Look at a coastline on a map. It is a line, marking a boundary between sea and land. But go to the seashore and you find a zone, an intertidal area full of fascinating life that belongs only to a ribbon of nature which is neither land nor sea.
Look at the sky on a starry night. Points of light form patterns, the Big Dipper, Orion. You recognize the patterns from books you have seen portraying the same patterns with dots on paper. But you know, thanks to Galileo and Copernicus and a few others, that they are not really dots, or points, they are huge stars, some of them dwarfing our own sun. The sun is a star too, and if you were circling a different one the patterns could also be different.
Look back in time. You remember clearly what you had for breakfast, less clearly what happened last week, and hardly anything at all about what happened on a given day or week twenty or thirty years ago. Unless, of course, something especially memorable happened, like your birth or wedding or a death in the family.
Look back thousands of years. Memorable happenings are at best a blip on your screen. Look back millions of years and you see nothing at all, unless you specialize in such matters. Look at that dot you penciled in after your last sentence. Look at it under an electron microscope and it becomes a whole world of its own, as populated with strange creatures as that intertidal area you strolled through on the beach.
There is no such thing as a line or a point in nature. It’s all a matter of scale.
That is, until we get to the capacity of real people to imagine things that don’t exist in nature, but only in our minds. It’s only in our minds that we find real points and real lines. And real gods for that matter.
Am I being philosophical in these ramblings? I plead innocent. Most of the philosophy I can even approximately understand is, for me at least, a muddle between natural things and creatures of the human mind. We’ve built bridges between the two, but they’re tricky, and people often fall into the limbo in between.
I stab the paper with my pencil and voila, now there is a dot right there in front of me. I tell myself, I think, therefore I am. Therefore that dot is a point.. Except it isn’t…isn’t this discussion pointless? If so, is it natural for me to reach this conclusion?
It’s this quality of imagining things that don’t exist that makes us unique among earth’s flora and fauna. It’s made civilization possible.
I’d call it a godsend except it isn’t, not always anyway. When you try to get something out of nothing, you often get in trouble. Like expecting an imaginary god to send you something in the real world.
Carl Coon 1/30/14