A grief observed

Wednesday afternoon I received word that my sister had died.

She was in her mid-sixties, generally in good health. She was vacationing with family—her husband, daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren. Tuesday night she was not feeling well, and she decided to lie down. They said that they would take her to a fast-care clinic in the morning if she didn’t feel better. But she never woke up.

My parents had just the two of us. Our mom died a few years ago, in her eighties. Our dad is still alive, ninety-four years old and still doing well. We were close at times, more separated at others. In her teen years, she went through a rebellious stage that led to a lot of fights between her and our parents. She didn’t finish college, but met a man there and married him. They lived in his childhood house and hometown for a few years; then he was offered a better job and they moved to the suburbs of a larger city. At one time, their house was a summer vacation stop for my household. They then also became the hosts of the family gathering at Christmastime—usually focused on the weekend between Christmas and the New Year.

Those family gatherings became less and less comfortable each year for the past several years. Our political convictions were diverging and becoming firmer. Walking into their house was stressful, hearing CNN at high volume (because my brother-in-law has become hard of hearing) and being forced to endure the propaganda much of the time we were there.

Then came COVID. My sister was proud of the way she kept her immediate family—from her aged father to the youngest grandchild—safe in a “family bubble.” Those of us outside the bubble felt bad for my dad in particular, as he was denied the opportunity even to take a walk in his neighborhood and visit with the friends he recently had made there. Of course the traditional Christmas visit was canceled in 2020. Then came the vaccines, and fitness to visit the family was defined according to vaccine status.

Social media was the worst. My sister shared every meme that came her way if it promoted wearing masks, staying away from other people, or getting shots according to the mainstream-media-approved schedule. She also reposted messages promoting socialism, “woke” politics, and general government control over people’s lives. I was already being careful not to risk my job by sharing messages on Facebook that could be seen as contrary to my employer’s standards of decency and correct-think. I didn’t want to engage in a Facebook war with family, so I developed the habit of scrolling over her posts. Once, when my cousin asked me why I wasn’t saying much on Facebook, I told her that staying away from Facebook was good for my blood pressure.

I feel twinges of guilt that I allowed politics to create a rift in the family, that I didn’t try harder to keep in touch and to find ways to bridge the gap that had appeared. At the same time, family connections are a two-way street, and I remind myself that her stubbornness created at least fifty percent of the separation. To be honest, the sense of relief that came from knowing that we would not be spending time at her place during Christmas 2020 signaled that allowing such a separation may have been healthier than struggling to bridge the gap, to seek common ground, to hold the family together in spite of our contrary convictions.

One of the rules of our American culture says that one says only good things about the dead. My sister truly was a loving and caring person. She sacrificed endlessly for the good of her family and her church. She worked hard to provide the people in her life with many things that she felt would be good for them. Even if her service was as much a burden upon those being served as it was on herself, she always meant well. She will be missed by many people, and I am among those people.

Some family members are part of our life through the accident of birth. Other family members we choose as we pas through life. In either case, the day finally comes when death separates us from the family we love. For my sister, that separation came swiftly, without extended pain and suffering, and for that I am glad. All of us left behind are sorry to see her go. We are comforted by the promise that she now is among the saints, waiting in Paradise for the Day of Resurrection. We are comforted by knowing that we will rise again to live forever in the kingdom of our God, reunited as members of his family, and celebrating together at his heavenly feast. Today’s sorrow is passing, but the joy of heaven is forever. Today’s regrets darken the night, but a new Day will dawn. At the resurrection reunion, full harmony will prevail and all painful differences will be forgotten. The glory that will be revealed far exceeds the troubles of today. J.

The Cold War

The Cold War was an inevitable confrontation, not merely between two powerful governments, but between two contrasting ways of life. The Russian Revolution, beginning in 1917 during the Great War, produced the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union. Founded upon theories from Karl Marx regarding history and economics, the Soviet movement adopted the label “Communist” to describe its aspirations of a world without government, politics, or religion, a world where people shared their labor and their wealth, “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” Contrasted to that view was an ideology that developed out of the Enlightenment principles of human rights, equality, and freedom. Epitomized by the United States of America (USA), this ideology advocated economic freedom, democracy, limited government, and human progress as guided by science and education. In contrast to the Marxist view of Communism, the older ideology described itself as “the free world,” but was derided by the oppositions as “Capitalism.”

When Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt met at Yalta in February 1945, they knew that the totalitarian governments in Germany, Italy, and Japan would be overthrown by their alliance. These three leaders agreed that new governments would be set up in conquered and liberated lands by whichever power first arrived in those lands in the course of the war. Because of that agreement, Soviet-style governments were put in place in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania, and North Korea. Enlightenment-style governments were established or maintained in West Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, and Japan, as well as Scandinavia, north Africa, west Asia, and the south Pacific. Churchill aptly spoke of an Iron Curtain that divided Europe during the Cold War. The United States helped form a military alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for mutual support among its allies; the Soviet Union responded with the Warsaw Pact for its allies. The United States also provided an economic program, the Marshall Plan, to offer short-term aid to the populations of war-stricken areas combined with long-term help to rebuild their economies, industries, and cities. Warsaw Pact nations refused help from the Marshall Plan, but West Germany and Japan became economic powers through the investment and support of the USA.

