The Magic Eye

I wear an Eye of Horus around my neck.  While not uncommon it may seem strange to those who know me as a fairly outspoken atheist.  Unfortunately my reason for wearing it is not what most people would think.  It is only because I am a big Alan Parsons Project fan and the symbol appears on their most well known album Eye in the Sky.  lol

But in searching for that symbol, which I had no idea what it is called I came across the story of it.  Recently in reading one of a fellow blogger’s post, spouting some theist rhetoric equating faith as being a plausible substitute where uncertainty exists, it reminded of the story of the Eye of Horus.

Long story short, the myth involves Horus and Set (in some accounts are brothers, in some  nephew and uncle respectively).  Set kills Osiris (Horus’ father) and in revenge Horus kills Set, but in that battle Horus is injured.  Set struck at the eye of Horus shattering it.  As luck would have it the eye is broken into a fun set of mathematically progressive pieces.  The symbol of the Eye of Horus is drawn with 6 strokes, each stroke represents what they believed were the 6 senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and thought.  This shattered eye is broken into 6 pieces in specific proportions: 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64.  Horus took the pieces of his eye to a local magician to reassemble the eye, but if you do the math, you will of course discover that you are 1/64th short of a whole eye.  This magician had to use ‘magic’ to fill in what was missing.  This was the left eye of Horus, which represents the moon, and is why the moon is supposedly more mysterious (because part of the eye was reconstructed with magic).  The right eye of Horus represents the sun, and this became the more common eye used later in Egyptian culture as a symbol of protection.

Anyway, where I am going with all this is that it seems to me that our human uncomfortability with uncertainty is what drives us to put faith into the missing picture.  You have something that is a whole, you only understand a part of it, and the other part you fill in with faith, instead of remaining uncertain.  This seems hardly surprising to me.  What it does feel like to me is that as we learn more about any particular thing the proportion of what we don’t know gets smaller and smaller.  The God of the Gaps has less of a Gap to cover, and yet we want to give that magic the same level of  importance.  We can go from no idea of our origin, to a very substantial set of empirical evidence about evolution, but no matter  how little uncertainty remains it seems magic must still prevail as long as any proportion still remains.

I think there could be beauty in the things we come up with to explain the unexplainable, but it’s perhaps the dogmatism that concerns me the most.  The inability to be cognizant of the fact that in that space of uncertainty there are many types of magic we could conjure up to fill in that gap, none being more valid than the other.  And yet different religions will try to tell you their magic is better than yours.  In the end, being comfortable with uncertainty seems the more important goal, because it in no way prevents you from enjoying a good story.  I rather like the story of the Eye of Horus. 🙂

12 thoughts on “The Magic Eye

  1. You put your finger on a lot of important notions here, Swarn. Metaphors, parables, symbolic images etc can be very helpful to us humans: guides to unravel problems; to develop respect for others and the world we live in. And in doing this, they can also nurture our creativity, expand our thinking. So: very useful and often inspirational tools then. But as you say, it’s when we start believing they are absolute truths that the trouble starts. And tools become weapons.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Tish. I have a general fascination for how we deal with uncertainty. The balance we walk in this life between risk and safety. Uncertainty elicits an emotional response in humans and sometimes that emotional response can be wonder and as you say inspire creativity, but it can also lead to fear which has us shying away from the unknown. While I was still a theist, I broke away from organized religion and simply decided I was going to believe in a God that made sense to me. There really is nothing stopping anybody from defining the divine in a way that makes sense to them, even if there is a God, it’s clear that no major religion has figured out God in any meaningful way anyway. I’ve never considered myself a risk taker, but I am certainly not afraid to wander into the unknown and explore. The way organized religion quells curiosity and exploration I think is the greater travesty I think.

      And I guess in this piece I was more struck thinking about no matter how much uncertainty there is, even as that diminishes, the idea that any uncertainty sort of implies that all is uncertain enough that any explanation would fit. In this way I think ideologically driven groups exploit any amount of uncertainty to derail even what we know, and then insert another explanation in there as equally valid. This also seems a dishonest and unproductive way of dealing with uncertainty.

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      1. Forgot to say, I like this viewpoint ‘ There really is nothing stopping anybody from defining the divine in a way that makes sense to them’. We most of us must have a sense of the sacred – however we experience it. We could call it the universe, a life force, creation, joy, or even god. It really doesn’t need to be pinned down. We could simply accept it as is, and with wonder. A show of gratitude is always good too. It might even over-ride some of the fear of uncertainty. How’s the new babe doing?

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        1. Yes, gratitude is a good thing and could very well override a fear of uncertainty. Even though I don’t believe in god, I sometimes have a feeling of thanking someone (the universe?), feeling blessed, feeling fortunate. The other end of that feeling need not be filled with something so solid. I have never really understood the need to make it so.

