We experience our world the way it is created by our senses, vision, hearing, smell, taste and feeling … and some count orientation/location and sensing temperature as separate senses. And then, of course, there is the mysterious ‘sixth sense’, that I rather simply call intuition, and do not consider a sense as ‘a means to observe the world’.
What we observe detemines what we know. This has been the subject for ages already of the philosophical branch called epistemology. How do we know what we know, and what we don’t know. “The known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns“, remember?
In a similar way, there are phenomena, that humans:
- can observe and
- cannot observe:
- but some animals can observe
- and animals cannot, but some machines can observe
- nor animals, nor machines can observe.
So, despite our seemingly impressive senses, there is a lot that we do not observe:
(i) — Many animals have a much wider spectrum range in vision and hearing. Some (eg. bats, with echo location) can hear and use frequencies that we cannot, from low (~<20Hz) to very high pitch (~>20kHz) sounds. And often they (eg. dogs in high pitch, elephants in low pitch) can hear sounds so soft (low amplitude) that we cannot hear. Same with vision. Of the electromagnetic wave spectrum, we can only see the visible light range (infrared to ultraviolet, wavelengths from ~740 nm to ~380 nm only). We cannot see radio waves, micro waves, most infrared, a lot of ultraviolet, X-rays, gamma-rays, etc. Some snakes can, for instance, see and use ultraviolet light. And we do not smell, taste or feel a lot of things, that do exist nevertheless, and some animals can sense, for instance.
(ii) — And then, there are physical phenomena, that we do not have a receptor, or sense, for at all, but some animals do. Eg. magnetic fields (migratory birds, sharks) or polarization of light (octopuses).
(iii) — And then there are physical phenomena, that cannot be observed by any living creature, but can be measured with specialized equipment. Eg. X-rays can be detected by X-ray machines. Or more technical, elementary particles, such as neutrinos; we know that we are bombarded every day by billions of neutrinos from space, but they can only be detected by very specialized equipment – and even that is quite difficult.
(iv) — And there are physical phenomena, that science predicts exist, but that we have no means to observe, today. Eg. dark matter. We know it must be there, but nobody, nor any equipment has ever observed it.
This means, there is a lot happening around us, that we do not observe, hence, that we do not know. (Not all of that what we miss is important for a happy life, but a lot is.)
And even of the things that we could technically observe, most we simply miss. One simple example is: we have no clue what really happens behind the screens of governments, company boards, even behind the walls of our neighbours’ house. We don’t even know what another person really thinks.
So, there is a lot of uncertainty in our lives. I would say, most we do not know. By far most. Lots of white space. Probably much more than 99%.
By the way, AI – Artificial Intelligence – attempts to solve this problem (a little bit) by deducting patterns in data – that are impossible for humans to discover, because they are too complex or the volume of data is simply too high for our ‘simple’ brain – and drawing predictions from those patterns. In that way, AI can be an extension of the human brain. Similarly, quantum computing is a promising technique to investigate millions or billions of scenarios of a specific situation simultaneously, hence enabling investigations at the snap of a finger, that would classically take years or maybe ages.
Anyway, in reality, we know nothing! Well, almost nothing. German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski once said it very strikingly: “We are condemned to the drinking table.” We find a short moment of existential happiness in the pub … now and then.
I prefer the following analogy:
We are walking around pitch dark at night in a huge castle with many rooms, stairs, and so, trying to make sense of the topology of the building, and where we are in the first place. And all we have is a tiny small candle that lights just enough so see the first few metres around us. And then we try to create an image in our head of the entire building.
And this is probably exactly what Plato meant with his allegory of the cave.
Anyway, incomplete observation of reality is a problem. Because it creates uncertainty. (One of the fundamental needs of our brain, like status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.) And uncertainty means unpredictability. When things don’t go the way we – consciously or unconsciously – sensed, expected or anticipated, it feels unpleasant, bad, scary, spooky. It’s hard-wired in the old parts of our brain: the sabre tiger in the bushes! Uncertainty, unpredictability implies the risk of not surviving, because we have no control of the situation we are in – from maybe losing your job tomorrow to a meteorite possibly hitting Earth.
And that is what our brain hates most of all. It cannot live with that. Literally.
That is why our brain has invented a brilliant trick. It tries to fill in the white space. Based on our experience. The drinking table! And that is where it goes wrong. Because we have only limited experience in the world.
One particularly striking example of the power of mind models is how prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps would find strength from fantasizing about nice things while suffering maltreatments. This turned out to be a great survival strategy for many. “The one thing they cannot control is what I am thinking.”
So, all we have is our convictions, or bieliefs, our “mind models” (yes) about the world, some innate (possibly), but most based on perception: personal observations, family traditions and beliefs, what we learned at school, and what we experienced in further life. And that is how we, ie. our brains, (try to) make sense of the world.
Perception makes sense. And our brain creates a bit more sense. True or not. It feels like sense, anyway.
This is important.
Ever heard of ‘reality testing‘?
Simply said, reality testing is the degree to which the objective, real or external world (what I called earlier ‘scientific reality‘) matches your internal world of thought, your mind model (what I called earlier the ‘humanist reality’). The better your reality testing, your match between external and internal world, the better your chances of survival, or of success in life.
This is important. Crucial. Why? Because our internal world of thought determines our identity: who we think and feel we are! Our self-image. What group we feel we belong to. What we want to be known, praised and honored for, what we are proud of. What we are afraid of and try to avoid. And ultimately, it is our identity that makes us do the things we do.
So, let’s try to make a list of states of mind (types of mind models), sort-of sorted from good to bad reality testing:
- Scientific, rational thinking
- Scientific theses and axioms (‘laws’)
- Scientific playground (Einsteins ‘thought experiments’)
- Common sense
- All sorts of communication
- Person to person
- Person to machine
- Social and societal constructs
- Social, religious etc. groups
- Myths and memes in the online world
- Artistic experience
- Artistic inspiration
- Artistic creativity
- Personal emotions
- Falling in love
- Dreams, fantasies
- Made-up stories, astrology
- Psychiatric disorders
This is by far not finished. Just a first thought.
The important point for me is to start to recognize the types of mind models, that determine our identity, hence, the things we do.
The big challenge for me the next years, is how to express mind models like these into works of art.
After all, my work, typically, explores the relations between reality and our interpretations of it: Perception makes sense. I use artistic expression to encourage emotional affirmation of the beholder.
With my art I aim to bring joy from beauty, and affirmation of who we are – our identity, both individually and as human beings. Attempting to reduce existential loneliness, my art tries to help us feel that we belong in the life that we want to live. That is what I mean with ‘Warm Grounding‘.