A Theory of Dots

It’s no secret that the modern scientific view of matter holds that any piece of material is made up of thousands of billions of little tiny pieces called “atoms,” and each atom is in turn constructed from a number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus, surrounded by a cloud of whizzing electrons. This is the old Bohr model of the atom, and although it has been refined considerably over the years, the essential concept–that the atom has substructure–has remained intact. In fact, if this is not complex enough for you, current belief has it that these nuclear particles themselves have substructure, so protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller particles called “quarks.”

Now, the idea of atoms was not really new when quantum mechanicists, Bohr and his young team of scientists, proposed their theory. The idea of atoms had been around for a long time, but it was not generally accepted as proven, nor did anyone know exactly what real atoms might be. Nevertheless, this atomistic idea brought forth constructionist ideas in art, as well, which attempted to take this physical idea of atomism seriously. The atomist art movement was called “Pointillism,” and Seurat was famous for taking two years to paint a canvas of an idyllic little park scene in Paris completely from tiny dots. (To see a little of the canvas he painted, refer to the article on Pointillism in wikipedia.) His canvas appeared in 1889, well before the quantum theory of matter was put forward in the 1920’s.

The interesting thing about this painting is that it really is made up of many little dots, and, despite this fact which can be confirmed by close inspection, if you stand back from the painting a little, the dots merge together and a painting of a park scene emerges. You can see a man riding a bicycle, and a woman sitting on a blanket on the lawn, and trees, and a road…

But those images are not really there. They appear, not as dots, but as coherent images, only in the mind of the observer. Only in your mind.

I began to think, what if this isn’t just a theory, some sort of pretense, or … model, invented for the sake of its usefulness, for its pragmatic value … but actually true? Could it be that the things we see around us aren’t really there? We already know that objects aren’t really yellow or red or white. This is just the color of the light they reflect to our eyes, and color itself is not a property of matter. It’s a property of light. So appearances can be deceiving. Just how far does this go?

There is another way we are tricked that nobody has ever really explained to me before, but I will explain it to you. You are probably familiar with the additive and subtractive properties of pigments and paints. You can mix a red and a yellow color to get orange, or a red and a blue to get violet; yellow and blue makes green, and so on. This property of colored lights and pigments to add together is used in making computer monitor screens. The monitor screen is made up of thousands of little dots. Actually, each “pixel” (an invented word shortened from “picture element”) is made of three dots arranged very closely together, a red, a green, and a blue dot. These triplets are then arrayed across the screen in “scan lines,” and the scan lines are arranged down the screen to make a raster. Three electron guns shoot particles of energy at the monitor screen, and when an electron hits one of these little dots (or “phosphors,” so called because they are made of phosphorus), it glows. It emits a bright spot of colored light, either red, or green, or blue.

The color technology used in monitors and TV screens is called RGB color, from its being made up of reds, greens, and blues. To make a color mix, the electron gun activates two or more of the colored dots, generating both red and green, red and blue, or all three colors together. Your eye sees the mixture.

But wait a minute. The three colors don’t actually blend into a third color. We know from our study of light that each true color is one and only one frequency of light. Green is a different frequency from orange, orange is different from blue, blue is different from purple, and so on. When you take a prism and split white light into the rainbow, the rainbow doesn’t consist of just red, green, and blue colors; they’re all in there, as pure frequencies of light.

So this means, when you’re watching a color television image, the colors you think you see are not being emitted by the television. It can’t actually produce orange light; it doesn’t have phosphors for orange. It can only produce red, green, or blue. The mixing happens in the colored cone receptors of the eye’s retina. It doesn’t happen in the world. So you can’t tell whether you’re looking at real orange, or some mixture of red and yellow. The eye isn’t designed to tell the difference. And this isn’t restricted to just television images. Frequencies of red, green, blue, and other colors abound in the real world, and there’s nothing preventing your eye from mixing them in combinations, to see colors that aren’t really there.

This rabbit hole keeps getting bigger. Chairs aren’t solid; nothing is solid. Matter is made up of little dots, nothing more. Just a cloud of dots, buzzing and jiggling around. The dots in liquids like water jiggle more than the tightly grouped dots in a solid material, which is why liquids evaporate: some of the dots escape. And the dots in air jiggle so much that they don’t cohere together at all. But the dots are always jiggling and bouncing off one another. That’s what heat is.

Light is no more what it appears than matter is, when you consider how the eye works. And not even motion is necessarily real motion. Films and movies seem to move, yet they don’t. A movie is made up of thousands of still pictures, flashed at you in quick succession. The movement isn’t really there, it lies “between” the frames.

This ought to give you a faint sense of dizziness. When you try to look at the world through a physicist’s viewpoint, many if not most of the images, sounds, movements disappear into fragments, slices—dots.

I want to talk about this a little more tomorrow. There is a branch of mathematics that studies dots and connections between them, called graph theory, and as this discussion continues, I want to examine how all the meanings of our world lie on the arcs and edges of the graph, and not on the dots.

I’m not saying the dots aren’t there. Far from it. What I am saying, though, is that what we see and experience are not the dots but what lies between the dots: form, interval, duration, shape, final (mixed, as opposed to original, or raw) colors, etc. These experiences are real experiences, even though they don’t correspond directly to real objects. What we are talking about, in fact, are qualia. There has been a great deal of discussion and argument, support on the one hand and antagonism on the other, for the idea of qualia, and in fact what qualia are, are the integrating averages that combine the dots of the physical world into intelligible statistics.

