confuse simulations with reality.
And I am reminded once again — how should I not be? — of that remarkable quote from Cornelius Castoriadis:
Philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table. What does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night. What does this show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let the Mozart’s Requiem be a paradigm of being, let us start from that.” Why could we not start by positing a dream, a poem, a symphony as paradigmatic of the fullness of being and by seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way round, instead of seeing in the imaginary — that is, human — mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being?
Also on 3QD today, and of likely interest to Zen: Emrys Westacott, How the “Culture of Assessment” fuels Academic Dishonesty