Ironically, Berlin became a symbol of the Cold War and of the opposing views of economics, politics, and governmental systems. The city was surrounded by Soviet-sponsored East Germany, but it was divided among the conquering allies (USA, USSR, United Kingdom, and France). The Communists blockaded West Berlin in 1948, hoping to take control of the entire city. Instead, the USA and the United Kingdom risked military confrontation with an airlift of supplies to West Berlin. Eventually, the Communists backed down and again allowed travel by land from West Germany to West Berlin. As Germans continued to escape from the Communist bloc to the free world by means of West Berlin, the Communists decided in 1961 to erect a wall, dividing free Berlin from Communist Berlin. This wall became a symbol, addressed by Presidents of the USA from Kennedy to Reagan. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. It signaled the failure of Communism to win the hearts and minds of people under its control.

Berlin was not the only place where people “voted with their feet” between the two economic/political systems. When Vietnam was divided into a Communist North and non-Communist South in 1954, about 90,000 Vietnamese people chose to move to the North, but more than ten times as many people—at least one million—chose to move to the South. People fled Communist Cuba, both when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and again twenty years later when he gave permission for the discontent to leave Cuba and about 135,000 Cubans left for the United States. By 1991, when the Soviet Union disbanded, clear historical evidence was available to anyone who could see that the totalitarian and socialist policies of the USSR and its allies were both ineffective and unpopular, while the capitalist free world retained the support of its citizens and was also the dream and hope of people locked outside its borders.

The strongest image of the difference was visible in east Asia. Free economies boomed in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. By comparison, Communist economies lagged and struggled in North Korea, Vietnam, and the Peoples’ Republic of China. In the 1980s, even before the Cold War ended, China turned its back upon socialism and reintroduced a capital economy more like that of the free world (although it has maintained a totalitarian government until the present time). Other countries that experimented with socialism in the late twentieth century, whether Marxist socialism or that of other models, also found that the cost of a socialist economy vastly outweighed its expected benefits within a few years of implementation.

Life was not carefree and rosy in the free world during the Cold War. The USA and its allies often supported dictators in other nations merely because they were not Communists. They helped dictators against political opponents with the assumption that the enemy of our friends must be an enemy—and therefore Communist. Trying to contain Communism involved the United States in wars in Korea and Vietnam. Cold War perspectives blinded leaders in the USA to complex historical and political realities in other places—especially western Asia, given the growth of Muslim political self-awareness and opposition to the state of Israel. Even inside the United States freedoms were curtailed because of fear that some citizens might be Communist sympathizers. A more detailed look at the nuances of that time shows mistakes that were made. In spite of those mistakes, the free world prevailed against the Communist world in the Cold War, not because it was richer or stronger, but because its ideas were better. J.

Let’s get small, part three

Some of the earliest philosopher/scientists taught that material objects—whether solid, liquid, or gas—are made of atoms. By “atoms,” they meant tiny pieces that could not be divided into smaller pieces Over time, philosopher/scientists convinced themselves that four kinds of atoms exist: water, earth, fire, and air.  For centuries, they conducted chemical experiments based on the assumption that all materials in the world are built from those four kinds of atoms.

Today we teach that water is not an element. Water consists of two elements—hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen atom is the simplest of all atoms, containing one proton as its nucleus and one electron somehow related to the nucleus. Oxygen is more complicated. Oxygen has eight protons in its nucleus, as well as eight neutrons (in the most common form of oxygen—other forms, called isotopes, also exist). Oxygen also has eight electrons. When a molecule of water forms, each of the atoms of hydrogen “shares” its electron with the oxygen atom, linking the three atoms into one molecule. And these molecules are so tiny that a huge number of them must be in the same place for them to behave with the properties our senses detect as water.

If the tiny world of molecules and atoms were that simple, scientists and philosophers would be delighted. Further experiments in modern times, though, have shown that the atoms are not unbreakable—they consist of even smaller parts. (One physicist commented on continuing discoveries of subatomic particles by saying that it seems as if God is making up new complications as quickly as researchers unravel the previous complications.) Electrons, for example, are so tiny that they cannot be measured—estimates of the size of an electron vary wildly. This difficulty comes from the apparent fact that electrons are not tiny particles, specks of something solid, but instead are packets of energy. An electrician designs devices that rely on electricity, treating the moving electrons as “currents” as if they flowed like water in a stream. But individual electrons jump around like nothing we experience in our regular lives as larger creatures.

