Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A quiet, bewildered eye: toward a compassionate narrative (an excerpt)

Horatio stands on a hillside and looks out. He can see the forest for the trees. But perhaps he cannot see the trees for the forest. Perhaps he cannot hear for what he sees. Perhaps he cannot smell the trees for the sight of the forest. Perhaps he cannot smell the water within the tree beside him for all the sight of the forest in all its forestness. And, therefore, although water molecules from the tree are entering his nostrils and even perhaps registering somewhere in his brain, this experience— drinth, the smell of water in a Rowan tree—stays outside of the realm of the conscious—indeed, outside of his culture's constructs, and therefore, outside of language. (1)

Does drinth exist a priori (presumably, from other experience), a posteriori, (once it registers in the brain) or, as according to Wittgenstein, "…what is hidden…is of no interest to us" (2), or to Horatio, and therefore might as well not exist?

Since "a normal human being's sense organs are capable of registering only a small portion of ambient stimuli"(3), then using the Principle of Economy leads to a severely limited and anthropically-slanted view of existence. The question arises, who is trying to "keep it simple" for whom? In many of his writings (e.g. Wonderful Life and the Mismeasure of Man), natural historian Stephen Jay Gould shows that seemingly objective explanations for how things are have been inadvertently and yet heavily swayed by the identity and preferences of those doing the explaining. Simplicity itself is often a politically-charged criterion that leads to elision/ marginalization. Overuse of Occam's razor by proponents of Machian positivism may have opened the Ramist arena onto which the Anthropic Cosmological Principle stepped, replete with its egregious non sequiturs. Arguing against oversimplification, Gould states that "the equation of current utility with historical origin" is an error which "has extensive ramifications well beyond the confines of evolutionary theory. It invalidates, for example, the so-called anthropic principle now preached by some physicists and cosmologists who do not understand the lessons of history. The strong version of this principle holds, roughly, that since human life fits so intricately well into a universe run by nature's laws (current utility), these laws must have arisen with our later appearance in mind (historical origin)" (Urchin 48). This idea that our (human) "requirements have 'selected' the physical laws for the entire universe…cannot easily be contradicted, because the other, parallel universes cannot ever be observed, even in principle" (Hogan 164). The Anthropic Cosmological Principle is only one of the Western world's latest examples of an age-old habit of teleological specularization. It is an ignorance of man's own ignorance: Horatio mistakes the Rowan tree beside him for the "tract of wooded land in England formerly owned by the sovereign and used for game."

Let us stand next to Horatio again as he surveys the wood before him and contemplates what one Anglo-European male, whose name is synonymous with great literature, wrote—namely: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Does Horatio see the Rowan tree? Of course he does, but not immediately. It takes time for photons traveling from the sun to hit the Rowan tree, bounce off, and meet Horatio's eyes. It takes time for Horatio's eyes to react to those photons and send messages up to Horatio's brain. What registers, then, is an impression left by the light of the sun on one side of a tree, and by the time Horatio's brain edits this, thousands of details have been dispensed with in order for Horatio's brain to seize on a linguistically-constructed identity called Rowan tree. So, does he see the Rowan tree? As well as any of us might, and what he sees has as much to do with what he subconsciously chooses not to see as it does with what he opts to see.

And who is the he seeing the tree? Horatio is to some extent a sociohistorical construction, his name having no a priori, transcendent, or biological link to his being, his existence and circumstance largely dependent upon the situations, parleys, negotiations, and actions of the humans who preceded him. At a more fundamental level, Horatio is a wave function of probabilities, mostly space, as are you and I. Subatomically, where Horatio begins and a Rowan tree ends isn't clear. That particles of "Rowan tree" are constantly zipping through Horatio's body or loitering at his pancreas sheds a different light on the question as to whether Horatio can experience the Rowan tree. To some extent, he is Rowan tree.

1. Drinth, is a word I made up.
2. See page 77 of Italo Calvino's Six Memos.
3. For more on the paltriness of human perception compared to other animals, see Sebeok's "Communication." Here is an excerpt: "…thus [for hearing] we can generally cope only with frequencies between 16 and 22,000 hertz, and are, in this respect, surpassed by the smallest bat, every dog, rodents, and countless other animals. …The range of seeing likewise differs considerably in various animals: the human being, who is incapable (without mechanical enhancement) of perceiving ultraviolet, bordering on the X-ray region to about 100 angstroms, which is readily distinguishable by the honeybee and some other insects, will scarcely encode messages in the - to the human - invisible spectrum, which could be decoded by other humans only with special instrumentation. The same is true of infrared, which certain nocturnal mammals, possessing a special organ (the tapetum lucidum), causing reflected night eyeshine, can manage to communicate "in the dark," as we cannot (save with the aid of recently developed devices)."

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