What is Visible Light?

Isn’t light just electromagnetism? I would argue no, not exactly. On casual inspection, yes, of course visible light corresponds  to a range of frequencies (wavelengths) along the electromagnetic  continuum:

However, since waves of visible light do not physically enter our brains through our eyes, it could also be said that light is the end result of a chain of biochemical events which are triggered by radiant properties of matter. These properties have been modeled by classical optics and quantum electrodynamics. There is still debate over whether quantum mechanics refer directly to physical processes or are only a statistical model we use to predict probabilities. Two new theories from 2011 suggest that it must be physical:

the  new paper, by a  trio of physicists led by Matthew Pusey at Imperial  College London,  presents a theorem showing that if a quantum  wavefunction were purely a  statistical tool, then even quantum states  that are unconnected across  space and time would be able to communicate  with each other. As that  seems very unlikely to be true, the  researchers conclude that the  wavefunction must be physically real  after all. David Wallace, a  philosopher of physics at the University of  Oxford, UK, says that the  theorem is the most important result in the  foundations of quantum  mechanics that he has seen in his 15-year  professional career. ‘This  strips away obscurity and shows you can’t  have an interpretation of a  quantum state as probabilistic,’ he says.”“Slashdot

This  debate can be generalized to the underlying issue of how physical matter is related to information. Information is, after all is one of the two main reasons that we care about light;

Because One – it informs us about our body’s environment so that we can navigate it much more successfully than without it. It is important, for obvious reasons to be able to detect and identify the shapes of physical things at a distance, and therefore allow us a better chance at surviving.

Because Two – oooh, it’s so pretty. Not only are visual patterns exquisitely beautiful to behold, but they contribute to our powerfully immersive aesthetic sense of realism*. In addition to that though, our experience of directly seeing natural sources of color and light such as prismatic displays and clear sunshine seems to carry a particular emotional, G-Rated affect of enthusiasm.

Our fascination with windows, mirrors, glass, and gems speaks to the primordial appeal of light. We should not minimize the importance of this pure feeling-for-pleasure aspect of light, and its role in the quality of human life. The prospect of losing one’s eyesight is considerably more threatening than even the loss of a critical survival tool. Even in that context, it seems unlikely that purely functional considerations would account for the preciousness with which we treasure our ability to see. Our notions of beauty are so profoundly associated with seeing, that it is easy think of beauty as an objective quality rather than a subjective feeling.

Physiologically, vision seems to map to electromagnetic events outside of the body only very indirectly, at best. Visual processing seems to be a vast chain of mechanical reactions on every level of the nervous system; molecular, cellular, organ, and somatic. From the indications of neurology alone, what our visual cortex would ‘see’ should really be nothing more than interruptions in the flows of glutamate from rod cells, which in turn would be nothing more than the consequences of a mechanical straightening of Vitamin A molecules embedded among Rhodopsin proteins. (http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/matthews/rhodopsin.html). What is tickling our ganglions is not photons, but orchestrations of changes in cellular  biochemistry that occur within the blind-dark confines of our skull.

All of this would seem to indicate that all known experiences of light are not visual spectrum electromagnetism at all, but rather a visual feeling experienced through changes in the brain at one or more levels, be it physical, chemical, or biological. I suggest however, that the assumption of vision being either a transduction or simulation of optically derived ‘information’ is misleading. It implies that we are getting a directly anamorphic imprint  of photon impacts, when in fact, our visual experience, even if it  could be described in biochemical terms, is quite broadly abstracted from optical characteristics.

Compared with a direct ‘seeing of light’, what the  brain does would be more like reading a newspaper about changes in the eye – a solipsistic or Hermetically sealed endogenous brain product. In experiments where people volunteer to wear glasses that turn their view of the world upside down, they acclimate to it eventually and no longer see anything upside down. Think about that. The photon pattern, even if that is what we were representing, would be upside down, yet our body knows how to put ‘us’ into that upside down world so that it is right side up. It doesn’t ‘seem’ right side up – it *is* right side up. Why, if visual qualia were epiphenomena, would there be a such thing as a ‘right’ side anyhow?

Understanding phenomena like dark current (the counterintuitive fact that the resting state of rod cells in the eye are switched ‘on’, and light turns them ‘off) and blindsight (a condition where sufferers of visual cortex damage know facts about their optical environment without being able to visually see anything) sheds more ‘light’ on the subject. Both of these hint at a reality beyond our models of ‘seeing light’ directly or seeing electromagnetic waves in the visual range.