In that difference, electrons resemble photons. Photons are also packets of energy that act like tiny particles in some ways, but they also travel as waves of energy—sometimes as visible light, sometimes as radio waves, X-rays, or other frequencies. Electrons of photons do not follow the rules of physics that were used from the time of Isaac Newton to the time of Albert Einstein. Nor do they seem to exist in the kind of geometric space that has been used since the time of Euclid. Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics are not wrong. They merely are unable to describe realities for very tiny things (and also for very big things). Because of our experiences with objects that are neither very tiny nor very big, we tend to think in terms of Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics. We imagine the entire universe existing an infinite distance in every dimension—up and down, back and forth, right and left. We imagine time also existing an infinite distance into the past and into the future. Both time and space are more flexible than we generally imagine—which is why Einstein’s theories of relativity are difficult for our minds to grasp. But for the Christian, who describes time and space as created by a God who transcends both time and space, the flexibility of those creations should not be a great surprise.

In a molecule of water, then, we have ten protons and ten electrons and eight neutrons. Beyond that, each proton and each neutron are made of three quarks. Each electron has a negative charge equal to one, and each proton has a positive charge equal to one, but quarks have fractional charges which provide the sum charge of a proton as positive one and the sum charge of a neutron as zero. Although six kinds of quarks exist, only two are commonly found in atoms—two up quarks and a down quark in each proton, and two down quarks and an up quark in each neutron. So a molecule of water consists of sixty-four very tiny mysterious pieces, each of which is as much energy as it is matter—plus some particles called gluons that hold the quarks together in their protons and neutrons.

Immanuel Kant would be pleased to know that today’s scientists describe reality at the tiny level as completely unlike what we experience in our everyday world. Kant insisted that the phenomena we observe are very different than the noumena that really exist and that cause us to observe things. Time and space are nothing like what we generally consider them to be. This comment allows us to transition to consideration of the nature of time—what time really is, and how it relates to the lives that we live. J.

War in Ukraine–best case scenario

The best-case scenario to result from this week’s warfare in Ukraine is that the Russian people realize that Vladimir Putin is a failed despot, arrest him, replace him, withdraw their armed forces from Ukraine, and seek to reestablish proper diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. Sadly, we are unlikely to reach that scenario soon, not without more violence and destruction between now and then.

I can picture Putin confined to house arrest in one of his mansions, with falsified battle reports delivered to him hourly while the Russian army withdraws to its bases and leaves its neighbors unharmed. Putin could have long, rambling, pointless conversations with Presidents Biden and Macron and could tape speeches to the Russian nation which would be broadcast only inside his house. Meanwhile, a new Russian government could work diligently to repair all that Putin has broken. But Putin, like any intelligent and skillful tyrant, has removed from the Russian government all competition to his leadership. Anyone who disagreed with him in the past has been cut off from access to power. Anyone capable of running Russia without Putin has been isolated, kept from been heard by the Russian people. An uprising in Russia overthrowing Putin would be welcome news to the rest of the world, but we cannot hope to hear news of that sort in the immediate, foreseeable future.

The worst-case scenario to result from this week’s warfare is World War III and the end of civilization. Putin has been willing to risk that possibility, largely because he is confident that no other leader would allow matters to go that far. But almost as bad a scenario is that Putin and the Russian army capture control of Ukraine and make it another satellite of Russia, as subservient as Belarus and Kazakhstan. Allowing Ukraine to fall without much of a fight merely kicks the can of World War III down the road a bit, until Putin decides that he also wants to control Poland or Romania or some other nation that was once under the thumb of the Czars and of the Soviet government. Diplomacy and economic sanctions might not be enough to preserve the independence of Ukraine. Handing Putin the victory he wants today mortgages the future for the questionable benefit of a slightly longer time of peaceful coexistence in the present.

I wish I could believe that NATO’s leaders have a plan to stop Putin’s Russia in its tracks and to reverse the process of expansion and domination that Putin has been pursuing for years. If economic sanctions are sufficient to end Putin’s reign, to inspire the Russians to form a new government, I will be pleased and surprised. As for diplomacy, it is a necessary skill that has its time and place, but Putin has pushed events beyond the line where diplomacy can function. He already seized the Crimea away from Ukraine while President Obama led the United States; permitting Putin to claim and hold more pieces of Ukraine  as a way to end the current fighting does nothing more than prolong the process. Diplomacy and economic sanctions did not rescue the Crimea, and they will not suffice to rescue Ukraine this year.

A lengthy war in eastern Europe is far from ideal. War should be a last resort, not a first or second choice of methods to deal with other nations. When the other side chooses war, though, our side has scant hope to avoid war. If the battle against Russian imperialism, fought today in Ukraine, can prompt the Russian people to rise up against their tyrant and his plans, the end of ousting Putin may be worth the means of our military involvement today. Vladimir Putin has misled the Russian people long enough. In support of the true Russia and of its neighbors in today’s world, the rest of the world may be obliged to flex military muscles before the opportunity has passed. J.

