A Riff on Colour

cowparsleysmIt is the enchantment of the artist and the joy of the walker, the bright spring green and the deep azure sky. We are enriched by colour. We are captivated by colour. But is it real? Silly question says the artist. Or not so silly. Come with me.

Let’s think about our perception of colour and what it depends on. Colour does not exist by itself in the way that a tree does. Colour is perceived through an eye that carries a set of colour sensitive photoreceptors. Those who are ‘colour blind’ know this well.

The perception of colour also depends on a conscious mind that is able to interpret what it sees. We must assume that the perception of colour dies when the brain dies.

So we have the eye and the conscious mind as two dependencies determining the reality of colour. Yet there is more. Without light there is no colour. There is no colour in a darkened room and there would be no colour in the natural world if it were not for the sun.

We perceive colour through the eye, but you could equally argue that the plant world perceives colour through its own set of photoreceptors, absorbing energy to power plant growth and emitting colour related to the wavelengths of light that are not absorbed.  Such is the green of the natural world. It is the non-absorbed part of the light that falls upon the plant.

So it is that pondering our enjoyment of colour connects us to the natural world in a dynamic sense. It is real now because we are alive and the sun is shining and life is throbbing through the world. It is not necessarily real forever. For us, because one day we will die. For the earth, because we need the sun, every day, to make it real.

I think that is why I like to think about colour. It connects me to the ongoing reality of my existence as a participant in the great web of life. It is not a static thing, or a material thing. It is real and now and wonderful.

The Wounds of Pure Reason

loughrigg fellsmAlexander Von Humboldt was an extraordinary person on many counts. An explorer scientist, travelling the world, measuring everything, collecting, describing, climbing mountains, canoeing into rainforests- and all in search of knowledge and understanding.

Yet he was not just a scientist as we have come to know them today. He felt the world around him as well as studied it. He allowed his imagination to run as well as his analytical brain. And it could be that it was for this reason that he is credited with being one of the first to really appreciate the unity of the natural world. Before Lovelock he was thinking Gaia. Before our modern concern about climate change, he had understood the climatic impact of human beings on the rainforest.

One of the memorable phrases for me in Andrea Wulf’s book entitled ‘The Invention of Nature’ is the comment made by Humboldt about being on top of great mountains and the great vision and imagination that arose at such moments.

This imagination, Humboldt said, soothed the deep wounds that pure ‘reason’ sometimes created.

I know some people who become lost in analysis or in technology. They always have the answer to any technical problem, but it is like their being has shrunk from the richness of authentic humanity into something mechanical. It is inspiring to read of someone like Humboldt who was such a great scientist, but could also look up, appreciate and feel the big picture.

Understanding systems of trust – the key to societal renewal

ashthrushsmMy post last week ‘The erosion of trust’ made me aware that our society does not yet really get what trust is and why it is so important. This week I have put up some general characteristics of systems of trust to try to kick off some conversation about this.

Three key propositions

  1. Human society can be understood as a set of overlapping systems of trust.
  2. A society with well-designed systems of trust, whose citizens are largely people of good character, will be optimally efficient, creative and benevolent.
  3. Analysis of any system of co-operation in terms of trust can expose previously unexamined facets of well-worn conversations leading to an extraordinary enrichment of human potential.

Explanatory notes:

overlapping systems of trust – example systems include democracy, economy and family. Each system is a means of human co-operation that depends on most people, most of the time, participating freely without recourse to rules and law or other coercive means.

well-designed- every co-operative system needs to take account of the few participants, who might choose to free ride or otherwise abuse the system. The confidence of the many to participate in the system will depend on the effective restraint of the free riders. Example abusers of systems would be presidents who refuse to accept accountability, family members who cheat on each other and corrupt businesses who practice bribery.

people of good character – every system of co-operation needs most people within it to have a settled disposition towards trustworthiness. This can be strengthened by institutions that build empathic sensitivity and moral responsibility. Those who lie, cheat, engender fear or pursue selfish greed are antagonistic to a good society and need effective restraint.

efficient- frequent recourse to rules or the law in a system is highly inefficient. Such bureaucratic entanglement happens wherever the participants have a marked tendency to free ride or abuse the system, or when they are perceived to do this. By contrast, trust, where it can be made to work, is very efficient.

creative and benevolent – well-designed systems of trust create the maximum space for individual creative expression, can embrace difference and tend towards an increase in kind-heartedness and empathy as people learn to appreciate one another.

expose previously unexamined facets of well-worn conversations –  our news repeats itself with the same tired language and thought forms, many of which have derived from the so-called Enlightenment when we believed that reason could solve all our problems. This history of pseudo-rationalism in the West has led to a denigration of all that derives from the world of our feelings. Trust develops as a manifestation of the world of feelings, but has enormous societal implications and could cast light on many of the problems that humanity is currently wrestling with.

In the following weeks I hope to demonstrate how this sort of analysis can cast light on some of our current problems.

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