Winslow Homer - The Obtuse Bard (draft 20150402) screen 002
The Big Dipper exists in physical reality only as a pattern that can be seen and recognized by conscious observers looking out to the stars above the Earth's North Pole. The stars exist as physical objects, but The Big Dipper exists only as a non-physical object in the mind of each conscious observer. Once we learn the patterns in the stars, once those patterns become patterns in our memory, our night sky becomes familiar with patterns of things that actually only exist in consciousness. After that, how we see the material objects in the night sky is changed forever by our knowledge and memories of those non-material objects.

When we look and see The Big Dipper, we recognize the visual pattern of a dipper, not as a real physical material object, but as a pattern that objectively correlates with the idea of a dipper we have in our mind. That abstracted idea was created from our experience with objects we learned to identify as "dippers." Although we know we are not looking at a real dipper when we see The Big Dipper, it is useful and meaningful for us to recognize that otherwise random pattern as a dipper. That is what we do as humans. We consciously find meaning in patterns recognized from what we sense. We relate our current sensual input to our previous experience and consciously perceive objects that represent ideas. If we did not do that, you could not understand my words as you read or listen. We can feel joy when we see a mother with a child. We can see gravity when an apple falls from a tree. We can even look and see the future, such as when we recognize a storm approaching when we see black clouds visible in the distance. Human perception is not limited merely to material objects physically present before us. Although we look out from a moment in time and a place in space, we are able to imagine beyond that moment in time and beyond the mere physical objects in our line of sight. We think with abstracted ideas mirrored from memories of our previous conscious experiences. We may also see poetic ideas in addition to material objects, such as when we see a storm approaching and we see danger. With conscious experiences we create and learn symbols which allow us to think abstractly. We can think at a higher abstracted level. We think beyond the mere physical objects that are present. Evidence of reflective consciousness may not be unique to humans.* Evidence of reflective consciousness can be experienced throughout Nature and art, but people have different standards regarding the proof of intention required to establish whether our perception is in tune with the reflective consciousness of the material object's creator. That is a central issue throughout this material: What are the rules of evidence for reading poetic expression? How can we know whether we are projecting or reading? We will constantly return to that fundamental question.

Since the idea of a dipper is such a practical and basic idea, we could expect that it might have been independently invented in different places and times, but it seems self evident that someone would have been first. Once invented, the dipper idea would have become associated with a sign or symbol that functioned as a name for that idea. The name would have enabled individuals to express and share thoughts about those dipper things. Because we know from experience that humans mostly communicate using spoken languages, we can imagine that the original human symbol or sign for a dipper might have been an auditory symbol, a spoken word. But maybe the name was not a spoken word, since we also know from experience, that people can communicate visually with facial expressions, body positions, motions, or a sign language. In fact, merely thinking from experience, we may realize that all of our senses are potential channels for communication. For example, although reading is usually visual, blind people can read by touch using Braille. No matter how or when someone first thought of a dipper, that idea has been communicated, shared with other humans, and passed along to us. We can realize a lot just by thinking about the original human thought about a dipper. We can use the ideas we have to think, and as we flip those thoughts around, we can imagine new ideas. Even as a primitive person, our human DNA would have given us the mental capacity to think and flip ideas around, but as a primitive, we would have lacked the accumulated knowledge of mankind that is available to us today. Depending on when and where we might have been born, we could have lived before any human had thought the idea of a dipper.

Imagine a people many ages ago who had the idea of a dipper thing, who had a sign or symbol for communicating that idea, and who could recognize a dipper thing when they looked at one. Imagine that one of those people looked at the night sky and saw the pattern of a dipper in the form of the seven stars we now call The Big Dipper. Logic indicates that somebody must have been the first person to have seen and shared the perception of those seven stars as a dipper. After that first somebody saw and shared that perception with other people, those people then shared that common perception with their family and friends, and that shared perception became part of their local culture. Over time, seeing those stars as a dipper spread among cultures. More and more people learned to look at the clear night sky, find those seven stars, and see that imagined illusion of a dipper. The Big Dipper pattern recognized in nature was useful, because people would have connected that perception not only with other useful ideas, but processes. For example, looking out to the stars in the northern sky, as the night passes, all the stars, including The Big Dipper, rotate around the star we know as Polaris or The North Star.