Let’s get small, part two

If you tear a sheet of paper into tiny pieces of paper, you will not be able to determine if you have discovered the smallest possible piece of paper. Therefore, you cannot prove in this way that whether paper is made of nothing but paper. Remember: there are three possibilities: every piece of paper might be divisible into smaller pieces of paper, continuing endlessly to smaller and smaller pieces; or there might be a smallest piece of paper that cannot be divided; or paper might be made out of small pieces of something else, small pieces which together have the properties of paper. We will test the third possibility. Weigh the piece of paper; then set it on fire. When it has burned, weigh the ashes that remain. In this way, you prove that paper consists of at least two ingredients. One ingredient is the ash that is left; the other ingredient somehow disappeared in the fire.

In the ancient world, many philosopher/scientists concluded that the material world and everything in it consists of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. From this experiment, they would say that paper must consist of earth (the ashes left when the paper was burned) and fire (the missing weight that disappeared when the paper was burned). For centuries, philosopher/scientists called alchemists proposed theories and conducted experiments to learn more about the material world and the substances in this world. Often alchemists are portrayed as magicians trying to turn lead into gold. They did, in fact, attempt to make that change. However, they also performed many other investigations which led to the modern discovery of the science called chemistry.

Modern science would determine that most of the ash produced by burning the paper is an element called carbon. Carbon is one of the elements found in paper. Modern science also reports that water is not an element. Each molecule of water contains three atoms—two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. Water molecules can be broken. Connect wires to the terminals of a battery and put the wires into a glass of water. Bubbles will form at each wire—hydrogen molecules at the cathode (attached to the negative pole of the battery) and oxygen molecules at the anode (attached to the positive pole).

If you could see a molecule of water, it would look like a Mickey Mouse head—two little atoms of hydrogen set sixty degrees apart on a larger atom of oxygen. Remember that these molecules are very tiny. A large number of them are required for the water to have any properties that our senses can detect. But another interesting fact about a glass of water is that –in addition to chemicals contained in the water—even a full glass of water contains much empty space.

To prove this, try the following experiment. Take a measuring cup and carefully add half a cup (four ounces) of water. Now carefully add a tablespoon of water and notice that the water level is above the half-cup (or four ounce) mark. Add a second tablespoon of water, and you now have five ounces. Add two more tablespoons of water, and you have six ounces, or three-quarters of a cup of water.

Now add a tablespoon of sugar and gently stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Notice that the water level has not increased above the six-ounce mark. Do so again, and you still have only three-quarters of a cup of water. A third time will not have the same results, because all the sugar cannot dissolve. But, even with three tablespoons of sugar in six ounces of water, you will still be far closer to the six ounce line than you are to the full cup of water. The dissolved sugar has found empty spaces between the molecules of water in your cup.

Matter contains atoms, but it also contains much empty space. Empty space exists between electrons and nuclei in each atom (and none of the sugar was able to fit into that empty space in the water). Empty space exists between molecules in even the most seemingly solid substances. Empty space exists beyond the atmosphere of the earth. Except for the brief times when the Moon, Mercury, Venus, or some asteroid crosses between the Earth and the Sun, that distance is more than ninety million miles of empty space. Even with one of those objects in the way, the bulk of that ninety million miles is empty space. More empty space separates the Sun from other stars, and yet more empty space lies between the galaxies. Most of the universe is empty space.

Empty space is not nothing. People who confuse emptiness, or the void, with nothing make the same mistake that the Cyclops named Polyphemus made in Homer’s Odyssey. Clever Odysseus introduced himself to the Cyclops as “No one.” Later, when Odysseus poked a sharpened stick into Polyphemus’ eye, the Cyclops roared out, “No one is attacking me! No one has blinded me!” None of his friends came to help him; they thought that, if no one was attacking him, everything was fine. Likewise, in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the king asks his messenger who he passed on the road and the messenger answers, “nobody.” The king remarks that nobody is slower than his messenger. Indignant, the messenger says that he believes nobody is faster than he is. “He can’t do that,” the king said, “or he’d have been here first.”

In the same way, even experienced philosophers sometimes confuse themselves, mistaking emptiness or the void with nothing. Earlier philosophers felt that empty space was impossible. For anything to move, they figured, it must displace something else. When you walk into a room, you displace some air. When you lower yourself into a bathtub, you displace some water. (When Archimedes realized the significance of that displacement, he was so invited that he invented streaking.) Those early philosophers were certain that, from the very smallest pieces of the world to the very largest, everything must displace something else as it moved. They were the ones who coined the expression, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” which has nothing to do with housecleaning.

But Nature cannot abhor a vacuum; nature is almost entirely vacuum. From the empty space inside each atom to the empty space between galaxies, most of the universe is empty space. But emptiness, or void, can be measured. The tiny space between electrons of an atom and its nucleus can be measured (and that empty space is much bigger than the nucleus of the atom, let alone the electrons). The empty space between planets and the sun, or between stars, or between galaxies, can be measured. Because it can be measured, it is not nothing.

