The Need For Awe And Wonder (1 of 3)

For three years now, and it appears it will be another year at least, I’ve sat in my favorite rocker-recliner poised in front of the television and large front window. Beginning just outside that window I can see part of my concrete patio, some grass from the small front yard, a paved road, the concrete of the neighbor’s driveway and his stucco house, one of some twenty stucco houses along that paved street.

I’m not confined to this recliner, it’s just that I don’t often have the energy to get out of it and walk as I fight two cancers, winning one but still in battle with the other, the treatment of which has been at times very debilitating as the chemo takes away so much of my energy. I’m not missing much in my limited view through that window. Quite frankly outside it’s very boring.

Outside, when looking upward it isn’t that inspiring either. During the typical day the sky runs a light blue to a deeper blue, the occasional white wispy cloud offering some entertainment. There are times when the sunsets are rather teasing with their soft pinks to deep reds at the horizon. Once the sun is completely gone and darkness takes over the sky, at the best of times I can count on both hands the number of stars I can see, a sad reminder that there is a heaven filled with stars but I couldn’t prove it with my view.

Boring, boring, everything is boring.

It feels like there is a frosted bowl covering my life and all my definitions are limited to what I see inside that bowl and filtering in through its frosting. I’m reminded of the prisoner in the cave in Plato’s analogy who only can see shadows and believes that is reality until he escapes the cave and understands it was only shadows he saw. He knows this because he now sees reality and understands the shadows are nothing more than a poor representation of the real.

There is no inspiration in this concrete jungle life we city dwellers live. Nothing that pulls me two inches from my life. Unlike that prisoner in the cave who never saw anything other than the cave walls and the shadows, I have memories of other things, other places, other times. In those places and times awe excited my mind opening up unbelievable possibilities to me. There was that time my wife and I and a friend drove to Lake Casitas between Ventura and Ojai to camp for the night. From there we would continue on to Santa Barbara and northward to visit my sister in San Jose.

That night as we lie under the open sky the fullness of the universe above us was frightening filled with so many stars that there was no more than a cat’s whisker between them. We lie on terra firma, not on a star but on a planet belonging (if I may put it that way) to just one of those suns filling the sky whose brightness when it was above us blotted out all those other suns we observed that dark night with some fear (because there were so many) and overwhelming awe, because they were there.

We humans have forever been looking into the night sky wondering ever since we first opened our eyes and saw asking what is this I see? Growing up in a small farming community, some of that time on a farm seeing not the depth we saw that night at Lake Casitas but clearly what we learned was the Milky Way—the galaxy we were part of—the question eternally on my mind was why? Why all this? What purpose does it serve?

Until 1610 AD we were all mostly ignorant about the sky, about a universe, a cosmos seeing it no closer than what the naked eye would allow us to see. It wasn’t that we weren’t looking and asking questions and drawing conclusions, we were. For Western science these questions came to a head in 1473 AD when Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish baby who would grow up and set so many definitions we made about the universe.

The first thing he noticed was that the cosmos wasn’t static “out there”; suns changed positions but in a consistent way. And it was obvious that not every object in the sky was a sun, whatever that was—but they were obviously hot—the earth being one of those non-suns was obviously not burning hot. There were at least a couple more of these non-suns, Jupiter and Venus. What Copernicus witnessed was that the sun was a fixed point and planets orbited around the sun. In 1543 “Copernican heliocentrism. . . positioned the Sun near the center of the Universe, motionless, with Earth and the other planets orbiting around it in circular paths modified by epicycles and at uniform speeds.”

It’s been a modern myth that it was the Catholic church that instigated the fight against his argument for heliocentrism but in fact it was the accepted science of the day that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun and every other object rotated around the earth. Because an earth centered universe fit Catholic theology (an argument nowhere argued in the Bible) it then took on aspects of a religious-science fight, which for the Catholic Church it did in a big way.

Then in 1610 an Italian kid named Galileo created a heavenward looking enhancement he called a telescope. “Galileo had no diagrams to work from, and instead relied on his own system of trial and error to achieve the proper placement of the lenses. In Galileo’s telescope the objective lens was convex and the eye lens was concave (today’s telescopes make use of two convex lenses). Galileo knew that light from an object placed at a distance from a convex lens created an identical image on the opposite side of the lens.

“He also knew that if he used a concave lens, the object would appear on the same side of the lens where the object was located. If moved at a distance, it appeared larger than the object. It took a lot of work and different arrangements to get the lens the proper sizes and distances apart, but Galileo’s telescope remained the most powerful and accurately built for a great many years.”

For the first time we began to see things we’d never seen before, like the four moons of Jupiter. Learning comes through observation. Some have taken this fact to explain the blank slate or table rasa of John Locke.

Artificial intelligence (AI) works for only one reason, it is preprogrammed with what we today call algorithms—“a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.” A computer, and the basis of AI is a computer, has no innate intelligence. It has rules (algorithms) built into it through which information (observation) flows. Those rules are designed for the computer to pick out bits and pieces of information and form those bits and pieces into new coherent information. These rules are deep inside the computer and the screen is the blank tablet on which the conclusions of that algorithm process are spelled out.

Real intelligence, not artificial intelligence, people, have deep inside their being rules for observation and drawing conclusions. Everything we observe goes through our algorithms and with enough observation we begin to understand shapes and patterns that begin to tell us things about our world. Those things are inherent in what we see (Plato), independent from us but we can perceive those qualities and draw conclusions.

If you’re going to charge that this is just a faith assumption on my part that it works this way, my counter charge is that it is no different from your faith in what you see and believe. I know that some of you profoundly don’t accept that argument that you are acting on faith and that it’s settled science, but I’m sorry, no such thing. There is nothing settled about cosmology and we both must live with that.