In the earliest of primitive times, human ideas were only shared by direct human contact, because that was before other discoveries that now make it easier to spread human ideas without direct contact. Much earlier than might be expected, primeval people expressed their ideas by drawing pictures in caves. Cave paintings have been found in areas widely dispersed around the world, the earliest of which for all regions have been dated to have been created at least 30 to 40 thousands of years ago. Later, expressing ideas in pictures eventually morphed into pictographs, and reading and writing eventually evolved from that. Very recently by comparison, printing presses with movable type, the telegraph, the telephone, and The Internet have all made it easier to share and learn ideas with and beyond family and friends.

For thousands of years, people in the Northern Hemisphere have used The Big Dipper along with Polaris as a clock and compass. The Big Dipper is useful when trying to find Polaris, because the outmost stars of the The Big Dipper's bowl, the two stars at the end opposite the handle, define a line that intersects, you could say "points to Polaris." All of the ideas that enable us to use the stars as a clock and compass have been passed along as useful cultural knowledge. In different cultures, the form patterns recognized in those stars and the names given varied, but attributing patterns to those stars was useful. The stars in the same area as The Big Dipper have also been seen as a chariot, a wagon, or a plough. People connected the dots, patterns were recognized, and useful information came from that. Before the magnetic compass was used for navigation, the stars were the compass. Until recent times, navigators could only determine their location by looking at the sky. Modern astronomers still use their cultural knowledge of the stars as an aid for remembering and as a chart that helps them read the night sky.

What enabled The Big Dipper to become a part of human cultural knowledge was the communication of that discovery to others. After that initial perception was shared with others, the chain of sharing began that still continues today. Those useful discoveries have been passed on to us, because that is another important thing that people do. We embody our private conscious perceptions into material forms outside of our self. The material forms we create function as media facilitating the communication of our conscious thoughts to others.**

Whenever we look with our eyes, our unconscious brain is constantly processing the raw image, seeking correlations between what is visually before us and the objects in our vast personal collection of patterns stored in our memory. When we consciously look and see visual objects, what we see are objects that are first correlated by our unconscious brain with items in our cataloged and indexed collection of objects known from all of our past experiences, not just visual. In some instances, although the matched pattern exists in the raw image, the material object seen is actually not a physical object present in that external reality. That is the situation when we see The Big Dipper as a dipper. Although the object recognized and seen is not actually physically present, that perception is still a legitimate match that functions in a meaningful and useful way. We might call that object a spiritual object, as opposed to a physical object, or we might call it an illusion, however those terms complicate our thoughts about that perception, because of potentially negative connotations. When we think of something as an illusion that suggests a false perception, and use of that term places a negative spin on the perception, even when, as in the case of The Big Dipper, the perception is a valid functional and useful match. The source of this negative spin lies with our modern understanding of what is real and what is un-real. In modern cultural thought, mankind has adopted a concept of real that excludes objects that are not material physical objects. As "modern" thinkers, we have biased our thoughts by thinking of non-physical objects as un-real objects. This modern cultural idea, adopted from Newtonian physics, still causes us to think of non-physical objects as un-real when in fact spiritual objects are no less real than the physical objects. The conscious perception of non-physical objects should not be dismissed as an illusion by definition, when the pattern is recognized from the physical matter. Those are not false perceptions, but real perceptions of non-physical objects mirrored to us through real objects. There is a more significant problem with our understanding of the idea of illusion, because it turns out that the physical material objects we think of as real also are dependent on conscious perception for their very creation. Modern science now empirically demonstrates that physical matter itself is dependent on conscious perception for its very existence. We need to pause, backup and restart this discussion, in order to understand how this is actually true, since it certainly does not seem to be true from the context of our everyday understanding of reality.