A modern physicist says that the universe is expanding. Ask, “into what is it expanding?” and the physicist answers, “Nothing.” They physicist does not mean empty space or a void; the nothing that surrounds the known universe is not measurable empty space or void. Christians say that God created the universe out of nothing. They do not mean that He created out of void or empty space. Before God created, according to Christian teachings, nothing but God existed—not even empty space, not even a void. The difference is very important to Christian teachers and to modern physicists. J.

Let’s get small, part one

You have before you a piece of paper. Being a philosopher and a scientist (for the present, we will take those words to be synonyms), you use your senses to analyze this piece of paper. You see that it is white. You see that it is flat. Seeing a measuring device, you use it to determine that the paper is eight and one half inches long and eleven inches wide—or, if you prefer, 261 mm (millimeters) x 279 mm. Measuring the thickness of the paper is not so easy, but you are a clever philosopher and scientist. You stack one hundred sheets of paper and find that the stack is one-half inch tall, or 1.2 mm. Therefore, you know that one sheet of paper is one-two-hundredth of an inch thick, or 0.012 mm—about the smallest size your eyes can see or your fingers can feel.

Scent and taste do not reveal useful information about the paper, but your hands tell you that the paper is smooth, but the edges and corners feel sharp. Left alone, the paper makes no noise. With your hands, though, you can cause it to make noises when you flap it in the air, when you crumple it, or when you tear it.

Tearing the piece of paper gives you a new thought. You now have two pieces of paper, both remaining white and flat, with the same thickness and width, but neither as long as the original. How long can this process continue? Can you continue to tear the paper into smaller and smaller pieces? And will each piece remain a piece of paper? Modern science teaches us about molecules and atoms while we are young, but for centuries philosophers and scientists were lacking that information. For centuries they wondered how small a piece of paper could remain paper, and what it might be if it was no longer paper.

With a microscope, you can see that paper consists of fibers. Perhaps with tiny, delicate tools, you could isolate one fiber from the paper and chop it into shorter and shorter lengths. Even this experiment will not answer the age-old question about what tiny parts might make up a piece of paper. Logically, three possibilities exist. Perhaps the process can continue forever—however small a piece of paper you have, you can divide it into two smaller pieces. Perhaps the process reaches a limit—a small particle of paper exists that cannot be divided into smaller pieces. Or perhaps at some point we will find tiny pieces that are no longer paper, but are something else, ingredients, elements of which paper is made. By tearing and shredding the paper, we will never determine which of these results is real.

We set the paper aside for a little while, and instead we consider a drop of water. How big is a drop? For convenience, we will define one drop as one twentieth of a milliliter (0.2 mL) or one one-hundredth of a teaspoon. Modern science tells us that one drop of water contains 1.5 sextillion molecules of water. Sextillion is a real number, unlike jillion or zillion. It is written as a one followed by twenty-one zeroes. When dealing with huge numbers or tiny numbers, scientists prefer to use “scientific notation”—in the case of one sextillion, writing the number as 1 x 10²¹. Another shortcut is to use special measurements, such as nanometers or Angstroms. To try to put this number into perspective, though, let’s take that drop of water and divide it in half. Then divide the half-drop in half again, and do so a third time, a fourth time, a fifth time, and on to a tenth time. Now we have a speck of water that is about as high and wide and thick as the thickness of one piece of paper—and it still contains 1.5 quintillion molecules of water.

With special instruments, we continue dividing that one speck of water—slightly less than one thousandth the original drop—in half, and divide that half in half, until we have done that process another ten times. The invisible bit of water we have now is one millionth the size of the original drop, and it contains 1.5 quadrillion molecules of water. Repeat the process another ten times, and what we have is one billionth the size of the original drop and contains 1.5 trillion molecules of water. Now we are getting to numbers we recognize—at least if we pay attention to the national budget. Billions and trillions are somewhat familiar. Along the way, we may begin to appreciate just how tiny one molecule of water happens to be.

But another thing has happened. By the eleventh or twelfth division of that drop of water, what we had left was not really water. It still contained water molecules—an unimaginarily huge number of molecules—but that water was no longer wet. Drop it on your skin, and you would not feel it. Drop it into a glass of water, and you would not hear it land or see the ripples. It takes an enormous number of molecules of water to be sensed as water, just as it takes an enormous number of molecules of chlorophyl before we can see any green in a leaf.

We will return to the water again and will look at its molecules and consider even smaller parts of the molecule. But, first, we will experiment again with the paper. J.

Reality starts getting weird

Our senses tell us of the world around us, the world in which we live. But how can we be sure that the information delivered by our senses is complete? What if other information lies outside our perception, realities we cannot comprehend because nature or its Creator have not equipped us to detect those realities?

My example of the singing refrigerator hints at such a possibility. My sister and I could hear the sounds the refrigerator made. Other family members could not hear them and refused to believe that such sounds existed. Human ears vary slightly regarding the pitches they can detect and report to the brain. Such a difference in hearing appears to be only the tip of the iceberg.

