Real Rainbows


Over at Circling Squares, Phillip has a nice response to Levi’s recent post on flat ontology, and I find a lot of valuable ideas in both posts in spite of the disagreement between them.  I don’t have anything to add, but just want to indicate that I am on the side of the reality of rainbows and other emergent phenomena.  For me (and for Levi, too, as this is his “ontic principle”), a thing is real if it has effects – if it makes a difference to others.  In my view, it’s not important how the rainbow is constructed or of what it is composed, the fact that it affects me is enough to justify its reality.  Nevertheless, I agree with Levi’s main point that many signifiers possess no referrant (e.g. God, race) – these things are real, but only to the extent that they are represented (thus, mine is a material-semiotic realism).

6 thoughts on “Real Rainbows”

  1. As I say in the post, real things are taking place, but they don’t have independent existence. The colors of a rainbow aren’t properties of the rainbow itself. Proof of this is that we can stimulate identical experiences in our neurology without the presence of rainbows or lights. Whitehead is making the rather extraordinary claim that rainbows and beautiful sunsets are *out there* and require no one to be occurant. I think that’s nonsense and just ontologically and scientifically false.

  2. In other words, I’m fully on board with the project of understanding how peoples signify and experience the world, but I don’t accept the thesis that all of these significations and experiences have a referent of the world. For example, as of yet there’s no evidence that there’s a referent for possession and it can even be abusive to treat someone who suffers from a mental disorder with exorcism. Given the role that religion currently places in American domestic and foreign policy this is a tremendously important point where not even an inch should be conceded.

  3. Sorry to spam. Think of it this way: what are we saying when we say “sunsets *are* beautiful”. We’re saying something equivalent to saying “the sun rises”. These are claims about us, not sunsets. Events that take place in brains are, of course, real physical events, but they are properties of other things (brains), not independent *substances*.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Levi. Like I said, I agree with the fundamental point of your post which is that things like God and Demons are (real) signifiers with no referrant, and should therefore be called into question.

      However, I think there is a difference between the rainbow and the exorcism or the demon that is said to possess an individual. That is, the rainbow is not a signifier for something – it is a phenomenon of its own even if we agree that the phenomenon is a perceptual artifact. In other words, the rainbow doesn’t refer to anything else.

      The “demon,” on the other hand, is a symbolic thing that is supposed to refer to a real demon in the spirit of the possessed individual. However, the real demon doesn’t exist – it has no effects of its own. Instead, it is the signifier (“demon”) that has the effect, and talking about demons does not make them suddenly come into existence. A person can, very realistically be possessed by a “demon” but not by a demon.

      The rainbow has effects of its own. It is the rainbow itself – perceptual artifact or otherwise – that makes me pull my car over and take a picture, and not the word or idea of a rainbow. This suggests to me that the rainbow is a real (though emergent) thing whereas the demon is not.

      Further complicating this issue with rainbows, it occurs to me that the fact that I can take a picture of a rainbow suggests that it is not something that only exists in my brain. It may be true that I could stimulate certain neurons in my brain (or take some LSD) and make myself see a rainbow in the absence of rain and sunlight. But I could not take a picture of that rainbow. Does that make one rainbow different from the other? I don’t know…

      Finally, I think it’s entirely valid to question whether the beauty of the rainbow – whether it’s real or not – is an actual property of the rainbow or if it’s a quality we ascribe to them. I don’t have an answer for that either, but I tend to think that it’s ascribed.

  4. Jeremy,

    I don’t see the difference. In both cases we need neurological events for the phenomenon to take place. We know that the colors of the rainbow aren’t a property of the rainbow itself because dogs, for example, can’t perceive them due to the optics of their eyes and how their neurology is put together. Likewise, a rainbow for a mantis shrimp would be far more rich than for us because they have more complex visual structures than we do. This is important because it’s a question of when there’s an object and when there isn’t. The mere presence of a relation isn’t sufficient to establish the existence of a substance. To be a substance something must also have independent existence and be capable of affecting other things. Yet that’s not the case with rainbows. They’re only there for certain types of beings. Saying that rainbows exist is a bit like saying pain is a *property of*. Pain is something that happens in certain neurological systems, not candle flames, and a finger in a candle flame is not a distinct object.

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