Everything flows

On those stepping into the same river, ever different waters flow.

— Heraclitus of Ephesus

a flowing riverTaking a photograph of flowing water, so that it can be recognized as such, is not as simple as it may seem. A good rule of thumb that photographers use is that the exposure time should be somewhere between 1/100 and 1/20, to depict movement convincingly in the resulting image. A patient photographer will try several test shots with different exposure times, in order to achieve the wanted effect.river5river6

When the exposure time is too long, half a minute or more, instead of water the photograph will show heavy, oily fog creeping over the landscape. If the exposure is too short, in millisecond range and under, individual droplets float crisply in mid-air, and the viewer cannot tell where they came or where they are going.river4Only in the middle exposures, here at 1/100, we immediately see that the water is flowing from right to left.

Come to think of it, why should any still image be interpreted by the viewer’s brain as depicting motion? Is 1/20-1/100 the most natural exposure range because it corresponds well with the gamma wave frequency of the human brain?

In the real world, as revealed by modern physics, solidity is the illusion, not flowing movement.

In the real world, as revealed by modern physics, solidity is the illusion, not flowing movement. Every part of the world is in constant motion. What we sense as solid objects are in reality a hypermassive clouds of electrons and ions orbiting each other at ridiculously high speeds. Human cognition happens millions of times slower than electrons flow, giving plenty of time for random opposing fluctuations in their movements to cancel out, like individual droplets of water that disappear in the long exposure photograph. Because we experience time at a rate that is massively slower than the speed of elementary particles, we see only the stable overall shape of the object.

Movement is relative, we can measure the movement of individual droplets or particles only against a “solid” object. “The same river” is just the pattern of moving water that is stable enough for us to draw it on maps, even though it is formed from ever new water, rained down from ever new clouds. Raindrops and clouds are not drawn on maps, they are not solid enough at human perceptual timescale.

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Invisible yet real

Humans don’t have the keenest sense organs in the animal kingdom. Sight, hearing, smell, almost any sense we can think of, we can also name an animal that has a better version of it.

Rather than specializing to some specific environment or food source, and relying on sensitive reflexes specialized to that niche, humans have survived (thrived even) as generalists.

A generalist compensates for its mediocre sense organs by strategically processing and analysing all the sensory data it receives. By forming an internal model of the surrounding ecosystem, humans can better predict where and when food will become available, and how it can be captured.

Hunters use experience and imagination to get inside the minds of their prey, interpreting signs and traces from the environment to track them. Gatherers collect not only fruit, nuts and roots, but also memories of how to find and recognize them, and use language and instruction to pass these memories on to their tribe.

This internal model of the world grows inside the brain of the individual, developing naturally during the long childhood, as the child interacts with its surroundings. Experience and feedback continue to affect our view of the world even as adults, building on the foundations laid by childhood development.

For the individual, viewing the world indirectly is not a conscious decision. The internal model is mostly non-verbal, appearing as vague hunches and gut-feelings, hopes, fears and superstitions, or even premonitions and epiphanies. As adult humans we have also developed language, art, poetry, but still struggle in expressing our internal models to others. In our minds we can feel very strong intuitions about how the world works, but still ultimately fail in verbalizing the full detail of our internal theories.

For some reason it is much easier to evaluate the thoughts and ideas of others than your own. As each individual forms its own view of the world based on its individual experiences, differences of view are common. On the whole, this can be a good thing, since we cannot question our own unuttered assumptions unless they are brought to our notice. Given time, a society can collectively develop much deeper and truer views of the world than any individual by itself could. And even if agreement is not reached about everything, expressing your ideas will help make them clearer to yourself.

… what we see and experience with our senses can never be more than a weak shadow of reality

For as long as we have been human, we have believed in the invisible, in things that we cannot directly sense. Like a hunter that imagines an animal based on the tracks it has left, our imagination has a tendency to find explanations in vaguely anthropomorphic, but somehow invisible creatures.

More important than proving or disproving the invisible creatures that haunt our imagination, is the cold realization that what we see and experience with our senses can never be more than a weak reflection, a shadow of the complete reality that we are in.

In the last few centuries, advanced instruments of science have revealed to us so many things that are hidden from our ordinary senses: atoms and molecules, pathogens, DNA. Radiation, quantum mechanics, particles. Galaxies, prions. The list goes on, and none of it seems to conform well to any traditional insivible-anthropomorphic-creatures metaphysics of tribal humans.

The triumphant success of natural sciences has left humanist philosophies far behind in the eyes of the general public. But philosophy has not become obsolete. The advancement of science has been possible only by specialization of individuals; the techniques required to build and maintain our modern scientific instruments is not possible by everyday general knowledge.

Even though our modern society relies on professional specialization of individuals, our success as a species has always been as generalist omnivores. Philosophy is still the most generic and inclusive approach to understanding the world. We may need new paradigms to incorporate the discoveries of science to our world-view, but the methods of philosophy continue to be valid in doing so.