Collectively, all of the patterns we sense and connect not only define our external reality, they are tagged with the shared words and ideas we use to think. While our history of experience with our external reality is unique and provides us with the unique knowledge we have, that outside reality is perhaps our only medium of communication with others. Using what we know from all of our past experience, we read the embodied communications of others from the outside, and we also place our own thoughts and ideas into that outside reality by embodying our thoughts into some manner of physical representation. We communicate our thoughts and ideas with others by interacting with objects through that shared external reality. The embodyments used to communicate with others pass in and out through the senses of our body and through that we send and receive conscious thoughts. That process requires signs and symbols with shared common meanings that sufficiently correspond with how other conscious beings use and recognize those embodyments. Inside, we constantly are testing, comparing, and tuning our perceptions to that outside reality. While our outside reality is obviously important, it is not everything. While our body seems to exist in that outside reality, our thinking conscious self somehow seems separate and independent. The perceptions and reflective thoughts we have inside are a valid part of our personal reality. All of our personal knowledge of our outside reality, our perceptions, exist inside our conscious reality. Realizing this does not deny the existence of the outside reality, but it does let us realize that our thoughts and knowledge about our external reality is dependent on our conscious reality. Our outside reality is defined by our thoughts. It is not the other way around. In our consciousness, we can think independently and beyond our moment in time and our place in space. We can think beyond the limits of our imagined physical reality.

We can express our conscious ideas outside ourself with or without any intention of sharing those ideas. For example, we can write poetry in a notebook and keep those embodied thoughts in a hidden private place. We can write a private diary. We get satisfaction from the mere creation of the embodied outside expressions of our ideas, independant of any communication of those ideas to others. Our every expression changes our unique outside reality even if only in some small way, and even when that expression might only be known and understood by us. Sometimes a new idea may be significantly at odds with and challenge a fundamental cultural understanding about reality, such as it did centuries ago when Copernicus developed his idea that the Earth was not the physical center of the Universe. After Copernicus expressed and shared that idea, his idea eventually resulted in a significant change in the cultural understanding of the material Universe. It not only changed his external reality, it changed the understanding of reality of everyone born into that new cultural understanding. His idea changed the understanding of reality we learned because that change to cultural knowledge happened before we were born.

One group of ideas, collectively known as Quantum Theory or Quantum Mechanics, has been around for about a century, but its implications are even more radical to our understanding of reality than the idea of Copernicus. Quantum Theory has been shared, empirically tested, and consistently validated as true by experiments in Quantum Mechanics. We are benefiting from its practical applications in science and industry, but its fundamental philosophical implications are still managing to linger. Only relatively recently have those implications started to be widely discussed in general terms.

One radical implication from Quantum Mechanics comes from one of its empirical facts. New particles of physical matter created from transformed energy, require conscious observation in order to be created and the conscious perception actually determines characteristics of the matter that is created. Although the empirical evidence only demonstrates this for small particles of matter, those particles are the building blocks of all larger matter. While that seems incredible, that is now regarded as a proven fact and appears to present a fundamental challenge to our current distinction between what is real and what is un-real. The observation of something that does not exist had been the definition of illusion, but that distinction has become perplexed, perhaps voided. What happens in the creation of matter from energy is not entirely unlike this, "Empirical evidence from Quantum Mechanics research establishes that the conscious perception of the object before it exists, an illusion, is required in order to create a particle of physical matter." The perception of what does not yet exist determines the form of the physical matter created. You can see why this is considered to be so enigmatic. Empirical evidence indicates that physical reality itself requires illusion. It seems impossible because that possibility is by definition excluded from the confines of the materialistic perspective of Newtonian Physics where "real" is defined as physical matter.

In terms of human history however, the Newtonian perspective of reality is actually a relatively recent cultural perspective. Before the Newtonian perspective boxed in human thinking and put reality itself into the box, objects recognized by conscious awareness had not been automatically regarded as un-real. Much of human knowledge became "un-real" from the Newtonian perspective. At its height, the Newtonian perspective even put experimental Psychology into a box called Behavorism. Scientific thought is no longer in the Newtonian box that had denied the relevance of consciousness. Philosophically, the scientific method is regarded as a self-correcting and unbiased process, able to self-correct its errors, and Quantum Mechanics is an example of that self-correction. The process highly regarded as "science" is not the problem. That process is working. Science is now debunking the materialism implicit in the Newtonian perspective which, for a time, had been at odds with many other areas of human understanding. Quantum Mechanics is not denying physical reality, but expanding and shifting our understanding such that we perhaps will find it useful to think of physical reality as a virtual subset of conscious reality.

