Friday, October 19, 2007

Rainbow Alley: 10/19/07

Some odd thoughts concerning moonbeams and rainbows

There is a good chance that if you are reading this text, you subscribe to philosophical realism. (Not because you are reading this text, but because most of the citizens this side of globe do.

In short, that means that believe that your brain really is sitting inside your head and that your conscious thoughts are not being stimulated by aliens using a Matrix gizmo. You believe that the world is “real”. When you consider the many things that a appear in the world, you affirm that those same things have a certain independent existence, and are not the same as “yourself” -- And that these same entities would continue to exist in some form, even if you did not. (Though it is hard to think about what reality would be, if you were not there to apprehend it.)

For more info on Realism see:

On the other hand, you recognize (because you like to entertain odd ideas) that the way in which you perceive the world renders it in a way that is solely your own. If you and your dog watched a football game, you would experience the range of conditions before your senses in different ways. You would see things that would have no counterpart in your dog’s vision – or comprehension. She would hear and smell things beyond your imagination. In short, given different sensing organs and two different brains, you both would observe the same event, but experience it in quite different ways.


Over the years I have given myself to the task of cultivating odd thoughts. At certain times, I imagined that I was entertaining notions that had never been entertained before. Then I find, with a little reading... or a talk with my kids, that not only have many people entertained these same thoughts, but that some fellow a thousand years earlier thought these same thoughts categorically, an that there is a developed language for talking about these same ideas – with great precision.

As it is, philosophers since the time of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) have sometimes referred to two levels of “reality.” Kant used the word “Noumena” to describe a “thing as it really is”, and the word “Phenomena” to describe the way we interpret that same thing through our senses. Given the argument, the only reality we really experience is the latter. This line of reasoning has led some people to suggest that the only real reality (or the only reality which we can talk about) is the Phenomenal -- that which is apprehended by our senses. The noumenal object -- “as it is” -- is simply unknowable. Kant responded to this line of reasoning by suggesting that ..

"...though we cannot know these objects as things in themselves, we must yet be in a position at least to think them as things in themselves; otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears." 

For more on Kant, Noumena, and Phenomena see:

All of which brings me to moonbeams and rainbows.

If you were to join me and ten-thousand others in downtown St Louis, we might all look up and see the St. Louis Arch. The arch would vary in scale, apparent shape, and even color, depending on where we as viewers were in relationship to the arch. Ten-thousand viewers would render ten-thousand arches. Even so, we would tend to argue that we were NOT sensing ten thousand independent arches, rather we all experienced the same “Noumenal” arch, in a vast phenomenal variation.

Now let’s take it a step farther.

Imagine we are gathered in St. Louis, this time on the west bank of the Mississippi River, looking east at a rising full moon, just as the sun sets at our back. Like the arch, we assume one moon. Many frames.

Then, looking east and across the river, we see a “cobblestone skim milk path” or - the stretched reflection of the moon as it appears on the water. And jolly of jollies, not only does the moon-path stretch, but it stretches a path right to my feet. Or yours. Indeed, every person, along the bank for miles and miles makes the same claim. The moon path cuts a path strait to "our" feet.

Only thing, when I look at those other persons lining the bank, I don’t see a moon path going to each of their feet. I see cold dark water before everyone but me.

And so it goes. Each person, when contemplating moon glow on the water gets a personal showing that is his alone. Indeed, the whole phenomena of moon-path on water requires an OBSERVER to be realized. In one sense, the whole river is a continual ribbon of silver -- or black; however, each observer can only see that one small sliver of silver before himself -- and only when he is in a certain angled relationship with the moon and water.

And so it is for rainbows.

A rainbow is not something like the St. Louis arch that exists in “a” place. Rather, a rainbow is possibility that takes a viewer to be realized.

First, a little bit about rainbows.

Rainbows are most likely to be seen when the sun is low on the horizon. Rainbows (like a full moon) are always opposite the sun. That means any rainbow that you see in the later part of the day, will be to the east.

Rainbows are not really “bows” – or flat. They would be full circles, except for the ground which obscures the bottom of the bow! You are most likely to see a rainbow, when you are not in the rain yourself, but rather the sun (behind your back) is shinning into the outer edge of a rain system. The rain system itself can not be too violent, as fast moving rain alters the prismatic effect of the drops. In the end, a rainbow is what happens when you are in a very specific angular relationship with the sun and rain, and millions of little “chandeliers” scatter sunlight back your way.


Beyond that, the rainbow is a phenomena that is absolutely contingent upon you as a viewer to make it work. You move, the rainbow moves with you. Another person, down the street (if they see the rainbow at all) will see the bow in an entirely different location. Indeed, when you see a rainbow you are the only person seeing THAT rainbow, and what you are seeing is something like portion of the base of a cone… and you as the viewer are the tip of that cone! Without you (or a camera lens standing in your place), the rainbow would not be where it is!

Indeed, We might speak of a noumenal rainbow (as it is, apart from perception), but that would mean we are considering the whole refractory fog, containing thousands and thousands of “potential” rainbows. And if we speak of a single noumenal rainbow, we must also include the viewer in the formula.

So… next time you see a rainbow, tell the person with you that she can not see “your” rainbow … She must see her own. Or something like that.

Pre-Haircut rainbow

Post haircut rainbow

And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth...Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life." (Genesis 9: 12,13, 15)


Today's Mighty Work features at least three different rainbow systems (three different days.) And, given yesterday's weird weather, I could have added a fourth.

All pics in the last few weeks, Central Arkansas

Pic One, a fragment of Downtown Little rock, looking east.
Pics two through Four: Lake Conway near the Mayflower exit.
Pic five (post haircut rainbow, Conway, about a week later.)
Pic Six, (Conway, the day after the Mayflower exit rainbow.

For more on rainbows see:



The Mighty Works Project exists to consider the idea that God alone sees Noumenon. Indeed, He sees every potential rainbow within a refractory cloud.