There is a lot going on in this piece that needs explaining, so it might have to be spread across 2 parts, we’ll see. In essence, this surrealist landscape touches upon a key idea, ‘the nature of truth’ and how it hinges on perception. And so already you see there is a big idea awaiting us, but the art gives us the tools to go on, but not without some effort, if one is inclined.
The nature of reality has many levels of truth… referred to as conventional and ultimate.
The nature of truth is a very ancient idea. Many spiritual and religious traditions (primarily in the east) have tried to tap into its multifaceted complexities. The crux of the idea is that the nature of reality has levels of truth; based on phenomenal and metaphysical, or what are referred to as conventional and ultimate. Here is a list of these traditions that carry this outlook: Mahayana Buddhism, Indian Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism, Greek Pyrrhonism, Chan/Zen.
Many of these traditions have developed without the benefit of rigorous scientific investigation. This is significant. Now we, in the modern age, have the evidence of the ‘ultimate’ (that which lay beyond intellectual distinction) in the science of the atomic world.
We have evidence of the ‘ultimate’ in atomic science … that which is beyond mathematical description.
A scientist may cringe at that statement, but it cannot be denied that the entirety of our universe is not completely available to mathematical description. And even that which is described mathematically is only done so within a tolerance. Ultimately, the limitations of math are correlated to the limits of human experience, which is telling, and demonstrates the framework of a ‘conventional truth’. The ancients knew this by faith, but now we have the benefit of knowing this by evidence and experience. This is significant.
The phenomenal world is very real, but ultimately it is relative.
What we know as the phenomenal world, is a world that emerges in our mind. It is very real, no doubt, but it is a relative outlook. To consider beyond this is to awaken, and this is what the ancients were aware of. I am not imposing notions of God’s of Heaven here, this is abstraction too. I am pointing at something more fundamental, beyond intellectual distinction, which makes it difficult to express. My artwork then is an attempt to convey the tools to acknowledge it. But it is not so easy.
And so, Shadows of Mu is a puzzle. A puzzle you take apart instead of construct. And the first piece you must take away is that ‘truth’ is more than ideas, more than perception, because these are the workings of mind, are the nature of reality is more than mind.
At the foundation of physical reality is an illogical and perplexing duality … a counterpoint to our experience.
Yes, a tough idea admittedly. It is one that I accidentally came across and have now grappled with for years. I still am. It all started for me when I became interested in atomic science. More of a curiosity than anything as I didn’t have any formal scientific training. I picked up a book that covered the topic in a non-mathematical sense. It touched upon the strangeness of the atomic world, and then I was hooked. I couldn’t believe that the foundation of our physical reality was built on such an illogical and perplexing duality, so much so that seemed to be a counterpoint to what we were certain reality was. I was troubled by this.
Around the same time I became interested in Chan/Zen buddhism. As I learned more about its philosophy, I noticed that it was about connecting with an ultimate reality, one that transcended logic. They bracketed out ‘mind’ and ‘logic’ and moved around it in order to attain an enlightenment. I found this useful as I was having trouble accepting the strangeness of the atomic world. This helped me see it in a more open sense. I was able to step back from a strict conventional understanding of things and consider that physical reality was a perceptional phenomena that lived in our experience, and that outside our experience, that was much more.
Zen slowly revealed the tools and the ideas I needed to move around the trouble. It adjusted my perspective and my world view changed. I had me take two steps back and ‘see things’ from as broader point of view.
The subtleties of the different truths cannot be shown. You need to discover them yourself.
But of course, this is my experience. How can I convey it to others? Simply, I cannot. But what I can do is show the tools I have used to uncover the subtleties of the different truths. Show you how to dig a tunnel under the fortification of convention knowledge that surrounds us. A special note here is that I don’t mean to undermine conventional truth, it is our world after all, a right place for our attendance, but its good perspective to appreciate that which is other.
Where it all started for me was in a book I bought on Quantum Mechanics. What was a passing interest in the beginning became instrumental in leading me towards tying together atomic science and ancient philosophies from Asia. Which wasn’t a new idea either.
And at the crux of it all is the question of the ‘ultimate’.
What is the ‘ultimate’?
And so ‘Shadows of Mu’ sets the stage to tackle this question. It does so by creating a surreal space, with a montage of imagery to be explored. Let’s explore:
There is an unusual double doorway that opens onto an atrium. Surrounding the atrium are walls clad with cryptic graffiti, strange imagery, and a disconnected jumble of mathematical symbols and Chinese logograms.
Amongst this menagerie there is: a lotus, the yin yang, wuji, Mu, Carp and the Dragons gate. There is also the wave-function, the uncertainty principle, the Double-slit paradox, Wave-Particle duality, Bohr’s model of the atom. There are also two portraits; one of Albert Einstein and the other Neils Bohr. They were colleagues in science, friends and rivals, their endless debates galvanizing quantum theory and awakening many new scientists and upsetting others.
The two central ideas being displayed in the art are: the strangeness of the atomic world (that matter does not exist with certainty), and the Asian philosophies of Chan/Zen, Taoism, and Buddhism which touch upon levels of truth. Let’s tackle the atomic idea first:
The central idea of atomic physics is that matter does not exist with certainty, despite our experience of it.
Einstein gave birth to quantum mechanics but had rejected it because it implied that matter, at its foundation, was random and uncertain. An idea that did not fit within is view of the universe. For him the universe was absolute, and wholly available to be calculated. This idea is something he sought in the ‘Unified Field Theory’, a unified set of laws that was meant to tie together gravitation, electromagnetism, and subatomic phenomena. In essence he was trying create the ultimate formulae of the universe, which was seen as an evolution of his prior achievements with Special and General Relativity.
However, he struggled with this idea right until the day he died. This was unfortunate for Einstein. Unfortunate because it was short sighted of him. I know … who dares to call Einstein short sighted? Well, I do. But for good reason I believe; he had placed mathematical truth above the simple truth of reality. Which takes to the ol’ question—is math invented or discovered? I say both, because both are aspects of the mind. But mind isn’t all there is, in an ultimate sense. And so he missed out on the ‘ultimate’ by trying to fit the universe into a single calculation.
In the artwork then, Einstein is fixated on his achievements, the pillars of science he created. The photoelectric effect, special relativity, general relativity, and finally the unified field theory. His unwillingness to consider the broader implications of quantum theory (that he helped to create), as urged by Neils Bohr, had him miss his an opportunity to an enlightenment. Instead he was transfixed on the dead knowledge he created. Don’t get me wrong, what Einstein taught us about the universe is nothing short of miraculous in a scientific sense, but ultimately leading to nowhere in an ontological sense.
And so above these pillars we find a dragon. This isn’t arbitrary, but introduces an idea. The Dragon can be traced back to the top of the waterfall, which descends towards a carp carrying an elusive object.
To the right of the carp, a portrait of Neils Bohr adorns the wall. The man to revolutionize quantum mechanics, and to ultimately struggle with its unusual character. Neils was a great man of science, but also one that considered the non-scientific implications of the atomic world. This is represented by the orb which the carp carries. It characterizes the idea of the atomic world: both wave-like and particle-like at the same time. And so the Carp carries this idea, struggling to traverse the waterfall with it. This is reminiscient of old Chinese mythology, where the struggles of a fish to traverse a waterfall, ultimately transforms the fish into a dragon as it crosses the ‘Dragon’s Gate’ at the top. In Zen, this symbolizes the transcendence of a worldly point of view into that of an ultimate awakening, ultimate truth, what is known as ‘enlightenment’. This enlightenment is a truth beyond worldly truth, which Neils carried with him outside his scientific career.
… more to come