(to be continued)

About John Valley

Born in Michigan, USA, in 1948, I've since lived all over the US, but back here again. I've worked as operating systems developer, consultant, and published three books on Unix and programming back in the 90's. My interests include philosophy and cooking chili. I can usually be found online in the mornings, on Undernet, chatting with people in the #Philosophical channel.
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4 Responses to A Theory of Dots

  1. Pingback: Even More Dots: Process Philosophy « The Ivory Tower

  2. Manapatra says:


    Well, it looks as though you’ve tried to elaborate on your theory in separate threads up above, which is just as well, since my contribution was a bit messy and rushed. I’ll comment in due course. Just a quick one about Libet for now..

    Ironically, Dennett [that arch eliminativist, whom you critique elsewhere on this site] also charges Libet with making a simple mistake. From Dennett’s Consciousness Explained: “…since cognition and control – and hence consciousness – is distributed around in the brain, no moment can count as the precise moment at which each conscious
    event happens”. Nearly a whole early chapter is devoted to showing how the spectre of Cartesian materialism informs Libet’s conclusions. There can be no fixed temporal and/or spacial “location” for a conscious decision.

    When observing simple organisms behaving in apparently purposive ways, those ignorant of biochemistry often posit some additional motive force, “over an above” all the biochemical activity. More sophisticated observers look at brains, and imagine that our our own actions must be under centralised, executive control. They reify the “self” and everything that goes with it, and when they look inside the brain and find nothing corresponding to this phantasm – or perform experiments in which decisions seem to precede the magic moment of conscious volition – they conclude that “we” are little more than epiphenomena [which you discuss elsewhere]. “Decisions” can have no causal heft, and “control” is a subjective illusion.

    I think eliminativism, understood this way, is really just another kind of Cartesian materialism. I could hardly disagree with it more. Consciousness is a distributed phenomena, an emergent net effect of everything else going on: the need to isolate it in some fixed time or location is a relic of dualism.

    Returning to Libet, did the action of his subjects really only consist of flexing their wrists? What about getting up in the morning to visit Libet’s lab, or listening to and agreeing to his instructions? What about the thousands of complex behaviours sustained over a prolonged period of time – getting on and off buses or driving, looking for the laboratory, cancelling other appointments etc. etc. etc.? What about the fact that the general intention to make a wrist movement had been there before the experiment even began?

    You mention the popular software/hardware distinction, and challenge me to try wiping my disk drive. But I agree with your point. Software really does control how computers behave, and the “self” (including your beliefs and intentions) really does control what your body does! A perspective trick can make it seem otherwise. Every mental state has neural correlates. There is one-to-one mapping between the software, and hardware configurations. *Both* levels of analysis are valid, and compliment each other. Furthermore, it is actually impossible to explain much of the behaviour of a computer without the semantic, software intepretation! A favourite example is of those nasty pseudo-agents we call software viruses. Whole industries depend on understanding how they work, tracking new varieties and mutations of old ones, and yet the virus, strictly speaking (from a reductionist point of view) has no fixed material composition at all!

    “Computational” paradigms, standard throughout the brain sciences, have little problem explaining how non-material entities such as viruses can re-configure matter in ways that benefit them (*without* reifying those entities to create Cartesian spooks). The information-processing view of cognition provides an intermediate, non-reductive approach which, properly understood, *solves* the mind/body problem once and for all.

    More next time.


  3. John Valley says:

    hey Paul 🙂

    I don’t know if you really mean it’s a very pretty theory, of if you’re just making a gesture of dismissal, but I’ll assume the former and say ‘thank you.’

    As for the brain scientists, though, I’m not sure they have any conception of the scale of the problem they are dealing with. Let me give you an example:
    Benjamin Libet, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Libet
    recipient of many awards and prestigious honors, apparently doesn’t recognize the simple mistake he’s making.

    Mr. Libet could, by the same method, examine a computer and decide that software doesn’t exist and has no function, because, in fact, and quite demonstrably, everything happening in a computer is electronics.

    That’s true, but the electronics neither explains the behavior of the computer nor causes it. The computer is nothing without its software, and if you’re not sure whether that’s true, I suggest you try — just as an experiment — wiping your disk drive. Remember, it will still contain just as many bit positions before and after the wipe: a 250Mb drive always contains 250Mb, it’s just a question of the values isn’t it.

    So, despite Mr. Libet, we still write software for computers and use it, and it seems to have tons of effect.

    (Which is not to say the brain is a computer, but the relationship of software to hardware is analogous to the relationship of mind to brain.)

  4. Manapatra says:


    This is a very pretty theory, but I don’t think it goes far enough. The reigning assumption within the brain sciences is that “qualia”, far from being mysterious events that take place “in between” the dots, are actually (viewed from the right perspective) dots themselves! Another way to put this, is that all the purely physical judgements, discriminations and micro-discriminations of our sensory organs, brains and nervous systems, actually *constitute* mental content…including “qualia”.

    We’ve seen this before. Not so long ago, life itself was seen as an impenetrably mysterious phenomenon, an additional extra something, the “elan vital” which animated ordinary matter, and gave it the special powers which living organisms seem to have. But then along came chemistry and biology, and science convincingly showed us how the appearance of “life” was actually millions and millions of smaller, individually lifeless events. That vitalistic essence became a spook, a conceptual illusion resulting from our inability to *imagine* just how all these wondrous biochemical processes, working in concert within large ensembles of cells, *together* amount to the dance we call life.

    I think something similar will happen with our beloved qualia. Neuroscience doesn’t deny that mental content exists, any more than it denies that life exists. It just denies it any independent reality. The bridge between experience and physical description seems to be an impasse, yes. But only because of our puny imaginations.

    Imagination can only be enriched by knowledge, and imagination enriched by knowledge *can* make (and is even now making) that journey.


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