This one’s for Todd, my favorite Magritte fan.
So far as I can tell, the point of this painting is that images lie. If shown this picture and asked “What is this?” we would probably say or think quickly, “It’s a pipe.” But, as Magritte has written, it is not a pipe. “Of course it’s not a pipe,” Magritte is reported to have said when asked about this painting, “just try to put tobacco in it.” Artist Annette Labedzki has this to say about The Treachery of Images.
With The Treachery of Images Magritte questions, the inherent tendency of the human mind to habitually label everything we see, overlooking the need to find a deeper meaning. Magritte presents a very simple example to convey how our perceptions and the habitual use of language can falsely manipulate our thinking. “The Treachery of Images” was a powerful work with which René Magritte challenges the common norms of communication and interpretation.
So the point is simple: It is not a pipe. It is a painting of a pipe, or maybe just oil on canvas. Actually, what you see is a digital reproduction of a painting of a pipe, electrons striking a screen, whatever. These may seem like cynical, reductionistic observations, but there is something deeper going on here, something that we may need to be reminded of in a world that is flat-out obsessed with images. Which are only images.
Consider the following image, which shows the so-called “wave function” of the electron in a hydrogen atom.
This is not an electron. It doesn’t even represent an electron. In fact, no one knows what it really represents, although it has something to do with the probability of finding the electron (whatever that is) at a certain place relative to the atom’s nucleus. I know from experience that it’s easy to mistake this mathematical expression for the actual electron, to think that because I can write and calculate with this function then I understand electrons. But to understand the symbolic representation of a thing — however it may be interpreted — is not to understand the thing itself. In fact, in science, to measure and represent a thing symbolically does not even mean the thing exists. Take the medieval astronomers who “measured” and represented, in mathematics and in images, things called epicycles in the motions of the planets. Many of them (but not all) were thoroughly convinced that epicycles existed. This went on for centuries. But epicycles don’t exist and never have. In science one should not take one’s symbolic worlds too seriously. The wave function of the electron works when one does calculations with it, and it has never been found to be wrong in any laboratory experiment. But no one knows what it really is.
It is tempting to think that our abstractions about nature — such as wave functions or models of the cell or the geological timeline — are more than they are. They are all mental constructions that only approximate, sometimes closely and sometimes not, certain features of the natural world. It is easy to conflate our models and reality because doing so helps perpetuate the illusion that we can control our world. We can’t.
This is not the Word of God nor is it an image of the Word of God. Biblia latina (Bible in Latin). France, thirteenth century. Manuscript on vellum. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
The danger of confusing the symbol and the real thing is more readily apparent in the world of religion. The Bible is the most obvious example. Is the Bible the Word of God? Or does it contain God’s Word? Or is the the words of God? None of the above, many Christians say (and I am among them). Jesus Christ is the Logos, the Word of God. The Word is not a book but a person. It is so easy to forget this. The Bible is a signpost that points to the Word, who is a living and vital and uncontrollable presence in the world. But you can only know Jesus by reading the Bible, I have heard many say. I don’t think this is true, but let’s just say that it is. Does this statement, that you can only know Jesus by reading the Bible, mean that the Bible is more fundamental than Christ? Of course not. This is like saying that your telephone is more fundamental than your beloved to whom you are speaking. And the voice coming over the air may represent that person to you, but only a fool would say that the voice — a series of vibrations in the air — is greater than the one you love.
It is tempting to think that our religious symbols — such as the Bible or the communion meal or the liturgy — are more than they are. They are all pointers that represent the invisible reality of God and are not themselves intrinsically holy. (Let’s not get into a transubstantiation debate, dear Catholic readers.) It is easy to confuse the symbols for reality because doing so helps perpetuate the illusion that we have control over God. We don’t.
The electron’s wave function indicates something about the electron, a tiny particle that exists in a bizarre and counterintuitive small-scale world that we can only get fleeting glimpses of, but we’re not sure what. We have ways of talking about electrons — like the wave function — but the electron itself is a ghostlike thing, elusive and capable of seemingly contradictory behavior (see here for an example). And the Bible indicates something about humanity, God, and the relationship between the two. It also speaks to God’s absence and humanity’s precarious place in the universe. But these realities, like the lowly electron, are not things you learn about by learning about them. Like the electron they are a bit cagey and won’t be pinned down and made to behave themselves. Like the electron they seem to exist in a world where our rules simply don’t apply.
I am not saying here that God is an electron, or that when you learn about the double-slit experiment you actually draw near to Jesus. Don’t overinterpret; I’m not going Deepak here. I’m merely saying that both science and religion depend on symbols to communicate about certain features of the surprising and weird and confusing world we find ourselves inhabiting. And that in both cases it is tempting to give ourselves too much credit and to not leave a sufficiently wide margin for the unknown. As H. L. Mencken, that singular wit and great American, once wrote, Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.
Our names and signs and symbols and languages and abstractions do not exhaust the world. They cannot do so, for they are mere projections of our minds and may say more about us than they do about the universe. So let us retain and nourish that most rare of virtues, intellectual humility. The best way to do this? Remember always: A pipe is not always a pipe.