Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Power of Pictures: Scientia est potentia

Know the cave paintings of Chauvet? Or the Bâton de commandement of Gourdan?

Ever felt respect for people studying the stars because of their human curiousness, but without the knowledge of the ages – how to describe what they’ve learned, how to store it, how to use it?

Describing what they’ve learned – needs formulas.

Storing it – needs writing.

Using it – needs teaching and tools.

All the things we know so well: script and science, training and technology.

The ancient people in the Ice Age didn’t have, what’s so ubiquitous for us – the knowledge of the ages.

The ancient people had to do their research on the very first steps of the power of human culture, of what the Roman saying describes: Scientia est potentia – knowledge is power. And the ancient people did it very well.

Look at their pictures. First they started with “normally looking” images, but soon the paintings got “ugly”, loosing details while boldly emphasizing others: They had understood that the pictures could be used more precisely to describe an idea, if the part of the picture, showing the similarity to the idea, dominates and the other parts, disturbing the clearness of the idea, vanish.

So they discovered the symbol.

By emphasizing more and more the significance, by omitting more and more unnecessary details, they invented writing – first the painted writings of China and the hieroglyphs of Egypt, then the more abstract reduction of writing to syllables and at last our latin letters without any meaning left: a, b, c, d.

But look at the power of that letters! The pen is mightier than the sword, it is said.

Put the letters in the right way and they shake the world! Talk about hate and offended gods and the letters are able to incite riots over the whole world.

That’s power.

And the ancient paintings did start this evolution – and the ancient people felt that power.

They felt how important it is to describe and store knowledge, because knowledge can be used.

Information is behavior: The more you know about a dynamical entity, a system, an object, a person or a nation, the better you can foresee the decisions and the resulting actions, the better you can control the situation.

The ancient people knew that – they knew that the power of information is usable by painting it precisely, by pictures of the observed to describe and to store it, to understand it and to foresee it and in the end: manipulate it.

And that’s true until today, because guess, how even a mathematical function is called? Abbildung, Mapping.

The ancient people did just one mistake: they thought, that each and every mapping is powerful, but as we know now, that’s not true. Only the provable, precise maps are useful, allowing to reconstruct the behavior (!) of the original system by the map.

The power of pictures: first magic, than science.

Evolution of knowledge, as humankind learned to optimize the new strategy of correctly describing and storing and teaching and using.

But interestingly, many of the ancient ideas survived.

The faith of the power of any picture exists in all veils on Earth. Yes, veils. They first weren’t signals of inferiority, but signals of VIPs like the Chinese emperor, not allowed to be seen by the underlings, since they could use the “Evil Eyes” against him.

Like any animal fearing the spying eyes of predators – by which those try to gather enough information about the victims to use that information against them – humans fear the direct gaze until today. Just watch somebody some time – (s)he’ll get nervous and many even get aggressive.

Together with the ancient knowledge, that mappings are the tools of information processing, it’s easy to understand, that fearful people try to avoid being seen and painted: try to forbid making images of them.

Because a mapping can give knowledge – because an image can give power.

What surprises me much is that even our modern Gods are less powerful than images – because the verboten pictures have the same origin as ever: Images give power and no human shall have that power over God.

however - how can that be? Previous gods are of limited capabilities, sure, they may have reason to fear the power of the humans, but all the Abrahamic Gods are omnipotent, there is nothing left which should allow anything or anybody to have power over them, not even pictures, may they be good or bad.

But yes, i forgot: faith doesn’t follow logical thinking. So believers can follow rules of cave painters which contradict their own faith, just because anything goes in faith and anything can be used to be offended?

Just asking.


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