          The new baby is doing well thank you. 🙂 This one I think is going to be a big eater, as opposed to my oldest son, who is a tall bean pole who eats like a pigeon. lol

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  2. I rather like the story as well. I also think humility is ever needed in the human world. Not knowing everything gives us perspective and keeps us respectful of other living things and systems. Reserving a glimmer of space in the pie chart for the numinous does not require religion by any means. It does keep us mindful that we are specks among stars and that we need a respectful approach in order to forge a sustainable future. This has never been more clear than it is today. Aloha, Swarn.

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    1. Agreed Bela. Well said. The unknown is what keeps us humble. It seems to be this is always what the divine has represented and when you look at the variety of religions now and in the past, one can appreciate both the diversity in stories but also the similarity in themes and lessons they were trying to teach. I think one of those lessons was of humility, but this requires less of a literal take on the stories and more of metaphorical interpretation.

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  3. I’ve tried to post a comment twice, without any luck, so it must be that I was trying to include a link. Instead of the link, this time I’ve only included the Google search parameter that brought me to the link…

    I think you’re right about the need to learn to live with uncertainty, Swarn. Admitting there are things we don’t know, and resisting the need to rush in and claim the territory of the unknown prematurely in defense of a certain dogma is really important.

    I only found a quick recounting of the story you described with Horus and Seth and Osiris, and it reminded me of the story of Humpty Dumpty. For me it raised this notion: when something whole is reduced to pieces, there is something nearly intangible that is lost, and that is wholeness. Setting aside all dogmas and religious concepts for a moment, does the possibility that wholeness is an element of reality give you pause for concern?

    Here is a link (search for Mendel Sachs atomism vs holism) to a scientific paper on this subject. I submit this not because I have the expertise to say this! this is it! but to try and present the idea of holism as one with validity from a scientific perspective. And to keep us from getting into a theological discussion. I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of wholeness, and whether we can really say it is not relevant to the structure of our universe.

    And of course, I haven’t a clue!


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    1. Hi Michael! Sorry I’m just getting to this now.

      First of all, I’m sorry this took multiple attempts. I did find your messages somehow in the spam folder. This doesn’t seem typical, as people have posted links to articles before in response, so I am unclear as to why it happened this time. I don’t move those out of the spam folder because then it would have appeared as multiple comments. But yeah, if that happens again, just send me an e-mail or write a quick comment to check my spam folder.

      I do think the parable of the Eye of Horus has a different meaning than what I’ve mentioned here, My associate here is a loose one, I admit, but nevertheless this is the story that popped into my mind. I also was thinking about how in the topic of climate change that regardless of what lines of skepticism gets addressed, the need to harp on uncertainty as upending the entirety of an argument even as facts pile up against you, just seems to be this odd side of human nature. I guess I kind of saw the Eye of Horus as sort of symbolic of our human tendency to want absolute wholeness and certainty and often reject that which casts doubt into our views. Interestingly, in my experience, those who I consider the most moral people of faith are ones who are comfortable with uncertainty, and doubt. More than that, they see it as a healthy part of having faith as opposed to something that is a sign of moral weakness.

      I read over the paper you linked and it is interesting. I would say physics has progressed some since it was written, but his philosophical questions I think still exist. The link between the quantum and the macro-physics world still exists. For my own part, I don’t have a particular worry about this as there are many physics puzzles we’ve yet to solve, this being one of them, it doesn’t seem unrealistic to think that one day we will. Maybe the better question is “what if we don’t? Is that a problem?”

      It seems to me for solving problems about most things we care about, that will actually lead to human contentedness in life solving this problem doesn’t matter. Interestingly I was just think about this issue today after listening to a podcast about a computer programmer and sociologist who was trying to use big data to predict a human life. There is this huge data set that exists for a number of kids and he was trying to predict what their GPA would be at 15 and also how much grit they had. His experiment was a failure. It’s possible there is too much randomness. It seems highly unlikely that we would ever get enough of the variables right to predict a human life accurately. Maybe one day. And maybe molecules only appear to move randomly…perhaps they don’t. But knowing enough to predict their trajectories seems a complex task at best, and maybe it doesn’t really matter. The example I thought of is that despite random molecular motions, when there are pressure differences the wind will still blow, and that I can predict with reasonable accuracy. That being said I cannot deny that things are also constructed. That new things are made, while old things break apart. And even as entropy decreases, it seems that things really are made molecule by molecule. Protein strand by protein strand. We know that atoms beyond hydrogen are fused in the core of stars, and there are forces between all these particles…to break apart everything into it’s smaller parts to try to recreate the universe is interesting, and maybe possible, but it seems so far away from what we can do and even if it might have some applications like teleportation, it is also quite possible that we humans are simply always going to be too limited to make any headway here. I think wholeness matters a lot more, and that there is a lot of value in learning how systems work, even if we can’t understand the components well enough. Not everything, it seems, has to be reverse engineered down to its parts to be understood. Or at least understood well enough to be useful.

