On Plato and 3D modeling

This morning it occurred to me that there are some intriguing parallels between Plato’s core philosophy, as described in The State (Politeia), or the Timaios, and 3D modeling in applications like Modo.

Let’s resume. For Plato every being in this world is nothing more than a projection of a perfect archetype, the Idea, onto a very imperfect medium, the physical, or material world. We have no real certainty, or knowledge about the purest form, or idea, because our minds are affected by the same imperfection. What we see around us can be compared with shadows thrown by these perfect forms on a wall by the radiance of truth, the sun. We cannot however see the forms that throw these shadows, because they are just beyond our reach, as we are standing in a deep cave, and the Ideas are outside, higher up, behind a rim. That’s depressing, isn’t it?

To explain what we could call ‘classes’, or ‘families’ of objects, Plato explains that an object can participate in more than one Idea. So, identity is built-up, it consists of some central idea and a cluster of ideas that shape the object, like ‘red’, ‘heavy’, ‘ovoid’. From another point of view we would call this ‘attributes’. The intriguing thing is that once you start thinking about clusters of objects you tend to be left empty-handed, because when you take all the attributes or properties away, nothing remains.

What then is this thing that the properties are properties of? Well, … there you have the remaining history of philosophy since Plato and Aristotle of course.

Going back to the State we could identify the ‘thing’ which is being shaped into a recognizable form, with some nondescript material ‘blob’. The addition of properties gives the blob shape and identity.

When we go to our modeling environment something very similar happens. We start with a dull grey primitive form, this could be a cube, or a globe. And start to add shape by adding edges and connections. We the refine the shape by telling the program that it should build up some tension between the edges and points, or to create more edges between the existing edges (this is called subdivision surface modeling). These refinements are not really part of the primary object, but in fact mathematical ‘projections’. The shape can really get quite blobby at this stage.

Then we start adding more details by painting a surface structure on the primeval blob. Again, this is just a attribute, not an essential quality. We then can add colour, and material properties, like reflection, transparency, refraction index etc. When we are using the object for animation we can add weight.

Our primeval blob, now formed by the Idea in our mind (yes, we are now definitely entering the realm of Platonic theology!), is part of a scene. A little world with a horizon, ambient light etc. We can add lights to this world, other objects, we can even simulate real sunlight at a give geographical location and time. A special type of light let’s us project images into the scene.

So this world is constructed layer upon layer, out of properties projected on amorphous entities that only retain their shape because mathematics tells them to.

I’m sure that, if my blobs were suddenly endowed with a consciousness and the faculty of thought, they might wonder how the hell they ended up in the place where they are, and who thought about all this. They might wonder about their identity and see some strange similarities between the things around them and themselves.

I add a small sequence of pictures to illustrate the process of creating a weird landscape out of a box.

the primeval box
the primeval box

We start with the box and tell it to build up some tension arond the edges.

the box rounded
the box rounded

Now we beat the box repeatedly with a blunt object.

the box beaten and pulled at
the box beaten and pulled at

We add another ‘property’, a layer of spray paint, but we tell the objects these spots of  paint are in fact little bumps. The nice thing is, we create an illusion of bumpiness, by projecting the Platonic Idea of bumpiness on the beaten box, without actually changing the box at all.

the spraipainted box, translating the spray into bumps
the spraypainted box, translating the spray into bumps

Now we add some more colour. And we tell part of the surface that it should behave like a mirror. So the nice blue artificial sky is reflected.

colour added
colour added

We add an extra Platonic light to the scene.

light added
light added

And we have created a very ugly Platonic landscape. Which bring us to the fact that Platonic philosophy and its descendants (neoplatonic philosophy, and some Christian platonic thinkers) never quite knew what to make of ugliness, or evil. Is it the absence of Beauty, of Goodness? Or is it a positive (in the sense of existing) entity, or an attribute in itself (ugliness, badness)?

Now we return to the primeval box, we can see that the pulling and pushing has left some traces on the original geometry. So this is where our parallel ends. Or does it?

the primeval box, badly mistreated for this demonstration
the primeval box, badly mistreated for this demonstration

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