If what we sense as light, images and colors aren’t electromagnetism, then what are they?

We don’t know. Philosophers would call it qualia, and lead us into the interminable debates between ephiphenomenalism, materialism, functionalism, and idealism. Neuroscientists might call it ‘sense data’, phenomenal visual experience, or ‘static  achromatic form perception’.

All of these terms make no claim as to what these (Because Two) experiences are ‘made of’ or what they are doing in a universe of purely functional (Because One) mechanisms. I have my own conjecture about bridging this ‘Hard Problem’ and ‘Explanatory Gap’, which I feel is an Earthshaking revelation worthy of scientific investigation, and that is this:

Maybe sense itself – the experience of consciousness itself, is the objectively fundamental ground of being** from which the naive realism appearance of separation between physical and external forms (One) and subjective feels and meanings (Two).
If this were to turn out to be true of human perception, it would open the possibility that this appearance of interior-exterior symmetry extends to other organisms, and perhaps all matter (panpsychism or panexperientialism). Since this dualism is really an epiphenomenon of sense, the world of glutamate and photoisomerization is actually no different from the one of ‘oooh, pretty’, they only seem that way because we are alive.

It certainly seems to be the case that  in our ordinary experience and scientific measurement alike we identify no concrete barrier that would account for any separation between interior and exterior phenomena. What I suggest is a universe of supreme relativism, in which relativity itself is relative – that is, the (1) side of the world is literally nothing without the (2). Not merely that it would be a shame if the world weren’t pretty, but that pretty is the only thing holding the world together, and that all physical forces and statistical mechanisms are but a ‘most-common pretty’, or ‘least-pretty commonality’ (the two ultimately mean the same thing in the relation that I propose).

I detail this quanta-qualia relation on my blog (s33light.org) and website (multisenserealism.com)  – not trying to advertise, just including it in case anyone is curious. In brief, they are an inversely proportionate and involuted (turning back on itself recursively as a Mobius loop) continuum, where

Quanta or measure could be thought of as a horizontal axis:
Relates to micro-meso-macro scaling of literal, material presentations
Public generic objects divided by entropy-space.

Qualia or sense could be thought of as the vertical axis:
Relates to superior-normative-inferior scaling of figurative, semantic presentations
Private significance-time and proprietary subjects.

Both are phenomenolgical variants of what would be the same underlying continuum of sense (were we to experience it objectively, ie not as participants in timespace) so that neither are re-presentations of the other. Both quanta and qualia are presentation protocols in their own right, and can interact with each other causally in both horizontal (peer-to-peer), and vertical (bottom-up and top-down) interactions.

It’s simpler than it sounds. I’m only trying to describe and  categorize the very thing you are right now, sitting behind your face  reading these photons ↔ mappings of glutamate disruption disruptions ↔  pixels ↔ curvy lines ↔ characters ↔ words ↔ thoughts.

The thing  is that the vertical scales a much different way – the opposite way in  fact as the horizontal. While quanta can increase in numbers, complexity, profusion in space, literal nesting into different physical  castes (atom ↑ cell ↑ body ↑ biosphere…), qualia can condense meaning in many ways and along many polarized values like high and low quality, good and bad, sacred and profane, etc.

As quanta extends further horizontally, it becomes more like generic rules that apply to all physical phenomena but lack any personal connection or  presence. They are disembodied and depersonalized. As qualia extends vertically, it becomes deeper, richer, and more inclusive in scope.  Personal connection is maximized and the human psyche is addressed directly in its native and undiluted terms.

That’s what light is, man.  Seeing for yourself. Directly and immediately, without appeals to  authoritative descriptions or information-theoretic models. Light is the reality of our fantasy and the fantasy of our reality. If you back light into a corner with a photomultiplier or supercollider, it will spit you your cornering back in your face and leave you rubbing your eyes and scratching your head.

Electromagnetism is an idea about material forms and processes. A model. The reality is us. Our experience in a universe which is actually made of experience. Whether it is direct or indirect, whether it’s a slice of space in which all of time is flattened like a pancake, or a slice of time in which all of space makes a guest appearance as the movie of our life, it’s all the same shit.

*Homo sapien brains have overdeveloped visual processing power compared with other animals such  as dogs whose ratio of neural resources devoted to olfactory sense is  much greater than ours.

**Neutral monism

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  1. October 1, 2013 at 9:33 pm

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