Our Perception of the World

As part of my endless musings about the universe and our place in it, I’ve come across 3 seemingly unrelated items that end up having some commonality. The items are: (1)The behavior of our dogs; (2) The life being lived by an older mentally-confused relative; and (3) A book I just finished, “Spoken Here”, by Mark Abley, about disappearing languages. I didn’t start out trying to find a common theme in these; it just naturally happened. What might that common theme be? All three of them provide different insights into how each of us perceive the world around us, and how those perceptions may be limited in ways we don’t even have a clue about. In Donald Rumsfeld’s words, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Most pet owners have at times wondered what in the world was going on in their pets’ minds. In the case of our dogs, every now and then they do something that cannot be explained, at least not by human experience. I wonder how dogs sense the world around them. We know they have a much better sense of smell and hearing than we do, and their eyes are in some ways better but mostly worse than ours. But what sort of experiences does a dog have? For example, do they experience colors the same way we do? Is green “cooler” than red, for example? For that matter, do individual humans experience colors in the same way?

A similar line of inquiry can be made about how the older relative perceives the world. She has very little short-term memory left, and is certainly no longer legally competent, but she continues to live day-to-day, seemingly perfectly content. Those of us who are younger and still competent might feel sorry for her. But within her world, she seems fine. She no longer has any knowledge of the world outside of her immediate surroundings, but she doesn’t ask about it either and wouldn’t know how to process the information if it were presented to her. But what fundamentally separates her condition from ours? We all know people in various stages of dementia; an argument could be made that we all suffer in some degree from it. As I get older I know I am no longer to juggle as many ideas as I could when I was younger. Aside from degree, how does my condition differ from hers? But even if I were the most perceptive human being on the planet, would I have a perfect ability to manage all my perceptions? As a species, how capable are we of accurately understanding the world around us?

“Spoken Here” chronicles several minority languages, several of which are certainly doomed to die within a generation. Why should we care? After all, doesn’t a decreasing number of languages lead to easier communication among us? While that may be so, many of these languages contain organizational structures and thought patterns that are quite different from, in my case, English. Someone speaking one of these languages could very well organize and perceive the world differently than we do. Might these alternative perceptions be of any value to us? And what limits does our use of English place on our own perception of the world? As a small example, how many times is there no word that adequately conveys what we are trying to say? As another example, our use and placement of “I” (as in “I am going to town.”) may color how we perceive ourselves among others. Would our perspective change if English was constructed differently (as in “Town going to by one of us”)? There’s a similar problem in the natural world, with the rapid disappearance of potentially useful species.

We all exist in a real world, and there is an objective reality (call it “truth”) to that world. How close do any of us form an internal image of that reality? Is the dog’s better than ours? How much more acute might other images be? In the end, what keeps our sense of reality from deviating too far is death. Our very first imperative is to survive in the natural world we live in. If we don’t do that, all else is moot. If you can’t figure out which foods are poisonous and which are not, you will not pass your defective perceptions onto the next generation. So at some level the “perception delta” is self-correcting. This is just another way of stating the forces that drive evolution. For better or worse, we humans have been so successful at managing our environment that many of us are able to depart from reality for extended periods without suffering for it. As a result, we often don’t properly appreciate the realities of our world. Worse, because our ways have to date always been the most successful, we tend to dismiss other ways too easily. At some point in the future, that dismissal may come back to haunt us.

February 28, 2005

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