III. Prometheus Pins the Butterfly

Δ. Flux, Forbidden Fire, and the Finite Knife

We’ve already discovered the pixel, the building block of knowledge. Many pixels form a pixel lens, a conceptual model through which you experience reality. Plugging your mind into a scientific lens is the best way to boost your pixel count. We pulled away the veil between your mind and reality. Call this difference “pixel delta”, the blazing engine of curiosity. It drives you to ask, ‘Why?’, and to set out on your own modern-day odyssey of discovery.

In this article, we’ll conjure a universe in flux, changeful like a metamorphic butterfly; we’ll meet the pixel-Prometheus whose forbidden fire forged the knife with which we might pin the butterfly; finally, we’ll see how this tool might slice the old world into new categories, helping us to grasp its essences, stand taller, and see further.

Imagine a universe unlike any you have ever experienced — Image credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson, Helix Nebula

Flux

Your mind is a virtual reality machine unlike any other, capable of great leaps of intuition and spontaneous creativity. It invents what isn’t from what is, deep inside your imagination, the crucible of the pixel. With a firm grasp of your pixel-forging capabilities, I challenge you to imagine a universe unlike any you have ever experienced: A watercolour world of fluid natural boundaries where beings bleed shape, character, and intent into one another.

In this world in flux, all blends into all. There are no discernible forms, no limits, no things — the eagle on the wing is both a manifestation of the air and an emissary of the forest, the river a watery amalgam of the pod of river dolphins, the friable earth a column of feisty fire ants, the sun a benevolent creator blessing your tribe with life-giving heat.

The eagle is both a manifestation of the air and an emissary of the forest — Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash

Here, phenomena think and feel, just as organisms do — the roiling wave is the spoken word of the ocean, the pyroclastic flow the seething anger of the mountain, the ponderous cirrus cloud the tangible thought of the sky. All is one and one is all. The world pulses with a breath of life that courses through and metamorphoses everything.

To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal. — George Gordon Byron

The universe you have summoned is changeful. It is a World Butterfly, darting out from under your modern pins, which are fixated on… well, fixating. Its paramount property is panta rhei — Everything flows, like an endless river.

This is the low-resolution world of the ancients.

You have conjured the blurry far-away and long-ago where thingness doesn’t exist, because every one thing is every other thing. Here, making meaningful distinctions between things becomes unthinkable, and serious doubt is cast on the possibility of knowing anything at all.

Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers — Heraclitus

In a changing world, pixels bleed into each other. Terms take on many meanings. Compare the terms Life and Spirit. The first is precisely defined as “a characteristic distinguishing physical entities having biological processes… from those that do not”.¹ This leaves little room for error. The second has multiple connotations — soul, psyche, breath of life, ghost, demon, each of which has additional meanings. The blurring of a pixel’s boundaries leaves the door wide open for novel metaphors to form, but makes it very difficult for knowledge to be gained. Pixel blur is used to its full advantage in both poetry and philosophy. But science is another ballgame entirely: Precision is everything.

Forbidden Fire

The idea of a changing universe originates with Heraclitus. Its paradox is as follows: Change and Persistence are opposites: The river’s water is constantly changing yet the river itself persists. The famed Ship of Theseus upon the winedark sea recycles all its planks yet it is still the same ship. All the cells in your body constantly divide (Bütschli — Mitosis) and die off (Vogt— Apoptosis), such that materially speaking, every quarter century or so most of you is replaced — yet the pattern of You stubbornly persists. And that’s the key: The more things change, the more they stay the same: “All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the sum of things… flows like a stream.”² — Our matter changes. Our pattern persists.

If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. — The Mad Hatter, Lewis Carroll

But how can we both change and persist, how can we not exist and yet exist? How is something a fact while at the same time also not a fact? There is, after all, no bargaining with the Truth, right? Enter Aristotle who, horrified by the supposed impossibility of knowing anything in Heraclitus’ universe in flux, insisted instead that the world could in fact be known through the categorical study of the changeless essence of things — this epistemic position is known as Essentialism.

The gods of this ancient universe are the only ones who truly know what’s going on. In the myth of Prometheus, the demigod steals fire from the gods to give to humanity; But what if a permanent way of knowing could be stolen from the gods — The True Forbidden Fire... This is what Aristotle, the greatest of thought-thieves, stole.

In his book The God Problem, Howard Bloom recounts the visceral discord between the two philosophers,

Aristotle [wanted to] fling the finger in the face of [Heraclitus]…[whose] concepts were so pervasive that another Athenian philosopher, Cratylus, took [his] notion of perpetual, second-by-second change a step further…[denying] “that you could even step in the river once, since you are changing too.”
The result, says Aristotle, was that… it was impossible to fix a name to anything. Is this little green creature hopping across your kitchen table… a frog? According to the [Heraclitans]… you can’t say yes or no. Why?… Because the frog is changing. A year ago it was an egg. Two weeks ago it was a tadpole. And by the end of the summer it could well be digested into the muscles and bones of your frog-eating dog.
[Aristotle] wanted things to stand still and stay the same long enough to allow him to use reason on them (29–30).³
The frog is changing, even as it stands still — Photo by Riley Robinson on Unsplash

In the Flux, persistence is what is truly forbidden. Pinning the World Butterfly would let humanity finally satisfy its curiosity, the daemon of pixel delta. But for that, a very persistent pointy object is needed.

The Finite Knife

To prove his point, Aristotle made one world-shattering claim. Simply put: You can’t have your cake and eat it too, or in his bone-dry words,

It is impossible that the same thing belong and not belong to the same thing at the same time and in the same respect.⁴

And with this proclamation, Aristotle summoned the forbidden fire of persistence, and in its glow, forged the Finite Knife: The principle of non-contradiction, or A=A for short.

