Lights On: Can a Lght Bulb Be a Philosophical Being?


“Fiat Lux”. “Let There Be Light”. Thus spoke God as soon as the sky and earth had been created and before proceeding to shape the rest of the universe. “Et Lux facta est”: Light was made. Then, when he realized with remarkable satisfaction how good his work was, he separated it from darkness and as we have been told, he started moulding the firmament, the different continents, seas, animals and all the other wonders of the cosmos. The Light according to the legend would, then, anticipate every other thing. Moreover, it is natural to think that even the Almighty Creator, if He had been forced to work in the dark, would have found himself in serious difficulties, due to the extreme complexity of the machine he was constructing.

This is the legend. It was and still is a source of faith for mankind and an inspiration for artists. We know that in reality there are many ways to explain the origin of the world, but we can’t be sure of any of them, because man made his appearance in the universe in extremely recent times. We have definitely been the last ones to come.

Nowadays, the most reliable option is undoubtedly the “Big Bang” theory. About twenty billion years ago, all the substance in the universe was concentrated in one single point, creating a primordial core with a fathomless density: the “Cosmic Egg”.

The egg then exploded, spreading fragments everywhere that eventually turned into stars and galaxies. This theory is supported by the fact that the universe still appears to be rapidly and constantly expanding, as proved by several phenomena observed by astrophysicists, such as the Doppler effect’s “Red Shift”. Even if solid and reliable, this is just a theory, since it can’t be directly proven and reproduced: even if a bit of fantasy and imagination can embellish our lives in many cases, when we get to talk about knowledge, our dignity as reasoning beings requires us to choose to believe exclusively in what we can prove in a concrete and reproducible way.

Anyway, God, Big Bang, or whatever, we cannot achieve a complete empirical knowledge on this topic, but it is certain that the light was the first thing to show up in the development process of the universe, together with the appearance of every material form of substance. It would be impossible to think of any construction, development, expansion or growth process without the production of energy, as well as it is absurd that this energy simply and indefinitely concentrated on a single material body, instead of being somehow irradiated through the surrounding space.

Let’s draw a simple example: the incandescent bulb. Due to the passage of electric current, some energy is dissipated in the filament. It is the so called “Joule effect”, named after the British scientist that scheduled the energy transformation principles in the 19th century. If the energy remained on the filament, its temperature would quickly grow until it burns and this would happen in a few seconds. We know this does not happen: once the current passes through the bulb, the filament heats until it reaches the so called “White heat”, but then the heating process stops, because the generated energy parallel flows outside the bulb itself and we perceive this energy as light and heat. Therefore, we can easily state that the light is a form of radiant energy. The same happens with the sun and all the other stars, even if the nature of the heating process is different.

It is natural that the constant presence of light in every living and developing thing is closely related to the idea of well-being and of being itself. It is not just a coincidence that throughout the history the Sun, the biggest and most powerful source of light and the closest to the Earth, has always been considered and revered as a god.

Nowadays, in the computer and space exploration era, we know that it is just the head of a small match, straying among the uncountable torches that we call “stars”. The sense of mystery that would accompany the religious beliefs is now lost and the concept of “supernatural” that is held by the human nature itself is driving its sight towards other abstract and less verifiable divinities. Light is synonymous with happiness and safety, as well as clarity, comprehension and intelligence. We can think of many expressions like “the eternal light”, “enlightened mind”, “brilliant character”, “shining smile” and many more.

The antithesis of Light, the Dark, is related to the opposite concepts: “the darkness of hell”, “to be in a dark mood”, “obscure meaning”. The only person who provided a statement that escaped the identification of light with life and happiness was Victor Hugo. He said: “I see a black light”, but these were his last words before his death. Since the Light is the quickest means of communication with the external world: it is our richest and most complete instrument of knowledge. Therefore, darkness and the lack of light represent the deprivation of sensitivity and the interruption of perception. In a word: death. Philosophicalwise, the image of light is synonimous with consciousness, autonomy of human thought and freedom and it is a constant presence in the philosophical paths developed throughout the years.

In ancient Greek philosophy, Aristoteles defines the light “the fifth element”, the aether, made of a fluid and thin substance, that surrounds and holds the universe of beings made up of the four primordial elements: water, air, earth, fire. In neoplatonic philosophy the light is conceived as the externalization of the divine, that allows the “One” (the platonic idea of a perfect chosmos, an ordered universe) to be comunicated by means of the irradiation of the celestial intelligences and to be set in touch with the sensible world.

SS.Augustin and Thomas Aquinus theorized some real light metaphysics: according to them, the light is the physical principle which represents the source of existance of every single living being.

It is also stated that this “divine” light can also enable the generation of the material bodies. Men know the ideal principles that lead to the “illumination”, the actual achievement of wisdom, while the cognitive skills and the epistemological attitudes are provided by God, the supreme author of human traits. Meister Eckhart also defines light as “scintilla animae” (spark of the soul), the divine element which permeates everyone’s innermost selves. We can also recall the close relationship between light and knowledge that would characterize the 18th century, the so-called “Siecle des Lumieres” (1670 – 1820), where it represented the freedom and the autonomy of the human thought.

Light and energy, energy and life, life and substance, substance and form, form and light: different aspects of one single reality. What’s behind the simple gesture of switching the light on? Much more than a simple current spark: we can rip the dark, distinguish objects and trigger sensibility. We can delete uncertainty and the “intellectual mist” that surrounds every epistemological mystery, as well as, according to religion, catch a glimpse of God and, according to the “human” science, simply turn electrical energy into heat and light energy.

There is a strong contradiction behind this process, though: the philosophical sadness of mankind, forced to be stuck in the hole of mis-acknowledgement of reality due to the crumbling of modern culture and the theological “diktat” that states that mankind is fated to perdition and sin. This reveals how difficult it is to successfully achieve the Light and how the theory of this epistemological process is mechanically utopian. What to do then? Let’s save energy.

Alessandro De Arcangelis was born in Naples, Italy. He published two books, “Un’Elitaria Democrazia” and “Zampa di Gatto” and worked with several magazines and newspapers. His interests vary from humanities to music, from philology to IT. He attended the classical literature and philology university in Milan, Italy.