A matter of perspective

The radio show and podcast, “On Being” with host Kirsta Tippett features beautifully edited interviews with a wide variety of thinkers and writers. Because of the process of careful preparation, transcripts of the interviews are available a few days before the episodes appear on the air. The episode set to air today features an interview with physicist Carlo Rovelli. Although my background isn’t in science, I am fascinated by my conversations with and readings of physicists. Like philosophers, physicists are big picture thinkers and often attempt to understand the world by looking from different perspectives.

In the interview Rovelli playfully posits the difference between a thing and not a thing. “A stone,” he says, “is a thing because I can ask where the stone is tomorrow, while a happening is something that is limited in space and time. A kiss is not a thing, because I cannot ask, where is a kiss tomorrow.” He then goes on to place that observation in a different time frame: “We live 100 years, but suppose we lived a billion yars. A stone would be just a moment in which some sand gets together and then it disaggregates, so it’s just a momentary getting-together of sand.”

In essence, he uses a very unique approach to helping others to understand that reality is not some fixed entity, but rather a process. Even objects that seem to be fixed and permanent are not so if you view them from a different perspective. It is a scientific updating of the old adage, “This, too, will pass.”

Religion and philosophy have been asking those same big questions for millennia. What is real? What is permanent? How does this appear from a perspective that is not limited by time? Religions, for example, frequently posit the existence of God who is beyond time and not limited the way we humans are. If time does not exist, the reality of a kiss and the reality of a stone are equal. Both are fleeting instances here and then gone. Religion adds a twist, however, both remain forever in the memory of God, and thus are equally important in the overall scheme of things.

Rovelli notes that physics, philosophy, and history are all linked. All are parts of a common desire to better understand the world around us. The conversations about physics, philosophy, and history fascinate me. I frequently write about my frustration with STEM-only education that focuses on part of learning while seemingly ignoring the humanities as if it were possible to learn science without learning philosophy or if engineering without history would yield well balanced individuals. It is my firm belief that the failure to teach the arts and humanities is a failure to teach. A science-only curriculum fails to transmit learnings that are essential to the survival of society. In a sense Rovelli’s writings, like those of other physicists reveal that the study of what is often called pure science leads to philosophical and religious conclusions.

Recently Susan and I spend some time wandering in an art exhibit at the Dahl Arts Center. The exhibit featured 51 of Dick Termes’ rotating three-dimensional paintings. Posters on the wall explain how Termes employs a six-point perspective to paint one-of-a-kind objects. If you stare at one of the creations you are fascinated how what appears to be a straight line is really a curve and how a series of curves can make a triangle or a diamond appear. Some of the spheres are painted on the inside and the outside with some clear areas left without paint so that the viewer can see both the inside and the outside at the same time. Because the spheres are in motion, sitting or standing still and staring at the objects presents an ever-changing perspective.

Viewing the exhibit, I couldn’t help but think about the sphere we call home, our earth. We, too, are constantly rotating and traveling through space at a great speed. Still, the ground around us appears to be flat and fixed and solid. It took generations of thinkers and explorers to figure out that the earth is a sphere, and even more to understand the relationship between the earth and the planets and stars we can observe.

My own life corresponded in time to the beginnings of human exploration of space. I was just coming into adulthood as the first image of the entire earth as viewed from space began to be available. This change in perspective had a dramatic effect on all of the earth. The clean air and clean water acts were passed shortly after those images appeared. Looking at our planet as it appears from outside of it helped us to see that we share a common atmosphere and that we are all linked. There are no natural national boundaries. There are no walls that stop the flow of air and clouds around our planet. We are all in this together.

It is all a matter of perspective and changing our perspective makes a big difference.

For me, the link between art and science is so obvious that I wonder how this is not completely obvious to others.

It is all a matter of perspective.

The times in which we live seem to us to be particularly chaotic and unsettled. It certainly seems to me as if things that I once could count on are much less certain. I scan the headlines repeatedly throughout the day to see what dramatic changes are occurring. I have lived most of my life with a sense of vocation and calling and now it seems like I rise each day having to discover what it is that I am meant to do. What once were routines are no longer routine. Things that once seemed stable are now uncertain. In a sense it is like my perspective has shifted and the rock is now as fleeting as a kiss.

Perhaps this uncertainty is simply a part of having reached the final three months of my employment at this particular congregation. Perhaps it is as normal for this stage of my life as questions were a part of my adolescence. Maybe I will understand better after a few months or a few years have passed. At the moment it is unsettling.

It is all a matter of perspective.

As such, I am grateful for physicists like Carlo Rovelli and artists like Dick Termes who call me out of myself to look at the world from a fresh point of view.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!