In the 1860s, at the height of the Victorian Era, scientists began to detect some sort of radiation associated with electricity and magnetism. Twenty years later, further research had provided a better understanding of that radiation. What we humans know as visible light—red, green, blue, and white—is only part of the spectrum of light waves in the world. Other wavelengths are longer or shorter than the wavelengths our eyes witness. Radio waves and microwaves had been found in the latter part of the nineteenth centuries; X-rays would not be discovered until 1895. Not only did science unveil the existence of these waves that have always been there; inventors swiftly found ways to harness this knowledge for the benefit of humankind.

Imagine telling a scientist from the year 1850 that in our time invisible waves are used to allow people to communicate across thousands of miles, to speak to one another and hear immediate replies. Imagine describing the way the same invisible waves convey not only sounds but also images—even moving pictures—all around the earth. Imagine adding to that fantastic tale the detail that bones and internal organs of a person can be observed without removing that person’s skin. These innovations would surely be as marvelous and unexpected as motorcars, airplanes, and other modern tools that we take for granted today.

A few people claim to believe that the Earth is flat, insisting that evidence of a spherical world is misinformation distributed to fool the general public. Perhaps somewhere a few people also insist that all light is visible light. They might claim that reports of radio waves and microwaves and X-rays are a trick and that such things do not exist. Cell phones, garage door openers, TV remotes, and medical and dental X-rays are all part of the trickery, clever illusions to persuade us to believe in unseen waves that constantly surround us and pass through us.

Because science stumbled upon these unseen versions of light, we must accept the possibility that other real things exist in the world, unobserved because we have not yet found a way to look for them. Meanwhile, further studies of the observable world bring us new and amazing bits of news. For everything we consider solid and reliable—the red apple in the refrigerator, and the square table in the middle of the room, and my foot, and my shoe, and the ant crawling on the floor next to my shoe—all these things are formed from an unimaginably large number of unimaginably tiny pieces. And those pieces follow rules that are far different from the rules of geometry and physics we have learned about the world our senses observe. Even the light that enables us to see those things follows a different set of rules. This is where things start becoming truly weird. J.

Our senses and our world, part three

If we agree that a tomato in the dark refrigerator is only potentially red—not truly red when no light is shining on it—then must we agree that the properties of objects do not exist when they are not perceived? Is sugar not sweet when it is not being tasted? And is salt not salty when it is not being tasted? Are they only potentially sweet and potentially salty? If that is the case, then we have abandoned dualism and are functioning in the realm of idealism. In that realm, minds and thoughts and ideas (and spirits) are real, but the material world is only in illusion formed by our minds and thoughts and ideas (and spirits).

Imagine a small pile, half a teaspoon, of white crystals on the kitchen counter. They might be sugar or salt, but you don’t know which. Clearly, by tasting a few of the crystals, you will know if the pile is sugar or salt. Does that mean that the crystals are neither sugar nor salt until they have been sampled?

Taste is the quickest way to discern sugar from salt, but a chemist could provide other tests that would identify the crystals apart from their taste. Sugar consists of hydrocarbon molecules, but table salt is a lattice of sodium and chlorine ions. These chemical facts remain true even if the crystals are not tasted. Therefore, we do not have to taste them for them to be either sweet or salty.

By the same token, the brown table in the center of the room is not brown in the dark, but it is still a table, hard and unyielding. If I walk into that table in the dark, it will bruise my shin and cause me to lose my balance. Even in the dark, when it is no longer brown, that table retains all its other physical properties as a material object.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? As it begins to tumble, it crashes into other trees, and the crackling of the branches sends vibrations through the air. When it finally hits the ground, it creates a thump that shakes the ground. That thump will be discernable for some distance in the ground, and it also will cause vibrations in the air. Now perhaps no person is in the forest to hear the crackling and the thump. If a scientist has left a listening/recording device in the forest—trying to gather evidence of a surviving ivory-billed woodpecker or of Bigfoot—that device will register the sound of the falling tree. Squirrels and sparrows will hear the crackle and the thump. But what if there are no squirrels, no sparrows, and no scientific listening device? Will the tree still make a sound? A Christian (or Muslim or Jew) is likely to say that God is still in the forest. God will hear the sound of the falling tree. If God is not present, then there is no tree and no forest, and (of course) no sound. On the one hand, this proposal lends itself to Berkeley’s brand of idealism—things we call material are ideas in the mind of God, and as a result they are real to all created beings that have senses and minds.

But a tree is big enough to make a sound. One leaf, falling from the tree, might not make a sound that is heard by any human being, squirrel, sparrow, or scientific device. Does God still hear the leaf when it lands on the floor of the forest? Perhaps. Philosophy alone cannot answer that question.