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      1. Swarn, just a sidebar here. Your posts always mean more to me when I understand the personal meaning they have to you–in this case the way that climate deniers try to pry apart an entire body of work by inserting the crowbar into whatever chinks of unknown yet remain. There’s a place where, in a particular context, that just seems unreasonable. I agree.

        But I’d say there are times when this sort of prying doesn’t make sense, and times when it does. In one of our previous discussions in which we ended up walking away a little dazed (I did anyway), about expertise and climate science, the points that “triggered” me were hardly the points you were trying to make. Or at least, the reasons you argued in favor of a particular stance were quite removed from the reasons I argued against it. I’m learning this makes all the difference. I wish I’d understood this a little better at the time.

        So, with respect to the climate change issue, I hear you. I’m in agreement with you on that. But there are other cases where I admit I’m conflicted about accepting the received view, and in which I think the chinks in the armor may matter significantly. As an example I don’t know if you listened to the discussion Sam Harris recently had with Ezra Klein on his podcast, (and I’m not advocating we dive into that one right now, though it’s certainly interesting), but in that particular discussion I have a hard time understanding how the science could possibly be airtight. I’m not opposed to viewing the evidence, and I’m only partway through the earlier podcast with Sam and Charles Murray. But what I’ve heard is confusing to me. The little bits that are unknown, at least unknown to me, feel potentially significant.

        What I’ve realized is that so much of this does boil down to “good faith” in conversation. We’ll never figure it all out, as you rightly note, but it’s important I think to realize we’re always grinding our own axes, in a sense. Even if not intentionally, or with any malice of heart whatsoever. What’s so vital right now, and which I know you haven’t experienced of late on social media, is the space for people to conceive that the other could have honest and well-intentioned perceptions that lead to different conclusions. And I’ve realized, and I hope you agree, that what brings me back here, and why I enjoy our conversations, is that we have that mutual extension of good faith.

        It’s really a gift. So thank you for that, and isn’t that what we ultimately need to knit this world together?


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        1. I am not sure if it’s an age thing, but I think for people our age, whatever we might be arguing against or in favor in is interconnected to so many other things. It may be one thought that inspires a post, but as I write or respond it brings up so many other things that it is difficult to stay the course sometimes. lol But perhaps it is why it seems more difficult to perhaps change the mind of someone as they grow older because of all the other hooks an idea has into other parts of a person’s ideological structure and identity. I don’t what to be a person who is unable to change his mind as he grows older, but at the same time I also really like the way knowledge and ideas seem to link together as you continue to learn. I am pleased that academia is focusing more on the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge instead of digging it’s heels into individual subject areas. I can understand why we started off that way but it seems an important evolution to tear down the categories and collaborate across disciplines. It does raise an important logistical hurdle because the individual scientist will find it harder to rise to prominence on his or her own unless they have expertise in multiple disciplines which is simply difficult to do in a finite lifetime. This means collaboration is more important, and it also means that we have to find way to communicate our ideas effectively back and forth and even if there is disagreements, as you say it requires good faith conversations. Recognizing that maybe neither of us is completely right, but together we might be where each of us holds a piece of a puzzle that another is missing.

          I think the Sam Harris, Ezra Klein issue would be a good one to discuss in person. I listen to Sam Harris regularly, but will admit I didn’t listen to the Klein interview, simply because I suspected it would be as other said it was. Two people talking past each other. I did listen to his interview with Murray and I understand Sam’s intention. I don’t disagree with Klein at all, but I do feel he isn’t addressing the issues that Sam Harris was trying to raise, and while one could argue the same of Sam Harris, I side with Sam only because Klein is the one who entered Sam’s platform. Had Sam Harris published in article in criticism of something Klein had written which wasn’t really addressing the issues that Klein was raising, then I would blame Sam Harris for not having a good faith conversation.

          Honestly I think was Klein is really saying is that Sam Harris shouldn’t even be having a conversation with Charles Murray because of the history of racism. Which is in itself a point of view worth debating, and Sam Harris in general feels that civil conversation about any topic is and should be fair game. That ideas stand or fall on their own merit and that there isn’t a danger in talking about a bad idea, because of it is bad, their will be enough counter evidence to expose it for what it is. Sam Harris is often accused of being naive in this point of view, and yeah I kind of get it, but I also worry about fearing conversation. And I do think there is some panic in society about certain topics. There has probably always been such a panic throughout history, just about different things. Hell, talking about a heliocentric universe used to warrant jail time or worse. So at the very least, we can say that we live in a society where you aren’t punished by the law, even if there are societal taboos about certain subjects. Not every country can say that.

          But yeah I’d be interesting in talking more about the issue of genetics, intelligence, IQ and group differences in the future. 🙂

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