We treat our everyday understanding as truth, because we like how that works for us. We like to pretend that scientific truth is not an endless quest, because we like to adopt the currently accepted theories of science as truth itself. As the ideas from Quantum Mechanics increasingly become a part of the everyday cultural views, other new experiences and knowledge are morphing into our common cultural view of reality. For example, as human experience with simulated and virtual realities becomes increasingly common, as the programming in DNA is reverse engineered, and as knowledge in neuroscience advances, our everyday cultural understanding of reality changes. The fundamental scientific beliefs about reality seem to be on a path that is removing some of the apparent conflicts with some of the ideas expressed by artists, poets, and philosophers. The ideas of Plato, Berkeley, Kant, Peirce, James, Bergson and other philosophers who recognized human consciousness as reality are now more frequently being cited in discussions that attempt to make sense of the enigmatic evidence of Quantum Mechanics. An alternative perspective of reality is emerging that will fundamentally change how we think about reality. Just as the Earth lost its standing as the center of the Universe, our material physical Universe is now losing its standing as the definition of reality, because the Quantum perspective has begun to replace the Newtonian perspective in our everyday cultural understanding.

You might say, "I think, therefore I am." is back, but scientists and philosophers of science still do not quite know what to make of the seemingly impossible empirical evidence that brings consciousness to the forefront of scientific thought about reality.*** In this presentation, we still need to use the words real, un-real, illusion, physical, and spiritual and must use our current cultural understanding of those terms, because we still think and communicate using those concepts from the persistent but debunked Newtonian perspective.

Although Winslow Homer has been regarded as a realist, the reality he painted was not merely a Newtonian reality, but a conscious reality. In this presentation you will see, that Winslow Homer, from his earliest childhood works to his last painting before his death, represented his conscious poetic thoughts with imaginative illusions as embedded objective correlatives,**** not unlike The Big Dipper we see in the sky. As we become familiar with his personal memories, as his memories become our memories, with an active imagination, we can be led by his work to reconstruct in our mind his illusions and allusions. We can see Homer's imaginative illusions, and from those we can be led to think his thoughts. Once we learn to see beyond the mere physical reality represented in his works, that awareness can change forever how we see his art and we will better understand the full meaning of his Tile Club name The Obtuse Bard. That is the purpose of this presentation.


* I have believed such abstracted thinking is not limited to humans, since about 1967 or 1968, when I heard Allen and Beatrix Gardner present an early report about Washoe, the chimpanzee they were teaching American Sign Language. What impressed me most, was the fact that Washoe had signed "funny" in an appropriate way after an incident where milk had accidentally been spilled.

** Our unconscious perceptions and feelings may be expressed in our facial expression and other actions, and unintentionally communicated to others. With the latest technologies, our thoughts, feelings, and raw percepts can now be detected and to a limited extent read using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As I write this, I think that our private internal storage and activity can only be viewed, but we can imagine the possibility that it could eventually be modified by fMRI hackers. Fortunately, with our imagination, we can also imagine the possibility that our mental software and data might have a secure synchronized backup with some other independent system that could prevent that possibility. As technology progresses, we have lots of new ideas we can flip around with our imagination.

*** for more information, search The Internet for "Interpretations of Quantum Theory".

**** Objective correlative is a term originally coined by Washington Allston. Winslow Homer developed his own implimentation of the idealized methodology of Washinton Allston, detailed in Allston's book Lectures on Art, edited and published by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. While Washington Allston was never able to impliment his own idealized methodology, Winslow Homer did, and in effect was Allston's ideal artist.


Copyright 1992-2015 Peter Bueschen
The presentation is available at The Obtuse Bard website