The universe, or the goldfish bowl?

After writing my previous remarks, I checked out the Wikipedia article on “forest.” It opens with a brief discussion of accepted scientific understandings of the term, with some reference to the uses made for it in global policy-making. Then it makes this amusing admission:

“Although forest is a term of common parlance, there is no universally recognized precise definition, with more than 800 definitions of forest used around the world. Although a forest is usually defined by the presence of trees, under many definitions an area completely lacking trees may still be considered a forest if it grew trees in the past, will grow trees in the future,or was legally designated as a forest regardless of vegetation type.”

So, which “forest are we discussing here? With or without trees? The ‘that thing, over there’ entity? or the system that we’ve conceived and impose on our maps?

We often approach the world in which we live and the universe that enfolds it as mere objects under a microscopic – which is somewhat understandable, considering that so much of it is of a scale so small as to be undetectable to our natural senses. But we forget that it is we who build the microscopes, and telescopes, and other technological prosthetics to those senses, and so to some extent determine not only what we can learn in such study, but what it is we are learning about. If I build a gold-fish bowl, I’m not likely to find any whales in it. But if I want to keep a gold-fish, the bowl is better than a good idea.

The universe as large as it is, and our place in it rather minor and localized, we are indeed something like mites in relation to it. However, unlike mites, we do not try to understand ideas about the larger whole, but generate those ideas, in order to facilitate our living in and with it. However, these ideas being generated by us, are not coming out of the whole, but out of us; they do not exhaust the entities they address, and I merely go a bit further to suggest that there is a limitation to the correlation between our ideas and those entities. No one denies that the entities our words and ideas refer to exist, the question is whether such reference is so exhaustively correlated to the entities’ existence that it effectively encapsulates the necessary existence and properties of those entities (what the ancients knew as ‘essence,’ a metaphysical ontology of being per se). I suggest that this is not the case; and I find it odd for such a metaphysical claim to resurface surreptitiously as a kind of ‘common sense’ faith in the adequacy of (scientific) language.

Odd, but understandable. Of course our use of language requires a faith in its power to encompass and disclose the reality in which we live. Yet I am suggesting that this is really a function of the usage, uses, and usefulness of language. Language does not encompass anything but our own thoughts, and discloses nothing but our capacity to respond to the world in which we live and which we share with others.


3 thoughts on “The universe, or the goldfish bowl?

  1. In my view, those entities are “as-if-structures”, which means that they are to a large extent fictitious. But, being an asifologist, looking at things through an asifoscope, I am biased in such matters.

    By the way, I learnt the German word for a goldfish bowl (“Goldfischglas”) in a context where a whale was inside. I had (and still have :-)) a book called “5 Buben + 5 Elefanten” (Five Boys and Five Elephants), see This book, by the Czech artist Jiri Trnka ( (translated into German, 1962) contains a rather bizzare story with beautiful illustrations. The characters include five boys, five elephants and a whale (I think there was also a dog and a cat, I will have to look at it again but I am currently traveling). The whale is living in a swimming pool but we learn that it stayed in a bath tub before and initially in a goldfish bowl. There is actually a picture showing the whale (as a baby) in the goldfish bowl! I believe this picture was the first instance of a fish bowl I ever saw. So if you extend (and complicate) your look at language and ontology to such books and stories, a whale might also exist in a fish bowl (highly recommended, by the way, get a copy, at least if you are able to read German).
    I think the whale had to get glasses because it could not see so well again. It got glasses made out of a bike. I can understand it now, since I need glasses myself. One of the books worth reading again in older age.

    Liked by 1 person

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