Blues skies

“Why is the sky blue?”

Along with the ‘birds and the bees’, or ‘the courier stork’ answers, parents around the world are frequently reminded of their lack of imagination/knowledge, from their curious 5-year olds, because kids are always asking ‘why…but why?’

We might even be impressed at the time, at their effectively making visible to us our knowledge gap, but usually we’re able to pick ourselves up and carry on as if nothing happened. But this is a serious thing believe it or not…we are under attack by a silent assassin. Here is ‘Exhibit A’… From NASA on the topic of ‘why is the sky blue?

“Sunlight reaches Earth’s atmosphere and is scattered in all directions by all the gases and particles in the air. Blue light is scattered in all directions by the tiny molecules of air in Earth’s atmosphere. Blue is scattered more than other colors because it travels as shorter, smaller waves. This is why we see a blue sky most of the time.”

On first glance, this sounds perfectly reasonable, right (assuming you have any idea what they’re talking about)? Now for ‘Exhibit B’ from Phaedo by Plato, where the question is asked to Anaxagoras …’why is Socrates sitting in this prison cell?’ (I’ve added the bold emphasis):

“Anaxagoras’ account of why Socrates is presently sitting would consist in his bones, sinews, and muscles being a certain way and in a certain position, and an account of why he is speaking to his interlocutors would deal with sound and air and hearing. But none of Anaxagoras’ theories would adduce the true reasons for Socrates’ sitting and talking–that he was sentenced to death and thought it just to face the sentence rather than attempt an escape. After all, Socrates notes, his bones and sinews would be in a very different place right now had he judged it better to attempt an escape! Socrates’ body being the way it is provides the conditions without which the reasons for his being here would not be possible, but the reasons themselves have more to do with Socrates’ intelligence and his sense of what is best.”

So here’s the issue…’how’ is not ‘why‘! Using ‘how‘ as a synonym for ‘why‘ is a very strange game to play, because who seriously thinks that Socrates was sitting in the prison because his muscles were in a certain way? Of course not, because he explains that he was sitting there willingly (ie. He was in control of his muscles and so decided to sit down), and was prepared to drink the hemlock and face his sentence from Athens, rather than run away.

When you play with your kids at home, or when you take the dog out for a walk, you’d probably agree that of course you’re doing so for a reason…well not according to modern science…rather, it would be said that you have no will to decide, and rather your brain is somehow making you do stuff, and the illusion is that you think you’re in control…and the biggest illusion is that you think that you are you…when really you’re just atoms. Heavy stuff hey!

But I see the funny side, because at least when I tell people about studying consciousness, and should they look at me strangely or run a mile…well at least I know that it’s nothing I did, because it’s just their brain making their ‘non-self self’ peg it. As the bonnie Scotsman has said:

“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that who cares? He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes!”

And of course, I have to leave you with the question that’s been buggin you since the age of 5…‘why is the sky blue?’

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