For a long time it was my job to stand on cliffs and gaze at the sea, the horizon where it touches the sky. The horizon is not a straight line, but a segment of a great arc. One day, standing atop a lone island peak in a remote sea, the horizon encompassing my entire field of vision, for a moment I was floating in the centre of a vast basin. But then, as I viewed the horizon encircle me, I had a distinct sensation of the earth as a watery globe, a clear vision of the horizon not as an endless expanse but the edge of an oceanic sphere.
The ancient Greeks held the earth we live on to be spherical. Hence the notion that medieval Europeans later believed the world to be flat must surely be wrong, a lie propagated during the Protestant campaigns against the Catholic church from the seventeenth century on. Likewise, in the nineteenth century religion-vs-science debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution, the flat earth hypothesis was trotted out to argue how unscientific the “Dark Ages” were supposed to have been. Yet even before Columbus reached the New World or Magellan circumnavigated the globe, thereby proving the earth was round, mediaeval thinkers supported the round earth view. Rather, the big question was whether the earth moved or the heavens. Our immediate perceptions tell us, in the most literal “sense,” that the earth stays still while the sun and stars move around us. If I had lived in ancient times, no doubt I would think so too.
In my dreams as a child, I often floated in midair. Sometimes I’d leave my body and watch my sleeping self from on high near the ceiling. Like a out-of-body projection perhaps, a waking self coexisting simultaneously with a sleeping self. Even as an adult, I habitually imagine myself airborne. Might this be at the root of my artistic spirit?
An aerial view of oneself is the relative perspective on the earth attained by Copernicus and Galileo. Humanity’s grand aspirations to comprehend the world probably go back hundreds of thousands of years. At first, people quite naturally accepted the geocentric hypothesis from observing how the heavens appeared to revolve around our earth. Eventually, however, a relativised view of such apparent “absolutes” based upon a sceptical stance toward presumed “truths” led them to overturn old beliefs and find newer, more factual truths. The heliocentric model provided a more accurate, rational explanation of celestial motions, thus supplanting earth-bound humanly perceived “sense” by an aerially imagined “sense.” But can we indeed discover cosmic laws within the human mind?
The relation between the brain and the external world resembles the relation between camera and image. The projected image is always an inverted fiction. For just as accepted “truths” have been repeatedly betrayed by ever newer truths over the course of history, increasingly precise observation of black holes and further discoveries like the Higgs boson will surely bring about a second or third Copernican revolution.
Obviously the scientific views and laws we currently believe will falter and be superceded in due course. People centuries from now will consider us as unenlightened as those who lived in the geocentric age ― if humanity survives until then, that is. There remains, however, a great divide between comprehending (i.e. explaining) the world and being able to explain what we ourselves are. And even then, what we can explain of the world is far less than what we cannot ― though people tend be more attracted by the unexplained. In all this, I somehow feel we are nearing an era when religion and art will once again cast doubts upon science, or else an era when things better seen through to a scientific conclusion will bow to religious judgment.
In late spring 1982, I watched from a cliff in Newfoundland as a beautiful sunset coincided with a full moon rise in the eastern sky. Standing up there in the crisp air, I felt like a figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting; for the first time in years I was overcome by an out-of-body experience. I was far above from the earth’s surface gazing at the moon adrift over the sea, while another me ― a tiny speck ― remained spellbound on the ground.
- Hiroshi Sugimoto