Monday, 2 March 2020

Picture Post #54: Ghost Rainbow


'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

26 February 2020. Three Anchor Bay, Cape Town. 33.906° S, 18.398° E.

Some call it a ghost rainbow. It has been described as a hollowed out rainbow, or the rainbow's eerie cousin. Sightings are said to be extremely rare -- and when ghost rainbows do appear, people are astounded. I said to a kayaker staring into the sand, 'See, a ghost rainbow has appeared.' He looked up. 'A ghost rainbow!' he exclaimed, and jumped up to tell a friend. His friend ran into a shed to pull out a large DSLR. This was a magical moment, surprising, striking -- perhaps never seen or imagined before by some of those who saw it.

Such things not only grab our attention. They ignite our reason. We begin to ask Why? How? What? When? But let us pause for a moment -- and turn our gaze inward. Did we ourselves conjure up the rainbow? Did we decide to be attentive to it, or to connect with it, to question or decode? Or did the rainbow lay hold of us? Did it commandeer the mind? In fact, is there ever anything in the world, which impels us, that is not like this rainbow? Whatever it may be, can we ever pretend to any other office than to serve and obey it? 

10 comments:

Keith said...

‘Ghost rainbows’ are indeed interesting phenomena, given they’re much more rare than traditional rainbows where, as every young schoolboy and girl knows, sunlight is refracted to give us the more-familiar, more-anticipated prism appearance. However, my preferred name for this image, not mentioned here, is ‘fogbow,’ which people use, too. I suggest that this other name more directly attributes the whitening effect to the smaller water droplets of fog (rather than rain).

Relatedly, Thomas, I fairly easily tracked the thought-provoking narrative accompanying the image above — until I got to the last sentence: ‘Whatever it may be, can we ever pretend to any other office than to serve and obey it’. I bring this up, as that concluding sentence hints of being a grand summation of what comes before. To begin with, understanding the last ‘it’ seems key to understanding these preceding clusters of (somewhat opaque) words: ‘ever pretend to’, ‘any other office’, and ‘serve and obey’. I’m curious; so, might I ask you to clarify that seemingly crucial last statement?

docmartincohen said...

It's a very 'professional' shot, I would say, but philosophical? I'm not so sure. The world does seem to divide in my mind between things that are unusual and 'remarkable' and the great majority of things that are conventionally understood and sink into the background of our thughts...

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith and Martin. Perhaps too cryptic, the post ends with an allusion to Hume, 'Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.' The post has a twist, however: I shift the service and obedience to appearances, such as the fog bow to which we involutarily react. We serve and obey appearances, not passions (alone). What I am saying, perhaps in too few words, is that reason obeys appearances. It is not, therefore, as Locke wrote, ‘our last judge and guide in everything’. At least, not as Locke supposed.

Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas, for Hume’s original remark: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’. I find the quote rather odd — especially, if I understand, the absoluteness with which it pronounces reason’s seemingly blanket subservience. The idea that reason is — and ought to be — the ‘slave’ of passions sounds to me both wrong and dangerous. (‘Dangerous’ because of the implications for the preference for unencumbered human curiosity and creativity, from the sciences to the humanities.)

To my mind, the Humean verdict rings, on the surface, as too binary: passions, good; reason, bad. Instead, one might prefer to hang his hat on a symbiosis between reason and passions: spheres of human curiosity where reason rightly dominates, spheres of human curiosity where passions rightly dominate — and, perhaps not unexpectedly, spheres of human curiosity where reason and passions overlap Venn-like. Maybe the larger context in which Hume uttered this statement would critically award it the necessary nuance. (Oh, I wonder, by the way, if Hume arrived at his statement through reason or the passions.)

Thomas Scarborough said...

This is an interesting debate. My own position I have summarised as 'reason in, passions out'. Our reason shapes our mental models, and our mental models drive our passions. Yet what is the purpose of reason? Is it a constructive enterprise, to build things from the ground up, or do we merely use it when, so to speak, our rainbow appears? In that case, reason would simply address arbitrary interests that we stumble upon.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Reason addresses arbitrary interests that we enhance ourselves upon?
Did the rainbow lay hold of us? I think certain visions can bring wonder, and that means to let go of everything one knows. Then knowing is not all of us, but only a tiny part. It reminds me how wonder has almost disappeared for me, when once there were many of those moments of wonder. Thank you for the reminder!

Keith said...

You’ve added, Thomas, thought-provoking ideas to the discussion. I’m not sure I can add much of worth, but let me comment. To my way of thinking, reason is not confined to use ‘merely when, so to speak, our rainbow appears . . . or simply address arbitrary interests that we stumble upon’. Reason, I suggest, doesn’t require an empirical, concrete, external trigger. Instead, the basis of reason may, to the contrary, be entirely abstract.

We might think, for example, of ‘pure mathematics’, the kind that theoretical physicists and mathematicians engage in. Or think of intuition, imagination, emotion, and subjective qualities (qualia). Of abstract art, unconcerned with literal depictions of physical phenomena. Of ideas associated with philosophical idealism, not distilled from the empirical world. Of inferential and figurative words. Of mind’s-eye conceptualizations like God, angels, and heaven. Of notions like time. And so on.

These occurrences of abstraction may trigger resort to reason, such as to build hypotheses, though experiments, or models of reality — the ‘constructive enterprise’ you refer to. But not always. What’s perhaps arguable, therefore, is that a concrete thing like a fogbow — or our ‘stumbling upon’ some other ‘arbitrary interest’ with physical properties that our senses record — isn’t necessary as a spark in the deployment of reason. Abstractions have shown to suffice.

Tessa den Uyl said...

If I may Keith, only when you think of an horizon, that horizon exists, these things we learned, you see the ghost rainbow from the word, not the phenomena in itself as an experience without reasoning. Life is not lived solely by reason, but thought pushes into defining things. Defining is always an exclusion. It serves us practically though is not defining life in itself. Abstractions are thought bound. This is why wonder happens before thought is implied, and are sparkles of different perception.

Keith said...

‘This is why wonder happens before thought is implied’. This is an interesting point, Tessa. But isn’t ‘wonder’ itself ‘thought’; they’re arguably indistinguishable, right? Thought, after all, isn’t reducible only to reasoning, which may be regarded as an active phase of thought. Rather, thought also includes an autonomous phase — the wonder — associated with first spotting and near-instantaneously reacting to the fogbow. Yet, wonder surely itself entails neuronal and synaptic activity within the brain for wonder even to occur — wonder, by definition then, thus falling under the rubric of thought. (Just as reason, too, falls under the rubric of thought.) When (if) the wonder one experiences upon spotting the fogbow shifts to reason — such as then going about explaining the scientific conditions that allow for fogbows to occur — all that’s happening is a shift from one subcategory of ‘thought’ (wonder) to another (reason).

Thomas Scarborough said...

What is reason? Reason is a reduction. But not really. We imagine it to be a reduction. The philosopher Max Black wrote, 'Every utterance, no matter how labored, trails clouds of implication.' Our thought life is far richer than we make it seem.

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