Saturday, April 11, 2009

What Are We Missing?

I'm not sure that this topic, in itself, qualifies as a positive (though it's not a negative either) but I've always thought the conclusion was pretty interesting, so I see it as positive in that sense.

When we train any one of our senses on the outside world, we assume we're experiencing our surroundings as they are. We see in color. The world is in color. We see in three dimensions. The world matches that observation. We smell something only if it's giving off a scent. The world is simply sitting there, apart from us, waiting to be sensed. It is as we sense it to be.

Other creatures, if they shared our capacity for consciousness, would feel the same way, but their perception of the world can be quite different. Simple eyes on simple creatures can only sense light and dark, or movement. Other animals don't have the capacity to see color. Further, animals lacking stereoscopic vision can't truly experience the world in three dimensions. There are large swathes of possible experience that these creatures will never know, will never know that they don't know, and wouldn't understand even if they did. Their perceived world, as it exists for them, seems whole and complete. But arguably it isn't.

So what are we missing? Some things we know. Certain animals can see in the infrared and ultraviolet spectrums. We can't. Many animal species, such as homing pigeons, can sense the earth's magnetic field, almost like an internal compass. It's almost a sixth sense, and it's one that we don't share. Echolocation, used by bats and dolphins, and the ability to sense electric fields are other examples of senses we don't have access to.

Many other species possess versions of our standard five senses that far outperform their human counterparts. Certain sharks can detect prey scent diluted in water one part per 10 billion. And while a normal human auditory frequency range is 20 Hz. to 20,000 Hz., certain pigeons can hear sounds at frequencies as low as 0.1 Hz., while certain moth species can hear frequencies up to 240,000 Hz.

Buzzards can spot small rodents from an altitude of 15,000 feet. Dogs can be trained to smell cancerous tissues. Cockroaches can detect movement as small as 2,000 times the diameter of a hydrogen atom. That one is staggering! And this list goes on.

The point is, there is a lot of available information out there that we already know we're missing. How much more is there we're completely unaware of? Probably not a lot, I'll grant you. We're intellectually aware of many other varieties of sensible radiation and other phenomena that no animal species can detect. Emissions that only our technology allows us to percieve. So, in that sense, we've eclipsed every other species on the planet. Our technology extends our senses beyond the capabilities of even the most prodigious critter.

But for my money, using mechanized contraptions to sense the world around us is a poor substitute for direct experience. Using a compass to sense magnetic north works great, but imagine what it would feel like to just know where north lay. To feel it innately inside you. Infrared cameras convert heat information into the visible spectrum. We then see it as blotches of yellow and red on a computer monitor. But what does it actually look like to a creature that can sense it directly?

Here's what I think all of this teaches us. While it's true that the world is just sitting out there, emitting particles, waiting to be sensed, it doesn't actually look or smell or sound or taste like anything. All of that happens on the back end of experience, in our brains, and is a complete fabrication. What happens is our tongue touches NaCl, sodium chloride, better known as table salt. We taste something salty. That "taste" doesn't exist as a necessary component of NaCl. It could taste, because of differing chemical reactions in differing brains, very different for other creatures. There's no way of knowing for sure whether my experience of salt is even the same as another human being's. Further, an animal that can perceive salt's weak electric field may experience it in a way that we can't even imagine.

So I guess the answer to my original question, what are we missing, is "nothing". And everything. But since we have no real sense of what experience could be outside of our own heads, we're not really missing it.

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