18 March 2012
There is an ancient parable from India about several blind men who encounter an elephant. The story is well known in many different versions, in all of which the blind men disagree as the nature of the animal — one touches its leg and says that an elephant is like a tree; another touches its ear and says that an elephant is like a fan; another touches its trunk and says an elephant is like a snake, and so forth.
We know that the elephant is one and whole, but the blind men of the parable do not know the elephant as a single reality; they are blind in more than one sense.
The same problem — the problem of appearance and reality — has been central to Western metaphysics since the beginning of philosophy to the present day. I have previously written about the philosophical antipathy and rivalry between Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell in the early part of the twentieth century (in Epistemic Space: Mapping Time). Both of these antagonistic figures treated the same problem. Here is Bergson’s version:
There is in this something very like what an artist passing through Paris does when he makes, for example, a sketch of a tower of Notre Dame. The tower is inseparably united to the building, which is itself no less inseparably united to the ground, to its surroundings, to the whole of Paris, and so on. It is first necessary to detach it from all these; only one aspect of the whole is noted, that formed by the tower of Notre Dame. Moreover, the special form of this tower is due to the grouping of the stones of which it is composed; but the artist does not concern himself with these stones, he notes only the silhouette of the tower. For the real and internal organization of the thing he substitutes, then, an external and schematic representation. So that, on the whole, his sketch corresponds to an observation of the object from a certain point of view and to the choice of a certain means of representation.
Now beneath all the sketches he has made at Paris the visitor will probably, by way of memento, write the word “Paris.” And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, with the help of the original intuition he had of the whole, to place his sketches therein, and so join them up together. But there is no way of performing the inverse operation; it is impossible, even with an infinite number of accurate sketches, and even with the word “Paris” which indicates that they must be combined together, to get back to an intuition that one has never bad, and to give oneself an impression of what Paris is like if one has never seen it.
Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics
And here is Russell’s version (which I previously quoted in Appearance and Reality in Cosmology):
With the naked eye one can see the grain, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the ‘real’ table? We are naturally tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real, but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope. If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.
. . .
Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.
Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?
Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chapter 1
Bergson later goes on to add, after his exposition of the problem:
“Both empiricists and rationalists are victims of the same fallacy. Both of them mistake partial notations for real parts, thus confusing the point of view of analysis and of intuition, of science and of metaphysics.”
It is almost as though Bergson realized that his own “empiricism” (after a fashion) might be contrasted with Russell’s “rationalism.” This is where the problem of appearance and reality meets the problem of the one and the many. Reality is one; appearance is many. How are we to understand how the one presents itself as many, and how the many are unified in the one?
There are times when the many perspectives on one and the same world seem unproblematic. The case of the blind men and the elephant can be resolved by bringing the blind men back to the elephant and directing them to feel the continuity of the various parts of the elephant with each other. And when many different scientific experiments confirm one and the same theory by testing different aspects of that theory in different ways, but all independently (and reproducibly) confirm one and the same theory, we know that we have one scientific theory that despite its many predictions concerns itself with one and the same world.
There are other times when the unity of the world and of the diverse perspectives upon the world are more problematic. Everyone, I think, is well familiar with the problems posed by competing and incommensurable narratives of what is believed to be the same sequence of events. This difficulty is encapsulated in the pop-culture dichotomy of, “he said/she said,” where the incommensurability is the incommensurability of gendered perspective.
I have elsewhere cited Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (in Addendum on the Origins of Time) and noted that Nagel chose the example of a bat because, as a vertebrate and a mammal it is not all that different from primates (and presumably has experiences of the world not unlike those that primates have of the world), but the bat primarily experiences the world through sonar rather than through sight. That makes the bat very different from a primate, and presumably results in a dramatically different experience of the world — hence, there is something that it is like to be a bat, and this “something” is significantly different from what it is like to be a primate.
There is a sense in which organisms that relate to the world through fundamentally different sensory mechanisms experience a different world. The bat’s world constructed from sonar, the pit viper’s world constructed from infrared-sensing pits, the shark’s world constructed from electroreceptors, and the primate’s world of stereoscopic color vision are, in a sense, different “worlds.” But only “in a sense,” because in another sense these diverse senses reveal the same world, as is apparent when these different organisms with their distinct sensory mechanisms interact — sometimes recognizing each other (which I attempted to describe in The Eye of the Other), sometimes just avoiding each other, while at other times preying on each other or fleeing from predation.
If we can find a way to put these different perceptions of the world together, we will have a much more comprehensive account of the world that that based on the observations of a single species. That is to say, the perspectives of other species, if only we could tap into them, would provide countervailing evidence to lessen our anthropic bias. We can think of these other perspectives as narratives, with each narrative of the world being ontologically derived from the structure of the organism, which involves both its sensory organs and its functional relationship to its environment.
If we take a naturalistic perspective and assume that the natural world is, unproblematically, as it presents itself to be, with a variety of many distinct species involved in relationships of cooperation and competition, we know that these radically distinct perspectives on the single natural world that hosts us all are in fact fully commensurable. Although no one individual, and no one species, has the synoptic perspective that includes all radically distinct forms of sensory perception, the distinct perspectives have a unity in the unity of nature.
Naturalism, then, implies the commensurability of radically distinct world-narratives that are ecologically integrated even if we cannot understand this integration or experience the world from any perspective other than that common to our species.
That the perspectives of distinct species possess a de facto commensurability despite their profound differences puts the supposedly incommensurable theoretical views of human beings into perspective. It is, of course, the position of Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science that different theoretical models of the world constitute distinct paradigms, and that these paradigms are incommensurable.
The “theories” implicit in the sensory apparatus of any two distinct species are far greater than the difference between any two theories maintained by the same species, though we must entertain the possibility that our ideas give us a dimension of differentiation that does not exist for all species, just as not all species possess sensory organs (as, for example, with micro-organisms), so that the possession of sensory organs also involves a dimension of differentiation from species lacking sensory organs.
The primate brain devotes much of its capacity to the heavy processing demands of stereoscopic color vision. The mollusk brain also processes fairly sophisticated visual stimuli, but it also devotes a significant amount of its capacity to the control of the cells on the surface of its skin, which allows octopi and cuttlefish to produce both brilliant displays and effective camouflage on demand. Given brains structured around these very different cognitive demands, I imagine that primates think and view the world very differently from the way that mollusks think and view the world — though these differences do not prevent the species from interacting, though primates and mollusks don’t interact all that much because of their distinct ecological niches.
If species possessing a cognitive architecture as profoundly different as that represented by primates and mollusks can achieve a de facto commensurability through their common participation in a single biosphere, then the incommensurability of different human points of view does not seem all that bleak.
Ecology is the master world-narrative that unifies that sub-narratives employed by individual species in virtue of their perceptual and cognitive architecture. Ultimately, astrobiology would constitute the universal narrative that would unify the ecological narratives of distinct worlds.
The naturalistic narrative has the power to unify even across species and across worlds. This power may not be particularly evident at present, but in the long term future of our species (if our species does in fact have a long term future) this power will prove to be crucial.
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