Why A=A? Because a river is a river and will always be a river. No more of this wishy-washy business of not being able to wash twice, let alone just once, in the same river.

The Finite Knife silenced those pesky Heraclitan skeptics by pinning the butterfly. Deceptive in its simplicity, this pixel is one of your most powerful tools of scientific inquiry. It gives you, Aristotle’s intellectual heir, the ability to draw distinctions and resolve exquisite detail in the world by slicing and dicing things into finite constituent parts. It is “one of the most important assumptions underlying Western culture” (Bloom 25).

Prometheus stole fire — Peter Paul Rubens, Prometheus, 1636

Never mind whether the blade-wielding Aristotle’s fixed world was a truer model than the alien concept of a universe in flux. Disregard the fact that A=A would shackle humanity to the links of religion’s Great Chain of Being, until Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin, among others, mounted a daring rescue, dethroned the dogmatic from the Centre, and restored humanity to a humbler place in the universe.

Using his subtle knife, Aristotle reduced the complex entities and phenomena of nature into manageable taxonomies to better understand them (an epistemic position known as Reductionism), He cut the world into pixels — easily digestible building blocks of knowledge.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this… is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea — Douglas Adams
Humanity once held exalted place in the Great Chain— Robert Fludd, Great Chain of Being, 1617

Bloom deftly summarises Aristotle’s immense contribution to knowledge,

What… did Aristotle invent? Modern science… Aristotle invented the modern scientific vocabulary… [and] some of the key prejudices that modern science would be hobbled by… In the process, Aristotle shaped the lenses through which modern science would see. And he shaped the blinders that sometimes close off modern science’s vision mightily (169).

In the workspace of his boundless imagination, a pixel factory the likes of which humanity had not yet witnessed, Aristotle set about organising all of knowledge.

He defined the base pixels with which, ever since, scientists have conceptualised, e.g., “hypothesis”, “proof”, “axiom”, “theorem”. He invented Zoology and introduced the terms “genus” and “species” to Biology, helping to classify organisms into different groups based on shared characteristics — find the essence of a thing, and you can place it in its own natural group:

  • Does it swim and have scales? Then it is a fish;
  • Does it fly and have feathers? Then it is a bird.
  • Does it neither see, nor hear, nor speak evil? Then it is a politician.
The forbidden fire burns all things down to their essences, or so it seems — Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

And so, the once forbidden aristo-promethean fire lit the torch of systematised science, in whose millennia-long relay of discovery countless brilliant seekers have participated. Pixel by pixel, these architects of the mind built, shattered, and recommissioned grand pixel lenses with wildly varying degrees of success. Their conceptual models have become monumental stained glass thought-cathedrals of exceptional craftsmanship. Through their coloured panes, the incoming rays of reality are filtered, conveying the subtleties of the raw nature of our universe.

The great success of the natural sciences has been achieved substantially by the reduction of each physical phenomenon to its constituent elements. — E. O. Wilson

You thus have before you the intellectual leap signalling the opening move in humanity’s promethean assault on nature. A=A is the incorporation of “method” into the methodical scientific search for Truth. It is the pinning of the butterfly.


And yet, what about that watercolour world you dreamed up — Is it lost forever to the ravages of time? What happens when we stem the flux, pin the World Butterfly, and slice it into finite pixels? The fact is, it may be that not even Prometheus could pin the butterfly. Behind the pins of our silent, static model, perhaps the universe of the ancients seethes and thrashes still…

Sorry Aristotle… Heraclitus wins after all. Δ

But why?

Thus all things are but altered, nothing dies. — Ovid
It may be that not even Prometheus could pin the butterfly

In Part IV., we see how Aristotle’s miscalculation allowed the butterfly to escape, crystallised our minds, and created a rabbit hole far deeper than any we’ve ever fallen into:


Glossary of terms:

  • Delta (Δ): the quantitative difference between two states, admitting of change.
  • Finite Knife: the principle of non-contradiction, or A=A, claiming that each expression has one single meaning; used to divide the world into knowable categories.
  • Flux: Change, or the process of becoming different.
  • Forbidden Fire: a metaphor for what is impossible in a world of change, namely, persistence; drawn from the myth of Prometheus.
  • Pixel: a rather loose conceptual metaphor for the building block of all knowledge, referring to real or imaginary entities, processes and properties.
  • Pixel blur: the blurring of a pixel’s boundaries, leaving its meaning open to interpretation.
  • Pixel delta: an unresolved difference between two pixels, i.e., what you think you know, and what your data tells you.
  • Pixel lens: the conceptual model through which you experience reality, comprised of a multiplicity of pixels.
  • Epistemic position: a position describing the means by which one comes to know anything at all.
  • Essentialism: the epistemic position that all things have an essence, a set of attributes defining its identity, that can be known.
  • (Methodological) Reductionism: the attempt to explain entities by breaking them down into their constituent parts

References:

  1. Wikipedia Contributors. “Life”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Sept. 2017. Web. 5 Sept. 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life
  2. Wikipedia Contributors. Diogenes Laërtius on Heraclitus. “Heraclitus”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Sept. 2017. Web. 5 Sept. 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraclitus#Dike_eris.2C_.22strife_is_justice.22
  3. Bloom, Howard. The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates. Prometheus books, 2012. Print
  4. Łukasiewicz, Jan. On the Principle of Contradiction in Aristotle, Review of Metaphysics, 1971. 24: 485–509. Print


About the author:

The Greek warrior-poet Archilochus calls us hedgehogs or foxes, specialists or generalists. An unapologetic fox, I seek deep structure in everything from the vantage points that science, philosophy and poetry provide me. #standtaller #seefurther


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