William Eggington has an essay in the New York Times’ “The Stone” blog about the way in which Borges and Kant(among others) prefigured the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
Now that’s not supposed to happen. You’re not supposed to be able to predict the world through theory, philosophy, and imagination – but Kant and others clearly did it, and it’s been commented many times (so many as to be an unfortunate trope) that quantum mechanics is predicted to a startling detail by Buddhist and Hindu epistemology.
He quotes Borges: “(W)e have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it resistant, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and firm in time; but we have left in its architecture tenuous and eternal interstices of unreason, so that we know it is false.”
We are always observing the world, Eggington notes, as subjective beings who piece together evidence that we pick-and-choose – and this creates cracks in the world, ones that philosophers and artists are often far ahead of scientists at mapping.
The problem of accurately observing the world is one that science has profitably ignored in order to make advances – but it has also mistakenly come to believe that those very advances have also solved the problem of accurately observing the world. Yet nothing could be less true.
I’m in the middle of reading ethnobotanist Wade Davis’ 1985 book “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” and he talks about this phenomenon at length. The passages are worth quoting in their entirety (unfortunately I’m reading it on an ereader, so I can’t quote page numbers in a meaningful way, but the following is from Chapter 10):
I stared and I stared until I couldn’t even see the sky. But it was hopeless. Venus was gone. It shouldn’t have been. Astronomers know the amount of light reflected by the planet, and we should be able to see it, even in broad daylight. Some Indians can. And but a few hundred years ago, sailors from our own civilization navigated by it, following its path as easily by day as they did by night. It is simply a skill that we have lost, and I have often wondered why.
Though we frequently speak of the potential of the brain, in practice our mental capacity seem sto be limited. Every human mind has the same latent capabilities, but for reasons that have always intrigued anthropologists different peoples develop pit in different ways, and the distinctions, in effect, amount to unconscious cultural choices. There is a small isolated group of seminomadic Indians in the northwest Amazon whose technology is so rudimentary that until quite recently they used stone axes. Yet these same people possess a knowledge of the tropical forest that puts almost any biologist to shame. As children they learn to recognize such complex phenomena as floral pollination and fruit dispersal, to understand and accurately predict animal behavior, to anticipate the fruiting cycles of hundreds of forest trees. As adults their awareness is refined to an uncanny degree; at forty paces, for example, their hunters can smell animal urine and distinguish on the basis of scent alone which out of dozens of possible species left it. Such sensitivity is not an innate attribute of these people, any more than technological prowess is something inevitably and uniquely ours. Both are consequences of adaptive choices that resulted in the development of highly specialized but different mental skills, at the obvious expense of others. Within a culture, change also means choice. In our society, for example, we now think nothing about driving at high speeds down expressways, a task that involves countless rapid, unconscious sensory responses and decisions which, to say the least, would have intimidated our great-grandfathers. Yet in acquiring such dexterity, we have forfeited other skills like the ability to see Venus, to smell animals, to hear the weather change.
Perhaps our biggest choice came four centuries ago when we began to breed scientists. This was not something our ancestors aimed for. It as a result of historical circumstances that produced a particular way of thinking that was not necessarily better than what had come before, only different. Every society, including our own, is moved by a fundamental quest for unity; a struggle to create order out of perceived disorder, integrity in the face of diversity, consistency in the face of anomaly. This vital urge to render coherent and intelligible models of the universe is at the root of all religion, philosophy, and, of course, science. What distinguishes scientific thinking from that of traditional and, as it often turns out, nonliterate cultures is the tendency of the latter to seek the shortest possible means to achieve total understanding of their world. The vodoun society, for example, spins a web of belief that is all-inclusive, that generates an illusion of total comprehension. No matter how an outsider might view it, for the individual member of that society the illusion holds, not because of coercive force, but simply because for him there is no other way. And what’s more, the belief system works; it gives meaning to the universe.
Scientific thinking is quite the opposite. We explicitly deny such comprehensive visions, and instead deliberately divide our world, our perceptions, and our confusion into however many particles are necessary to achieve understanding according to the rules of our logic. We set things apart from each other, and then what we cannot explain we dismiss with euphemisms. For example, we could ask whya tree fell over in a storm and killed a pedestrian. The scientist might suggest that the trunk was rotten and the velocity of the wind was higher than usual. But when pressed to explain why it happened at the instand when that individual passed, we would undoubtedly hear words such as chance, coincidence, and fate; terms which, in and of themselves, are quite meaningless but which conveniently leave the issue open. For the vodounist, each detail in that progression of events would have a total, immediate, and satisfactory explanation within the parameters of his belief system.
For us to doubt the conclusions of the vodounist is expected, but it is nevertheless presumptuous. For one, their system works, at least for them. What’s more, for most of us our basis for accepting the models and theories of our scientists is no more solid or objective than that of the vodounist who accepts the metaphysical theology of the houngan. Few layman know or even care to know the principles that guide science; we accept the results on faith, and like the peasant we simply defer to the accredited experts of the tradition. Yet we scientists work under the constraints of our own illusions. We assume that somehow we shall be able to divide the universe into enough infinitesimally small pieces, that somehow even according to our own rules we shall be able to comprehend these, and critically we assume that these particles, though extracted from the whole, will render meaningful conclusions about the totality. Perhaps most dangerously, we assume that in doing this, in making this kind of choice, we sacrifice nothing. But we do. I can no longer see Venus.
This trade-off means that those who have grown up inculcated into a western/scientific/industrial society will always tend to see the world in exactly those terms, and we will miss some very big cracks in the world indeed. That’s been proven over and over again, most recently in the work of scientists like Joe Heinrich. Pacific Standard Magazine recently published a cover-article on his work, entitled “We Aren’t the World,” showing that in fact much of what we consider to be hard-wired perceptions for human beings vary drastically from culture to culture.
Let me quote again, this time from a couple of passages:
As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic.
The growing body of cross-cultural research that the three researchers were compiling suggested that the mind’s capacity to mold itself to cultural and environmental settings was far greater than had been assumed. The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do—the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like—but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.
In the end they titled their paper “The Weirdest People in the World?” By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”
Again … not new. The much maligned Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that language impacts cognitive processing, came out of the 1920s – and that research had precedents too. But apparently we have to be reminded of this, over and over again. There are cracks in our worldview, and these cracks are often invisible to science because they are the foundation upon which scientific assumptions are based.
There’s nothing wrong with that … in fact it’s a useful and necessary thing in order to make real advances … unless we forget we’re doing it at all. Unless we mistake “the way we see the world” for “the only way it could possibly be.” Unless we think that our testing must reveal all there is and that our vision is the only one that counts.
Then bad things start to happen – and often we’re the last to know.