But substances in the material world must have a certain quantity to possess the qualities we apply to those substances. The half-teaspoon of sugar or salt was sweet or salty. One molecule of sugar, or one sodium ion linked to one chlorine ion, would have no flavor. Half a teaspoon of water is wet. One molecule of water is not wet. A steel knife is sharp. One iron molecule from that knife is not sharp.

I will address the atomic theory of material substances more completely a bit later in this writing. But we must concede right now that the smallest particles of matter lack the qualities that they attain when they gather in large numbers. A single molecule of chlorophyl is not green. It is too small to reflect any light. But millions of molecules of chlorophyl, gathered in the same leaf, are green. This fact forces us to reconsider our opinion about the reality of the material world, that world which is revealed to us by our senses. J.

Our senses and our world, part two

Because of light, we see things around us—and even things, such as stars, that are far from us. Because of sound, we hear things. Sound travels as waves through air and water and even through solid substances. When those waves reach our ears, our eardrums and the tiny bones behind them move, and nerves carry messages about those movements to our brains. Loud sounds and soft sounds, high sounds and low sounds, brief sounds and continuing sounds—all these are faithfully reported to our brains. Sometimes we enjoy the sounds we hear. Sometimes they warn us of dangers to which we must react. Sometimes we ignore what we hear. Even while we sleep, even while in a coma, we continue to hear, because our ears (unlike our eyes) have no muscles. Therefore, we should never assume that a person in the room with us cannot hear the things we say.

Our hearing is not identical, even as our seeing is not identical. Some people hear higher pitches than other people; some people hear lower sounds than other people. My sister and her household once had a singing refrigerator—all day and all night, it alternated through three high-pitched tones, not shrill and piercing tones, but sounds that were present to those who could hear them. Her husband and their daughter could not hear the refrigerator sing. They thought my sister was inventing a story when she mentioned its song. When my children and I commented on the song, my brother-in-law and niece thought we were joining my sister in her joke. They could not hear those three sounds. As a result, they assumed that no such sounds existed.

We smell various scents when small particles of matter in the air reach our noses. Flowery perfumes, smoke, food cooking on the stove, freshly-cut grass, the plastic in a new car—all have distinctive odors that we notice when those particles enter our noses. Taste works like smell, except that we taste only the things that we put into our mouths. Sugar is sweet, acidic foods are sour, alkali foods are bitter, and salt is, well, salty. Chocolate is both sweet and bitter; lemonade is both sweet and sour. Whenever we taste something, our tongues report to our brains what we are eating, and our brains decide how much we like what we are eating. Most flavors combine both scent from the nose and sensations from the tongue, which is why food tastes different when our noses are obstructed due to colds or allergies.

The skin on our bodies includes nerve endings that tell us about the things we touch. These distinguish hot and cold, sharp and dull, soft and firm, and various other distinctions. They also report the intensity of contact, presenting pain when the touch is dangerous. The nerve endings in our skin are constantly reporting to our brains everything that touches them. The brain then decides how to react to the information it is receiving from our skin.

Our brains, then, are constantly responding to a variety of messages about sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch. Our brains are constantly judging which information to ignore and which information requires a response. If we are focused on one situation—if, for example, we are reading—the brain will ignore many of the other messages about sound and scent and touch that it receives. On the other hand, if we are reading and then smell smoke and hear the wail of the smoke detector, the brain decides to ignore the written message and to react to the other messages. While driving a car, we pay attention to many things: the road conditions, the behavior of other vehicles, and the signs and signals along the road, for example. We might listen to the radio, but the sound of a siren diverts our attention. If we smell gasoline, we wonder whether the source of that odor is from our vehicle, from the old pick-up truck next to us on the road, or from the gas station we just passed. If the ride is bumpy, we wonder if the pavement is rough or if a tire is going flat. We will notice other things—that car that just passed us has a license plate from Wisconsin; the price of gasoline went up four cents since yesterday. Our brains note some of the things reported to them, respond immediately to some, note others for later reflection, and ignore and forget many of the things our senses report. At any moment, our brains are discounting much sensory information as irrelevant—the touch of clothing on our arms, the ticking of the clock, the color of the floor and the walls, the lingering scents from our last meal. Our world is too busy; we could not survive if we continually noticed every sight and sound and scent and touch and tried to respond to all that information. And all this does not begin to address other information available to us, including memories and abstract concepts. J.

Our senses and our world, part one

We experience the world around us through our senses. Traditionally, we are attributed with five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Taste and smell are similar enough in nature that they often are lumped together as one sense. At the same time, modern physiologists speak of other senses which we possess, such as the sense of balance. These additional senses tell us about our own body rather than about the outside world, so we can set those aside as we explore philosophy.

Still other people mention additional senses or sense-like perceptions. They suggest that we gather information about the world in ways that transcend the usual five senses. They speak of a sixth sense or of Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP). unfortunately, scientific investigation into those additional senses usually reveals either fraud or mere coincidence. Much of what we attribute to a sixth sense comes more from information acquired through the five senses and from rational (if often less than conscious) consideration of that information gathered in the present or remembered from the past.

