Monday, October 19, 2009

Embracing Unaviodable Ignorance

The ambiguity of this reality is readily apparent, if only to those who are willing to admit and accept that truth. We have a necessarily narrow, subjective experience during our short lifespan. The first man in the western tradition to really embrace this realization is also the patriarch of Western Philosophy, the voice of Socrates as related by Plato. In Socrates dialogue with Meno, he goes about questioning Meno’s servant, apparently in order to solve a mathematical problem. The real intention of the discussion, however, is to illustrate for Meno that there is nothing shameful in lacking knowledge of a particular subject: in fact, it is most admirable to be aware of one’s own ignorance. When questioned, the servant gives his first answer quickly and surely, but quite soon comes to realize that he is having great difficulty finding the correct results, much more than he initially believed he would have. Socrates then turns his attention to Meno, observing that the servant “thought he knew, and answered confidently as if he did know, and did not think himself at a loss, but now he does think himself at a loss, and as he does not know, neither does he think he knows.” This profound expression speaks to the core value that Socrates held sacred: that human wisdom is the ability to understand our incredibly severe limitations of comprehension.
To clarify this position, take for instance the sight sensory apparatus. For most humans, sight is the most complex, dense, and useful sense for most activities and exercises in comprehension (thus the adage “seeing is believing”). Most people would describe sight as a vast tool for information gathering, and though this is relatively true for practical use, it is also not totally accurate. With respect to our other senses, for most people, sight definitely plays the biggest role in our experience. But the amount of information that it can translate is insanely minute in comparison to all of the possible visual information that could be experienced. The most obvious of the limitations to sight is that, of the entire electromagnetic scale, only a very minute portion is visible to humans. The waves visible to us are a very specific length, and those shorter and longer than our color spectrum will likely always remain unexperiencable to us. We may develop the technology to translate and better comprehend those waves, but we won’t be able to verify any direct visual experience of them. It is this lack of experiencability that speaks to the limitations of our senses.
Another dimension to the limitations of our sight is the magnitude or scope of our experience. For example, it will always be true that subatomic particles remain much too small for humans to see with the naked eye. It will never be the case that we will be able to visually experience them in the same way that we visually experience popcorn kernels or elephants, by looking directly at them with no technological help and comprehending their physical features. Likewise, we will also never be able to make the same claim with regard to whole galaxies: that is, we will neither be able to ever experience them on our particular scale of vision (such as the elephant or popcorn kernels), nor will we ever be able to make the claim that we experience (or lack the experience of) whole galaxies in the way we now experience (or lack the experience of) subatomic particles. In other words, because of our limitations of size, our visual scope will never be so large that we visually experience galaxies as entities too small for our naked eye comprehension. If this seems abstract, take for instance the visual experience of something the size of an insect. Think of what your normal visual experience of an apple is, and then imagine that you could somehow be shrunk down to the size of a small insect. Would your visual experience of that same apple be equivalent to the normal size experience? That is, would the apple take up the same portion of your visual scope at the same physical distance, say one foot away, or would all of the physical features of the apple remain the same to your experience? It seems necessary that the experience would be quite different, and it is the lack of experience of these differences, which exist at all possible sizes, that insinuate this very direct limitation.
There is one last restraint to visual experience that doesn’t as readily show itself. Ponder for a moment, if you will, at what particular point does your visual sensory apparatus focus? Or to put it another way, at what size (literal size, like a square millimeter, centimeter, larger or smaller) does your typical, everyday vision focus? As when one reads a word from a page, for example “apple,” where is the specific, particular focal point on the word? Is it on the entire letter “p” in the middle, on the central point of the letter “p” (the point where the arc of the “p” intersects the center of the vertical line of the letter “p”), on the entire word “apple,” or on some other wholly different size? There may or may not be a correct answer. Of course, our vision is capable of focusing on points large and small, but the problem lay in describing what percentage of the total visual scope constitutes the focal point. And even if this focal point can be directly described, the insinuation remains that the experience of all (or most) other densities of a focal point remains unexperienced by humans (not to mention experiencing multiple focal points simultaneously).
This is not a particularly clear issue, but it is apparent enough to show that the portion of possible experience in the universe that constitutes the entirety of possible human experience is incredibly small, with respect to the totality of all possible experiences in this universe.