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What is light? What is seeing? – Part 1

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Light and vision – we deal with them every day, but mostly we take them for granted without a second thought. So, maybe they are worth a deeper investigation. It is a peculiarity of being human to hold the view that we are always correct in how we ‘see’ the world.

Only as recent as a few decades ago, we were still taught in school that the eye is just an organ of perception that functions exactly like a camera. Today however, more recent discoveries show us that the eye is not only effective from a passive mechanical viewpoint, but also plays an essential and active role in ‘seeing’.

During the Renaissance period, a move developed to try to describe light and vision from a scientific perspective. Leonardo de Vinci for instance, hypothesised that the eye would work like a camera obscura (remembering that the first camera to capture an image was not yet invented). In such a device, light would enter through a tiny hole a few millimetres in size, and project a faithful image of the external environment onto the back wall – albeit upside down.

In fact, this also happens in the human eye, as the image we see is projected upside down on the retina.  From there the image must be transformed into impulses of consciousness so that we can ‘see’ the image. Just exactly how this process of transformation takes place is still an unsolved mystery.

Statements of science

When it comes to vision, scientific research has divided itself into the three main specialist fields of physics, neurobiology and neurology. From the point of view of their specific fields of study, they have each described the process of ‘seeing’ down to the smallest detail, giving us formulas of exact anatomy, biochemistry, and neurology. We have thus ended up with a complex puzzle of thousands of individual pieces, but without a cohesive or comprehensive explanation of what light is, or how vision actually works.

Could quantum theory possibly help us to understand light and vision, and move us closer to understanding these mysteries? Quantum physics has developed a new theory of light, but still, great physicists like Albert Einstein confessed: ‘Fifty years of intensive thinking have brought me no closer to answering the question: what are light quanta!’ Of course, today every ‘expert’ offers their opinion, but none have come up with an acceptable answer.

On the basis of experimentation, quantum theory has indisputably demonstrated that the mechanistic view of understanding light is untenable. One of its important experiments – the ‘double slit’ experiment – is as follows: Light is sent through a diffraction grating and is shown in a pure wave form. The experiment is then extended to include an additional diffraction grating. The light wave is then sent through this second grating and observed.

What becomes apparent in this second experiment is that the light appears particle-like. It has left the pure wave form and turned into a particle form; it has materialized, crystallized, so to speak.

So it appears that light can be both wave and particle. The problem in comprehending this, is that it requires its own quantum leap in understanding and insight. In former times, natural scientists observed and analysed the phenomena from a position of distance and objectivity, as it were.

According to quantum theory however, we must recognise that we ourselves are an active part of the observation process and that we are involved in everything as active subjects, and therefore are not detached from the outcome.

Therefore the quintessence of this experiment could be concluded as: The state of the light is influenced by the state of our consciousness. But an ‘I’ or ‘human being’, does not appear in any physical formula associated with light. 

Even if quantum theory cannot yet satisfactorily answer the deeper questions surrounding light and vision, a new perspective has been added. If there are different states of light, that is, its property has been shown as either a wave or a particle, could these perhaps be seen as different states of development? Could one for instance, say that light ‘lowers’ itself to the state of consciousness of man by moving from the pure, immaterial state of wave-vibration into a more material state as a particle?

Plato's vision

Let us consider the vision of Plato (427-347 BC) in his Timaeus [1]. He writes:

‘The fire of the soul in man produces a mild light that emanates from the eyes. This inner light is similar to sunlight and mixes with it. Through the mixing of inner and outer light, a single homogeneous body of light is formed. This body of light establishes a connection between the objects of the world and the soul. It forms a bridge, as it were, through which the imperceptible movements of the external objects reach the eye and produce the sensations of seeing.’

According to Plato, vision has five aspects. Firstly, there is an emanation of the human soul that shines through the eyes. Secondly, this soul light, although weaker, is similar in nature to sunlight. Thirdly, a unique ‘light body’ is formed from the interaction of soul light and the sunlight. Fourthly, this body of light establishes a connection between the external objects of the world and the soul. Fifthly, it becomes a bridge through which the basic atomic vibration of the outer objects enters the eye.

Plato calls the connection between the observing eye and the observed object, as the ‘body of light’. In it, subject and object unite in the process of seeing – their soul forces flow into each other.

When two people sit facing each other in conversation and look at each other, they form a ‘field of light’, one can say, in which their vibrations flow into each other. In this created ‘connection’, the light not only vibrates between the two of them, but it becomes a pulsating net whose vibrations spread out spherically in all directions, into the limitless.

We can understand light as something that illuminates everything and connects everything together. It can open the door to unity for our consciousness. Without light we could perceive nothing. It is light that creates the longing for unity within us.

Mikhail Naimy writes in his work The Book of Mirdad [2]:

‘The light in your eyes is not yours alone. It is the light of all who share the sun with you. What could your eyes see of me if there were no light in me? It is my light that sees me in your eye. It is your light that sees you in my eye.’

(to be continued in part 2)

 

Sources:

[1] Taken from: Arthur Zajonc: Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind, 1995

[2] Mikhail Naimy: The Book of Mirdad. Rozekruis-Pers, Haarlem 1968, p. 59.

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