So we are left with sight, hearing, touch, and taste-and-smell. Each of those involves input from the world beyond our bodies. Sight involves light, perceived by our eyes and reported to our brains. Hearing involves sound, perceived by our ears and reported to our brains. Touch involves contact with our skin, perceived by nerve-endings in our skin and reported to our brains. Taste and smell involve small particles that reach receptors in our mouths and noses that report to our brains what they perceive. In all these cases, our brains receive this information, evaluate its importance, and generate a response—ranging from ignoring the information to enjoying the experience, remembering the source of the stimulus so it can be repeated or avoided, or even rushing to flee from the cause of the stimulus.

Over the centuries, philosophers meditated on sight and discussed its significance. They pondered whether a color—white, for example, or red—was an essential part of an object or merely a characteristic of an object. They asked whether a color, such as white or red, can exist apart from an object. (Is the idea of whiteness real, or is it merely a label applied to all objects that have the characteristic of being white?) They debated how colors are perceived by our minds, and they asked whether we all see the same thing when we look at an object.

Modern scientists tell us that light comes in various wavelengths. Whiteness is a combination of wavelengths, which scientists demonstrate by shining white light through a prism, which breaks the light into the colors of the rainbow. Red and orange and other colors are distinct wavelengths of light. We see light emitted by some objects—the sun, of course, and flames, and wires or bulbs of light that glow due to electric current. Other objects reflect light. If the source of the light is red, the objects that reflect that red light will all look red. But white light shining on objects will have some wavelengths absorbed by the object and others reflected. As a consequence, when white light shines, we will see red objects and green objects and blue objects and many other colors as well.

Certain trees and other broad-leafed plants change color. In the spring and summer, they have green leaves. That green is caused by chlorophyl, which absorbs other wavelengths of light but reflects green light. In autumn, plants stop producing chlorophyl, and other chemicals in the leaves reflect other wavelengths of light—red, orange, yellow, or brown. Those leaves then fall off the plants and die, and in the spring new leaves are produced to replace them. We see different colors of leaves at different times of the year because of different chemicals in the leaves which reflect different wavelengths of light.

Arguably, an object in the dark has no color, because it is reflecting no light. An apple or tomato in the drawer of a closed refrigerator has the potential to be red, but it is not red when it is in the dark. (Yes, I know that apples and tomatoes last longer when they are not refrigerated, but the example is still valid.) Open the door of the refrigerator, let light shine on the apple or tomato, and they are red. They do not lose their ability to be red by being in the dark. But potential color is real color only when light is reflected by an object.

We see more than color. We also see shapes and sizes and other qualities of the objects within our view. Our brains are adept at interpreting what we see, even when what we see is a distortion of what is really there. This fact has caused some philosophers to wrestle almost endlessly with the relationship between sight and reality. For example, in the center of my reading room is a square table. Only by standing directly over it and looking down at it do I really see a square. From my favorite chair, or from the doorway, the table would not seem to be square. A photograph or painting from either perspective would contain a tabletop with four sides, but those four sides would not form a square. Yet not only do I recognize that the table is square from every other perspective; a visitor to my house, looking from the doorway into the reading room, would recognize that the table is square. Partly because we have two eyes (which provides some perception of depth) but more because our brains are effective at interpreting what our eyes report, we see the true shape of objects even when our perspective should distort the shape of those objects.

In the same way, I know that the person standing next to me is much shorter than a distant tree, even though the tree occupies much less of my field of vision than the nearer person. Our brains have awareness of depth perception and of the fact that distant objects are bigger than they appear. Therefore, our brains are fooled only when we cannot know either the size or distance of an object. Ancient philosophers and scientists thought that the sun was both smaller and nearer than it really is, because at the time they had no way of measuring its true size or its true distance. In most cases, though, people are able to estimate the size of seen objects accurately because of knowledge and experience of the world and of the way it works.

Yet our eyes can be fooled. A spoon in a glass of water appears to be bent because of the difference between the way light flows through water and through air. Distracted and preoccupied, our minds sometimes miss sights that our eyes have recorded or wrongly interpret what they eyes report. And, naturally, we cannot see things when something else is in the way—we cannot see the apple in the refrigerator when the refrigerator door is closed. Our experience of the world, as gained through sight, remains limited.

And we do not always see what other people see. In 2015, a woman photographed a dress in a store and sent the digital photograph to her daughter. The dress was blue and black, but when the daughter saw the photograph, she thought she was looking at a photograph of a white and gold dress. Over the following months, millions of people saw the same photograph. Even looking at the same photograph on the same device at the same time, some saw a blue and black dress, while others saw a white and gold dress. Our minds process information received from the eyes in a variety of ways, drawing clues about color and shape and size from many past experiences and impressions. Living in the same world, we do not always experience the same thing. Reality does not change from person to person—the real dress was blue and black. But perception and interpretation can lead to differences, sometimes such significant differences that we appear to be living in different worlds. J.