Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Latent Belief in Absolutes

We all believe unconsciously in absolutes. For example, when we wash something, we tend to believe that it’s absolutely clean. When we kill something, that it’s instantly dead and inert. We believe in finished projects, for which nothing more need ever be done—no later repairs or preventive maintenance. We believe in straight lines and perfect circles. We believe in separate classes of things and people—mammals here, marsupials there; a person belonging to this race or that. Even if the lines aren’t exactly straight and the individuals don’t belong, our brain perceives them this way.

Of course, in the real world, outside our heads, any regular washing technique is only partially effective. Surface dirt and visible stains may go away, but loads of bacteria and other invisible contaminants will remain. In the case of our own skin and hair, we probably couldn’t live without them. In the case of other objects, from cars to clothes, a thorough cleaning to “absolute” status would probably destroy the paint or the fabric.

Similarly, “dead” is a relative term in the first minutes after the bullet goes home or the blade comes down. Although the heart has stopped functioning and brain activity is at a minimum, most of the cells are still alive. Apoptosis—the programmed process of releasing intracellular enzymes to break down internal structures—will not start for some hours or days yet. And even then, with the right technology, the remaining DNA fragments might be mechanically copied and the phenotype resurrected for some years afterward. All our concept of death really means is that this body, as a going concern, no longer has much of a future.

The natural world, outside the minds and handiworks of human beings, has no straight lines, no flat planes, no perfect circles, no sense of completion, and no perfectly separate identities. It’s a world of fractals, of shadings, of endlessly evolving consequences, of slippery concepts imperfectly applied. The natural world offers us no Platonic ideals. In the animal kingdom there exists no perfect ideal representing “horse,” of which all actual, living horses, from ponies to Percherons, are merely crude copies.

Even at the atomic level—where scientists once thought lay the realm of absolute indivisibility—we find increasing amounts of fragmentation and fuzziness. Atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. In beta decay, free neutrons break down into protons and electrons, along with a fragment of matter called an antineutrino. Protons themselves are composed of three quarks—two going one way, the third another—which all have various attributes and flavors. And quarks themselves will eventually be found to combine other scintillae that will ultimately resolve to some kind of movement, energy, or nothingness. The more you look, the more you find, and the fuzzier your conceptions become.

Conversely, in the natural world, everything you see can be considered whole and perfect in and of itself. Any horse that has all of the necessary parts and attributes for running across the field, eating grass, passing wastes, and making more little horses is indeed a perfect specimen, a unique individual. It may be an Arabian, a Thoroughbred, a Clydesdale, or a wild pinto. It may be lame in one leg, missing an eye or a testicle, or afflicted with mange. It is still, tautologically, a horse—or zebra, eohippus, or whatever it calls itself—and is its own thing, perfect in its nature.

Everything else that we might attribute to nature—all perceptions, definitions, classifications, and evaluations—lies in the mind of one human being or shared among two or more human beings through the function of language and its corollaries of recording, transmitting, and analyzing symbolic communications. That is, almost anything we can say about the real world is a myth, a supposition … ultimately, just a bright idea.

We tend naturally to think in absolute terms: zero and one, on and off, yes and no, day and night, here and there, alive and dead. Making such distinctions is at the root of the process of discovery and learning that every developing mind follows: the hand is not the foot, a stone is not a nipple, mother is not father, floor is not bed. As language-making and -using creatures, we define our world by differences and distinctions.1

Once we have the concepts of difference and distinction down, we have already started on the road of classification: these things are foods, these are clothes. And soon after that, we start to notice multiplicity: I have two apples; if I can take another one from my brother; I’ll have three apples. So we enter the realm of whole numbers, a system that is—in the natural world—completely artificial. Yes all apples look alike, as do most stones and all sheep. But careful examination shows that no two apples weigh the same, have the same color, or represent the same nutritional value. None are so alike that I will trade two large gala apples for two small pippins. I might cut the one of the large apples in half and trade it for one of the smaller apples, and so we get into fractions and negatives, and eventually arrive in the realm of irrational and imaginary numbers.

The world we see around us is the product of our minds. Even what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears is a construct. The cones and rods of the retina only react to certain wavelengths of light, not to the entire electromagnetic spectrum. The tiny hairs lining the ear’s cochlea are only sensitive to certain impulses at certain frequencies passing through the air. Either organ produces only raw signals—plus a good deal of noise—that the brain must sift through and assemble into meaning. And that meaning is entirely influenced by what the brain has experienced in the past through an internal system of determination, classification, memory, and recognition.

I am not arguing that there is no real world out there beyond our skulls. If there weren’t, our brains would not have even the signals and the noise with which to work. But what I am suggesting is that each of us lives pretty far down inside a comfortable burrow of our own experience. From day to day, we see the shapes and images we expect to see; we hear the words and sounds we expect to hear. If we encounter something wholly new, not previously experienced, we fall back on association with familiar objects: It was a crash, like thunder. It was a flash, like lightning. It looked like a human being but it had—I don’t know—antennae, like an insect. It wore wings, like a butterfly.

It would help, then, to every so often get out of your own head: out of your usual books, your humdrum job, your familiar surroundings, association with the same people—and go someplace new, see unexpected sights, hear unfamiliar languages and music. It keeps the synapses fresh and crackling. It might even push your mental development back a few steps and make you young again.

1. Only later do we come to the concepts of similarity and likeness: Well, a hand is somewhat like a foot when you’re crawling on all fours—and then a knee is like a foot, too. Both mother and father are similar in being able to provide sustenance, protection, and approval. The floor is like a bed, if you’re tired enough.

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