(I will be posting some speculative pieces over the next few months. They’ll be titled “Musings” to set them apart from my other posts. Hope you enjoy!)
One of the hardest things for anyone to do is to step outside of their normal frame of reference. We get used to seeing the world the way we see the world. By the time we reach the age of seven… or fifteen… or twenty-one, we are locked in to a certain set of perceptions that have been so consistent, so unchanging, that we assume – logically, of course – that we’ve got a tight grip on “reality”.
We’re actually missing something if that’s the way we think. But it took quite a while before someone pointed the fact out to us. (Most of us still haven’t gotten the word).
Within the space of a mere 80 years, two men in Europe changed the way we look at the world. At least, they tried to do so. Both were believers. Neither was a radical or a revolutionary. But, since each of them had the courage to follow the thread of their own thoughts and observations without shying away from the implications, they created – each from his own unique vantage point – a new way of seeing the reality in which we live.
Charles Darwin showed us that the earth has been the theater of a long process of evolutionary change driven by the inherent logic of natural selection and that even we humans must recognize that we have been one of its products and do not reside safely outside the system as a sort of privileged observer.
Immanuel Kant showed us that the way we perceive reality is conditioned – and restricted – by the equipment (sensory and intellectual) that we bring to our contact with it and that we have no way of knowing whether the underlying “reality” is different than what we perceive in its phenomenal manifestations.
In other words, Kant proposed that our perceptions of the world around us are inevitably and comprehensively conditioned by the human intellectual “apparatus”. In other words, we are hard-wired – as humans – to perceive the world in a highly specific way. I might have said species-specific…
Where the hummingbird hovering outside my window as I write sees much of the world in greater detail than I – including colors into the ultraviolet range – and a rattlesnake in patterns created by the signatures of various sources of heat…we see it based upon our ability to process light within a fairly narrow range of the spectrum…and to ascribe the provenance of perceived events to the “rules” of cause and effect.
It is as if we were wearing a burkha and could see only through a narrow slit in the headpiece of the garment. What we cannot see… we assume does not exist. What we can see…we assume to be the sum total of reality.
The ultimate point is that our versions of “reality” are products of who…and what…we are. The world “as it really is”…unconditioned by the limitations of its perceivers…is fundamentally unknowable in Kant’s view.
The mystic artist and poet William Blake came at it from a slightly different – but instructive – angle:
“How do you know but that ev’ry bird that cuts the
airy way is an immense world of delight clos’d
by your senses five?”
In Blake’s view, too, we couldn’t know. His point, like Kant’s, was that we should be hesitant to make categorical judgments about a reality in which we were only limited participants.
Permit me to try and illustrate this further with a few examples.
For openers, let’s suppose you are a porpoise.
You have a highly developed brain. In fact, your cerebral cortex is as developed as that of a human and your brain-to-body weight ratio is comparable. Your mental life (stay with me here) is among the most sophisticated on earth, processing thoughts and sound images at lightning speed and connecting disparate elements of your perceived reality in creative and intuitive ways.
However – just like humans – your view of reality is conditioned by your perceptual apparatus as well as your actual physical environment. In other words, just as humans are limited to perceptions which fit within a given band width of capabilities, so are you. Where a human might generate mental images composed of light and shadow, you might have “images” of reflected sound patterns based upon the way your internal sonar system reads your daily environment. Where a human might think in a particular language…you might think in a symbolic system that is very different…but every bit as disciplined and, perhaps, even richer. (Thus, when a human tries to communicate with you in an “experiment” you find him just as challenging as he finds you.)
Where humans think of “earth” as mountains and fields and ocean surfaces, you think of it as a complex world of water in which the things that happen above the surface are somewhat interesting but not particularly relevant. You may even have a spiritual element in your consciousness with its own creation myth…perhaps based upon a porpoise-like “supreme swimmer” who created the porpoises and orcas and all the “lesser animals” within and above the waters.
Sterling Bunnell, in Mind In The Waters, explained that the primary sense deployed by humans is sight – ideal for an animal that depends on its abilities to manage the factors of space and distance. Dolphins and orcas’ primary sense is auditory…but it fulfills the same basic function as our sight: the definition of spatial relationships. Because of the marriage of sound (instead of sight) with spatial perception in the minds of these animals, it may just be that they can communicate in a richer way than we can, projecting images via sound that our human words and sentences could never hope to duplicate.
The real point here is this: we don’t know.
Is this crazy? Is it impossible?
Let’s play one more little mind game on the same subject.
Try and imagine yourself as you are now…fully at home within your skull. That is, you have your intelligence and your consciousness of both yourself and your surroundings. However, what you don’t have is a habit – or knowledge – of human language or an ability to read. So, while you are fully aware of what you’re looking at and capable of thinking about it, you aren’t able to put your concepts into particular words. (This is a challenging distinction for a human to make – except perhaps for those with some forms of autism).
There are other forms of communication, however, and you can participate in those of your species. Let us assume that, in this case, you’re a herd animal like an elephant and your means of communicating with your fellows is largely through a subtle but effective form of body language and sub-sonic communication – some of it through the soles of your feet. So you can send signals to others when necessary and receive them too.
You should also assume that you’re old enough – in terms again of your species – to have a memory of the more meaningful events and experiences of your earlier life and that you have learned some things from those experiences. For instance, when you see a stalking pride of lions in the distance, you become nervous and begin to seek a contingent route of retreat.
Now, you have a particular sort of body. It is specialized for the things that are important for your species to be able to do. For instance, you can run with surprising speed and you are able to process a significantly greater amount of oxygen than any human can, enabling you to carry on for miles without tiring. But there are some other things you cannot do.
You couldn’t speak – even if you knew a language – because your mouth and tongue aren’t properly constructed for it. And you can’t hold anything in your hands because you don’t have that sort of appendage.
So, there you stand, unable to speak or to manipulate anything with your feet, unable to read or to understand human forms of language – at least initially. And yet, you’re not dumb… quite the contrary! You’re extremely alert, aware and conscious.
Why, then, do humans tend to think of you as a “dumb animal”?
They do so because you are imprisoned within the particular physical conformation of your body, which acts as a sort of shroud of your consciousness and intelligence. Humans, because they can rarely imagine anything of value not built along human lines and driven by human values, see only a beast – incapable of communication with them…and therefore conclude ignorance.