We Know Too Much and Too Little To Understand

We cannot begin to imagine the way communities of ants or seagulls or squirrels function. We assume, if they function in communities at all, they operate according to genetic encoding over which they have no control; they are “animals,” after all, so they do not think, feel emotion, or grieve the loss of friends and family in the way of humans. That’s probably true; not “in the way of humans.” But I suspect we simply do not understand ants and seagulls and squirrels; our own tendency to attribute to their behaviors human motivations and human communications cloud our attempts to understand them. I doubt they think and feel and communicate the way humans do; but I think they “think” and “feel” and “communicate” in ways we just do not understand. We assume, because their brains do not seem as complex and sophisticated as ours, they cannot be as complex and sophisticated as we humans are. That arrogant logic makes it unlikely we will ever have the capacity to understand them. The only way we might ever understand other beings is by shedding our notions of what constitutes thought. That, though, is harder than it seems. How can we imagine ways of thinking and feeling utterly foreign to our own experience? I do not know. But just imagine a dream in which you are thinking and speaking in Japanese (assuming you have no knowledge of Japanese); you cannot, because the ability to think and speak in Japanese is beyond your comprehension. It’s possibly to learn Japanese, but to do so requires shedding reliance on the way in which one forms words and strings them together. But what ant or seagull or squirrel is able or willing to teach us concepts and perspectives so distant from our experience that we cannot even imagine them? Yet we might imagine how a seagull or an ant or a squirrel thinks. “The world is food and so am I.” That single “thought” might color experience in a fundamental way. Couple that with a “thought” that in some fashion defines affiliation or affection in a way that makes the object of affiliation or affection “not food” and you have the building blocks of community. Perhaps. Based entirely on my own human way of thinking. Which limits my ability to understand things beyond my comprehension.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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