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Descartes Visits Chemistry Class And Is Asked to Leave

I am a Challenge III Director for Classical Conversations. My class of eight and I spend one day together per week going through all six academic subjects. Yesterday in Chemistry, we performed Experiment 3.2 from our textbook which uses a white sheet of paper and a red magic marker to experience the effects of rod and cone activity in the human eye.

We dutifully followed the textbook and, henceforth, experienced the desired outcome. We “saw” the greenish-blueish cross on the blank sheet of paper. We recorded the notes in our journals and discussed the effects based on what we learned in the text. All-in-all it was turning into an extraordinarily average Chemistry lab (i.e. the kind that has no lasting effect on the majority of the participants), when all of a sudden something wonderful happened: a student had an idea.

As the experiment was winding down, a student asked what would happen if the cross on the paper was not red.

“What would we see if the cross we were staring at was a different color?”

I responded, “I don’t know. Let’s find out!”

Thankfully, I had a variety of dry erase markers and some highlighters with me, and we began to color new crosses. We drew a blue one, a green one, and a yellow one. And then we stared, only this time it was not “dutifully” staring because of an assignment, it was “poetic” staring because we wanted to see what was there. It became a cross between a science lab and a child’s playroom with the emphasis leaning towards the playroom.

When the rods and cones fell asleep, we saw different colors for each new cross we had created, which we think are related to the “complementary colors” of an artist’s palette. Not only were the colors beautiful and therefore exciting in and of themselves, but the rational connection to the complementary colors was also pretty exciting. (By the way, you’ve got to try the experiment with a yellow highlighter; the lavender cross it leaves behind is quite lovely.)

And then, after Chemistry, another wonderful thing happened: we had philosophy seminar—not for any particular reason; it was simply next on my list.

Yesterday in philosophy, we were scheduled to discuss Rene Descartes. Descartes is most widely known for his axiom cogito ergo sum—or, in the vulgar tongue, “I think, therefore I am.”

He arrived at this maxim through a process of elimination in which he attempted to doubt everything he thought he could possibly doubt (save the law of non-contradiction and the law of causality, mind you.) Anyway, all Cartesian poo-pooing aside, Descartes said that the first thing to go—the easiest thing to doubt—is our sense perception. Whether the oar looks broken in the water, or your face looks disproportionately fat (or skinny) in the Fun House mirror, it is short work to understand that what we see is not always the case. Descartes began his philosophical journey into doubt with sense perception.

And what had we just experienced in Chemistry class? We experienced a colored cross on a piece of paper that over the course of a minute created the illusion that there was a second cross on the piece of paper behind it, only there wasn’t. There was a blank piece of paper behind the first one. We had just experienced the type of thing that Descartes apparently felt the need to doubt. We saw a cross where there wasn’t one, or did we?

I am glad for the opportunity the class had to relate Chemistry to philosophy, but I lament for Monsieur Descartes and all who follow in his train, for we had not been deceived by our senses.

The unique wonders of the human eye, of light, of time, and of color allowed us to see colors that we hadn’t drawn on the paper. Does that mean the ink was not there? Of course. Does that mean the beauty was not there? Of course not.

And it wasn’t just the beauty of the lavender that was glowing “behind” the yellow. We experienced the beauty of upper classmen in high-school coloring and discovering color in Chemistry class.

Perhaps the next experiment won’t be so perfunctory now that we’ve seen the poetry of color that “isn’t really there.”

Instead of doubt and Cartesian self-centeredness, may the complexity of our senses, their strange electrical relationship to our brain, and its inconceivable relationship to our soul inspire wonder, thereby kindling a desire for beauty to be fanned into a lifelong love of the beautiful—the beauty of God and the beauty of neighbor.

So, yesterday, we invited Descartes to visit our Chemistry class, and then, we asked him to leave.

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